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The New English Keyboard School:

A Second “Golden Age”


Sarah E. Walker

O ne of contemporary music’s most beguil-


ing paradoxes has to be this: that those composers who were
once to be found performing radical multi-media happenings
musical developments from a
close and yet critical perspective
gave his colleagues the freedom
A B S T R A C T

T he author discusses the


with the Scratch Orchestra are now just as passionately en- to accept or reject what avant- musical trajectories of several
avant-garde English composers,
gaged in building a rich repertoire of modestly scaled piano gardists were expected to swallow
in particular their increasing atten-
works. A simple matter of failing political zeal, perhaps? Or unquestioningly. Suddenly, popu- tion to works for piano. She ana-
autumnal maturity? The briefest encounter with any of this lar classics, simple piano pieces lyzes the historical roots of this
distinct group of composers will indicate that neither answer and virtuosic transcriptions were new movement and its relation to
is valid; however, how the new strain of experimental music no longer an embarrassment. As the experimental tradition from
which it developed, finding conti-
emerged from the old is an intriguing question and one that John White commented: nuities perhaps not often recog-
has never been satisfactorily explained. Part of the reason for nized or understood.
He threw every door in the house
this is that a successful music whose appeal goes beyond the open, and okay, a lot of valuable
specialist, educated audience seems not to require explana- old ornaments were blown over
tion; it is not “problematic” enough. Composers who write and aged in the process, but I
prolifically for the piano, taking on board its social and musi- think they had it coming. The analogy that comes to mind is
very much that Zen thing about people who acquire enlight-
cal traditions, may indeed be accepted as part of the tolerant enment leading a perfectly normal life again . . . but a couple
and eclectic British new music scene, but there remains a gen- of millimetres off the ground, and so it’s possible to listen to
eral sense of bafflement regarding where they and their music Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherezade now with absolute delight, be-
are coming from. Bafflement can too easily turn to dismissal, cause I listen to it as though it had no prehistory. Whereas be-
hence this article and its aim to shed light on the so-called fore Cardew, there was an obsessive toffee-like consistency in
musical history that glued everything into place in a rather
New English Piano School: to summarize its content, explain soggy, unadventurous way. Since Cardew, there’s something
its origins and argue for its artistic importance. delightful about, say, Telemann; all those symmetrical con-
The name “New English Piano School” originated with structs seem exciting. So although Cardew didn’t direct my
John Tilbury, a uniquely creative pianist and co-founder of thinking, he was responsible for a sort of waking up, which
probably says something about my receptivity as well as what
the Scratch Orchestra. Tilbury and John White were compil- he had on his mind [1].
ing a concert program to be played in Innsbruck in the early
1990s, when Tilbury mentioned an interesting parallel be- Cardew’s questioning of mainstream modernist tenets was
tween the proliferation of piano music by ex-Scratch compos- obviously an enormously liberating force for his colleagues in
ers, such as White, Dave Smith, Christopher Hobbs, Hugh the Scratch Orchestra, but that is not to say that the present
Shrapnel, Michael Parsons and Howard Skempton, and the characteristics of the New English Keyboard School—with its
work of the Elizabethan virginalists, both movements contain- reference-rich, accessible piano pieces—were immediately set
ing music that was colorful and virtuosic as well as intimate in place; they may have been present, but they were not nec-
and reflective. The scale of much of the music represents an- essarily dominant. In the late 1960s, English experimental
other parallel, creating a feel of music fit for a domestic set- composers were as keen as any in the avant-garde to use the
ting and not just for the “white gallery space” of the concert piano purely as a sound source; a combination of strings,
hall. It is ironic that this output is still generally dubbed “En- hammers and sounding board. The following extract from a
glish experimental music”: to talk of an intimate, amateur- Musical Times article of February 1969 illustrates this. Michael
friendly and often tonal style of composition seems in contra- Parsons was interviewing John Tilbury:
diction with the idea of experimentation; indeed, most of the
M.P.: You have described the piano as a “sound source.” But it
compositions discussed here are fully notated, stylistically is also an instrument with a history and a tradition. What is
consistent and showing firm (if oblique) bonds with musical your attitude to history? Do you visualize the disintegration of
tradition. All of the composers mentioned, however, have the piano as it has been known?
been strongly associated with the radically experimental atti- J.T.: The words you use reflect your own attitude to change.
Disintegration is too negative a word. This is one aspect of
tudes of the late 1960s and early 1970s; all were members of change, but there are also affirmative aspects, and I prefer to
the Scratch Orchestra and none were unmoved by their asso- be identified by what I do with these. A musician is involved in
ciation with Cornelius Cardew. Although their more recent
music seems worlds away from that period, it is in fact pro- Sarah E. Walker (broadcaster, musician), 38 Strode Street, Egham, Surrey TW20 9BX,
U.K. E-mail: <sarah.walker@amserve.net>.
foundly connected; Cardew’s ability to look upon modern

