Composer / Conductor  Oliver  Knussen
Two Conversations with Bruce Duffie


Oliver Knussen is one of the world’s most eminent and influential composers, creating work of crystalline concision, complexity and richness. Born in 1952, he studied composition with John Lambert in London and Gunther Schuller at Tanglewood. He was just fifteen when he wrote his First Symphony (later conducting its premiere with the London Symphony Orchestra) whilst his Third Symphony (1973-9), dedicated to Michael Tilson Thomas, is now widely regarded as a twentieth-century classic. A number of dazzling ensemble works, including Ophelia Dances (a Koussevitzky centennial commission, 1975) and Coursing (1979), cemented Knussen’s position at the forefront of contemporary British music.

In the 1980s, Knussen collaborated with Maurice Sendak on an operatic double-bill – Where the Wild Things Are (1979-83) and Higgelty Pigglety Pop! (1984-5, rev. 1999). Originally produced by Glyndebourne Festival Opera, these works have been performed extensively in both Europe and the USA and have been recorded on CD and video.

Knussen’s ebullient concert opener Flourish with Fireworks (1988) quickly entered standard orchestral repertoire, as did his concertos for horn and violin. The latter, written in 2002 for Pinchas Zukerman and the Pittsburgh Symphony, has received close to 100 performances worldwide under conductors including Barenboim, Dudamel, Eschenbach and Salonen. Recent works include Requiem – Songs for Sue for soprano and ensemble (2005-6) and Ophelia’s Last Dance (2010) for piano. Knussen’s music was the subject of a BBC Symphony Orchestra ‘Total Immersion’ festival at the Barbican in 2012 – one of many events organised to celebrate his 60th birthday.

As one of the foremost composer-conductors in the world today, Knussen is renowned for his unfailing advocacy across a wide range of contemporary music.  He has recorded prolifically and has presided over numerous premieres, including important works by Carter, Henze and Anderson. Recipient of the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Conductor Award in 2009, he was Artist in Association with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (2009-2014), Music Director of the London Sinfonietta (1998-2002), Head of Contemporary Music at the Tanglewood Music Center (1986-93) and is currently Artist in Association with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. He was Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival from 1983 to 1998, and in 1992 established the Britten-Pears Programme’s Contemporary Composition and Performance Courses in collaboration with Colin Matthews.

Knussen lives in Snape, Suffolk, and was appointed a CBE in 1994. In 2014 he became the inaugural Richard Rodney Bennett Professor of Music at the Royal Academy of Music, London.

--  Faber Music, June, 2015 
--  Names which are links thoughout this page refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD 


It should be noted that Knussen has a personal connection to Chicago.  As John von Rhein noted in the Chicago Tribune,

...The fact that he had never conducted in Chicago previously is surprising, given his strong family ties to the city. His American mother was born here, a grandmother lived here, and an aunt still resides in a Chicago suburb. What's more, his parents were married here and his English-Norwegian father, Stuart Knussen, secured one of his earliest orchestral jobs playing double bass in the summer Grant Park Symphony.

If not for his father's leaving Grant Park in the early 1950s to join the Scottish National Orchestra, he might have been born in Chicago rather than Glasgow. As it was, he remained in frequent touch with the city during his teenage years because his parents brought him over whenever they visited the American branch of the Knussen clan.

It has been my distinct pleasure to interview Oliver Knussen while he was in Chicago on two occasions nearly ten years apart.  He is a big, burly, bear of a man, but he immediately put me at ease when I arrived for our conversations.  The first meeting was in December of 1988, when Where the Wild Things Are was being given by the Chicago Opera Theater, and members of the Chicago Symphony were led by their Assistant Conductor, Michael Morgan.  Frank Corsaro re-created his original stage direction. 

Then my second conversation with Knussen took place in March of 1998, when he was conducting the first of two weeks with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  That program had music of Stravinsky, Peter Lieberson, and his own Horn Concerto.  I asked a few of the same (or similar) questions, but his answers varied or were amplified from what he had said earlier.  After all, he had grown for a decade!

knussenPortions of the conversations were used with recordings of his music on both WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, and on WNUR, the station associated with Northwestern University.  Now the entire sessions have been transcribed and are presented on this webpage.

Bruce Duffie:    Tell me the joys and sorrows of composing for the human voice.

 Oliver Knussen:    I wrote a lot of songs when I was a kiddie but I didn’t really know what I was doing.  Then there was a long gap where I didn’t write anything, and then starting from about 1970 I got interested again.  I did a set of songs on some of the poems on Winnie the Pooh.  In fact it was rather amusing because I wrote them and then discovered one couldn’t get permission to set them!  [Laughs]  Walt Disney had bought it all up, so after the first performance they were withdrawn for about fifteen years.  They’re now okay and can be done.  Then I wrote my Second Symphony, which is with soprano, and a song cycle for a piano trio with soprano on poems of Trakl.  The next piece was for an ensemble with soprano and then a piece for three clarinets with soprano called Trumpets.  So I was really rather ready for it when we started this opera, which was in 1979.  We started composing it, and then that second opera soon after.  Then I took a gap from writing for the voice, and I think I got it out of my system.  Just this last couple of months I’ve finally written a song cycle for unaccompanied voice.  So I think I’ve probably had enough of sopranos for now!

BD:    You’ll abandon them for a while?

OK:    I’ve abandoned sopranos after seven pieces!

BD:    Have you been particularly attracted to the voice, or is it just that you had to set texts?

OK:    No, no, no, I’m specifically very attracted to the soprano voice.  My grandmother, who just died in England, was a singer when she was young, and insisted that this is something hereditary.  I have some deep family attachment to sopranos, but in my case, curiously enough, it’s got to do with the fact that it is the voice that I had when I was a kiddie.  Not that I was a boy soprano, but it enables me, especially in pieces like Where the Wild Things Are, to recapture very much the type of sounds one wanted to make when one was a kiddie.  That’s one way of looking at it.  Although I’m going to insult a lot of people by saying this, the other thing is that in the main, the sopranos as I’ve been lucky enough to work with are very quick and very intelligent, and very musical, and very agile.  This may be because of the demands that have been made on that voice from Mozart onwards.  For example, the Konstanze arias in Entführung and the Concert Arias later on, and the big roles in the Strauss operas, and so forth.  They seem to be more able to cope with very wide expressive ranges, and color themselves in different ways.

BD:    More than singers of other voice ranges?

OK:    It seems to be that there is an enormous amount of repertory for that voice.  I suppose the male equivalent would be the baritone, with Schubert, Schumann, Wolf and all of that.  The Fischer-Dieskau kind of baritone could sing anything, but it’s probably just irrational, I suspect.  I’ve just always been drawn to the soprano voice anyway. 

BD:    So now you’re going to abandon it for a little while?

OK:    Just for a little while, yes.

BD:    I assume that you have umpteen commissions.

OK:    This is true!  [Laughs]

BD:    Then how do you decide which ones you will accept and which ones you’ll set aside?

knussenOK:    I’ve not been terribly good at that up till now.  Virtually all of my pieces in the last twelve years have been appallingly late for their deadlines, including both of these operas that I’ve written.  What I’ve now started to do is to accept commissions without a deadline attached at the end, or to agree to try and do it by a certain date or it’s automatically put off.  That means one does get then into the situation you’re describing, where there are number of things and you can take your pick.  I find that that’s pretty much an involuntary process.  As soon as somebody asks you to write a piece, it starts to gestate in some kind of a way.  You get sometimes concrete ideas, or often it’s just ideas as to what kind of a piece that might be, or what kind of character it’s got.  That goes onto the back burner and simmers, if you like, and at a certain point it’s the right time for that to go forward.  So unless there’s something supposed to have its first performance next week, I don’t usually find myself in a position of deciding which one happens next.  It’s just the right time to do this one.  Again, it
’s kind of irrational I suppose, and then sometimes you find that’s wrong.  You get started on it and discover that in fact it’s not, as it were, simmered to the point that it’s hot right through.  You maybe just get a section of that sorted out, and it goes back onto the back burner.

BD:    But when you’re offered a commission, are there some that you say,
“No, I will not to do this, or you don’t want to do this, or have no interest in it?

