Harrison Birtwistle - King of the road less travelled

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Sylph

Harrison Birtwistle - King of the road less travelled

Post by Sylph » Fri May 29, 2009 4:22 pm

Harrison Birtwistle - King of the road less travelled

Harrison Birtwistle is not letting the fuss over his 75th birthday get in the way of tackling some old adversaries

Neil Fisher

I don’t know what I expected from meeting Sir Harrison Birtwistle on his home turf, but I know it isn’t eating a reheated bowl of Duchy of Cornwall beetroot soup while Britain’s foremost — and, semi-officially, most fearsome — composer rustles up a poached pear for afters. (“I don’t think you have a choice,” Birtwistle adds drily, after he has asked me if I want a portion) And although almost all the way to his idyllic house in Wiltshire I have been thinking about the lashings of blood and guts in Birtwistle’s most recent opera — a savage retelling of the Minotaur myth — I gingerly accept. It turns out to be delicious.

Fearsome may be unfair. It’s true that neither man nor music presents a picture of cuddliness. The composer’s breakout success in the 1960s was a savage recasting of the Punch and Judy puppets, reborn as a blackly comic opera on domestic violence. Fast forward to The Minotaur, given its premiere last year at Covent Garden, in which an archetypal myth was twisted into a bloody parable whose antihero raped and killed his victims in a gore-smeared bullring. The first piece prompted a walkout by its sponsors at the Aldeburgh Festival, an offended Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears. The latter was received rapturously; its composer greeted at the curtain with an ovation that came very close to something resembling public affection.

For a composer whose music remains deeply complex and deeply challenging — his last opera at Covent Garden, Gawain, incited a claque of traditionalist booers at the first night — that’s a journey in itself, but for Birtwistle it is not one worth considering. Nor is it worth much pondering that in his 75th year there may well be more of his thorny music about than ever before. At Aldeburgh and, later, the co-producing Southbank Centre there is a new music-theatre piece, The Corridor, partnered by a staged presentation of works by the Jacobean composer John Dowland. The Proms are presenting the giant second act of his most ambitious work, The Mask of Orpheus. And this weekend the Bath Festival gives two days to the birthday celebrations.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” he says, in the flat Lancashire burr that is variously used to kill off a timorous suggestion stone dead or to give a grudging answer. “I still feel like I’m the same thing. I started life with an idea in my head about music and I still feel I’m in that position.”

For Birtwistle, distilling the idea in his head is a life’s labour. The Corridor is yet another visit to Greek mythology — specifically, the world of Orpheus. “It’s really the only myth, isn’t it? The Orpheus thing is my Mont Sainte-Victoire.” He is alluding to Cézanne’s countless views of the same Provençal mountain. To him, his revisiting of the Orpheus theme has the same effect: same landscape, different views. “It must be one of the reasons why he kept doing the same thing. Because he didn’t have to think about the subject matter — it was just about painting.”

The Corridor is a view not painted before: an extreme close-up. “In grand opera, you can’t make out detail. Having a cup of tea in grand opera doesn’t mean anything.” Accordingly, this chamber piece “freezes” the moment when Orpheus fatally looks back at Eurydice in Hades; to Birtwistle and his librettist, David Harsent, in this moment they are simply “man and “woman”; the six onstage instrumentalists will surround them, acting as “the Shades” of the underworld.

“It’s about the separation of them conceptually. It’s as if his voice, and the pull of it, the magnetism, becomes weaker. It’s a sort of inner journey, but what I’m really talking about is the difference between grand opera and chamber music. Here I’ve got all the instruments on the stage, my relationship with the singers is different, and the give and take . . . it becomes one.”

Birtwistle is always more comfortable talking about the technical refractions of his work than the emotional ones. He chooses the same stories because he believes we already know the characters: the rest is how he chooses to angle them. “They come into the world fully formed with their psychology,” he says, “and we all know what that is.”

You cannot listen to Birtwistle ploughing his mythological furrow and not think of the remoteness of this artist. For once, he agrees with my premise. “My isolation . . . it’s had a very profound influence on the way I do things”. We’re not talking about gentle Wiltshire, nor even the island in the Hebrides where he lived for ten years with his wife and sons. “I could do what I did there anywhere,” he insists.

The isolation goes back farther, to the world Birtwistle emerged from as the son of two farmers on a smallholding just outside Accrington, when he first heard the idea in his head that said music. Very early on, he picked up a clarinet, “and as soon as I could learn notation I wrote music. The first piece I wrote was a gavotte, and I put it into Punch and Judy. I was under 7 years old, and it didn’t get very far — but I did continue it.” But composition was a hazy notion. “Nobody knew what a composer was. It was what Beethoven did.”

