Friday, 15 May 2009

Whipped cream

In a world where ‘larger than life’ has become a euphemism for a fat celebrity, I find it comforting that the human race once produced a man as remarkable and complex and contrary as Percy Grainger. Born in Australia in 1882, Grainger is primarily known today as a classical composer, but he also managed to fit in being a child prodigy, a vegetarian campaigner, an electronic music pioneer, a concert pianist, a folk song expert and a colossal pervert.

Most famous for his setting of the folk song ‘English Country Garden’ (the ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ of the first thirty years of the 20th century), Grainger collected this and many other half-forgotten British folk songs by trekking around the country making recordings on a wax cylinder. A massive hit, ‘English Country Garden’ soon became something of an albatross for him, overshadowing his more serious work, where he had a tendency to push the barriers of modern music towards the avant garde.

Obsessed with the idea of a ‘free music’ that was not bound by tempo or chromatic scale, Grainger’s music eventually became so free that it was unplayable by conventional means, and he had to build his own machines to help him realise the noises in his head. The first machine worked in a not dissimilar way to a player piano, with amplified valve oscillators reading holes on a roll of paper; a second, more sophisticated, transistorised machine used a strip of indented plastic and a photo-sensitive trigger system. These fascinating experiments were conducted in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, and predate both Stockhausen and John Cage’s work, but Grainger is very rarely given the credit for his pioneering role in the electronic music scene, perhaps because of his compartmentalisation as a ‘popular’ composer. Grainger also wrote several pieces for the Theremin, the musical instrument which, with its sweeping glissando and eerie, other worldly sound, Grainger thought closest to his conception of what ‘free music’ would sound like. An example, 'Free Music Number One (for Four Theremins)' can be found here.

A fascinating if sometimes troubling personality, I don’t have enough words left to give you any more than some additional bullet points about his life and character, but I hope this might be enough to give you a further flavour of the man:

· He was so full of energy that he would run to concerts and, when on long, boring sea voyages, would go down to the boiler room and help the stokers shovel coal.

· His Mother committed suicide because of (unfounded) accusations that she and he had an incestuous relationship.

· He was a committed vegetarian, but he didn’t like vegetables.

· He had his own clothing line.

· He was a keen sadomasochist, and supplied the Percy Grainger Museum in Melbourne with a dossier to be opened 10 years after his death that contained hundreds of pages of notes on the subject, and a selection of photographs of himself in compromising (and uncompromising) positions. He also donated several whips and some blood-stained pants.

All in all, he was a pretty interesting fellow.

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