Vic Hoyland

A report on progress

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Full PDF of "A Report on Progress" by Andrew Clements
The Musical Times Vol. 128, No. 1734 (Aug. 1987)

Andrew Clements on Vic Hoyland, The Musical Times, 1987

Five years ago (MT May 1982, p.329) Martin Dreyer surveyed Vic Hoyland’s musical development to date, finding in it a ‘quest for the theatrical properties of musical gestures, which has acquired a distinctive voice over the past decade’. The intervening period has not made that voice any less distinctive, quite the contrary, but it has taken Hoyland’s music in a direction that might have not been easily predicted at that time. The premiere of his first BBC commission, In transit, at the Proms seems an appropriate point at which to take stock again. The change of direction may not amount to a radical reorientation, but at the very least it represents a paring-down of his musical resources closer to their expressive essentials, and a newly apparent keenness to furnish his listeners with graspable structures and clearly defined points of reference.

Dreyer’s article was prompted by the first performance of Michelagniolo (1981), a multi-layered music-theatre treatment of the character and personal and artistic life of Michelangelo for baritone soloist, six male voives and 23 instruments. It was Hoyland’s most ambitious undertaking, and in many ways was a highly personal summation of his creative intentions, the final clearing of a stylistic debt to the European post-1945 avant garde (and to Berio in particular), and a further exploration of the symbiotic relationship between physical (that is dramatic) gesture and its musical analogue which, as Dreyer observed, lie at the very core of Hoyland’s work. But already by the time of the premiere of Michelagniolo the composer had begun the task of, but its formal rigour and harmonic-thematic coherence seems to have been achieved at some cost to the music’s poise and ease of flow. It is a highly wrought, tense piece, betraying Hoyland’s urgent desire to simplify his means and the struggle involved in doing so.

A more relaxed, expansive statement of his intentions may be found in Fox (1983) for 11 instruments, in which the five-movement structure centres on an unmistakable and clearly referential melodic line, whose statements in more or less modified forms and contexts articulate the first three movements, and whose elaboration constitutes the whole finale. The shift of emphasis in Hoyland’s music may be appreciated by comparing Fox with an earlier work for chamber ensemble to which it is in some ways a companion piece: Andacht zum Kleinen (1980) shares with its successor a shimmering, sensuous treatment of instrumental sonority which it is difficult not to characterise as Italianate, but its inventions designed to be contained and to operate across much shorter timespans, Andacht draws together threads from Hoyland’s earlier works, bringing to fruition ideas on texture and rhythmic definition and excluding almost entirely consideration of line and its unambiguous verticalisation.

What Fox does share with Andacht zum Kleinen is a title with origins in visual arts. ‘Devotion to small things’ is a quotation from Moholy-Nagy’s description of Paul Klee, and Braque’s engraving Fox provided the source for the later work. There is no question of the engraving inspiring the music; rather its methods of construction, building lines from points, chimed with Hoyland’s intentions in the ensemble work. There is a moment, at the very end of Quartet-movement, when a melodic line finds the space to define itself, and it is that implication which Fox develops, opening out the costive harmonic world of the quartet and admitting points of reflection and repose.

With a new path clearly established for his instrumental music, Hoyland could hardly return to the multiple complexities of Michelagniolo for a further music-theatre work. In fact Head and 2 Tails, the triptych composed for Northern Music Theatre (of which Hoyland was a founding director) in 1983 and 1984, appropriately colonizes entirely fresh ground. Its central panel, Dumb - Show (the first segment to be written), is arguably one of the most original music-theatre pieces staged in Britain in the last decade. Every movement is strictly prescribed and the consonance of music and gesture is further reinforced.

Dumb - Show was written for the group Vocem and requires two performers, male and female, dressed in Edwardian costume, together with a percussionist playing a dance-band drum kit. The performers are confined to separate 8 x 8 grids on the acting area; they are allowed to move only according to the rules of a knight in chess – one square laterally, one diagonally – and so during the course of the work visit every square on the grid. There are two possible routes that include every possible square; those are the ones allotted to the man and woman. On to the ground plan Hoyland grafted another layer of gesture and vocalization derived from the settings of six Anglo-Saxon riddles from the Exeter book, preserving the text in the Anglo-Saxon original except for one of them. The solutions are inanimate objects, and the sets of clues generate a variety of unexpected allusions and cross-references, which are picked out in carefully choreographed body movements of the performers.

The texts themselves are crude and direct, and that flavour, which would otherwise elude a modern audience, is carried over into the action. So the first riddle – ‘I saw a swift one shoot across the road … SSIP. I saw a woman sitting alone.’ – the answer is ‘Urine”, is accompanied by the following directions for the performers: ‘Facial expression – as though dying for a “pee” but can’t find the right place to do it (cat-like). And from the grammar of movements built up from the implications of the riddle Hoyland developed the percussion riffs, creating a raw, brash counterpoint to the slickly stylized movements on stage.

Of all Hoyland’s work so far Dumb - Show shows the least indebtedness to external models. That may seem like meagre praise, but in the overheated and much-imitated music of recent music- theatre it is a considerable achievement; pieces that are truly sui generis are rare indeed, Kagel is perhaps the progenitor at one remove, and Hoyland acknowledges that working on a staging of Pas de cinq with Northern Music Theatre helped him to develop the gestural vocabulary of Dumb - Show. Yet the final conception seems utterly seamless, at once touching, intriguing and extremely funny.

