Two sides of the same coin

The composer Harrison Birtwistle's earliest triumph is to receive an airing alongside his latest work, Theseus Game. Bayan Northcott applauds four decades of reinvention
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The Independent Culture

The scene was a lofty area called the Old Kitchen at the back of that elegant 18th-century pile Wardour Castle in Wiltshire - in those days, home of Cranborne Chase Girls School. The occasion was an out-of-term contemporary music summer school convened by the school's music teacher; the date, 20 August 1965.

Up on the stage, under the direction of the yet little-known young American conductor Lawrence Foster, the crack Melos Ensemble was rehearsing a first performance. Down in the hall, the work's 31-year- old composer, tousle-haired but not yet bearded, was silently following his manuscript surrounded by a gaggle of summer school students. At a particularly strident juncture, he looked up and muttered in bemused Lancashire vowels his sole comment on the proceedings: "Ee, funny stuff, isn't it?"

Actually, it was a knockout - as that evening's rave reception of the first performance duly confirmed. And it marked the definitive arrival of Harrison Birtwistle. Up till then he had been something of the mystery man in what the press seemed to regard as the first true avant-garde in British contemporary music: the so-called Manchester School of lively young things who had studied together in that city in the early 1950s. While the voluble Alexander Goehr and the darkly intense Peter Maxwell Davies attracted most of the critical attention, and their pianist, fellow-student John Odgdon, carried off the international prizes, Birtwistle put out a series of curiously hermetic, fragmentary pieces and said almost nothing at all.

But the new piece said plenty, seeming instantly to proclaim a sound and a sensibility unprecedented in British music. Indeed, the very opening of Tragoedia, as it was called, posed a fierce challenge. No festive fanfare, this, but a piercing flute pulsation at the very top of its range, immediately counterpointed by loud horn and cello iterations at conflicting tempi and setting off a kind of jagged, staggering march with savagely twanging harp - a gestural "entrance" of almost theatrical intensity.

The programme note informed us that "Tragoedia" literally means "goat song", and the work is concerned with the ritual and formal aspects of Greek tragedy rather than with the content of any specific play. Between its Parodos and Exodus, the score was duly laid out in a quasi- symmetrical sequence of paragraphs labelled Strophe, Anapaest and Antistrophe arranged around a central Stasimon. And Birtwistle's alternations and superimpositions of the wind quintet, string quartet and harp, plus auxiliary percussion, comprising his scoring strictly followed this formalistic scheme.

Yet the sound of it all was another matter: consistently extreme, not only in its deployment of grinding dissonances, shrieking tone clusters and raucous jiggings, but equally abrupt and extreme moments of fragility, remoteness or tenderness. No wonder that canny commentator David Drew characterised it as "an earthy drama: protestant, rude, and generally at odds with traditional orders of thought and behaviour. Blood is shed; yet there remains a still centre of lyricism."

Granted, as Birtwistle's creative character emerged, it soon became evident that aspects of this extraordinary music were not, after all, without precedent in his previous pieces; its denser sonorities in the massed wind writing of his early The World is Discovered (1961), for instance, and its fragile lyricism in his Entr'acts and Sappho Fragments (1964). It became clearer, too, why Birtwistle felt an affinity with Stravinsky and Messiaen, Satie and Varese - all of them composers who in one way or another had rejected traditional notions of music as self-expressive and devel- opmental, and had tuned back to the basic materials of pitch and rhythm to find new ways of filling, rather than manipulating, musical time.

In his pioneering study of Birtwistle published in 1984, Michael Hall shows how Birtwistle started from some of the most "primitive" elements of all: pulses, drones and ostinati, distorted doublings of melodic lines, repetitive verse-refrain forms, as so on - all of these pushed to surprisingly intricate ends during the 18-minute span of Tragoedia. What early listeners to that work could not as yet know was the completeness with which it already outlined the concerns of Birtwistle's entire output - concerns he was subsequently to elaborate in three principle ways.

One way was to realise its theatrical implications in the theatre itself: initially in the rude subject matter and ritualised presentation of his first opera, Punch and Judy (1967), which incorporates whole actual passages of Tragoedia into its score. But all Birtwistle's subsequent stage works have been concerned in one way or another with "collective" mythic, folkloristic or religious themes and highly formalized staging.

A second way was to monumentalise the relative dimensions of Tragoedia as if the score was a sculptor's marquette for the gigantic, lumbering forms of such orchestral blockbusters as The Triumph of Time (1972) or Earth Dances (1986). The third way was to extend the lyric implications of the melodic lines that wound their way intermittently through the score, whether on a large cyclical scale as in the Sir Thomas Wyatt setting Meridian (1971) or the many instrumental song sets - some to Birtwistle's own words - that have proved a recurrent preoccupation of his last 20 years.

What was already implicit in Tragoedia, what has bound all these multifarious, often tumultuous activities into essentially one "thing", has been Birtwistle's concept of musical time itself as neither progressive nor static but circular, analogous to the revolving of the seasons or, more specifically, our individual ways through a life-cycle that is basically the same for all.

It is not coincidental that he habitually talks of music unfolding in spatial or visual terms, or that his favourite artists are Cézanne and Klee, both adepts at seeing the basic unchanging forms behind the variegated surface. When he describes Satie's Trois Gymnopedies as essentially one endlessly revolving piece "viewed" like an object from three different angles, he might be describing a recurrent trait in his own music. He certainly seems to regard each new piece as perusing a different route through the same, unchanging craggy landscape.

All of which would be reason enough to catch the performance of Tragoedia itself that opens tomorrow evening's London Sinfonietta concert in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. But better yet, this will be juxtaposed with the first London hearing, fresh from its British premiere in Huddersfield last night, of his latest major work Theseus Game, inspired by his longstanding fascination with the ancient myth of Theseus, Ariadne, the Minotaur. And not least, the Labyrinth - that image of something spatial to be worked through circuitously in time, so analogous to Birtwistle's formal procedures.

In the new score, which requires two conductors, the ensemble is divided in two: a collection of soloists who gradually pass one to another, as in a baton race, the long unfolding melody that represents Ariadne's thread, and an accompanying ensemble in a contrasting time-scheme standing for the Labyrinth. This concept of line and accompaniment moving in and out of sync with each other takes further an idea explored in Birtwistle's earlier Secret Theatre (1984), but could also be compared with the grinding of different textural strata against one another in more massive scores such as Antiphonies (1992). So the sonorous images of Birtwistle's creative world, resting in turn upon the most exiguous basic musical elements, endlessly interact and renew themselves...

'Tragoedia' and 'Theseus Game', 7.45pm, tomorrow, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1 (020-7960 4201)