The John Tusa Interviews
Transcript of the John Tusa Interview with Harry Birtwistle
In the second half of the last century, British musical life was dominated by the names of Benjamin Britten and later Michael Tippett. A generation behind was a trio of composers who'd met in the early 1950s at the Royal Manchester College of Music - Alexander Goehr, Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle.
Born in Accrington in 1934, Birtwistle entered the college as a clarinettist and initially kept quiet about his serious interest in composing. It was another decade, after further periods of study and making a living teaching and playing, that Birtwistle decided to concentrate on composition alone. Scores from the mid 1960s like Tragoedia and Punch and Judy marked him out as an independent voice and were the first major scores to draw on what have been the continuing interests of Greek theatre, myth and ritual.
In 1975 at Peter Hall's invitation Birtwistle became Music Director at the National Theatre appropriately at a time when he was mid-way through his then largest stage work The Mask of Orpheus. Three more operas have followed, Gawain, The Second Mrs Kong and The Last Supper and another is in its early stages. These have been complemented by a series of major orchestral scores confirming Birtwistle as the leading British composer, with conductors like Rattle, Dohnanyi, Boulez and Barenboim championing his works internationally and with honours and teaching positions at some of our leading musical institutions.But he refuses to compromise and audiences have yet to take his music to their hearts as they did with Britten and Tippett . They respect they have yet to love.
Harry Birtwistle talking about your work you've said 'my music always causes problems'. Do you enjoy that?
Enjoy is not the word. Surprised, because I don't know why there are problems. I don't understand what the problem is.
But there is a sense in which, and I think you've acknowledged it by saying, you have this interesting dual image at this stage in your life, the elder statesman, whom everybody wants to commission and also, the bad boy of music, the person whose music always causes, or usually causes controversy or problems.
Well I can only ask questions. I ask the question why is it music that always causes this, you don't really get it in the art world quite so much, and even if you do get the problem like the bed...
The Tracey Emin bed..
The Tracey Emin bed..... at least people are inquisitive about it. And the problem with music is, first of all you can't buy it and you can't own it, so it's very often a fait accompli that you go to the thing, so therefore you're trapped and you have to listen to it, and I think that is one of the problems about it, that you can't own it and you're trapped sitting there having to listen to it. But there are more interesting things about music and the comprehensibility of music, because I think the comprehensibility of music is really about tonality. Our ears are accustomed or conditioned by tonality. So therefore, if there is a piece of tonal music that we've not heard before, there is already something in which the journey of tonality helps you through it. Now if that doesn't exist, this different sort of journey, this different sort of continuity, I think it's more about that than if you like, the dissonant noises. I think that that people get lost in it. I think that's where the problem is. But I don't think that's unique to me.
Oh I wouldn't have thought by any means, because it's not as if you write atonal music, so ... far from it ...
Far from it, far from it.
So the problem can't lie there. And I am not casting you as somehow like being some kind of difficult, problematic composer, although some people no doubt would. It's an aspect of the...
I seem to be an emblem for that, ... that's when I say I can't understand it. Why me? Because it would seem that I am part of the establishment and yet the establishment doesn't know the music I write.
But which establishment? I mean you're part of the musical establishment, you're commissioned by Glyndebourne, you're commissioned by Covent Garden, you're commissioned by Berlin and all that, you're that bit of the establishment. I mean if you like, the social and political establishment couldn't be more confused and bewildered by what you write.
Yes, but I've heard people say that 'it sounds like a load of Birtwistle to me.' You know, that sort of thing. And the thing about the Proms for instance....
...to do with Panic.
Now I don't think it was Panic that was the problem there, it wasn't me. I think that any piece of modern music in that context, would have caused that sort of problem.
So the problem was not Harry Birtwistle the composer, but John Drummond the Director of the Proms for deciding that he was going to provoke the Last Night [laughs] audience by commissioning a piece from you. Let's blame it all on John.
That's not true either. I wasn't commissioned to write a piece for the Last Night of the Proms . And secondly, John didn't ask me to write a piece for saxophone. I had to go and see him in his office to solve this problem that I wanted to write this piece for John (Harle). And it wasn't until I had written quite a lot of it, that I was told it was going to be the Last Night of the Proms . So there was no sort of set up or trying to do anything.
This was not Birtwistle cocking a snook at the music-loving audience by writing something as provocative as he could?