OK:    Well, it’s very difficult to turn down commissions from an orchestra, for example, because there are not that many opportunities for most composers to write for an orchestra.  If you are asked by a major orchestra to write a piece, and you like writing for orchestra as much as I do, then it would be a kamikaze routine to turn that down.  I practically grew up in an orchestra, and that’s sort of home to me.  What does happen occasionally is that you find, for example, one is backed up with three or four things, and that point I might say,
Look, do you want to come back in a couple of years and then I won’t keep you hanging around for so long?  The other thing is that I’ve always had a tendency to plan many pieces at the same time.  I never write many pieces at the same time, but I plan many pieces at the same time, so that often I’ll think, “Okay, this idea for this piece and this idea for that, and that idea for the other.  I find, actually, they’re part of a big mega piece, or they want to sort of join up somehow and combine together.

BD:    You mean various sections into one large piece?

OK:    Yes, or three different pairs like independent panels.  For example, in the Debussy Images where you’ve got for example Iberia, which is in itself three panels, and then you’ve got Gigues and Rondes de Printemps on the outside of that.  That’s a situation I seem to being coming up with more and more.  In my particular case it’s not so much of a problem because it’s three different pieces to fulfill three different commissions.  It’s when they want to join up and become one symphony that you get in a hell of diplomatic state!  [Both laugh]

BD:    Once the piece is on paper and has been rehearsed, have you been pleased with those performances you’ve heard?

OK:    I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve had a fair amount of control over first performances.  The conductors who have been interested in my music have been people I know very well.  For example, Michael Tilson Thomas, or Simon Rattle, or Gunther Schuller, or André Previn are all people I’ve known for a very long time.  I know that they are not going to do something that is a hundred per cent misapprehension of what I put down.  Also the fact that I conduct a good deal myself means that even in the rare event when you get a first performance that is not even not good but a complete misrepresentation, usually it is from the point of view of tempo.  It has happened that people will get to a fast section and say,
My God, this is very fast and difficult.   We better do it slow, which of course affects not only the speed of the music, but it affects the proportions of the piece.  Then what I try to do is to get it fairly quickly to get into a recording studio, or a BBC studio, and make a tape for radio.

BD:    To show how it is supposed to go?

OK:    To present how I’d like it to go.  Once it’s there I stop fretting about it because I know it’s there to be found.  I’ve been very lucky in the last five or six years that quite a lot of my pieces have been recorded on Unicorn, either by me or under my supervision.  There are maybe six or seven pieces, so in a sense, any angst about the performances of those pieces is gone because I know that they’re there.  I used to get into a terrible state about performances of a new piece.  Also, you could have a piece that is the biggest smash in Timbuktu, and maybe it comes to a city in the north of Europe and gets a bad performance.  Never mind whether it was a terrific piece in a performance in Timbuktu, it sounds like a bad piece!  [Both laugh]  It’s much less likely these days that one will get a really dreadful misrepresentative performance if you’re part of the new music circuit with university groups or even orchestras with new music groups now.  For example, in the ones in Los Angeles or San Francisco, the standard of playing and coping with difficult rhythms over the last twenty years has raised itself so vastly that it’s very unlikely that you get a complete trash.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You conduct quite a bit of your own music.

OK:    That’s right.

BD:    Are you the ideal conductor of your music?

OK:    I didn’t say that!

BD:    That’s why I’m asking.

knussenOK:    I’m a part-time conductor, but I’m not like an amateur conductor.  That’s how I make my living, so technically I know what I’m doing, and I do get performances that represent what I put down on the paper.  On the other hand, every piece has a life over and above what’s on the paper.  I’ve been very happy sometimes to find a piece that I thought I knew what it’s parameters werewhat it did and how it felt — and I’ve been very surprised to find somebody not having heard how I did it (or X who I supervised did it) who’ll come to it completely fresh from the page and bring something else out that’s not there.  When I was a kid I would have perhaps objected to that, and said, No, that’s how I wrote it.  That’s how it’s supposed to be, but now I find it’s a test of the effectiveness of the piece.  I want to see whether it can take all kinds of different lights and angles on it.  It’s like a painting.  A painting is not always going to be presented in the same lighting set up as the studio in which the painter painted it.  It’s not always going to be in the same kind of a room, and it’ll look different in a larger room and it’ll look smaller in a larger room.  It’ll look smaller in different kinds of light, or it’ll look bigger in other kinds of light, but that doesn’t stop it being a good painting.  That’s kind of the way that I look on performances to a greater or lesser extent.  If you have put down what you want clearly, the piece will somehow remain curiously the same no matter what somebody does to it.  It’ll just feel different.

BD:    Are there times when people find things and really reveal things you didn’t even know where there in that score?

OK:    Yes, in terms of feelings, very simple feelings.   I remember particularly a performance my Third Symphony at Tanglewood, which Gunther Schuller did.  That was a piece that had been done by Michael Thomas and by myself, and had a fair number of performances and I thought I knew how it went.  Gunther somehow saw what I can only describe as some Bruckner in this piece.  We had never discussed it, but it suddenly felt much bigger, and of course I was delighted.  [Both laugh]  If it had been much smaller, I don’t know if I would have been delighted, but he simply saw a way of pacing it that was not the way I conceived it but was perfectly valid, and it didn’t do any damage to the piece. 

BD:    So it brought something special to the piece.

OK:    Yes, it did!  It felt it was on a much larger scale than in fact it actually is.

BD:    So far from damaging the piece then, it actually boosted the piece?

OK:    Exactly, yes.  There’s been other examples.  Zubin Mehta did Where the Wild Things Are in New York.  He’d been terrific in the sense that he’d spent several hours with me
.  Literally, he came up to my house in London, to my apartment, which is a pokey hole, and spent three or four hours not only going over the score bar by bar, but looking at the video tape.  Even so, he obviously formed very much his own impression of this piece when he did it, and it bore almost no resemblance to what I do with it, and it took me a little while to get used to.  But again, one sees that as part of the function of the piece once it’s there.

BD:    Then the next time you conduct it, do you incorporate some of these ideas into that?

OK:    Usually not, because the way I would approach a piece of mine is completely intuitive.  I don’t make the decision as to how I’m going to do this bit or how I’m going to do that bit.  I know what the tempo relationships are, and what the feeling and the weight of things are from what I remember when composing it, so it’s just process of playing the tape in your mind as you do it.  But occasionally, on the other hand, I found when I listen to a performance from maybe three or four or five years after I’ve written a piece, I’ve usually slowed down rather a lot from what I did during the first performance.  In the case of one piece, I remember being astonished actually at the discrepancy of timing between the way I did it when it was written fifteen years ago, and the way I did it last week.

BD:    Which is right?

OK:    [Laughs]  I don’t know which is right!  What is right and what is wrong has to do with balances and with character.  You can say it is absolute, that there is no room for argument in my pieces which are the important parts that have to come through if you’ve got a dense, polyphonic thing, or whether the notes should be played a certain way.  All my music should be played with very, very careful attention to the dynamics because there’s an awful lot going on and five or six parts.  So if you don’t follow the dynamics
which keep various things out of the way at some times and in the foreground with othersit sounds like an unholy sludge, and I’m not particularly prepared to negotiate on those kinds of things.  If there are staccato passages, or if there’s short notes at the end of a phrase, then they must be very short indeed because they’re usually getting out of the way to let something else through.  That sort of thing is not negotiable.  It’s basically tempo and weight and things that it’s okay to muck around with a bit.  But the relationship between the tempos can’t be mucked around with, you see!

BD:    So the proportions have to be right if the whole thing is scaled down or made larger.

OK:    If I just wrote off the top of my head and wrote terribly fast, I probably would be delighted if anything decent came out.  In fact, on the occasions when I’ve written incidental music for the theater, and something sounds better because of a different tempo than I thought it would, usually it’s better and I’m absolutely delighted because I thought it wouldn’t be anything.  But if you spend a year or two years
or in the case of these operas, four yearsworking over a piece, you pretty much know what is there, and you’ve pretty much explored the ground.

BD:    You’ve agonized over every bar and every note?