He won a scholarship to the Royal Manchester College of Music, and the official biography has him start there, butting excitingly against other soon-to-be-great composers, among them Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Now, he seems more ambivalent. “When I became a music student I felt a bit like children who are born into the world with creativity and lose it very quickly. I had to re-find something that I had previously. But you don’t come into life and say you’re going to be a composer. You can do that a little more now — they teach composition, don’t they? Or try.”

Birtwistle certainly isn’t sold on the academic language of music. The knotty structures of Serialism — the defining school of thought for most composition students in the 1960s and 1970s, and the one that many subsequently fled from — is “like any -ism, only academic if you just follow the process for the sake of the process”. If there’s a system to Birtwistle’s music — which, even if it sounds wild, always seems to have a convincing thread — he isn’t owning up to it. “It doesn’t matter what you use — use anything you lay your hands on.”

That’s about as far into nurturing as Birtwistle goes. On the state of classical music today he is genially grumpy. “There’s a thing being debated somewhere — is pop music the new classical music? And I heard the Worshipful Company of Musicians were debating a few weeks ago on ‘why we need more music’. ” So, why do we? “I haven’t got an answer. Because I choose to write some.”

Recently Birtwistle was approached by a group who wanted to adapt one of his orchestral pieces. “They wanted to ‘remix’ my Triumph of Time,” he says. “I said it was perfectly mixed already.” My halting attempt to explain the new vogue for genre-blending falls on deaf ears. “The thought that I could do something and somebody else could make it more palatable . . . that’s what I do anyway. You should always give creativity the benefit of the doubt.”

Birtwistle is never going to win any awards for explaining himself — but at 75 and with his creativity undimmed, it’s difficult to hold that against him. A violin concerto is being prepared, and he talks me through an incredibly fiddly half-hour piece for voice, piano and cello, which began as a setting of a Rilke love poem before turning into a series of variations, each a version of the one preceding it, followed by “an explosion of it, which is a fugue”.

Thoughts on his legacy are waved off. One of his sons, an artist, apparently had similar questions. “And I said to him: ‘Don’t expect it all to suddenly happen.’ You can’t sit down and belong to tradition, it’s either with you or it is without you.” The mountain rumbles its last. “You’ve got to get on with the thing itself.”

Four ways to Wet your Wistle

Soft landing

Silbury Air: the closest Birtwistle has come to an English pastoral, it was inspired by a man-made hill 4,500 years old . Find it on the album Secret Theatre (NMC)

In the deep end

Earth Dances/Theseus Game: united on one Universal CD, the thrilling relay race of Theseus Game finds a more primitive counterpart in Earth Dances, Birtwistle’s own Rite of Spring

Flesh and blood

John Tomlinson’s man-beast is the utterly compelling anchor of The Minotaur (OpusArte DVD)

Deep breaths...

Panic: In 1995 the BBC was flooded with protests after this saxophone concerto was played at the Proms. It’s still hard work. Hear it on Decca.

— The Corridor is in rep from June 12 to 18 at the Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, Suffolk (01728 687110), and at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1 (0871 6632500), on July 6 and 7


Modernistfan
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Re: Harrison Birtwistle - King of the road less travelled

Post by Modernistfan » Fri May 29, 2009 4:51 pm

We need recordings of some of his major recent works. (I will have to get "The Minotaur," although I have not been buying DVDs.) Where are the orchestral works "Exody," "The Shadow of Night," and "Night's Black Bird," and the operas/music theatre works "The Second Mrs. Kong," "The Last Supper," and "The Io Passion"? (Maybe he should start his own label.)

absinthe
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Re: Harrison Birtwistle - King of the road less travelled

Post by absinthe » Sat May 30, 2009 2:45 am

He seems to choose a route he thinks appropriate through each work. I find some of his stuff easily listenable (such as the recent Lyrita CD), some, abrasive. I thought Punch and Judy was pretty horrid. I seem to get on better with his shorter works like Nenia.

He's one composer to whom I'll give attention but can't guarantee to sit through. That seems to be what he'd like.

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Re: Harrison Birtwistle - King of the road less travelled

Post by some guy » Sat May 30, 2009 4:14 am

Neil has fallen into one of the oldest traps in the business, viewing the music through the plots of the operas or the story lines of the other works. As anyone who's listened to Dvořák's late tone poems should know, the grittiness of a story line does not necessarily translate into gritty music! (And I doubt that those pieces were gritty even in 1904.)