© 2001 ISAST LEONARDO MUSIC JOURNAL, Vol. 11, pp. 17–23, 2001 17
a continuous dialogue with history. I restrained by ropes. He was then re- it is a subtle and effective form of sub-
believe that as part of this it is essential quired to play the instrument tied up; a version, of questioning the values of
to negate the piano: but this is not the
same as to destroy it—it would be naïve cacophony of loud, randomly placed ma- mainstream musical thought. Combin-
to try to destroy it. jor chords was the result. ing references or quotations in an origi-
M.P.: What do you mean by “to negate” As early as 1962, however, English ex- nal way can lead the listener to reflect
the piano? perimental composers were using the upon those source materials, gaining
J.T.: It seems an essential prerequisite
of its continued existence to change it
piano as a vehicle for stylistic pluralism fresh insight and a view of twentieth-
and to make it unrecognizable, for ex- in exactly the same way that they are us- century music history that rejects the
ample by amplification. There is a con- ing it now, i.e. within a direct, tonal con- standard canon. In a world where expe-
tradiction between the piano regarded text and conventional structural format. rienced listeners are rarely unsettled by
as a keyboard instrument to be played John White’s Sonata No. 15 (1962) al- even the most angry and dense atonal
and as a sound-source to be exploited.
The dialectic of this contradiction must ludes to several composers who since cacophony, these little comments and
be dramatized if it is to continue to be then have remained consistently impor- comparisons, presented politely on the
a musical instrument. tant both to him and his colleagues. piano, can be surprisingly hard-hitting
M.P.: You mean that if you identify the White wrote: and as intellectually stimulating as mu-
piano exclusively with its past, then it’s
finished? In the first movement, shad es of sic of greater surface complexity. As
J.T.: Yes. [2] Brahms and Frank Martin slug it out John White says:
with Weber for supremacy in a tersely
You’ll find a kind of telegraphese,
jokey sonata allegro. The 2nd move-
However, Scratch pieces such as telegramese, that will communicate to
ment is a pastorale about Janacek’s
Houdini Rite (1970) reveal that this some- you when you look back on [my piano
death (with Szymanowski as concealed
what Webernesque attitude—Tilbury felt observer). The 3rd is in the “cosmic” sonatas] if you should wish so to do,
and I think that happens in my music
that Webern’s Variations Opus 27 marked mode, containing fleeting allusions to
Reger and Busoni among its reverber- quite a lot; there is quite an exagger-
the inception of “using” the piano—was ated clarity of language, but it refers
ating 5ths and octaves [3].
only part of the picture. Houdini Rite re- back to a state of spirit or a predilec-
veals a more complex approach to the The score contains instructions that tion or something, without stating the
whole thing. So in the same way that I
instrument, one that accepted and dealt constantly jog the player’s memory, indi-
won’t quote a whole Bruckner sym-
with its historical connotations. This cating the kind of music with which the phony in a piano sonata, on the other
piece, initiated by Hugh Shrapnel, was piece is associating itself; for example, in hand a couple of fourths or fifths will
one of the Scratch Orchestra’s Improvisa- the final movement the comment “ker- inform one that there’s a sort of
tion Rites. These musical happenings crash” accompanies a heavy chord, pre- Brucknerian pounding going on in the
background. Yes, a reference; very im-
were designed by Cardew and were estab- ceded in the style of Schumann by an portant, all of that. When people say
lished as part of the Scratch constitution; acciaccatura two octaves below the bass “do you realise you’ve ripped off a bit
they represented a way of structuring im- note proper; on the final page, instruc- of Petrushka,” or something, I say most
provisation and could be described as tions such as “suddenly eloquent,” “sort certainly I have; delighted to acknowl-
edge parentage. In the same way that
halfway between improvisation and com- of rocking gently,” “very steady and re-
I’m not at all embarrassed about my
position. Houdini Rite was one of the flective” and “important quiet Bach ca- parents, I’m proud of being ac-
most celebrated: it received its most no- dence” urge the player to evoke the spirit quainted with the music I’m ac-
torious performance in a concert given of the late–nineteenth-century piano vir- quainted with [4].
by Tilbury at the Purcell Room in 1970, tuoso, Busoni in particular (see Fig. 1).
White’s piano sonatas—he has written
where it was combined with another Rehabilitating figures such as Busoni,
over 130 since 1956—represent a “free-
Scratch concept—that of the Popular who have been somewhat marginalized
ranging commentary on musical en-
Classic. An old recording of Tchai- by the conventional view of music his-
counters in an inner landscape” [5] and
kovsky’s first Piano Concerto was played, tory, constitutes a significant aspect of
richly illustrate the composer’s aes-
and after a few bars the performer was the motivation behind much piano mu-
thetic. Although there is not space to
instructed to approach the piano, heavily sic of English experimental composers;
discuss all these sonatas in detail here,
an abridged list of these “musical en-
counters” and their salient features ap-
Fig. 1. John White, Sonata No. 15 (1962). White’s instructions to the performer indicate the
pears in Dave Smith’s 1980 article on
kind of music with which the piece is associating itself, invariably to great ironic effect.
(Courtesy of John White) White’s sonatas, which was published in
Contact. This list reveals much about En-
glish experimental music and its alterna-
tive take on music history:
ALKAN: The exposition of mysterious
order
SCHUMANN: the wealth of inner life
half concealed behind the engaging
and mobile nature of the musical pat-
terns (Kreisleriana!)
BUSONI: The masterful containing of
a wide range of musical vocabulary,
structure and resonance
SATIE: The arcane charm of appar-
ently simple musical statements
REGER: The sympathetic ability to be
simultaneously serious and lost

