Musical notes

Think of the financial crisis. What does it sound like? The yelling of a trading room, perhaps; the anger of those who have lost jobs and fortunes; or the incessant jabber of pundits urgently relayed on 24/7 television news? Deep, dark bass notes or the root canal treatment of high-pitched white noise?

Or how about an orchestra on the rampage? This is the image that offers itself to Julian Anderson. Asked for a musical interpretation of the turmoil of recent years, the composer in residence at the London Philharmonic Orchestra imagines a group of instruments, previously in euphoric harmony, descending into dissonance. The result would be a “fairly frightening” noise.

The story of how boom went bust has generated countless books, documentaries and dramas, all offering interpretations of how a reckless lending spree came close to destroying western capitalism. Musically, however, the events of 2007 onwards have received less attention – which is why the Financial Times approached Prof Anderson.

Set to music the subprime meltdown, the collapse of banks, summits of the Group of 20 leading nations and the often obscure debates of policymakers: it is unusual request, even for a modernist noted for textured, complex works inspired by the natural world, real events and different cultural traditions. Yet it is a challenge embraced enthusiastically by Prof Anderson – partly out of curiosity, partly from his interest in the links between music and finance.

The result is the outline of an orchestral piece in which instruments fall in and out of communication, underlying patterns of notes resonate throughout and the name of an eminent 20th century economist whose ideas are back in fashion – John Maynard Keynes– is transformed into a chord that conveys hope.

The use of music as an analytical tool is not new. Several composers have addressed historical events – though they have not typically focused on finance. As well as commenting on events, music can also be used to interpret them – as Daniel Barenboim argued in the BBC’s 2006 Reith Lectures.

The celebrated conductor and pianist explained how music led him to the view that the Oslo process of the early 1990s, which some hoped would deliver a framework for lasting peace in the Middle East, “had no chance”. The “relation between content and time [was] erroneous”, he said. Preparations were much too quick; once discussions started they moved too slowly and were subject to repeated delays. Put that to music, Mr Barenboim argued, and “you would not understand what I am doing”.

Similarly, music offers insights into finance, as some investment professionals acknowledge. Anthony Bolton, who bridges the two worlds as a fund manager at Fidelity and a composer, says investment and composition both obviously re­quire mathematical skills. But they also require art – be it in “the ability to assess the effectiveness of a company’s management and how they align with opportunities” or in the “physical impact” of the composer’s work and “the emotional connection forged with the audience”.

Prof Anderson, too, sees the connections. “Timing, proportion and excess” feature in both worlds, he says. Statistics are as central to his work as a composer as to that of a financial analyst working in the City of London, streets away from Guildhall School of Music where he is professor of composition.

“The point about music is that, like any natural phenomenon, it ebbs and flows. And the market, economic patterns, they all do that,” he says. It is an area that has long interested the 43-year-old. During the boom years, London-born and raised Prof Anderson was teaching at Harvard. Shuttling between the US and work commitments in the UK and Europe made him acutely aware of the dollar exchange rate.

His experience of the crash was one of anxiety about what it would mean for him and his family. “I was watching what the consequences were in terms of bailing out the banks, what that would do to public finance, what the likely political reactions to that were.”

Prof Anderson was also keenly aware of the debates of the boom years. A turn-of-the-century essay by Wynne Godley – the economist and professional musician who died this year, with whom Prof Anderson had a family connection – warning of the weaknesses of the credit-fuelled US economy left an impression.

That sense of foreboding resonates through his answer to the FT’s challenge. Used to working in years rather than the journalist’s metre of hours – the opera he is writing is due to be completed in 2013 – he produces the outline of how an orchestral interpretation of the crisis might look. It ranges from the triumphalism of the boom’s final stages to the freezing of markets, a breakdown in trust and ensuing attempts to restore order yielding to uncertainty. The key moments were identified, written out as scores and played on the piano, recordings of which can be heard online.

Mapping out the piece, Prof Anderson speculates about which real-life sounds of the markets – traders shouting, say – might be sampled. He looks at how financial charts – showing US bank debt, for instance – could be converted into music using a software programme. (The idea of incorporating an Irish jig was discarded.)

The work would begin with the opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange, the sound of which can be transposed to an A note. From there, we move to the final months of the boom – about 2006-07. It is a “celebratory, jubilatory” moment but one where there is also the sense that something is not quite right, “that it is too incessant …too insistent …too euphoric, like somebody tipping over from manic elation to manic depression”.

Prof Anderson hears this as the sound of a high-pitched “minimalist machine”, creating a galloping rhythm under which bass notes hint at trouble ahead. The minimalism refers to a genre he regards as a “fad” often mistaken for good music – which, like the financial crisis, originated in the US. Fanfares of trumpets signal triumph. As the pitch rises, a sense of dissonance, and of lost balance, creeps in.