My strongest impression about Birtwistle's music in the Minotaur was how sensual it is, really gorgeous sounds, like what you often get in Boulez and Kurtág (named so you know what I think when I say "gorgeous"). I went back to my recording of Earth Dances after watching the Minotaur dvd, and enjoyed it for the first time. (Comparisons to Le Sacre seem silly and pointless to me.) And I found some more Birtwistle online, all of which confirmed that initial impression of sensuality.

I'm waiting (but NOT with my breath held!) for the day when difficulty, complexity, fearsomeness, challenging-ness and the like vanish from the conversation. Challenging is neither a virtue nor a vice, it's either an expression of where a particular listener is in her or his individual evolution or an expression of what some writer or other guesses will be the response of a group of anonymous (and hence unknowable) listeners. In either case, it avoids confronting the music itself in any meaningful way, substituting (a substitution so many of us seem to prefer!!) nebulous impressions for precise, informed, experienced observation. (Hmmm. I seem to have answered my own unasked question there!!)
"The public has got to stay in touch with the music of its time . . . for otherwise people will gradually come to mistrust music claimed to be the best."
--Viennese critic (1843)

Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not understood.
--Henry Miller

Sylph

Re: Harrison Birtwistle - King of the road less travelled

Post by Sylph » Sat May 30, 2009 4:37 am

some guy wrote:My strongest impression about Birtwistle's music in the Minotaur was how sensual it is
It’s the saxophone.

absinthe
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Re: Harrison Birtwistle - King of the road less travelled

Post by absinthe » Sat May 30, 2009 6:05 am

some guy wrote:Neil has fallen into one of the oldest traps in the business, viewing the music through the plots of the operas or the story lines of the other works. As anyone who's listened to Dvořák's late tone poems should know, the grittiness of a story line does not necessarily translate into gritty music! (And I doubt that those pieces were gritty even in 1904.)
Yes but commentators like Neil Fisher write to get their own names in print - like many others they have mortgages to pay back and tend to write autobiographically. Birtwistle is perfectly capable of speaking for himself - he does whenever Hear and Now asks him to introduce a piece.

I'm dismayed that writers should talk down contemporary music in this oblique way (warning about complexity, ear-ache, challenge and so on. I know he's attempting some kind of bridge but doubt its value). He doesn't present anything exciting about Birtwistle or his music. There isn't even a forbidden fruit element.
I'm waiting (but NOT with my breath held!) for the day when difficulty, complexity, fearsomeness, challenging-ness and the like vanish from the conversation. Challenging is neither a virtue nor a vice, it's either an expression of where a particular listener is in her or his individual evolution or an expression of what some writer or other guesses will be the response of a group of anonymous (and hence unknowable) listeners. In either case, it avoids confronting the music itself in any meaningful way, substituting (a substitution so many of us seem to prefer!!) nebulous impressions for precise, informed, experienced observation. (Hmmm. I seem to have answered my own unasked question there!!)
It's a view, some guy. When encountering words like evolution I'm bound to ask what it's supposed to mean. The amount of observational experience you speak of?

Except that, as I don't regard music as a combative sport, I'm not interested in challenge or confrontation. I don't know how anyone could confront contemporary music "in any meaningful way". One reacts one way or another. It's possible to acclimatise, I suppose - 'getting on with' certain works promotes the ease with which a listener can assimilate more abrasive stuff. But if you mean that listeners should grin and bear it to prove they can, then...well, it's an approach as valid as any other but don't expect too many takers. It might appeal to people immersed a great deal in music but the numbers who turn to perceptably formless, unpredictable conglobulations of perceptably unrelated noises for relaxation are in the minority.

I think I can speak with enough experience of contemporary music to appreciate Birtwistle; and also to proclaim that much composed since those halcyon days of the 1950s/1960s with people engaged in their original forays, is dross. You can't even call it crap because that helps things grow. Still....there it is....

