Magazine article Musical Times

Still Revolving

Magazine article Musical Times

Still Revolving

Article excerpt

DAVID BRUCE welcomes a crop of recent Birtwistle publications that reveal a composer still at the height of his powers

MICHAEL HALLS second Birtwistle book aims to create an overview of the composer's work since the early 1980s, as well as to draw together any new information which has come to light with regard to earlier works since the publication of his first study in 1983. In spite of its distinctly meandering form (in which, for example, there is a three-page discussion of the 1997 orchestral work Exody - complete with musical examples within the bounds of the chapter '1983-6'), the new book presents many interesting and intriguing glimpses into the working life of its subject. Indeed, by the end one is left with a surprisingly clear understanding of Birtwistle's aesthetic - a fact which, for those of us who have always enjoyed his very ambiguity, may come as something of a disappointment.

Hall's introduction describes a composer who reached maturity in the 1960s, with all the associated interest in `non linearity' that this might imply (specifically, Hall suggests, a preoccupation with the avoidance of goal orientation), but who is moved by an irresistible and diametrically opposing inclination towards the dramatic - opposing because drama is, by its very nature, essentially linear. Much has been made of the trend in Birtwistle's music in recent years away from the non-linear (perhaps with one eye towards finally capturing him as a traditionalist), and Hall astutely avoids overstating the point. Those of us fooled lately into seeing Birtwistle's career as a fashionable progression from the 1960s evasiveness of The mask of Orpheus (strange to think of it as being premiered in 1986) to the 1990s linearity of The second Mrs Kong have been proved wrong by recent additions to his already substantial canon. Exody, Birtwistle's most recent large-scale orchestral piece (elegantly produced in full score with impressive speed by his 'new' publisher, Boosey & Hawkes) contains numerous Birtwistle traits, familiar of old in this regard - an emphasis on labyrinthine form, and the inclusion of musical events (similar in blueprint if not in finished veneer to formal articulations in The triumph of time) occurring 'outside' the time-frame of the main musical argument. Pulse shadows (1996), however, goes a step further. Interlocking a cycle of string quartets with a cycle of songs into an eighteen-movement super-structure', this epic chamber work represents a radical departure for Birtwistle. Whilst many of the individual movements do have a clear moment-to-moment sense of progression, many also appear as mere fragments of some larger object - in Birtwistle's own words, rather like a video freeze-frame of an object the second after it exploded. There seems to have been genuinely no attempt during the course of composing to construct an overall design for the movements; but the final ordering (framed with effortless subtlety by an overlapping of the two instrumental groups at beginning and end) makes for a highly convincing whole unified in style, but defying singular interpretation. An implicit homage to that pinnacle of 1960s non-linearity, Boulez's Le marteau sans maitre, this piece is both something new, as well as a sign that there has been no fundamental shift in Birtwistle's interests.

But the renewed emphasis on non-linearity does not stop there. One of Birtwistle's most recent pieces, The woman and the hare (premiered last March in a first-rate Nash Ensemble concert) feels distinctly Orpheus-like in its intoxicating, drifting mix of sung and spoken word (for `drifting' read `avoidance of goal orientation'); and perhaps the most obvious return to non-linearity still awaits us - as a choice of operatic plot, Birtwistle's next - The Last Supper - is surely as 'undramatic' as they come. All this goes to show that the two facets of Birtwistle's work - the non-linear and the dramatic - are still very much in a state of active flux. …

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