Richard Ayres: No. 37b

No.37b  for orchestra

  1. Alfred Wallis (in Paradise) Observes Saint Joseph (the carpenter) at Work and at Leisure
  1. Sjonnie Kurzak (a broken soul) Ascends
  1. When Gippy Dizon opened his eyes, the heavenly procession was still there…
  1. Exit

Duration: 25'
Publisher: Schott Music
KSO perfomed: 2011

Of No.37b, Richard Ayres says, “This piece is about death and various forms of afterlife.  Many of my pieces are about death (and life)... it is probably a way to dispose of my childhood woes.”  Lest this sound too grim, he qualifies: “Although my music is generally tragic, I do try to include humor, and all other emotions, in the same way that I experience them in life.  Perhaps the longer films of Charlie Chaplin are the closest to my creative ideal.”

Like Chaplin, Ayres’s music has a rare ability to be simultaneously genuinely funny and poignant.   ‘ I often feel that I am making films without pictures,’ he says.  ‘Music is rarely thought of as more than pitches and sounds, but the act of playing a note on the horn has a theatrical and a narrative power, and the violin section is fulfilling a narrative function as well as making sounds, I feel this is something to be aware of when writing music - a musical performance is in every way a three dimensional event.’

All Ayres’ works are given numbers instead of titles.  He gives three reasons for this.  Two are prosaic:  ‘I don’t have a lot of imagination for titles, and the ones I have made up were pretty awful; I find it easier to remember which piece is which (although this is no longer true. As I get older and the number of pieces increases, I find I can’t remember which is which).’  The third suggets a deeper impulse at work: ‘A title determines, or colors the listeners perception of a piece of music. I don’t want to pollute a listener’s experience unless it is absolutely necessary.’  In his more recent music the utilitarian numbers are increasingly contradicted, however, by extravagant subtitles that ‘either concur with, or contradict how we experience the music’s emotional world.’ 

The composer and writer Christopher Fox has described No.37b as a symphony that cannot quite remember ‘how a symphony might hold together.’  This sense of ad-hoc construction is graphically illustrated in the opening movement, in which the percussion section engages in carpentry - ‘trying to nail the piece together,’ Fox suggests.  The carpentry and the divine setting have a personal resonance for Ayres, whose father was a carpenter and is a fundamentalist Christian, neither of which traits have been inherited: ‘I am hopeless at woodwork, and have developed an extreme allergy to religion.’ This use of sounds that are assorted with life outside a concert hall are a natural development of Ayres’s eclecticism, which embraces Janáček, Richard Strauss, and Charles Ives with equal enthusiasm: ‘I want to use consonance, dissonance, melody, texture, elephants, clouds, snowballs, anything, from any time and whenever it is needed.’ 

Ayres offers few clues to the lives of Sjonnie Kurzak or Gippy Dixon, the named protagonists of the middle two movements.  No amount of googling will offer any evidence that they even existed.  ‘I actually don’t see any deep difference between the invented and the remembered...  I think we are all busy rearranging what exists - playing around with cultural building blocks. It is how we personally rearrange our vision of the world, what choices we make or don't make, that leads to an interesting and personal musical composition - or a personal contribution to life... In music, something that is somehow structured in time (structured to help us remember?), we are dealing all the time with memory - people chose to do it in different ways.’  He does suggest that   ‘Sjonnie Kurzak was a gypsy trumpet player.  When he was too old to play he was left homeless, and died neglected, broken, and in great poverty. I imagined his tortured soul, finally at peace, ascending to heaven.’ 
The finale seems certain that it should be providing a triumphant climax but constantly peters out.  At one point the tuba attempts a sermon, assisted by a dustbin lid.  Everything grinds to a halt, and then stutters back into life, in a way reminiscent of the magic broom in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, before reaching an abrupt, apparently arbitrary conclusion. Given that the previous two movements have been set in heaven or thereabouts, the natural conclusion to be drawn is that “Exit” is a descent to earth, or possibly further.  

These ideas - of remembered and imagined worlds and the ways they connect and reflect each other - find an echo in the work of Alfred Wallis, whom Ayres evokes in the opening movement ‘sitting in heaven watching St. Joseph (the carpenter and earthly father of Jesus Christ) who is keeping himself occupied, for eternity, with a new (and divine) wood-working project.’  Wallis (1855-1942) was, like Ayres, a Cornishman.  He was a fisherman by trade, and took up painting in his 70s after his wife died, “for company.”  He had no training, and painted mostly on cardboard with the same paints used to paint boats.  His subject was the sea, and his memories of fishing. There is a strange power to his paintings, naive in execution and built from whatever materials he had to hand, that finds a resonance in the juxtapositions Ayres creates of familiar ideas in unfamiliar settings, and the combination of fact and fiction that he uses to direct (and sometimes misdirect) our ears. By the time Wallis began to paint, steam ships had all but replaced sailed boats; his art is thus a similar combination of memory and invention.   Wallis’s idiosyncratically spelled description of his work in a letter to a friend could also stand for much of Ayres’s world:
“What I do mosley is what used to bee out of my own memory what we may never see again as Thing are altered all to gether Ther is nothin what ever do not look like what it was sence I can Rember”

Note © 2011 by Peter Nagle

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