18 Walker, The New English Keyboard School


Fig. 2. Dave Smith, Al Contrario (1992). The bass line is derived from Piano Piece 10 by Christopher Hobbs, the dedicatee of the piece.
Hobbs’s piece is also marked tenebrous. (Courtesy of Dave Smith)

SCRIABIN: The volatile and winged Alkan, the miniature in G-sharp minor grated into the musical fabric in the sense
nature of the musical thought and its Morituri Te Salutant, from the 2nd suite of that it inspired the five-part canonic treat-
manifestation Esquisses (Op. 63), and the chorale theme ment of the Alkan themes, but it does not
MEDTNER: The tactile fluency of pi-
ano layout and the intellectual fluency from the final movement of the Grande actually appear as a reference. There are
of thematic and structural organisation Sonate (Op. 33); however, a substantial several other personal touches woven sur-
BRUCKNER: The dignity and magnifi- portion of the piece alludes to Hobbs’s reptitiously into the fabric of the piece
cence of diatonic chord-progressions Piano Piece 10 of 1973. Hobbs and Smith that connect it to Hobbs, its dedicatee,
and unswerving metre [6].
shared a fascination not only with Alkan and with other composers admired by the
These influences are shared by several but with the key of G-sharp minor gener- experimentalists. The letters DSCH
other composers of the New English ally; the various minor key signatures en- (Dave Smith Christopher Hobbs/D, E
Keyboard School, in particular Christo- countered in Piano Piece 10 lent it a dark, flat, C, B) appear at the outset, over a bass
pher Hobbs and Dave Smith. Hobbs often exotic harmonic color, and its sense line taken from the opening of Piano Piece
paid homage to Alkan in his Sonatina 1 of doom (the performing instruction is 10 (see Fig. 2). Although Shostakovich is
for piano (1973), of which he wrote: “tenebrous”) also suggested to Smith a commonly associated with the DSCH mo-
closeness with Alkan’s G-sharp minor tif, Smith’s inspiration came from the Pe-
The eight sections of the piece present
mood. Unusual combinations of source tite Symphonie Concertante and the Trombone
a reasonable cross-section of my preoc-
cupations of the time, Busoni and material are often to be found in Smith’s Ballade of Frank Martin. Alkan’s Les
Alkan presiding over whatever other work; there is a certain irony in his juxta- Diablotins is referred to in a series of ris-
guests my musical subconscious may position of minimalistic figurations that ing chromatic chords, marked “without
have invited to the feast. At this time, feature the sort of slowly shifting sus- brilliance,” at bar 150; the fugue from his
John White and I were in the habit of
writing pieces for each other on a pended harmonies associated with the Funeral March for a Dead Parrot is referred
weekly basis and my theft of a chord music of Gavin Bryars, with tortuously to, inverted, in a tender passage at bars
progression from him in the last section chromatic canonic passages, but all hav- 156–160. The strangely ethereal, atonal
is an open acknowledgement of the be- ing a meditative, weighty feel and a power sections close to the beginning and end-
neficent influence he has had, and con-
to evoke orchestral sonorities that allow ing of the piece involve rhythmic canons
tinues to have, on my music [7].
them to coexist without clashing crudely, that evoke Smith’s involvement with sys-
Their shared interest in Alkan led and Smith’s own performance of the tems music (music created according to
Smith to dedicate to Hobbs one of the work, which he premiered in 1992, em- pre-determined rules) in the 1970s. An
most significant works to emerge from phasizes the continuity of the piece appearance is also made by Sorabji, rel-
the New English Keyboard School, Al rather than the cut-off points in its block- evant to the experimental tradition for
Contrario (subtitled G sharp minor study). like structure. Five distinct areas of mate- his Satie-like avoidance of thematic devel-
Smith describes his composition, after rial are presented in the first half of the opment, in that the final bars of the piece
Busoni, as a “fantasia canonica.” It origi- piece; these then reappear in modified represent a skeletal version of the end of
nally formed the second movement of his form, only occasionally being allowed to the Opus Clavicembalisticum, the longest
Third Piano Concert, where its length integrate, for example, at bar 162, when non-repetitive published piano piece.
(over half an hour) brought it in line with the four upper voices present the chorale Typically for Smith and all composers
epic structures such as the first move- theme in canon over a bass line of the discussed here, there is no attempt to
ment of Alkan’s Concerto Op. 39. Al chromatic Morituri Te Salutant melody. develop any of this source material in
Contrario pays homage to two works of Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica is inte- terms of complexity; in the chorale

Walker, The New English Keyboard School 19


Fig. 3. Hugh Shrapnel, Basking, from Cat Preludes (1994–1995). The textural simplicity of these pieces shows Shrapnel’s sense of practical-
ity and his relatedness to Cardew: the encouragement of amateur players has been important to him since his time in the Scratch Orches-
tra. (Courtesy of Hugh Shrapnel)

