Imagine yourself one listless, weary night, seeking respite and an injection of spiritual fuel. What if you could walk over to your pile of CDs and pull out your favorite recording of Richard Halley’s Fifth Piano Concerto by Van Cliburn with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein?
For those unfamiliar with the name, Richard Halley is a fictional character from Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. He is a composer who mysteriously disappears along with the other producers of the world. The echoes of the imagined music from his fifth piano concerto haunt the background texture of the novel. Rand’s evocative and lyrical description of the music, as heard in imagination by one of the main characters, is among the novel’s most memorable images:
She sat listening to the music. It was a symphony of triumph. The notes flowed up, they spoke of rising and they were the rising itself, they were the essence and the form of upward motion, they seemed to embody every human act and thought that had ascent as its motive. It was a sunburst of sound, breaking out of hiding and spreading open. It had the freedom of release and the tension of purpose. It swept space clean, and left nothing but the joy of an unobstructed effort. Only a faint echo within the sounds spoke of that from which the music had escaped, but spoke in laughing astonishment at the discovery that there was no ugliness or pain, and there never had had to be. It was the song of an immense deliverance. (Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, p13)
What would you give to be able to hear that music at will? Who could possibly write such a piece?
Well, if you are Atlasphere member Monart Pon, you become impatient with waiting, take the bull by the horns by digging deeply into your own pocket, and hire your favorite living composer to just write the darned thing.
Monart Pon is long a familiar name in many Objectivist circles. He has been active on many e-mail lists as both a participant and a moderator, and has launched his own web site at www.starshipaurora.com.
For Pon, the only imaginable person worthy of such a commission is Canadian composer and performer John Mills-Cockell, a veteran of electronic music, film, TV, and theater music. From his early synthesizer work in the mid-1960s to the creation of the electronic-pop group Syrinx, and through his many commissions since then, Mills-Cockell has developed a deep sensitivity to the subtle and unique sounds available through electronic music. Pon has quietly and steadily championed Mills-Cockell for years, and many of us have purchased the sampler CD of music from some of Mills-Cockell’s out-of-print albums.
Several years ago, Pon commissioned Mills-Cockell to take the above quote from Atlas Shrugged as a point of inspiration and create a piece of music to be called Concerto of Deliverance (Sunburst Music, 2004). Pon serves as guiding light and formally as producer of the resultant CD. Now that the work is complete, he has begun promoting it on Objectivist-oriented mailing lists and blogs, starting a discussion group for the work and generally “getting the word out” to every venue of Objectivists that he can find. Would that we all had such a tireless champion!
Because our responses to art are formed by the unique combination of our experiences and values, we necessarily have deeply idiosyncratic ideas of what Rand’s Concerto of Deliverance might sound like. What does John Mills-Cockell’s piece sound like? In a word, eclectic. But pleasantly eclectic.
There are many joys to be discovered in the music of John Mills-Cockell. He is a true master of electronic music deftly spinning out new and unusual musical colors. There is nothing easier than making a synthesizer sound boring, but there is never a moment where he allows that to happen. Every line and timbre breathes with organic character and individuality. The backgrounds are shimmering tapestries of light and colorful textures.
Though most of the CD is realized on synthesizers alone, there are parts for live musicians: voices, clarinet and violin. The violin part is played by Sharon Stanis and the clarinet by Patricia Kostek. Both are extraordinary musicians and the CD lights up when they are on stage. The synthesized textures respond well when there are live players to push against.
Mills-Cockell isn’t afraid of simple lines and colors, where effective, nor is he afraid of complicated multi-layered timbres, tumbling and spilling happily over themselves. His sense of tasteful rhythm is unerring, with rustling, scurrying beats often rising quietly from background inaudibility to pulse and throb delicately and set up a background tempo, only to fade again and return later.
He often sinks quiet melodies deeply into a multi-layered background texture, giving the music a richness and depth that reward repeated listening. Mills-Cockell has absorbed many diverse flavors of folk and world music and is able to render small vignettes of them in a few deft musical strokes.
More problematic among Mills-Cockell’s gifts is his ability to seamlessly move from one style to another. In one of his letters, the 19th Century Russian composer Tchaikovsky complains that his musical seams always show. But this is never a problem for Mills-Cockell; his seams are so casually invisible that is takes effort to realize how carefully crafted they actually are — and how awkward they would sound in other hands. Three, four, a half-dozen styles shift and swim kaleidoscopically together, one after the other, with nary a bump to disturb the smooth flow of the music.
It might seem to be purely an advantage, but that very facility can make for some confusing music. Imagine moving from isolated, elegant piano chords, to blues-inflected jazz piano progressions, to a ragtime-Dixieland feel, followed by the slightest hint of a railroad rhythm, then a rising, rushing orchestral climax leading to an operatic overture that trails off to a distant solo horn, itself leading to a marching band-like texture — all within two minutes and forty-seven seconds. If you can imagine that, you might have a sense of the beginning of track one, “Prelude.”
