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From the Archive: Harrison Birtwistle at 80 (part 1)

Nothing Concrete text
5 May 2021
43 min listen

This week we look back with a series of two episodes that attempt to explore the music, the man and the myth of composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle in his 80th year in 2014.


From the Archive sees us dig into our extensive contemporary and classical music and cinema podcast archive as we rediscover interviews and discussions with artists, with our long-standing producer and presenter, Ben Eshmade. 

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Ben Eshmade: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast.

I’m Ben Eshmade and this week we look back with a series of two episodes that attempting to explore the music, the man and the myth of composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle in his 80th year in 2014.

There is a lot written and discussed about classical music but ultimately it's the music which needs to talk to you, to connect, to take you somewhere. Often that music is not made alone.

Harrison Birtwistle: A good collaboration is a game of ping-pong and in collaboration, you always want, a good collaboration is they give you something within the context of what you’re talking about but even more.

Ben Eshmade: On this first episode we’ll learn more about the composer through some of his biggest collaborators. TO understand the composer and his process, we talk to critic and author Fiona Maddocks. Her book ‘Harrison Birtwistle: Wild Tracks’ attempts to understand his love of music, food and the countryside as he reached this milestone birthday.

BE: We’re in the Royal Opera House, to talk about Harrison Birtwistle. This seems like a very good place to start; I presume you got to see some of his productions here?

Fiona Maddocks: Well it’s the place that Gawain was premiered and returned with great success for revivals, and also The Minotaur, which astonishingly was sold out at the last revival.

BE: You wrote this book on quite a big, credible figure in classical music. How did it come about?

FM: It was rather like the way people suddenly realised the millennium was approaching. About the day before people suddenly said ‘oh, it’s the millennium’. Equally here, the publisher Faber, prompted by me, suddenly realised ‘oh, it’s Harrison Birtwistle’s 80th birthday’, which I’m sure is on the same level as the millennium in terms of musical importance. We thought it would be impossible to write a biography itself in that time and maybe he wouldn’t want it anyway. But the idea came abut to have conversations, and we’ve called the book a conversation diary because sometimes two or three times a week I’d go to Wiltshire to see him, and just talk about what he wanted to talk about that day. So it wasn’t in any sense chronological, though there’s biographical early childhood elements but it was very much trying to see how he spends his working life, day to day, as a composer. He kept saying ‘I don’t want to read this book, I trust you’ he said, which is a great burden of responsibility and one that I’m rather nervous about.

BE: You’ve mentioned a lot of this stuff already, but maybe set the scene?

FM: I think the place he can be found a lot of the time is his kitchen, or if it’s not absolutely freezing or raining, his garden. Both of which are en-route to his studio at the end of his garden, and that’s where he works. That’s a wooden hut, raised from the ground, you go up steps to it and it’s like a little den of warmth which is his alone. I think he said it was 72 steps from the kitchen, well the back door, to the studio at the end of the garden. And on those steps he would look at his trees he was pruning, or plants that were growing, or fruit that needs picking and those rhythms of life are absolutely part of his daily routine. He absolutely loves to cook, he loves to grow things, he loves to cook things, and the combination is as crucial to his life as writing music I think. And probably, in many ways, he brings the same freshness and excitement to pulling up a bunch of radishes as to writing an incredibly difficult part for solo trumpet.

BE: Is he a person who considers writing music like an office job, in the sense of doing a certain number of hours every day?

FM: Even if he doesn’t always do those hours, or those pages, or that number of minutes worth of music, I think that he does take that very seriously. There’s no-one less likely that you’d find in an office, behind a little desk with a computer screen. He works on huge sheets of his own self-designated, self-designed manuscript paper, which he pins on big boards in front of him, and he works with pencils, rulers, pencil rubbers, even clocks, a sort of stop-watch to work out how long something’s going to take, or metronomes obviously to work out the speed. He has a keyboard, which is an electronic keyboard of no great, I mean it sounds rather tinny to my ear, it’s not beautiful, but he doesn’t work at the keyboard at all, as far as I know. I don’t know that he works to an absolute timetable, but I would guess that he likes to be at his desk by a certain time soon after breakfast and will work through until I think the exhaustion of sitting in one position forced the end of a working day. And then he likes to cook. One of the things we seemed to talk about each week I went was his quinces, which were growing in the garden, on trees obviously, which he was pruning, and which finally came to fruition about the time that our conversations ended, in early Autumn.

