So what’s wrong with 100 kazoos, then?

A notable characteristic of the composer David Bedford, who died on 1st October aged 74, was that he had a great sense of humour.

This was particularly irritating to the super-serious self-conscious arty masses, especially at the height of that syndrome in the mid-1960s when music had to be painfully severe to demonstrate the intense sufferings of its creators and their astonishing ability to represent this anguished misery with such acute complexity.   The near impossible intricacy of those 1960s scores made performances rare.  It also created a mysterious inner world for the composers in which they were well protected from the dangers of anyone understanding what they were doing, and thus raised them comfortably above criticism.

The danger of suggesting that ‘the Emperor had no clothes’ would be a devastating admission of ignorance among the cognoscenti.  But David Bedford was able to laugh at all this, even though it occasionally proved  a disadvantage – as when Pierre Boulez, a leader among the extraordinarily humourless musical coterie of that time, refused to conduct the 1971 premier of With 100 Kazoos, a piece involving lively audience participation.

The Kazoo Gift Shop in Beaufort

The Kazoo Shop in Beaufort

I first met Bedford when we were together in the composition classes at Dartington Summer School over several years in the early 60s.  He had a rather superior distant manner as he drifted among the rest of us serious-minded student participants, although our mentor at the time, the rightly revered rare real musician Hans Keller, would easily embrace both humour and solemnity with equal understanding, and did in fact produce his own comedy in the form of a piece by an invented composer for which he arranged a Radio 3 broadcast!   Bedford rightly disliked the pretentious complexities, and perhaps warmed to the comparative ease with which a later Dartington tutor, Witold Lutosławski, avoided complications and produced highly musical compositions that were performer-friendly.

A few composers still delight in bewildering confusion, and are fortunate to have performers who are both willing and able to be put through the trials.  From this 1960s musical chaos there arose, however, another issue of concern that is just as disconcerting.  A growing freedom flourished which represented itself in music that bypassed all the hitherto accepted standards relating to harmony, counterpoint, architectural structure, logic and the subtleties of instrumental colour.  Musical sounds could be constructed with computer programmes that could be operated by anyone, whether musically literate or not.  The music itself could be multifaceted or extremely simple without involving the so-called composer in any severe effort, and be hailed as work of genius by equally ignorant producers and directors.  Untaught pop musicians could create film scores and symphonies.  Anyone can be a composer, and may even receive high profile awards and vast riches for what they do.

Unfortunately this is not a musical landscape that David Bedford’s sense of humour – or his equally important creative sensitivity – should have brought us into.  I still believe that however bizarre the explorations that extrovert artists wishes to pursue, there are still enough perceptive people around able to sense the lack of a firm foundation in much of the music that is thrown at us now.

All we have to do is to help the young to experience what makes great work great.  They can then come to it knowing.

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6 comments for “So what’s wrong with 100 kazoos, then?

  1. 21 October 2011 at 2:55 pm

    Oh Patric, what a wonderful article! I fully endorse all that you have said, and having, unwittingly, attended the odd concert of very strange music, I was left wondering if I had missed a point somewhere, or was it really that bad? Thank you for restoring my faith in my own ears!

  2. 22 October 2011 at 11:13 am

    I couldn’t agree more. When I was a child back in the sixties my father bought a sound effects record to test out his new hifi system. Our favourite was a genuine recording of the sound of a piano being dropped out of a window. So I have a firm basis for comparison when I note that there is much modern music that sounds very similar.

    As you say though, there are still perceptive people out there. I think that the current popularity of early music is a response to this. There is still an audience for music that is more substantial than pop with out being bizarre and baffling.

  3. 23 October 2011 at 8:16 pm

    So I’m the only one who actually likes Boulez, music concrete (Luc Ferrari et al) and free improvisation am I?

  4. Andrew
    24 October 2011 at 1:00 pm

    Yep, it’s certainly looking that way, Peter!

    Whilst I am in confession mode, I have a similar reaction to totally free improvisation in a jazz context. It feels a tad self indulgent to me: undoubtedly exciting and occasionally uplifting for the players but often simply baffling for the listeners. But then I’m increasingly concluding that jazz works better as a participation sport than a spectator sport – so just like cricket, then?

  5. 24 October 2011 at 5:09 pm

    I kind of know what you mean but I suspect that has much to do with the fact that there is likely to be an awful lot of, lets be charitable, less than great contemporary music out there. I have heard some performances of pretty mainstream music that, had it been the audience’s intro to Beethoven would have put them off for like!
    I would suggest that, as with all creative work, the contemporary needs a great deal more work from the audience than the more familiar, if only on the basis of information theory. The Four Seasons, Pomp and Circumstance, Ride of the Valkyries, Lark Ascending if studied with the same intensity that say Boulez Une page d’éphéméride needs to be turn into very different experiences than the answering machine background wallpaper that they have become and one day perhaps Boulez will come on just after the disembodied voice says, “Your call is valuable to us, you are 659 in a queue…”

  6. Catherine
    29 November 2011 at 9:28 pm

    I agree that creating bewildering confusion is no way to try and communicate with an audience, but I find that what music sounds like at any given moment is less important than what happens as the piece progresses. Also, music has the capability of being either serious or humorous (and many other things too) but it might be better to judge a piece by what the composer is trying to do musically and how they achieve it than by their personal attributes.

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