I wouldn't know how to do that. And I wouldn't be interested in doing it. It's not what I am in the business of writing music about.
It would be a cheap gesture in any case, wouldn't it?
But I seem to remember after that, I think you said that you actually got hate mail didn't you?
Yes. I got a lot of letters. I got a lot of good letters as well. And the tabloid press got into it and I heard people denouncing it who hadn't heard it.
But did it upset you when you got the hate mail?
Not in the least. No. You can't be worried about that. I know what the issue is and I don't write music in order to irritate anyone. [laughter]
Let's go back to the very beginnings for a moment and the thing which pitchforked you into music, that was your mother insisting that you take up the clarinet. Did she have to insist or was it just a normal thing of a parent saying, I think you should have something to do with music, and learn the clarinet.
I think there were two things. It was the ambition of my parents to give me music otherwise I wouldn't have even known what it was, and secondly she said that she wanted me to do it to keep me off the streets because I lived in a working class area of Lancashire and I think she wanted me to be occupied in directions that she thought otherwise I would have been doing something else [laughs] so ...
Did you resist and say, oh mum that's not the sort of thing that all my friends are doing?
No. I understood it was a flute that I was going to be taught, and it turned out to be a clarinet. And as soon as I could read music, I wrote it, it seemed to be quite the natural thing to do.
What age was that?
Eight. Yeah Eight.
So you were writing pieces for the clarinet, you were writing songs or what?
I was writing music to play and of course the clarinet is a single line. And I think that that aspect of music is something that has carried me forward, that I identified in retrospect as being something of the way that I think about music. You know that it's not ... it doesn't sort of begin through harmony, it begins through a sort of linear idea about music.
Melody. Melodic. I think we could have a discussion about the difference between tune and melody, I mean ...
How are they different?
Well a tune is Lilliburlero with a beginning and an end, and a melody is something which is contour, so a tune can also be a melody.
And does lyrical then have overtones or is that just a more general description?
That's a description of melody, that it can be lyrical, yes.
And linearity, which is sometimes used, is that just a rather more technical word for looking at things in lyrical melodic ways?
Well it's more than that with me because it really comes back to what I was saying before about a very self- conscious attempt at a different sort of continuity. Because I'm very often asked, are you ever surprised at the music that you write? And I think that what the question means is that if you took a tranche of it, a slice of it, and listened to a moment, ... are you surprised at the noise it makes? And that, I am never surprised by that. But what I am surprised about, how things unfold in time, how things speak and how time works in music. And because that we no longer are restricted by this tonal procedure, this logic of tonality, then it's sort of open into make different sorts of continuity, and this is something that I have self-consciously attempted to take on. There are certain things in my music which, progressions if you like certain sorts of continuity which would be very difficult to have, if you had tonality.
Yes, but of course [over talking]
And this is what I'm free of.
This is what I feel I am free from, but I think you lose an awful lot through not having tonality as well.
Let's get back [laughs] to what you knew about this whole process when you were a young student at the Manchester College .
I didn't know anything about it. Absolutely nothing.
What did you know about composition then?
So why did you ...
I was a clarinettist when I was a student, I wasn't a composer. My colleagues, Maxwell Davies and Alexander Goehr were composers. I was a clarinettist, but I always knew that I was going to write music.
But did you admit it then to yourself or ...
I just sort of played around with it, as far as they were concerned. But I had written a huge amount of music before I became a student, this is the important thing. So consequently when I was confronted with official tuition if you like, I found it very difficult to compare what I did with what I was being taught, so I left off and waited until time elapsed and I could not be a student anymore and could get back to where I left off. [laughs]
And what was being taught, was it still essentially the pre-war English Pastoralist tradition, was that the atmosphere?
No, that wasn't taught either. I mean in England at that time, you were not taught composition, there was no composition being taught. Now I sort of feel that there is maybe too much composition being taught. [laughs] But to be a composer was something that....it was what Beethoven did, you know, it sort of happened somehow.
But did you consciously at that stage, I mean there you were, these young men, early 50s, post war atmosphere, very different world, a world opening out again ...
Absolutely fantastic because first of all, modern music was not played, so what was, it was all absolutely new and it was something that you became sort of involved in as a ... for me it was just extraordinary.
What were you hearing? What modern music was available?
