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From the Archive: Harrison Birtwistle at 80 (part 2)

Nothing Concrete text
12 May 2021
31 min listen

This week, we look back to May 2014 and the second of two podcasts episodes which attempt to explore the music, the man and the myth of composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle, with a rare interview with the composer himself and the many musicians who surround him.

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 to May 2014 and the second of two podcasts episodes which attempt to explore the music, the man and the myth of composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle, with a rare interview with the composer himself and the many musicians who surround him.

Harrison Birtwistle: I’m not an architect. I make a scheme for a piece and if I have any originality in me it is about this thing, it is how time is expressed. The way in which I express it is to do with the gestures within the music.

BE: So let's continue our fantastical journey into the music of Harrison Birtwistle. We’ll dig into the tectonic strata of Earth Dances and count sheep with Yan Tan Tethera. Most importantly we’ll hear from those with first-hand experience of his music.

Singer Sir John Tomlinson.

John Tomlinson: There’s a lot of mystery about writing music. I mean, I sometimes wonder if the piece becomes bigger than anything that the composer might have conceived. I don’t know, honestly.

BE: Violinist David Alberman

David Alberman: One you’ve played his music before, I know he wants this bit that sounds like a scream really should be like a scream. This bit that sounds like a growl should be a growl, but equally this bit that surprisingly looks like a really sad, plaintive melody, that’s exactly what it is.

BE: Let’s continue now our interview with the composer himself in his publisher’s office in the West End of London. I spoke to him, trying to understand his long-handed approach to the music, how he often orders his routine and manipulates time.

I’m going to start with a typical day if that’s OK. Is there a typical day?

HB: Yes there’s a typical day at the beginning of the day, but how it develops usually is not typical, and there is no foretelling it’s fulfilment. Consequently in this what you’d loosely call creativity, you can’t take it for granted. So then you don’t know how the day is going to go. It depends where I am. I approach my work with trepidation or a sort of feeling I know what I’m doing. But it doesn’t take too long to know that you don’t know what you’re doing. It’s in a permanent process of making decisions and there are only so many decisions that you can make in a day. One is enough. But the other side of writing music is this question, because I live in the 20th Century not the 21st Century I don’t deal with a computer. So I have a lot of pencil work. In the sort of music that I write, it’s quite detailed and that so there’s a lot of, I think it’s called donkey work, which is actually copying. So that fulfils a certain amount of the day as well. I like to get it so that I’m not copying at the beginning of the day, because that’s negative. I find that there are one of two moments of golden moments at the beginning where I feel that I can make decisions, so I don’t want to be doing something which is purely mundane.

BE: Is there an aspect of daydreaming then?

HB: Daydreaming?

BE: How do you put yourself into the state of creativity?

HB: Oh I don’t know, I have no idea. With difficulty. I have no romantic notion about creativity or ideas or whatever. The word that’s banded around a lot when you read the pages of media, the word inspiration comes up a lot. Well I think it’s nonsense. To be inspired, I don’t know, maybe if I’m inspired I’m permanently inspired. But it’s not something, it usually passes as a way of filching somebody’s ideas when they talk about ‘oh I was inspired by’, they don’t mean that, they mean they took the idea and made it, hopefully, they make it something for themselves, I don’t know. You’re allowed to do that because history shows that you’re allowed to do that. It’s never an obvious thing, inspiration, if you want to use the word. I use it loosely, there’s inspiration whereby you consciously take something but then there’s inspiration which comes under the door in the breeze, which you don’t know, you suddenly or somebody might say ‘oh it’s rather like this’, I’m not sure.

BE: If not inspiration then influence? Is that a good way of describing it?

HB: Well that’s the same thing again, you can’t be, influence is something you have no control over. You see on the continent the thing that’s usually commented about my work is that it’s non-European and that it’s English. But whatever that is I have no idea. I read things about this, I think that you get hold of the idea, that it becomes something to write about and it becomes, it’s sort of given to the media in order to talk about it. But I’m not conscious, if there is such a thing like influence or culture, it’s something you can’t consciously belong to. It is you, or in a way, rather pretentiously, you make culture. But I don’t sit down in my desk in the morning and think here I go again, I’m an English composer, this is how I do it, it’s nothing to do with it.

BE: I suppose an interesting question is do you enjoy the process?

HB: You know when you’ve been doing it as long as I have, I enjoy the possibility, it’s possibility.

BE: Infinite possibility?

