Interview: Harrison Birtwistle

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First published in Gramophone, March 2017

In his autobiography of 1936, Igor Stravinsky articulated a claim that would end up being skewed, misconstrued and chucked back at him throughout his life. It was his theory of anti-expression, of music’s inherent emotional sterility, of listeners’ outmoded romantic habits of ascribing meaning rather than simply loving music for music’s sake. “I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all,” Stravinsky wrote. “If music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it.”

Exactly 80 years later, at his kitchen table in Wiltshire on a midwinter afternoon, Sir Harrison Birtwistle is expounding on similar themes. The 82-year-old composer says he doesn’t believe in consciously expressing something — that expression comes in spite of oneself. Another thing he doesn’t believe in is inspiration. “I’ve been lucky enough to be musical, and maybe at one point I was inspired,” he admits. “You hear it all the time in the media: what was your inspiration? What it probably means is that you filched it from someone else. I think of it as something like the draft from under the door. It’s not conscious.” Perhaps inspiration filters through, whether he likes it or not?

He ignores the question, or rather answers it in a roundabout way by talking about place. “This thing about being English is an interesting one, because if anything I self-consciously — for so much of my career — I tried to write music that was not English. I mean to do with landscape and pastoralism and Vaughan Williams and all that.” When he says Vaughan Williams, he pronounces the G with exaggerated disgust. Is he implying that he was born with everything he would write already in him? “Probably,” he shrugs. “I wouldn’t be so pretentious as to say something like that. But yes, the thing that I had back when I started out, what made me do it, that’s what’s been making me do it all along. It has different guises, it manifests itself in different forms. Chameleon-like I suppose. But I think it’s all the same, what I’m doing.”

Self-styled radicals, iconoclastic rule breakers who shirked tradition with a capital T but remain enthralled by old myths and folk rites, Birtwistle’s links to Stravinsky are deep and multi-directional. In so many of his stage works — Punch and Judy, Down by the Greenwood Side, Yan Tan Tethera, The Mask of Orpheus, Gawain, The Last Supper, The Minotaur, more — Birtwistle returns to Stravinskian tropes. The rough rituals and how those rituals are exploded or rerouted. The earthy primitivism merged with sophisticated, unflinching violence. The intrigue in collective experience over the individual. The archaic and archetypal characters, street theatre, pantomime, fables, brazen repetition, episodic dramas.

And while he might not believe in inspiration, Birtwistle does acknowledge that his music ”came much more from the side of Varese and Stravinsky than it did from Schoenberg and atonalism”. During a concert given by Klangforum Wien at the 2013 Salzburg Festival, the composer sat alone on stage, in silence, facing out to the audience, while the musicians played his Tombeau in memoriam Igor Stravinsky (1971) from the organ loft at the back of the church. It is a tiny work for flute, clarinet, harp and string quartet with a three-chord refrain that repeats and repeats. It is an evocation, a ritual, a rite, and that little gesture of performance art was in itself a silent tribute of sorts.

Now Birtwistle has come at Stravinsky from another angle: he has recorded the role of the Soldier in The Soldier’s Tale, with George Benjamin as the Devil and Oliver Knussen conducting soloists from the Royal Academy of Music. It’s an exquisitely deadpan performance. With his laconic Lancashire drawl, Birtwistle’s Soldier is not the peppy upstart of some interpretations nor the gullible dreamer or cocksure lad of others. His Soldier is jaded, glum, dispassionate, and the effect is marvellous against Benjamin’s honeyed and slightly neurotic Devil. There is a world-weariness that suggests his descent is more knowing than it often appears. Perhaps his Soldier chooses his own fate all along: perhaps he is re-rehearsing an old tale, oldest in the book, just to see what might happen.

“There are two ways of telling a story,” Birtwistle has said. “One is to tell it because people don’t know it and the other is to tell it like a child’s story — to retell it.” His own approach to narrative turns the brutal, sacred, profane and elemental into Stravinsky-like fables. He claims to be “not a very psychological person, that he doesn’t “get off on all that.” As subject matter for operas he is drawn to myths and legends, to “stories that we all know. When setting a myth, set a known myth. Otherwise nobody knows what’s going on. As a composer my duty is illuminating the story.”

Birtwistle’s conversation flip-flops between pithy skepticism and morose self-doubt. He tells me about writing his 1997 orchestral piece Exody in response to a poem by Robin Blaser. “It’s not very good,” he sums up. “It didn’t realise my dreams! That’s everything I do. Sometimes I get six out of ten, sometimes I get two.” Never ten? “I wouldn’t be so bold. Only Beethoven gets ten.” So when I ask why he became involved in recording The Soldier’s Tale, he waves a hand dismissively. “They asked me to do it. I didn’t want to at first. For one thing, I can’t stand my own voice.” He concedes that “it was nice” being in Aldeburgh with Knussen. “He is a friend of mine. And I wrote some pieces for Stravinsky, and they recorded those too.”