theme from the Grande Sonate, for in- found great success outside the confines ing structures; many of them have de-
stance, Smith adheres to the original of the new music world [8]. Many are scriptive titles, such as Twilight Preludes
harmonies, only substituting the final tonal and melodic, like the unashamedly (1995–1998), Autumn Pieces (1989–
bar, which modulates suddenly and rest- sentimental tribute Well, well, Cornelius 1990) and Cat Prelud es (1994–1995).
lessly towards an unexpected key, for a (1982)—a sort of song without words in This last set of preludes reveals the pride
more static one that resolves less E-flat major that is strongly reminiscent in craftsmanship that characterizes all
abruptly but still sounds in keeping with of Cardew’s own folk-like piano pieces; composers of the English experimental
the source material. In maintaining the some are more oblique, lacking key or tradition. It consists of six movements:
original characteristics of his thematic time signatures, like the Feldmanesque the Basking, Prowl, Siamese, And Mouse,
material, re-contextualized in a dream- after-image (1990), which is dedicated to Asleep and Curtain movements. Basking
like way (but never parodied) by a syn- Michael Finnissy. has an improvisatory quality, giving an
thetically cut-and-pasted structure, Smith Perhaps less celebrated than Skemp- impression of rhythmic inexactitude
respects his own subjective experience of ton, but equally interesting, is Hugh that is in fact very precisely notated. Its
what is for him significant repertoire. Shrapnel, mentioned above in relation harmonic language is chromatic, often
Al Contrario is unusual in Smith’s pi- to his Houdini Rite of the Scratch Or- hinting at B-flat major tonality and with
ano concerts, of which there are seven to chestra period. Shrapnel began to move a preponderance of open fifths that give
date. Apart from the fifth, Alla away from high experimentation in the music a clean, penetrating sound.
Reminiscenza, which comprises one con- 1973 and turned to more traditional idi- Technically the piece would fit comfort-
tinuous movement, these concert-length oms, including conventional tonality ably under the fingers of any reasonably
suites mostly consist of shorter pieces, and an emphasis on melody; later in the accomplished player, but Shrapnel’s at-
often less serious in mood than the epic decade he played oboe and sang in tention to expressive nuance means that
G-sharp minor study (for example, the People’s Liberation Music, a folk/rock there is scope for the more advanced
First Piano Concert [1985–1986] consists band in which Cardew participated, writ- performer to apply his or her skill (see
of 24 sonatas in all the keys, each relat- ing and performing songs and instru- Fig. 3). Prowl, a jaunty miniature in 5/4
ing in some way to a manner of perfor- mental pieces on socialist themes. In the time, makes a similar level of technical
mance or musical genre). Although its early 1980s he composed Scenario for 2 demands. It features a jazz-like walking
eclecticism and exploitation of tradi- Pianos, the first in a series of composi- bass in the left hand and, unlike the first
tional pianistic sonorities and textures tions combining popular melodic mate- prelude, consists of fragmentary phrases
make it an exemplary piece of New En- rial from various sources with a return to imitating the motion of a cat moving
glish Keyboard School music, Al the exploratory idiom of the Scratch confidently forward and then abruptly
Contrario’s grandeur is perhaps less typi- years. In that decade he also began stopping to reconsider its tactics. Again,
cal. Simpler pieces have made equally teaching piano and wrote an album of the harmonic language is elusive; Shrap-
important contributions to the reper- 25 piano pieces for beginners and ama- nel alternates one bar of white-note
toire and are equally characteristic of teurs; since then, his interest in the in- crotchets with a bar of mostly black, giv-
and identifiable with this area of contem- strument has increased, and he has con- ing the impression of corrupted
porary music. Howard Skempton is the centrated on the composition of songs pentatonic scales. Siamese has been de-
best-known name in relation to this: his and piano music over the past decade. scribed by the composer as a study in
miniatures show an astonishing imagina- Most of his piano pieces are short, lyrical fourths; these impart an oriental charac-
tive range and, not surprisingly, have “mood” pieces rather than large, impos- ter to the music, which features the