HB: Yes, realisation of when. It’s not a question of realising ideas, because realising ideas is an interesting question about what an idea is, because I find that to be confronted by a clear idea is that it disappears rather quickly in the course of doing it and it becomes something else. It has it’s own identity and the idea, I don’t whether you’ve experienced, well I know that you have, everybody does, is that you’re going to a place that’s in your imagination, you say, I remember as a child going on holiday somewhere, it grows up in your head. And immediately when you get there it’s not that place. And you know it’s a bit like that. That place in your imagination to some extent exists, but at the same time it loses it’s identity by the reality of the actual thing itself.

BE: I suppose leading on from that then, are you surprised by the music and the concept that you create as a whole by the end of the process?

HB: Depends by what. In a sense I’m, as it were striving towards something, is a thing is how continuity, of how time is expressed. I mean I’ve just written a piano concerto which lasts 25 minutes, and this continuity or discontinuity, the whole way the piece speaks, it’s like the journey of a novel. This is one thing that’s the most difficult aspect of the sort of music that I write, because the listener as a relation to it, is not like the information of popular music and maybe it’s something that you have to become familiar with, you have to hear it a few times to get the idea of it. This question about what my piece is about this very thing. That’s what keeps me awake at night, how I make, they’re not prescribed structures. I’m not an architect who makes a scheme for a piece. Because music and time has its own unique way of exploring, and if I have any originality in me, is about this thing, is how time is expressed. The way in which I express it is to do with the gestures within the music.

BE: You’re a series of interview put together to coincide with the Birtwistle at 80 series that took  part at the Barbican, from the 16th to the 30th May 2014. We next found ourselves in that year inside the Barbican itself to meet up with Professor Jonathan Cross who was involved in the Symposium and Study Afternoon.

BE: When I say the name Harrison Birtwistle, what comes into your head?

Jonathan Cross: Well immediately I think of music of immense power. It’s music that, for me anyway, speaks very directly. I remember my very first experience when I was a student of encountering some of his music was a piece that was written in the 1960s. In fact I remember it really vividly, called Verses for Ensembles, a friend of mine said ‘here you go, here’s a disc, listen to that’ and it kind of blew me away. I don’t think I really understood it at the time but I knew instantly that I was in the presence of something very important and very powerful.

BE: Slightly misunderstood?

JC: I don’t know whether misunderstood, I think as often with certain kinds of modernist music, audiences can be a little bit afraid of it because it doesn’t speak in entirely familiar ways. But I think if you give it time and prepare to go with it, it does speak. Particularly the operas have been to be extraordinarily successful in the opera houses. Works like Gawain that’s being played as part of this festival, The Minotaur have filled the Royal Opera House, which I think is very exciting.

BE: One of the pieces is Earth Dances and I think this is a good example, as well as a great musical ambition there’s this other aspect to a lot of his work which are these ginormous ideas.

JC: Yeah exactly, these ideas of myth and place, the idea of the ancient. I think that’s what’s for me one of the most powerful things about his music, it’s something that is very modern, very up to date, and yet at the same time can seem also ancient. He chooses these very ancient stories whether it’s medieval legend or Ancient Greek legend or ancient places like the prehistoric mound in Wiltshire, Silbury Hill, that he’s built a piece out of. And Earth Dances is another of these, that’s constructed with these ideas that are almost like ancient shifting strata in the earth. You know from it’s very opening low notes that you’re in for something big. It’s like the beginning of the Matthew Passion Bach, or the beginning of Beethoven 9th Symphony. It’s something quite monumental. And that kind of subject matter, those sorts of ideas, really appeal to him.

BE: As we've started talking about the performance of Earth Dances let's to take a side-step to discover more about this piece with London Symphony Orchestra violinist David Alberman and then a thought from the composer himself.

DA: When you do think about the Earth and what’s under our feet, and what’s a mile and two miles and 50 and 100 miles below our feet, you realise that any illusion that we have over control over the world or understanding of the world is just that, it’s an illusion. I love the way that you get very clear dance episodes coming in over these gargantuan passages which do feel dangerously out of control and that you can’t quite place why the dances are happening then and how this dance got to that dance and are we floating between the high parts and the low parts? We don’t always know. And to me that feeling, and it will, it shakes you up a bit, and I would say that’s a good thing. And take from it everything as it comes hurtling past you. You probably, even after you walk out of the hall, bits will be coming together out of your mind that you had no idea were connected and I like the way that the music has that effect.

HB: For instance I didn’t think of a title, Earth Dances, and then I’ll write a piece about this. I set down to write a piece which deals with stratification of simultaneity of different layers of material and there’s an analogy there between, a sort of fundamental analogy between the two things. Then you see the title finds itself. Very early on I wrote a piece called The Triumph of Time. Well I didn’t see a picture about, it’s a woodcut actually. I wrote a piece of music and saw this picture which is a procession. It’s a procession that’s led by an elephant. I said ‘well you know, this is like my piece’. Because obviously because this piece, and it’s an analogy, therefore he’s saying that time moves slowly and it’s to do with, it’s only when you get to know the piece that you can see that they’re passing a tree and the tree is in full flower and leaf on one side, and you can see as they’re passing it’s dead. It’s all about time and there are weigh scales and they’re equal. So I identified it, yes.

