Friday, June 02, 2006

Harrison Birtwistle: why I sounded off about pop

Ivan Hewett talks to the classical music prize winner about the distinction between volume and energy

From - 01/06/2006

There are two ways for a classical composer to get onto the papers - win a gong, or make a rude remark about pop. Sir Harrison Birtwistle did both in a single day last week, when he won the classical music prize at the Ivor Novello awards. He had sat in the hall listening to James Blunt and KT Tunstall and Athlete and finally when he was called up on stage his impatience boiled over. "I've never heard so many clichés in a single day," he said. "And why is all your music so effing loud?"
So is he after publicity? "I don't care what anyone thinks about me," he said when I spoke to him this week. "I just get on with what interests me'.
Birtwistle wants us to think he's indifferent to it all, but scratch the surface and there really is something riling him. Which is surprising, because Birtwistle is now a name to conjure with.
He's the only British composer who has a seat at the top table of modernists, alongside Lachenmann and Boulez and Kurtág. Being renowned in that world brings handsome prizes (Birtwistle has won the two biggest, the Siemens and Grawemeyer), it brings week-long festivals devoted entirely to your music in nice cities, and in Birtwistle's case he has also been knighted.
But there's no getting away from the fact that it's a small world, with no big record deals or cheering crowds. Step out of it and its marginal nature is frustratingly apparent. "If you're an architect or a playwright, you're at the centre of what you do," he says. "But with music it's different. Say the word 'music' and everyone thinks you mean pop, which immediately puts people like me out of the picture."
It sounds like the resentment of someone who wants to be where the action is, and finds it being made by people much younger and richer than he is, with little grasp of high art. But he insists it's not personal.
"It's not to do with me, or my status, and I'm quite fond of some pop." Can he name any names? "Well, sometimes I hear a performer who's got something. Ray Orbison's got it, and the other day I heard Ms Dynamite and I thought she was remarkable."
So why lash out at pop music in general for being too loud? And isn't that a bit rich coming from the composer of The Mask of Orpheus - which Birtwistle himself describes as possibly the loudest piece ever written? "Yes, but we're talking about contrast. Everything was so relentless at the Novello awards, I felt deadened. I've also written some of the quietest music ever.
"The point I really wanted to make is the distinction between volume and energy. These days, so many things have a technologically produced noise but no energy. It's the same in film. Compare the recent King Kong with the original. In terms of technology, the old one is primitive, but what feeling it has. The new one shows you everything, it's got much better technology, but it's empty."
Well, maybe, but it's hard to see how this applies to music. "It's a mental thing, it's to do with something containing an energy that's hidden and not to do with battering the senses. The other day I heard Alfred Brendel play Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto. You remember how it begins with just that simple quiet chord? Think what's required to achieve that."
So is he talking about classical performance? "No, it's there in the music itself; the performer discovers it and makes it real. There's a mystery in classical music, an energy that comes from avoiding routine. Listen to Bach, see how those progressions are always typical but always surprising. There's always something that escapes analysis.
"And, in my music, I'm always concerned not to repeat myself. Composing is all about getting out of a corner, and I'm always thinking about a different way to do that."
It all sounds as if Birtwistle is keen to position himself in the Great Tradition. "Yes, people attack for me being this shocking radical who writes this incomprehensible music, but really I think I'm doing the same sort of thing as Beethoven. When the Queen asked me what sort of music I write, I said, 'Like Beethoven's', which sounds like a joke, or arrogant, but actually it's true. Now I suppose everyone will say I'm a terrible reactionary."
But, if Birtwistle is heir to a long tradition, surely what he does should be obvious to anyone who likes Bach and Schubert? He admits to being stumped. "It's strange isn't it? I feel exactly the same as Stravinsky, who said he couldn't understand why his 'difficult' late music wasn't obvious to anyone. I don't know what I think about that."
Wrestling with music's "mystery", Birtwistle has the instinctive certainty of a plant turning to the sun. But faced with that other mystery - why the thing called music fell into warring factions, and how it might be joined again, or even whether it should be - he's as dubious as the rest of us.

A knight errant at the Ivors

It was all going so well at the Ivor Novello songwriting awards. And then Sir Harrison Birtwistle stood up.

