Interview with Jonathan Harvey
Originally published in 20th Century Music (USA, August 2002) and in the SAN Journal of Electroacoustic Music vol. 13 (September 2000). Republished in eContact! — Sonic Arts Network with the kind permission of 20th Century Music.
This interview took place in early 1999.
Harvey has a truly global reputation, particularly for his work in the field of electroacoustic music (he has been commissioned by IRCAM on eight separate occasions), and is considered as one of the most skilled and imaginative composers using the electronic medium today (Giga-Hertz Award for life’s work from a jury including Boulez and Rihm). He has also composed for most other genres, including large orchestra, ensemble and solo instrumental. He is particularly renowned for his choral music, much of which is suited for church performance, most notably his church opera Passion and Resurrection. He is frequently featured at all the major European music festivals. From 2005 he is Composer-in-Residence at the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Forthcoming commissions include two works for chorus and orchestra: Messages (Rundfunkchor Berlin with Berliner Philharmoniker, and Fundación Patronata de la Semana de Musica Religiosa de Cuenca), and a full-evening commission from Hans Küng’s Global Ethic Foundation for narrator, chorus, childrens’ chorus and orchestra (also Berliner Philharmoniker). [© Faber Music, January 2008]
[John Palmer] Perhaps we could start by looking at your artistic formation. Your musical education has been a very traditional one: in the fifties you were a chorister at St. Michæl’s College in Tenbury…
[Jonathan Harvey] That’s right: late forties and early fifties. I went, at the age of nine, to this very interesting foundation in the heart of the countryside which was a special musical foundation for Church music founded by an Oxford professor in the 19th century. All the boys learned instruments and the choir sang two services a day which was a lot for those times, with one rehearsal every day. So we got through a great deal of music. We learned to understand how polyphony worked, how all the parts were vulnerable and subject to refinement in rehearsal — not just our own — and had to work together. Some of the men weren’t particular good singers, I can tell you, they came from the fields in the countryside, but there were good musicians amongst them, so it was a mixed bunch. The choirmaster was excellent. He taught us harmony and counterpoint, theory and history as well as giving us piano and organ lessons, and I had cello lessons. So this was really a thorough preparation in rather idyllic surroundings. Indeed, it was a little bit uncontrolled: we were left to our own devices a lot of the time and no boundaries were set — we could roam freely and wildly. I spent a lot of the time being hooked by music, so I suppose I must already have had from my family, my father in particular, a very strong musical necessity of some sort, and I used to spend hours in isolated rooms by myself composing and playing the piano which certainly wasn’t like the other boys, although there were other boys who composed a little. Looking back on it now I was a bit strange in that respect. This particular temperament and predilection towards contemporary music I got from my father, who was a composer and had a vast collection of contemporary music at that time; I was nurtured and was able to somehow develop all those seeds and get them to grow at that place.
Presumably the choral tradition of the Anglican Church must have played an important role in your musical upbringing. Your compositional output seems to confirm this since the earliest production of the sixties.
Well, let’s think now. I can think of 1975 as the date when I started to write a lot of Church music. Maybe you have something else in mind.
I was thinking of Cantata I, written in 1965, Iam Dulcis Amica in 1967.
Yes, Cantata I: that I would prefer to forget! Iam Dulcis Amica is a little motet and there was vocal and choral music before that time. That’s true. It was a fairly constant theme: writing for voices. You are right. That is certainly in my blood — to write for voices — and I have a love of the medium. But what I was going to say was: in my mind is this landmark when Dominic, my son, went to Winchester Cathedral as a chorister himself and revived, really, the church music feelings in me. Up to then it had been more a matter of sacred music in general — oratorios and concert music — whereas I came into liturgical music again once Dominic went to Winchester Cathedral, where there was an excellent choir and the choirmaster Martin Neary was enterprising. So, from that point, I began to write small liturgical pieces for the choir and a little later for many other choirs, too. I wrote a whole set of them, although they don’t particularly make any unified corpus, but they must number fifteen or so of smallish pieces for church use. And again, also some bigger works, some choral works, some oratorio-type works in the same way. But comparing my output with other composers of today, it must be obvious to anyone that I love the voice. It is a high percentage of the total.
Back to Tenbury. Were you already composing at this stage of your life?
Yes, I think I was composing from before that, before I went there. I seem to remember taking a composition when I went for my interview at the age of eight or nine and I think I am right in saying that I started scribbling a bit when I was about six, with my father’s help, of course. But I have no record of that. Certainly at the age of eleven I became in my mind a real composer [laughter] or a fanatic of that particular activity. That was the age from which I suddenly started spending long hours in isolated rooms. And I remember thinking at that time that I would devote my life to this and, of course, I never really changed that plan, although I toyed with other possibilities in my teens.
