A little bit somewhere else

Heckled at the Proms last year, Harrison Birtwistle is about to be celebrated at the South Bank. Dermot Clinch met him
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A BOOK of interviews with contemporary composers was published a few years ago which highlighted a fundamental divide in our musical culture. Some composers, it turned out, cared about what audiences thought of their music. Others - and to nobody's surprise Sir Harrison Birtwistle was a leading light among them - did not. "I'm not responsible for people's concentration problems," Birtwistle told his interviewer, combatively.

Birtwistle has a reputation for playing the irritable, cloud-headed artist with interviewers. As we meet, on the eve of Secret Theatres, the South Bank's retrospective of his work, almost his first words are: "Well, I didn't instigate the festival. I just write the music." Yet far from being prickly, Birtwistle's company proved positively enjoyable and stimulating. He is an intense man, shy perhaps, with a soft Lancastrian accent, a generous hand with the teapot, and a sad lament about the quality of the listening public. "What have I done?" he wails, or almost. "I get abusive letters. People are abusive - `couldn't write a tune if you tried', `who do you think you are?' Why are these people offended? I'm a nice sort of guy, really."

He is. Fairly certainly the abuse is caused by sheer incomprehension, exacerbated by the vast claims made for Birtwistle's status. If you propose that a composer is a good composer - which Birtwistle clearly is - you don't also have to suggest that he is the new Mozart. Which is what the Times did when it compared the premiere of Birtwistle's opera The Second Mrs Kong in 1994 to the first performance of Don Giovanni in 1787. Such comparisons raise hackles and miss the essential and far more plausible point: that Birtwistle is, simply, an individual, possibly the most determinedly individual composer of his generation.

He has been doggedly pursuing his own singular path since an auspicious leap to prominence in 1968 when Punch and Judy was performed at the Aldeburgh Festival. It was Birtwistle's first opera, and its language - musical, physical and sexual - was violent enough to cause Benjamin Britten, the most prominent British composer of the time, to walk out. As Birtwistle says, this was "the stuff dreams are made of". That violent streak - he has been influenced in his theatrical work by Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty - has never left Birtwistle's music. Sir Peter Hall, who worked with the composer at the National in the 1970s describes his musical personality as "extremely male, extremely violent". But also, "naive, lyrical, tender: a mass of contradictions".

The man may be mild, but his music is furious: the contradiction is there if we believe - as we no doubt shouldn't - that a person's art should be manifestly like their personality. Sir Harry's wind and brass wail and rasp, his percussion thunders, his strings are only rarely put to gentle use. The rebellion dates back to his student days. "It never seemed to be relevant," Birtwistle says of the teaching at the Royal Manchester College of Music in the 1950s. "There were a lot of things that were verboten: looking at colour, not mixing it, taking the raw energy if you like, the voicing of chords. They were considered things you didn't deal with. It was completely boring." The orthodoxy was strict Schoenberg and Webern, and the young lad from Accrington felt excluded, as if from a club.

So, with the best kind of bolshiness, he aimed to be an original. His contemporaries at Manchester, Peter Maxwell Davies and Alexander Goehr, have written sonatas and symphonies, but Birtwistle, never. Those traditional genres depend for effect on a tonal harmonic language that Birtwistle doesn't use, or on a kind of structural thinking he would consider old hat. "I look at a piece of music as if it were a three-dimensional object," he says. The key to his music is to spot the same material coming back as if from different angles. Things crop up, subtly changed but always similar, depending on their position. "The analogy with sculpture is that at no point do you see the whole object." It is a slow, waiting game: materials mass and converge, rather than combat dramatically.

Things may be changing, though. He is loath to talk about his development, but if anything it is an "evolutionary thing. You suddenly find you're somewhere else. I think maybe I've got to a point where I'm a little bit somewhere else." Bach Measures - Bach organ chorale preludes orchestrated, for alto flute and vibraphone among other instruments, and choreographed - certainly sounds very new. He has done nothing fancy with the great man, he says, but then hedges his bets. "I hope you'll recognise one aspect of it is still Bach. The originals are just wonderful pieces, and unravelling them for small orchestra you see their logic." Facetiously, one wonders if it might even be music to smile at. "Oh, I don't know about smiling."

A further step in a new direction is taken by Pulse Shadows, a group of nine settings (for voice and ensemble) of poems by Paul Celan, with string-quartet movements slotted in between. The quartets will be "commentaries, meditations" on the poems. The first Celan poem he came across was hard to understand, he says, but the imagery made the poem "very settable. It got the juices flowing. The normal notion is that you set the atmosphere. But the atmosphere of Celan's poems is ambiguous. They're very formal and it's a question of set