Birtwistle + myth

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First published by English National Opera, October 2019

“Start with the note ‘e’, and you don’t have to make the decision. It’s as good a place to start as any. Then if you write ‘d’, you know where you stand in relation to ‘e’.”

Start with a myth. Harrison Birtwistle often does. The myths he chooses aren’t always simple, the music he writes definitely isn’t simple, but the choice of subject matter, he says, is very simple. He goes for stories that have always been there. Like one note’s relationship to its neighbour, the knownness of a myth is an anchor that lets him roam. “When telling a myth,” he says, “tell a famous one. So everyone already gets what it’s about. That allows me to use the music to do what I would do anyway. It allows me to go for it.”

That’s one explanation for it. Since his earliest pieces, Birtwistle’s music has been a place for gods, monsters and earthy archetypes. “Well, give me another subject!” he retorts when asked: why myths? “What do you want me to write about otherwise? Sentimentality?!” That last word dropped like it’s contaminated. Time and again, he has returned to rituals rough and divine, exploding or rerouting those rituals along the way, merging primitive rites with exquisitely distilled moments of love or violence. He has made pieces out of bible stories (The Last Supper) and mummers tales (Down by the Greenwood Side). He has made brutal characters out of puppets (Punch and Judy), folk balladry (Bow Down, setting the staggeringly cruel Two Sisters), old English legends (Gawain) and newer cinematic legends (The Second Mrs Kong). He’s written cameos for satyrs (the unbound solo saxophone of Panic) and for singing sheep (Yan Tan Tethera). Sometimes, his beasts have a humanity so unexpectedly tender it makes us weep (The Minotaur).

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Interview: Iván Fischer

First published by BBC Music Magazine, November 2019

When Ivan Fischer conducted Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in New York a couple of years ago, a flashmob of local students stormed the stage. They took up positions around the orchestra and joined in the last movement. A similar thing happened during performances of Beethoven’s Ninth, except this time it was an undercover chorus that sprang up from among the audience. “It’s the true meaning of these symphonies,” Fischer smiles, recalling the reactions. “The energy of the crowd, the euphoria. In conventional concerts it’s hard to achieve because these symphonies have become a bit predictable. But a hundred students storming the stage? A tenor or a soprano popping up beside you and starting to sing? The audience thinks, “it might be me!”, and that makes a collective buzz, and that is not predictable.”

The conductor makes his points precisely, playfully, without hurry. He’s a spry 68, sipping an espresso and ruffling the ears of a fat labrador that wont leave his side for the duration of the interview. I’ve come to Fischer’s house in south-west Berlin, where the ground floor features a harpsichord and a Bosendorfer grand (on the music stand: Mozart piano sonatas and the jazz standard Real Book) and up several flights is a Japanese-style meditation room with low lights and a shoes-off policy. Today it’s hot, and Fischer ushers me into the leafy garden where a trio of pet tortoises called Hector, Daphne and Pandora roam the foliage. Berlin is one half of Fischer. It’s where he raises his young children with his wife, the flutist Gabriella Pivon, and where he’s music director of the city’s Konzerthaus. The other half of him happens in his home town of Budapest, where he remains music director of the remarkable ensemble he co-founded 36 years ago. He doesn’t do much guest conducting nowadays, preferring to focus his energies on long relationships with musicians who ‘get’ the way he works: more on that to come.

The Budapest Festival Orchestra is Fischer’s petri dish. Stage invasions and choral popups are commonplace in this orchestral laboratory. Concerts routinely involve rogue spacing, placing and personnel. A rank-and-file horn player might find herself standing front of stage during a symphony, emphasising some usually-ignored inner line. The audience might end up on beanbags beside the players’ feet for true surround-sound. The whole orchestra might sing an encore rather than play it. The experiments are fun and freeing, and they keep musicians and listeners alert.

