Shine a Light: the value of Tim Howell

It’s been with pleasure and nervousness that I’ve been listening to the voice of Dr. Tim Howell on  Radio 3 this week. Composer of the Week this week is focusing on Finnish composers, and noted exponent of Finnish music Tim Howell is featured in each programme.

At the Finnish: Sibelius the Progressive

Pleasure comes from listening to Tim talk engagingly and enlighteningly about developments in Finnish music. Nervousness comes from remembering my days as an undergraduate at York, at which Tim was my tutor, and tutorials spent sitting in Tim’s office with another meagre offering of coursework, demonstrating some unenlightened and highly derivative, lacklustre thinking, gleaned second-hand from a number of sources uncited in my bibliography, in the hope that Tim wouldn’t realise who had written about all my ideas already. (It never worked).

Tim’s attitude to musical analysis was neatly summed up during a memorable induction session at York, when all the lecturers gathered in a seminar room to introduce themselves and their area of specialism to all the new students. In front of a packed room, each member of staff introduced their topic, and a running joke began to emerge based around twelve-tone composition; one introduced himself as being a Composer Directly in the Tradition of the Second Viennese School, the next a performance specialist Diametrically Opposed to twelve-tone composition, one an Earnest Music Theatre exponent who wanted to explore the humour in serialism from a music theatre perspective (work that one out); last in line, Tim waited a beat and dryly said; ‘’ I’m Tim Howell, specialising in music analysis: I look at twelve-tone music and wonder where the humour has gone.’ Instantly, gales of appreciative laughter filled the room, and the ice (as well as a few bubbles of self-inflated pomposity) was broken.

I attended a rich variety of modules as part of my studies, the value of some of which was a mystery to me: usually, those that involved students lying on the floor singing ‘Scarborough Fair’ in their own time and at their own pitch (oh, please) or devising new notational systems from bits of twigs and string like musicological Boy Scouts. Tim’s seminars, however, were different. Taking a piece of music apart, I found he was gradually shining a light through the interstices of music, explaining what was happening and why. Tim always related analysis to the music itself, exploring not just what forces were at work in a piece of music but also what the effect of their unfolding was; analysis informing a musical appreciation, rather than simply being an intellectual exercise. I often lost sight of this, bogged down in looking at harmonic relationships and large-scale formal procedures. Tim never did.

This was good stuff, and I started going to more of Tim’s sessions that weren’t necessarily modules I was studying. I found sessions not just on Sibelius but other composers – Debussy, Stravinsky, Brahms – that were opening doors into new ways of thinking (for me, Mr. Second-Hand Insight, at least) about wider music. Analysis turned from being a dry, academic exercise to an exciting odyssey through new music, and an appreciation of composers grappling with formal and tonal progressive practices, driving music forward in their desire to develop a new language, a new architecture, that transformed music history from a succession of individual techniques into a vibrant, living force.

Looking back, these sessions have informed my own professional musical practices; in ensemble working, it often helps the performers understand the value of their own part if they can see the importance of their line to the whole – why a particular note or sonority is important, why the harmony is working as it does across a given moment, where the ideas have come from, how they are handled.

In the new era of increased tuition fees, where emphasis is placed on the Student Experience and the difficult of quantifying how students get ‘value for money,’ for students studying music at York, the answer is actually very simple: go to as many of Tim Howell’s seminars as you can. You won’t be disappointed.

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