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,
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
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!
Portions 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.
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!
BD: Then how do
you decide which ones you will accept and which ones you’ll set aside?
OK: 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
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
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.
* * *
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
BD: That’s why
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 were — what 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
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?
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 others — it 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 years — working
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?
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.
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.
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?
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
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 performers — is 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 operas — some 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 singer — a 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.
* * *
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 says — that he’s just gone in to buy a thriller
— he’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?
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 pacing — do
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
you — which 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
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 me — was
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
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.
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?
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.
BD: 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 end — as a conductor — because
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
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
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
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 much
— with 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 carefully — not 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 mistress — of 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
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 least — on 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?
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
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!
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, I 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.
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
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?
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 say — in 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
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?
OK: 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?
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-aged — one
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?
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?
OK: 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 work — and
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?
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 part — and this sounds like a common place
thing to say — is 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 thing — the shape and the form
— and 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
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
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 out — in 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 thereof — of
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 example — which
I’m very fond of — he 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 ones — always
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.
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 well — but on this occasion
I hadn’t gone to any rehearsals. He’d done it once before in another
part of England — in Birmingham in fact
— and 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
BD: Will you incorporate
that next time when you conduct it?
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
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?
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 composing — which happens reasonably
frequently — I 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 poem
— be it the imagery, or the way the poem was put together
— so 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
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 
— 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
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.
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 Chicago — which 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 write — what sort of music it is — and
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
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
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.