Harrison Birtwistle
Interview by Dan Warburton, July 8th 1995

London's Docklands, monument to the Thatcher entrepreneurial spirit of the eighties, trendy trattorias and croissanteries nestling between yuppie split-level apartments and shiny motor boats, the whole dominated by the enormity of Pelli's Canary Wharf tower, was about the last place I expected to find Harrison Birtwistle, a character in English music as uncompromising and craggy as the Northern landscape he grew up in. Knowing he had lived on a remote Scottish island for several years ("I did that long before Maxwell Davies"), before moving to a farmhouse deep in the countryside of south-west France, I suppose I was expecting leather armchairs and a small suburban garden complete with potting shed and unmowed lawn--instead, I found him in an eighteenth- floor penthouse in a decidedly unattractive new apartment building, but with spectacular views of the Thames sweeping majestically back towards central London, the walls as gleaming white as his Marks and Spencer shirts hanging along it. Curiously like Birtwistle's music: from the outside, rather forbidding, even ugly--but once inside, liveable, elegant, and, ultimately, beautiful.

Harrison Birtwistle, or Sir Harrison as I suppose we now have to call him (though I can't imagine him being too concerned if we forgot to), was born in 1934 in Accrington, Lancashire, famous throughout the country for the manufacture of red brick (hence perhaps his illuminating comments during our interview on wall building?). Admitted as a clarinet student to the Manchester School of Music in the early fifties, he became part of the so-called "Manchester school" with composers Alexander Goehr, Peter Maxwell Davies, pianist John Ogdon and conductor Elgar Howarth, finally abandoning his clarinets for composition at the end of the decade. Since then he has pursued his own highly original trajectory, managing always to live from composition (he spent several years working for the National Theatre), and, thanks in part to enthusiastic champions including Howarth and Pierre Boulez, continuing to write what he wants to write. Now, at 61, he has commissions enough to take him into the 21st. century (forthcoming attractions include a series of string quartets for the Arditti).When I went to meet him in July, he was hard at work on a piece guaranteed to infuriate those Union Jack-waving nuts who still believe that "Brittania rules the waves", a work for the Last Night of the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts in September, suitably entitled "Panic". No prizes, then, for guessing what the first question was.

Can you define English music?

Oh, I don't know.. I just won this prize, what was it, the Siemens prize.. and it was the question I was asked most often.. the question was not whether I could define it, but rather did I know my music was English or British or whatever..? And I said that the only self-conscious thing I've ever tried not to be, or the one thing that I resisted as an arrogant youngster, was English music..

Meaning Elgar, Vaughan Williams..

Yes, all that. I mean, as a point of departure, the thing that switched me on was exactly that: English music was what I wasn't interested in. What I was interested in was the thing that came from Europe, I suppose.

Anyone in particular?

Not really. (Pause) You know, the thing about influence is that any composer worth anything will give you the same names. (Pause) So it doesn't actually tell you anything, does it? (Pause) I think there are influences that you open the door to, and influences that come under the door.. And yet, people say my music is English, and I don't know what it is. I can't answer your question. Maybe it's not me writing English music, but that English music is becoming more like me.

In what sense?

Oh I don't know! You can't really talk about an English tradition, can you?

If you can, it probably ended with the seventeenth century..

So anything you might say is English now, has it got anything to do with something that finished in the seventeenth century? (Pause) Is Purcell related to Dowland? Is Dowland related to Dunstable? (Pause) I think there's a sort of melancholy thing, isn't there? I think that's one aspect which comes out through the folk music.. but if you think about it, someone like Vaughan Williams was more to do with the sort of mystical side of it.. I mean the thing about English folk music is.. it has no cowshit in it. It's never rough that way.

So it never appealed to you in any way..

Well, I wouldn't have known where it was going, you see.. I don't know what it's got to do with me.

Was this push against English music something you felt before your studies in Manchester, or was it an attitude you acquired as a student?

Difficult to say. I think you've put your finger on something there--it's a different interpretation of the same thing. If I've arrived anywhere, I've arrived a different way from somebody like Vaughan Williams. Then again, if we talk about Vaughan Williams as English, do we talk about Britten? They're very different, aren't they? Britten and Tippett encapsulate the Purcell thing, whereas Vaughan Williams didn't. It was to do with folk music, but a funny use of folk music.. There's a sort of.. tragedy in a way, wanting to write a symphony, which is always the big manifestation. To me it's got nothing to do with the symphony. That was a mistake Bartok never made.

So you don't think of your music as symphonic in any way..

Not in any sense. Not in the least.

Tell us about the Manchester School. Was it a "school"? What did you have in common?

Well I think we rejected the English thing. But somebody like Ogdon for instance was into Sorabji, Balakirev, and what's his name, Medtner..

