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ARTICLE Plain text for smartphones & printers

Encounters with British Composers
by Andrew Palmer

Support us financially by purchasing this book for £25 from

MusicWeb readers don’t need me to tell them that, for the majority of the public, ‘music’ means ‘popular music’. It’s The X-Factor and The Voice, not the Wigmore Hall and the Proms. It’s Radio 1, not Radio 3. It’s the massive ‘Rock & Pop’ and ‘World Music’ sections, not the tiny ‘Classical’ one, in a typical HMV store. And an evening at the opera is Phantom, not Forza del Destino. Classical music is acknowledged and even liked, but only to the point at which it starts to become ‘difficult’ by making demands on the listener. And surely everyone knows that ‘modern’ music is the most difficult and demanding. Too sweeping a statement? Well, it’s what I myself used to think. I had no time for contemporary classical music, which brought me no pleasure at all. I might have been encouraged to persevere with it by someone who could help me to understand how its sounds were related to, and had developed from, those of the ‘popular’ classics I listened to, but there was no one to do that for me.

As a teenager I felt rather a freak for listening to the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and Brahms’s Fourth Symphony rather than 10cc and Pink Floyd, but little did I realise how small a minority I was in. Classical music, even of the mainstream variety, is at most a ‘fringe’ or minority interest; and this is a reality that contemporary composers do their best to ignore. Who can blame them? Not long ago George Benjamin told an interviewer

The Performing Rights Society is responsible for collecting all the royalties for all types of music in Britain, and the royalties involved are immense, something like £600 million a year. And, apparently, the whole of classical music within copyright – so from Strauss and Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Britten, through till today – is responsible for only one third of 1% of those sums… I’m not talking about difficult or challenging contemporary music, I’m talking about the last hundred-and-so years of music, including Barṭk and Vaughan Williams and Messiaen and Copland and Gershwin and so on. I know it’s a dry, statistical fact, but it does say something. It says that, for a huge number of people, classical music is just closed: it’s a very peripheral activity within our society, I fear.’

Which is particularly depressing for those of us who love, like or are merely interested in the music of our time. And it’s the reason why I’ve written this article for MusicWeb about my book of interviews with contemporary British composers, which will be published by Boydell Press on 19th November. I’m not comfortable when publicising my work – I’d prefer it to speak for itself – but because of its subject matter this is probably the most important but also the least ‘commercial’ book that I’ll ever write, and therefore one that might benefit from a little help in reaching its readership.

In one of his essays on music Ned Rorem has written: "A composer can clarify his method to others, but not his aesthetic. He can tell how he wrote his piece, but not why. His why is the piece. All else is a smoke screen through which he explains what you’re supposed to hear rather than what you do hear. Unless the smoke screen itself is his music."

Which would appear to confirm that compiling a book of interviews with composers (in this case, British ones) is rather a waste of time, especially if the compiler is interested in the social and psychological processes of composition rather than the techniques used to achieve the desired musical results. If composers really can’t talk about their own music, why ask them to? Yet some readers will know that a number of writers have done just that, most memorably Murray Schafer in British Composers in Interview (1963) and Paul Griffiths in New Sounds, New Personalities: British Composers of the 1980s (1985). And I had reasons – I believe important ones – for wanting to do something similar.

The first reason is the dates I’ve just mentioned. Griffiths’s book appeared more than a quarter of a century ago, Schafer’s more than half a century ago. That’s a long time, musically – one and two generations of composers respectively. So there seemed to be value in exploring what today’s composers are doing, and why. Another reason is the ways in which classical music has developed over the last half-century. Some people will suggest that a lot has happened, musically, in that time; others will argue that not enough has happened, and that genuinely progressive music has been sidelined. It seems to me that the development of music has been as much horizontal as vertical, by which I mean that it has broadened under the influence of many other types of music rather than developing in a particular direction. And this cross-fertilisation is the result of a globalised and digitised culture that Murray Schafer and possibly even Paul Griffiths couldn’t have foreseen.

Whether you believe that music has diversified or fragmented depends, I suppose, on how optimistic or pessimistic you are. But it was clear, when I began to compile this book nearly five years ago, that I would need to interview more composers than either of my literary predecessors did. Although I’m not trying to define what classical music is or isn’t, what’s being written (or at least marketed) today under the umbrella term ‘classical’ undoubtedly covers a wide spectrum, one that ranges from high modernism – what would once have been called the avant-garde – to the fringes of music theatre. So I set out to interview as wide a range of composers as possible, not only in styles of music but also in ages, personalities and levels of fame.

