Another panic attack at the Proms?

The last time Harrison Birtwistle's work was performed at the Proms, it caused a storm of protest. This year he's back, with a new work for brass and voices. Louise Flind spoke to the uncompromising composer
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Harrison Birtwistle's public persona defies the establishment, as does his music. Yet for the past 40 years, he's been one of our most prolific composers; from the reputed bad guy of the Sixties to the recognised knight of today. The complexity of his character – the tough Northerner on the exterior disguising an innate gentleness – is transposed into his music. For while some of his previous compositions – most manifestly Panic, premiered at the last night of the Proms in 1995 – imply a certain aggression, his latest stage work, The Last Supper, written as a joint piece for the Deutsche Staatsoper in Berlin and Glyndebourne, is mellifluous, matching the forgiveness of the Christian faith with a deep tenderness.

His surprise at its success is typical, humility almost to the point of self-denial – "it happened rather well, I think, didn't it?" Despite this, and a despite firm pronouncement that "I don't think anybody can express themselves – I think you express yourself in spite of yourself. I'm not sure what music expresses, anyway", Birtwistle has a defined explanation of his music and a libretto/story-type that enhances it.

"What I'm not interested in doing is making pieces for the theatre with no familiarstory to them. Like taking a play or something you've never seen before and making it into an opera. What I am interested in is re-telling things that we already have in our heads, so that the work becomes commentary. The sort of music I write is not suited to linear narrative like, say, The Makropulos Case and a lot of operas – it's a different sort of music. The way it unravels, the way it speaks – it's not the same. If you move into the theatre with a linear narrative, you have to ditch all the things that I'm interested in, in order to follow the narrative that you've chosen. So you really have to become a different sort of composer. But with retelling, I can make a theatre that indulges my musical ideas." Hence his operas to date; Punch and Judy, The Mask of Orpheus, Gawain, The Second Mrs Kong and now The Last Supper. In other words, his pieces are about commentary – commentary on universal stories and well-known events.

Birtwistle's creation of his music is evolutionary. He feels it's like a journey. Forthcoming projects include The Shadow of the Night for the Cleveland Orchestra and a new stage work for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, both of which are evidently uppermost in his mind. He actually admits that "next year I'm going to be writing a piece, and I think I know more or less what it's going to be, but next week, I don't know – next year, I do".

When we meet he's just about to begin writing a new work for brass, entitled Tenebrae David, for a Prom concert this season. He's dedicating the work to the art critic David Sylvester, who died recently. Underneath his laid-back, take-it-or-leave-it attitude, there's a certain amount of tension mounting about this piece. Although it's a short piece and "not in the mainstream, it will derive material from what I'm doing now", he's loath to talk about it – perhaps understandably.

"I'm scared witless – I'm putting it off, and that's why I don't want to talk about it. I've given myself till the end of the week to do what I have to do, and then I'm going to spend two weeks writing this thing and hope I can do it. I think I've enough stuff in my head to feel fairly secure that something will happen."

In light of the reaction to Panic (the Proms office received thousands of complaints, chiefly, one would imagine, because of the public's possessive attitude to this national ritual) of the Proms' Last Night, nerves are understandable. However, the audience's reaction is not Birtwistle's concern, and never has been. It's evidently the process of production which causes his anxiety. He admits Panic was a pretty raw piece, but believes some hostility was inevitable. "The last night of the Proms is a sort of celebration of nothing, and any piece of music like that, in that situation, would have caused that reaction – I don't think it was uniquely me."

Although his work has been performed at the Proms since, Tenebrae David is his first commission since Panic. Nicholas Kenyon, Director of the BBC Proms explains that Birtwistle was asked: "because we had a concert for voices and brass and we knew that Birtwistle was interested in writing a piece for brass and ensemble. For commissions these days we often pick up on ideas of things we know composers want to write, rather than asking them out of the blue."

He's unswervingly modest. "The thing about what I do is that I always feel I'm getting another chance. Yesterday, I got to the end of a section, and I sort of composed my way out of a corner. So I think, 'I've got myself out of that mess, so now I've got another go – this is going to be terrific.' But it never is," he declares. By saying that, he doesn't mean that he's disappointed; merely that he is never satisfied. It's an admission that helps one to understand his continuous, restless attitude, which seems at odds with his beguiling manner. Composing involves a journey from the complexities inside the head to the music itself. "It's never what you imagine it to be – something that's very clear in your head, a sort of interpretation of an idea, ends up with a different reality." No wonder the process is so alarming.

Until about five years ago, Birtwistle lived in varying degrees of geographical isolation – on a Hebridean island, and in a remote village in France. Now, even living in the middle of a quiet Wiltshire village, he still misses the more secluded life. It seems that he has an acceptance of, as well as an attraction to, this sort of life. "You're absolutely on your own – particularly in the sort of music I write." Recognition has been in abundance – reflected not only in the number of commissions he receives, but also in the many honours he has been awarded. The latest accolade was being appointed Companion of Honour this year.

Drinking coffee with Birtwistle in his kitchen and chatting about the possibility of his acquiring a couple of cats, you could be speaking to a cuddly godfather. But if you scratch his musical surface, the Northern shutters come down, and a defence mechanism seems to surround his being. It's difficult to understand, when you take into account his successful career, and I was left feeling as baffled by him as perhaps, at times, he is by himself.

Having seen the premiere of The Last Supper performed by the Glyndebourne Touring Opera (it's being revived for this year's festival with the same superb cast), I would stress that it's definitely worth catching, even if your religious inclinations are at variance with the Christian tradition. Birtwistle himself acknowledges, "I'm a humanist at the moment." Hardly surprising, with that twinkle in his eye.

'Tenebrae David' will be performed as part of Prom 64 at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on 7 September (box office: 020-7589 8212; www.bbc.co.uk/proms). 'The Last Supper' opens at Glyndebourne on Saturday, with six further performances throughout August. Information: 01273 815000, box office: 01273 813813, www.glyndebourne.com

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