Kettle of Fish - Musical Memoirs of a Maverick Composer
by Anthony Gilbert
Softback, 117 pages
Funding in part from Ida Carroll Trust and the Pitfield Trust
Why “Kettle of Fish”? It’s a ‘lift’ from the critical reception one of his pieces had from a music critic. Speaking of which, very little space is devoted to ‘academic’ analysis of Gilbert’s music. What there is - actually it’s more reflective than academic - can mostly be found in Chapter 5. In the same place, the composer’s ‘articles of faith’ are thoughtfully and carefully expressed. You could easily start there, although Gilbert’s life story in chapters 1-4 make that final chapter somehow easier to assimilate. By his own admission, he joyously allowed the music he has written - and he has been prolific - to come in through the doors that skill and love instinctually opened for him. His music ranges over non-European ideas and cultures such as Indian and Australasian as well as those rooted in France and Spain.
As expected, this very handsomely produced memoir covers the composer’s childhood and student years, with their hurts and delights, camping and cycling holidays in France and the Benelux countries and many of the other minutiae of the period. Then he charts his career over the subsequent sixty years. Don’t expect a strictly chronological floor-plan but the book never sacrifices its orientation; it may dodge back and forth in time but you never lose your footing.
Gilbert grew up largely as an autodidact with a greedy joy in knowledge, and not only of music but also of aerodynamics, publishing, languages and much else. Not a natural ‘committee man’; he has tended to be more of a resigner when committees and other bodies veered from the values and judgements that initially drew him to them. He has served on bodies in the UK and Australasia, including committees of the Society for the Promotion of New Music, the ICA Music Section, the British and Sydney Sections of the ISCM and the New Music Panel of North West Arts. He was associated, at the centre, with New Music Forum, Manchester, and Akanthos at the RNCM.
Photographs, some in colour and some not, are set into the text pages rather than in groups of plates. I would single out a most striking picture of Matyas Seiber on page 32 but none is wasted or poorly selected.
The book was written and compiled in the months preceding Gilbert’s 87th birthday in 2021 from writings begun in 2014. When any encompassing study of the music of this and the last century comes to be written, this little book, valiant and even defiant, keen-edged and with dry eyes on his own virtues and demerits, must be a strong source. There’s a grim humour, too; I think of the page where he is asked by a leading voice in the ‘industry’ what can be done in the face of the dramatic drop in sales of the recorder and the massive immanence of the pop industry for young people and he suggests a switch to selling the electric guitar …. and this is what happens. We leave out of the reckoning ‘serious’ works like John Buller’s ‘Proença’ and Frank Martin’s ‘Poèmes de la mort’.
The book has a place for so many composers from the UK, USA and especially Australia and New Zealand. The places of Alexander Goehr and David Lumsdaine, both photographed, are key to his place and progress. His years as a mover in Australia’s music scene are recounted and when he writes of the risen resurgence of traditional tonality in the music worlds of the UK and its assaults on academia, the Proms and publishing, he sees the phenomenon repeated some years later in Australia. History does indeed repeat itself. I keep wondering whether the great movements of fashion will, at some point, sweep aside traditionalism and supplant it with the unbridled and wilder styles (Buller, Dallapiccola, Boulez, Ferneyhough, Nono, Petrassi, Goehr, Bedford, Birtwistle) of the 60s-80s. He harbours an affectionate respect also for that Mycaenas of the musical world, recorderist and generous benefactor John Turner, composer Justin Connolly and conductors Clark Rundell and Timothy Reynish. Originality and intelligence he values, and where it goes wanting or where it is deprecated as ‘elitism’, he raises his voice in protest. He is a champion of valued listeners/concert-goers; we must not treat our audiences as “twerps”.
The book is carefully edited and stylishly polished. Language is used with refreshing freshness and precision. I cite one example: when he uses the word ‘whence’ he knows, as few appear to do, that it stands alone and does not need to be preceded by ‘from’. There are errors but as far as I can see only in a couple of disparities between spellings in the main body of text and the index: Vaughan Williams is incorrectly hyphenated in the index (where the name is also wrongly placed) but correct in the body text. Gandhi’s name is correct in Chapter 1 but wrong in the index. Knowing how ephemeral is the internet, I question the decision to omit a dated/catalogue of works and a bibliography and rely on online sources but everything comes at a cost.
To help get my initial bearings, I thought I would look up “Anthony Gilbert” on the
BBC Genome. He puts in an appearance there but not with as many entries as I might have expected. There are BBC Radio 3 programmes from 1970 where his music is profiled as a “Young Composer”. In 1992 he figures in the “Third Ear” series talking to Michael Hall. In 1978 in the Music in Our Time (“A series of short talks with long thoughts behind them”) he talks about “Serious Music (If any) and Pop amongst the Young”. In 1983 in the music “East-West” series he is heard introducing a programme that includes two of his own works. There is also
the composer’s website for more information.
This book makes for a sleekly athletic and sturdily valiant read. Students and lovers of the music of the last ninety years pay heed.