By Jonathan P Watts
‘You see - I’m gradually realising that I’m English - & as
a composer I suppose I feel I want more roots than other people.’ - Benjamin
The lineup at the first Aldeburgh Festival looks remarkably establishment
today: An exhibition of Constable watercolours; Tyrone Guthrie;
William Plomer; E.M.
Forster; and then Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, Sir Kenneth Clark. For
a generation of art students in the sixties Clark, with all his transhistorical
notions of civilisation, would embody a kind of English country seat connoisseurship,
antithetical to growing Marxist-inflected ideas on art and culture. On the continent
Theodor Adorno’s bellicose vision of the new music urged a generation of
radical composers to start again. Freedom was on the agenda. Freedom from all
familiar sounds. Freedom from all relics of convention. Schoenberg was the man
of the hour. To look back beyond the ruins of WW2 was rear-guard. In
of Modern Music (1949) Adorno sent up Britten for his ‘triumphant
preservation of the antiquated. 
In opposition to the security of the known and acceptable, Adorno set out a lonely
path for the composer. His powerful narrative of origin banished Britten to
margins of the avant-garde. And yet, contrary to Adorno’s placeless modern,
Britten had found his home. His was a self-conscious Englishness, an engagement
with the culture of place, that included reading Crabbe, looking at Constable,
and listening to the wind in the reeds. It was a peculiar kind of Englishness.
On reflection, Britten quashes any reflex accusations of little-Englandism, with
its connotations of ruralism, conservatism and provincialism. He’d hung
out with Paul Bowles in Brooklyn. Absorbed the particular culture of the Second
Viennese School. He was pacifist, and as the older generation of East Anglians
say ‘per-cooliar’. i.e. he was queer. Artists at SNAP this year have
picked through the hinterland of Britten’s music and biography. The results
affirm and contradict.
While the Damstardt School left the ruins behind with the war, in Paris the pioneer
of musique concrète, Pierre Schaeffer, scavenged bombsites for music-making
material: ‘At... Cavaillé-Coll and Pleyel... I find parts of an
organ destroyed in the bombing... My originality will not be to play them like
an organist but to hit them with a mallet, detune them perhaps. The war has already
taken this on.’  With his colleague Pierre Henry, Schaeffer pioneered
concrète - electroacoustic ‘music’ produced by recording and
electronically rearranging objects ‘as found’. It was in ‘54
that Henry performed in the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh, at Britten’s invitation.
This event has inspired Benedict Drew’s moving-image/sound
matériel (2013). Drew learnt of Henry’s concert from a
friend in the pub who had hosted him in London in 2000, however summarily dismissed
as a skeptical half-truth. After searching Festival archives it emerged that,
indeed, in ’54 a musique concrète concert took place in front of
a bemused audience. For SNAP, Drew has seized upon Henry’s otherworldly
objects and electronics. What if Henry had actually concocted a time machine? ‘It’s
important that we veer into complete fiction,’ Drew explains. ‘A
sound reverb describes place exceptionally well. If different quality reverbs
are brought together then you are joining and bending two places, bringing two
places and two times.’ 
Coventry Cathedral is Britain’s emblematic post-war reconstruction work
- a structure designed by Basil Spence to occupy the bombed-out ruins of the
former cathedral. Here, in ‘63, Britten’s War Requiem premiered at
the reopening. Although composed in the aftermath of WW2, the words of Requiem
combine Wilfred Owen’s WW1 trench poetry with Latin of the Mass for the
Dead. It’s as if Britten - Britten the pacifist - wrote Requiem to commemorate
all the dead in all wars in all places. Painter Maggi Hambling vividly
the sensation of hearing it for the first time soon after its premier: ‘The
piece’s dynamic combination of strangeness, horror, lament, fear, strife,
tenderness, chilling authority and grandeur was unlike anything I had previously
experienced.’  For SNAP Hambling has painted a series of imagined war-wrought
landscapes and unidentified victims in response to Requiem. The paintings
are hung clustered in the Dovecot - a small space Hambling has transformed to
a bare concrete room at Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin. Intermittently
Requiem sounds. Singer Ian Bostridge has observed how Requiem addresses
whichever conflict or crisis stirs at the time of its performance.  In their
Hambling’s landscapes and paintings do the same - these are memorials for
all the dead, and all those that will die as long as war continues.