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Re: Harrison Birtwistle - King of the road less travelled

Post by some guy » Sat May 30, 2009 12:58 pm

absinthe wrote:I'm dismayed that writers should talk down contemporary music in this oblique way (warning about complexity, ear-ache, challenge and so on. I know he's attempting some kind of bridge but doubt its value). He doesn't present anything exciting about Birtwistle or his music. There isn't even a forbidden fruit element.
d'accord
I'm not interested in challenge or confrontation. I don't know how anyone could confront contemporary music "in any meaningful way". One either likes it or not. It's possible to acclimatise, I suppose - 'getting on with' certain works promotes the ease with which a listener can assimilate more abrasive stuff. But if you mean that listeners should grin and bear it just to prove they can, then...well, it's an approach as valid as any other but don't expect too many takers. It might appeal to people immersed a great deal in music but the numbers who will turn to perceptably formless, unpredictable conglobulations of perceptably unrelated noises for relaxation are in the minority.
Ah. You have most engagingly pounced upon my least happy choice of words. Please substitute "engage with" for confront, s'il voux plait. (Must be because I'm in France right now for a couple of weeks.) Not sure about that "one either likes it or not" thing, though. Seems too simple, somehow. I prefer something a little more nuanced, something that accounts for, say, not liking something at first but being intrigued and giving it more listens until one does like it. Sometimes one just lets a piece rest and listens to other things, some of which train one to get back to that piece later with understanding and enjoyment. (For me, it was another Birtwistle piece, Minotaur, which prepared me to relisten to Earth Dances with enjoyment.)

I certainly do not mean that listeners should just grin and bear it, whether for proving something or some other reason! I think that remaining curious will continue to lead one to new adventures. Yes. And I think that people who are antagonistic to "modern music" generally could probably find more pleasing ways to pass the time than trying to prove that their distaste is normative somehow, that it's caused by the music being insufferably bad. And of course for the "perceptably formless, unpredictable conglobulations of perceptably unrelated noises" part, well, that's why I have that quote from Miller tagged onto all me posts!
I think I can ... proclaim that much composed since those halcyon days of the 1950s/1960s with people engaged in their original forays, is dross.
You mean that much of that stuff that's given me so much pleasure for over thirty years is just dross? Damn. Seemed so utterly pleasant and delightful to me. :shock:
"The public has got to stay in touch with the music of its time . . . for otherwise people will gradually come to mistrust music claimed to be the best."
--Viennese critic (1843)

Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not understood.
--Henry Miller

absinthe
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Re: Harrison Birtwistle - King of the road less travelled

Post by absinthe » Sun May 31, 2009 9:19 am

J'ai vu quelques mots français se glisser dans votre message! Où êtes-vous en France? I spent most of last week in Montpellier; a couple more this week though I have to check something out in Marseille. Were you in Cannes? I had thought of popping over there but gave up because the festival kerfuffle was still a-rage.
some guy wrote: Ah. You have most engagingly pounced upon my least happy choice of words. Please substitute "engage with" for confront, s'il voux plait. (Must be because I'm in France right now for a couple of weeks.) Not sure about that "one either likes it or not" thing, though. Seems too simple, somehow. I prefer something a little more nuanced, something that accounts for, say, not liking something at first...
I must have been editing that while you were preparing your response. Apologies for my boo-boo. It's no way as binary as like it or not!
Sometimes one just lets a piece rest and listens to other things, some of which train one to get back to that piece later with understanding and enjoyment. (For me, it was another Birtwistle piece, Minotaur, which prepared me to relisten to Earth Dances with enjoyment.)
d'accord. The problem with contemporary work is whether one CAN return. Unless recording it at source (usually radio but I bought an Edirol for live concerts this year (and have yet to use it!)) contemporary works may not be performed a second time. Even less chance for orchestral works. Sadly this isn't a question of quality/competence but that more keeps coming so there's no performance space left for 'old' work. I'm reminded of a work I love by Charles Dakin "Srna Rasa". Dakin died aged 76 in a car accident leaving a few symphonies and other works, some of which were aired but the chance of hearing anything from him now is zero. Birtwistle fared better. Searle seems almost to have disappeared.
I certainly do not mean that listeners should just grin and bear it, whether for proving something or some other reason! I think that remaining curious will continue to lead one to new adventures. Yes. And I think that people who are antagonistic to "modern music" generally could probably find more pleasing ways to pass the time than trying to prove that their distaste is normative somehow, that it's caused by the music being insufferably bad. And of course for the "perceptably formless, unpredictable conglobulations of perceptably unrelated noises" part, well, that's why I have that quote from Miller tagged onto all me posts!
This is surely about the linguistic properties of music, the ease with which the tonal system can be understood noetically by those without any knowledge of the technical construction of music. People's expectations; cultural orientation with its various rituals, are not met by much atonal contemporary music. Some people as you say have more sense of sonic adventure, so can adjust their orientation and expectations. And there are those rare souls happy just to listen to sounds - for them it's easy.
some guy wrote:
absinthe wrote:I think I can ... proclaim that much composed since those halcyon days of the 1950s/1960s with people engaged in their original forays, is dross.
You mean that much of that stuff that's given me so much pleasure for over thirty years is just dross? Damn. Seemed so utterly pleasant and delightful to me. :shock:
Awww! That was just my view, based more on the current cynical outpourings of a musical education system that I find hard to accept. I'll guarantee many "composers" spewing out of the varsity machine haven't a clue what they're doing. They'd be unable to say whether a result is what they set out to achieve simply because they haven't a clue what the result sounds like until someone plays it. Ok, some license may be allowed for aleatoric or indeterminate schemes but most of this stuff exists on conventional music paper or graphical scores (that are about as useful as a third armpit!). Run through their pieces and ask where the mistakes were and they'll look at you agog. There are exceptions of course (and thank goodness)!
But it's me, out of step. This doesn't mean that the music produced, mistakes or not, might sound perfectly enjoyable. It happened to me: the ensemble made exactly the same mistake on two successive nights. I quite liked it and changed the score accordingly. Why not?

