Magazine article Gramophone

Harrison Birtwistle-Wild Tracks: A Conversation Diary with Fiona Maddocks

Magazine article Gramophone

Harrison Birtwistle-Wild Tracks: A Conversation Diary with Fiona Maddocks

Article excerpt

Harrison Birtwistle--Wild Tracks

A Conversation Diary with Fiona Maddocks

Faber & Faber, HB, 336pp, 22.50 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978-0-571-30811-8

The tone can be cosy and a bit Hello! magazine--'At Home With Harry! Sir Harrison Birtwistle shows us his delightful Wiltshire home and dishes the secrets on his darling new piano concerto'--but Fiona Maddocks certainly knows her stuff and manages to extract answers of unusual clarity and focus from the interview-phobic composer. Wild Tracks is structured as a conversation diary: Maddocks turns up chez Birtwistle a couple of times a week (the conversations took place last year) to quiz him about a particular topic or current existentialist itch. Oliver Knussen, John Tomlinson, David Harsent (poet and librettist), Birtwistle's three sons (Silas, Toby and Adam) and his Polish cleaner put in cameo appearances. And running through the narrative like one of those apparently never-ending Birtwistleian lines are updates on the composition of a new 80th-birthday piano concerto commission, Responses Sweet disorder and the carefully careless, for Pierre-Laurent Aimard.

At times you wish Maddocks had the nous to challenge some of Birtwistle's more loopy prejudices. It's no surprise to learn that 'minimalism' is a dirty word in the Birtwistle household--how disappointing it would have been to discover that he kicked back in the evening with a glass of Blue Nun and a John Adams CD. But when he dismisses minimalism as 'milk without cream ... so much has been lost: harmony for example', you're waiting for counterarguments that never come.

La Monte Young, Steve Reich or Philip Glass? Who exactly are Birtwistle's criticisms aimed at? Has he heard the harmonically plenteous Music in Twelve Parts or Music for Eighteen Musicians? Why would a musical movement that emerged where and when it did (America in the mid-1960s) exhibit different harmonic instincts to Birtwistle's own? Similarly, his deeply misinformed comments about jazz and improvised music are cheerfully waved through. Birtwistle informs us that improvised music (or perhaps jazz--he doesn't make a distinction between the two) 'comes out the top of your head [but] composition is a way you can go deeper, through consideration'. The necessary retort to that is that improvisers retain direct control over their material and don't delegate responsibility to faceless orchestral musicians. There is a debate to be had--what a pity Maddocks feels too on-message to chance those killer Frost/ Nixon questions.

All great composers, though, are a mass of contradiction and such loopy prejudices can prove as important to a composer's developing language as the music they admire. …

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