You then read music at the University of Cambridge. What kind of studies did you do there?
It was a music degree that involved a wide variety of things. For instance in my third year, I chose to do a special study on Renaissance music from 1400 to 1600. It was fascinating, but I am not sure it was the best choice: it wasn’t as analytical as I should ultimately have liked a course to have been at Cambridge. It was mostly about history and comparing things in the broad historical manner rather than looking at compositional techniques, which were the sort of things that as a composer I should have probably have chosen. But there were very useful things. Two of them I remember, both of which I rather looked down on at the time: acoustics with a lady who was a scientist, not a member of the music faculty; that was immensely useful later. The other was ear-training, just the humble discipline taught by George Guest, one of the organists of course; we all thought it was a bit of a joke, but later it proved immensely important and useful.
You really entered Cambridge as a composer, I mean with a composer’s mind.
Yes, although I wasn’t particularly thought of as a composer by other people, but more as a cellist because I played in a lot of concerts in Cambridge. If I was known, it was as a cellist, actually, for the most part.
As a boy, you were introduced to Benjamin Britten, who later encouraged you to study composition with Erwin Stein and Hans Keller, two exponents of serial techniques. How did you experience this important phase of your life and how did you relate to such important personalities?
Before I met Erwin Stein, who is the first, I hadn’t been very influenced (or interested to be quite honest) by the second Viennese school. I had been interested in Bartók, the contemporary English composers, Stravinsky to some extent; a lot of composers who were neo-tonal, really. Of course, I was very interested in Britten, whom I had known since I was fifteen. Three or four years later I met Stein. I liked Britten’s music very much. We corresponded and I saw him occasionally. But this was an insight of his: he knew I was not happy in this world of tonal music up to Bartók. He could see that I needed something more rigorous than his English, slightly conservative atmosphere, that other things had happened in the world which, although he personally would not adhere to, were important and very, very serious. It was a generous idea — to have my eyes opened under the guidance of Erwin Stein. Stein told me about Schönberg, Berg and Webern whom he knew personally, of course, as well as Stravinsky. He didn’t analyze these works for me, but what he did do was to analyze Beethoven in the Schönberg manner. He gave me a classical Schönberg teaching of how classical structures are built, getting down to the basics of structural formation. One didn’t get this at Cambridge. There was nothing like it, no thinking in those Germanic formal terms, at all.
Unfortunately, my time with him only lasted a little over a year, because he died. He was a dear man and he taught me a lot. So he set me off on a strict Schönbergian outlook and really left me with the impetus to get recordings of Schönberg and Berg and start to take an interest, which of course he encouraged, but in our sessions he didn’t spend much time explaining. Then when I went to Hans Keller, after Stein’s death, there was a slight shift of emphasis. Keller was, again, important in Britten’s eyes for the same reasons: he came from the stable of this very serious attitude towards music and composition in Vienna. Keller was also, like Stein, not a composer but more of a critic. He’d never been taught by Schönberg, but he really looked at my music as it was when Stein finished with me, and criticized it. His criticisms were extremely acute, perceptive and psychological, because he was psychoanalytically sophisticated. He thought in terms of his reactions generalized to “the listener” and he criticized the music for disappointing those reactions, for his reactions not being as excited and interested as they should be. You can imagine how that kind of teaching takes place. He would say: “I am disappointed here because I felt it was too obvious,” or, “I am disappointed here because it was too chaotic, not clear enough, it doesn’t make any sense, doesn’t interest me.” So, between the chaos and order we would always try to find the psychologically fascinating, magical, tantalizing and interesting.
After Cambridge you went to Glasgow University where you gained a PhD in 1964. At the same time you were still an active cellist with the BBC Scottish Orchestra.
That’s right. I went to Glasgow because my thesis was about composers’ inspiration. The musicologists at Cambridge did not think that this was a suitable PhD subject [laughter]; they wanted me to do a musicological research of some sort. I didn’t want to do that, so I spoke to my tutor and he knew the professor at Glasgow very well, so it was arranged: I was to go to Glasgow and do what I wanted. The topic interested me very much, composers’ inspiration, from the time when it was recorded in a very subjective way, which is about Haydn onwards, in an ever-increasing flow. It interested me because I had, as I mentioned at Cambridge, been getting more and more into mystical and spiritual thinking and writing. So, inspiration in music was the part of music which is more related to this interest: what is music? Is it some mysterious thing related to mystical experience? Is inspiration a mystical thing? These were subjects which I tried to answer in my thesis, although inevitably I had to keep it very factual because as a doctoral thesis one cannot become too poetic. And perhaps that was a good thing: there is plenty of time for that later on. I wanted to do something which would contribute to the subject for other people and it really consisted of collecting a lot of remarks and categorizing them: remarks from letters and from theoretical works from about Haydn to the present.