OK:    Yes.  Okay, some sections will go faster than others, but that’s usually because there’s less going on, or it’s slower or something.  You can actually write more music that way, but a lot of my music tends to be very fast and very dense, and in order for it not to be nonsensically fast and nonsensically dense, in effect I compose it under a microscope, and test it and test it and test it until I know it’s right.  I kind of envy people who can write very quickly and not worry about these things, either because of a certain facility which I don’t have or because the music doesn’t happen to raise those issues.  One of the things that makes me want to compose is that I’m very interested in what happens in many simultaneous events.  In that case, I’m very close to Ives or Elliott Carter, but I’m also very concerned with making clear harmonic sense, that you can actually tell why the harmony has moved this way and not that way, even if you’re not thinking,
Oh goodness, that’s interesting how he did that.  It is simply that your ear tells you that this isn’t nonsense.

knussenBD:    Is this something you do purposely, or something that you find happens automatically?

OK:    No, no, no, I do it purposely indeed.  It’s simply a question of keeping things as clear as possible, even when there’s a lot going on.  I always find it very interesting, for example, talking to Elliott Carter.  He said that most people whom he had heard write music that is much too complicated.  If you actually look at his music, the individual parts are very difficult but they’re very clear and they’re very straightforward and unambiguous.  It’s the layering of them that makes the complexity.  My music’s much more conservative harmonically than Carter’s, and a lot more transparent, but that’s because I concentrated a great deal on making it simple... or not simple but keeping it under control.

BD:    Why?

OK:    Because I can’t stand muck!  [Both have a huge laugh]  I’ll use some kind of a visual analogy.  I’m very interested in film, and how a story is told in the movies.  Now it’s very unlikely that you find a very good film with a fabulous plot line and fabulous dialogue, and lousy photography.  In a Hitchcock film you can theoretically stop the film at any point, take the picture that’s on the screen and blow it up, and it’s a picture composition because the composition of the elements is precise and composed.  On the other hand, there may be a great deal of things going on in the movie.  Likewise, if you take a painter like Renoir, for example, there’s a great deal of colors used to make an effect.  There’s not quite his approach to things, but there is a blurring of the color because there’s a lot of activity in the color.  I feel all this because I’ve been looking at these things I suppose, but the effect is that if you were at the right distance, there is a very clear color impression of something very precise.  But it
s also fascinating to go up close and see how he’s done it, or see what angle the brush stokes were at.

BD:    Now when someone’s listening to your music, do you want them to be conscious of the brush strokes or the theoretical details?

OK:    I want them to trust.  I want them to feel, to be able to sit back and listen to it, and feel what they want to feel, to like it or dislike it, but I don’t want to be thought of as somebody whose music is vague.  I could stand anything else.  I could stand it if somebody really couldn’t stand the music, but if they thought it was slipshod, I wouldn’t like it.  [Laughs]  At the same time, that sounds really staid saying that.  Really, if there is any element in my music that is predominant, there is a great deal of color and great deal of activity, and a lot of speed and all this sort of thing.  But if you let those particular elements run riot, you can very easily get into a position of the thing’s sounding like the equivalent of an action painting, which is absolutely what I don’t want.   The details are all there to make a very precise point.

BD:    So you want to make a good impact?

OK:    Yes!  The listener should not be bothered that there is a lot going on, and wonder what should he listen to.  In my view, composers should have put some light through the piece by whatever means so that the listener can have confidence in the piece when it starts, and follow it through, if he wants to.  It’s always dependent fifty-fifty.  You come to me and I’ll come to you, but the important part is that there is an access point.  For me, the access point is with a lot less notes.  People are not particularly interested in contemporary music, but are forced to sit through ‘this bloody modern piece’ on X concert.  They get in on the coloristic angle, or they get in on the dramatic angle, and provided they have confidence in what’s there, they should be able to get onto one of those, and it’ll work.  If they’re concerned with,
Goodness what strange noises!  This doesn’t make any sense somehow, then there’s going to be a problem.  There’s that wonderful story about Webern sitting at a performance of his symphony and saying, Listen to that!  Bleeps and blobs don’t make any sense at all does it?  No wonder people hate this is crazy modern music!  [Both laugh]  What he was saying was that the performance made no connections between the notes that make the lines that Webern made up, because anything less random than Webern can’t be imagined.  Again you could hate it or like it, but it’s not random.

BD:    So you put a lot of responsibility on the interpreters and the performers to get your music across.

OK:    Of course!  [Has a big laugh]  You saying that makes me feel slightly guilty!  I’m not trying to make life difficult for them; it’s just there’s a lot of information.  There’s a lot of stuff on the paper for them to assimilate, especially, as I said, from the point of view of dynamics.  It
’s the way you play something.  It’s not that difficult to play a lot of it, but it’s difficult to do.

BD:    I understand that.  I’m searching for your own responsibility as far as making it clear, and getting everything down on the paper, and not making a miscalculation.

OK:    There’s two ways of dealing with this.  The first one is that you are absolutely hundred per cent sure of what you want, and that you write that down in such a way that it is clear and unambiguous to the performer.  With the kind of music I write, if you take that approach, which I do, you will come up with scores that look very complex.  There will be an awful lot of information because when I hear a series of notes or a phrase, I don’t just hear a series of notes or a phrase, I hear it played a certain way.  Certain attacks and certain notes are much shorter than others, and usually they are attached to something else going on at the same time.  So they’re going to have to assimilate not just the phrase, but the dynamics, the accents, the agogics [stress given to notes through prolonged duration] and all that stuff.  The other alternative
— aside from the kind of aleatoric approach which would leave a lot to the performersis to assume that the players are likely to be intelligent, and they’re likely to know the kind of thing I want, and so I won’t over-notate.  In other words, I’ll write something that suggests.

BD:    And let them figure it out?

OK:    And let them figure it out.

BD:    [Pushing it just a bit farther]  Then are you letting them figure it out, or are you letting them actually compose your piece for you?

OK:    Well, for example, the entire nineteenth century German orchestral repertoire is not over-notated in the sense that there are infinite number of ways of doing it.  But the architecture is so strong, it works.  A composer’s whose notation I admire enormously is Benjamin Britten, whose scores are not ferociously complicated and over-marked, but he knows exactly what problems will appear to a performer in a certain register, and can anticipate.  When I said how extraordinary it was
not just stuff for Peter Pears but minor parts in Britten’s operassome singers were telling me that they tend to sound roughly the same whoever’s singing them.  There’s only a certain amount that a performer can contribute.  I remember asking a singer friend of mine why, very often, the small parts in Britten’s operas sounded very much the same from performance to performance whoever ever happened to be singing them.  He said to me that because Britten wrote very much for voices in certain registers, in certain ways and with certain words in those registers, and with certain types of attack and articulation so that you actually could really only sing them one way.  It came out that way whatever you did, provided you did what he asked.  It’s very interesting.  There’s another story of Britten...  A very good singera quite well-known one who’d just been doing a part that Peter Pears had been doing, and thought he’d been doing a rather good job.  Britten went up to him and said, Please don’t use my music to sing like you sing a vocal exercise!  Britten very much wrote incorporating the cracks in people’s voices, and the blemishes in the place where voices were weak and strong on average, as it were.  If you tried to master that and smooth it all out, it would misrepresent what he wanted.

*     *     *     *     *

knussenBD:    Why do you write operas?

OK:    [Laughs and ponders the question]  I have not the foggiest idea.  I can hardly answer that question.  All that I can tell you is that since I was kid, I always wanted to write an opera.  I’ve always loved certain operas.  I’m not a big fan of nineteenth century French opera, apart from Berlioz, and I’m not a fan of nineteenth century Italian opera at all until you get to late Verdi, for example, as well as Don Giovanni and Russian operas, and Strauss, and Puccini, and Berg, and so forth.  Of course Britten is where I come from, and it just was something I had to do.  I was trying to describe to somebody today how I found Where The Wild Things Are in a book store, and decided that it was an impossible opera subject because the costumes would be too ridiculous
which they are.  I said to them that if you ever bump into a composer in a book store, no matter what he saysthat he’s just gone in to buy a thrillerhe’s actually looking for an opera libretto!  It’s astonishing.  You can be reading almost anyone and think, “Could I do this?  [Much laughter]

BD:    Now you say you’re not fan of certain things and you’re a fan of other things?

OK:    Yes.

