Music and featured items21 items
Aaron Copland Quiet City
Performer: The New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein.
Deutsche Grammophon, Tr. 5
Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, Richard Armitage
John dos Passos
Manhattan Transfer, Book I, Chapter I – Great Lady on a White Horse, Emilia Fox.
Steve Reich City Life. I – ‘Check it out’.
Performer: Ensemble Modern, conducted by Peter Rundel.
RCA, Tr. 1
William Carlos Williams
Overture to a Dance of Locomotives, Richard Armitage.
George Gershwin An American in Paris
Performer: Jazzogene Orchestra, Jean-Luc Fillon (conductor), Georges Rabol (piano). Arrangement Jean-Luc Fillon.
Opus 111, Tr. 1
Mrs Dalloway, Emilia Fox.
James Rhodes Estampes, III: Jardins sous la pluie.
Performer: Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)
Decca, Tr. 15
A Description of a City Shower. Emilia Fox.
Bleak House. Emilia Fox.
Edgard Varèse Ameriques
Performer: Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Pierre Boulez
Deutsche Grammophon, Tr. 1
John Dos Passos
Manhattan Transfer, Book II, Chapter V – Went to the Animals’ Fair. Richard Armitage.
T. S. Eliot
Silence, Richard Armitage
Arvo Pärt Fur Alina
Performer: Alexei Lubimov (piano)
Bis-CD-1434, Tr. 8
Ralph McTell Streets of London
Performer: Ralph McTell
TPGCD 12, Tr. 1
Charles Ives Central Park in the Dark
Performer: Saint Louise Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Slatkin.
Red Seal, Tr. 6
John dos Passos
Manhattan Transfer, Book I, Chapter V – Steam-Roller, Emilia Fox
T. S. Eliot
Preludes, Richard Armitage
Burke Van Heusen Moonlight Becomes You
Performer: Chet Baker and band.
Pacific Jazz, Tr. 3
A Silent City
William Byrd Civitas sancti tui
Performer: The Hilliard Ensemble,
Helios, Tr. 8
This Words and Music takes as its departure point the silent 'city symphony' documentaries of the 1920s. This little known genre of documentaries were among the first to treat the modernist city as force of art in itself, focusing on the heterogeneous mass and movements of the city as a whole, not just the stories of single inhabitants.
These documentaries took the city day as their basis, frequently being divided into four or five movements. From Walter Ruttmann's 'Berlin: Symphony of a Great City' to Dziga Vertov's 'The Man with a Movie Camera' these documentaries not only exemplified and created new filmic techniques they highlighted the movement, and indeed the musicality of the modernist city.
To take a style of silent film as an inspiration for a radio programme may seem a slight contradiction in terms but the emphasis on evoking city life through filmic techniques was not the sole domain of these film-makers. Instead, this sense of expressing through actualising - allowing the techniques of the artwork to be and express the subject matter - is reflected in much of the poetry, prose and music of the modernists.
This then, was my departure point – an aim to create a Symphony of a City, depicting a city day not just through the narratives of this poetry and music but through the very sounds constituting these pieces.
And yet, it was not just the modernists who evoked, celebrated or expressed their terror at the city. Cities in all their different guises have evoked responses from artists throughout time and so we see here a range of those response and evocations.
We begin with the tantalising vision of a city expressed in Wordsworth’s ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’ set against the simplicity of Copland’s ‘Quiet City’, written originally as a haunting backdrop for Irwin Shaw’s play of the same name.
But, the city day, and in particular the modernist city does not keep still. An extract from John dos Passos’ ‘Manhattan Transfer’ brings us to life, and perhaps back to earth, as do the street sounds in Steve Reich’s ‘City Life’.
I’ve used three extracts in total from dos Passos’ fantastic novel ‘Manhattan Transfer’. The three used here are all epigraphs to chapters, a camera eye, like that of Vertov’s ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ taking a snapshot of city life but with a beautiful prose rhythm that places us within the drive of ongoing city life.
William Carlos Williams’ ‘Overture to a Dance of Locomotives’ adds to our sense of urgency, finishing with the unstoppable dance of the city also being celebrated in the rhythms of Gershwin’s ‘American in Paris’.
Emilia Fox leads us through the scherzo-like central movement of our symphony, mainly, but not always, delighting in the moments of the city day, from the glorious boom of Big Ben in Mrs Dalloway to the City Shower, treated with delightful impunity by Jonathan Swift. Dickens’ treatment of the ‘implacable November weather’ also raises a smile, with his not so delightful ‘megalosaurus’.
Yet, with the aid of dos Passos the city races forward into rush hour. Here we see a different city– no joyful evocation of its busy delights but instead the terror that lies in the silence at the heart of such business. The loneliness of the city is also expressed beautifully by Ralph McTell’s simple depiction of those all too familiar lonely characters on the city streets around the world.
I was struck when putting this programme together by the similarity of the simple evocations contained in much of the city orchestral music of the early twentieth century. The Copland, Ives and Varese featured here all contain a very simple, almost restrained air to them but also occasionally burst out into moments of action. Rather than avoid this similarity I felt it was a key to this evocation of the city day: this ongoing hum, the ongoing restraint featured by all of these composers. This then becomes almost the leitmotif of this city symphony, the way in which the city day changes but is always accompanied and evoked by the strange, almost restless quiet running underneath.
We finish with Byrd’s ‘Sancti civitas tui’, an evocation in itself of the disjunct between the beauty and business of city life and the loneliness and desolation that can lie beneath, reminding us that such disjuncts are not the exclusive domain of the modernists after all. The beauty of the music is undercut by the meaning of its words; Byrd reminds us that ‘The holy cities are a wilderness. Zion is a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation.’
Producer: Rosie Childs.