In 1969 you wrote Ludus Amoris, a cantata for choir and orchestra and, as you just mentioned, Four Images after Yeats, for piano. Do you think these works may represent the first significant turning points in your career as a composer?
Yes. That’s not at all a bad way to look at it. I think they are probably the best up to that point. And they both have quite strong formal procedures. At about this time I must have been lecturing at the University of Southampton for five years by now, doing a lot of analysis, thinking a lot about music theory, and perhaps it was inevitable that this rather loose formal technique would be questioned, and in those two works there are certainly a lot of very strange and far-reaching techniques, in some ways too far, formally speaking. Our Images has one movement which is very Babbittian, very multi-serial in all dimensions and the main large movement is very formalized, although I think it is a very emotional piece as well, in that a material rotates round and round until it resolves all differences. There are four main ideas which rotate, getting shorter and shorter and more and more neutral until they reach a kind of calm equilibrium. This is Yeats’ vision of the process of purgatory, a purging of passion. The formal scheme behind this is certainly strict. Ludus Amoris is one of the most mystical pieces I’ve ever written, based on Spanish mystical writings which of course are imbued with tremendous emotion, St. John of the Cross being the most famous. The poetic quality of his mystical writing is immensely touching, I think. Formally, again, it comes from contact with integral serialism of the Babbitt sort and the whole piece is composed pretty strictly. Actually, there are one or two dramatic interludes, such as a demonstration which is shouted and relates to one of the poems, a sort of sixties demonstration. But, at this time I was supervising Stephen Arnold and Graham Hair in their Babbitt research and they spent a lot of time looking at Babbitt’s particular sort of serialism. I was very amazed and delighted to see the depths of his thinking, because I never had dreamt that any composer had ever composed to that degree of complexity and precision, even Bach. It seemed to me very interesting and I tried a lot of a similar kind of serial working in this very mystical piece! Strange conjunction, but I think it’s probably, as you say, the best of the earlier stuff.
In 1969–70 you studied at Princeton University with Milton Babbitt. Can you tell me about this period of your life? Why Babbitt? And how influential was the composer on your artistic development?
It’s an ambivalent answer, really. At the time the influence was very strong. I felt this was a way to tidy things up, to somehow deepen the structures. It may be a common thing that lyric poets experience at a certain point in their life — how old would have I been then, thirty, thirty-one? — that after the fading of the lyric blush of youth most poets, most artists seek some formal structure of greater depth outside their subjectivity that had been present before. It was something like that, I felt now was the time to make the music in a sense more stone-like, more statue-like, less fluid and flowing. I felt the need.
… more solid, you mean…
Yes. Yes. That was why I liked going to Milton and I learnt a lot from him. We didn’t particularly study his works, though I knew a lot about them from Stephen Arnold’s analyses. But it was good to talk to him. It was really formal matters, even mathematical matters that we discussed. And the atmosphere at Princeton was somewhat in the same mood as well. I learnt my first steps in computer music, which was very useful, rather important for me later. This course was one of the earliest classes in computer music anywhere in the world at that time. It was very primitive compared to what happens now, but it was a start and it gave me an insight into how music might be manipulated as acoustic structure. But I had already gleaned that from Stockhausen in the years after I had encountered him in 1966 in Darmstadt, when I really got to know his music. So, learning about acoustics in the computer music class was a deepening of how Stockhausen does it, formalisation in the American manner: things were very scientific, very precise. Listening to Stockhausen before, of course, would have been more like from the outside…
… more intuitive…
Yes, exactly. More intuitive. Later I came from move away from the strictness of that type of that serial working. I think the reason is very simple: I felt it couldn’t be heard in a lot of cases. It was useful, but one had to be careful to go for the things that really were important about it, rather than religious observance of its strictness where it was pointlessly inaudible…
This must have been a crucial time for you particularly because it was at Princeton that, as you mentioned earlier, you first got involved with electroacoustic music. What was exactly that attracted you in the electronic medium?
Well, I had started writing a book about Stockhausen which was published in 1975, but I had started working on it before I went to Princeton, and I had begun looking into how Study I, Study II, Gesang der Jünglinge, Telemusik, Kontakte and so on, were constructed. Beautiful pieces which I loved and found very strange and wonderful. I mean, you have to remember they were so fresh and pristine, and completely unlike anything else to a young Englishman at least, perhaps not a Parisian at that date, and I was enchanted! To start writing my book and look at the scores which Stockhausen had published and the notes about how they were realized was to begin to see how I might do it, what the nature of this world was exactly, compositionally and scientifically, and then to set me on the road to do it myself, which I did in the computer music class. There wasn’t that much time to go that deep, but it was a start: constructing new instruments which played completely new spectra which were built up from sine tones or noises, impulses or whatever; constructing music from basic elements of sound. This began to be what I was doing and what I was very excited about in Princeton.