BD:    Are you a fan of the music of Oliver Knussen?

OK:    Oh, goodness, that’s a loaded one!  [Thinks a moment]  If a piece works, and it does what I wanted it to, then I’m happy with it.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean that after a few years I like it, because usually if you’ve got anything to say as a composer, every piece will be rather different from the one before... or you think it’ll be rather different from the one before, and that similarities from piece to piece will be involuntary.  Even if you might think you’ve traveled an enormous distance in this piece, it’ll sound exactly the same as what he wrote five years before, but that’s not the point.  The point is that you were traveling an enormous distance and you were trying things that were new for you.  So if those things that are new get your full attention, and you’re excited about them, one’s always very excited with the piece one’s writing at the moment.  That’s a truism.  Most composers would say that.  One’s an incredible fan of this piece if it came out the way you imagined it, but very rarely it does.  In the pieces that have elements that I was talking about
the color, the harmony, and the pacingdo what I want, yes, I think as a listener I would like them.  There are other pieces of mine which I know as a listener I wouldn’t, and I really feel ghastly sitting in a hall listening to them with an audience.  Very often I thought they were good pieces at the time, but you suddenly realize that you were hermetic.  You were entirely concerned with solving problems of your own that you had, and in fact it’s like playing a self-analysis session in front of a group of other people who don’t know anything about youwhich is not terribly interesting, although they might get interested in what you knew by the time they heard all of your troubles!  But this convoluted roundabout way of answering your question is that I do write to please myself as a listener, and sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don’t.  But most of the reason that one sits down to write a piece is because you thought of something that you haven’t heard before, or that there is nothing that quite fulfills that need, and that’s what makes you want to write it. 

BD:    Do the ideas always come?

OK:    You mean regularly as clockwork?  No, but the ideas for pieces always come.  I always have ideas for forms or for characters, but actual musical ideas?  No.  Somebody wrote an article about another composer recently and said that my trouble
he alluded to mewas that when the muse visited, I went out for lunch!  [Roars of laughter]  I can’t think what he meant!

BD:    When you’re writing down the music, how do you know which ideas are the right ones, and how do you know when you’ve put in the right dots and squiggles and everything on the paper?

OK:    Well, you see, there are very few ideas.  There are very few ideas, and there’s a lot of working out.  That whole business of composition being one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration is absolutely true.  If you write the kind of music, which I do, which does not depend to a great extent on repetition, it depends on simply coming up with more things to keep the thing afloat.  Then the way those things join up, and the way they interrelate is what gives the music some kind of coherence. 

BD:    It sounds like you’re just panicking to get it done, and you have to prop it up!

OK:    Actually a piece is born from a very few ideas.  There’s usually two, I found, and those ideas can be tiny.  But there is, at a certain point, a kind of fertilization, I suppose.  There is one primary idea, which might or might not be any good, and suddenly you think of something else that either goes on at the same time with it, or that contradicts it, either character-wise or harmonically, or one of these ways, and suddenly the piece starts happening.  That process I’m describing has occasionally happened at nine o’clock in the morning.  I will not have an idea in my head about how to make this piece I’m working on happen.  Not a clue!  I’ve got a few vague notions, but I don’t know how to get it started.  Then half an hour later I can have half of the first paragraph written down in some form simply because something sparked off the ideas that were already latent.  Composers from the eighteen to the nineteenth century developed the sonata as a way of kind of dramatizing, on one hand, conflict and resolution, and on the other hand, it’s a very interesting way of codifying how one starts composing in the first place
at least for me!

BD:    So it is like a painter always using a square canvas rather than a round canvas, or an angular canvas?

OK:    Yes.  I don’t like laying down the law, and I don’t like saying this is always true, but it’s almost invariably true for me that the piece doesn’t start until there are two things going either simultaneously or successively.  The impetus to keep it going comes from trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.  [Laughs]  Suddenly there is a need to find a frame in which those things will interact meaningfully, and produce something that might be of interest to somebody else.

BD:    Do you change the shape of the peg a little bit, or do you round the hole that it’s going into?

OK:    Usually I round the hole that it’s going into, but they both usually wind up being smaller!  [Gales of laughter]  My pieces tend to get very much shorter as they’re being worked on.

BD:    Once you get it all worked out, and it’s done, and you’ve finished it, do you ever go back and revise it?

OK:    Constantly!  There’s only two pieces in my whole catalogue that haven’t been revised.  Sometimes it’s a major revision, which means that one actually writes the whole score out again and changes many, many small details as well as major things, and sometimes it’s just you’ve got one bit wrong.  But the most thrilling part of composing is the first rehearsal, if it’s a good one, or the dress rehearsal for a performance when suddenly you hear the piece for the first time through from one end to the other, and it talks back to you.  As I said, one gets a long way away from initial ideas when you start to work at them, but the original conception will either come back to you, or something rather different than the original conception, and rather more interesting than the original conception talks back to you.  Sometimes if you realize it might be fine but for a few places that you’ve messed up, and that’s when it needs revising.  Or sometimes there are just things you write down and they can make you cringe.

knussenBD:    Do you ever say,
Did I write that???”

OK:    Yes, yes, yes! 

BD:    What if someone comes up, or even a conductor comes up and says,
I really like the first version of this piece.  It’s better.

OK:    To use a good old Anglo-Saxon expression, they can sod off!  [Laughs]  The only composer who that really applies to is probably Bruckner!  He was pressured like mad to revise his pieces.

BD:    Then who pressures you to revise it?  Only you?

OK:    Me, yes!

BD:    So if a conductor comes says you should change a little bit of this...

OK:    I basically don’t listen to them.  Michael Tilson Thomas has probably had more effect on my revisions than any other conductor.  I remember one piece of mine called Ophelia Dances.  Michael was responsible for the first performance, and the piece was simply too short, and I knew it was too short.  I knew what I was going to do with it, I suppose, and Michael said,
“You know, this really needs is a celesta cadenza.  He was playing the celesta, and I said, No, don’t be so silly, Michael.  The last thing you want is a celesta cadenza.  The night of the third performance, I go to it and lo and behold there’s a celesta cadenza!  He improvised one on the spot because there was a pause and he could get away with it without the players going crazy.  I went round the back afterwards and he said, “Are you going to kill me?  I said, No, you were dead right, and I wrote a celesta cadenza.  Very often somebody can have a very good idea about how to change a piece.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Did you give him a credit in the score?

OK:    He knows that it’s there!  [Both laugh]  I don’t remember what notes he played, but I didn’t do it for about five years.  I thought the piece was pretty dreadful.  Actually talking about do I like my pieces, it’s very often I detest a piece as soon as I’ve finished it.  It’s sort of like I feel like rejecting a baby or something.  There’s been two occasion which I’ve actually refused to go and hear a piece being done because I was sure it was such garbage.

BD:    Why didn’t you just withdraw it?

OK:    Usually because the performers have said,
“Please let us go through with it!  You don’t have to come and listen to it.  Finally a couple of months later, when I did get to listen to it, I’ve actually seen that they were right and I was wrong.  Not that it was a late Beethoven quartet, but actually that was what I was trying to do.

BD:    Are there ever any times that it’s the reverse
— when performers tell you that we’re not going to do this piece because it’s terrible?

OK:    No, but I’ve had a choreographer who has said,
I cannot choreograph this music.  It’s undanceable.  That actually set The Wild Things back a good year because I’d sketched out a dance section, and then I was told that there was no way that anybody could remember the beat patterns.  I wound up a year later coming back to exactly the point that I started from, and it was a particular problem that the person had.  One does listen to other people, but in terms of revising a piece, I can probably answer this from the other endas a conductorbecause I’ve done a great deal of first performances of music by people whom I’m close to.  They all say, Oh God, I need to do something with this, and I will say, Yes, why don’t you do X and Y?  Then it comes back different.  They all do something, but it’s never what you suggest because what people forget about composing is you can only do certain things.  If every composer could do everything, we would all be the best ‘pastichers’ in the world.  You could settle down and write in the style, and you would never have a technical problem because you could always solve it the way X did or the way that Y did.  But the trouble is that in some way we are slightly inept in certain areas, and it’s those areas which are usually the ones that we’re most interested in, and that’s what makes us want to go on.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Do you get more
ept as you work on it?

