In Search of the Smallest Voice

Frank Denyer by May Kindred Boothby
Frank Denyer by May Kindred Boothby
"Art is not a product but an activity driven by hidden needs towards goals that are opaque"

Last year composer Frank Denyer finished writing a book about his music. A compelling read, although as yet unpublished, On the Margins of Composition details his experiences as a composer and ethnomusicologist and airs, in some depth, his thoughts and reflections on music and composition today. The book’s title hints at the low profile Denyer has had in compositional circles to date. However, that may be changing. Just a few years ago, in 2012, he was a featured composer at the Tectonics Reykjavik festival, while the film maker Suhail Merchant is currently making a full-length documentary about him and his work. In the wake of this activity it is time to reappraise this extraordinary figure.[wcm_nonmember]..

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Denyer’s music is like no other. Where orthodox instruments are used they are nearly always played in an unorthodox manner; there will probably also be sounds from various invented percussion. His music often includes the human voice, but his unvocalised, whispered sounds of recent years are quite unlike singing as we know it. Whispers (2010) for male voice and off-stage violin is characteristic and may be the quietest music you have ever heard – 17 tiny movements of sliding, whispering, whistling, singing falsetto and singing under the breath.

In other pieces extremely low dynamics contrast with violent percussion outbursts. The attacks and registers employed are similarly diverse. Melody, a constant preoccupation, is often microtonal. As for timbre, Denyer is forever exploring, coaxing new sounds out of instruments. None of this, however, is a matter of mere novelty. In all Denyer’s music there is an unfolding without a narrative, like a soundtrack for a lost film. Or as musicologist Bob Gilmore remarked in his sleeve notes to Denyer’s most recent album (Whispers, Another Timbre, 2015), ‘these sounds sometimes seem to embody a covert narrative of sorts, as though a story is hiding, waiting to be told, [but] such narratives are never made explicit’.

Denyer once told me of a dilemma that confronted him in the 1970s when he first travelled outside Europe to the Middle East, India and Kenya. Although he met many musicians he found it ‘impossible to share with them my own music’. The music he was writing at the time might be placed in the catch-all category of ‘experimental’. In the middle of India, however, it was ‘very difficult for people to get a grip on it, and there was no earthly reason why they should’. This disquiet grew to become a key concern of his. Writ large throughout On the Margins of Composition are questions of how Denyer’s music both engages with the world around us and honours his inner life as a composer. At the heart of this journey is the question he first confronted in the 1970s – what could he share? It remains a core issue within his compositional practice and thought.

Born in 1943, Denyer had an orthodox musical education. As a boy he was a Canterbury Cathedral chorister. He attended Birmingham School of Music in the early 1950s, was a young organist and choirmaster at a local church, and attended the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in the 1960s. It was later that his natural bents took him in two directions – experimental music and ethnomusicology.

His boyhood experience at Canterbury instilled in him an uncompromising devotion to the task in hand. The daily round of religious observances was a routine in which everything was performed to the highest possible standard, whether members of the public were present or not. ‘On such mornings’, he writes in On the Margins of Composition, ‘the Cathedral and the music somehow merged together as a single entity, and that this could happen was in part because the music was not being performed to elicit the admiration of any audience … These were times when music seemed to be a thing of itself, requiring no other explanation. It felt especially good to be an integral part of it.’

On Sundays, however, the public appeared in large numbers. Some music was simplified. Easier hymns were inserted. This was a ‘public necessity’, writes Denyer, ‘But Monday morning always beckoned when we could get back to the real core of our work.’

After finishing at the Guildhall in 1967 he formed The Mouth of Hermes ensemble, of which he himself was pianist and director. Among others, the group championed John Cage, Morton Feldman, Giacinto Scelsi, Yūji Takahashi, Christian Wolff and LaMonte Young – all composers who at the time were regularly dismissed as crackpots or charlatans, and who had only tiny, devoted circles of followers. Speaking at his home this spring, Denyer described this neglect to me. ‘The Music Colleges in London had not yet noted such names; Scelsi was completely unknown even amongst enthusiasts of new music. The New York School, if thought of at all, were considered maverick American amateurs, and of absolutely no concern to real professional musicians. On one occasion, the day following my ensemble’s performance of John Cage’s Piano Concert, I arrived at the music department of Bristol University at the invitation of students, to talk to them about Cage’s music, only to find my way barred by the portly figure of Professor Willis Grant. With arms outstretched he informed me that the kind of things I was doing were injurious to his students’ discipline and he forbad me to enter the building.

‘But for me, as a student composer trapped within the narrow historicism of the European avant-garde, such composers offered a door to an alternative world. It was just the first step out into what eventually grew to be a far larger arena for my work.’

In 1974, Denyer went to Wesleyan University, Connecticut, to study ethnomusicology. At this point he had an output of around 20 pieces, some featuring a degree of indeterminacy, all written for standard Western instruments. Incidents in Green Miz-Maz (1969) is for any number of string players and/or pianists, plus percussion and two horns. Unison 1–4 comprises four pieces for female voice and a variable small ensemble of sustaining instruments. After he arrived at Wesleyan, however, non-Western instruments began to appear in his work. Among several examples is Piece for Koto (1975), written in koto tablature. The same interest in indeterminate forces remained: Melodies (1974–7), for example, is composed in 25 movements, which may be adapted to instruments of various cultural origins.