One obvious way to symbolise the moment of crash is a dull, almighty thud; another, a quick, descending scale. Prof Anderson opts instead for “the freeze”. The top-of-the-market high note is moved up a notch – then held. Alongside it he launches a series of step-by-step descents using the original chord, which is gradually transposed downward. We are pitched into what composers call a Sheperd curve, an aural spiral of never-ending decline – similar to the endless staircases depicted by Escher – whose lulling rhythm is eerie and surreal.

The samples of traders and transposition of market charts, creating jarring patterns of decline, add complexity to both background and foreground. This underscores Prof Anderson’s view of “music being more like life, which is kind of messy and complicated and doesn’t line up properly”.

He wants the piece to be accessible to the general listener, the person who has bought tickets for famous soloist in the second half and must first sit through this. They need to get a musical message – “a feeling emotionally that something is lost” – without having to know that it has been derived from falling share prices.

From there we move to the trust breakdown – the moment when markets seize up and the capitalist system seems in peril. Once again there are fanfares of instruments from different parts of the orchestra – trumpets, piccolos – signalling to one another. There is some communication but it is not good. As it intensifies the result is a cluster, “the crudest form of musical expression”, which Prof Anderson likens to a child bashing all the notes it can find on the piano.

A series of descending melodies suggest a sense of torpor into which eventually a lone trumpet sends a wake-up call, followed by other instruments. The notes of Keynes’s surname emerge (using an established composing device that requires a little flexible interpretation – K becomes C and so on) – and with them a sense of hope.

These notes infuse melodies that played one way do not communicate with one another; yet played another way do. “They would have enough notes in common to intertwine and collaborate,” says Prof Anderson. “So it would be a mirror of society collaborating together on rebuilding things and on trust, which is what was broken.”

This represents roughly the point at which the shock of the crisis has passed, leading into the period in 2009 when consensus that policymakers need to come together to fix the system emerges. A debate is taking place. Differing opinions are aired but in a context of broad co-operation.

As we know, the moment was brief. Inherent tensions appear. Ever-increasing complexity reveals fragility and uncertainty. Prof Anderson introduces sliding sounds through half tones, added to which are the “wailing” of trumpets and clarinets. Some of these sounds are the same as those deployed in the moment of acute crisis, reflecting fears that we may be heading for another fall. The Keynesian chord starts to move down the scale, turning in on itself as it does – a “little like a fractal where you have a shape and then you have it on every bit of itself”.

There is commonality but also complexity. In the end, concludes Prof Anderson, we are heading towards “a little bit of a morass”.


Why no one remembers Beethoven’s Opus 91

Classical composers rarely, if ever, set out to portray current events in music. When they do, they generally use those events as inspiration for a universal message, speaking to the human condition rather than commenting on the ephemeral.Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, premiered in 1942 during the German siege of Leningrad, was initially interpreted as a depiction of Nazi totalitarianism. But the composer – a victim of Stalinist censorship – completed the first movement before the siege began. The symphony is increasingly seen as a depiction of totalitarianism in general.Few works that set out to celebrating specific events have stood the test of time. One that did is Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, commemorating the defence of Moscow against Napoleon. On the other hand Beethoven’s Opus 91, marking the Duke of Wellington’s victory over Napoleon in 1813, is hardly ever played. Much more successful was his opera, Fidelio, based on a news story from the French Revolution about a woman dressing up as a boy to rescue her husband from the Bastille. Beethoven turned it into a timeless allegory of oppression, freedom and fidelity.Verdi’s Nabucco, premiered during the mid-19th century campaign for Italian independence, was a thinly veiled attack on Austrian occupation. The chorus, “Va, pensiero”, became a battle hymn for the nationalist Risorgimento movement but in the opera it is sung by Hebrew slaves.In the 1920s, German opera composers moved closer to contemporary life by satirising it. In Hindemith’s News of the Day, marital disagreement and divorce become tabloid news, while Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny plays on the evils of capitalism.Over the past 30 years composers have increasingly resorted to “docu-opera”. John Adams’ Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer (about the Middle East conflict) take their cue from recent events. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, to be premiered at Covent Garden in February, dramatises today’s celebrity culture through the life story of ill-fated model-turned-actress Anna Nicole Smith.It is only in the art of interpretation that classical music feels comfortable with current affairs. In its 2003 staging of Berlioz’s The Trojans, English National Opera linked the fall of Carthage with the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks. When Leonard Bernstein conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Berlin shortly after the fall of the Wall, he changed the wording of 18th-century poet Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode” in the last movement from “Freude” (joy) to “Freiheit” (freedom).And when Daniel Barenboim took an orchestra of young Israelis and Arabs to the West Bank in 2005, their concert at Ramallah made a more powerful statement about the Middle East conflict than any politician’s words. “Once the young musicians agreed to play even just one note together,” said Barenboim, “they would not be able to look at each other in the same way again.” Andrew Clark

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