[…]

For the full interview, see BBC Music Magazine November 2019 edition

Interview: Missy Mazzoli on Breaking the Waves

First published in the Guardian on 16 August, 2019

Breaking the Waves is one of the most brutal, probing and provocative films ever made about Scotland. It’s also one of the most impressively silent. Lars von Trier’s 1996 breakthrough portrays an insular Hebridean community that is fiercely defensive of its values in the face of incomers and offshore oil development. The elders wield religious dogma in an attempt to protect a young woman, Bess McNeill, but their collective care pivots into tyranny and their fear turns xenophobic. Bess (played with galling vividness by Emily Watson) marries an oil worker called Jan; he becomes paralysed after an accident on the rig then instructs Bess to keep their relationship alive by having sex with other men and telling him about it. Von Trier shows it all in bleak, intimate and savagely quiet detail. With the exception of chapter interludes charged with 1970s rock (Procol Harum, Roxy Music, Elton John) there’s no music underscoring the austere camerawork. We feel the silent scrutiny of an island with no bells in its church steeple: the elders physically removed them and drowned them in the sea.

What happens when you add sound to such formidably oppressive filmic hush? It took New York composer Missy Mazzoli years to answer that question. “My librettist Royce Vavrek suggested the idea of making an opera out of Breaking the Waves in 2013. I said absolutely not – I thought the film was untouchable,” she tells me at the rehearsal studios of Scottish Opera, whose new production of Mazzoli’s acclaimed opera opens in Edinburgh this month. “But it was a question that wouldn’t leave me alone. The film deals with big ideas about the nature of loyalty, the nature of faith. Opera is a place for big ideas.”

The film is packed with classic operatic trademarks. The devoted, mistreated woman – fixture of Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti. The woman who sacrifices herself for the salvation of a man – Wagner’s redemptive heroines. The seething small-community groupthink to a backdrop of menacing, hallowed seascapes – think Peter Grimes of the north. Mazzoli recognises the weight of that lineage but her broad, brooding post-minimalism carries it lightly.

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Interview: Jonathan Dove

First published in BBC Music Magazine, July 2019 edition

“I should have probably cleaned what looks like blood off my hands before the photoshoot!” Jonathan Dove has been correcting scores in red ink, and he apologises for the not-blood-stains on his fingers. We’re at his kitchen table in Hackney: a sparse and stylish apartment where the main event is a handsome grand piano. Dove pours out tea (rooibos earl grey) from a technical-looking teapot into mugs printed with a line of music from his latest operatic comedy, Marx in London. “Opening night gifts for the crew,” he explains, with a smile that acknowledges the irony of Marx-themed merch.

Dove, one of Britain’s most compelling, accessible, prolific and socially engaged opera composers, is turning 60. It’s standard etiquette to say that someone doesn’t look a certain age but he genuinely appears decades younger. We’ll come to the subject of birthdays and celebration and retrospection, but the most immediate concern is sitting in front of us on the table. It’s his latest album – a collection of orchestral music performed by the BBC Philharmonic and featuring two major works relating to climate change.

Hojoki (2006) is a piece for orchestra and countertenor about a 12th century monk who experiences extreme weather events – “the kind we know we’re going to get more of in coming years,” says Dove. “Earthquakes, draughts, fires. All of the predictions are coming true faster than anyone thought they would.” Gaia Theory (2014) was inspired by the writing of James Lovelock, veteran ecologist whose core assertion is that the earth behaves as a self-regulating organism and maintains surface conditions that are favourable for life. Lovelock describes us all being locked in a dance in which everything changes together, and Dove’s musical response is accordingly vital and optimistic.

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For the full interview, see BBC Music Magazine July 2019 edition

Stockhausen syndrome: men-turned-myths in classical music

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First published in the Guardian on 21 May, 2019

Surely we’ve learned by now: things get dangerous when we make myths out of men. This week, the Southbank Centre presents a huge opera by Karlheinz Stockhausen – self-mythologiser extraordinaire who had entrancing charisma, bullish intelligence, no shortage of game-changing opinions, no shortage of confidence with which to assert them. A guru with disciples and rivals. A magnetic teacher with major institutional clout to play with – king heavyweight at the heaviest-weight new music school in post-war Europe. Students worshipped him. He himself fostered a personality cult that went way beyond the music to encompass fashion, spirituality, even a galactic origin story. Isn’t this precisely the artist-as-hero narrative we need to dismantle? When do we quit indulging one man’s outlandishly supersize phantasmagorical credo?