The two flanking panels of Head and 2 Tails triptych were designed to offer maximum contrast, though they do preserve the Edwardian flavour and the use of archaic English sources. The first element, Bitch, is entirely spoken: a modern English version by David Hirst of the Middle English comic verse Dame Sirith and the Weeping Bitch got up in the guise of a music-hall monologue. The last, Foxed, uses the Middle English verse Vox and Vuolf in its original form for a setting of three voices, five chorus, and an ensemble of four percussionists and two, amplified pianos that adheres to what ‘music-theatre’, post-Stravinsky, is expected to be. The narrative is continuous, the staging, essentially naturalistic, so that viewed as a whole the triptych offers a whole range of dramatic possibilities: a work in which music is redundant and its text thoroughly comprehensible (Bitch); one in which the text is virtually unintelligible and music and gesture, welded indissolubly without any narrative significance (Dumb - Show), and the third which preserves strong narrative features and a text that is partly understandable, but coupled with music is role is now much closer to that of traditional accompaniment (Foxed).

Though the world of Head and 2 Tails seems far removed from that of the instrumental works that preceded it, there are carefully contrived thematic links between Fox and Foxed; the ritornello that punctuates the action of the theatre pieces is transplanted from the ensemble work, while the ‘Head and 2 Tails March’ that closes Foxed and which is used to separate the component when the work is performed in its entirety is itself derived from the closing section of Fox, though a rowdy Stravinskian mood is far removed from the translucent , hushed world from which it was conceived.

In Hoyland’s most recent works the links between successive pieces grow stronger, so that it becomes possible to consider a family of compositions of which the commission, In transit, is the newest member, and which also contains the String Quartet (1985) and Seneca/Medea (1985). Those works were, however, preceded by the short Brass Quintet and also completed in 1985, and which seems at this point less like a complete, self-sufficient work than a sequence of preparatory sketches, investigating the tonal and ensemble possibilities of the medium for a later, more extended essay. The choral setting of a section of Seneca/Medea is itself intended as the first part of a tripartite scheme, which will surround a central dramatic scena for soprano with two extended choral movements.

In Seneca/Medea the process of simplification and distillation begun in the Quartet-movement and Fox is decisively continued. Though the text is set in Latin, Hoyland is at pains to make it distinct: much of the choral writing proceeds in rhythmic unison and the instrumental accompaniment (for flute, clarinet, piano, percussion, violin and cello) is carefully restrained. The rhythmic profile of the music is sharply emphasized; the ghost of a ballet score lurks behind the conception too. What is also apparent is the significance Hoyland assigns to the choral line, to the extent that for much of the work the instrumental contributions seem to be subordinate to it, providing contexts and glosses but rarely obscuring its uncomplicated dramatic force. The central importance of line, already used to great effect in Fox, comes to dominate both the String Quartet and In transit.

When the String Quartet was first performed, it was natural to assume it to be a belated continuation of the Quartet-movement; Hoyland had revealed that the earlier work was originally planned to have three movements, but that the need to have it ready for the premiere had prevented him from fulfilling the scheme in 1981. When, however, he began to write a new quartet, he found it impossible to pick up the threads of Quartet-movement and instead planned an independent work. The String Quartet was written very quickly, in barely four weeks, and was intended to have five movements; only four were given at the first performance, and Hoyland now feels it is a perfectly satisfying and complete structure at it stands.

The pressure to write the work quickly seems in retrospect to have been entirely beneficial; Hoyland was forced to make creative decisions immediately, to establish a structure with a minimum of prevarication, and the result is the most clearly defined and playable work he had written to date. The distance travelled from the costive intricacies of the Quartet-movement is substantial; its musical objects are significantly simpler. The exceptionally calm and lucid third section, in which the melodic line that underpins the entire work is allowed to emerge unambiguously, is perhaps the most striking and effective instrumental music Hoyland has written. In its idiomatic handling of the medium, also, the String Quartet shows, not only a major advance, nut a new confidence in Hoyland’s own belief that his technical demands would be realized accurately; writing for the Arditti Quartet (for whom it was commissioned) must be immensely reassuring for any composer.

The success of the String Quartet, critically and in performance, perhaps encouraged Hoyland to pursue similar set of ideas in the orchestral work requested for the 1987 Proms. A large orchestra with copious percussion (five players) was put at his disposal, and initially he contemplated a percussion concerto. Though that idea was quickly rejected, percussion remains a pre-eminent feature of In transit, and the antiphonal disposition of the five percussionists (with one placed centrally) led on to the division of the entire orchestra into two smaller ensembles placed left and right of the stage. Their instrumental composition is largely similar, though one has a greater content of reeds than the other. The central percussionist assumes a crucial role in articulating the discourse, either to crystallise out its harmonic thrust on the vibraphone, or to underline its structure on the log drums.

Central to the conception of In transit, however, is the idea of line, which Hoyland was able to develop further from his early training in the visual arts. In Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook the artist discusses the concept of line, and how other kinds of non-linear ides can be set against it. In it he coins the phrase – ‘Taking a line for a walk’. Hoyland develops that idea in the orchestral work, taking a long-limbed melodic statement and putting it ‘in transit’ against a variety of other material and so defining the work’s tripartite structure. Twice the music builds towards unambiguous statements of line; the third section consists of a massive statement of line alone. The increasing dogged intransigence of the line (giving a second, punning origin for the work’s title) gives coherence and dramatic shape to the structure; in the score at least, In transit appears to be the most lucidly argued of Hoyland’s scores to date, and perhaps a creative end-point for this particular line of development. Where he takes his music from here will be fascinating to watch.