OK:    Yes, but as soon as you become
ept at something, it becomes uninteresting!  [Roars of laughter]  You know, it’s true!  It’s crazy.  Half of the reason to compose is because you’re dealing with something that you don’t know how to do it.  When you have suddenly an idea sparked off by another idea, it suggests something.  It suggests a frame.

[At this point we were briefly interrupted, when one of the PR people from the Chicago Opera Theater arrived with a few posters for the composers to sign.]

BD:    Do you ever get to a performance and don’t have the music in your head, and completely blank out?

OK:    Oh, yes!  I had a wonderful one that happened this summer at Aldeburgh.  I’d done three concerts in ten days
which is rather too muchwith all different programs, and suddenly I was in the middle.  I’d done a piece by Schnittke, and then we were doing a piece by Colin McPhee (1900-1964)the Tabuh-Tabuhan: Toccata for Orchestra.  It was a concert that contained Britten’s Prince of the Pagodas, and had lots of Balinese music in it.  So we thought the McPhee was an interesting bed fellow.  Then about half way through the second movement of the McPhee I looked down and thought, “What the hell piece is this?  What am I doing here, and what are these two pianos on either side of me?  My goodness, I’m having some kind of a seizure!  But I marked my scores very carefullynot extensively, but just so that if something does go wrong I can go on auto-pilot.  I got off the stage white and dripping with perspiration, because it’s very scary, I have to say.  I talked to the lady who is the leader — concert mistressof the London Sinfonietta, a very wise lady named Nona Liddell.  I’ve worked with that orchestra a lot, and I said to Nona, Have you ever had that when you suddenly don’t know what piece you’re in?  She said, Oh, yes.  But I had something worse than that!  Suddenly in the middle of the Stravinsky Soldier’s Tale, a little voice comes into my head saying, “How do I know how to play the violin?  She said the only thing you can do is to stop!  There’s nothing at that point, and you forget everything, every muscle memory that there is.


BD:    When you’re sitting with the paper in front of you, do you ever forget how to compose?

OK:    Oh yes, especially if you’re under pressure because you’re so worried about being able to do it.  There’s so many times this happens, unless you’re a very systematic composer, which I’m not.

BD:    Are you worried about whether you can do it at all, or whether you can do it right?

OK:    No, I’m worried whether I can do it at all because I plan, but I invent constantly as I go.  You’ll sometimes get to a point where you realize that.  I found a very interesting letter by Busoni the other day in which he talks about the problems he was having writing Dr. Faust.  He said he doesn’t use leitmotif systems, and didn’t have tunes of any kind that recur.  So every time he had a number to write, it’s carte blanche all over again.  That means it’s a constant guessing-game with yourself as to whether you’re going to come up with the right number of ideas, which, for a huge piece like Dr. Faust must have been very frightening.

BD:    And then he had to make sure that they all line up and hung together.

OK:    They all line up, and in his case he had a very interesting or curious method which lines up to a certain extent with my practice in that he wrote many study pieces for it.  There are maybe ten or eleven of the shorter concert pieces which are studies for specific parts of Dr. Faust.  So he always had a safety net of some kind.

BD:    It’s such a strange piece.  It’s in two prologues, an intermezzo, and one act with three scenes.

OK:    That’s right.  It’s very, very odd indeed, and in fact it has no models really, and it has no successors either.  He’s a very interesting composer though.  One gets to a state where you’re not sure at all whether you can do it, because the pressure of having to write acts as an inhibitant, having to produce ideas.  Being able to produce ideas is contingent
with me at leaston being relaxed, or as relaxed as I’m capable of being.  You have to have time to think, and you’ve got to have time to think around them and play with them, and that doesn’t go well deadlines.  I’m very bad at them.

BD:    Then where is there a balance between this inspiration and the technique?

OK:    The balance is in planning your life out carefully.  The balance is in getting to know yourself as you change, trying to work out how you will change, trying to work out how long it will take, given past experience of X or Y piece.

BD:    One last question.  Is composing fun?

OK:    [Emphatically]  God, no!  [Laughs]  It’s hell!  It’s physical work, too.  It’s very nice to think of ideas and it’s very nice to think of pieces and dream about doing them, but the actual act of composing I find monstrously boring.  There’s a lot of mechanical work that people don’t talk about
like ruling scores out, and drawing lines, and rubbing things out.  It’s very physically uncomfortable.  You’re sitting at a desk for enormously long stretches of time bent over.  I suppose a draftsman would probably say I was whining all the way to the bank, but it is necessary for me.  I don’t like teaching as a side occupation because I find it uses the same part of the brain as composing.  I teach sometimes, and I look after a lot of young composers in various ways, but I need something that has nothing to do with that at all to actually make me enthusiastic about it, and that thing is to conduct, to perform.  You learn your scores and you go and identify with them as you can, and you go in, and you do as good a job as you can in as short a period of time as you can.  At that point you go home, and it’s rather nice to sit down and do nothing for six weeks except draw horrible lines, bang out chords on the piano, and such like.

BD:    Do you still know that the end product will be worth all of the pain and torture?

OK:    Oh yes, if it goes right, it’s worth it.  If it doesn’t go right, that’s why so many people say,
I’m never going to do it again!  I’ve said that on a good few occasions, but it’s a compulsion I suppose.

BD:    Thank you for being a composer.

OK:    Oh, thank you!  [Laughs]

We now move ahead in time almost ten years, to March of 1998, when Knussen returned to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  It would be nice to say that I reviewed the earlier interview before our second meeting, but that is not the case.  When editing this for the webpage, it was flabbergasted that I picked up exactly where we had left off a decade previously . . . . .

BD:    You are an accomplished composer and are now building a reputation as a conductor.  How do you divide your time between these two very taxing activities?

OK:    With difficulty!  The trouble with composing is that it’s labor-intensive, and it takes a lot of time.  You need peace of mind to gestate and plan, and then you need extra physical time to write the blinking thing out.  Conducting is much more, what you call a quick-fix, I suppose.  Everything is very concentrated.  Obviously one works on the scores and all the rest of it, but then the rehearsals and the performance are done pretty quickly.

knussenBD:    Too quickly?

OK:    Sometimes too quickly, yes.  Sometimes I feel a little pushed.  I like time.  The trouble is that it’s very difficult in terms of the actual quantity of work, but I expect it’s balanced pretty much fifty-fifty.  What one actually needs is lengthy stretches of time to compose, interspersed with pockets of conducting activity, and it’s very difficult to organize schedules that way.  So a little compromise has to be done, and it actually suits me all right because I’m not somebody who is a several-hours-a-day-punching-a-clock-type of composer.   I’m much more in the sort of Schoenbergian model of writing a great deal quickly, having thought about it, and then not doing so much for a long time, and then going at it with white heat again.

BD:    When you’re conducting your music or others’ music, is your new music gestating in your head?

OK:    No, it tends to stay out of the picture.  I carry various plans in my head, and I guess things just occur to me.  When I am traveling, I do a lot of thinking about my pieces on the actual journeys and things like that.

BD:    On planes?

OK:    Yes.

BD:    Do you sit there in the cabin with music paper out?

OK:    I have been known to.  One of my pieces was orchestrated between Boston and London on one of those big tables that you use to change a baby!  I think the crew found that very amusing.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  You didn’t call it Changing Music, did you?

OK:    No, no, no, but it was a song about eagles so I was in the right part of the atmosphere anyway.  [More laughter]

BD:    Did you start out as a composer and then move to conducting, or was it the other way round?

OK:    I started out as a composer, and my father always wanted me to be a conductor.  It wasn’t quite in his plans that I started to compose.  He got his way eventually by the simple expedient of saying that if I was going to write stuff like this, there was no guarantee that anybody else would want to do it, so I better learn how.  Basically he taught me the rudiments.  He was an orchestral player; he was the first double bass player in the London Symphony Orchestra for fifteen years.

BD:    He didn’t want you to be the second double bass player in the London Symphony for many years?

OK:    No, no, no.  He did want me to learn the cello, but I’m spectacularly ungifted as a string player.  My brother was a bass player.

BD:    [Very gently indicating his large size]  You should have taken up the piccolo!