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Re: Harrison Birtwistle - King of the road less travelled

Post by some guy » Sun May 31, 2009 5:27 pm

Not in Cannes, not this time of year! In Bourges, for the big festival of electroacoustic music there.

[quote=absinthe]This doesn't mean that the music produced, mistakes or not, might sound perfectly enjoyable. It happened to me: the ensemble made exactly the same mistake on two successive nights. I quite liked it and changed the score accordingly. Why not?[/quote]

My favorite anecdote about Brahms is the one where he's sitting in the auditorium during rehearsal of, as I recall, his first symphony. The conductor takes an unauthorized stringendo at one point, which Brahms likes so much he immediately marks it in his score.
"The public has got to stay in touch with the music of its time . . . for otherwise people will gradually come to mistrust music claimed to be the best."
--Viennese critic (1843)

Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not understood.
--Henry Miller

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Re: Harrison Birtwistle - King of the road less travelled

Post by maskedman » Tue Jun 02, 2009 1:56 pm

absinthe wrote:
some guy wrote:Neil has fallen into one of the oldest traps in the business, viewing the music through the plots of the operas or the story lines of the other works. As anyone who's listened to Dvořák's late tone poems should know, the grittiness of a story line does not necessarily translate into gritty music! (And I doubt that those pieces were gritty even in 1904.)
Yes but commentators like Neil Fisher write to get their own names in print - like many others they have mortgages to pay back and tend to write autobiographically. Birtwistle is perfectly capable of speaking for himself - he does whenever Hear and Now asks him to introduce a piece.

I'm dismayed that writers should talk down contemporary music in this oblique way (warning about complexity, ear-ache, challenge and so on. I know he's attempting some kind of bridge but doubt its value). He doesn't present anything exciting about Birtwistle or his music. There isn't even a forbidden fruit element.
I'm waiting (but NOT with my breath held!) for the day when difficulty, complexity, fearsomeness, challenging-ness and the like vanish from the conversation. Challenging is neither a virtue nor a vice, it's either an expression of where a particular listener is in her or his individual evolution or an expression of what some writer or other guesses will be the response of a group of anonymous (and hence unknowable) listeners. In either case, it avoids confronting the music itself in any meaningful way, substituting (a substitution so many of us seem to prefer!!) nebulous impressions for precise, informed, experienced observation. (Hmmm. I seem to have answered my own unasked question there!!)
It's a view, some guy. When encountering words like evolution I'm bound to ask what it's supposed to mean. The amount of observational experience you speak of?

Except that, as I don't regard music as a combative sport, I'm not interested in challenge or confrontation. I don't know how anyone could confront contemporary music "in any meaningful way". One reacts one way or another. It's possible to acclimatise, I suppose - 'getting on with' certain works promotes the ease with which a listener can assimilate more abrasive stuff. But if you mean that listeners should grin and bear it to prove they can, then...well, it's an approach as valid as any other but don't expect too many takers. It might appeal to people immersed a great deal in music but the numbers who turn to perceptably formless, unpredictable conglobulations of perceptably unrelated noises for relaxation are in the minority.

I think I can speak with enough experience of contemporary music to appreciate Birtwistle; and also to proclaim that much composed since those halcyon days of the 1950s/1960s with people engaged in their original forays, is dross. You can't even call it crap because that helps things grow. Still....there it is....
Count me in.,......

Robert

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