BE: When you were sort of getting towards the end of the process, I’m interested what sort of conclusions and dots did you start joining? Maybe even ones the composer didn’t realise were there?

FM: I had no sense in which I could make things happen. I was grateful that the quinces did their thing and produced themselves, after being talked for nearly six months, ended up being in the bowl, on the kitchen table where we were talking and would indeed end up being made into jam. Thank you, quinces. That sounds laughable. One of the other things that was going on during that period was that he had started a big work for piano and orchestra and that was another of the strands running through each week. In addition to examining the garden or the weather or the fishpond in the garden, we talked about how he was progressing with the piano concerto. He was just at the point nearly of seeing an end in sight and beginning to find a title for it, so his generosity in all respects, and also his modesty for someone who’s achieved so much and yet could still be so full of self-doubt. That was very, very touching.

BE: Born on the 15th of July 1935, over 80 years ago, was Sir Harrison Birtwistle, or Harry to his friends. But let’s attempt to learn more about the composer and his upbringing through a collaborator who shared the same surroundings, singer Sir John Tomlinson.

John Tomlinson: The part of northern England where I come from and where coincidentally Harry Birtwistle comes from as well, Accrington, is situated in north-east Lancashire, about 20 miles north of Manchester. A place like Accrington, and also Oswaldtwistle where I was brought up, were textile towns when I was a boy. There were rows upon rows of terraced houses. There in the valleys there’s the factories, the mills, quite a few pubs, a lot of Methodist chapels. I was brought up as a Methodist, a strong Methodist, sometimes you’d have two Methodist chapels facing one another across Union Road, the main road. Thousands of terraced houses and it was a very industrial landscape. Mainly textiles, mining, manufacturing and the vast majority of people who lived there were working people who went down the street in their clogs at quarter to eight in the morning when work started and came back home. The industrial revolution started in Lancashire, a couple of hundred years before, that’s where an awful lot of it happened. George Hargreaves, who famously invented the Spinning Jenny, one of the mechanical developments for the textile, was born and lived in Oswaldtwistle. Now in the ‘50s of course all this started to feel apart, and it’s now a very much post-industrial landscape up there. The work for textiles went over to the Far East, to cut a long story short, Lancashire was to some extent de-industrialised. The mills were run down, they were used for other more mundane products like dog biscuits and chest expanders, all sorts of things I remember. And so I suppose it was a society very much in industrial decline. That’s as I remember it. When I was a boy everything was black. The railways were trundling along the whole time pumping out the black smoke, the factories were pumping out black smoke, all the houses were simply black. Now when you go up there, it’s the lovely original millstone gritstone, which is lovely stone. So that’s all been restored. Elgar Howarth conducted the Gawain and the Green Knight to start with and I suppose in the canteen at Covent Garden there’d be Elgar Howarth, there’d be Harrison Birtwistle and there’d be me, reminiscing about Lancashire, you know we’re all northerners. So there was a little bit of a northern mafia going on in those days. But what is northern-ness? That’s a question. I think straightforwardness, I think honesty, not the most diplomatic probably, very good heart, basically friendly, shooting from the hip a bit. At its best I think, certainly in Harry’s case, he’s extremely clear-thinking.

BE: Opening Birtwistle at 80 at the Barbican on May 16th 2014 was a concert hall staging of the composer’s iconic opera of the 1990s, Gawain. This marked the first collaboration between Birtwistle and poet David Harsent. I’ll speak to David in just a moment, but first academic Jonathan Cross on the success of this relationship, followed by a thought from the composer himself on the myth and ideas behind his music.

Jonathan Cross: I think for any composer finding the right librettist is a difficult job and when you hit the right one you stick with him or her. So this was the first time these two had collaborated on Gawain, Harsent and Birtwistle, and they’ve subsequently produced a large number of very important pieces, the Minotaurs for one, but also song cycles and so on and so forth. There’s something very important about that relationship. He knows that the ideas the librettist’s working with are in tune with his own ideas, he knows he can work with him, he knows the librettist is going to deliver the kind of text that he can set. Harsent too is interested in these ancient texts, with a kind of ritualistic way of presenting narratives rather than it being more prosaic let’s say. So the ideas and the way of working of these two figures are very different, but clearly very much in tune with the results that we see and hear.