20 Walker, The New English Keyboard School


same rhythmic flexibility as Basking. This Michael Parsons and Dave Smith who crafted with a fine sense of proportion
prelude is written on three staves, allow- all give concert recitals of their own and an objective approach to the actu-
and other composers’ works. Other
ing Shrapnel to create a string quartet– composers, including Howard alities of sound and performance. Stylis-
like impression, with three lower parts Skempton and myself, have written a tically he shows the broad-mindedness
moving in rhythmic unison in open lot for the piano but are not recital pia- of Skempton, and both tonal and atonal
fourths beneath a soaring, improvisatory nists—I have, however, sometimes harmonic languages are equally charac-
given performances of my own pieces.
top line. And Mouse is a toccata marked The final reason is just how extraordi-
teristic of his work. Arctic Instrumental
“very fast and light,” which would pro- narily versatile, subtle and sensitive the Music II is in a brief single movement,
vide an enjoyable challenge to an ad- piano is; you have a whole world at mostly soft in dynamic range. Both parts
vanced student and an opportunity for a your fingertips. For an instrument bur- begin with sustained slow half-note
professional to shine: rapid triplets, the dened by 200 years of musical history, I chords, featuring open fourths and
am always amazed by its seemingly end-
first note of each to be played by the left less new possibilities [9]. fifths; the primo part then breaks into
hand, range over an unpredictable chro- an accompaniment of crotchets and fi-
matic pattern of notes, with the left It is hardly surprising, given the inti- nally lilting quavers beneath a simple
hand occasionally required to shoot up mate, domestic nature of a great deal of continuous melody that is also pervaded
to the top of the piano in a humorous this music and its respect for matters of by fourths and fifths. Rising intervals al-
imitation of a mouse’s squeak. Asleep is practicality, that the New English Key- ternate with descending ones, “sharp”
similarly evocative, with its calmly re- board School features a strong prepon- tonalities such as C-sharp or B minor
peated notes in the left hand conjuring derance of piano duets, a selection of harmonies with mellower ones like G
up a heartbeat or steady breaths; in the which should be mentioned here. and F major, giving a feeling of calm and
treble, Shrapnel’s characteristic fourths- Shrapnel’s South of the River (1993– systematic exploration of the material
and fifths-dominated harmonies create 1994) is a suite of six movements that il- from different angles (Fig. 4). More
the impression of a melodic duet. The lustrate his continued use of stylistic ref- decorative figuration enters later, as the
final movement, Cur tain, is another erence, including baroque music (the melody is given over to the lower part,
toccata, mostly in 7/8 time and featur- fourth movement, Vanbrugh Castle, is and the piece builds to a restrained
ing rapid demisemiquavers. The first of reminiscent of Handel’s Zadok the Priest), forte climax in which the note-lengths
each group of four is taken by the left Ealing comedy film scores (the jaunty are augmented once more. Despite its
hand, creating a gradually descending second movement, East St. Market) and romantic undertones of arctic explora-
melody; later this is reversed so that the funky hip-hop (the aggressive finale, tion, the systemic nature of the piece
sustained melodic line is played by the Deptford Broadway). Similar in length and bespeaks Parson’s experimental heri-
right hand. The piece ends in a tum- stylistic eclecticism is Dave Smith’s suite tage more strongly than does the music
bling descent to the lower end of the Beyond the Park (1996), which consists of of his colleagues: he is often referred to
