Interview: Diana Burrell


First published in The Herald on 24 October, 2018

In a parallel universe, Diana Burrell is an architect. The composer talks about buildings in vivid musical terms: the rhythms, the phrasing, the forms, the bold cacophony of lines and gestures. She lights up when she describes music that has the brutal physicality and gruff, jutting angles of the buildings she likes best. “My music,” she says, “has to make a clean, bold shape on the skyline.”

I love Burrell’s list of favourite sounds. Church bells, steel pans, the shrieking of seabirds, the clanging of metal in a building-site or scrap yard – she says she finds these sounds alluring for their impureness, their out-of-tune-ness and their strident imperfections. “I dislike prettiness,” she wrote in a kind-of manifesto in 1991. “I loathe all blandness, safe, pale and tasteful niceness. I detest the cosiness of pastiche and the safety of too much heritage. Give me instead strong, rough-edged things, brave disrespectful shapes and sounds, imperfect instruments that jangle and jar. I love both savage nature and the brutal modernism of the city’s concrete. There is passion and beauty in both.”

If you’re in Aberdeen this week you can hear for yourself: Burrell is a featured composer at Sound festival, with a portrait concert of her music performed by pianist Matthew Schellhorn, the University of Aberdeen’s Saxophone Ensemble and contemporary music ensemble Spectrum. The programme includes a new piano piece called Pentecost (based on ancient plainchant – “it’s a bit buried in the texture, but it’s there for nerds to point out if they want to”) as well as works called Tachograph, Three Native American Blessings, Gaelic Blessing and Confession. It’s a too-rare chance to hear her strong, lucid, un-smoothed-down music.

A few decades ago, Burrell became furious with Prince Charles and his efforts to interfere with modern architecture – his use of the word “cacophony” as if it were a negative thing, his denial of the present by constantly trying to replicate a sugar-coated image of the past. If Burrell had made buildings herself, they would have been jubilantly tough and contemporary and honest. Instead she made music, and it has all the same qualities. Her mission is to “create some life-enhancing wildness in an artistic world that has generally perhaps become rather tame.”

“You go on a journey,” she tells me, describing her ideal piece of music. “You go around the building. You go in the front door. You go up to the roof. I want to go on that journey and I want to come out changed. I’m always drawn to a progression of some sort. I don’t enjoy minimal music that much. It has a certain beauty, maybe, and it can transport you like meditation, but I want to go somewhere.” She might booby-trap the route with deliberate dangers – holes or gaping drops, suddenly splitting apart the floor beneath our feet. But she never lets us fall, and she knows a traveller needs rest-places.

Burrell was born in Norwich in 1948. There wasn’t much music in her school, and there were no professional orchestras in the vicinity. Her formative training happened in the church music tradition – her father was assistant organist at Norwich Cathedral. “I had my own job as an organist while I was still at school,” she recalls. “It meant I could hone my improvisation skills. There were endless processionals – I had to make the hymns last until the clergy had reached wherever they were going.”

Burrell always knew she wanted to make things. “I thought I might go to art school, or maybe write novels. I don’t know where that compulsion came from but it was always there. I remember my teachers saying, ‘oh no, not another play, Diana…’ That’s just how teachers were in those days.”

Meanwhile she took up violin and then more seriously the viola – which was a smart move, judging by a notable precedent for viola-playing composers (Schubert, Dvorak, Bridge, Hindemith, Britten, Beamish). “Maybe there is something in it,” she ponders. “Something about being right in the middle of an orchestra, understanding the inner workings of the ensemble, the construction of the score from the inside…”

Her breakthrough work was the Missa Sancte Endeliente – an enormous commission from the conductor Richard Hickox for the St Endellion Festival in 1980. Most composers start with a couple of songs, maybe a piano piece, possibly a string trio. Dauntless, Burrell wrote a massive score for five soloists, two choruses and orchestra, setting texts in Cornish and Latin. The mass was so well received that BBC Radio 3 insisted of a repeat performance in London so it could be broadcast live on a Saturday evening. “Those were the days, Burrell says, a little sheepishly. “That sort of thing probably doesn’t happen to young composers any more.”

Burrell has brought together music and buildings in literal ways. For the Royal Institute of British Architects in London she made a series of CDs that were played at sporadic intervals. “A soundtrack for the space and for an installation of twitching body bags,” she explains. She laughs as she remembers one of the CDs starting to play its loop of scraping, clanging sounds during a recital of Brahms chamber music in the same space. It was exactly the kind of disrespectful collision she like in her art.

Burrell has written a lot of music for churches, a lot for orchestras and a lot for amateur musicians and young people. Her style is challenging, but also sensitive to what’s possible. She never writes down, and she never settles for cliche. Her titles are often full of bright evocation. She has a string quartet called Gulls and Angels; an organ piece called Arched Forms with Bells; a cello and piano piece called Heron; an string ensemble work with the fantastically unabridged and untranslated title Das Meer so gross und weit ist da wimmelts ohne Zahlgrosse kleine Tiere (The sea is so big and wide and swarming with numerous little animals).

But these are no tone poems. The music comes first, she tells me, the titles later. In the case of  Symphonies of Flocks, Herds and Shoals (written for the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1997), she simply reached for words that seemed to represent the feeling and energy of the piece: the airiness, the earthiness, the submergence. The music doesn’t describe something but is a thing in itself – a generator of energy and sensation. In that sense, there is something of Debussy’s precise and intense musical images.

Except that Burrell’s music is not like Debussy’s, or like any other composer’s. She says she’s damned if she’s going to replicate anyone – not least herself. “Quite honestly, there’s enough music in the world,” she reasons. “If I’m going to write a new piece, I’ve got to find a way of making it sound like something that’s never been done. I’ve got to try, anyway. Otherwise I don’t see the point.”

Diana Burrell is a featured composer at Sound festival, with a portrait concert of her music performed at King’s College Chapel in Aberdeen tomorrow (Thursday 25 October)