What was burning up your record player at the time? Were you out buying records?

Me? I didn't have a record player.

Did you copy or exchange scores and information? Share experiences?

I remember the piece that had a large influence on me was "Turangalila".. I remember coming to London when Sandy Goehr's father gave the first performance with, I think it was the London Symphony Orchestra.. it was at the Festival Hall. I didn't even know the name Messiaen.

What struck you--the sound? The scale?

At the Festival Hall there's a lift which goes up to the platform, you know, if you have to take up pianos.. for some reason we went up in that lift, and as it went up to stage level the percussion was playing--I'd never heard anything quite like it. That was very important to me.

That's surprising.. I associate you with something more gritty, cellular.. Stravinsky or Varèse..

When I was a kid, I wrote music. From the age of eleven until I went to Manchester at the age of eighteen. When I was confronted with official tuition, the academic thing, I could see no relationship whatever between that and the music I'd been writing since I was eleven..(which was a lot of music..I've got a large chest of this stuff..) The other thing that came into my life at that time was serialism, and that seemed to be a sort of alternative, a thing that was against.. a different direction..

Which piece was the key that opened that door?

All of it. Schoenberg, Webern, Berg..

..came before Boulez, Stockhausen, the Darmstadt people?

Oh absolutely! That was another form of academicism I couldn't deal with at all. So, anyway, it was through Messiaen that I saw there was a parallel, a link between that and my way of thinking up to being a student, you know, as a lad in Lancashire, completely on my own, writing this music which people thought was silly.

Do you come from a musical family?

Not at all. I just started. I wrote music as soon as I knew notation.

Have you still got that trunk?

I've got it somewhere..

What are you going to do with it?

Burn it, probably!

Do you keep in touch with your Manchester associates? Max? Goehr?

No. (Pause) I know Sandy a little bit.

Is it important for you to keep abreast of developments in music?

No. I find it very disrupting. I don't know that there are any developments anymore! Directions, perhaps..

Do you try to keep yourself isolated?

No, not deliberately. I'm not a music lover in the sense that I look for something to have on.. I've never had that attitude to music.

But you did "Desert Island Discs"! (Famous BBC radio show where celebrities are invited to choose their eight all-time favourite records) What did you take?

I tried to wear my hat as a music lover and then realised that I didn't love music..! (Laugh) I think I amused a lot of people with my choice of music. The only modern piece I took was "Gruppen".

Did that piece have an important impact on you too?

Yes.. I think it's one of the great pieces of the century. Stockhausen's most important piece. Now he's gone completely potty. Or so it seems to me.

You know, you can't find a copy of "Gruppen" anywhere..

It's a great shame. I think the copy they had at the BBC wasn't even hi-fi, it was one of those recordings with Maderna, or Boulez or someone. I also played a bit of "Turangalila"..

Any non-classical music in your selection?

Yes. What's he called.. Rudy Valli?

Frankie Valli? And the Four Seasons?

Yeah. (Pause) Well, you have to listen to it, you have to get into it.. I also had some Blossom Dearie.. fantastic singer.. very white, sort of the opposite of Ella Fitzgerald.. Very innocent.. wonderful singer..

Changing the subject a little, I remember you raving about David Lynch's "Blue Velvet"..

Yeah, I liked that.. I like the violence in it that never happens, and there are all sorts of strange mixtures in it.. a lot of artificial flowers.. you don't know where the reality is, he's playing with it.. I like the way he plays on all those basic fears.. you go into a room, you hide, to see what might happen.. that amazing scene..

Was there a musical resonance for you?

I thought it was quite operatic. He could do opera.

What about you? Are you becoming more operatic as a composer?

No, funnily enough I see my opera things as occasional music, not central in a way. I don't know where the centre is. (Pause) I find I don't have ideas so much as there are things which constantly evolve.. there are various threads or layers, if you like, which change.. a bit like my pieces, they do that. I can see in retrospect that they've changed. It's not that I ever thought at the time: "That'd be a good idea, why don't I do that?".. because the problem with ideas is that, well, we can go next door and I can show you some very interesting ideas for the piece I'm working on. I pin them on a board, no matter what they are, and try to articulate them by writing something, words, or something, to identify them by.. then I find that as I'm moving through the piece, searching for the place for the idea to work, to be inserted--I can't use it.

Do you keep them and use them later?

No.. that'd be even more difficult. Sometimes it works.. but that's like writing for a virtuoso--I never ask them what they can do: virtuosity comes out of musical ideas and not the other way round. Anyway, this idea I've got next door is not going to be in the piece.

What comes first? Is it an idea, or a shape.. an architecture?