There must have been an innate love for timbre, for the sound itself.
Yes, there was. That has grown and grown with me, and with Stockhausen it was there in those early works: you could see it and hear it. The inner structure of sound, not the outer use of sound to articulate a form like a melody in time. The sound itself and how it moved, and it was somehow… well, Rudolf Steiner would call it the spirit of the sound. In sense, it might be more accurate to call it the material of the sound, the stuff of the sound, what is actually the matter of it, what are its component parts. But in a sense you are living in the sound, you are engaging with the actual thing, rather than an abstraction like a melody which involves contour and form in time, which is a kind of abstraction. So it’s both abstract and concrete, spiritual and material. Whatever it is, it excited me and has remained very important for me, and for many other composers.
After Persephone Dream (1972), the major works of the seventies such as the Inner Light cycle, the first string quartet, Smiling Immortal and I Love the Lord confirm the central preoccupation and the most essential aspect of your music: a search for a spiritual meaning and realization.
This goes back a long way, but it surfaced more clearly at certain points. I could go right back to childhood. I think I have always had that sense, you know it’s something one is perhaps born with. I don’t know, I can’t think of any explanation, because I certainly wasn’t particularly taught it as a child. A sense of search for the ineffable, for something full of wonder which often involves solitude and not playing football with everybody else but going into the countryside for long walks. I was that type of person from the beginning. As I said, it surfaced as a choir boy — I felt that very very strongly — then at Cambridge, and I think it began to have a renaissance when I studied Steiner, which must have been shortly before I wrote Persephone Dream in 1972, as you mentioned. He had a very big impact on me and made me more open about acknowledging where my allegiances lay, partly through his wonderful example. Steiner was a man who courageously lectured every day of his life about spiritual experience. He tried to show people what he knew and understood. Quite simply he just felt that was the point of his life: there is no point in keeping it to yourself. I had been a bit shy up to that point and sort of not admitted it too openly. I suppose many of my friends would have thought it was a bit naff to be spiritual. It wasn’t at all fashionable, I must say. In academic circles at least. So, the encounter with Steiner made things which were already there come out much more into the open, much more explicit. I remember telling Chris Wintle, a friend who is a composer and musicologist, that I thought at that point that all my works would be spiritual; I couldn’t conceive of anything really else. It surprised him, although he knew I was that way inclined, so I remember it was coming out, something was always there, but it was articulated, I had words for it from Steiner who gave me a language to talk about in lectures, if only occasionally at first. I remember feeling quite nervous about discussing these things in lectures and most people were very hostile to it at that time. But he gave me the words and he gave an example.
From the early eighties onwards your career has been marked by very crucial commissions ranging from IRCAM through to the West German Radio of Cologne and the BBC orchestra which resulted in some of the most significant and highly regarded works of the last twenty years, such as Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco (1980), Bhakti (1982), Song Offerings (1985), Madonna of Winter and Spring (1986), From Silence and Valley of Aosta (1986). Can you tell me about the eighties as a phase in your life? I would think this period was a natural development of all that had happened before.
Yes, it was a very nice period for me. In the seventies I don’t think I got very much recognition — perhaps as a church music composer — but not in any bigger way than that. In the eighties I got enough recognition by, for instance, going to IRCAM and making international contacts, to receive many good performances, so my whole level of activity began to rise and I began to understand how to write for really wonderful musicians and have that feedback. And then there was the whole stimulus of the Ircam of that time, getting ever deeper into the world of Boulez himself, Stockhausen and the composers gathered around there, which was very enticing and seductive. If I had to describe the decade I would say that it was, at least superficially described, a rather professional one, where I contacted the highest levels of possibilities in electronics and instrumentalists. Of course, one could talk about each of these works and say what was the particular emphasis in it, but, to generalise, I think they are mostly concerned with spiritual themes. I was doing meditation from the late seventies onwards much more regularly, twice a day. That was important at a personal level but for the music, too: Bhakti and Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco. But particularly Bhakti is a direct result of a long retreat, two weeks, in deep meditation.
Jonathan, what is the impulse, the drive that urges you to conceive and write music?
