Interview with Diana Burrell – Spitalfields Festival Violin Concerto Premiere [15 June 2009]

Written by: Ben Hogwood

Diana Burrell is in her third and last year as curator of the Spitalfields Festival. When we meet at Kings Place her capacity is in that of a concert-goer, a concert taken from the NMC Songbook, to which she has contributed.

Burrell is an extremely affable person. How did she approach the NMC project. She smiles. “Very quickly, really, as I find writing with text really hard, and if I’m completely honest I don’t like setting it that much. A lot of the pieces I’ve done recently have got my own messed-around text, and their own meaning. I wanted to make this one as short, and as bright as possible. It’s a strange mysterious ending, where you leave the door open a little, and I’m quite pleased with that”.

She goes on to applaud NMC’s initiative. “It is a very enterprising project, but it’s definitely not something you can listen to in one go. I do think NMC is a valuable recording company for us though. I’ve recorded several things for them, and although I don’t yet have a complete CD I have pieces on other people’s. They’re a great company, and thank goodness for them! I think their secret is in the fact they do interesting things; for them it’s not just another cycle of Beethoven symphonies”.

Our attention turns to Burrell’s Violin Concerto, a work completed for first performance at this year’s Spitalfields festival. My copy of the score is partly computerised and partly hand written, which is explained by Burrell when she says, “I don’t work on Sibelius, it has been computer-set but it’s not ready yet as we sit here”.

She goes on to talk of the piece itself. “I thought it was the best thing to do, to give the Concerto its own concert. I don’t know if you know about the whole project, but I’ve been writing pieces for violin with various ensembles, but the music for solo violin is often similar in each, but it obviously sounds very different when it’s with harpsichord as opposed to electronics. As time went on I thought ‘there’s a kind of concerto here, really’, though it can be played all over the place by all sorts of violinists, and might always remain in pieces”.

It seems an appropriate way to finish her tenure at the Spitalfields festival, and she nods in agreement. “Coming up to my last festival, everyone was saying we must have something by you, something substantial, because I don’t put much of my own music on really. So I thought it was time to put it together, and I hope I’ve made it work. The concepts are the same – the violinist will play a verse, then we move on to the next, then the next, and then there’s a dialogue with the singer at the end. It’s quite an unusual manifestation of a violin concerto”.

The soprano sings Burrell’s own text, though the composer herself says, “It’s so mangled that nobody could possibly find out what it is. The idea is that the emotion and drama come from the music – the singer’s voice and the music, not the meaning of the words. I think people get terribly hung up on the meaning, don’t they, and they’ll say something like ‘Oh, she hasn’t set that quite right’ and I don’t think that’s relevant. But a singer has something to sing, obviously!”

Looking back on her time as Spitalfields Festival curator, Burrell seems largely content. “When I started three years ago it felt quite a short tenure, but I think it’s long enough in the end. I’ve done a lot of the things that I wanted to do, not everything, but I think even if I’d been there twenty years it would have been the same. I think it’s the right time because the whole organisation’s changed, there’s a new executive director and the previous one had been there for thirty years. They’ve got new ideas and I think they need to move on. I’m sad in one sense because we’ve had a very happy relationship and I share a bit of their future. It was a steep learning curve to start with!”

She agrees that one of the Festival’s successes has been through the immediate juxtaposition of early and contemporary music. “There is a practical reason for that”, she explains, “one being that we can’t get the really big symphony orchestras into the festivals, so Mahler is out – and really Brahms and Beethoven we’ve only done a little bit, so it tends to be smaller ensembles at each end, and I think it works. I think I’ve introduced more of a hard-edged contemporary music than we’ve had before, but that’s always been a feature of the Festival, and I hope they go on to do more.”

Through her approach the Festival has attracted a dedicated following. She agrees. “Over the last three years people interested in a certain sort of contemporary music do look at what we’re doing. I’ve had some ambitious ideas, and I think we’ve had some good projects. Not many places in London have been doing this sort of thing over the last three years or so”.

Not only that, but the Festival works for all ages. “It does, and I think that’s the direction it’s going in at the moment, with Alice in Wonderland and things like that.”

We move on to talk about her own influences as a composer, though here she is careful not to mention too many names. Some listeners have mentioned Britten and Tippett, but Burrell emphatically talks-down their influence. “That’s really quite old now, and I think – I know – I’ve moved on a lot since then. Britten I must say I never really liked as a composer, though I can imagine that the earlier pieces might relate to Tippett because I like his energy and the way his music dances. The trouble is that when you mention the names of other composers, people start listening out for them. I like Michael Finnissy a lot, and I like Birtwistle of course.”

Burrell’s music has as one of its features the use of metallic sounds. “I like a lot of bells and things”, she explains. “One thing that people used to get incredibly hung up on was to try and make me into some sort of nature composer, which was never really true and certainly isn’t now. Although I live in East Anglia now I did live in London for thirty years. In any case, when I’m writing I’m not very aware of my surroundings. I can switch off very well, and as a result not really inspired by anything like that. I find when I’m writing music that it’s a bit like being a sculptor, and taking a lump of clay, working with the textures, surfaces and shapes.”

This is the case with the Violin Concerto. “The violin part is quite rough edged, and rather than have a lovely tune like the Mendelssohn concerto I wanted to show how the instrument was capable of roughness and dynamic possibilities, and to be quite witty at the same time. I was aware of the violinist’s movements as they play, which is a big thing. So the piece has drama and movement – the whole gamut.”

Currently Burrell is working on a long-term compositional project of pieces for organ and other combinations of instruments. This is based around the hours of the day, and includes so far ‘Lauds’ (with electronics), ‘Terce’ (accordion), ‘Sext’ (harmonium, keyboard, three singers and cello) and ‘Nones’ in which the organ is teamed with two bassoons, two tubas, two double basses and percussion, including ‘home-made’ organs.

The composer carefully selects these combinations. “All the hours have different themes. ‘Lauds’, for instance, is really early morning, and yes, there is a cock crowing! ‘Nones’ is very dark, with double basses in particular. I’m still working on the project, and am expecting it to continue for another two years or so – there are still ‘Prime’ and ‘Compline’ to do, and ‘Vespers’. I will probably do that because there’s a separate one for each day of the week. The instrumentation will change for each day but the organ will stay the same throughout, used separately until the last.”

She also has a disc of choral music due in 2010 on Delphian Records, as well as a possible recording of her Clarinet Concerto. Yet now her particular concern is for the Violin Concerto and the Songbook, her focus suddenly returning to music of three minutes rather than one week!

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