The Peake of his career

Music: The German avant-garde composer Irmin Schmidt has turned Mervyn Peake's 'Gormenghast' into an opera. But what will the fans think? Dermot Clinch reports
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FRANK, the secretary of the Mervyn Peake Society, had met the German composer of Gormenghast once before. "Strange chap," he thought. "A bit cool, man, if you know what I mean. Not, um, very easy to talk to." On his part, Irmin Schmidt had had the odd apprehension, too. "We find something nice and strange, I think," he said, the day before meeting the Peake enthusiasts to present his new opera to them. "These can be weird and fanatic people, no?"

Judging by what they read, you might think so. Mervyn Peake's trilogy - Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone - is, no other word for it, weird. It's Tolkien gone to seed, set in a kingdom of ancient ritual that's populated by charac- ters called Rottcodd, Slagg, Fuchsia and Prunesquallor. Gormenghast is the home of the Lords of Groan, a vast ramifying dungeon where the main action of the books takes place. Apparently Benjamin Britten came near to making an opera of the trilogy in the Fifties, but stepped back from the brink. Peake's son Sebastian even has his father's libretto. But they were ill matched. Britten was a Henry James man: he liked his evil understated. Gormenghast is dastardly caricature, and would require a certain extroversion - if not brutality - to work on stage.

Which is why, perhaps, the German composer Irmin Schmidt, an undoubtedly "cool" avant-garde rock musician and one-time pupil of Stockhausen, got involved. And why, a couple of Sundays back, Schmidt found himself deep in the heart of the English countryside, far from his home in the South of France, addressing - very graciously, as the chairman said - the Annual General Meeting of the British chapter of the International Mervyn Peake Society (20 members maximum expected). Odd things go on in Buckinghamshire in late October, with temperatures soaring and apples thudding to the ground. But this - surely - was one of the oddest.

"I'D LOVE to see their faces when he plays them his tape," Duncan Fallowell, the opera's librettist, had said a few days earlier. The words carried a hint of kindly malice, suggesting that here, perhaps, was just the man to be putting Mervyn Peake on stage. Extroversion, or anyway shamelessness, comes easily to Fallowell. An article in a Sunday newspaper caught my eye the week before we spoke. "Sperm for hire," it read. "Duncan Fallowell, 46, offers his seed to the needy." Fallowell's own writings - novels, travel books, the biography of a transvestite - are spangly and adjectival in a Peakeish way, and he's long been a fan of Gormenghast - ever since getting hooked on the trilogy while smoking dope at university, in fact. Peake readers are often "burnt-out acid heads", he says, without necessarily including himself in the category.

While Fallowell was nurturing his passion for Peake in England, in Germany his future collaborator was being a hard-skulled musical modernist. Irmin Schmidt studied to be a serialist with the best of them: composition with Stockhausen and Ligeti, conducting with Kertesz. But then New York beckoned. Schmidt fell in with John Cage (who chatted to him about music and mushrooms), and minimalists like Terry Riley (who played the piano with him, rather repetitively he seems to remember). He returned home a musical freed- man and helped found Can, an avant-garde rock group whose music, as one authority nicely puts it, "even the critics had a hard time appreciating". They were "influential", though; even now their CDs are being reissued by Irmin's wife Hildegard.

Things change, however. Schmidt is nearly 60. And what happens to cool, avant-garde rock-musicians-cum-composers when they reach three score? Schmidt has spent much of his life, like many of his generation, looking for a musical language. "There's no agreed style now, no home," he says. "Creating beauty is something really strange these days. Nor does the classical tradition alone make a culture, and the other traditions are nothing. We have to work out a direction that includes both high and low art." This sounds a bit, ahem ... post-modern? "If that means no obligations, making the rules for yourself, yes it is," says Schmidt firmly. Writing Gormenghast has been a revelation. "I'm no longer an avant-garde artist, out to shock. I want people to enjoy my music."

Will they? Cameron Mackintosh, for one, has rejected a West End production. Apparently, he didn't like the story, this tale of evil arising from drudgery in the castle kitchens and reaching near world domination. Set entirely in the castle, the opera inhabits a restricted, dream-like atmosphere, with music - electronic, sampled, traditionally orchestrated, you name it - harmonically restricted to match. The libretto, a kind of fantasia on themes from the book, is peppered with set-piece arias; recitatives are out of the question, of course, but there are jokey musical allusions to recitative style now and then. In time-honoured fashion, extra sex and so forth has been added - to keep things fresh. The castle chef is fat and nasty in the books; in the opera he's overtly homosexual as well. "Tight arse? Tight arse?" he sings, mishearing the name of the good guy, Titus. "The very thought gives me gastro-enter-right-arse!"

Perhaps Cameron Mackintosh's commercial sense is sound after all. With scenes of humiliation, of "obscene rapture", even of pet slaughtering, here, clearly, is no Christmas family entertainment. But in Germany, Gormenghast has been commissioned by the Wuppertal Opera House, who will put it on next year, and the firm of Schott's are to publish the score.

You wonder if it may not have special meaning for Germans. The ghastly Steerpike, for instance, arranging castle coups, manoeuvring himself to the top, burning libraries as he goes - who is he, exactly? "He's a symbol for what comes out of a dream," says Schmidt. "He becomes Stalin, he becomes Hitler ... " And what about that other one, the "tiny, limping guy with the barking, yelling voice", as Schmidt describes the "Master of Ritual", Barquentine? "Everybody can imagine who that was, can't they? Don't you just see Goebbels?"

But time for conversation is over. The AGM has ended; the composer is summoned. And there they all are, the "weird and fanatic" people Schmidt had feared, waiting for him patiently in the sunny room attached to the old Quaker meeting house (chosen for this year's venue in preference to the Polish restaurant they went to last year). Not a Slagg or a Prunesquallor among them, by the trumpet of the Groans, unless those teenage girls in the second row, in uniform black, count as somehow gothic. They're Mervyn Peake's granddaughters.

Some questions, an expectant hush, then on with the acid test, the cassette. Music for the castle kitchens. Indonesian gamelans, perhaps? Not gamelans, answers the composer. Saucepans. Plates, spoons, forks, recorded in his and Hildegard's kitchen. Next, a bel canto aria (from Cora and Clarice, the batty twin sisters of Lord Groan) over a vaguely raunchy rock beat. Something jazzy and laid back, a touch of Astrud Gilberto. And finally the music of grim Steerpike, climbing to the top of his castle, breathing his first draughts of the oxygen of power. Drums, synthesisers, noise, distorting guitar. "I'm drunk!" sings a voice, more and more euphoric. "Drunk on oxy foxy jokey jocksy ... shockingly shocksy no more forelocksy ox ... y ... gen!"

And there it was: Gormenghast, the Opera, the Highlights. "What language is it in?" one raven granddaughter whispered to another. "It's the Rocky Horror Show," said an enthusiastic listener. "No comment," said one who wasn't. "Very sensitively handled," said a critic-to-be. "I'm off," said the composer, pausing for the gracious award of Honorary Membership of the Society. And then off he went, to complete the orchestration, sell the film rights, and get it on the road. !