None, nothing. I learnt my music from the Third Programme, you know. And also a lot of other things. If you ask me where I was educated, I would say the Third Programme, I remember hearing Beckett on the Third Programme.
Yes. [over talking]
You see I came into a world though of modern music. There was this sort of English pastoral thing ,... there was something that happened before the war and that we didn't have access to and it was called Hindemith and Schoenberg, but nobody really knew the difference between Hindemith and Schoenberg. I certainly didn't.
So what did you know of Serialism, as a student or say, just after you left the college?
I learnt Serialism from Sandy Goehr
At the college?
And what did you think of it?
Well I thought that it was another way of writing music, it was the future, and everybody thought that this was the future. I think there are two important things that have happened in the last century in the arts. One is Cubism. And one is Serialism. And you ignore them at your peril. I think that Cubism changed the way that we looked at the world and Serialism changed the way that we listened or thought about music. And even if you react to it and you write in C-major, it has had a huge influence on C-major really but it was something that I couldn't make work for myself.
Because you actually went to Darmstadt didn't you for what one...
I went to Darmstadt as a clarinettist, I went three times.
Your experience, your exposure to Serialism didn't make you think that that was the way for you to write music, is that right?
Well maybe for a short time, I thought that it was the way to write music, because that was the way that people wrote music then. But the problem applying it, to as it were, the music that I had in my head, I couldn't make a comparison between the music in my head and Serial music, I couldn't make Serial music be what I was looking for.
That must have been very brave mustn't it to say, I know what the sound of my music is, and there's everybody else applying these incredibly persuasive systems, but that is not for me because it won't allow me to reveal what I can hear?
That's right, it wouldn't.
That's very brave.
Well I don't know whether it's brave. I don't think there was any alternative. It seemed to me that it was simpler for me to, as it were, improvise, to improvise a chord that I liked, you know, that was directly from my subconscious state if you like or whatever. I would play a chord and I would think, well this is quite interesting, this has something in it which is of interest to me. And then to put that under a microscope or to look at it and see what it was made of and what were the things in it, always seemed to be made of inconsistencies and whereas in Serialism, it was the opposite. I could never make these chords with Serialism without cheating. So...
[laughs] And what is the point of cheating?
Well what is the point of cheating. So, if I make a chord, if I say that, you know, this is ... this seems to me the chord that I like, then I can commit that to analysis and I can make more of them. I found a way of then proliferating the situation, of a method of composition if you like, - I would hate to think that I have a method of composition because it is something that happens, is quite ephemeral what I do, I'm doing one thing one day and a year later it's ... I noticed that it's not quite what I'm doing before. So there is a sort of process of change of the way and it's never like a sort of light in the sky, like a bolt from the blue and oh, that's an interesting idea. It sort of creeps in, in the way that I do things, and then over a process of time, if you come back to my chord I then realised that what it was, was a sort of modality, like a sort of thing which was to do with situations which have like increments, which have more of one thing than another. And I think that that is why modal music sounds like it does, if you like, like a pentatonic scale that has a certain flavour. So I suppose that what I am is a sort of a modal composer, but a mode in the sense that it's to do with hierarchys if you like, you know, more of one thing than another.
And that could be anything from volume to instrumentation, to orchestral colour, anything like that.
And that's where it becomes a formal thing, that's where it starts to become a sort of system.
But it's your system driven by the particular circumstances in which you're composing?
Yes. And it never came out of an academic situation, nor have I ever done anything apart from using these methods of composition to express ideas. I mean the idea comes first and then I look for the material to express it. I haven't got a book in which I sort of look back and think, well how do I do this. But the biggest thing that I found, the most important thing, apart from pulse, is that I realised that the pitch instance, pitch instance is A or B, which is the essence of Serialism, was the problem, in that for me, what was more interesting, was the interval. That the interval has a definite character, it comes down to the mode, comes down to the pentatonic scale. The pentatonic scale is a scale of limited intervals. And intervals are the things that are flavours, a minor third is a very specific interval, an augmented fourth is a very specific interval and so in thinking in intervals, more than pitches, this is where a whole vista opened for me.
Can I just clear one thing up? That you've never had any impulse to follow directly in anything connected with the classical disciplines. Sonata form doesn't mean anything to do, symphonic form doesn't ...
No. No, because it doesn't have any direct reference to the music I write and I have a problem with music that apes as it were, Sonata form and then is not tonal. You see I think it goes through the motions of music.