By Tim Robinson
From the Guardian - May 26, 2006

The first thing that strikes you about the Ivor Novello awards is the scale. There must have been 1,000 people sitting down to lunch in the Grosvenor House Hotel's Great Room yesterday in London. The hotel's ability to serve decent food near-simultaneously to all of them, including vegetarian alternatives for specific guests around the room, was breathtaking.
The ceremony itself was as much fun as ever - more, if anything. The high spot didn't come from Damon Albarn, KT Tunstall, New Order, the Kaiser Chiefs, the Arctic Monkeys, the Bee Gees or even a low-key and self-effacing James Blunt. Neither was it provided by any of the excellent guests, such as Gary Barlow, Rolf Harris, Lulu, Bobbie Gillespie or the lugubrious Terry Hall, who handed them their trophies,
In fact the most memorable moment was when the dumpy and eccentric figure of Sir Harrison Birtwistle stumped onto the stage, throwing himself impatiently into a chair as he waited for Sir John Drummond to finish his well-crafted eulogy and hand over the 2006 Classical Music award. Sir Harry's acceptance speech was nothing if not gracious.
"Why is your music so effing loud?" demanded the knight "You must all be brain dead. Maybe you are: I didn't know so many cliches existed until the last half-hour."
A few minutes later it fell to the rather more popular composer David Arnold, of Bond film fame, to make a riposte as he presented Francis Shaw with the Best Original Film Score award.
"Earlier this year," said Arnold "I was at a reception for the music industry at Buckingham Palace and the Queen asked us that same question. Rob Halford from Judas Priest told her we like it loud because it sounds better."
"Actually," he added, once the cheers and laughter had subsided, "it doesn't make the music any better - just louder." No one had a problem with that.

Avant-garde giant who is damned and revered

By Richard Morrison
From - May 26, 2006

A gruff, uncompromising Lancastrian who writes music of granite-like toughness and dizzying complexity, Sir Harrison has long been the biggest beast in the clangorous jungle of British avant-garde music.
Fêted by the critics, knighted in 1988 and regularly performed by leading opera companies and orchestras around the world, he is nevertheless damned as impenetrable by many music lovers. When his orchestral piece Panic was televised at the Last Night of the Proms in 1995, the BBC switchboard was jammed by affronted viewers. But Birtwistle belongs to the generation of modernist composers who believe it far more important to explore new sound-worlds or challenging intellectual concepts than to tickle the ears of millions.
Reticent by nature, he can be as prickly as a hedgehog when riled — though he is revered by the many young composers he has taught.
His apocalyptic orchestral piece The Triumph of Time is regarded as a 20th-century classic to place alongside Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
In recent years, as hardline modernism has faded from fashion, some critics have detected a new mellowness in Sir Harry’s work. But such changes are relative. So vast is the chasm between his angular, dissonant and ferociously knotty style and the saccharine chords and tunes of the average pop song that it is hard for many people to accept that they both qualify as music. To judge from his remarks, Sir Harry himself is one of those people.

From - Thursday 25/05/2006

Classical composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle injected a note of controversy into proceedings with a biting attack on his fellow award winners.Sir Harrison received the Classical Music Award for his modern compositions.Addressing the audience of music stars he said: "Why is your music so effing loud? You must be all brain dead. Maybe you are."I`ve nothing against pop music, I`ve just discovered Roy Orbison, but he`s a real singer."I didn`t know so many cliches existed until the last half-hour."

Winning composer booed off Ivors stage for criticising bands

From - Fri 26 May 2006

Harrison Birtwistle has won his second accolade from the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters in less than a year, scooping the Ivors Classical Music Award at a ceremony at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel.
Birtwistle, who picked up two prizes at the British Composer Awards in December, used his acceptance speech at this year’s Ivor Novello Awards to slam the assembled rock and pop musicians for playing their music too loud.
The composer of The Ring Dance of the Nazarene and Night’s Black Bird, asked winners including James Blunt, KT Tunstall and Kaiser Chiefs: “Why is your music so fucking loud? You must be brain-dead”, complaining that he had “never heard so many cliches” as he had witnessed at the awards. He was subsequently booed off stage.

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