Symphony is the Most Anti-Symphonic Symphony Ever

Critics are often at a loss of words when they encounter a new piece of music. And as a result, they tend to make some strange proclamations and use some peculiar logic in pursuit of making some profound point. It is, of course, mostly well-intentioned, as is the case with the example below, but they still make for some truly head-scratching moments.

EIF Reviews: Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Michael Tumelty, The Herald Scotland, Aug. 30, 2010

On reflection, having heard the world premiere last night of Kevin Volans’s symphony, Here Comes the Alabama, if the composer made one tactical error...

Tactical error, huh? Calling a piece of music a symphony involves strategy?

So, what was his error?

...it was in calling his new work a symphony.

Wow, that was a blunder. I mean, I just heard the piece existed, and I'm already just so angry at the "symphony".

Wait, what?

It was probably the most anti-symphonic symphony I have heard.

So...it wasn't played by an orchestra?

I'm confused...perhaps my understanding of a "symphony" as a large scale instrumental composition, traditionally in 3 or more movements is mistaken.

Why was his piece the anti-symphony symphony?

It was neither pictorial nor descriptive.

Hmmm...I see.

There was no narrative, no drama and no tension.

Wow. Are you sure this was even actually a piece of music?

So what then was there?

So what was there, and what was the piece?

Yeah, I just said that.

It’s almost impossible to encapsulate in words...

Well, don't sell yourself short -- you did tell us all the things this piece wasn't. That's at least something.

It’s almost impossible to encapsulate in words
the bewitching and beguiling stillness of the span of this exquisite 20-minute creation.

The piece was exquisite -- I'm glad to hear that. But it's sad really, knowing the piece could have been so much more effective if only he had not called it a symphony.

In any case, it sounds like we're starting to get a picture...wait, no...a description...damn...an idea of what this piece really is...formally speaking.

The piece was bewitching and beguiling still. Which are not traits of a symphony?

It was like an abstract reflection.

Ah, well this would make at least some sense with the piece not being pictorial or descriptive, nor having a narrative. But surely it must be reflecting something, and something would have to be...you know, some thing.

It was like a thought that lingered.

I think you made the tactical error of trying to describe this piece, because I don't know what you're talking about. Do you not think your thoughts in images and words? Well, unless you're talking about the Nothing.

figure neverending story: Jesus made many other wishes, and had many other amazing adventures - before he finally returned to the ordinary world. But that's... another story.

How about we get away from these philosophical musings. Let's get down to the brass tacks, let's talk about the actual music. What did it sound like?

There was a whirring sound...

A whirring sound?


...to the music, a ticking and a gentle pulsing.

A whirring and a ticking!? Well, why didn't you just say so up front...of course this isn't a symphony. Pssh, no self-respecting symphony would have both a whirring and a ticking.

Ooh. I wonder, did he get that instrument that goes "PING!"?

It seemed to revolve, like a mobile.

And yet you couldn't even see the strings holding it up? I think this piece is magic.

It shimmered; it was evocative but not impressionistic.

Interesting. It was evocative? But what did it evoke if not a picture, a description, a narrative, or at the very least, the hint of drama or tension?

Conductor Robin Ticciati and the SCO did a splendid job bringing it into gentle life.

Ah, the miracle of birth.

figure meaning of life: Patient: Is it a boy or a girl? Obstetrician: Now, I think it's a little early to start imposing roles on it, don't you?

And in the context of a programme that emphasised the starkly original, with Rebel’s Les Elemens, the hormonally exuberant, in Bizet’s Symphony in C, and the quirky, in Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos, Volans’s symphony sat comfortably: an oasis of calm.

Hormonally exuberant?

figure excited: Bizet's Symphony in C(ocks)


Sator Arepo said...

Perhaps, in addition to "symphony," the terms "tactical," "narrative," "abstract," "evocative," "impressionistic," and "review" should be re-examined.

Empiricus said...

"Almost impossible to encapsulate in words"

But, thankfully, Michael Tumelty--and his unrivaled expertise of the English language-- was there to dispel the confusion (see: "there was a whirring sound").

I have to confirm this with the board first, but I think we have another nominee for The Annual Detritus Review Award Show's "Worst Foreign Detritus" for 2010.