Then, in 1977, Denyer met Yoshikazu Iwamoto, a master of the Japanese bamboo flute, the shakuhachi. This encounter was followed by the first of many pieces featuring that instrument – On, On, It Must Be So, the very title of which suggests someone on an urgent quest. Denyer explained to me the importance of this meeting. ‘I had previously been experimenting with making new instruments, especially flutes, but it was becoming increasingly clear that redesigning an instrument was far easier than redesigning the attitudes of the player who was to play it.

‘Then I met Yoshikazu. As a player he started from a completely different point, being deeply rooted in Japanese tradition. He was as eager to challenge his own inherited musical attitudes as I was mine and fully aware that this was not merely the work of a few weeks. Without doubt our work together played a crucial part in my development.’

Denyer’s worry, first expressed in the 1970s, that he had ‘nothing to share’ with musicians outside Europe seems to have gained urgency towards the end of that decade and in the early 80s, a time when he held various academic research posts in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Kenya’s Pokot people in particular offered an example of a living musical tradition – functioning and skilled yet operating according to precepts very different from those of the West, especially the world of experimental music. Yet how did these two musical constituencies converse? Could they? Should they?

Denyer’s having ‘nothing to share’ did not imply a frustrated wish to play music for the Pokot. That is not the ethnomusicologist’s goal. Yet field experience tells the researcher immediately and vividly that music encountered in a culture remote from one’s own is not merely a collection of unfamiliar sounds. Those sounds derive their symbolic resonance, their ability to communicate, from the ways in which they articulate, albeit abstractly, entire ecosystems of values, attitudes, beliefs and priorities. Singers, musical instruments, pieces of music, sounds, performance contexts, functions, music’s relation with the physical world, the objects of physical world itself, perhaps animals, listeners and participants – are all, to use Bruno Latour’s concept, a parliament of things that makes up a total context. Denyer’s sensation of having ‘nothing to share’ derived from his realisation that the world of European and American art music, especially its avant-garde and experimental forms, addressed a predictable and narrow range of concerns – for example, the parameters of sound (pitch, register, duration, attack, timbre) beloved of serialists and admirers of Cage-inspired indeterminacy.

‘The high modernism of the second half of the twentieth century took this to extremes’, argues Denyer in On the Margins, ‘deliberately distancing listeners so that they were unable to be more than cool observers. For many of these composers repetition itself was anathema and therefore the memorisation of musical detail became almost impossible. Unable to internalise the music, listeners were left permanently at a distance and so the most commonly heard observation about new work during this modernist period was the single word – “interesting”. It is the experience of those kept permanently “at the gate”.’

Whether they originated in Darmstadt or New York these preoccupations were remote from the musical world of the Pokot – with their cattle songs (adongo) in which ‘significant words must be spoken softly in case they are overheard or stolen’. Such songs were very serious ‘and therefore should always be sung softly and preferably not when women and children are present’. The music of modernity, and especially high modernity, sometimes suggested a world in which music occupied a place outside the rest of life. For the Pokot music was integral to life. Any suggestion of a split between the two would have been greeted with bafflement. Yet without such an integration of music and life the likelihood of discovering something precious in terms of core meaning (for either) is seriously hampered.

Of course, it depends on what you call art – or music – and what you pay attention to. After a terrible flood in Ahmedabad, western India, Denyer found a traumatised woman sitting on her haunches, gazing out at the waters, singing under her breath. It was a sound of grief and desolation. In Kenya, a healer called in by the Pokot sang hardly above a whisper. She used a friction drum called a chepkopis, which had a spirit of its own and was formed of a wooden pot covered with goatskin. It is from formative experiences such as these that Denyer developed the technique of quiet singing, which has appeared increasingly in his compositions.

In his writing, teaching, talks and interviews Denyer constantly questions music’s purpose, relevance and necessity. His contact with living traditions from the non-Western world has suggested entirely different values, attitudes and ranges of experience. This has led him to make several urgent inquiries. What parts of our existence can music inhabit? All? Some? What can it enhance? What can it disturb? What inhabits its world? What worlds does it inhabit? Denyer suggests some extraordinary answers to these awkward questions.

Woman, Viola and Crow (2004) is a sparse, terse essay on the type of amoral fragility that underpins human existence, a strange world in which woman and crow, human and bird, are disturbingly interchangeable. The viola soloist also sings, whispers and vocalises, wears rattles on her back and special shoes to make footsteps, and – most unnerving of all – several times makes the sound of a crow. Elisabeth Smalt’s brilliant performance on the Mode CD Silenced Voices (2008) is both chilling and engrossing. There are strange, fragmented sounds from the viola, spaced out and delicate, the foreboding sound of the rattles worn by the soloist on her back, and the odd merging of one form of life with another. It is a music that derives part of its power from the wafer-thin distinction between human, animal and other sounds.