BE: Jonathan Cross added

JA: I think for his generation, I think he was the first certainly British composer that was thinking in new ways. There was this extraordinary coming together of composers in the 1950s in Manchester, what was then the Royal Manchester, now the Royal Northern College of Music. There was him, there was Peter Maxwell Davies, there was Alexander Goehr, and other very influential musicians too like Elgar Howarth, the conductor, John Ogdon, the pianist. They weren’t in London which I think is very significant. They were many of them like Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies, northern and Lancashire composers. They didn’t have quite that same tradition. These were grammar schoolboys, rather than the sort of privileged elite of previous generations. It was the excitement of the new, certainly in the 50s that really grabbed them.

BE: We continue to move through a cross-section of Harrison Birtwistle’s music. We move now from deep within the Earth to the shepherds high in the fields counting their sheep. On the 29th of May 2014, Birtwistle's Supernatural Opera Yan Tan Tethera was performed by Britten Sinfonia. Academic Jonathan Cross returned to tell me

JC: Well again you can see there the sorts of themes that he’s really interested in. You’ve got the nature, you’ve got the north versus the south, but you’ve got number and ritual. Number is actually very important to Birwistle. I’m very privileged to have been able to see some of the sketches for a lot of his work, they’re covered with numbers. If you like it’s the way that he works in order to generate his material. In work like Yan Tan Tethera they rise to the surface, this counting, this sort of ancient way of counting, yan, tan, tethera, pimp, goes on over and over and over again. Not only the numbers themselves but the way in which they’re said take on this kind of ritual dimension and structure the course of the piece in very interesting ways.

BE: Director John Lloyd Davies added

John Lloyd Davies: It grows out, in some ways, it grows out of his earlier pieces which were crossover music theatre pieces, which were theatrical, through-composed, through-sung but were not remotely like any other kind of music theatre. On the other hand there are very recognisable operatic aspects to Yan Tan Tethera, there are soloists, there’s a chorus, there’s an orchestra. There’s a through-line story, it’s a story which follows a kind of mythic form, it’s like a fairy tale which we vaguely remember but in fact we don’t quite know where it came from, but all sorts of echoes within the story remind us of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, or different kinds of stories where children or people are taken away and years later have to be freed from curses, or different kinds of imprisonment.

BE: So far on this podcast we've had the perspective of the academic, the musician and the director so let's move on to one of the most vital roles when bringing Birtwistle's music to the concert hall or opera stage, that of the conductor.

Birtwistle at 80 was opened with a concert hall staging of the composer's iconic opera of the 1990's, Gawain. This is performed by BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins, who has a long association with the composer. He joined me on the phone.

Martyn Brabbins: Harry’s music is multi-layered, it’s like three conversations happening in the room at the same time, each of them of equal importance or at least, from moment to moment, one of the conversations is more important than the other. And you have to coordinate all this multi-layered activity. That’s really something quite special for Harry’s music and it gives it it’s epic quality I think because there is a grandeur in Harry’s conception. An uncompromising, long term thinking that takes the listener on a very convincing but personal journey. Very demanding.

There’s definitely a very strong element to Harry’s music, very strong, driven pulses and very exciting percussion and brass effects. There’s a surface glamour and brilliance about his music, which is certainly one element. Contrasting to that and equally effective, he can write amazing melodies, I mean, not melodies a la Mozart or Rachmaninov, but nonetheless melodies that are absolutely inevitable in the journey they take. They can take a couple of minutes to get into the world of Harry. They can also take years for some people, but for me his world is very well worth visiting and I’m always excited at the prospect of conducting Harry’s music.

Incredible percussion tintinnabulation, this amazing combination of marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, cimbalom, harp, making its own mini orchestra. He creates an incredible sound world just in that. And then of course there’s the rest of the orchestra which is vast, including three tubas which is two more than is usual than in most, 99.9%, of symphonic music. So there’s an incredible range, range and variety of sound worlds that the listener can relish which I think they should. Sometimes there’s a tendency to be put off by the sheer, stark, demanding, uncompromising nature of Harry’s writing. But if you go along with it, if you let yourself go into that world, it’s absolutely all embracing.

BE: Is there a lot of trust between a conductor and a composer, especially when you’re performing new work?