HB: They sort of found me, the subject matters, and the subject matters of these intrinsically basic, fundamental fairy story way of telling stories. And in a way it was given me and they chose me. I don’t want to find a sort of psychological. In the end it’s about music and I don’t want the subject matters to get in the way of it. And then there’s a question of identifying the sort of music that I think I write that would suit the material. Many people ask me this question about how do you find the subject matters. But they find me or they found me very early on. It seems also that you can deal with the sort of subjects that I deal with, you can’t do it in ordinary, what you call, spoken theatre. The idea of myth is that one thing helps the other in the way that it’s expressed.

BE: We’ll hear more from Jonathan Cross in the next episode and more from the composer himself later on. So now the University of Roehampton, to meet up with its professor of Creative Writing and the librettist to Gawain, Minotaur and many more collaborations, David Harsent.

David Harsent: He telephoned me out of the blue. I got a phone call one day from Harry saying would you like to write an opera with me and I said yes. I’d seen Punch and Judy, which I thought was a fantastic piece of work. The reason that Harry called me was that I’d written a book-long sequence of poems called Mr Punch and in reviewing that book for The Observer, Peter Porter, the Australian poet, had drawn parallels between the book and Harry’s opera Punch and Judy and Harry I guess had seen the review and I suppose once he’d got the book, liked what he saw and liked what he read and called me. So I said yes OK, what’s it about? And he said ‘I want to do an operatic version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ and of course for any English poet that’s a benchmark English poem. We then had several meetings to talk about the piece, and I think it was after about the third meeting as Harry was leaving, I said ‘oh by the way, where’s it going on?’, I thought the Drill Hall perhaps, which is where I saw Punch and Judy, and he said ‘well the Royal Opera House, main stage’. I was very pleased by that notion, yeah.

BE: So it’s obviously something you’re proud of but it’s something that was a very steep learning curve?

DH: It was, yeah. In fact I think there was a point after I’d started writing, maybe I’d been working for a week when something occurred to me and I phoned Harry and said ‘will there be a chorus?’. What I’d realised I was doing, and it’s never been otherwise really, was writing a stage play that would in fact be set to music. But what will happen is, Harry and I will have quite lengthy conversations about the piece and the way it’s going to go. With The Minotaur for example, we immediately came together on the fact that we didn’t want it to be overpopulated. When we were talking about how The Minotaur might open, we both, I mean I’m not quite sure who said it first, but it was almost as if the other person completed the sentence, why don’t we have her on her own on the beach, waiting for the ship to come in, that’s carrying the innocent and Theseus.

BE: I wanted to delve a little bit deeper into how you approach setting these tales, fables, myths, stories.

DH: Well I used never to accept commissions for poems, somebody would say ‘I’d like to commission you to write a poem about this, that or the other’ and I used to think it wasn’t the muse. And then, I won’t go into why – it’s quite a long story, but I was offered a commission by Jo Shapcott for an anthology she was editing, and because of a misunderstanding, I wrote a different version of what was required. But it was a commission that freed me into, or somehow kickstarted, the book that became Legion. So I then began to think, the real thing about commissions is what’s in this for me. And I have accepted a number of commissions subsequently when I’ve thought well there is something in this for me, there really is. I think it’s not so dissimilar, I mean an opera is a commission after all, so I looked at Gawain and thought ‘what’s in this for me?’, similarly The Minotaur, ditto The Corridor. The new piece that we’re doing, which I think is Aldeburgh next year and the Linberry and one or two other places, which is the other side of the evening from The Corridor, it’s called The Cure, and it’s pre-Euripidean Medea, it’s about the moment when Medea and Jason arrive back in Iolcus with the golden fleece and Jason says ‘I’d like my father to be able to join in these celebrations but he’s old, near death, and can you rejuvenate him?’ and she says ‘yes I can and I will’ because she’s a witch. I looked at that possibility to see  what was in that for me and it’s always of course a version of the story, and it’s going to be my version and it’s going to be Harry’s version too, and that’s why we talk so much before we start about the way the things gonna go. Myth is very interesting to us. But when I’m just talking to Harry about anything, we seem to go quite deep quite fast. I did say once, just before The Minotaur was first staged that if Harry and I had a dream about The Minotaur, it would probably be a version of the same dream. We do think alike in that sort of way. It’s very interesting. What Harry does, he works through, to some degree, through sketch and illustration, diagrams almost. So we were at my house talking about how we were going to make this new piece The Cure work and I got little scraps of paper that are like 4 inches by 4 inches of phone messages, just old manuscripts of mine that I’d torn up, and I got a small handful of those and I started to write something down and Harry said ‘look’ and he reached across and took three or four of them and he said ‘it starts like this’, and he drew a picture, a diagram, and then another diagram, and suddenly I was doing it too. I was saying ‘here’, it was a V lying on its side and it represented something in the piece. And we both started working on those. But it’s happened before. I’ll have a notebook and I’ll be making notes while we’re talking and he’ll take the notebook off me and start drawing what he wants. We can both see what we both mean by looking at it diagrammatically, which is interesting, I think. I’ve never done that with anybody else.

