Max factory

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies never seems to stop working - a concerto here, an oratorio there. Just don't think of asking for an opera at the moment.
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The Independent Culture
Composing and contentment don't usually go hand in hand: Peter Maxwell Davies - prolific, widely performed, and increasingly laden with honours - might seem an exception to the rule. His spectral three-hander The Lighthouse - a Marie Celeste-like mystery of the sea - is one of the most frequently performed of all modern operas, while his orchestral showstopper Orkney Wedding - which ends with the surprise entrance of a lone piper striding through the crowd to conjure up the sunrise - is played almost daily somewhere round the globe. His "difficult" symphonic works are currently all on CD. He has just seen his Welsh opera The Doctor of Myddfai produced (and toured) in what he regards as an exemplary manner; he is about to see the revival, at Glasgow's Mayfest next week, of his allegorical (even autobiographical) opera Resurrection, which has steadily been gaining acceptance after its universally-panned premiere in 1987. So when he calmly announces that he'll write no more operas, one has to ask why.

"I love opera," Sir Peter replies, "but not when it's merely the stimulus for some idiot director to masturbate over." In more parliamentary language, he goes on to explain that he is sick and tired of seeing directors gratuitously superimposing their ideas on his original intention. Surprisingly, he doesn't include in this the notorious Peter Sellars (whose Americanised "Flute on a freeway" was famously responsible for the first recorded outbreak of booing at the Glyndebourne Opera House). "When he did The Lighthouse, he came up with ideas I had never thought of. But we'd had long discussions, and I learned a great deal from what he did. No, the rock-bottom moment for me was when Opera Factory and the London Sinfonietta did Eight Songs for a Mad King, with the king seated naked on the lavatory, smearing himself with turds, and throwing them around. I gather the director's idea was to make this relevant to the `dirty protests' in Northern Ireland. Well, if I'd wanted to write a piece about that I would have done so, but this wasn't that piece. We had had no discussion - it was a fait accompli which I only heard about when it was on stage." Can't he demand control? "Maybe for the first performance, but then it's out of your hands. People have the right to mess about. It's as if you wrote a symphony and the conductor decided to transpose your flute line and give it to a tuba. When you've not only written the music but done your own libretto, you feel - strange."

But he has high hopes of the new production of Resurrection - or hopes, at least, that it will be an improvement on the premiere: "When it was first done in Darmstadt it was compromised by being set in a TV studio, so that you didn't know what was going on. The libretto is clear: at its close, when the resurrection takes place and the patient becomes this huge creature with a sexual organ that turns into a gun, things must be raw and sharp. If you're going to be rude, then for god's sake be rude! Do it with conviction!"

He sits erect and in repose, speaking almost in a whisper, as though concerned to save as much energy as possible for his real work: the pugnacity is carefully calculated. And he is no less pugnacious on musical politics, and on the "Stalinism" of Boulez. "I've got enormous respect for Boulez as a musician, but not as a dogmatist. When people spout dogma, you have to ask what inner uncertainties drive them to do so." But he concedes that he himself was once a Boulez-follower. "When you're young, it's healthy to feel part of some kind of revolution. But I realised pretty quickly that the revolution which had spawned Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Bartok was hardening in the arteries - and that the political parallels with Stalin's perpetual revolution were obvious. From the beginning, I realised that I had to base my compositional technique on something which was going to last - and that learning techniques from classical and pre-classical composers was going to be essential.'

He's contemptuous of most of the music commissioned through the Arts Council / BBC axis in the Seventies and Eighties: very little of it, he says, survives even now. So who does he think will be listened to by future generations? "Henze - who was anathema to Boulez. And people will take a lot of pleasure in Lennox Berkeley - light pieces, but good. And Leonard Bernstein. West Side Story wasn't taken seriously, but it's a masterpiece. As Elisabeth Lutyens once said, the `new music' scene is a very tiny corner of the whole."

And young composers now? "Judith Weir, and James Macmillan. I was very upset by the press which Macmillan's new opera, Inez de Castro, got at Edinburgh last year. It's an excellent piece, opera verismo, and it pulls the heartstrings. And what a contrast with Die Soldaten." That was the much-hyped Sixties work by Bernd Alois Zimmerman which English National Opera recently, and very expensively, exhumed. It was directed by David Freeman - the same man who perpetrated those crimes on Eight Songs. Maxwell Davies is a good hater.

He is not as immersed in music education as he once was, but his passion remains undimmed. "Music education is still designed to inhibit children from expressing themselves through music. It's horrendous to go into a school and see kids all by themselves with electronic keyboards and headphones - in total isolation. Music is a social and communal activity: it's vital for the health of both children and society as a whole." Moreover, he adds, there is something lacking in music made through electronic means. "You need to feel the physical vibration, under your fingers, coming out of the instrument, as you do through your body when you sing."

He may draw frequently on Christian sources for his operas, but he is emphatically not a Christian. "I'm deeply interested in Christian mythology, and my work is informed by it, but I couldn't put my hand on my heart and recite the creed. One should not be subsumed into any system which predetermines one's actions. And as a gay person who grew up in the Forties, one is very aware of people laying down the law and saying `This is what God thinks - so watch out!' Fundamentalism of that kind - of any kind - is a hideous thing, a flaw in nature." Down, once again, with dogma.

As for its nationalist equivalent, he modestly describes himself - after 30 years' domicile in the Orkneys - as "a newcomer to Scotland", but feels strongly that that is his home. The Scots, he says, "are finding a cultural identity which is neither fascist nor aggressive". He contrasts their openness towards Europe with the English paranoia about Brussels. "Though, of course, the Scots have Westminster to be paranoid about - and with rather better reason."

How does he manage to be so prolific? "By working very hard. The last thing I did before coming to London this week was to write a three-movement concerto for piccolo. It took me five days, 18 hours a day. I go to bed at midnight, set the alarm for five, get up and have a shower, and start work. Break for a sandwich, back to work, then back to bed at midnight. But I did have the whole piece in my head before I started." In fact, this year will have seen the premieres of two more notable works. The oratorio Job is, he says, the fruit of many years' fascination with the story of "how we put up with the most awful treatment by the divine headmaster". While Mavis in Las Vegas, premiered in Manchester in March, originated in an experience he had on a US tour with the BBC Philharmonic. "It's a fun piece, based on the sounds we lived with at an appalling place called the Flamingo Hotel." The title is also based on fact: a journalist - from this paper, as it happens - spent hours vainly trying to track down the composer by phone before the hotel receptionist finally had the bright idea of ringing the room of a mystery guest called "Mavis".

Meanwhile, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (to give him back his name in full) plays the piano for pleasure: Bach, Mozart and Schubert; Bartok's Mikrokosmos, and Beethoven. Which Beethoven? "The lot!" And he makes sure he isn't knocked off balance by reading the critics. It happened once, over Resurrection. "And I decided I would never be upset by those people again. I'll read an article about something else which interests me, but if it's about me, I'll avoid it." So he won't be reading this n

`Resurrection' at Mayfest: Wed to Sat, Theatre Royal, Hope Street, Glasgow (booking: 0141-332 9000)

An edited version of this interview appears in the current issue of `The Full Score' quarterly newsletter, available free from Music Sales, 8 / 9 Frith St, London W1V 5TZ