John Buller

Composer with a powerful and original voice

John Buller was a late starter as a composer - he came to prominence only in the 1970s, when he was approaching 50 - but the power and originality of his voice made sure that the musical world sat up and took notice. His music was unashamedly intellectual, both in construction and in the texts he chose to set, but its powerful dramatic charge communicated directly to his audiences and earned deep respect from colleagues.

John Buller, composer and surveyor: born London 7 February 1927; married 1955 Shirley Claridge (three sons, one daughter); died Sherborne, Dorset 12 September 2004.

John Buller was a late starter as a composer - he came to prominence only in the 1970s, when he was approaching 50 - but the power and originality of his voice made sure that the musical world sat up and took notice. His music was unashamedly intellectual, both in construction and in the texts he chose to set, but its powerful dramatic charge communicated directly to his audiences and earned deep respect from colleagues.

Although Buller was a chorister at St Matthew's, Great Peter Street, Westminster, and was writing music in his teens, his musical ambitions were heavily discouraged by his parents and pressure brought to bear that he should join the family firm of surveyors. In 1946, when he was 19 and serving in the Royal Navy, he had a work accepted for performance by the BBC but, with the death of his mother from cancer, he did not feel that he could turn against his grieving father and opt out. And so he dutifully qualified instead as an architectural surveyor, eventually becoming a partner in the firm and resigning only in 1974.

All the while he had been composing on the side. In June 1955 his father's death, also from cancer, brought a liberation from the bonds of filial piety. Before the year was out, he was a married man and a student at Morley College. A BMus at London University followed in 1959-64. But there was no sudden rush of music: Buller was a slow and methodical worker.

An important stage in his development came in 1965, when he attended the Wardour Castle summer school, run in a Wiltshire girls' school by its music teacher, the composer Harrison Birtwistle, aided by his fellow- modernists Alexander Goehr and Peter Maxwell Davies. Buller had a piece performed there, took a lesson with "Max" and founded a friendship with Birtwistle which lasted for the rest of his life.

In 1970 Buller wrote his first score to attract serious attention: The Cave, an eight-minute piece for flute, clarinet, trombone, cello and tape which the Nash Ensemble premiered on the South Bank in 1972. Another milestone came in 1974 with the performance of the 22-minute Le Terrazze (for a 15-strong ensemble of woodwinds, brass, strings and tape) in a BBC Invitation Concert. Then Buller was named composer-in-residence at Edinburgh University for the academic year 1975-76 and his life as a professional creative artist had at last taken off.

James Joyce was an early influence, beginning in 1971 with Two Night Pieces from Finnegans Wake for soprano, flute, clarinet and piano; a year later he produced Finnegan's Floras for 14 voices, percussion and piano. Buller's most ambitious Joyce piece came in 1976 with The Mime of Mick, Nick and the Maggies, for soprano, baritone, chorus and ensemble, a full 70 minutes in length. Staged at the Round House by the BBC, it earned him the admiration of the new-music community but a wider audience still eluded him.

That came in 1977 with the 37-minute Proença, for contralto, mezzo soprano and orchestra, a Proms commission for that year's Jubilee season; it was conducted by Mark Elder - the only conductor consistently to support Buller with performances. I was a Prommer in the audience that evening; I may not have understood everything that was going on - the music is too complex for instant comprehension - but I can still recall its sheer physical thrill.

Proença sets medieval Provençal texts - an arcane choice, it might first appear, but Buller chose them for the immediacy of the emotions they convey: eroticism and the brutality of the Albigensian ethnic cleansing of the early 13th century. He explained that "song is, in a way, what this piece is 'about' - verbal, instrumental and vocal; the joy it can represent; and the violence it can meet". And his music met its composer's brief, combining lyricism with a savage energy, kaleidoscopic colour with long-term structural coherence.

Official recognition came with an Arts Council bursary in 1978; another residency as composer was spent at Queen's University, Belfast, in 1985-86. Meantime, the next popular success came in 1981, with another Proms commission, The Theatre of Memory, again conducted by Mark Elder. Taking its inspiration from a mnemonic structure designed by the 16th-century Giulio Camillo (reported in Frances Yates's 1966 book The Art of Memory), Buller's score divides the orchestra into seven wedges, each with a concertante soloist at its tip, and finds musical parallels for the conventions of Greek tragedy to animate the structure.

Buller's next major composition was an even tougher nut, requiring six years of concentrated effort: an opera setting Euripides' The Bacchae - Buller preferred Bakxai, which suggests the original Greek - premiered at the English National Opera in 1992, again with Elder on the podium. Guy Rickards, writing in Tempo, didn't mince his words:

I believe John Buller's Bakxai (The Bacchae) to be the finest British opera since Britten's Curlew River . . . Buller has made Bakxai intelligible to a modern audience, intensely dramatic and utterly compelling.

Buller's modest output and methodical approach to composition kept his income low, necessitating numerous moves to premises the family could still afford: from Leatherhead to Suffolk, even to France, before eventually returning to rented accommodation in Dorset, where Birtwistle was a near neighbour.

Proença and The Theatre of Memory were released by Unicorn-Kanchana in the mid-1980s and had long disappeared from the catalogues when they were reissued by NMC Recordings last year, provoking a fresh round of excited reviews.

Sadly, the theatre of Buller's own memory was by then in its final act. Signs of Alzheimer's revealed themselves in a degree of absent-mindedness perhaps as early as seven years ago, on his return from France, and with time the illness began to interfere with his ability to concentrate. His last major work, the 12-minute, orchestral Illusions, was written for the Cheltenham Festival in 1997.

Martin Anderson

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
tech

Company reveals $542m investment in start-up building 'a rocket ship for the mind"

News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004
music

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
football

News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album