BE: We should be speaking to Alison Chitty. She was so important for The Minotaur.

DH: Ali is a very, very good designer. She has such clever ideas. I sometimes look at what she’s done, it’s the same with Paul Pyant, who’s lit a lot of our stuff. You look at what Ali’s done and think ‘Oh God, she’s so clever, she is so clever. How did she arrive at that, it’s so good. She has what you want in a designer. She’s thinking ahead, of me. If somebody said ‘what would you like this to look like?’, I’d have all these rather obvious ideas I expect. You can always count on Ali to come up with something that really works but is unexpected.

BE: Another big collaborator, one who was just mentioned by David, is designer Alison Chitty. Someone who takes the music and translates it into her own, unique visual language, covering every detail the opera audience sees on stage. Gathering some string and attaching it firmly to one end of the podcast, let us further enter the mind maze of Harrison Birtwistle. I spoke to Alison.

Alison Chitty: I met Harry at the National Theatre, because he was resident composer there. Or Head of Music I think his title was, something like that. I was a resident designer there. We spent a lot of time meeting and talking in the canteen, but the minute we started working together we really enjoyed that very much and certainly a very key moment was when we were working on the late Shakespeare’s with Peter Hall, and we were in hours and hours and hours of rehearsal. At one point, completely nothing to do with what we were working on, Harry said to me, ‘if we were to cut somebody’s head off and they were to carry on singing for thirteen minutes, do you think you could do it?’. I said ‘yeah, sure, I’m sure we could’, thinking goodness knows what this is all about, or how we’d be able to do it, but I thought yes was the right answer. That was the first moment we had talking about Gawain, although I didn’t know it at the time.

BE: When did he actually say, ‘look, I’ve got something coming up and I want you on board’?

AC: I don’t think it was very long after, actually. And of course it was early days for him, he hadn’t written anything, he was just thinking about it. And I think the following, it was probably within the next year. Then the following Christmas, I was going to stay with some friends in France and he said ‘well come and visit me, I’m not very far away’. I went to see him for three or four days and I took my sketchbook and my pencils and everything. When I got there he still hadn’t written anything, he hadn’t started. But I thought I was going to do three days of intensive, get up to speed with everything. I’d read it, we didn’t have a libretto at that point, I don’t think. And that was just very gentle, early talks about it. Then we came back to London and things really got going. And the most marvellous thing about everything I’ve ever done with Harry is because he’s creating it, I’ve sort of been alongside while it’s started to turn into whatever it’s going to be. Gawain was really new territory for me, although I’d done small pieces of his. I remember looking at bits of the score with him, I can sort of read music but not really, I sort of have a visual relationship with reading music. In fact Harry taught me to read these shapes and these sort of amazing shapes of many, many instruments, all doing a rise and fall in the middle of the piece. I began to work with him in that way, all the time drawing. Whenever we’re working I just draw and show him things.

BE: I’m interested to go more into the creative process. I think from what you said, and speaking to other people, he sometimes has key characters and key moments in mind, like the Green Knight.

