'I had to write it'
From the Guardian - Thursday October 19, 2006
Oliver Knussen tells Tom Service why he read 1,700 Emily Dickinson poems in order to compose a requiem for his former wife Sue
Composer Oliver Knussen lives in what might well be Britain's most musically auspicious spot. His home is a rambling house in Snape, Suffolk, just up the road from where Benjamin Britten lived in Aldeburgh, home of the annual festival, where Knussen was artistic director for 15 years. It's also one of the most beautiful parts of England. But there are downsides to living in the country. "You see those bricks there?" he says, pointing to a stove in the chimney in his living room, "they're there because of an invasion of crows. For the past few weeks, every day when I was trying to compose, I would hear squeaking, and a dirty great crow was sitting there in the chimney. It finally worked out how to get out, by undoing a latch on the inside. You'll notice that some of the windows are less dirty than others - that's because I had to replace them when the crow smashed into them. It's very strange. You're subject to these terrible invasions of nature."
This is just one of the distractions Knussen has to deal with in Suffolk to create his music of luminous detail and distilled, concentrated power. "My music is an antidote to my lifestyle," he says, and in the midst of the piles of scores, CDs and thousands of DVDs, it's hard to imagine how he creates any space in his life, or his surroundings, to write his music. "I'm a very informal person, shall we say. I don't lead a structured life, and I'm perfectly happy to spend an evening at home, surrounded by books and scores, watching a DVD - preferably of Curb Your Enthusiasm, or similar."
Yet this private chaos belies Knussen's public status: as composer and conductor, he is as generous in the music he programmes as he is committed to creating a vibrant performance tradition for his own work. As artistic director and now conductor laureate of the London Sinfonietta, Knussen changed the face of British new music in the 1990s. He has come a long way from the teenage prodigy who conducted his first symphony as a 16-year-old with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1968. His position as doyen of British composers was cemented earlier this year when Jude Kelly appointed him one of her artists in residence at the South Bank Centre, and he takes up a post as the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group's artist in association with a concert this weekend.
Knussen's BCMG programme features a Knussen premiere, the first British performance of his requiem: Songs For Sue. It's a piece written in memory of his wife, who died in 2003, and sets four poems for soprano and 15-piece ensemble. The couple were married in 1972 and separated in the mid-90s but they remained close. No one knew more about Knussen or his music than Sue. The requiem contains music of typical intensity and concentration, but as I heard in a recording of the first performance from Chicago in April, there's something new as well. "It was a piece I had to write," Knussen says. "What sparked it off was after Sue died, there was a memorial for her in the October Gallery, and there was a pamphlet of things that people had written about her. Sandy Goehr had put in four lines of a poem by Rilke. And last year these lines kept resonating in my mind and gradually acquired notes around them. Then the question was to find other poems that would work with the Rilke."
Knussen says, "the choice of the other poems happened sort of automatically. The Machado, the second poem, which is about remembering the dead person's eyes - it's very disturbing - I found on the internet, and the Auden, If I Could Tell You, is a sort of secret message. I just knew it belonged in the piece." These are unsentimental poems to choose to memorialise a loved one - in the Machado, a man forgets the colour of his lover's eyes a year after her death, and the admonishing refrain in the Auden is: "Time will say nothing but I told you so."
The first poem is the most controversial: a composite of poems by Emily Dickinson, beginning: "Is it true, dear Sue?". "I wanted something that wasn't terribly heavy," Knussen says. "I knew what I wanted the poem to be about, but it didn't exist. I knew there were a number of Dickinson poems addressed to her sister, Sue, so one week I read all 1,700 poems of Emily Dickinson ... and I copied out about 35 of them by hand, ringing lines that I liked, and the first poem fell into place."
But this was a work that was written like no other for Knussen. "I have no idea where the notes for this piece come from. I have no rationale for them, I just wrote it straight it off the top of my head. It was very odd.
"It seemed to want to be written. For a while, as I was writing it, I wasn't sure whether it was a piece that actually ought to be let out at all, because it is very personal, and because I didn't want it to be a self-indulgent thing. But actually it's very restrained. It's not a huge work - about 13 minutes - but it's a big piece emotionally. And it says what it has to say: it's very much a piece written for family, and for people who knew Sue."
There's something even more personal about the composition of the requiem. He started sketching it in hospital last year, where he spent three months recovering from major illness, and it's the first piece he's finished since the experience. "You have a lot of time to think when something like that happens to you," he says. His appreciation of music changed completely. "In the first month or so, I found listening almost unbearable. One was so sensitised in that condition; it surprised me a great deal, but I found myself being very teary. So finally I just stopped listening to music."
When he was able to listen again, it was a revelation. "There were two pieces I listened to obsessively: the Stravinsky Symphony in C - Stravinsky is a very good person to cheer you up - and precisely the opposite, expressively speaking - the Berg Three Pieces for Orchestra. The Stravinsky suddenly became this three-dimensional object; the structure of the piece became a physical experience. And likewise the enormous density of the Berg. Listening in that kind of depth has left an enormous mark on the music I've written since. And I hope I can keep going that way."
The requiem could be a watershed piece for Knussen, in which this famously self-critical composer, who is notorious for not finishing commissions, learns to trust his instincts. And yet the essential contradictions of Knussen's life remain. "The point is, I'm a big person, I'm just physically big, and I enjoy life," he says. "I don't know whether it's extremely significant or just something that's completely unresolved inside me, but I am profoundly drawn to miniature things, and fineness of detail and precision. And I don't know what that's about. So it's been a very interesting experience to write this requiem: a very distilled kind of music in which there aren't that many notes, and not that much detail. It's something I've never done before. It's probably just growing up, you know".