Meeting the Old Master
Gareth Stevens spends an afternoon with avant garde composer George Newson.
Stone-in-Oxney sits atop an ‘island’ hill in the otherwise relentless flatland of the Romney Marsh. The village is the home of the composer George Newson, who despite his 89 years, is large of frame, welcoming and lucid. His home is impossibly old and even I had to stoop to avoid its low beams.
George was born in 1932 in Shadwell to working class parents and has one of those old authentic London accents that I recognized from my own father’s. It is immediately evident that he was from unusual stock to become an established avant garde composer. Evacuated to Taunton in Devon during the war, the house he was billetted in had a piano. “I was a self-taught pianist and by the time I was twelve was playing a lot of boogie-woogie.” he tells me. “Of course that involves improvising and so by the time I started to listen to composers like Beethoven and Chopin, I began to pick parts of my improvisations and write them down”. By his mid-teens he had discovered Stravinsky and recalls how by studying the score of The Rite of Spring he developed a strong compulsion to become a composer. Luckily one of Newson’s teachers spotted his emerging talent and helped him to attain a scholarship at the Blackheath Conservatoire of music when he was 14 years old.
I wondered how one goes from playing relatively popular music to being a composer who had a more radical vision. George explains that “by the time I was 23 I was studying at the Royal Academy of Music and, of course, I began to be exposed to a much wider range of emerging musical styles and influences.” It was during this time that he became aware of composers like Stockhausen, Cage and Berio some of whom were tutors on his course.
The Man Who Collected Sounds
George first worked with the iconic Delia Derbyshire in 1966 at the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop. He tells me that Derbyshire became a firm life-long friend from that point on. The result of their collaboration was a hybrid musical drama called The Man Who Collected Sounds which was broadcast late that same year. A reviewer at the time wrote “The hero, armed with the sounds of Good Government and Perfect Love, pursues pre-Raphaelite, mystical Avalon among the fascist politics of small-town California.” The strikingly original premise for this piece set George on course for the most important compositions of his oeuvre.
In 1967 George visited the US and Canada after being awarded a Winston Churchill Fellowship. His itinerary took him to many of the university based departments that were spearheading the development of electronic music. Most notably he worked with Robert Moog in Trumansburg and witnessed the Moog synthesiser in its earliest production phase. He also worked with John Cage who he said, despite common popular opinion, “was the sanest man I had ever met – with a great sense of humour to boot”. He recalls dancing with Cage hysterically to the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s album at a party during his stay. This stateside study trip and George’s immersion in the new field of experimental electronic music fundamentally altered his approach to composition, he confesses. Around the time of this life changing expedition, and with the same financial support provided by the fellowship, George had bought himself a portable tape recorder. Describing himself as an intuitive conservationist ever since his evacuation to rural environments had seeded in him a love of nature, George set out to London Zoo to record birdsong and the sounds of other animals. He had been deeply affected by reading Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring which warned of a future birdless world following the ruthless unregulated use of pesticides across America. One of the earliest prophecies of environmental collapse, this book prompted George to write a truly innovative piece. Whilst the opening passage is a recognisable dawn chorus the piece develops to become more abstract as the “huge rasping sound” of the Toucan is slowed down to a growl and interspersed with the voice of a narrator who quotes from Chekhov and the Bible. Silent Spring was premiered at Queen Elizabeth Hall in January 1968 shortly after George’s return home.
Long Road Trips
The use of interspersing narration with scored music was developed further in George’s later work Oh My America. This Ode to the new continent is grand and cinematic in scale, this is in no small part down to the open skies and huge desert landscapes George had witnessed whilst he took several long greyhound bus journeys. It combines the voice of a tenor as well as musicians and narration that quoted the words of John Donne, Brecht, Shakespeare and D.H.Lawrence. But it was the sections of Nabakov’s Lolita which describe long road trips which are quoted most extensively.
Arena was commissioned by the BBC specifically to be performed at the proms in 1971. The final performance included contributions from the jazz singer Cleo Laine, the King’s Singers, a raconteur, soprano saxophone and orchestra. Its prom performance was conducted by none other than Piere Boulez.
It is a piece about performance itself, and more particularly about auditoria themselves. “Knowing that my piece would be performed at the Royal Albert Hall, I began to reflect on the place itself. I knew that as well as classical music recitals, it was also used for boxing tournaments and at some time had also housed an ice rink.” He explains that he decided to use the venue itself as a starting point for this dedicated piece. He remembered going to the Music Hall events when he was a boy, and what is most remarkable about Arena is the surreal way it splices the esoteric world of avant garde music with Pythonesque humour. The introduction to this piece on the BBC at the time described it as “An extravaganza of comment, fun, irritation, irrelevance, misunderstanding, enthusiasm, hostility, intuition and cross purposes”.
Post Modern Elements
Arena is beyond definition. George admitted to me that his post-modern inclusion of elements of vernacular variety fun into the hallowed ground of contemporary classical music lost him some allies in the game and he accepts that professionally it became a bit of a setback. For me it is a raucous and irreverent piece of genius and I can’t stop listening to it.
This is an early section of the piece’s narration. “This then is the roundhouse – the arena, hail gladiators one and all’ “Monsieur Boulez is at the stand, maestro furioso of orchestral karate – ready to defy, with only one hand this lurking crew of stringers, bowmen, harpies, ear blasters, heavy breathers, pipers, snare smackers, and tuners of the skin”.
It is not all humorous however. George sees any Arena as a metaphor for all kinds of adver-sarialism, whether it be the opposing chants from supporters at a football game, the folly of party politics or the ugliness of war. Indeed, the last, and most menacing section of Arena was precipitated by the killing of four student protesters at Kent State by national guardsmen which had shocked the world in 1970.
Remarkably George is also an exceptionally good portrait photographer and has over 50 works at The National Portrait Gallery. He continues to write music and there are forces afoot to make his works more widely available. It was such a joy to spend an afternoon with him.
• To listen to excerpts from works by George Newson search on Soundcloud.
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