AC: Well I mean that’s a gift for a designer of course, and the casting was phenomenal with John Tomlinson. So it was just heaven as a project, and heaven because it was in Harry’s area of myth, even though it isn’t exactly myth. It was just a wonderful tale. The great thing with Harry is that you can show him things, and he’s got a wonderful eye and a phenomenal aesthetic and he can say yes or no very quickly.

BE: What do you think attracts him to these stories? Or maybe what attracts you to these stories?

AC: I’m led by Harry there. It’s not my first love, although it’s become a great love. I don’t have a first love really; I like storytelling in the broadest sense and the psychology of all that. If it’s two people living in Hackney who speak to each other, or two people living in Greece who sing to each other, I’m still as passionate at trying to work out how you do that. I don’t know for Harry. It’s a very good question, it just feels right for him. Because he’s so incredibly contemporary but his work is so hugely classical. It feels right, it suits him. It feels like the right coat to be wearing. I’d love to hear him write something about those people in Hackney, that would also be great. And it is that complete trust in what he feels about things, in terms of whether they’re right or wrong. But anyway he knows, he’s invented the thing. Because we share an aesthetic, we care about the same kind of things, we like restraint, we like things expressed in a very simple and distilled way, and presumably that’s why he asks me to design the next opera every now and again. No, I think we share that aesthetic and also we’re very preoccupied with storytelling and the clarity of that, and the simplicity of that. He’s sometimes very disarming, he says ‘what do you mean, in Gawain, there aren’t going to be any dead animals. There have to be dead animals. What do they kill, how are we doing that, where are they?’ There’s no way you can say well I thought that maybe, you’ve got to deal with it. It’s only just a reminder, but it’s a simple clarity that I like very much, and we share that I think.

The only other thing I was going to say was that, working together on The Minotaur, early on, Stephen Langridge, who directed The Minotaur and I went to Wiltshire and worked with Harry in his studio, when he had I should think have written the first half an hour or something. And he showed us the score, all handwritten, absolutely exquisite. There needs to be an exhibition of just his scores actually, they are the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. This was our first session with him. He just took us through it. I can’t read music, when I look at something I can’t hear anything, I don’t have that skill or ability at all. But he took us through it, moment by moment. ‘This piece starts with 45 seconds of the lowest note that you can possibly imagine in the history of time. Then there’s silence, then there’s three minutes of whatever’. Stephen made notes, we both made suggestions, and I drew. And I now have this series of drawings which was the first half an hour of The Minotaur. Some of it was connected and some of it wasn’t, and some of it stays. We had to work out how to express this sea, this rolling sea. On the very first day we were talking about how we should deal with that. Anyway, that is such a fantastic work process. People say precious or whatever, it’s just really, really good. And surely the best work must come out of a director, a designer and a composer, all working together. Obviously the libretto’s already been written by David Harsent in that case, and that is established. It evolves a little bit, but we’re then working from the libretto and creating… It’s marvellous.

BE: I’m trying to get a sense of scale and work involved for a production. Maybe for the case of the Barbican, let’s go back to Gawain. Can you think of the smallest item you’ve designed, through to the biggest item, and fill us in on what’s involved?

AC: Well this is sort of a week’s work now to talk about this. How to be a designer, what you do, all that. Really hard. I think my mantra is always about storytelling, clarity, distillation, simplicity, restraint, no clutter. The whole thing driven, the whole nature of what’s on stage driven by what’s happened and what it is, rather than anything that you would lay on top of it. I’ve always called myself a designer and not a decorator, and I think that’s very important for me. People say ‘what do you do?’ and I always say, I design everything you see except for the lighting. That goes from somebody lifting up a cup of tea to the whole of the grail hall appearing in Parzival, which I’ve just done recently, which is on the larger side. But I was thinking, you were saying about little things, anything, even if it’s a hanky in someone’s pocket, I want it to be the right one, I want it to be the right colour. The minute they bring these hankies out, if everybody’s wearing grey and somebody brings out a red hanky to blow their nose, the spirit of that moment is totally changed. If they bring out a grey hanky, nothing happens.

BE: I wanted to talk about the idea of success, because a lot of Harry’s work, a lot of the work you’ve been involved with as well, has been a fantastic success. Why do you think they’ve captured the public’s imagination?