OK:    That’s right, yes!  [Gales of laughter]

BD:    Being a composer, when you conduct you also champion other new music.

OK:    I was sort of catapulted in at the deep end, really.  My first symphony was to be part of a TV documentary, but it was actually scheduled by the London Symphony Orchestra when I was fifteen.  The conductor, who was supposed to be István Kertész, became ill, and I jumped in and did it.  Then I had quite a few performances and opportunities of that kind over the next year or two.  This is when I was between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, and subsequent to that I got to know some of my contemporaries and composers of my own age, or slightly older who had not had those opportunities.  So I felt like starting to become a good citizen.  Also I liked some of their music a good deal more than I liked my own, and that had two effects.  One was to get me to work much, much harder on what I was doing, and be less reliant on one’s natural facility.  Also I always find it kind of embarrassing to do my own music a lot.  I don’t like taking bows!  I’m not a very, very public person.  I would much rather generate an opportunity for somebody else to hear their music played, and try and do it as well as it can be done.  I’ve been conducting fairly constantly now for around fifteen years.  I’d stopped for a long time when I was about eighteen or nineteen.  There were very few conductors who actually championed the music of my generation, but now that situation has changed a little bit, because you have conductors like Esa Pekka Salonen, Simon Rattle, and Michael Tilson Thomas.  In fact the situation is nowhere near as bleak as it was.  It’s a good thing for somebody else to have that repertory central to what they do, rather than peripheral to what they do, and that’s what I try and do.

BD:    Has conducting others’ music has improved your music?

OK:    Yes, most certainly because you get a very quick and clear lesson in what works and what doesn’t work, both in your own music and in other people’s music.  My Horn Concerto, which is as elaborate a piece as anything else of mine
— though possibly it’s a little more direct — but it’s actually very easy to put to together.  The difficulty is for the horn player and for the conductor, but for the orchestra it works.  It can be put together in any reasonable amount of time, which is something I’m quite proud of because although some of my earlier music I like quite a lot, it is pretty intricate and it does need taking apart and putting together with great care if it’s going to work.

BD:    Did you write it that way, or did it just come out that way?

OK:    It comes out that way!  I’ve got a natural mind that invents proliferations fairly readily.  I used to think that the amount of detail
— or detailed working, shall we sayin my music was a compensation for a lack of confidence in my ideas.  But actually I think it’s just part of musical character.  I don’t sit down and try and write complicated pieces and, paradoxically enough, my pieces don’t sound that complicated.  They sound quite direct, but they’re very intricate, and especially harmonically they’re very much like little clock mechanisms.  Every gear has to be in the right place, and if it’s out, it sounds dreadful.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You get commissions for pieces.  How do you decide yes or no?

OK:    If it
s a big piece, I decide primarily if I want to write it.  Number two, do I have time to write it?  The answer is always no to that one.  Then I don’t accept commissions with deadlines much anymore.  Very, very occasionally I do for little occasional pieces.

BD:    So the commission is generally,
Write me a piece and get it to me when you can.?

OK:    We aim for a season, and then if it’s not ready for that season, it gets put back.  

BD:    That requires great tolerance on the part of the presenter.

OK:    This gets us into a whole other area.  The point is that a piece of music is a commodity.  Is it an occasional thing?  Is it something for a specific date particularly, or is it a work of art?  Some pieces are specifically for an occasion, and that’s what they’re there for.  That’s their whole raison d’être, but, for example, if one is writing a symphony or a major work for an orchestra, obviously the composer wants to do the best they can for that orchestra.  Some people find it very easy and rather a stimulation to work to a fairly tight deadline.  I find it a terrible inhibition, having fallen foul of such things quite a lot in the past.  It’s very simple.  If somebody wants a piece and they’re prepared to do it my way, I’m willing to do it, let’s say, two seasons hence, then fine.  If they don’t want to do that, then that’s quite all right, frankly!

BD:    You’re working on a piece, and you’re tinkering with it, and you think it’s ready, how do you know when it’s done?

knussenOK:    I plan very carefully what I’m going to write before I write it so that when it’s done, it’s when the plan is fulfilled, or when the plan has changed enough for the thing to get fulfilled.  I have to say, having gone on this diatribe about deadlines, most of my pieces have, in fact, been written to deadline.  Even if I’ve done a large amount before, it’s good to have something to work towards.  What I don’t want is that make-or-break time.  What I want is time that I can concentrate on aiming the piece, and it if takes longer, it takes longer.  In the past there have been several pieces of mine which are very short, which were not meant to be because the deadline was a very inflexible thing.  I got something done with the intention of going back and doing more later, but the point is that when you’re in the world of a piece
once I’ve got my materials — the piece tells you to a certain extent what it needs.  This is something you’ll find is common to quite a few composers.

BD:    I was going to ask if you are ever surprised where it leads you?

OK:    Yes.  There is a sense of the thing talking back to you, and that’s a very good sign, actually, when the thing seems to have its own kind of logic.  If you get out of that, if you stop a piece half way through, then you have the piece, and you hear it, and it’s not so much that it’s very different from what you hear than what you imagine, but it’s a very different kind of experience.  It’s an external experience to what you react, rather than generating the sound in your head.  It’s very, very difficult having experienced it to go back inside it again, I found.  So nowadays once it’s done, it’s done.  I’ll sometimes tinker after with little orchestrational details and maybe little balances, and sometimes quite extensively, but mainly in matters of detail.  Sometimes you’ll find that the thing almost works, but there’s something with proportions that’s slightly wrong.  You can find sometimes that something will need another movement, which is very difficult to do.  On other occasions it can be a matter of simply adding three or four measures.  For example in the Horn Concerto, one little passage felt foreshortened, and I thought I needed to put another stretch of music there.  But actually all it needed was three or four measures just to complete a circuit and hover around a little bit more.  So you just have to let the thing talk to you and tell you what it wants.  These pieces are organisms.  They’re living things to me.

BD:    Are they living on the page, or do they live only when they get to be vibrations in the air?

OK:    Obviously when they’re vibrations in the air, but for the composer they’re already alive when you’re putting it down on the paper, and they’re already alive in your head, actually, before you put it down on the paper.  One of the terrible things is trying to preserve the feelings that the thing creates in putting it down on the paper.  Very often something will work perfectly well inside your head, but it is stilted when you put it on the paper.  It somehow dies, and sometimes you have to do something rather different than you planned.  Even talking in matters of detail, sometimes a little line, a little tune, or something that works perfectly well in the head, when you put it down, it doesn’t.  I thought that was it an inadequacy of mine, and then you read quite a lot.  For example, in Britten’s letters he’s saying that sometimes the thing as it gets down on the paper doesn’t quite have the freshness that you want.

BD:    Do you ever wish that maybe you could put some kind of a magic thinking cap on your head and transfer your thoughts directly to the page?

OK:    Oh God, yes!  To a certain extent, that is what people with computers now are almost doing in sequences and things like that.  I would probably be very interested in fiddling around with that were it not for the fact that I’m suspicious about the influence that the mechanical device has on the actual quality of the invention.  Especially as one gets older
not that I’m Methuselah or anything, but I’m middle-agedone does look for ways to get to the end a little bit more speedily, and I’m sure if I had the temptation of a computer that would run through all sorts of permutations, and run through cycles of rhythmical patters that only collided, I’d like the machine do it!   But I don’t want to do that.

BD:    But you do want to be more efficient?

OK:    I like the idea of clarity.  I like the ideal of clarity.  I like to think that my music gets more direct and, at the same time, I’m very, very fond of a very elaborate textures and many things going on at the same time.  So I’m constantly juggling these sorts of extremes, and hopefully what one does achieve is a sort of multi-layered kind of effect in which the layers all very precisely interlock, and they make all sense.  At least that’s what one aims for.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you get to the end of a piece and it’s done and you’re satisfied with it, is there a sense of completion and finality on your part?

OK:    Yes.  It’s wonderful to feel that you’ve got to the end of something.  Okay, it’s now time to go onto the next thing!

