Kettle of Fish - Musical Memoirs of a Maverick Composer
by Anthony Gilbert
Softback, 117 pages
Funding in part from Ida Carroll Trust and the Pitfield Trust
Anthony Gilbert is an English composer, born in 1934. He has an impressive list of compositions to his name, including opera, choral, orchestral and instrumental works. He also worked as lecturer in composition at Goldsmiths’ College in London and editor of contemporary music at Schott’s also in London among other positions. As he describes himself, he has travelled extensively and some places, like Australia and India, strongly influenced and are patent in his music as did poetry. The best description of the present book – Kettle of Fish – is in Mr Gilbert’s own words, taken from his website: “These are my musical memoirs, they trace my life as a composer over the past sixty years, and are preceded by details of my childhood and years of study leading to my entry into the profession, because much happened in those years which has influenced what followed. The title is a metaphor for that un-conventional route.”
When I received this book to read and review, I must admit (to my own embarrassment) that I had never heard of Anthony Gilbert, composer; only of Anthony Gilbert, nom de plume of English crime writer Lucy Beatrice Malleson (1899-1973). Possibly due to my limited knowledge of English composers but also because I am not a big fan of contemporary music. My preference is for the great classics in particular and some other music in general, especially opera from 18th, 19th and very early 20th Centuries. But no-one really needs to have deep knowledge of contemporary music or composition to enjoy this book of memoirs.
The subtitle stresses that the memoirs narrated are musical. This is important, as Mr Gilbert’s personal life is simply summarised in a compact format in Chapter One. The book is about his music and his journey to becoming a composer, his beliefs where music is concerned and his musical philosophy. In a preface, authored by himself, Anthony Gilbert writes, “Note which noun the adjective ‘musical’ precedes in the subtitle.” He then continues by saying he aims to focus on the journey towards, and involvement, in the music profession with information about some of his works. So, from the start we understand that this is not about Anthony Gilbert, the man but about Anthony Gilbert, the composer. In my opinion, the book would have benefitted from a more detailed account of his personal life. I understand his reasons for not doing it. He explains that the people in his life are too important to be reeled off as accessories to his work as a composer. While I can relate to this view of things, I personally think these memoirs would be richer, more grabbing, perhaps less dry if containing a more personal, human and emotional narrative.
Having said that, Mr Gilbert’s musical journey to becoming a composer is so unusual and unconventional that the reading of his candid memoirs is never boring, dull or monotonous. The word ‘candid’ describes best my overall impression of the book. From the outset he is open and honest about the enterprise. In the preface, he states, “Time to start these memoirs I think, while I still can think, and while some people still know who I am; and while I still do.” In my view, this is a brave, realistic statement that not many people would be confident to write about themselves and their intentions. His honesty and openness were to me the best features of this book but there are many other aspects that make it endearing even if one lacks musical knowledge. I found the various little stories he tells about the many now famous musicians and artists whom he met throughout the years rather delightful. For example on page 54 the little episode about the then very young and unknown Simon Rattle to list only one.
Mr Gilbert’s oeuvre is not always well understood and has been often negatively criticised. He is open about this in these musical memoirs and is not afraid to assert how he believes music should be nor does he fear to stick to such beliefs independent from what other people may think. It takes courage and determination to pursue a musical career in composition when one is often confronted with negativity, dismissal and offensive or at least hurtful descriptions of one’s work. In an answer of sorts, on page 57, Mr Gilbert states that “…any creative artist has the right to pursue a committed path, regardless of its direction.” This is something I totally agree with. Additionally I can completely identify, as an author or fiction, with what he says is his abiding philosophy (page 79). He states that the prime reason why he composes music is in response to an inner need. Some may call it vocation but he prefers to think of it as filling a gap. To me this is a fascinating, appealing statement. It perfectly describes what I feel about writing fiction – it is a need. I must put down to paper the hundreds of stories and plots dancing in my head. It seems to me that Mr Gilbert feels similarly about his action of composing music.
As I mentioned earlier, I felt embarrassed for never having heard of Anthony Gilbert before. Reading this book compelled me first to go to his website and then to search for his music on YouTube. I would strongly recommend a close scrutiny of Mr Gilbert’s site – link here – as it contains a wealth of information about him and his music, essays, list of works, bio, bibliography and an interview, which all make for engaging reading. On YouTube one can indeed find much of his music. Some videos are simply brief samples of some of his work, others are extensive excerpts of a particular composition. Performances and sound are mostly of good, solid quality and Mr Gilbert’s works make for compelling listening. While his music does not speak to me emotionally and I had difficulty relating to it, I found it intellectually stimulating, forcing me to question some of my own personal beliefs and attitudes to music. And that I think is rather positive. No-one should ever become too comfortable and everyone should always be able to learn and embrace something new.
These memoirs were published by LifeBook Ltd, a publisher dedicated to
publishing authors who wish to write books aimed at their family and
friends, for their own internal circulation. This means Mr Gilbert’s book is
not available either online or in bookshops (hence no ISBN). However should
anyone be interested in obtaining a copy, you can contact Mr Gilbert
directly at the e-mail shown above.
To me it seemed obvious that Anthony Gilbert wrote these memoirs as a personal thank you to his family, friends and people who supported, helped him throughout the years or were a positive influence on him and his work. As such it completely achieves its objective. It must be very rewarding for family and friends to read it. For a potential wider audience, to be sold online and bookshops, I believe it needs further work. The book is very well written, grammatically and syntactically extremely correct (not a given these days) if a tad too formal. In my opinion, I think it would benefit from a slightly more informal style as well as more personal accounts of Mr Gilbert’s life and the impact of it (if any) in his music. It is effectively structured and capably organised in logical chapters. On occasions, the author runs slightly ahead of himself with the narrative – a common feature in memoirs, as by definition people are remembering the past and this does not always happen in a coherent manner. However, this “getting ahead” is clearly established, so the reader never feels confused or lost. Additionally, I have a slight problem with the front cover. Mr Gilbert’s headshot is suitable as the memoirs are his and he wrote them but the photo chosen is out of focus, fuzzy and a little unclear though he is recognisable. I know one should not judge a book by its cover but many people do. So, I think it would benefit from a better, sharper photograph of the author for the front cover. The facsimile of a page of Anthony Gilbert’s music forms the back cover and one can see his signature and the year of the composition. An excellent, inspired idea. To complement his musical memoirs, the author added photographs of people and places, reproductions from marketing posters and images from India, provided by the Indian Cultural Centre (black and white and colour), which all contribute to enrich these memoirs and make the reading more attractive. After all, it is always nice to be able to put an image to the name of a face or location.
After reading these musical memoirs and listening to some of Anthony Gilbert’s music, I must say that I was impressed and I am not the only one. An earlier review of these musical memoirs, penned by Rob Barnett, demonstrates just that. To me, as I progressed through the book, Mr Gilbert emerged as a notable personality, an important creative artist and a music luminary. He deserves to be remembered and acknowledged as a composer and a human being. His present musical memoirs with simple improvements and the eye of a professional editor will make for captivating, interesting and informative reading. If you are involved in music (contemporary or otherwise) or if you are an artist (of whatever artform) or if you simply love reading and describe yourself as a bookworm, go ahead, contact Mr Gilbert and get a copy of his book now. I believe you won’t be disappointed.
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Previous review: Rob Barnett