Did the reading make him feel any closer to Stravinsky? “Nah,” he snorts, so I try a different tack. In past interviews, I venture, he has described having to struggle with the same issues that Stravinsky had to struggle with in terms of his place in the contemporary music scene. “I would say it’s more complicated than that,” he glances up. “Stravinsky was the avant-garde. The music I was born into, the music I was writing, it wasn’t coming from the same starting position.” He pauses. “Oh, this is difficult.”

But he carries on. “I always had a music in my head. Even when I was playing clarinet aged eight. That music is still what comes out now — not that it’s the same music, just that I always had an idea of what I wanted music to be, and I thought it could be expressed. It comes back to the myth of tradition. We don’t come from nowhere, we don’t come from the moon.” Stravinsky didn’t come from the moon either, I say. “No, true. His relationship to music history was very much part of the tradition, in a way. I felt much more radical about it, but I didn’t know how to do it. I still don’t know how to do it. I don’t know if I knew what the word ‘radical’ was. Maybe it’s called naivety. I know that originally I had some crazy ideas, but I didn’t know they were crazy when I was doing them. They were pretty crazy in retrospect…”

We discuss his favourite Stravinsky works. Stravinsky is so many things, he says. “What would we think of him if he hadn’t written The Rite or Petrushka?” There would be a lot less to latch onto easily, I suggest. “Right. There would be the neoclassical thing, and the late stuff when he felt he had missed out and got all ritualistic. There’s that wonderful piece called Agon, which I love. You can understand how he arrived at those pieces at the end of his life. It became very serial and lean, very few notes.”

He recalls attending the lectures of Milton Babbitt at Princeton in the mid-1960s. “Combinatoriality!” he laughs. “He talked about it all the time. I had no idea what he was on about. Not a clue. I went for the whole semester. He was incomprehensible, and his students were even worse. And then suddenly it all became minimal. One of them ended up in G major! Woops. And in all those lectures he never mentioned an actual piece of music once. One day he was talking about Stravinsky’s sets — he claimed he had taught him about serialism — and he asked, ‘any of you know what this set is?’ And there was silence. Nobody knew who I was, but I piped up. ‘Yeah, I know what it is. It’s the last note of the Huxley Variations.’ I was very proud of that.”

Now Birtwistle admits he is grateful to Stravinsky and Varese for somehow tethering his youthful radicalism. He says today we are in “a very difficult position” in relation to post-modernism and the attitude that anything goes. “I would hate to be a 25 year old composer now. I wouldn’t know what to do, I wouldn’t know where I was. I was born in 1934, then there was a war. Everything happened when the war was finished. Everything was new. All the things I had read about but not heard were suddenly available. TS Eliot, Beckett, it was a wonderful time. I didn’t know the difference between Hindemith and Stravinsky but it was clear to me which star I belonged to. Intuitively. Now there’s too much. I don’t know what I would do.”

What does he think of music being written now? “It doesn’t interest me very much.” What should be done? “What I’m doing! As long as I’m the only one who’s doing it. I might tell you that I find writing music now a lot more difficult than I used to. I’m a lot slower.” Now his music is, he says, “much more fractured”. At the time of writing he is working on a piece for piano (Nicolas Hodges) and percussion (Colin Currie) that involves six keyboards: piano, prepared piano, celeste, vibraphone, marimba, xylophone. Why that formation? “Why paint the sunset?” he smiles. Is there a subject matter? “The piece itself is the subject matter!” he says, grinning. And we’re back to Stravinsky, and to loving music for music’s sake.

Recommended recordings

Punch and Judy. London Sinfonietta / David Atherton. NMC 138
Birtwistle’s 1960s breakthrough work — a “rude gesture in the face of Aldeburgh primness” — recorded with adept care in 1979. Stephen Roberts’s portrayal of Mr Punch as a demented Oxbridge choral scholar is stunning; David Wilson- Johnson is a creepily suave Master of Ceremonies.

The Triumph of Time / Earth Dances / Panic. BBC Symphony Orchestra / Ensemble Modern / Pierre Boulez / Andrew Davis. Decca  0289 478 4249
Definitive performances of three major orchestral pieces spanning the early 1970s The Triumph of Time to the blistering 1995 Proms commission Panic.

The Minotaur. Orchestra & Chorus of the Royal Opera House / Antonio Pappano / John Tomlinson etc. Opus Arte DVD OABD7052D
Birtwistle’s mythic setting of a David Harsent libretto, recorded live in 2008 with searing orchestral playing and gripping performances from Tomlinson and the rest of the cast.

Refrains and Choruses. Galliard Ensemble. Deux-Elles DXL1019.
Intimate, subtle and intricate, this is a beautiful disc exploring Birtwistle’s rituals and repetitions on a small scale. Includes the Duets for Storab and Oockooing Bird.