BD:    The reason I asked this is that you’re probably going to be asked to conduct it.   Do you then relearn it from the conductor’s point of view?

knussenOK:    Curiously enough, because that’s the way I look at music instinctively by now, I learn it from the conductor’s point of view almost while I’m writing it at this point.  So, for example, if I’m working on a fairly sizable piece, it’s the experience of many composers that you mentally go through the piece each morning
or afternoon or whatever time of day you happen to workand get the feel of where you’ve gotten to by going from the beginning of the movement.  Now at that stage I will be already thinking of whether the beat patterns make sense, or whether it could be easier if it was re-barred or more clear.  So to a certain extent I don’t have to worry about that.  I have occasionally caught myself off guard though, and I found something that makes total sense as a compositional way of thinking about the way something is measured, but it absolutely makes no sense from a conducting point of view or a notational point of view from the executant.

BD:    So you have a little fight with yourself?

OK:    Yes!

BD:    Who wins?

OK:    The former because the whole function of a score is to present my thoughts.  Okay, there’s also metaphysical things, yes.  It’s the documentation of the composer’s thoughts and all that, but it is a list of instructions to a performer, and the more direct those instructions are, the more clean and accurate the execution of what your original conception will be.  Only if that has been accomplished well, will you get the real thrill of composing, which is when the first idea you have for the piece talks back to you, and later when you actually hear it when you’re listening.  That’s the sense of completion we’re talking about, and that really is thrilling, and there’s nothing like that.  That’s why one keeps doing it.

BD:    Now there’s one more joker in this.  Suppose you have to conduct a piece that you’ve put aside, or that is from ten or twenty years ago, and you come back to it.  Do you have to relearn it?

OK:    [Thinks a moment]  I look at it carefully.  It usually comes back pretty quickly, but the interesting par
t — and this sounds like a common place thing to sayis that it really is like doing a piece by a composer who is no longer you.  It’s about like doing a piece by anybody else.  Obviously you know the notes intimately, but my first way I will learn a score by somebody else is to get an overview, a general overview of the thingthe shape and the formand gradually to look at the way the different tempi relate.  Then you look at the way the different rhythmical things happen inside those particular tempo areas.  Finally you get down to looking at the notes, so it’s again very much from the large down to the small.  Now if I’m doing an old piece of mine, I don’t have to go through the first part of that process at all because obviously the memory of the thing is still there.  But I mean then we’re talking about the pieces I wrote, let’s say twenty, twenty-five years ago, and they are not of a kind of a ferocious sort of complexity.  Not that I am Boulez by any stretch of the imagination, but if I had to relearn the first book of Notations, let’s say, which is a score of prodigious intricacy and complexity and precision, goodness knows whether I’d be able to do it quickly.  I am doing this Suite from Where the Wild Things Are next week, and I’m using a clean score.  I’ve gone through the ritual of putting my usual marks in, simply so I don’t get caught out by it, or by what I used to do, or ways I thought of it as opposed to ways I’ve learned you’re supposed to do it.

BD:    Is there ever a time when you’re looking at a score like that and you think you could have done something else?

OK:    Yes, every day; every time I look at one of those pieces.

BD:    Do you change it or do you live with it?

OK:    If it’s a piece that’s fixed in print and it’s been done a lot, I leave it be.  If it’s a piece that’s not published or it’s not recorded, then I’ll fix it or I’ll make a note to fix it when it goes through the next stage of its life.  But in the course of writing the two operas, I had a lot of time to tidy up older pieces because writing the two operas took a very long time.  Also in the course of the last ten years, I’ve done a little bit of just sorting things out, so my house is pretty much in order.  There are still some earlier pieces I
m not quite sure what to do with.  I’m not sure what to do with the First Symphony, for example, which I always said I would turn into a piece for youth orchestras to play.  But frankly, I think youth orchestras deserve something better, and that leaves me in the unfortunate business of being in the process of writing a fourth symphony and not having a first.  But then one of the other pieces I notice, which is actually called Concerto for Orchestra, is indeed no such thing.  It is more like a one-movement symphony like my other ones are, so that may plug the hole.  But that’s the last bit of tidying up I’ve got to do.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Most composers expect some interpretation on the part of the performers.  Do you expect this interpretation, and then how much does this change when you then change hats?

OK:    I tend very much towards the Stravinskian thing of not wanting interpretation, but wanting accuracy.  But you want committed accuracy.  One wants some soul in the performance of course, but I don’t want other people’s ideas imposed on it.

BD:    But you don’t want a carbon copy each time?

OK:    No, no, no, but if you have four different conductors and they all play the same piece accurately and committedly, they’re going to have differences of pacing, even within the leeway of tempo that you allow them.  There are also going to be differences of balance.  There are going to be differences of character.  Maybe the four performances will only deviate from each other by a matter of seconds.  That I find interesting.  I got quite furious once, although I didn’t tell the gentleman concerned, when I received a tape of a performance of a piece of mine to which I had not been invited
and for very good reasons as it turned outin which the gentleman concerned decided that he would do the piece at half-speed... or just that is what it felt like to me.  It was absurdly slow and he said that he wanted to hear the notes better.

BD:    Was it maybe the technical ability
— or lack thereofof the players?

knussenOK:    No, he said he wanted to hear what the notes were doing.  My response would be that I knew damn well what the notes were doing, and that’s why I’ve written the tempos that I wrote!  I have noticed that my own performances have tended to slow down over the years.  That’s something quite typical of composers, though, because a composer will tend to conduct his own pieces at the speed he thought of it.  If you listen to Elgar’s recordings, for examplewhich I’m very fond ofhe goes sailing over the things.  They’re very fast, and they’re tremendously exciting.  You have a wonderful sense of line, even when the playing is all over the shop.  Take, for example, the recording of his Falstaff.  That makes a better case for that piece than any other performance I’ve ever heard of it because he carries the line through from beginning to end.  Britten also has a wonderful swiftness about what he does.  Copland’s performances — until the very late onesalways have a considerable swiftness, as do Stravinsky’s.  There’s also a matter of articulation.  You will find if the composer is a reasonably good conductor, the length of the notes is right.  That’s absolutely critical in the case of Stravinsky, for example, and it’s very critical of my music because there’s a lot going on.  If the notes are too long, it gets very turgid.  The performer ignores a composer’s own documentation of a piece at their peril.  I think there is something you can learn from that, although, heavens, I wouldn’t pretend that mine of my music were the only possible performances.

BD:    Are there times when performers discover brilliances in your scores that you didn’t know you’d hidden there?

OK:    I don’t know about brilliances, but certainly there have been some expressive qualities that I was surprised to find there.  Just last week in fact, I went to a performance of my Third Symphony that Simon Rattle did.  He’d done it many years before
and did it very wellbut on this occasion I hadn’t gone to any rehearsals.  He’d done it once before in another part of Englandin Birmingham in factand then took to London.  I went to the concert just before I came to Chicago, and that was a very satisfying experience because I didn’t have to worry about whether the piece worked or not because it’s been around for a while.  I knew that Simon would do a very good job on it, so I was able actually to concentrate on what he was bringing to the piece.  In terms of the pace of the thing, it wasn’t that different from what I do, but the color was very different.  It was much more wood and less chrome, if you see what I mean, and that was really very nice.  It was a very nice sensation.

BD:    Will you incorporate that next time when you conduct it?

OK:    Maybe.  I don’t know.  I am by nature a painfully self-conscious person.  I get very bothered by what I do.  I think possibly that’s a legacy of very early exposure and all that.  At least that’s what some people would say.

BD:    Leave that to the shrinks!

OK:    Yes, exactly, leave it to the shrinks.  I find that I do my best work when I’m as unselfconscious as possible.  So if I can have a very serious attitude to what I do, and I don’t take myself terribly seriously at all, and if I go in and just do my job, then something special might happen.  That’s what I hope anyway.  That
’s what I try to do at any rate.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask the real easy question.  What’s the purpose of music?