(On the issue of fame, I imagine that some of the contributors will be considered obscure or marginal to the contemporary music scene. But while it was inconceivable not to include as many of the big names as possible, it was also inconceivable not to feature some lesser-known ones. Why? Because for every famous British composer there are tens or perhaps hundreds of others who work without the support of publishers, managers, record companies or public relations consultants. They use the same raw materials and they produce work to the same level of integrity. And to me they’re no less a part of contemporary British music. Besides, composers don’t set out to become famous, X-Factor-style; they simply want to write music and have it performed. Often they don’t look much further ahead than writing the next piece and getting that performed satisfactorily. Few, I’m sure, plan a career as such, and the processes by which fame comes to some of them are mysterious. I tried to get the biggest names to account for what might be regarded as their celebrity, but they didn’t really have satisfactory answers because they don’t feel famous – and of course they aren’t, in the normal, showbiz sense.)

So the passage of time and the breadth of contemporary British classical music were two reasons for my wanting to compile this book. The third was as important, perhaps even more so, and it concerns who I am. Or perhaps I should say ‘what I’m not’. Murray Schafer is a distinguished composer, educationalist and environmentalist; Paul Griffiths is a respected critic, musicologist and commentator on contemporary music. I’m none of those things, even though, as a professional writer and speaker, I concentrate on classical music and musicians. I consider myself as much a recipient of the music-making process as a participant in it, and my response to music is essentially that of an amateur.
As an amateur, I sense that some composers are writing music that the majority of the public don’t engage with because they feel it has nothing to offer them. But I question whether this is necessarily the fault of the composers, because we live at a time when attention spans are shortening – gratification is increasingly required to be swift, if not instant. Also, I know from personal experience that some lovers of British music refuse to listen to anything later than, say, Walton, on the grounds that everything more recent is a horrible noise and not ‘real’ music. And I must say that I find this attitude more worrying than the most impenetrable piece of contemporary music. Why, when many people are unwilling to invest time in listening adventurously and thoughtfully, should composers feel obliged to write music that’s ‘accessible’ or ‘approachable’? On the other hand, what can they expect if they don’t? Is this the central dilemma for composers who believe that their music should have some relevance to society?

It’s certainly a dilemma for me, as a listener, because I find myself torn between two opposing views about how I should approach contemporary music. I’m often suspicious of pleasure that comes too easily – it can seem superficial or ephemeral – and so by nature I gravitate towards the late Sir John Drummond’s comment

People say, ‘I don’t like it; I don’t understand it’. My education was: ‘If I don’t understand it or like it, it may well be my fault, so why not go and find out a bit more about it?’

That makes sense to me, because the hardest-won pleasures are often the most rewarding, or those that satisfy at the deepest level. On the other hand - and particularly after a long day at work - I have equal sympathy with Alexander Goehr’s comment to me that ‘Listening to music is a leisure activity, so I don’t see any moral imperative to it.’ Of course, the so-called ‘problem’ of modern music isn’t only a contemporary phenomenon. Robin Holloway, another of my interviewees, has commented that 150 years ago ‘full appreciation of Wagner required patient labour at a new aesthetic (together with a willingness to be immersed, perhaps drowned).’

I haven’t drowned in contemporary music but I certainly immersed myself in it while compiling this book. And I discovered that, as a result, my ear became more attuned to it. Pieces that I’d written off only a few years earlier as unpleasant, possibly even unmusical (whatever that means), are now more coherent and meaningful to me. And I understand that while some music is complex and ‘difficult’ because it needs to be, it will nevertheless ‘speak’ to me if I pay it attention. Which suggests that, as with food, tastes can be acquired - but only if we keep an open mind, take chances and make an effort. After all, music brings pleasure that takes many forms, some of which can surprise us. So there was a fourth reason for my compiling the book: the desire to share the excitement of musical discovery. I hope that asking composers to talk about their music will encourage readers to listen to it more openly and more patiently.