If wind and water could write music,’ the violinist Yehudi Menuhin once
said, ‘it would sound like Ben’s.’ Besides an off-site radio
broadcast of Britten’s ‘The Spacious Firmament on High’ from
Noye’s Fludde, for SNAP this year Cerith Wyn Evans has
made a white neon
sign that reads ‘340.29 m/s’. The title of this work, 340.29
The Speed of Sound (approx) at Sea Level, anchors the apparently arbitrary
Located in the main concert hall, it’s a poignant reminder of the specific
physical conditions that give music to place. Hung on the main concert hall exterior
is Juergen Teller’s large-scale photographic work William
to Tchaikovsky, Memphis, Tennesse 2010, which shows the deific American
photographer rapt in listening. Over the past year sound artist Chris Watson
the ‘composing walks’ Britten took in and around Snape after lunch
everyday. This commission by Aldeburgh Music reconstructs the soundscape - particularly
birdsong - Britten would have heard. Some of Watson’s sound recordings
of birds have been incorporated into the artist Abigail Lane’s
Underneath the Abject Willow. Gathered in the willow tree on Hepworth
a 51-piece bird ‘vocal’ ensemble, including, among others, the cuckoo,
the nightjar and the curlew, performing W.H. Auden’s Underneath the
Willow, and a selection of English and Welsh traditional music. Sharing
Lawn is Mark Fuller’s similarly surreal sculptural installation
Milk and Music (Sally in our Alley). Of all the art on display at SNAP,
has the strongest affinity with Neo-Romantic concerns - the collapse of past
and present, familiarity and strangeness, an evocation of weird old England.
For the duration of the exhibition a meter-tall ball of milk cartons, encircled
by a string strung with mackerel tins, is installed. On the opening afternoon
elements of this installation will be activated by a ritual performance devised
by Fuller with Sarah Lucas set to Britten’s interpretation
of country dance
song Sally in our Alley. The Neo-Romantic impulse, to paraphrase the
Bracewell, engages with ‘mystery and invisible presence’. 7] Exactly
to whom or what Fuller’s and Lucas’ strange ritual is directed remains
In many ways Sarah Lucas shares an exclusive commune with Britten. For ten years
she has lived and worked in the isolated cottage that Britten and Pears retreated
to in the latter part of their lives. For half that time she has shared it with
Julian Simmons. As Pears was a kind of muse for Britten, so too was this cottage.
Here he composed much of Owen Wingrave and Death in Venice. As Simmons is a kind
of muse for Lucas, so too today is the cottage. At SNAP Lucas and Simmons share
derelict building number 1. Lucas’ work, Eros and Priapus, are two enlarged
concrete-cast penises erected on defunct farming machinery. A sourceless, omniscient
electronic sound issues from nowhere, oscillating between noise and music, enveloping
penises and audience. This is Simmons’ NUMBERSTREAM 100 - a soundwork composed
of digitally-processed fragments of Britten music. The two elements merge enigmatically.
In his sculpture Parable Simon Liddiment celebrates Britten’s ‘international
Englishness’. Liddiment is fascinated by the legacy of public-facing pre
and post- war communication art and design. For him Basil Wright and Harry Watt’s
Night Mail (1936), on which Britten and Auden collaborated for the GPO film unit,
represents a utilitarian optimism, a meeting of brilliant minds to design Britain.
In the late 1950s Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert developed British road signage
according to UN protocol. Their typeface, ‘Transport’, still in use
today, is a vehicle for communication of simple meaning with maximum legibility.
Parable is a 5 meter free-standing composition of near-complete roadsigns. The
symbols refer to typical rural subjects - cattle and level crossings. It’s
Night Mail that inspired May Cornet’s retrieval and incorporation of past
work into new work at SNAP. After watching Night Mail Cornet returned to a detail
in an earlier triptych painting called Without You I'm Nothing: ‘There
he was, this official-looking figure in a green uniform, wearing a hat, with
an outstretched arm.’ The unintentional detail transformed into a post-man.