keyboard. At the end of 1995, Shrapnel five movements: Nocturne, Mechanique, as Cardew’s heir.
wrote an additional movement, Dusty Reverie, Promenade, and Bell Tower. The To sum up, for most English experi-
Dreams; this could be considered as a first and third movements show Smith in mental composers, the practicality of
postlude to the set or could be per- his characteristic crepuscular mood, also the piano, solo or duet, assumes an im-
formed alone. It is in a contemplative to be found in Al Contrario and certain portance equal to that of its rich cultural
style with the regular rhythmic feel of movements of the 1st Piano Concert; the heritage. John White explains:
Asleep and is perhaps the most strongly second and fourth are mechanistic, with I write a lot for piano for two main rea-
melodic piece of the set. much repetition of rhythmic cells in a sons: (a) being a pianist allows me to
The traditional textures and imagistic manner reminiscent of the early be in touch with a rich and exciting
quality of Cat Preludes reveal a respect for minimalists. Bell Tower provides a stun- repertoire, which gives me a great vari-
ety of role models in terms of vocabu-
the technical boundaries of the non-spe- ning finale; a sonorous, gamelan-like ef-
lary and gesture with which to formu-
cialist performer, an attitude that points fect is created by the use of simple, re- late and “clothe” the ideas which come
clearly to Shrapnel’s association with peated rhythmic figurations (continuous to me and seem to need expression,
Cardew. When asked why such a lot of pi- chains of demisemiquavers alternating and (b) being an idealistic rather than
with chains of semiquavers) over a cycle a “career” composer, I find the piano a
ano music has emanated from the experi-
hand y vehicle for the uttering
mental tradition, Shrapnel is keen to em- of colorful harmonic changes. (“outering”) of compositional thought,
phasize these practical considerations: A duet by Michael Parsons, Arctic In- in that the inspiration goes directly
strumental Music II (1987), is also worth a into a performable medium without
There are always pianos around and in closer look, as it sums up so much of his the salesmanship required for getting
the absence of lucrative commissions ensemble pieces played [12].
compositional character. Like the others
from august New Music bodies such as
the London Sinfonietta we haven’t in mentioned here, Parsons has contrib- White’s refusal to become a “career”
the main had the opportunity to write uted a great deal of solo piano music to composer is a typically experimental at-
orchestral music, so, amongst other the repertoire, much of which he has titude; it also may represent the missing
things, we have often written piano per formed himself and indeed re- link between the Scratch Orchestra and
music for ourselves or pianist friends to
play. Another reason is historical: the
corded; he has recently released a CD of the current outflowing of piano music.
numbers of outstanding pianists there solo pieces dating from 1977 to 1996 Expressing themselves through the pi-
were in th e Scratch Orchestra. [10], including Jive and Jive2 (1996), the ano allows composers to have their mu-
Cornelius himself was a wonderful pia- four Skopelos pieces (1992) and Four Ob- sic performed without having to worry
nist who gave landmark performances lique Pieces (1996), among others. Par- about the approval of the new music es-
of new music. Together with the pianist
and improviser John Tilbury, other sons was closely associated with the vi- tablishment; artistic survival indepen-
composer/pianists from the Scratch in- sual artists of the English Systems group dent of such approval was one of
clude John White, Chris Hobbs, [11] in the 1970s; as a result his music is Cardew’s concerns. As the art critic Suzi