There are a number of reasons and a number of different levels. The motives for writing music stretch from the relationship to the audience to personal satisfaction and everything in between. With regard to the relationship with the audience I think the composer has a role. This might sound a little bit moralistic, but in so far one thinks of it as important to do something worthwhile with one’s life at all, then to spend all these hours composing music must be part of a kind of moralistic area. Therefore, I think it is important trying to do something for people with one’s music, to give them something, a gift; a gift that is worth having, which makes them happy, or if not happy, makes them realise something which they hadn’t realised before about the world, about the nature of the world and I could go into all sort of reasons why music is good for people (not my music, but a lot of music), how it resolves conflicts, how it shows the unity of the universe and resolves dualities of subject and object revealing clearly the roots of existential suffering and so on and so forth. Of course, you can compose from many different levels: what I am trying to say is that if you are a great egotist and you are thinking only of your fame and getting rich, that’s the opposite of what one ought to be doing. The moral side is to forget oneself and try to become a conveyer of the most beautiful, positive and wonderful — maybe even blissful — things that one is capable of passing through, or conveying. That level of personality is the important one.
The extra-musical sources that inspire your musical creativity must be obviously extremely important for you.
Very often it’s poetry or pictures. Sometimes it’s nature. But more often it is thought in the form of paintings, poetry or spiritual writing such as Steiner’s, as I have already mentioned, or Buddhist texts, even traditional texts, meditations, or thinking about the life of Jesus Christ; any such things like that can set me going. There is often a figure or a mythology, or a culture associated with the work. It could be Greek, Persephone, for instance; it could be Sufi, in the sense of Rumi’s poetry which I have been using lately; or it could be Buddhist; it could have associations with India and Vedic thought as in Bhakti. One gets pictures of Indian culture as one composes, all sorts of pictures of Indian life, thought and activity, art and music. I don’t say they are directly related to the music, but they are part of that world. All these things are external, yet part of the fabric of making the music.
What is it in the Asiatic thought that has caught your imagination?
It’s the notion, I suppose, of transcendence, of emptiness, of reaching the level of consciousness which is beyond thought — which is not lack of consciousness like sleep, deep sleep. It’s a delicate thing which most people do experience but usually only very briefly, perhaps just before they go to sleep. If you learn through meditation to dwell in it for a little time then it’s very very fruitful. It’s the womb of all creative ideas, all imagination. Everything comes from this area, so if you learn about it you can compose from it. But it itself is beyond description, it is blank, empty in a sense. But near it are the borderlands; it colours the borderlands with wonderful light and that is certainly the area of art.
How would you describe your compositional techniques both acoustic and electroacoustic throughout your entire output?
I think there has always been an increasing desire for structural depth, to make a piece bear many listenings and reveal new relationships. Certain ways of composing are rich in their network of relationships, obviously the tonal system was (but I don’t use it, not in that way, anyway); but to find something as rich as that has often been my basic technical aim. Then later there has been perhaps a slight shift away from that preoccupation. In other words, I have left it to be a little more intuitive in later years, allowed it to look after itself. I have quite a lot of experience writing rather a lot of works by now. The hope is that it is fairly instinctive — this desire for many relationships, which I almost spot as they happen, without actually having to calculate in any way or use the faculty of reason. More recently, the techniques have been towards producing unexpectedness, pushing myself more towards the surprising, even chaos, towards depth of expression, more towards what is expressed than how it is expressed, thinking about what I want to say rather than how to organise the techniques.
You have often spoken of a correspondence between spirituality and a musical idiom which is not tonal in traditional terms (I am deliberately avoiding the definition “atonal” because I don’t believe in it). Knowing a good deal of your music and writings, I think this is a very important issue about your compositional voice. You have very clear ideas about your musical idioms, and you firmly believe in your musical language as an idiom to convey spiritual values which is certainly not a nostalgic crusade for traditional values carried out through traditional musical idioms as it seems to be very fashionable at this moment of history.
Yes. Well, I can think of two good examples of it: Messiaen and Webern. What I mention is axial symmetry, which has something to do with both of them actually, but at least I feel that axial mirror symmetry does give a sense of non-gravitational music which isn’t rooted to the bass, and is in a “floating state”, as Webern referred to his axial music. That’s one direct — if you like serial — connection with spiritual music. It’s music which is not so rooted to the earth. It’s quite simply seen in the technique of mirror symmetry where the meaning of the sound depends on reflection from a middle, rather than growth upwards. Of course, the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were absolutely read from the bass upwards; octaves in the bass were frequent, the bass got heavier and heavier. And it was inconceivable that the bass would just be one voice, one light voice like the soprano: they weren’t equal, they were totally different things. In this music the bass voice, if you like, and the soprano are equal: one doesn’t hear any difference, I think. That’s one example; the other one would be electronic music. Again, with the exploration of more “static” sounds and the interest lying in the movement about the basically static thing (there is movement within it), but the emphasis is shifted to the static element, that’s a technique which again reflects the state of spiritual meditation, of silencing the activities or argument and mental conceptuality. The mind is stilled, and beautiful things come up, as in meditation after “emptiness”, from the region of near-transcendence. There are different ways to achieve stasis, other than long sounds in electronics, of course. One could go back to the old ways, technically to the modes where one sensed little change as the melody went on, or I can just think of pedal points in tonal music: something in the same terms is there, the same stasis, the stilling of movement. But it depends on what a composer wants to bring out.