Then Cornet read Auden's description of the envelopes:
'Written on paper of every hue,
The pink, the violet, the white and the blue’ 
Details surrounding the postman on the canvas became his parcels and packets.
For SNAP, Cornet has carved these forms into stone and painted one face with
Humbrol enamel. They stand in a line atop a meter-long plinth in the Pond Gallery,
ready to be sorted.
For Britten’s centenary the blue heritage plaque, the kind stuck on sites
of historical significance, has been subtly shifted: ‘Britten Lives Here’.
A shift of tense implies that memory is not final, that it’s constantly
undergoing retroactive revisions. And if Britten still lives through the music
and landscape new experiences are constantly being produced that will be incorporated
into his memory. Several works at SNAP explore this apparent temporal paradox
between the past and present. Emily Richardson has produced two works that explore
the unbuilt memorial to Britten proposed by the architect H. T. 'Jim' Cadbury-Brown
for Aldeburgh beach. Long before Hambling’s scallop, Cadbury-Brown proposed
an aeolian memorial constructed from a column of wood drilled with two holes.
A good westerly gale would sound the two holes which were keyed to Peter Grimes.
In the developmental phase Cadbury-Brown strapped two organ pipes to a car and
drove it up and down the Aldeburgh-Thorpeness road to determine the correct hole
sizes. For SNAP Richardson has re-enacted the experiment, documenting it on film
and recording the sound made by the pipes strapped to the car. The moving image
work is on display at Snape Maltings, while sound recordings are installed in
Aldeburgh Lookout Tower, close to the original proposed memorial site. The work
of Roger Eno, Cally Spooner and Ryan Gander each conjure Britten into presence
in different ways. Both Eno and Gander use communications technology as a medium
to summon the ghost in the machine, to make the physically inanimate animate.
Eno’s sound installation Musical Box uses Snape’s red BT phonebooth.
Pick up the call specially recorded BT answerphone messages redirects to archival
sound recordings of Britten speaking, and fragments of Purcell. Besides a series
of paintings installed in the foyer (a series of paint palettes for discarded
portraits of Britten), Gander uses the modern medium of Twitter to bring to life
Britten’s conducting baton. The baton, we learn, has its own life-world,
its own fond and sometimes bitter recollections of Britten. As an artist Cally
Spooner insists on live performance as an antidote to what she perceives as the ‘meddling
and deadening’ of liveness in mass culture. Spooner has trawled Britten’s
writing for encapsulated truths about the nature of live performance. For the
duration of SNAP these will be printed on receipts and bookmarks - ephemeral
forms that diffuse his insights into the infrastructure of the festival.
How music translates into a visual object fascinates SNAP artist Scott
For SNAP, King has produced a large outdoor billboard that combines the musical
score of ‘Playful Pizzicato’ from Britten’s Simple Symphonyand the Royal Bank of Scotland logo - both elements of an RBS television advert
that aired several years ago. Their re-presentation, ‘high’ and ‘low’ forms,
translate the advert into a physical visual object, and provide a score from
which a small live orchestra will perform on the opening day of SNAP. This representation
of music across contexts draws attention to how meaning is recuperated.
The limitless diversity and possible intricacy between words and music in song
is a powerful metaphor for the many coincidences and divergences between artwork
on display at SNAP 2013 and the corpus of Britten’s musical work and biography.
Britten’s music has its own historical allusions, its own allegorical,
social and political, or everyday, concerns. Its own emotional, imaginative and
material processes. As do the artworks on display at SNAP 2013 which, in their
peculiar ways, affirm his life.
Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music, Continuum (1949/2004),
2* Paul Griffiths, A Concise History of Western Music, Cambridge University
3* Pierre Schaeffer, In Search of a Concrete Music, University of California
4* Interviewed by the author, April 2013.
5* Maggi Hambling, Artist’s Statement, SNAP 2013.
6* Ian Bostridge, ‘War and the pity of war’, The Guardian, Friday
7* Michael Bracewell, ‘Lost Hikers’, The Dark Monarch: Magic
in British Art, Tate (2009), p.xv.
8* W.H. Auden, ‘Night Mail (Commentary for a G.P.O Film)’ in Collected
Poems, Faber (1976/1994), pp.131-133.