No. I'm not an architectural composer. What comes first is an idea while I'm writing the last piece. I can see there's a way forward in doing something which might exploit something that I couldn't exploit in the last piece. This piece I'm working on now--I can see a lot of directions it could go.

This is "Panic", your commission for the last night of the Proms? But I thought the rehearsals were this weekend..

They are. They'll do some of it. There are lots of ideas. You find a way to the end of the piece and a lot of them are not there.

So you don't know how long it's going to take?

I never do.

It could start out at five minutes and end up as twenty?

You get a feeling for the way a piece speaks. There are also practical things like how long you're being paid to write for! (Laughs) No, that's a bit cynical.. But I think pieces are their length.. it's one of the most interesting things.. People often ask me: "Can you hear what you write? Are you surprised by what you write?" The thing that surprises me is never the sound--I'm not a sound composer, I don't go for special effects like that--what surprises me is how the piece speaks, how it unfolds and tells its story. That's always a surprise.

How do you feel about having this piece on the same bill as "Pomp and Circumstance March number 5"?

Nothing to do with it.

Did the commission come through John Harle? (The saxophone virtuoso for whom "Panic" is being written)

I've known John since about 1978--I used to work with the National Theatre, and he came to audition with a saxophone quartet, and they worked at the National a lot. He asked me to write a piece, and I said, one day, and this seemed to be right, and I saw a way of doing it.

But there's also a percussionist..

There's a lot of percussion. A drum kit, like in pop or jazz.


Some of it. The important thing was to find a way of doing it that retains the energy of the drum kit, and that comes from it not being notated.. and also it's important that it doesn't have the cliché of a drum kit.. That's proving very difficult. But we'll see where we go. (Pause) It's a very different sort of energy in music when it's not notated.. so it's an attempt to keep that energy, without it being a cliché.

When I was studying in the States, I found that set theory worked well in analysing some of your earlier music--without getting too theoretical, is there anything in that? Was there anything in that for you?

I do a lot of things that spring from one idea. It goes through a lot of different processes, which I forget and re-invent as I need them. Pitch, rhythm, whatever. I can never look back and say how I did that, particularly with rhythmic processes. And there are things to do with intervals, hierarchies of intervals, which I've never heard anyone else deal with. Within an aggregate situation there are more minor thirds than fourths, for instance.. I have systems where I can control this, and at the same time be free. (Pause) Completely free. Certain things I do I think actually work in terms of the way they sound. All the melodic material in this new piece has minor seconds, major seconds, fourths, augmented fourths, and fifths. That's all there is.. I can control that melodically. But when I dealt with set theory, because I did that in Princeton with Babbitt, I could never make it be the music that I wanted. I could hear what I wanted, but no matter how I constructed those things, there was never anything irrational in it--and it's the irrational things that interest me.. So I developed a method of working in which I would improvise something, and say: "I like the sound of this.." and then subject it to analysis, to a way of thinking about it.

What was it like with Babbitt? Did you know what you were in for when you went?

Yeah. Max went before me. I sat there and waited for it to end. It got me absolutely nowhere at all. But it's interesting to know that pitches do have these qualities, I think it's important to know, it's important for composers. But for me,it was like.. a super way of doing species counterpoint.. And I never believed they could hear it. Hearing didn't come into it.

How do you think people listen to your music?

I should think they find it horribly difficult. (Pause) That's their problem, not mine.

My father tries with new music.. he gets as far as Lutoslawski..

Well Lutoslawki's easy! It's the acceptable face of modernism, isn't it?

Would you agree with Kagel when he said once that nobody needed composers anymore?

I don't think that's true.. I don't think it's like that now. I don't think they wanted us in the sixties or early seventies.

As one piece follows logically on from the last one for you, do find yourself going back to the old pieces, or do you try not to?

I'm often very surprised if I hear a piece I haven't heard for a long time. My attitude to writing is.. it's like when you do wallpapering, you know, you remember where all the little bits are that don't meet, you think: "Oh my God that's horrible.." And then your friends come and say: "Who did this wallpapering? It's terrific!" (Laughs) After a while you live with it and you forget about that.. I find that about my music.. it's usually that my memory of it is not very good but then I find things I'd forgotten about.

Anything that you're especially proud of, or ashamed of?

That's like saying: "What's your favourite piece?" (Laughs)

OK, so what's your favourite piece?

It's usually not a total piece.. I can give you examples of little corners of pieces, moments of pieces, aspects of pieces I like.. and if there are more of these moments or aspects than that may be one of my favourite pieces. (Pause) There are four bars in "...agm..." which do something rhythmically, which I think is the best thing I've ever done.

Four bars?

Yeah. It just sort of.. happens at that point. I just think it's very original, and I've never heard anything quite like it. It's unexploitable.