Do you think that the fact of using the whole palette offered by chromaticism is providing you with a much stronger and comprehensive material, a more expressive range for emphazising, for instance, the interaction of the negative and the positive within the whole spiritual and psychological context?
I think that’s an interesting question. I would agree with entirely that touching on tonality and complex tonality — let’s say, chromaticism, dissonant tonality or whatever — does get you back into emotional expression very powerfully from a more objective world which was born in the generation after Webern. So, yes. I love that. I love to touch on that, to include it, to make it part of the discourse in the usual process of dialectic and contrast, as part of the picture. It’s always shifting, always turning into different things. I am not a very monolithic composer. For instance, I don’t think I could ever write much that is purely spectral as some French composers do. I would also always want to flit in and out of the spectral thought, back into intervallicism or atonality or whatever. I like that.
How do you perceive and consider pitch in your electroacoustic works? I mean, within a timbre-centred syntax, typical of the acousmatic domain for example, what role occupies the parameter of pitch? Is it just a secondary parameter, or is it a more essential part of your musical discourse. And how important is it? I am thinking, for example, of Ritual Melodies and Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco.
Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco is a spectral work: everything derives from the spectrum of the bell. So, pitch is clearly in that case both fused and unfused. The work is constructed on the dialectic between those two aspects of pitch. In Ritual Melodies it’s based entirely on one harmonic series, but it sounds like an instrumental work: you have instruments playing melodies or singing melodies so it’s a curious kind of double thing about that work. It’s not like an acousmatic work at all really. It’s a bit of a paradox. It’s entirely made by a computer, yet it sounds somewhat instrumental. It’s like an instrumental work, but it couldn’t possibly be played by any instrument because every interval is different in the harmonic series and with exception of a kind of unthinkably virtuosic player [laughter], no instrument could possibly play these melodies on harmonics in this way. Also, every instrument turns into every other instrument, often within a space of half a second. Actually, it’s quite impossible to be thought of in instrumental terms, strictly speaking. So, it has these paradoxes: it both is and isn’t a pitch-orientated work; it is and it isn’t an instrumental-orientated work. The pitch is always important, but it’s in a sense a spectral work, as well. I may say that the total structure of the work is meant to reflect the harmonic series which is the basis of the individual instruments. So, of course, the oboe has the harmonic series and that is the nature of the macrocosmic work, as well. There is meant to be a close connection between the instruments and the structure.
One of the most praised characteristics of your compositions is your vivid sense for tone-colours, the rich instrumental combinations and timbral effects achieved both with acoustic and electroacoustic sources. Could you tell me how you perceive and experience timbre? I realise this is a difficult question… Perhaps you could tell me about your approach to instrumentation and timbre in your works.
That’s a big question, again. Working in the electronic studio refines one’s sense of timbre in the instrumental world and I’ve always felt one could get more out of music than just a simple instrumental line. Again, pushing for more meaning, I like to make that oboe line turn into something more complex than just an oboe line. Perhaps another instrument doubles it for a little of the way and you get a third sound which is not quite clear what it is. In other words, the timbre should be questioned in my mind all the time and never quite just taken for granted as given. It should always be subject to, I don’t want to say doubt, but to ambiguity which is what I love, and may not be quite sure.
Do you think it is still possible to create new sounds? Sounds which have been so far unheard?
I think it is… but I think the problem lies with the perception, with the labeling. We must hear new sounds all the time, really, in the streets in our environments. But those we can’t deal with, we don’t receive, we just don’t hear them properly. The same must apply in music: unless we can somehow ingest them into the psychology, they won’t be heard. Some people say there are fairies all around us, but we don’t know how to see them. [Laughter] It may well be the case! We can only perceive what we know how to perceive, and I think it’s a bit like that with sounds. Anything is possible, in reality, with the computer. You can generate any sounds of which a great proportion must never have been heard before. But who is interested? Only those with a very special consciousness are really interested; only those with a very great ability to absorb and ingest the new… and often for special purposes, then.
As a teacher and scholar you have been directly involved with academic institutions virtually throughout your musical career. How important do you think education is in our society?