AC: Lots of difficult questions. They were epic pieces… well they’re not all epic pieces are they? Some of them are charming, exquisite, little miniatures. I wouldn’t say in a million years that I understand Harry’s music or anything. It’s completely disarming, it completely takes you over. It’s thrilling, it’s fantastic, it’s surprising, it’s exciting. I’m sort of hooked on it, and I imagine that’s what’s happened to audiences too. And he’s doing extraordinary things all of the time. By that I mean you wouldn’t want to miss the next one.

BE: We started with the severed head. One of the other things that’s come up quite a few times in various interviews is, well it’s been described as the best, the most exquisite pantomime horse.

AC: In Gawain, with the Green Knight’s horse. When you start designing something and you read the libretto, and you read that this Green Knight is going to come into King Arthur’s court on a green horse, you think ‘fine, OK, what’s the next thing, oh yeah the door’s got to knock..’. Actually, thinking back, one of the ways in which we developed that horse was we did some workshops. And if anybody thinks it’s not worth spending any money on workshops developing new pieces, it’s completely wrong. We spend a week, or two weeks I think, developing Gawain with a group of actors. But in the end that was just the practical reality of how we were going to get John sitting up at horseback height. In the end it was irrelevant that, because what its nature was on the outside made you believe it was a horse. It was nothing to do with the two brilliant guys who were inside, actors, phenomenal, who in the end we put in Dr Marten boots so they had kind of hooves. It was completely nothing to do with period but it felt good. Their movement was fabulous, but actually it’s surface. Our most wonderful prop maker, Duncan Dower, who then ran the Royal Opera House, had a great, has a great, skill for making sculptural things. And he and I worked together on this and I really give him credit for making this so magical and completely realising what was sort of my dreams. It was a marvellous thing.

Well let’s talk about the Minotaur, half man, half beast. We know, not least from Picasso’s wonderful drawings, what he could look like. But the driving factor for John’s look in The Minotaur, was when we realised, and again we didn’t realise this early on, but I remember Stephen coming to this very studio and saying ‘but you do realise he sings for..’, I can’t remember how long it is now, seventeen minutes or something. We’d got various versions of how he might look and we actually sort of invented it here, I just started drawing as Stephen was talking about the problem. Out of that drawing, that head became a reality, which was just to take the contours of the shape of, and to make it as a great skeletal shape, but at the same time use John’s body and how he was, to make the man shape. As we developed it, it went on and I took the spine down his spine, and I think the spine only came up out of something that John said when we were in rehearsal, that was very late on, the spine, and it was gorgeous that detail. It basically, Stephen was saying ‘I’m sorry, he’s got to sing, how are we going to hear him’, and I was going ‘what are we going to do?’ and out of that, sometimes people think the Director sits in one study with his head in the score and a libretto, and a designer sits in the studio with a score and a libretto and a sketchpad and a model, and then it’s all done and you put it all together, but it’s absolutely backward-forward collaboration, which was completely... There’s nothing like anything to focus you as somebody saying ‘well, what do you mean, they’re not going to be able to sing in that, what will it be like?’ and you think ‘well I’d better think of something very quickly’ and you do. I’ve got the sketchbooks with the development of that drawing. We then, having done the drawing… We worked with John, he was so patient, we worked with John for months for this thing. We started the head a year early, before we went on stage because we thought if this doesn’t work and everybody isn’t happy about it acoustically, there is no show. We went backwards and forwards. Clare Murphy, the costume supervisor, and I went backwards and forwards to John’s house with samples of shapes and taking photographs of him and my final costume drawings are out of those shapes of his body and putting these… To get the proportions right, and to make it work acoustically. Then, I can’t remember exactly what point we had the idea to light up the structure inside, so that when he became the man, that suddenly John’s face was stronger. It was never really strong, but it was stronger. I can’t remember who thought of that but key part of that, I’d like to say mask but it isn’t really, head, a key part of what that was, that we would light it from the inside. Very difficult to do, but gorgeous in the end. John’s patience with the fittings, we used to count the length of the fittings by how many cups of tea he had to have. So we’d say this is a five cup of tea, sorry John. Or this is only a one-er, a quickie. For him to stand around in his knickers with a head on for hours and hours. But we all loved working together, we’d all worked together on Gawain and it kept on going.