OK:    That’s a very difficult one for me to answer because I’ve grown up entirely in a musical environment.  I’m very much a hot-house flower.  I’ve grown up entirely in a musical world, and when I first went to school and discovered there were kids who didn’t care about it, or for whom it wasn’t important, or who didn’t know about it, I simply didn’t understand.  I had no way of relating to them, and it was very painful.  But I suppose it’s to provide some sort of model of beauty of things; to provide objects of contemplation in a very troubling world
not just in our time but all the way back.  There’s always been troubles, and people do take solace.  Sometimes music can warm, and sometimes it can pacify, and sometimes it can memorialize.  I’m not at all sure what the purpose is.  For some people it’s a very much a social thing.  They like to play with people, or they like the ritual of the concert hall.  I don’t like that at all.  I’m happiest at my desk, or when I’m in the recording studio, when things are very informal.  There’s an enormous amount of good to be learned from the act of people caring about something which has no material worth.  People will work incredibly hard to get something right because it’s important that it’s right, not that you can actually put a value on why it’s so important.  I’m reminded of the stories of the players in the Auschwitz orchestra; the women who were in Auschwitz were in a prison orchestra, one of whom was a cellist actually in the English Chamber Orchestra, who wrote a book about it.  When the woman who conducted the Auschwitz orchestra was once accused in the press of being sadistic, or incredibly demanding and dominating, this cellist wrote and said they survived because she made us feel that it was the most important thing in the world, whether it was a quarter note or an eighth note, or that it was together.  If you extend that, participating or being involved with a great work of music is like making some sort of ideal kind of microcosm, and being involved in the making of some sort of an ideal world in which there’s a balance between order and fantasy, and complexity and simplicity, and beauty and tension.  That’s the way I’d like to think of it.  For me, the world would be almost meaningless without it.  If I was deaf, I suppose it would go on in my head.  I love the visual arts very much, and I have the same feeling about those.  A great painting is not just to put on somebody’s wall in their living room.  It’s something to contemplate and think about one’s condition.  I’m not much of a philosopher.  I’m just a musician, you know!

BD:    Does all of this that we’ve been talking about change when you have a text?

knussenOK:    I’ve written a great deal of music with text, and I gravitated very much towards that early on because when you’re starting to compose, writing songs is a very natural thing to do.  The poem gives you a back to hang your invention on, or it gives you something to illustrate.  Now, whenever I get very stuck composingwhich happens reasonably frequentlyI usually sit down and write something with a text for that reason.  Although rather than just illustrating a text, it gets my creative juices going.  I will try to find what you might call a structural metaphor for what’s in the poem.  It can be some technical thing that mirrors what is happening in the poembe it the imagery, or the way the poem was put togetherso that somehow the text and the music will be married.  That gets you out of that particular task, and starts getting you thinking about this particular set of gears that started grinding, and gets the piece moving again.  I remember when I stopped after writing my two operas, I was completely exhausted, and I hardly wrote anything for two years.  Then I found a book of poems of Rilke in translation by Stephen Mitchell.  Now, I’m not, as I said, a great metaphysical type of person, and Rilke is not my favorite poet by a long way, but I liked these translations, and I liked the language of them.  So I just started writing some poems for unaccompanied voice.  I was just relishing the sound of the voice and the color of the words.

BD:    Just sing the poetry!

OK:    Yes, exactly.  I talked to a colleague of mine about this and he said that the trouble with writing unaccompanied vocal pieces on a very good text is that you almost feel like you’re not doing anything!  There’s a lovely account of Mussorgsky, who I think is one of the great song composers of any time.  He tried to set an entire play by Gogol called The Marriage.  He did the first act, and Colin Matthews and I made a version for chamber orchestra some years ago, so I got to know it very well.  Mussorgsky tried not to set the words so much as he tried to put down how he wanted them delivered.  He did put notes, of course, and they are sung, but it was a way of pacing how he wanted the text delivered.  Once he’d figured out how to do that, he was ready to write Boris, where he could control it.  But I like the idea of just trying to fix how you would like the words felt, and how you would like them comprehended; what you would like people to think about; what you’re thinking about when you set them; how you communicate what you’re thinking about when you read those words.  Some of my very simplest pieces have been songs and settings of words, and also my most elaborate piece I ever wrote
which is the Whitman Settings [1991]is very compact, but it’s a very concentrated piece.  After I’ve done a lot of word-setting, it’s a very difficult to get back to abstract music.  So I can understand very well why some composers are song composers and some people aren’t.

BD:    Because you do so much with the voice, do you find people sending you texts?

OK:    No, not at all.

BD:    [Surprised]  Really???

OK:    No, I never get texts.  It’s a hideous problem finding texts.  I don’t think I’ve ever been sent a libretto through the post, for example... not that I particularly want to be sent librettos through the post.  I have a number of colleagues who have suggested short stories that I might look at that might get me going, but it’s a very personal thing picking a text.  I can’t imagine just using something that another person has sent me.

At this point we stopped for a moment to take care of a few technical things for the radio presentation.  I also asked him for his birthdate, which he gave me, and then we continued with the conversation . . . . .

BD:    Are you at the point in your career which you want to at this age?

OK:    [Thinks a moment]  I would like to have written more music, and I’d like to write better music.  As a conductor, I guess I am.  I’ve got a very luxurious kind of situation where I can do pretty much what I want, and I have now my own ensemble.  I’m the music director of the London Sinfonietta, as of next year, and I work with some most incredible orchestras in the world
like this one here in Chicagowhich has been a thrill.  I get to do the music that I want to do, and if I had an uncomplicated life and just wanted to be a conductor, I’d find a way of complicating it anyway.  [Laughs]  But if I had a simple one-tier life, I imagine I would have a very full and happy life, and have some decent time off, and probably be a very healthy person.  As it is, I’m conscious that I have this juggling to do.  Although it’s a difficult life because I have produced a reasonably sized catalogue of the pieces, but had I not been conducting I would have produced a lot more perhaps.  I think I would have done.  There are numerous projects.  The problem is that everybody has limited time really, but if you have specifically limited time in any year, various projects that you would dearly love to do simply don’t get realized, and by the time you have time to realize those projects, you’ve already gone though some other ones, so they just get cast on the wayside.  So what I’m hoping to do over the next two years is to complete one or two things that I’ve really been wanting to do for a very long time, and to tidy up my house, get my house in order compositionally-speaking.  I want to get everything up to date by 2000 or 2001.  I’m resisting all ‘Millenniumitis’, but I guess it does have some sort of effect.  Then I want to start from scratch, as if I was a complete neophyte composer again.  I want to do something really very, very different.  What that will be I’m not quite sure, but I’ve been going along in a certain trajectory in terms of the music that I writewhat sort of music it isand it’s just time to move on.  I’m not even sure what it is I want to move on to, except that I just want to do a little renewing.  How that will affect the performance-side of things, I don’t know.  

BD:    One of the other men at the radio station links one piece to another by saying,
“We’ll keep moving this morning!”  [WNIB was a full-time Classical Music station, but we included about four hours of non-classical material in the overnight time during the week.  The DJ for this program was Mr. A.]

OK:    Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!   But it’s funny...  There’s a certain point where, if you have a reasonably distinctive manner of musical speech, you can get into this trap of writing what you think your own music ought to sound like.  You can find yourself, to a certain extent, excluding certain possibilities because it’s not the sort of thing that you do.  I’m not saying that you do it consciously, but you notice certain patterns appearing.

BD:    It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy!

OK:    Yes, and it’s when I noticed certain harmonic or scalic tendencies appearing, despite the fact that I wanted that desperately not to do that again in the next piece.  Maybe it’s time just to draw a double bar at the end of a certain type of music, and start doing something different!  That’s an advantage of having a double career.  If I was a full-time composer I would be scared to death of doing that, but I can do it because I’ve got the conducting to fall back on.  Likewise, if suddenly something physical happened and I could not conduct anymore, I could fall back on composing somehow.  So in that sense I feel very lucky.

BD:    It will be interesting to see how you continue to develop.

OK:    Yes, I can’t wait to find out myself!  [Roars of laughter]

BD:    Thank you for being a composer and thank you for being a conductor
a double thank you!

OK:    It’s a pleasure
a double pleasure, thank you!

BD:    Thank you for coming back to Chicago!

OK:    Oh, that’s all right!  It’s nice.  I’m having a really good time! 


© 1988 & 1998 Bruce Duffie

These conversations were recorded in Chicago on December 17, 1988, and March 13, 1998.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1997 and 1998, and on WNUR in 2008 and 2013.  Copies of the unedited audio were placed in the Oral History of American Music Archive at Yale University.  This transcription was made at the end of 2016, and posted on this website at the beginning of 2017.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.