Walker, The New English Keyboard School 21


Gablik has written, “Pursued as a ca- university audiences and with ordinary Directness of language, accessibility to
reer, art becomes inevitably less con- music lovers, representing as it did, a non-specialist audiences and players,
friendly face of contemporary music
centrated as a charismatic activity, and and an aspect of piano music which and reference to figures normally con-
less able to break with prevailing cul- homed in on compositional statement sidered misfits in music history: White’s
tural values or archetypes” [13]. Fur- rathe r than a mere wish to astound testimony shows how English experi-
thermore, a music that is accessible to with prestidigitation. I was delighted to mental composers are going against the
find that the issues touched on in my
the non-specialist music lover—the introductions to the pieces such as sys-
flow of the mainstream now as much as
typical amateur pianist, perhaps—is ob- tems, reference, irony and a simple de- ever. The subversiveness is still there,
viously related to Cardew’s impatience light in “style” seemed of real interest only it currently comes in the guise of
with the alienating complexity of avant- to the audiences. apparently traditional piano music
garde music. This artistic indepen- There are some fundamental differ- rather than graphic scores and text
ences between the pieces being written
dence combined with accessibility is a by myself and the composers I men- pieces to be performed in unorthodox
matter of pride for White, whose de- tioned in connection with my Ameri- venues. It is my view that by adapting
scription of a recent concert tour seems can tour and others [including those] and changing with the passing decades,
to put the New English Keyb oard loosely defined as part of the “New experimental composers have in fact
Complexity.” The latter seem to me to
School perfectly in perspective: be very concerned with a highly
maintained their thought-provoking “al-
I had the great good fortune to be evolved sense of musical vocabulary ternative” stance, whereas those who
asked to give recitals in various places and ultra-sophisticated compositional seek to challenge the audience through
in the USA and found favourable re- handling, often at the expense of im- the use of more alienating idioms run
sponses to concert proposals involving mediately audible clarity of rhythm, the risk of achieving the very respectabil-
music by myself and a circle of like- part-leading and gesture. I and my
minded composers (Dave Smith, circle of composer friends are un- ity they fear. As Cardew said in the
Michael Parsons, Howard Skempton, ashamed of the relatively uncompli- 1970s, “Ten years ago, Cage concerts
And rew Hugill, Jamie Crofts and cated external appearance of our mu- were often disrupted by angry music lov-
Laurence Crane). I also programmed sic and work in our particular manner ers and argumentative critics. . . . But
pieces by Satie, Grainger and the pre- by choice rather than through igno-
Elizabethan Blitheman to demonstrate rance. We follow the inner necessities
they soon learned to take their medi-
some historical/inspirational context. of composition using the most direct cine. Nowadays a Cage concert can be
This all went down very well, both with means to hand [14]. quite a society event” [15]. No doubt

