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Posted on 23 Mar 2011

Ludovico’s Harp – 29th March

This Tuesday sees the premiere of a new piece of mine, Ludovico’s Harp. The piece is written for performance at Manchester’s International Anthony Burgess Foundation, in response to the author’s novel A Clockwork Orange, in the 50th anniversary of its completion.

The piece is rather unusually scored for 6 male voices with 12 tremolo harmonicas (they’re equipped with two each). Here’s the programme note:

‘I had to have a smeck, though, thinking of what I’d viddied once in one of these like articles on Modern Youth, about how Modern Youth would be better off if A Lively Appreciation Of The Arts could be like encouraged. Great Music, it said, and Great Poetry would like quieten Modern Youth down and make Modern Youth more Civilized. Civilized my syphilised garbles. Music always sort of sharpened me up, O my brothers, and made me like feel like old Bog himself’

The viewpoint that Alex laughs off in this passage from Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange seems to come straight out of the tradition of F. R. Leavis and his mid-century literary periodical Scrutiny. The idea of art and literature as ‘universal’, morally elevating pursuits – so devastatingly disproved by concentration camp guards reading Goethe and listening to Beethoven – is heavily satirised in Burgess’ novel.

The disparity between Alex’s callous, ruthlessly amoral actions and the humanist call-to-arms of the Ninth Symphony of his beloved Beethoven is a key theme in the novel, and provides the conceptual material for ‘Ludovico’s Harp’. Here, Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’ is translated into Clockwork-Orange speak – made more violent, more sinister and more hollow, seizing on Alex’s favourite term of approval, ‘horrorshow’. The harmonicas, a favourite instrument of Burgess’, gradually oppress and submerge the voices and their lauding of brotherhood. ‘Ludovico’s Harp’ is about that most sinister phenomenon of a noble ideal being used for sinister ends – Alex was certainly not the first in the 20th century to pervert Beethoven in this way

The performance will feature members of Ad Solem (Manchester University’s chamber choir), and the 12 harmonicas have been generously loaned to me by composer Christian Mason, whose ‘In Time Entwined, In Space Enlaced‘ featured a colossal 36 of them.

The evening will also feature four other responses to Anthony Burgess’ work – Hannah Taylor’s ‘Rasoodock’, Jasmin Rodgman‘s ‘Orang Squash‘, and electro-acoustic music by Ignacio Rodriguez & Michael Lau.