Birtwistle Games

Written by: Colin Anderson

From 20 October to 11 November, the South Bank Centre is celebrating Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s music – Birtwistle Games. Colin Anderson recently interviewed the composer…

Sir Harrison Birtwistle and his music are linked through frank honesty. He’s a composer that writes what he wants hoping to find an audience. “To put it simply, I’ve had musical ideas, a music in my head, and I’ve always tried to do it as clearly as possible.” I’ve spoken with Birtwistle before, at his Dorset home, an interview for the booklet of a CD (sponsored by The Classical Source) of his wind-based chamber music (Deux-Elles DXL 1019). He’s friendly, dryly witty and a lucid explainer of his craft. We might find that he’s written only one piece. “What I meant is that I feel I’m starting from the same place, facets of the same idea. You have a creative bag and when you write a piece of music you make a context and that context suggests something else; you keep delving into the bag and exploiting different things. I think a fermentation happens in the bag itself! It all comes from the same place but it’s how you express it.”

Given Birtwistle’s preoccupation with ritual and perspective, are his pieces worked through in his mind before pen hits paper? “They’re complete when I start but what’s complete in my mind tends to disappear; you get a new reality, so that what you are doing is an interpretation of that idea. It’s a bit like going to a place you’ve never been; you build up an image of it but when you get there it’s not what you imagined and then the thing in your head vanishes.” I remark that some recent scores reveal a softer, more lyrical side to Birtwistle. “That’s just a phase; wait and see! What you’re talking about, that expressive quality, isn’t to do with a piece of music, it’s to do with an attitude to material at a particular time and a reaction to what you’ve done before.”

Birtwistle turned 70 in July but isn’t feeling nostalgic: “I find what’s in front of me more interesting; the next thing is the most important.” Nor is he concerned to revise works: “things can be over-refined; I like things with a bit of dirt in them, chisel marks.” The South Bank Centre is presenting Birtwistle Games, a play-on-words for Birtwistle’s compositional premise. “The game is finding a way of manipulating the idea. I’m very interested in what the rules of the game are; yet you only find the rules when the thing is finished. I could never make a set of rules and stick to them, but it seems that in the process of writing the rules become defined.” Is Birtwistle concerned with moving the listener? “I’m very conscious of that and I hope that I take people somewhere, but I don’t know if it’s the same journey.”

Birtwistle composes rugged, emotionally intense music; he has a knighthood and one easily calls him Harry (“it’s my name!”). To his detractors his scores are bewilderingly complex but “I’ve never set out to write challenging music. I might be part of the establishment but I don’t think my music is!” Birtwistle has arranged some Bach arias to open Games. “I love the music and to do an arrangement of something is to own it; it’s like buying a painting and putting it on your wall as opposed to the National Gallery.” Also chosen is Morton Feldman’s delicacy and silence to epitomise that “silence is one of the most important ingredients in music.” We touch on rapid-fire TV editing: “they can’t leave the camera behind anything for more than three seconds. Keep still!”

Birtwistle Games concerns opera, instrumental and piano music, choral and chamber pieces, and a linking of musical resource with John Dowland. Don’t miss two orchestral blockbusters, Antiphonies and Earth Dances, in the Festival Hall on 31 October, the latter newly recorded by Pierre Boulez (DG 477 0702), “very good, very clear”. This Philharmonia/Dohnányi concert also goes to Cliffs Pavilion Southend on 5 November. A journey worth making to hear the music again. “In music that is multi-faceted, which I think mine is, if you listen more than once then the accumulation of it relates to your memory.” What is Harry’s anticipation of the next few weeks? “Ask me afterwards!”

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