It's another set of rules. A set of rules that we're familiar with but...
It's a set of rules that we're familiar with, but the interesting thing for me is to make forms which are in a sense unique, in a sense where the music speaks in a different way, so it's a different sort of continuity.
Well you've come to this gradually, progressively, over many years. I think somebody ... and I think you have said that the moment that you began to appreciate that you could write the music that you wanted to write, that you were profoundly affected by Messiaen and the Turangalila Symphony. When I first read that, I thought, I can think of few works that I would associate with Harry Birtwistle [laughs] less than the Turangalila Symphony so what did that Symphony, what did Messiaen do for you?
Well you see it is not Messiaen directly. You see up there is a picture of John Wayne in the corner.
This is the music room where you write, and it's right above one of your latest scores. John Wayne.
Yes. John Wayne in Stagecoach. Now, people have been in here and said, why are you interested in John Wayne? I'm not interested in John Wayne as such, what I am interested in, is that moment in that cinema, in that film, that moment - his entry in that movie is for me, a very interesting moment, ... how things are introduced, how things gather. And that moment is extraordinary. And Messiaen to me is rather like that. The first Messiaen that I heard, I thought, there is another way of writing music. And he sort of explained it. I think that I performed in the first performance of the Quartet for the End of Time, and ... but at the beginning of the Quartet for the End of Time, is that little sort of chart about rhythm and that. And, that was pretty moving because I thought , it sort of gives you courage, you're not sort of quite sort of feel, what have I been on about, somebody else is doing it, maybe there is something there.
This was Messiaen's own way through, without anybody else's rules, his own way of writing music?
Yes. I'm mean to talk to him about it, to listen to him talking, you'd think that he was in the tradition of music from the beginning of time, but he really did invent a sort of music in one go and he was still doing the same thing at the end of his life. I mean he managed to shuffle the cards in different ways and make it, but you know, the melodies he invented were ... there were melodies at the beginning were the same melodies at the end.
Let's talk about theatre and the huge role that theatre and writing for theatre has had. Punch and Judy, 1967 I think it was and Aldeburgh, your first major work, music theatre, not opera. What was the real driving impulse behind that?
Well there are certain things, which were inside the music, which I thought could manifest themselves in a theatrical context, that you know, it was a natural extension. That's one thing, that's purely a musical thing. But because of the sort of music I was writing, it also suggested a sort of theatre. If you have a narrative, a linear narrative, linear narrative requires a particular sort of music. Now, I was not writing linear music.
And you weren't writing narrative music either were you?
I wasn't writing narrative music either. So, that suggested a sort of theatre, so that's what one aspect of it. But there is another aspect of it, is that right from the beginning of my ... from the beginning of my childhood I suppose, theatre was pretty important to me because I used to play for the amateur dramatics. I mean, I would be obviously older than that, but probably sort of 12 or 13 and the amateur dramatics, they had musicals, Bless the Bride and there's one about a Mounty.
Rose Marie, that's right. Gondoliers, you know, and that sort of thing.
And that ignited your feeling ...
No No Nanette
...that when something happened on the stage there was a sort of magic.
There's that side of it. And it always happened before Christmas. And there was a time when the pantomime came and the pantomime was a sort of fourth rate pantomime and the amateur dramatics always had a professional orchestra, I don't know why. Professional in the sense that we were paid. So when the pantomime started, I was asked to join the pantomime. And that was really extraordinary because it was a sort of theatre that was from the Music Hall tradition really, and that you were given a book and it wasn't clarinet and saxophone parts, it was just a book with music. And they sort of put it together and you played what bit you liked and you learnt to play it from memory. And there were all sorts of devices, I remember they used to shout, 'happy for tabs'. Now 'happy for tabs is' [singing] I want to be happy. [laughter] And he'd just shout it. The band would play it you see, and everybody ... and that would get them off. And as the season went on, fewer people came and the band [laughs] got smaller and I was left in the end seriously with the bass player, a drummer, a saxophone player and me. And I was just a kid. And it would run, we would do about a month I think, a week before Christmas and then about three weeks after until it sort of packed up.
I think the wonderful thing about this is that it shows that what a child, what a young person takes in, it almost doesn't matter. It doesn't have to be serious. It doesn't have to be listening to Beethoven or anything like that, but you're made of this. Heaven knows what, it's just incredibly rich load of experience.
