How We Met: George Mackay Brown and Peter Maxwell Davies

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The Independent Culture
George Mackay Brown, 72, was born in Stromness, Orkney, the 'Hamnavoe' of his stories and poems. His work includes six novels, children's stories, plays and two non-fiction books about his native islands; he writes a weekly column for the Orcadian. He was awarded the OBE in 1974.

The composer Peter Maxwell Davies, 59, was born in Manchester. Since 1970 he has lived on Orkney; he has set 22 works to the writings of George Mackay Brown, a fellow founder of the St Magnus Festival. Sir Peter conducts the premiere of his fifth symphony at the Proms on 9 August.

PETER MAXWELL DAVIES: It was a strange coincidence. I was fed up living in the South, because of the noise - distant traffic, military aircraft - even in the country. I had a vague idea of living somewhere else and had gone to Orkney with my then manager, James Murdoch. I wanted to see the Viking cathedral and the stone circles. Quite by chance I saw a book in a Stromness bookshop, An Orkney Tapestry by George Mackay Brown. I sat up all night reading it and thought it was the most wonderfully poetic evocation of a place I'd ever come across.

As luck would have it, the next morning we set off for Hoy. On the ferry I got talking to a man called Kulgin Duval. He'd noticed that I was carrying George's book, said he was on his way to visit him and his friends Archie and Elizabeth Bevan, and invited us to join them when we'd been round the island. That's how I came to meet George.

We stayed inside most of the time because of the weather, and I remember we drank an awful lot and must have been quite tiddly by the end of the day. I saw a house that had been abandoned for years. It had no roof, no door and was in a terrible state. That was one of those starred days when your whole life changes; within just a few hours I came to know George and his work, and I now live in that ruined house and I've set lots of his work to music. That meeting changed my whole existence.

My first impression was of a modest, shy man, a very warm person with a very dry sense of humour. He has a musical way of speaking which always impresses me. Even on that first acquaintance I was itching to set his work. The quality of his voice is always in the background of my mind when I read him, and I think the quality of that voice has somehow got into the settings. I listen very hard to the way people articulate - the music in the voice sometimes says something quite different to what they are actually saying in words.

Poets can be strangely prophetic. George's play Spell for Green Corn covers the 17th-century Orkney witch trials; the central character is wrongly accused of witchcraft, rather like the recent child abuse cases, with hysteria whipped up. I find the parallel very intriguing. His novel Greenvoe tells of a company that takes over an island and turns it into an industrial fortress; it was published just before the oil companies descended on Flotta and long before the threat of uranium mining on Orkney.

I think George's portrayal of a vanishing way of life, his attitude towards that and the way he is informed by religious belief and awareness of nature, give his work its strength and character. I have very strong spiritual instincts which are forever seeking clarification and articulation through music. His way of thinking has helped me.

I had to come to terms with Hoy - with being in a very wild place in a tremendous state of isolation. I had to come to terms with nature. Even in the purely abstract work, like the symphonies, I can sense George's presence. Something of the fusion of Christian and pagan worlds in his writing has infiltrated through into my work. Though I'm no longer a practising Christian, underneath there is something you never lose.

George leads a very simple life, working in a small, loved and used room, filled with books, his armchair by the fire. He was seriously ill a few years ago. When he came home he was offered a dram and when he said yes we thought, 'Ah - he's turned the corner.' It was a lovely moment for all of us. He is regarded with huge affection on Orkney. It wasn't always so. When he did some television plays in the Sixties people were a bit annoyed, because he showed them like they really are, lively with quite a lot of drinking and arguing - real people. They wanted some sort of tourist image to come across.

If we hadn't met, I suppose I could have gone off in another direction, writing film scores. I thoroughly enjoyed the two I did, working with Ken Russell, but there were more important things to do, writing symphonies and setting George Mackay Brown. I wait for his new work all the time.

GEORGE MACKAY BROWN: It was in the Muckle Hoose at Rackwick on the island of Hoy on a terrible day in July. There was a sea 'haar', as they call it, and the rain pelted down. I was on holiday with my friends Archie and Elizabeth Bevan. Another friend, Kulgin Duval, a man who deals in rare books and manuscripts, arrived on the ferryboat from Stromness. He told us he'd met a young composer and his agent, and had asked them to join us.

We got on well right from the start. In those days Max had wonderful black curly hair, but his eyes were his most notable feature, intense, smouldering eyes. He was looking for a house and went to see a cottage further along the beach, but it's a very popular spot in summer and Max wanted quiet. Then in the middle of winter he wrote and asked if he could stay in the Muckle Hoose to have a proper look round. He found a place, high up on the cliffs on the way to the Old Man of Hoy, and that was that.

He is very friendly and approachable and we have always got on.

We usually meet at the Bevans - Archie makes a very good home brew. We don't talk about music or literature, we just talk, just this and that, nothing profound. We are both admirers of James Joyce. When Max was on Desert Island Discs he chose Ulysses to take with him.

It was quite a struggle for Max to put his cottage in order because the sheep had used it for a shelter for 30 years. It took two years to restore and he's been living there ever since. For centuries Rackwick was inhabited by crofters and fishermen but it gradually became deserted in the Thirties and Forties and the cottages fell into disrepair. It is a very beautiful place, a kind of valley that slopes from the dark hills right into the Atlantic ocean. There are two huge cliffs and crofts on either side of the burn that flows through the valley.

It was the place Max was looking for, he liked it instinctively. By the time he arrived, there was just one farmer left on the island, Jack Rendal, a bachelor in his fifties. So the future of Hoy depended on this very tenuous thread - a lonely bachelor. Then Jack met a girl, an English girl visiting the island. They married, and Lucy came along in due course. She was the first child to be born on Hoy for over half a century, so we decided to do a little piece for her. I wrote the lyric, Lullaby for Lucy, and Max did the music. He used all the white notes, symbolising the innocence of childhood. It's a very popular piece.

Now Hoy has come to life again. There's quite a little community, a family from Devon, a fish farmer, David Hutchinson, and of course Max. It's quite amazing, everyone thought the island was doomed. It is such a remarkable coincidence that Max should come here just as the valley was coming to life again. I don't really believe in fatalism, but in some ways I suppose it looks like he was meant to come here.

In 1977 Max made an opera from one of my novels and called it The Martyrdom of St Magnus. It was performed in Kirkwall cathedral as the principal feature of the first St Magnus Festival. Of all his works, that is my favourite.

I have very visceral reactions to how he sets music to my work. I find it difficult to explain in words. I don't know anything about music, you see, but Max knows a lot about literature. He does 99 per cent of the work of collaboration. I stutter and stumble, he is the most extraordinarily articulate man.

Max's music is very dramatic. It varies, like all good music; it can be very tranquil. It is so multi-layered it can apply to all times and conditions.

He is very well liked here, although one or two people object to his music, they say it is too difficult. But he appeals at once to children: when he makes music for them they love it. They are far better judges than those who've grown up with set ideas on how music should sound. He has caught the mood of that valley on Hoy - the weathers, the atmospheres, the sounds and the sights of it even.

Max has shown Orkney that there are different kinds of music from the traditional, yet the reel and strathspey are absorbed into such pieces as An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise. Music will never be the same here again.-

(Photograph omitted)

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