Fig. 4. Michael Parsons, Arctic Instrumental Music II (1987). The simple rhythmic divisions in this piece show Parsons’s systemic approach,
but there is also a strong awareness of harmonic color and mood in his music that give it an emotional warmth. (Courtesy of Michael
Parsons)

22 Walker, The New English Keyboard School


when the rest of the musical world 9. E-mail from Hugh Shrapnel to author, 30 De- Shrapnel, Hugh. South of the River (Sarah Walker,
cember 2000. Robert Coleridge, piano), musicnow mncdx02
catches up with the experimentalists, (1996). Musicnow has a web site with extensive infor-
they will have moved on again. 10. Michael Parsons, Piano Music 1977–1996, pri- mation on Shrapnel <http://www.musicnow.co.uk>.
vate release, MP 0198 (1998).
Skempton, Howard. Well, well, Cornelius (John
11. The Systems group of artists consisted of Tilbury, piano) Sony Classical SK66482 (1996).
References and Notes Malcolm Hughes, Michael Kidner, Peter Lowe,
1. John White interviewed by author, Lower David Saunders, Jean Spencer and Jeffrey Steele. Smith, Dave. First Piano Concert, Sonatas 1–12 (John
Edmonton, 13 February 1990. Their work was based on the choice of a limited set Tilbury, piano), Matchless Recordings MR14 (1988).
of elements and the use of consistent principles, or
2. J. Tilbury and M. Parsons, “The Contemporary rules, to determine how these elements were used. White, John. Piano Sonatas (Roger Smalley, piano),
Pianist,” The Musical Times (February 1969) p. 150. NMC D038 (1996).
12. E-mail from John White to author, 11 Decem-
3. Program note from a concert of White’s Sonata ber 2000.
No. 15 given by Ian Lake, Blackheath Concert Halls,
13. S. Gablik, Has Modernism Failed? (New York: Manuscript received 6 February 2001.
13 November 1990.
Thames and Hudson, 1984) p. 86.
4. White [1].
14. E-mail from John White to author, 30 Decem-
5. John White, quoted in program note for a con- ber 2000.
cert by George W. Welch, 28 March 1988, at Lau-
15. C. Cardew, Scratch Music (London: MIT Press
derdale House, London.
paperback edition, 1974).
Sarah Walker is a broadcaster and pianist
6. Dave Smith, “The Piano Sonatas of John White,” based in London. She is a regular presenter of
Contact, No. 21 (Autumn 1980) p. 4. BBC Radio 3’s contemporary music program
“Hear and Now” and performs internation-
7. See [3].
Discography ally with the ensemble Apartment House. Sa-
8. Many of these works have been published by rah has played many world premieres of pieces
Oxford University Press, for example in Collected Parsons, Michael. Piano Music 1977—1996 (Michael by English composers, and her doctoral thesis
Piano Pieces (1971–1993) and Images (1989). See Parsons, piano), released privately MP0198 (1998).
< h tt p : / / w w w.o u p . co . u k / m u s ic / re p p ro m / Available through Frog Peak Music, Box 1052, Leba- addresses the use of quotation and reference
skempton/catalogue/>. non, NH 03766, U.S.A. <http://www.frogpeak.org>. in English experimental music.

Walker, The New English Keyboard School 23