Oh yeah it really was. I think I only understood the experience in retrospect, but nevertheless, I do think it was a major influence on me.
But I suppose there.. what you had was ritual, i.e. the ritual that you were always doing things before Christmas. You were doing the mythical, all the Harlequin element of music hall.
......all things that we now analyse in an over intellectual way, but were part of your living experience .
And also a roughness, you know, there's a sort of roughness that I quite liked. Something slightly raw and like theatre probably was a long time ago.
Of course, theatre wasn't raw when you went to the National Theatre, and by that stage ......
Well, some of what I did was.
Which bits of it were raw?
Well I think when I did the Oresteia that was pretty raw.
There was a lot of music that you wrote for that wasn't there, several hours? [unclear]
And was that written down?
Well it was, and wasn't. Yes and no and, not in the way that I do this.
So it doesn't exist as a set of scores or anything like that?
No. It was in the process of being notated and it disappeared.
But that roughness of making things up therefore, and you were making things up with the musicians and the actors at the time.
I mean, do you think that that was a not so conscious evocation of your experiences as a 12 year old in the pit for the music?
Maybe. It's just a different way of working because the theatre works in a completely different way. I mean, I was talking to you before about writing opera and that opera companies, and you said, when are you going to write your next piece, and I said, well they talk in ridiculous terms, like 2012 or something which doesn't mean anything. The interesting thing about the theatre is that they only know what they're doing tomorrow. And you go in and in eight weeks you have a piece. And so consequently I can't have the situation where I sit here and write it out and then turn up and say, so this is the music. You know, you can't have that relationship with theatre.
But you clearly [over talking]
You have to go in with your two boots, with your wellies and do it and there are ways of doing it.
But so while you were doing this incredibly informal, spontaneous, rapid, journalistic, theatrical work at the National Theatre you were also struggling, because you were struggling, with your first really big opera, the Mask Of Orpheus.
Yes. Same time.
Now how did those two processes, the instantaneous and the very considered, how did they work together or not work together?
Well, they are two separate things. I mean there are certain things which are cross-referred. There are things which relate. I think, that one does influence the other. I mean the directness of it is something which is important, particularly in opera. And I think that what I brought to the National Theatre, I like to think that what I brought, was a sort of formality which music can describe ... it can underline and underpin a formality in the theatre which is something which is part of my armoury, which I think that I can bring to it.
But at the same time, it took you what, five, six years to write the Mask of Orpheus.
Well it was ten years in writing it from beginning to end, but it took me five years to write it.
Now did that reflect huge difficulties in doing so, rather than just the complexity of the score and its length?
No, just time. I gave off in the middle because ... I mean it wasn't going to be performed and I said, well I'm not going to finish it unless it's going to be performed and then it was performed.
Did you think at the time ...
I picked up the threads, and I remember it was like doing research into some sort of obscure sort of Egyptian papyrus when I came back to it. I unfolded these things and of course I'd changed in the meantime, you don't just pick it up and think, I'm the same person as I was five years ago, and I find in my continuity of my work here, I find it very hard to lay off. I can only believe in what I'm doing for the moment. If I get to a point in my work where I think I know where I'm going and I go away and leave it, and I come back, I very rarely continue in the way that I thought I was going to continue.
So the moment you have some sense of certainty or predictability, you think, forget it I've got to keep on surprising myself.
Yes. I mean, very often I can't understand why, but I will very often if I ever need a solution to something, and I find it, I walk away.
Looking around and we are in your work room and by the by you use the word work, so ...
So you think of it as work, rather than, it's the most wonderful thing I want to do and every morning I get up and.....
It's the most terrifying thing to do. It causes me a great deal of pain and I am not being romantic, or you know the artist must suffer. I'm not into that syndrome. I worry a great deal. [laughs] Keeps me awake at night. I dream in the abstract - can you imagine that? Can you imagine sort of cogs, wooden cogs that are meant to fit, but don't. And then you try to put them in another way and they don't, and it's like sort of difficult to describe but it's a sort of abstraction, it doesn't ... it's not a sort of psychodrama ...
Do you solve anything in those dreams?
Do you find the result of what the mind thinks and say, ah, it fits.
So looking around here, your scores, written in darkish pencil, they look terribly neat, but what have you had to do before you put pencil to paper and are there actually all sorts of rubbings out which I can't see?
