Fiona Maddocks, writer, and music critic for The Observer, reflects on the process of writing Harrison Birtwistle: Wild Tracks – A conversation diary:
Sometimes large events on the horizon get missed. I recall working for a national newspaper (no names) that suddenly awoke to the realisation that the Millennium was nigh – about a month away in fact. Never have so many lists of key happenings – of the year, the decade, the century, indeed the Millennium – been compiled at such break-neck speed though we had all had nearly two thousand years to prepare.
Writing this book had similarities, but my excellent editor at Faber, Belinda Matthews, was rather more on the ball: “Could you write it in time for Harry’s 80th birthday?” she asked, over the lunch at which the idea of a book of conversations with Harrison Birtwistle was hatched. I’m not sure who voiced the suggestion first. Once it was out, Belinda ran with it. “That means you’ve got about six months to write it,” she calculated. I felt I ought to skip coffee, leave the table immediately and make a start.
Harry as yet had no idea about the plan. I knew it might take more than a “Hello, how about it?” conversation the next day. He would need persuasion. He is a famously reluctant interviewee, though has always cooperated when the occasion demands. I have written several newspaper or magazine interviews with him myself – which could have worked for me or against me.
For a while he didn’t exactly say no but neither could I assume that he had said yes. All the time the clock was ticking. His main, shy concern was “Would anyone be interested?” The second, as the book began to take shape and he steadfastly refused to read it, was “How big is it?” – the joking implication being, the bigger the better (which alas doesn’t automatically follow).
By the time we started, in the cold spring of March 2013, a few ground rules had been laid down. I would record our conversations but they were never to be heard by anyone else: no putting them in the British Library archive or entertaining my friends with them. Accordingly, the moment I finished writing, I deleted them all.
Harry had just begun working on a piano concerto for Pierre Laurent Aimard, being premiered later this year. It is one of the threads running through the book: his progress, his frustrations, his sudden moments of clarity, his choice of instruments, his thoughts on how the piano should relate to the orchestra and so on. Harry was always open about his anxieties as a composer: the thoughts that keep him awake at night, the difficulty of transforming a notion in his head to notes and bar-lines to be interpreted by others in performance. The dilemma of what to call the piano concerto – which kept changing - led to a fascinating exchange on the topic of titles.
He was very generous with his time. Sometimes we had two or three conversations a week, usually for about an hour, usually at his kitchen table in Wiltshire, sometimes in his studio at the bottom of the garden. So I was able to witness at close quarters the growth of this major composition. At times Harry showed me material he had written down only moments earlier. At others, he might have scrapped everything we’d been discussing, and taken a new path altogether. This was a revelatory experience and I hope will communicate itself, too, to the reader.
Because time was short, I decided to aim for a portrait of the composer, rather than a chronological or thematic account of his life so far. Since, usually, Harry decided the subject anyway, according to what he had been thinking about that day, this was just as well. Occasionally he said: “I’ve got nothing to say today.” We negotiated such moments as best we could, usually aided by delicate, elaborately made cups of Japanese tea.
Therefore certain subjects recur, others are hardly touched upon. This was the reason for subtitling the book “a conversation diary” - to suggest an informality and I hope insight into his working life. He talked a good deal about art and books, food, cooking, gardening, landscape as well as music. His views on some of the great composers – among them Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Stravinksy, Boulez – may come as a surprise. His friendship with Morton Feldman is movingly told, and we learn much – as much as he was prepared to reveal – about his childhood in Lancashire.
Early on, he asked if I would be talking to other people, meaning friends or musicians who knew him well. I explained this wasn’t the idea: this book is not a biography. As the months passed, I changed my mind, thinking that a few people close to him would broaden and deepen the somewhat swift picture Harry and I would manage to construct between us in the time available.
So his three sons, Adam, Silas and Toby have made humorous and lively contributions to having Harry as their father. The cultural historian Patrick Wright, whose books include The Village That Died for England, has written a brilliant account of being a prep school pupil of Harry’s in his years as a teacher at Port Regis School, Dorset. Caroline Mustill, who would later run the Pierrot Players and who was present, as a schoolgirl, at the iconic Wardour Castle Summer Schools in the 1960s, recalls learning the clarinet with Harry. She has the singular honour of having acquired his clarinets when he decided to give up playing and concentrate on composition. The poet David Harsent describes his perfect partnership with Harry, rare between librettist and composer, in works such as Gawain and The Minotaur.
The most perceptive contribution, in terms of Birtwistle’s oeuvre, is the assessment by Oliver Knussen of Harry as one of the world’s foremost composers. To hear one composer talk about another in this way, so eloquently expressed, was for me the plum in the entire endeavour. Harry is a captivating conversationalist, warm, discerning, modest, possessing extraordinary acumen on a range of subjects, not least his quince trees, which preoccupy him almost as much as his music. Above all he can be extremely funny. I hope you will read the book and agree.
This piece was specially written for the NMC Friends Spring 2014 newsletter.
To celebrate Harry's birthday, we have put together an exclusive offer, only available from the NMC Store. Bundle up any Birtwistle CD with Fiona Maddocks' book and get a discount! Head over here to pick your bundle.