Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Who is this Philip Hensher anyway?

Here's a review of the Fifth Symphony by 15 year-old Julliard student Jay Greenberg. It's in the Manchester Guardian written by someone named Philip Hensher.

So, he's boppin' along, humourously dissing Greenberg's music (which I've never heard and have no interest in no matter what his age). Then Hensher hits me with this:
I would love to hear something genuinely
new from a US composer of any age,
let alone Jay Greenberg at 15.
Of course, as a music critic, he's not confessing that he is unfamiliar with all American music, no music critic would do that. Rather he seems to be implying that he has made an exhaustive survey and everything over here is crap.

If that's what you meant Philip, that's way below the belt.

The last complete revolution in the serious music world (minimalism) is a US invention. Since then America has come up with another genuinely new music called "Hip Hop" - which, like certain other American musics before it, has found its way into the pop music of just about everywhere. Granted both of these trends are passing middle age - getting long in the tooth, trying to cover their gray hair.

People are arguing about what it all means. Post hip-hop musicians are writing books and post minimalist composers are starting their own clothing lines. Or is it the other way around?

For a composer, finding something really new is a monumentally difficult task. We live in a world where any kind of music is possible and nearly everything has been tried before by someone. Any sound can be music to your ears if you want.

Meanwhile it makes me feel much better imagining Philip Hensher trapped in a concert hall listening to endless new complexity music. Oh, Schadenfreude! Maybe he was only trying to fill some space dumping on a poor fifteen year old kid. (It would have been better to bitch about the marketing machine behind that kid.) But he managed to offend the musicians of a whole country - quite a large inventive one at that.

If you don't know what "new complexity" is (or was) you should rejoice. It's the proto-typical ugly music for which life is way too short.

Complexity Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


the improvising guitarist said...

I’m not quite sure if I can answer the question of who this Philip Hensher is, but I suspect he is a major league snob, and a lazy dogmatic one at that. I just found an article entitled ‘C sharp? What's C sharp?’. Here’s a quote:

“The sad truth is that the writing of orchestral music is an exact art, way beyond the capacity of anyone who can't read music. Art music had reached such a pitch of sophistication by the beginnings of rock'n'roll that when the latter takes on an orchestral canvas, it tends to sound like a pea rolling around in a drum.”

Not sure anyone’s ever going to convince him of hip-hop’s cultural status.

S, tig

David Ocker said...

Thanks for your interesting comment.

Philip didn't ask for something of cultural status. He asked for "something genuinely new from a US composer"

I picked two recent types of music, both undeniably novel, which fit his criteria. He'll reject the two, however, because he must have other unspoken requirements for what "music" must be before he'll deem it worthy.

It's the same syndrome that led people in this part of the world to put bumperstickers on their pickup trucks years ago which said "If It Ain't Country, It Ain't Shit." by which they meant Country Music specifically. I wonder if I could find one of those stickers on E-Bay now.

Also, I feel it's high time for something new of huge musical importance to start appearing somewhere soon. If this yet-to-tbe-identified newest of the new thing is indeed a U.S. creation it can rely on our innate cultural hegemony for marketing support. Just like Jay Greenberg does - he's recorded on Sony. Isn't that an American company? >>grin<<

P.S. - as for pop composers getting help writing orchestra music, I've always felt that good music written by more than one person is still good music. I dislike a lot of minimalism, most of Hip Hop and every piece for Rock Band and Orchestra ever written. (Frank thought the idea of music for Rock Band & Orchestra was anathema.)

P.P.S. It should be obvious to anyone who knows me who the name "Frank" refers to.

Anonymous said...


If I've got the right person, Philip Henshel started a group of people that heckled at new music concerts back in the early 90's. He railed against the "new complexity" of Michael Finnisey and his followers. I would rail against MF's music for other reasons, i.e. I've never heard a piece of his that I like. There are others tenuously associated with the group like Brian Ferneyhough who's music transcends its complexity.

I think Henshel is famous for heckling at a Birtwistle concert.

Steve F

Anonymous said...

Personally I dislike Ferneyhough's pretentious unfounded alien-styled inhumane chaotic pseudo-random material, which exists only for it’s own sake and creates sensory responses that are not of the composer’s intention, but just happen to occur.

Make no mistake: Ferneyhough is no real composer; and the fact that this has never been accordingly stated or criticized shows the times in which we live: Feed the people any rubbish, with just a hint of added intellectual superiority and they’ll believe it and worship you ‘message’.

… Ferneyhough… the charlatan king of pretentious wishful implication