The instrumental music continues on at nearly that pace for over seventy-five minutes, pausing only briefly for interspersed songs. While that description doesn’t remotely do justice to the masterful continuity and the solid, convincing textures that pass by, it does give you a sense of the density and pace of the musical transitions.
It might be a natural expectation that a piece inspired by Rand’s Concerto of Deliverance would be a high Romantic piano concerto in the mold of Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff. Structurally, Mills-Cockell’s piece isn’t a concerto at all, having none of the large-scale interplay between soloistic and ensemble forces that concertos exhibit.
It is called “Concerto of Deliverance” in homage to Rand’s literary inspiration but isn’t trying to be the Halley Fifth Piano Concerto. It is actually to his credit that Mills-Cockell would resist writing a traditional concerto, since his highly personal style doesn’t seem to include the large-scale formal development required of traditional compositional idioms.
At the same time, this is one of the frustrations of Mill-Cockell’s music. Within a given movement, his musical structures start, shift smoothly through many, many interesting sonic landscapes, and eventually end — but without a discernable musical reason or motivation. In the liner notes Mills-Cockell says the movements “suggested a mythical journey” and that is indeed the overall feel of the work. Within an individual movement, however, you never have a sense of over-arching plot or purposeful motion, so much as a free-associational wandering or drifting like one finds in a dream.
There is a certain charm to that, but so much new material without a controlling shape is rather wearying. The music sounds vague and uncertain. Formal structures are the musical equivalent of literary plot and just as necessary for long forms. Without them, there is no audible trail to guide a listener through the experience.
In its formal divisions, the Concerto of Deliverance starts with an isolated movement called “Prelude” and then the rest of the work is divided into seven pairs of movements, each pair consisting of a vocal piece coupled with an instrumental piece. The various vocal pieces are for children, solo soprano, and the two combined and the texts are by long time Mills-Cockell collaborator Blake Parker.
There are some surprising inconsistencies in the quality of the songs. The children’s songs are by turns whimsical, austere, and ethereal, and very tastefully rendered. But the two prominently placed and climactic songs featuring the soulful voice of Leora Cashe are to me the most disappointing movements. Mills-Cockell’s song writing is uncharacteristically square and predictable — especially given how effortless and fluid his music normally sounds. Worse, the instrumental arrangement accompanying the song “Spirit of Light” is puzzlingly uninspired. Ms. Cashe struggles mightily to work with such pedestrian material, but it is in vain and not worth her rich instrument, or John Mills-Cockell’s music, as evidenced throughout the rest of the CD.
What the songs do, however, is provide some much-needed shape to the overall form, with their recurrent puncturing of the instrumental textures. They allow us to catch our mental breath for a moment. It is natural for us to hear a work with words and try to hook them together into the logical chain of a plot. The individual instrumental movements don’t try to achieve that level of coherence, but the large-scale shape caused by the recurring use of voice and words — and the implicit narrative of the text — provides some stable contrast for the comparably unstable instrumental sections.
As to the theme of deliverance, in the liner notes Mills-Cockell defines “deliverance” as “a journey of transition, from crisis and discord to peace and joyful harmony.” The narrative arc of the work, as vague and unconvinced as it is, does have some of that feeling. But the musical crisis isn’t very deep and the discord isn’t very grating; and so, though the peace and joy are there, they have nothing to overcome and therefore fall a little flat.
Overall, I am left with powerfully conflicted feelings about the work. Of the music of John Mills-Cockell I have heard, this is certainly the best. It will be a challenge for many listeners because of the extensive synthesizer timbres alone. It has neither the pop aspects of pop music nor the classical aspects of classical; it is somewhere off to the side of both. It expects that a listener is able to sustain attention through long instrumental passages like classical, but does not deliver on that expectation developmentally.
For Rand admirers, as long as you don’t think of it as the final realization of Halley’s Fifth Piano Concerto, and instead treat the CD as a concept album inspired by Rand’s work, there should be no problem welcoming the music. The liner notes explicitly describe the CD in that way but it is hard to remain emotionally neutral about the name “Concerto of Deliverance.”
The two-edged sword of Mills-Cockell’s facility with moving swiftly and surely from style to style and texture to texture is both a pleasure and a frustration to hear. With the absence of large-scale form, a piece of this length doesn’t make sense as a unified whole. It seems a pity to be left craving integration in an artistic work inspired by Rand, especially given the many pleasures of this music.
For all that, it is still a fun, multi-hued treat to hear a master in his chosen medium — and John Mills-Cockell is certainly such a master. Though the reach of the work exceeds its grasp, it is still praiseworthy and enjoyable music — and for me that is motivation enough to seek it out. I will certainly be listening again.
Visit the web site with samples.
Douglas Wagoner is a composer and conductor living in Newton, Massachussetts. Aside from conducting Boston area orchestras and choruses, he has given many well-received presentations on music at The Objectivist Center's Summer Seminars.