Harrison Birtwistle: Idle Thoughts

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I’ve enjoyed Harry’s music for many years, but I don’t think he is a “great” or very versatile composer. He has an individual voice and he says his thing well, but don’t expect him to go on and say anything else. I forget who it was who likened him to the hedgehog “who knows one big thing”, whereas Peter Maxwell Davies, a fellow member of the “Manchester School”, is the fox “who knows many things”.

I’m afraid I have never liked Earth Dances. I regard it as one of the works where he over-reaches himself. Hear it just after Le Sacre du Printemps and it doesn’t sound very impressive.

I like him best where he’s being himself, in works such as …agm… , Meridian, An Imaginary Landscape, The Triumph of Time, and Chronometer.

Panic was a lot of noise, but was certainly memorable, though probably for the wrong reason: because it just wouldn’t end. However, I did find the fuss about Panic highly exaggerated. OK, it is probably the most abrasive piece ever to have been programmed in the (execrable) Last Night of the Proms, but really it’s fairly bland and nondescript, certainly by Birtwistle’s standards (compare it with Secret Theatre or Endless Parade or Silbury Air, for example).

I think the question of accessibility to so-called modern music lies in the familiarity.

The more you listen the more you hear, and the more that is revealed in the music. So, first time through it may all seem a muddle, but on subsequent hearings you start to hear patterns of sonorities. You may not be able to identify them by name, but that doesn’t matter in the slightest. The sounds reveal themselves like patches of colour or shading in a painting or flavours in an exotic dish.

I have many times become acquainted with new music in this way. Repetition is the key. After a few hearings, you may want to leave it for a while and come back next week or month. Or you may decide that it’s all a sound world too much, that the flavours don’t gel, or that the colours and sonorities don’t resonate for you.

Eventually, you understand a lot more about the music even if you cannot describe it. That is an education in itself.



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