There is a pile of paper there which are the notes for this. And what you're looking at is a finished thing. So there's one, two, three, four, four journeys until you get to what you see there. And even in doing that, I will change things.
Four journeys in the sense of four attempts at a solution?
Well, one is a sort of shorthand, one is a sort of ... you sort of gradually bring it into focus and there are certain logistical problems to do with ... an orchestra is a much smaller place than you think. There are never enough instruments. I don't mean to make more noise. So it's always a situation of compromise.
And the piece that you've got here is a commission from The Cleveland Orchestra?
Yes, which is going to be performed in January in Cleveland and in New York .
Does it matter that it's a commission? Of course, what is fun is that it's money and you know it's going to be played and so on and so forth, but does it actually have any effect on your creative process?
No. No, it doesn't. I try to make my commissions be what I want to write next and I've been lucky in my life in managing to do that and if a commission comes along and it doesn't fit into a sort of context, I sort of then will put it on, as it were, on the back boiler and hope that by doing something else, then it will come, then it will have a context. But this piece is a dark nocturne. It's the ultimate nocturne.
Very dark and very slow.
Yes. It's getting faster the other day. It started getting on ... something it started doing which I never thought it would, it started ticking.
This is Harrison 's Clocks coming back to haunt you?
Well maybe it is, it's like a sort of something, I don't know. Now it does sound as if by me saying that I have no control over the thing, but what I can never do in writing a piece is have a sort of pre-compositional scheme. I can't be an architect and then, you know, then you build the building.
I thought you did a lot of working out with numbers and having a lot of very formal sketches?
Yes, but that's to do with the moment, it's not to do with the superstructure of the piece. It's not to do with the journey of the piece, it's only to do with the detail of the piece.
Now, you pointed and here they are by my side, to the pages with the preliminary sketches on, and you talk a lot on occasions about the resemblances or not between composing music and painting and that you envy people like Cy Twombly, Bacon, Jackson Pollock, who can put their intuition directly onto the canvas, whereas you've said that's not something composers can do. 'What I'm mainly doing', you've said in the past, when it comes to writing, 'is technical, technical, technical.' And god knows one can sympathise.
Yes. Because there is no equivalent in music of being able to take a big brush and make a gesture and see what the effect is.
A big noise needs particularly detailed working out.
You build it up by pebble, by pebble, by pebble.
And do you know when you start, how big a noise you want it to be? In other words you have no idea how many pebbles you're going to load on at any particular time?
No. But at the same time, the thing about spontaneity, the sort of spontaneity that I'm talking about, heaven forbid that I would want to take a big brush and do that, but there are people who have done that, the actual amount of time it takes, is the opposite to spontaneity. Because the initial thing is that you might want this gesture, but then you have to start with your Leggo and then you build it up and build it up and build it up and so consequently, the next bit of spontaneity, is a long way from the last one. I mean just look at that piece of page there. It takes about ten seconds.
And to write?
Yes. So how do you keep ... I mean I think the other word you use is intuition, I mean you have an intuition about what the music ought to be.
About timing yes.
And by the time you've ground it out in this meticulous detail, the times when you look at it and you say, the detail is so great that there is no life in it?
Well maybe. I don't know until I hear it. My big neurosis with this piece, my night vigils if you like, is the fact that it's a slow piece and being brave, if you like, of keeping it like that. Of not wanting to make it a bit more interesting, by saying, move it on a bit here. You've got to sort of keep your eye on the ball I think ... that's the risk I'm taking.
It's interesting what you said, because somebody to whom you taught composition said, Harry is very practical, he'll say things like, have you tried making it louder.
But what you've just said about your piece is that you avoid that because just reaching for a formal trick like that, would actually undermine the basic purpose of the piece.
Yes. But if I said to a student, make it louder. I mean one of the things I have found out about students is to make them realise, and identify what the idea is, you know and very often they are dealing with things that they've never identified. And so, I also might say, don't make it louder, why don't you just keep it like that. But this question of the analogy between painting and music, I don't really think there is one. You see if you look at my pictures that I have in that room, they're minimal pictures. Now the equivalent in minimal, it comes back again you see, that what would be the equivalent?
The equivalent to your music?