A Monkey’s Paw (1987–8) is one of a number of pieces – an extreme example – in which a new instrumentarium has been created just for that composition, the use of non-standard or ‘made-up’ instruments distancing it from Western modernism. It calls for an unprecedented array of instruments: violin, tuba, bass ocarinas, tin whistles, banjo, melodica, plus over 20 non-standard or invented percussion instruments. Over nearly half an hour this astonishing range of sounds enacts a drama in which huge assemblages of unusual timbres jostle towards a pair of climaxes in which the violin distantly recalls various folk fiddle styles but sounds exactly like none.

In Contained in a Strange Garden (1993) there are only two players. However, the percussionist has to assemble an array of non-standard instruments. The other player has just one instrument, the Turkish mey. Denyer allows that this part might be played on crumhorn, but this hardly makes it any more likely to find performers. Without sounding remotely like traditional Turkish music, the part nevertheless fits the mey perfectly.

In using non-Western instruments or instruments non-standard to the Western classical tradition (mey, shakuhachi, sitar, cimbalom and others) Denyer is not attempting a fashionable East–West fusion. Despite his knowledge of much of the music of the world his is not ‘world music’. As Gilmore writes in another sleeve note, ‘Rather than being exercises in cultural fusion they are musical spaces not yet identified on any map’ (Music for Shakuhachi, Another Timbre, 2007). Might this be relevant to Denyer’s response to having ‘nothing to share’? If there were something to share, something already in existence, there would be no dilemma. Finding ‘something to share’, therefore, is not a literal search, but a metaphor, an inner journey – as all good quests must be. Its object is necessarily elusive. In his book, Denyer puts it with typical incisiveness: ‘Art is not a product but an activity driven by hidden needs towards goals that are opaque. It is pursued by blindly following the promptings of instinct and taste, an activity that continues awake and asleep, while resting and when working.’

The contexts of this quest are manifold. They begin with the world of twentieth- and twenty-first-century composition and a critique of the West’s contexts for new music (obscure recitals, conferences and recordings). Yet, given that there are few alternatives, one is obliged to use these frameworks. Denyer remarks: ‘for me this is a crucial point, the present possibilities have always been a totally unsatisfactory compromise in the absence of other options’. There is also a concern with music as an archetypal activity within ‘the three Ms’ – music, medicine, magic – a triumvirate I once heard him discuss in a talk at Sharpham College, as well, of course, as the wider world and culture in which we all live. In a conference talk in 1994 Denyer spent most of his time offering a critique of global inequality and the myths of consumer society – of endless growth, market economics and consumer power. This was before digital culture had become pervasive. Now in the twenty-first century, Denyer continues to seek the unspectacular, unspun candor of the ‘smallest voices’ speaking modest grains of truth so far beneath the radar that they can go unnoticed and unvalued. In a world of meaningless digital noise, ‘The quest’, he says, ‘is to find that voice’. The quiet voice implies intimacy and ‘True intimacy demands nothing less than our full attention’.

Denyer is not impressed with contemporary society in these aspects, nor with the position of the arts. We refer to art as an ‘industry’ when nothing emasculates it more than being regarded as such. Denyer tackles this again in On the Margins of Composition. Vast resources can be found for events such as the Olympic games opening, he notes, ‘where national identity is demonstrated through display and spectacle’. But art becomes a form of over-consumption. He writes of ‘An age when the poor of the undeveloped world starve while the rest try to solve the problems of obesity, an age that has seen the triumph of market values, and has come to believe that economic growth can be perpetual.’

Modernity has created a world of audio recording and many other now-familiar technologies. It has also witnessed devastating wars, mass migrations, consumerism and huge and growing inequalities. The twentieth century left us with a ‘vast residue of fragmented traditions’, observed Denyer in that 1994 conference paper, none of which ‘seems fully capable of meeting contemporary needs’. Yet the title of one composition written at around the same time, Finding Refuge in the Remains (1992), gives a hint of where he would look for some kind of regeneration, conveying ‘… the sense of new life emerging from a morass of dead or decaying matter’.

‘As structures decay they become permeable to other forms’, Denyer told me in our recent interview. ‘Unforeseen metamorphoses occur, creating at least the potential for other ways of being. Using the cast-off remnants of musical instruments along with all manner of other detritus freed from its past associations and habits, might at first appear to sound a final death knell, whereas in fact it offers hope.’

Perhaps this is the sought-after ‘something to share’ – an acute awareness of the fragility of existence, a paring down to the bone of what it is to be human once the West’s hubris has been exposed. Going back to The Monkey’s Paw, after half an hour of the most glorious clatter a quiet voice emerges, a solitary female singing as if to herself. Drawing on his experiences in India and Kenya in the 1970s, Denyer has returned to this kind of voice many times since. Yet although it symbolises much it would be facile to suggest it as an answer or solution to the question of ‘something to share’. The effort to connect with humanness or humans is a lifelong quest. As he says himself: ‘Composers must embrace loneliness – and pray for a long life.’

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