I’ve been rehearsing Judith Weir’s ‘Airs from Another Planet’, a superb sextet for piano and wind instruments (in this case, the wind players of the chamber group Daniel’s Beard). It’s for the opening concert of the Cottier Chamber Project in Glasgow on 5 June.
Judith’s piece has the delightful (and typically witty) subtitle, ‘Traditional music from outer space’. We have had fun trying to determine which traditional music is the inspiration for her other-worldly deconstructions. What an imagination!
Someone asked me how long it had taken me to learn the piano part. I truthfully said it had taken many weeks. The piano part is rhythmically very intricate, and its complex flickering harmonies are unguessable. As soon as I started practising it, I realised it was going to take a long time. Even after a good session, the music would slip back the next day to a condition of unfamiliarity. My ear wouldn’t confirm whether or not I’d played exactly those chords before. Slowly I cemented my acquaintance with the score until it felt natural. Don’t get me wrong: I regard this as time well spent for such an intriguing piece.
Nevertheless I couldn’t help sighing wistfully when I heard Bob reminiscing about when Bernstein’s ‘West Side Story’ became all the rage in London, after the film hit UK cinemas. Bob and his fellow students rushed out to buy the score. Night after night they gathered round a piano in their student residence, gleefully playing and singing the work over and over again for sheer pleasure. This was only possible, of course, because they could sight-read the score.
West Side Story is a ‘musical’, not an abstract classical piece, but it was also a new work by a serious composer. We couldn’t recall any occasion when our musician friends had rushed out to buy the score of a contemporary classical piece, let alone fought to be the one who got to play the piano at the next merry read-through.
This must be a lot to do with the fact that contemporary notation is often fiendishly complicated. As there is currently no musical ‘lingua franca’, it seems as if every composer has his or her own language, which performers have to learn from scratch. Although the music may be striking from the outset, it’s not generally sight-readable; even when the language has been deciphered, it often takes ages to settle in the memory. Nobody minds putting in the work if the result is compelling, but it isn’t always.
So it’s hard to imagine a new work detonating joyfully on a bunch of musicians as ‘West Side Story’ did on Bob and his friends. And this must be at least partly because most contemporary works are not sight-readable. It’s a sad situation really. Why is the music of our own time so challenging, even for professional musicians?