Matched in musical-myth-mania perhaps only by Richard Wagner, Stockhausen is the ultimate conundrum for those of us who believe keenly in shifting classical music culture away from its alpha-male genius complex – but are still enthralled by the music. Do we get to have it both ways? I’ve laid under the stars in a park in Oslo watching the epic theatrics of Stockhausen’s Sternklang with its astral emissaries dressed all in white. I’ve dragged myself out of bed at 5am to experience a dawn performance of Stimmung in the woods outside Darmstadt. This week, I’ll be at the Royal Festival Hall for the first UK performance in my lifetime of Donnerstag from the gargantuan opera cycle Licht. I find his quasi-religious symbolism basically tedious, and I’m furious that German white men still dominate the classical music cannon at the expense of other essential voices. But I still want to hear his music, and experience the weird collective abandon it permits. The key is sidestepping the cult of Karlheinz.

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Interview: Mark Simpson

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First published in BBC Music Magazine, June 2019

“The act of writing music – I find it overwhelmingly difficult. Painful. Dark.” Not the statement you might expect from one of the UK’s most abundantly gifted classical musicians. Mark Simpson is so effusively, so urgently talented that he could have chosen either of two world-class careers. Instead – after being thrust into the limelight aged 17 when he simultaneously won the BBC Proms/Guardian Young Composer of the Year and the BBC Young Musician competition as a clarinettist (he wrote himself a piece for the semifinal) – he chose both. In conversation his mind overflows with ideas and his words race to catch up. He flings references across the table: cultural theorists, digital poets, Victorian occult writers, 16th century mystic nuns. His clarinet playing is similarly loquacious. Surely he can compose just as thick and fast?

“Yeah, sure I could,” he acknowledges, “but it would be crap music, and what would be the point of that? I could sit and write – it would come out – but no way would it would have the emotional depth I’m after. I don’t like superficial music. I don’t like facile music.” Besides: on the day I visit him at home in South London, Simpson’s concerns are elsewhere. On this particular afternoon – though I suspect not only on this particular afternoon – the 30-year-old Liverpudlian is grappling with an existential angst surrounding all contemporary classical music whose weight he feels on his shoulders every time he starts a new piece.

“The state of mind I have to be in before I even allow myself to even trust myself… it’s wrought with a lot of existential woe,” he says plainly. “I have to suffer to the point where I can no longer take it, and then I allow myself to write.” When it comes to the writing, he doesn’t have “elaborate systems or techniques,” he tells me, almost apologetically. “Some people will start with two or three precise notes and work outwards. I’m at the opposite end of the spectrum. I’ll see and feel the whole piece in its essence before I’ve written anything. It’s dark. It’s like a dark, deep expressive thing. It’s there, and I don’t know what it is, but it cries out with pain. That’s the emotional rawness I need before I even get going.” A traumatic work cycle, borderline paralysing, but over the past decade Simpson has come up with plentiful strategies to overcome it, and the strength of the music is proof that those strategies work.

For the full interview, see BBC Music Magazine, June 2019 edition 

Interview: Pekka Kuusisto

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First published in The Herald on 21 March, 2019

“I would say that the monstrous conductors, the really mean bastard conductors…” Pekka Kuusisto pauses to choose his words carefully. “Well, at least maybe there was a clarity to that role. Everyone in the orchestra knew exactly where he stood in relation to the mean bastard conductor: he became a common enemy. It’s going out of fashion, thank goodness, but the question then opens up of what kind of relationship should replace it. And that is a really interesting and actually very exciting question.”

Kuusisto is a poster boy for the new guard in classical music. Not just in terms of the contemporary music he plays, or his integration of non-classical music into his programmes – though he does all that brilliantly. It’s also about his approach to core classical repertoire. A violinist of elite international credentials (Indiana University, Bloomington; first Finn to win the International Sibelius Violin Competition) Kuusisto is now also a conductor, composer, folk musician, improvisator, curator, and generally one of the most holistic and politically engaged musicians in the business. For 20 years he curated a chamber music festival on the shores of Lake Tuusula in Finland, where programming included Amnesty International spokespeople and indie rock singers alongside Bach and Sibelius. It was the kind of lateral approach to programming that makes us listen afresh – that can’t be faked, can’t be forced and has been way too slow catching on elsewhere.

