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The Music of Simon Holt.

The Music of Simon Holt. Edited by David Charlton. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 2017. [xvii, 343 p. ISBN 9781783272235 (hardcover), $115; ISBN 9781787440692 (e-book), $115.] Music examples, illustrations (some color), works list, bibliography, index.

British composer Simon Holt (b. 1958) has enjoyed a successful and varied international career, primarily in the United Kingdom and Europe. The Music of Simon Holl provides a welcome introduction to this important but under-discussed figure in contemporary concert music. Holt's atonal music communicates more via texture and timbre than by melody, and the essays in this collection offer an overdue investigation of his style, methods, and artistic viewpoint. They form a useful resource for those concerned with Holt's music as well as those interested in British art music at the turn of the millennium, or in composers of texture, timbre, and gesture.

The variety of perspectives represented by the authors form this volume's greatest strength. Editor David Charlton combines analytical essays with interviews and memoirs, making this book applicable to a wide readership. Music theorists and musicologists will benefit from the scholarly contributions, including Richard E. McGregor's investigation of timbre as characterization in Holt's opera The Nightingale's to Blame, Philip Rupprecht's discussion of how tempo and timbre animate the images raised by Holt's evocative titles, and David Beard's application of stance theory to Holt's concertos. Readers interested in art history will appreciate Charlton's overview of concept art and politics in Holt's music. More focused analyses appear in Edward Venn's narratological discussion of the Three for Icarus cycle, which draws on Pieter Bruegel the Elder's painting Fall of Icarus (Musees royaux des beaux-arts de Belgique) as well as Rebecca Thumpston's analysis of agency in Holt's cello solo Feet of Clay, partially inspired by a photograph by Bruce Nauman. Scholars of music and literature will similarly appreciate Steph Power's two essays outlining Holt's settings of texts by Emily Dickinson and Charlotte Perkins Gilman as well as Anthony Gilbert's examination of Holt's use of Spanish poems by Federico Garcia Lorca. Composers may be interested in Simon Speare's discussion of Holt's creative process as preserved in his sketch scores; Speare explains that--unfortunately for future musicologists--Holt now works on his computer and regularly purges his draft files. Performers and general readers will likely gravitate toward the interviews and memoirs. Pianist Stephen Gutman and oboist Melinda Maxwell examine Holt's music from the player's perspective, while conductor Thierry Fischer describes preparing this music for ensemble performance. Julia Bardsley, a video artist, interviews Holt about their collaborations for the stage works Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm? and Suenos. Finally, the catalog of Holt's output, including commissions, premieres, and recordings--through 2016, the most recent date of composition--will be useful to many.

Collectively, the authors do good work situating Holt and his music among his British colleagues (Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle, et al.) as well as other twentieth- and twenty-first-century composers, including Olivier Messiaen (an early influence on Holt), Alban Berg, Gyorgy Ligeti, and Iannis Xenakis. Such contextualizations are particularly helpful for readers who may be less familiar with Holt's work but will recognize aspects of his timbral-textural idiom from comparisons with these composers. Rupprecht's chapter, moreover, provides a summary of contemporary music ensembles in London circa 1980, a helpful guide for understanding the British new-music scene at that period.

While the chapters are not arranged in an obvious order, points of connection and conversation do arise across them. For example, as Charlton notes, "There is evidence that the music which [Holt] hears and writes exists as a kind of object which is not wholly made of music" (p. 284). As mentioned in the summaries above, many of the contributors approach Holt's work through the composer's extramusical inspirations--notably poetry, the visual arts, and mythology--in order to explain how Holt "tease [s] out possibilities" in these source materials, rather than "attempting] ... expressive prescription" (Power, p. 127). These chapters contextualize Holt's oeuvre within the wider conversation of interdisciplinary work in the arts.

One concept that appears throughout the collection is the Spanish notion of duende, first introduced in Gilbert's opening essay on Holt's Lorca settings. Duende, highly prized in Spanish art, literature, and music, is an idea with no true equivalent in English but that involves a "spiritual awareness of the proximity of death or the inevitability of fate" (Gilbert, p. 5). As a British composer frequently writing for his local audiences (but who nevertheless lives part of the year in Spain), Holt often returns to this untranslatable concept, which raises troubling questions regarding musical exoticism. In her interview with the composer, Julia Bardsley presses Holt on this point as part of their discussion of Suenos, settings of poems by Antonio Machado (18751939) that are performed with images filmed in Spain. Holt explains, "[It's] alien. And I'm quite happy for it to be alien ... My own Englishness is really nothing to do with it. I'm just responding to this new environment. I'm not expecting anything from it." When Bardsley specifically asks if he worries about exoticization, Holt takes a narrow interpretation of the issue: "No, there won't be any Flamenco ... or castanets" (p. 252). But as Ralph P. Locke has noted, musical exoticism does not just imitate the sounds of Other music; it may also "all [y] itself with words, visual images, stage action, and other extra-musical features" to evoke or refer to other cultures ("Doing the Impossible: On the Musically Exotic," Journal of Musicological Research 27, no. 4 [2008]: 334). Consequently, there is still work to be done unpacking how Holt's willingness to draw on Spanish culture while claiming to have no expectations of it falls into the broader discussion of musical exoticism and globalization.

A simultaneous strength and weakness of the volume are the plentiful music examples and color illustrations, which at first glance are exciting to see. Unfortunately, the illustrations are not always consistent or useful. For example, while the book reproduces many of the artworks that inspired Holt, these do not include Nauman's photograph Feet of Clay (1966-67/1970). Holt saw this image while composing his own Feet of Clay, the subject of Thumpston's chapter. Permissions to reproduce are expensive and complex, but in the context of the other illustrations, this photograph was conspicuous in its absence.

In contrast to this missing image, Bardsley includes numerous images of her video scores for Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm? and Suenos as well as production stills from these works. She does not, however, provide explanatory captions for these images, nor does she reference them directly in her text. While they are interesting to look at, it is hard to place them in the context of her writing. Why present these images? What do they illustrate about her collaborative process with Holt?

A second weakness of this collection is a tendency on the part of the contributors to turn their analyses into detailed narratives of each piece's form. This is probably a result of Holt's comparatively low profile outside of Britain and Europe as well as the lack of commercially available recordings for some of his compositions; readers may not have heard the music before and will need detailed descriptions. Nevertheless, these blow-by-blow accounts can be exhausting to read, particularly in chapters discussing multiple works. While the analyses raise interesting details in the scores or performances, it is not always clear how those details serve the authors' wider claims. For example, David Beard discusses no fewer than six of Holt's concertos. While the individual analyses are compelling, the lack of a concluding section synthesizing the results of these analyses leaves readers uncertain how his complex notions of stance, space, and texture form a coherent theory for Holt's pieces--or even if such a holistic theory was Beard's intent.

With this mild criticism in mind, it is worthwhile to recall how Gilbert concludes his discussion of Holt's Lorca songs: "To appreciate the extraordinary quality of these settings, one really must hear them in a sensitive performance, rather than simply reading about them. The words above [i.e., Gilbert's essay] are, after all, only road-signs for listeners and performers undertaking a remarkable journey" (p. 39). As insightful as the essays in this collection are, mere words, of course, should not substitute for close listening.


Washington University in St. Louis
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Author:Olson, Karen J.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2019
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