Yes, or any music. There was a student who wrote a piece called Barnett and it was influenced by Barnett Newman and he came in with this big score, this beautiful white paper and turned it and there was a list of instruments down the left-hand side. Not a note on the page, just barlines. Okay? [laughter] Turn the page, nothing. Nothing. Nothing on the page. So at about page ten, the whole orchestra played, bbaaagghhh! [laughter] And then it stopped. Now, the equivalent in music is a negative equivalent. What he hadn't understood is that all the white pages should have been filled. He should have written white noise. He should have done something and started, and done something that represented whatever that was and then when he got to the loud noise, it would have been sound because that's how music works.
Yes. Painting a perilous analogy. [laughter]
But the art that you've got, as you say is Minimalist. But Minimalist music has nothing to say to you does it? Or you for it?
What we call minimalist music doesn't mean anything. I find it very simple minded. I mean the only true minimalist is Webern, that's what I would call minimalist music. And the equivalent to the minimal painting that I have, I would like to think it has more in common with Webern than with minimal music, with Steve Reich.
Why do you think it's so popular?
Well because you don't have to listen to it. My problem with it is, is that because it goes through a process, is that my brain gets there before the music does. You know for me it's like waiting for a bus. (laughter) I mean I can understand it in this sort of dazzily way, this superficial... and that it's a complete reaction to Webern. I mean Webern was the great influence I think of the twentieth century, maybe more so than Stravinsky. And it's the opposite to that. I think it's a total reaction to that aspect of thinking about music.
You have this very clear sense or an evolving sense that the music that you have write, when it comes to a major collaboration, such as working with a librettist... a writer, an author, poet, somebody with their own artistic integrity, how much of a problem is this and how does that tension, if it is a tension, work?
Well it depends how the text works, about what the text is. If the text is conventional in the sense that it's linear, a linear text, then it's difficult. But if you do something like I did in the Mask of Orpheus which is something I intend to pick up again and it is something that I feel that I have not really exploited enough, is the question that if you're dealing with a Myth and you're dealing with a known subject matter, then you can deal in the elements of it in a musical way. For instance, if somebody is in the Underworld and looks back, you know exactly what that means and that if you know that it's Orpheus, even if you started an opera on Orpheus with somebody looking back you know exactly what it was. So therefore, you're free of the subject matter so there is a known quantity before you go to the piece. I can see no point in composers who just simply set, you know, a play to music. For me, that is just something else to applaud. It's just making a sort of modern equivalent of what already exists. Because opera is not in our vernacular anymore, it's not ... the cinema is the thing that is the thing. So for me in working in the theatre or working in opera, it has to be something about opera, not the subject matter is incidental - it has to take on the form, because it's a unique thing. It's something unique within the nature of theatrical expression. But if we had time, I could tell you of a project that I have, that I have started working on, and I've already spent a week on it and I was given the facilities at the National Theatre to work on it. The way that I'm trying to do it is not with a text and somebody writing it and then me setting it. What I am doing, is I am going to make a scenario, I am working through a storyboard without any text and using actors to do it and then I'm going to make that, I'm going to write the music to that, so that all the timings, the whole question of timings and the length of things and that, that's going to be my scenario and text is only going to come into it where it is necessary.
Yes, but the text in that case will be predetermined by what the actors evolve?
That's right yeah.
And then looking ahead still further, another opera on another absolutely key classical myth, the Minotaur.
Well there again it's the same thing because I want to assume that we know what the story is before we get there. But I have an interesting idea about this. To use the idea of a labyrinth as a metaphor, as a musical metaphor so that within the piece, we might begin and go to the end three times, so the opera will begin three times and end three times, but in the course of the journey through it, we will touch on different aspects of the narrative.
And dead ends as you would in a maze.
And dead-ends or whatever, yeah.
So you're carrying that around, that idea....
......is at some level of your mind, while you're working on other pieces.
Yes, it's not simply a question of thinking of an interesting story to tell. It's really an interesting story to re-tell and something where I can deal with my preoccupations as a composer of pure music in the theatre. So the same journeys that I make through a piece of music, I can make in the theatre. Now, this idea of going through this labyrinth three times, has come out of my musical thinking. It's not ... you know, I didn't think of it as a theatrical idea, I first thought of it as a musical idea. And it's kind of interesting isn't it, that you might be able to begin and end a piece three times.
Harry Birtwistle, thank you very much .
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