MB: Well there has to be. I do take my responsibility to living composers very seriously. Partly I suppose because I trained myself for two years as a composer, I did a master’s in composition. At one point I was thinking that maybe that was the direction that I would travel in as well, I enjoy it, I find it very stimulating having a composer, a living composer, in the project that you’re doing and delivering their music to the public. There’s a good deal of collaboration and dare I say it, creativity, involved on the part of the conductor in bringing to life these black notes, black blobs on white paper. You do have to somehow try and get behind the though processes and what the composer was trying to achieve by writing the music in the way they do. And then there’s the technical and practical work of just putting the thing together. Especially with Harry’s music, it’s demanding, it’s very technically challenging, physically challenging, very long and involved. One has to concentrate very hard for long spans of time. When I say one, me and the hundred or whatever it is, musicians we have. It’s demanding and all-consuming activity. In the case of the BBC Symphony Orchestra of course, they’re well versed in Harry’s music and I’ve conducted several pieces of Harry’s music with them, so they probably more than any other orchestra in the UK, are familiar with the language, the style, what Harry’s trying to achieve. That’s not to say that doing Gawain, which they won’t have done before, is not going to be a challenge, of course it is. Somehow, one of the difficulties for orchestral musicians is complexity of the complexity if you like, and the different kinds of demands on them from minute to minute. The music changes rapidly so that the structure is very complex, and the details within the structure are also very complex, and it can be very exhausting to keep that level of concentration. We’ll be rehearsing for several days, for six hours a day, and some of the music is very loud, and that in itself can be quite oppressive for musicians, it affects them physically. So the conductor’s role is probably more complex than people believe, especially in rehearsal. In performance they expect what they see, it’s normal. Conductors stand in the front and get all the applause at the end and so on, the conductor’s the hero. But of course there’s a heck of a lot of just hard graft in putting this together and hard graft psychologically as well, because one has to constantly be aware of discontent or difficulties in sections, or something that people want to repeat, there are many things you learn over the years of experience. I’ve been conducting now for 25 years and I’m getting the hang of it, but it’s by no means simple.

BE: OK as the imaginary stage curtain is ready to close on this podcast series, we prepare to leave these unique, painstakingly built universes of sound and music. Let’s hear though one last time from the composer and his final thoughts, including that infamous pantomime horse.

Do you see certain stage directions? Do you see light or anything else as one complete package?

HB: I am sort of interested in the theatre of the impossible, in that. And I have very clear ideas but I would never venture to express them in a way of saying exactly what they are. So there’s a certain analogy between. I was working a few years back now at the National [Theatre] with Peter Hall, on the three last plays of Shakespeare and Alison Chitty, who’s designed a lot of my things, I said to her ‘Alison, is it possible to make a pantomime horse which is noble? You know, which you can actually get on it. Having said that, is it actually possible to cut somebody’s head off, and for him to pick it up and sing?’ And the answer to all these questions in theatre is anything’s possible. It’s the language of theatre and the trouble with today and with technology is that everything’s too easy. That’s right, there’s an element of why it’s successful, this puppet. It’s what people are interested in is this horse. It’s not real, but it’s making me believe what it thinks. So it’s that aspect of theatre that I am interested in. And what I’m more interested in now is a theatre of sort of small situations is you could have close-up, close-up in every respect, because in grand opera there is no close-up. And in theatre there is no close-up. So I’ve sort of been dealing with smaller things, where you can look at it in a different way with very few musicians, with one or two singers.

BE: Finally I asked Jonathan Cross if he would call himself a Birtwistle fan and what that could possibly mean and signify.

JC: Yes I love the idea of being a Birtwistle fan. A Birtwistle groupie. But it’s true, there aren’t so many composers who’s next work you really look forward to hearing, and a Birtwistle premiere is always a very exciting event. His music has changed over the decades. I first got to know it, heavens, yeah, in the early 1980s. In some ways it’s very different now to how it was in the 1980s, in other respects it hasn’t changed at all. I think it’s that consistency that I admire, but also his ability every time to find a new perspective on that. Again it might sound rather crazy to say it’s actually very simple music. The ideas that he’s dealing with, of ritual, of repetition, of pulse, of pitch focus, these are ideas that are present in so much music. In fact you can find very familiar structures from much earlier music in Birtwistle, whether it’s verse refrain pattern from songs, whether it’s recitative and aria that you find in opera, going back right back to the beginnings in opera, to Monteverdi and so on. So there’s an extraordinary simplicity there and therefore I think a great directness. Time and again, when I come back to it over the years it’s that that speaks to me most powerfully. The extraordinary thing is, he’s 80. It doesn’t seem like it, he’s writing more music now than ever. Well you know, Elliott Carter went on well into his hundreds, let’s hope Birtwistle does too.

BE: Thanks for listening to this second of two Birtwistle at 80 archive editions of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. This Barbican series is here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts with weekly episodes of archive finds 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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