Education in general could never be more needed than now. Perhaps that’s a truism, but it seems to me to be a time of some crisis, particularly in terms of population’s explosion, planetary problems of climate and so on, and of course the incredible destructive power that is in our hands. Unless we think in an enlightened way as a global society, the slightest upsurge of barbarism on any scale becomes increasingly — as the centuries go by — nearer to being, I think, fatal for the human race. So, education is a very large issue. Not just a matter of schools and so on, but for everybody to learn how to make the thing work, how to make life on the planet work at this which could be a late stage in human life on the planet (let’s hope it isn’t!). But it is a critical stage! In general, I take education as dealing with not just the useful things for earning a living, but the discovery of the profundities of life and how to understand those in a reasonable and sensible way, how to go as deeply as possible in a way that we understand what the concept of the good is; not just what the concept of the true is, but what the concept of the good is, because without that, in this godless age where most people don’t believe any god exists, it’s not an easy problem: what is the good if God doesn’t exist? And for that, profound thought and careful education is needed! I don’t know whether this is the sort of answer you are interested in eliciting, but these are my immediate thoughts, anyway.
What do you think about the current music education in this country (the UK) and elsewhere?
The two important things are joy in creativity and discipline. One has to find the balance. Without one the other is not possible, I think, or not really viable, and there has been a certain amount of debate about that balance in education. It also crops up in university education because, again, you can’t take it for granted that university students are just motivated to be highly disciplined and following the ropes without question. They are going to increasingly see it as a part of a wider question: Why existence? Why music? So music education, I think, has to focus on both these issues and nurture them equally. It doesn’t always do this very clearly, and that’s why it often goes wrong. It can get the balance wrong and it can become too much of a museum which leaves out anything to do with production and creativity and the joy of such human activity thing, which is a very fundamental human thing — it’s not just some avant-garde artists being elitist! And then, of course, the discipline and the intellectual control prevents it from being impotent and just flapping about loosely and ineffectually. So, to give a very general answer, I would like the sense of incredible discipline that one sees in some countries in the praxis of instrumentalists and composers, how hard they work, how committed they are, how serious they are — one often doesn’t see that in this country — how absolutely determined they are to reach the highest possible standards of performance, or technique as a composer, never losing sight of the constantly surprising, the unexpected, the creative, the finding of new things, leaving the guidelines, going into the new, the adventurous, whatever… Again, this is often not found.
How do you see music education in the 21st century? And what lesson can be learnt from the 20th century?
I think we can learn from this century the dangers of both being too academic, too dreary and dry and museum-like, and the opposite, being too crazy. Obviously, there was a crisis — maybe there still is in some people’s mind — about contemporary music, and a great gap opened up (perhaps after the famous Rite of Spring first performance for instance) about modernism. That, to some extent, has to be looked at; and more can be done, I think, in involving all levels in creative activities. If you are yourself creative you can understand wildness. Something has been done about this in the educational work that’s been done by orchestras and opera houses, arts councils’ composers-in-residence schemes and so on. I think that has to continue into the 21st century. These are the lessons that have been learned from the 20th century about the crises of elitism. But we also have to learn about dumbing down and the great democratic principles that have raged through the 20th century — a right for everybody: in approximate historical order, workers, women, children, animals, probably insects too (I don’t know, why not?). Everything is getting recognized, quite admirably, to be worthy of having rights and societies are becoming much fairer in principle. But this means that the democracy principle can alienate too much special achievement, too much lonely genius, and such a word would even send shivers down many of these people’s spines — the idea of genius. Maybe it is outmoded. But the concept of being different and not being afraid to be specialist, highly specialist, doing something no one else has worked hard enough or been able to achieve before: that is important to develop. It’s another lesson from the end of the 20th century. Then, of course, there is the whole educational development of electronics and how they should be integrated with the general stream of music making in the concert life — this has been solved effortlessly, of course, in pop and rock music for decades. That needs education: really fine and sensitive teaching which is inspired and imaginative. So there is always this wonderful new world to be opened out for all tastes, for brows both “low” and “high”, and in the middle too.
In 1995 you took up a Professorship at Stanford University. What is your experience of American society, the American educational system and musical life as an European?
I am very impressed with the music department at Stanford and other music departments I’ve seen. They are very well organized, they teach the discipline well. If there is a deficiency, I think that’s on the creative side: that is not always imaginative, the concept of art is sometimes as entertainment rather than as a spiritually crucial fermentation in society. But in general, there is a balance that is striven for, in that all the students do a good diversity of types of course. The diversity and the thoroughness are both impressive. Certainly at Stanford the facilities are extraordinary for electronics, libraries and everything else. I think, on the downside, the problem is a perception of performance levels, particularly in contemporary music; that there are not the same standards in contemporary music performance. This causes compositional problems…
… as in Europe…
The composers in the States don’t often have the same high levels offered them and there are always economic problems to struggle with, more so than in Europe. New art, less popular art, less commercial art, finds it difficult to justify itself in a society which is very much orientated towards easily-seen value for money. And it’s a case of some individual benefactors being enlightened and giving money; but, you know, there are not so many, and there are not enough people to say: “We believe in all this as an absolute principle of our culture, we are going to give our taxes to it.” So there is very little state or federal, and national, support for such enterprises. There is not the consensus that you get in Europe (for one thing there are many cultures other than “western”). A lot of people say in Europe it’s a fantasy, most people don’t care for modern art, but the fact is that they don’t object when a little bit of their taxes is used to support the arts. They don’t object, it is possible! Whereas such consensus isn’t so much the case in the States. So for economic reasons, American composers tend to expect rather under-rehearsed performances that are easy to bring off in such circumstances, and the final result is not really the intense fanaticism of some European groups who will rehearse very long hours with a total sense of noncommercial devotion and duty. There are, of course, devoted people in the States; even more important not to diminish them. They are wonderful, but they are not so common, I believe.