I’m not saying it’s always easy, I’m not saying it’s always a pleasure. Because it’s incredibly hard. I’ve got drawings of the Minotaur, this is how sad my life is, I’m sitting in bed waking up at night, drawing things I’m thinking, maybe that’s another way for it to go, how can we pull all this together and get this to be marvellous. I’ve just had the most fantastic time working with him, and we’re just about to do another one. Hooray.

BE: Finally, we were given a rare opportunity to speak to the composer himself. I found him in his London-based publisher’s office, on a rare trip out of his Wiltshire home. So let’s find out his thoughts on collaboration and whether he’s particular about who he works with.

Are you very picky, let’s put it that way, are you very picky about who you work with?

HB: Well I would be. I mean with David Harsent, we have a very interesting relationship in that sense, and it’s an understanding. We’ve got it very much at the moment, now. A good collaboration is a game of ping pong, or tennis. I have mentioned things to Alison about something which she will take on board, but she’ll take on board the essence, not the complete description. And if she doesn’t do it, it’s because she’s got a better idea than I do. In collaboration, you always want a good collaboration, is they give you something within the context of what you’re talking about, but even more. You do something you would not expect to be there. That has certainly happened in the production of things. I’ve seen productions of my things that could not be worse, but then I’ve got something. One time, two or three years back, I had two productions of Punch and Judy in London, exactly the same time. One production was very good, it’s an old production and I’ve seen it before, perfectly, really good. I think ‘oh God I’m not going to have to see another one’. It was so good, done at the Young Vic. Also it brought things into it that I could never imagine would be there. So there are good things and bad things. The point about the notes, the music, is formed, and the amount that you can do with that is pretty set. The rest of it is finding the truth of something and actually finding a way of saying what it’s about. Exactly what we’ve just been talking about.

BE: A different collaborator, one who might even be described as a muse, Sir John Tomlinson, who was obviously in Gawain and The Minotaur and other pieces. How did that relationship begin and what do you see in him, how do you write for him?

HB: We go back a long way, because he sang in the first production of Punch and Judy I think, I’m sure he did. I’m sure he’s on the recording anyway, I think that’s what it is, I think he’s on the recording. I think that I’ve had a sort of eye to the possibilities of things that I’ve done which were parts for him. I’m sure that it shows him in Gawain, but I think that in the case of The Minotaur, I’m sure that it was somewhere in my thing, that it’s a suitable thing for him to do. But to write for him, well it’s sort of him when you write for him. I don’t think specifically I, I like to think that I have good instinct for it.

BE: Is it nice having somebody else who’s involved is Martin Brabbins. Should it be taken for granted that someone understands your music, who’s experienced and you were saying right at the beginning of the interview about how your music should be heard a few times, is that the same from the performers and conductors point of view?

HB: You do get situations, not so much with conductors, I never know what conductors think, well I never know what some conductors think. One of the things that they have to.. You’ve got to have the psychology of the orchestra in that if they get the sense that the conductor’s not with the music then they’re not going to be with it. I’ve just had a performance in Ireland of Earth Dances. It’s one of the most difficult pieces of orchestral music ever written in some ways, but it was wonderful. I’m not saying that technically it was absolutely, because there wasn’t enough rehearsal, there’s never enough rehearsal. But it was certainly in the spirit of the music and played absolutely, I thought it was wonderful.

BE: Maybe compared to how you would hear it on the record, there’s just something, if they get it right, there’s just something electric in the room?

HB: Yeah. Well performance, you’ve got the word, there is an electricity. And you get a sense of the audience and it’s got to be there, there have got to be enough people.

BE: On the next edition we take a journey to the fabric of the music itself, and hear again from the composer alongside those who have first-hand experience of being inside the living and breathing form of its music. We hear amongst others from conductor Martyn Brabbins, on the composer’s legacy.

Martyn Brabbins: If you’re a composer or performer, you want people to listen to you, you want people to hear your music. So there will of course be a part of him that will be absolutely thrilled, he’s got such a lot of incredible, original music inside him. We should all be very proud to have him as a British composer, because he really is one of the greats now, he’s one of the elder statesmen of the musical world and we love him for it.

BE: I’m Ben Eshmade, thanks for listening to this archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. Here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts, with weekly episodes of archive finds such as this and themed series. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts, and if you can leave us a review, to help us get the word out.


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