Which four bars?

Oh, I can't remember..

Did it surprise you the first time you heard it?

No. (Pause) But there are rhythmic ideas which sometimes only work up to a point. You can be theoretical about it, but in writing there are moments when it just comes off the page, it's not just a collection of notes.. something else has happened, it's a bit of magic. Trouble with new music in the past was that it didn't deal with that.. maybe that's what Kagel meant when he said that. The thing with combinatorial sets is that the ear never comes into it--it's not of that order, it's something else.

Could you respond to particular demands.. if someone asked you for a piece for solo piccolo, could you--

No, no. I always write the pieces I want to write. The idea of writing the thing for John Harle, for instance, is something I'd had in my head for a while and I hoped that one day I could do it. So, do I know what I'm doing next? Yes.. as I said, when I'm writing a piece and I can see more or less what to do, music is such a problem in the time it takes; if you asked me what I was doing next week I'd know what to say.. but I have undertakings to what I'm doing next year. I'd much sooner do what I want to do next week! That's what I learnt from working in the theatre--the theatre only knows what it's doing next week, not like the opera where they say: "What are we going to do in five years' time?" A completely different attitude to work.. it's wonderful.

You once compared composing to dry stone walling (Northern English tradition of wall building in the countryside, without cement) --what did you mean?

I'm a dry stone waller.. (Pause) I was brought up--so were you, in the North--we know what dry stone walls are.. but you know what's interesting about dry stone walls? It started in the eighteenth century, I think. The people who built them had to provide their own stones, and they were paid per hundred yards, something like threepence. What I remember about this old guy who did it was, when he picked up a stone, he never tried it. He always had a place for it. If you made a dry stone wall, you'd get a stone, put it in position, and then you'd get another one and think: "Well, that won't fit there, but I can put it here.." But those guys, when they pick up a stone, it always goes in the wall. (Pause) Don't ask me what the relationship is between that and composing.

It relates to your idea of ongoing composition from piece to piece..

Yes, I think you're right. One thing I've tried to do in writing music is take on very basic things, very archetypal things. This sounds horribly pretentious, but.. I like to think that if music hadn't existed, I could have invented it. (Pause) We were talking about being taught, and that I never found it was a help, but it was.. because when you come out of that, even if you think it doesn't help, you're a different person. You reject aspects of it, but if you say you reject it all, you don't really. You can't. It's not static. People change.

You're doing some teaching at the moment. Is it difficult? How do you teach composition?

It's easy. I only do Ph.D. students. I try to get into their heads, find out why they're doing it, if they understand all the implications and possibilities of what they do.

But composers of my generation are different--we're record junkies, we're constantly in touch with what's going on, or trying to be..

That's your problem. When I was a kid, it seemed very clear. Now I don't know where people go, how you decide, what the issue is. It seemed to me back then that there were two or three issues, and you rejected one but not another--so we had the English thing we mentioned earlier, and on the other hand Europe, which was Messiaen, Schoenberg and Stravinsky. We rejected Bartok, which was pretty stupid. He didn't seem to belong, or something..

What about what was coming from across the Atlantic?

There wasn't anything.

When did you finally come across Cage?

I never really have. I knew Mortie Feldman, because he was a friend of mine. Carter I know.. Crumb I know. That's about it. I don't think there is much American music.

Tell us about Mortie Feldman..

A great guy, a very good friend. We were, sort of.. kindred spirits, but from opposite ends of the spectrum.

How do you listen to one of his four-hour pieces?

I don't like to do that. I don't think anybody does. (Pause) Poetic extremism.

And the minimalists?

That came later. A bit two-dimensional. It's one of those things.. there's always something like that in any period of history. If you go to the National Gallery, for instance, you can go and look at sixteenth-century paintings, and there are corridors and corridors of crap. Wall to wall. But it's identifiable, you know, it can be taught. There's always something like that. A bit primitive, I think. But within it, there are some things better than others. To me, it's a bit simple-minded. I can't listen to it. (Pause) I think music has gone through a period of something very severe, rather radical, rather the way painting did with cubism. Cubism didn't happen in the eighteenth century--it happened at a very particular point in history. Minimalism now is a reaction to what came before. It's absolutely of its time. Music moved into the set theory thing, and moved out of it. There were exponents of it whatever -ism you subscribed to..(Pause) In the end it doesn't matter what you do.

Do you want your music to be of its time?

I can't control that. I can't sit down in my room and say: "I'm going to do something of my time.." Nobody can ever do that. You either are or you're not.

See interviews of related interest with Pierre Boulez , Fred Frith and Sunny Murray. Birtwistle interview by Dan Warburton, copyright 1995, 2002 by Paris Transatlantic Magazine.