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Interview: David Fennessy

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First published in The Herald on 6 February, 2019

It’s a routine many artists will recognise: long periods of solitary graft then every project accidentally culminating at once. Glasgow composer David Fennessy is in the thick of it. In January, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra premiered an orchestral work called Ground – intensely jubilant music built on archive pibroch recordings and the heartbeat of Fennessy’s unborn daughter. The piece is bright-eyed, bright-lit, lion-hearted; it reconfirms the visceral and original way Fennessy writes for instruments.

This month brings the long-awaited premiere of Fennessy’s full 70-minute orchestral trilogy Conquest of the Useless, which would have been unveiled at the New Music Dublin festival last year if the entire event hadn’t been cancelled due to the freak snow and ice of the so-called Beast from the East. The aptness, or possibly the irony, of that intervention from the heavens was not lost on the creative team. The piece is the summation of a decade of work for Fennessy, inspired by diaries written by Werner Herzog while making the film Fitzcarraldo. The piece is about obsession, crazed ambition, compelling vision – and failure. When Conquest of the Useless finally comes to fruition in Dublin on 28 February, many fingers will be crossed for meteorological cooperation.

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Interview: George Benjamin

First published in BBC Music Magazine, January 2019

George Benjamin began writing his first opera at the age of 12. “Setting the story of Pied Piper of Hamelin,” he winces. “And it was naive and terrible and thankfully came to an end halfway down page 34. Terrible. Terrible! Unspeakably terrible!” Who can corroborate? The world never heard those 34 precocious pages, but the operas Benjamin went on to create – Into the Little Hill, Written on Skin and Lessons in Love and Violence – have changed the sound, scope, brutality and sensuality of 21st opera. All three were premiered in the last decade but were somehow a lifetime in the making.

Benjamin laughs as he tells me about his early endeavours – a neat, precise giggle. He laughs with clarity and conviction, like every aspect of his conversation. Thoughts are held until they’re fully formed. Words are only ever the exact ones. If he can’t find the right word, he’ll wait, hand suspended in the air, eyes screwed tight as he searches his mind. He won’t make do with sloppiness and, veteran teacher that he is, the effect rubs off so that in his company I become acutely aware of my own language. None of this meticulousness seems to get in the way of his enthusiasm, though. It’s a boyish, eager, clever enthusiasm, a wide-eyed marvelling. At 58, Benjamin says that above all he is “so, so enamoured with the nuts and bolts of music. Utterly passionate. Completely enthralled.”

For the full interview, see BBC Music Magazine – January 2019 edition

Best recordings of 2018

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First published in The Herald on 26 December, 2018

Brahms: Symphonies (Linn). The culmination of their nine years together: Robin Ticciati conducting all four Brahms symphonies at the 2018 Edinburgh International Festival. They were performances of clarity, intensity, discovery – the same energy and devotion captured on this brilliant valedictory recording. I love the sound the Scottish Chamber Orchestra makes here, the nut-warm 19th century horns and the sweet, super-alert period-ish strings. I love the transparency and the resulting detail. I love the intimacy in music that can sound bloated. Most orchestras use bigger forces for Brahms. I never once missed the bulk.

Monteverdi: Vespers (PHI). Claudio Monteverdi knew passions were complicated. He knew the messy emotions involved in faith, lust, sorrow, divinity – and he felt music should bring all that to life. Any performance of his 1610 Vespers that sounds chaste and stately misses the point. Philippe Herreweghe first recorded the score in the 1980s and fell into that trap. Now, though, he’s moved with the times and rerecorded the Vespers with his tremendous Collegium Vocale Gent. The two accounts are worlds apart: this new one is lithe, alive, conversational, conspiratorial and intimate.

Cassandra Miller: Just So (Another Timbre). The Canadian music series on Another Timbre is a thing of multifarious wonders. Ten portrait CDs championing music by Linda Catlin Smith, Martin Arnold, Isaiah Ceccarelli, Christopher Mayo and several others. The scope, the focus – it’s all compelling. No blunt conclusions are drawn about what Canadianness might mean in music, but I’m intrigued by Martin Arnold’s suggestion that it might have something to do with “slack” – by which he means a loose relationship to tradition, an open space upon which to make things new. Many of the discs in the series deserve mention here but Cassandra Miller’s music has knocked me sideways. Bold, kind-hearted, wistful, brave, simple, sophisticated… her string quartet About Bach is miraculously beautiful, with a bright, lonely violin drifting resolutely above the most gorgeous shapeshifting chorales.

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