Water pumps and royal circumstance

Harrison Birtwistle has scored music for the Tate's royal opening, but he's no courtier, says Chris Wood
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When the Queen enters the vast turbine hall for the official opening of the Tate Modern gallery at Bankside at 11am on 11 May, she will do so to the sounds of 17 Tate Riffs, a specially commissioned composition by Harrison Birtwistle.

Birtwistle's involvement with such an occasion, where pomp and pretension will be as prominently displayed as the exhibits, may at first glance seem surprising. His intractability is legendary, thanks to newspaper profiles which also tend to refer to his "gruffness" and bluff, "down-to-earth" character, and quote him saying things like, "If the audience doesn't like my music, it's their problem."

And then there is the music itself, which like its creator is uncompromising, does not attempt to soften its complexities in order to placate or ingratiate, and makes no concessions in the hope of winning larger audiences for itself or fame and success for its composer. In other words, Birtwistle is no court flunky.

Yet if Birtwistle never went looking for fame, it has nonetheless sought him out. In recent years much use has been made of his facility for providing music for specific occasions, and already this year audiences have heard a piece to mark the reopening of Severance Hall in Cleveland, Ohio and a commission from the Dean and Chapter of St Paul's Cathedral for a millennium service on 2 January.

His involvement with the Bankside opening must have seemed particularly apposite, given his interest in art and the inspiration some of his pieces have drawn from it - a Brueghel engraving for The Triumph of Time, and Vermeer's painting Girl with a Pearl Earring in the opera The Second Mrs Kong, to name just two instances. But where 17 Tate Riffs is concerned, Birtwistle plays down the connection. "My interest in art is probably no more than yours," he says. "The sort of piece I wanted to write was something to fill the space, to do something for the occasion, for the moment."

What will be played on 11 May superseded the initial conception, which could go down as one of the great pieces that never was. "I wanted to anchor some barges up and down the river to use the noise of barge hooters, and treat it like bell ringing," Birtwistle explains. "But logistically it just wouldn't work. I couldn't find anyone who could do it."

Writing music for a space like Bankside, with its enormous size and unique acoustic, posed certain technical problems, so Birtwistle teamed up with Ian Dearden, a musician who is one half of Sound Intermedia, a sort of "electronics 'r' us" outfit catering for composers in need of expertise in electronic technology. Dearden worked with Birtwistle as long ago as 1985 on the opera The Mask of Orpheus, and has since contributed to three other operas, Mrs Kong, Gawain and the recently premiered The Last Supper.

The pair made a series of visits to the Bankside site in various states of construction and, Dearden, like the composer, came to see the building as the chief determinant of the music they have produced. "The main thing about the space is its hugeness," he says. "The music will draw attention to the fact of this very strange and reverberant acoustic."

Both musicians agreed that a straightforward fanfare with six trumpeters in a row was hardly the thing for a building dedicated to celebrating the new. "We decided to use players inside the turbine hall, which is immensely long but very narrow," says Dearden. "There will be 15 players from the London Sinfonietta in five groups of three. Each player will have a monitor so they can see the conductor. They'll also have a microphone which will delay the sound and relay it to some other part of the space. The dramatic effect consists of the delayed riffs interacting with one another."

The 17 Tate Riffs form the central section and will be played as the Queen enters. Either side of the riffs will be a soundtrack consisting of water noises, barge hooters and birdsong, "to animate the space aurally", as Dearden says, which will run for half-an-hour before the Queen arrives and a couple of hours afterwards.

"It will invite people to look around," Dearden elaborates, "not that they'll need much inviting. The worst thing about big spaces is that people tend to hang about near the door. What's needed is for people to move and flow through it."

If it all sounds rather as if Birtwistle and Dearden's creation could itself qualify as a sound exhibit for the gallery, Dearden insists that 17 Tate Riffs is music first and foremost. "Birtwistle is a composer, not an installation artist. The piece will try to find out what the building needs and what the moment needs. An effect in the studio will be different to one in the Tate space. Who knows if it will work? We'll find out."

With the whole ceremony to be broadcast live on BBC1, Birtwistle's music will be recapturing the mass audience it secured in 1995 when Panic was played at the Last Night of the Proms. But if anyone suspects that this may signal the reining in of one of our most individual talents, they may be in for a shock. "I may be part of the establishment, but my music's not," says Birtwistle. "It's rather Janus-faced: I seem to be the emblem of the naughty boy. My music always seems to cause problems."

Birtwistle last encountered the Queen in 1988, when she conferred a knighthood upon him. "She asked, 'What sort of music do you write?'," he recalls. "I said: 'Like Beethoven'." See if you can spot a crack in the regal implacability when she realises he wasn't being quite truthful.