The interviews took place over a period of four years, and they were based on a series of standard questions because I was curious to know if or how responses would differ according to the style of music that the individual composer writes. What, if any, common musical ground would I find between, say, Peter Maxwell Davies and Howard Blake? (And would John Rutter and Harrison Birtwistle show signs of envying each other’s very different kinds of success?) The interviewees were asked questions that included: Is there anything in general terms that you want to express through your music, or anything that you want your music to do? To what extent does your awareness of an audience influence what you write? Are you more concerned with the heart’s response or the mind’s response? How much of ‘composing’ takes place in your head before you write anything down? Do you have a work routine, and do you still write music by hand? How has your music changed or evolved since you began composing? How helpful was your formal musical education? When you started to write music, did you have any notion of what the life of a professional composer would be like? How comfortable are you with the increasingly public nature of ‘the composer’? Do you feel typecast by the success of one of your works and feel that others are overlooked? Since music is your profession, is your enjoyment of it different from that of an amateur? Why do composers tend to talk dispassionately about their own music? And, as this is a collection of interviews with British composers only, do you feel that your nationality influences your music?

However, I was aware that a straightforward question-and-answer format on the page could quickly become tiresome, particularly when the same questions featured in most of the interviews. In any case, this book isn’t a vehicle for the expression of my thoughts or opinions. So when editing the interviews for publication I removed myself from the conversations, as it were, in the hope that readers will have a sense of being spoken to more directly by the composers (I’d like to think that each interview contains at least one question that readers would like to ask that particular composer, given a similar opportunity). In addition, each chapter contains a personal and highly subjective account of where and when the interview took place and a description of what it was like to talk to each of the thirty-nine contributors, most of whom I hadn’t met before. I’m not going to apologise for being an amateur music-lover because I believe it qualified me to compile the book in a way that being a professional musician probably wouldn’t have done. But I am going to admit to partial failure, because Ned Rorem is right: composers can’t really say very much about their own music. If they could, they wouldn’t need to compose it. And yet their eagerness to be interviewed for this book suggests that they nevertheless appreciated the opportunity to try.

If asked to name my target reader I would risk appearing egocentric and say that it’s me. In fact, this isn’t so unusual, because the act of creation is all about pleasing the creator. When I interviewed George Benjamin I told him that the author’s fantasy is to walk onto a bus or train and to see that the person sitting opposite is reading one of his books and is clearly engrossed in it; and when I asked George whether he has an imaginary ideal listener to his music he replied, ‘In the end, what else can I do but imagine myself listening? The best chance I might have of writing music which speaks to others is by writing music that I would like to hear; and which, if I hadn’t written it and I came across it by accident, might appeal to me.’ Similarly, I’ve compiled the book that I wanted to read – in the belief that many other music lovers will also want to read it.

What appears to be a potential reader bought a CD of Ligeti concertos (not your everyday easy-listening classical music fare) from Amazon and wrote a review that concluded: "For me, as a newcomer to modern ‘classical’ music, this disc demanded some serious listening adjustment, attention and patience, but it was well worth the effort. Judging by the liner notes, a degree in music theory might also have been of great help, but I don’t think I am prepared to go that far to fully appreciate these remarkable musical/sonic experiences."

If that reviewer is a MusicWeb reader I want to thank him or her for proving that the kind of reader I had in mind while compiling my book does exist.

However, and as I suggested at the beginning of this article, I’m under no illusion that contemporary classical music is anything but a tiny niche market. What little money there is in it goes to performers, not to composers. And certainly not to writers. Compiling a book like this one is therefore a labour of love, which is why I doubt that anything similar will be published again - at least, not in conventional print format. So, if you’re interested in eavesdropping on contemporary British composers talking about their lives and work, it would be a good idea to get a copy while you can!

Andrew Palmer

Julian Anderson, Simon Bainbridge, Sally Beamish, George Benjamin, Michael Berkeley, Judith Bingham, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Howard Blake, Gavin Bryars, Diana Burrell, Tom Coult, Gordon Crosse, Jonathan Dove, David Dubery, Michael Finnissy, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Alexander Goehr, Howard Goodall, Christopher Gunning, Morgan Hayes, Robin Holloway, Oliver Knussen, John McCabe, Sir James MacMillan, Colin Matthews, David Matthews, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Thea Musgrave, Roxanna Panufnik, Anthony Payne, Elis Pehkonen, Joseph Phibbs, Gabriel Prokofiev, John Rutter, Robert Saxton, Sir John Tavener, Judith Weir, Debbie Wiseman, Christopher Wright.

Number of pages: 502
Publisher: Boydell Press
Publication date: 19th November 2015
Price: £25.00

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