Monday, 14 March 2016


When I was in college, I had the Nonesuch record of Peter Maxwell Davies' Vesalii Icones, which I may have bought simply because I loved the couple of Elliott Carter Nonesuch discs I had, and the cover of this one was even more elegant and thought-provoking than those. I played it a lot, especially at night when I was ready to sleep.

Right after I finished college, my friend Blake Allison and I went to Europe, and spent a couple of months in Britain, especially in London (in a bedsit in Muswell Hill, Kinks Kountry). I'm pretty sure I went to see The Fires Of London perform 8 Songs For A Mad King on that trip; though it might have been after I moved here in 1977. I know I heard a performance of A Mirror Of Whitening Light around that time; I don't think I could have been at the premiere at the Queen Elizabeth Hall that March; if I ever find my diary I'll check. I will also one day find a few drafts of a poem based on that piece of music, which still remains one of my favourites of his. It was based on things like magic squares, a sort of mystic cross-referencing which puts me right back into the artistic experimentation of the 70s: as if the explosion of energy of the Sixties were expanding quickly and seeking some sort of entropic halt.

Davis had studied with Roger Sessions and Milton Babbit; I've appreciated the former more than the latter, but when I somehow lost my collection of contemporary composers a few years ago (to, I believe, theft) they weren't among the ones I went to in my rebuilding. But Maxwell Davies was. I got re-acquainted with his work through his own website: you could pick out works and build your own 'MaxOpus' CDs, customised classical, if you will.

Davies died today. He got his start when he was 14 and submitted a piece to BBC Children's Hour. He was taken under the wing of the show's producer, Roger Hill, who showed the piece to the actress/singer Violet Carson who said 'he's either quite brilliant or mad'. I don't think the critical evaluation of him changed a bit over the decades. I was amused listening to the report on the BBC Today programme; they seemed puzzled that he had been Master of the Queen's Music for ten years, and they were very cautionary to would-be listeners. They had a great line about his later work being more accessible, 'especially for children'. 'Of all ages' they should have added.

I suppose many of us get more cautious as our ears and brains suffer wear and tear. I have less patience with much of the music that drove me through the 70s: modern classical, free jazz, jazz-rock-funk. Maybe it's just a lack of energy to absorb and react to it. But I listened to A Mirror Of Whitening Light again today, and I find it just as energising now as I did then, just as challenging and satisfying. The version I have, by Academy Manson (which sounds like the name of a post-punk band) is available on You Tube, you can link to it here. Listen up. RIP Max.

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