Composer David Matthews ponders the parallels between the zeitgeist of art and music in our time.
On our way back from the Presteigne Festival, my wife Jenifer and I went to see the artists Graham and Ann Arnold, who have a cottage in a small village in deepest Shropshire. They have lived in the village for many years, having forsaken city life in the 1970s when they were members of the Brotherhood of Ruralists, whose aim was to recapture the spirit of Samuel Palmer and the Pre-Raphaelites, in deliberate rejection of the styles and attitudes of many of their contemporaries. The Brotherhood has ceased to exist, but Graham and Ann – Graham now in his early 80s, Ann a few years younger – have continued to uphold its beliefs in their work.
Both of them paint landscapes, Ann almost exclusively, Graham also portrait figures in interiors. He also makes collages which are partly painted and partly assembled from photographic images precious to him, and which are enclosed in shallow boxes which may remind you of Joseph Cornell – though Graham did not know of his work when he started making them; if there was an artist who influenced him here it was Max Ernst. All of his work, and that of Ann too, has a mysterious, magical quality. Graham showed me a lately finished oil painting of a woman in a room. She is a stained-glass artist, a friend of theirs; but she is imagined here as Dorothy Wordsworth seated beside a fire in the cottage at Grasmere. On the mantelpiece is an array of objects including a three-branched candlestick, a small white figure of a horse, a quill pen in an inkwell; above the mantelpiece hangs a painting by Balthus; on the stone floor beside the fire, a kite feather. On the left edge of the painting an open window shows a dreamlike full moon. A recent landscape by Ann has a glorious half-rainbow dipping into the little river that runs at the back of their house, with a heron beside it and tall autumnal trees behind.
They paint slowly and with meticulous care, and each of their works takes many months, sometimes years, to complete. Their work is little known, as they do not actively seek attention, and they have always gone against the prevailing fashion. It is unashamedly concerned with beauty. Most of their work is in private hands and few things are in public galleries. They reject the art establishment, much of which is now part of the current institutional pop world, full of people – I will not bother with a dreary list of names – who seem mostly concerned with self-publicity and making money. In our conversation, we agreed that real art has gone underground: it is still there, if you look for it; but the critics are not concerned with it and many people are unaware of it.
I wondered if the same is true of music. I’m increasingly worried that the ethics of institutional pop – shallowness plus sensation – are entering more and more into the world of ‘contemporary classical music’ (if we have to call it that; once upon a time it was just ‘music’). The problem used to be with the hard-to-grasp language of modernism; nowadays it’s more that the easy options of Philip Glass or Eric Whitacre are seducing the listener away from having to concentrate on what he or she is listening to. So has real music – music that is founded on genuine feeling, written with real craftsmanship, unafraid of complexity but nonetheless aiming to communicate with an attentive listener – gone underground? Not quite: after all, I’d just been at the Presteigne Fesival and experienced a range of fine new pieces that were full of the qualities I’ve just mentioned, and were received by an audience, which filled the various venues, with intense concentration and enthusiastic applause. Yet none of the living composers played there is well known to the general public; new music is still sidelined. We composers can do little about this situation except to carry on regardless and not lower our standards. And I can see the advantage of belonging to a group of like-minded people, like the Brotherhood of Ruralists or Music Haven, where sharing communal values is a good defence against the sense of being an impotent outsider.