Recently you celebrated your 60th birthday. What are your present projects? How do you see your future musical and artistic directions? Is there anything in particular that you wish to achieve both as a composer and a human being?
One of the things I am obsessed with at the moment is exploring a new spectral system of equal addition and compression where the same amount of Hertz are added, or subtracted, to every component every partial of the spectrum which gives a very simple and coherent harmonic-series-orientated system of transformation. Obviously, if you add the same amount as the fundamental to each member of the harmonic series you achieve the same harmonic series, just one number up. It’s a very basic operation to make, for that reason. And all the intervals between doing that, lying in between making a land of fascinating areas to explore, an exploration which I think will happen for many decades to come. The curious thing is that although it is so simple and basic, it has never been possible before because nobody has really been able to play these things precisely enough until the computer entered the scene: it can play very quickly and simply any frequencies we programme into it, and they are absolutely in tune. That world of transformation can be transferred to instruments, which is a long programme of learning new intervals. In other words, musicians have to learn to play, very well in tune, these new microtones. We are already some way down that road, of course, with many performers; and it is an exploration, which I’ve become obsessed with, into how you write the music, how you integrate this new thinking into the instrumental world. That’s on a kind of technical level, but I believe it is related to the fundamental meaning of timbre, not as cosmetic, but as musical fundamental structure and as a spiritual type of expression. So it’s linked to human concerns as well as a technique of compressing spectra.
Otherwise, I hope to explore and go deeper into Tibetan Buddhism and gain new insights, and from that create new music. I can imagine my work over the next several years being intertwined with that activity. And as I hopefully get a little better at the visualizations and meditations which have been pursued in Tibet over thousands of years, I hope and seem to be already anticipating wonderful new areas of perception and consciousness. So that would be the main outline of how I see some future projects developing. Of course, I have detailed commissions which I could tell you about, but they are commissions like many others: to write for this orchestra or that ensemble, or whatever. It’s a matter of what I am going to do in them which is more interesting. I would like to write another opera, but I don’t really want to talk about that here. After the first opera I have a much better sense of theatre and you know how operas work technically, having been embroiled in all the techniques of production at English National Opera. I feel very excited about having learned all that and want to write more operas, but as yet nothing has got firmly started.
How do you realistically see the development of music in the 21st century? But also, what would you like, ideally, to see?
I think it is realistic to think that electronics will be the big discovery and evolution in the 21st century. Well, I mean, in 1910 who would have said that percussion would have become so enormous in every orchestra? In a lot of concerts that is now standard. If the orchestra is to survive and evolve, and not just become very much a museum, then I am sure that it will be in the domain of electronics that the expansions will take place. After all, they have been with us in the pop world for a long time now. There is nothing inherently difficult about it; it’s a matter of rather conservative taste changing gradually. But that’s only one part in the development of music in the 21st century. The orchestra will have problems. It’s in trouble already, and I think it is already perceived as something which is limited to a certain repertoire which is not that big. There is a lot in music which is outside that range and as far as new production is concerned a lot can be much better done other than by orchestras, for instance by the expanded ensemble, where the players are much more committed, as in the case of the London Sinfonietta which expands to become virtually a symphony orchestra. But the whole approach is from that of a small ensemble, not of the big commercial orchestra. I think that will be an issue in the 21st century, and of course, the whole development of other types of groups: early music groups, groups or concerts that cross-over much more into different categories, which have been kept too compartmentalised. My daughter is a pop music composer and runs her own band, and we always talk about putting on concerts together. I think people will be quite interested in this. Most classical musicians, if you question them, like some pop music or some rock or jazz, and they would love to mix some of these contrasts, composed intelligently, into the programming of concert life. As far as world music is concerned, the same applies: in Amsterdam recently we almost had some Indian musicians playing before Bhakti. In fact it didn’t quite work out for practical reasons, but it would have been a nice idea and a good mix for a concert, I think — good when done with the intelligence that is applied now to the best concert programming which is all within the classical-orchestral domain. That same intelligence in creativity which exists, should be broadened. I am sure the public would enjoy it.