Interview with Davina Bamber on the music for children

Interview with Gordon Crosse, 1st March 1983, University of Keele.

DB. How did you first get involved with music for children?

GC. It was really the most important event of my life and as all these events are, it happened by accident. Briefly, I’d known through my teens a group of musicians in Manchester, one of whom was Eric Roseberry, who later turned up in my life as the county music advisor for Huntingdonshire, and we re-established contact. I’d had hardly had any performances, had no reputation, nobody knew anything about me, and he said “Why not write a piece for the county resources?” Then while I was thinking about that the second piece of the jigsaw was that he was an old friend of Donald Mitchell, and I met Donald for some reason, who said “Oh by the way, I wish someone would set these Ted Hughes poems that we do” because he was by then involved with Faber music and I said “Oh yes, what a marvellous idea”, got a copy and enthused. (i.e. Meet My Folks poems). So I did that piece for Eric and in the meantime Donald and Eric got together and suggested that I should have a concert at the Aldeburgh Festival, “New Music for Children”, which was very much in the air at that time because Peter Maxwell Davies had caused quite a stir with what he was doing at Cirencester. I was very aware of that, I knew Max quite well and I’d been over to the school and heard them rehearsing and so on. So the idea of writing a fairly adventurous piece didn’t just follow on what they’d always known from Carl Orff and so forth but came about in that way. The result was I had the good fortune to have a first performance of it at the Aldeburgh Festival – there was a lot of critics around, they all noticed it and that really began my career.

DB. You’ve said before that Meet My Folks helped you to work out some compositional problems. Could you say which in particular it helped?

GC. One has natural spontaneous inspirations and one also has instinct to work at an idea, because one is a trained professional musician, and I think the pieces which I’d written up to about 1963 were quite excessively the latter, they were overworked and lacked a lot of spontaneity. Writing for these resources (children), quite literally, it was like opening a stop cock. To be quite honest I thought at first, well it’s only for children, I can do what I like, but then I realised that this was a very important, positive thing, that it was particularly for children. It made me totally uninhibited about writing little tunes, and other things, because that was the only quarrel I had with Peter Maxwell Davies’ music for young people; I thought it technically marvellous the way he stretched what they could do and the enthusiasm they shared for it, but it was very dour, very serious, not merely in technique but in approach, and I thought well, I don’t see why you can’t have the same technical expansion and have some music which is a bit more cheerful, a bit more brightly coloured. So it was a very conscious desire to do that, and in the process I thought, well, why has this got to be confined to children’s pieces – why can’t all my music (sound like that) – it was a great deal more difficult outside writing children’s pieces to find how to put tunes and other things together, well, I’m still learning. But for children’s pieces immediately, it was a revelation.

DB. Meet My Folks has been described as being “disarmingly tuneful yet harmonically tough”. Maybe it is the serialism that makes it so, you do think?

GC. Yes, there are fairly simple tunes, but they are never harmonized by expected simple harmony, that’s something I don’t see any point in doing, and it is one of my few quarrels with a lot of popular music, the really simple, deadly predictable nature of the harmonic idea, and I think it is terrible that young children in particular should think these are laws of nature. They are not, they are man-made. Things don’t have to be that way, and I almost deliberately, without being too perverse, wanted to suggest that anything that was effective expressively (was o.k.). Because also in the Ted Hughes poems – a lot of them are very entertaining but all sorts of lurking creepy-crawlies are underneath the surface, and I think that simple three-chord trick harmony wouldn’t have begun to express those underlying things – and I wanted to write a piece which was, in the end, just a piece, like good children’s books, read by adults with great pleasure. To that extent, yes, I suppose it is tough. Serialism is the method used, but it isn’t the reason for being tough. To this day I find it difficult to do keyboard harmony, in fact I can’t, and I couldn’t begin to teach keyboard harmony. I cannot programme clichés into my mind, and that’s what doing harmony is, making your fingers go where they are expected to go. Cliché-mongering.

DB. In that light, how would you regard Britten’s music for children with its very clear, pure, choral sound?

GC. Well, you are talking about one of my “musical Gods”. He would write in C major (and you can search the textbook in vain for that kind of C major) and redefine C major; he may only use two chords, tonic and dominant, but they are different, and it is that quality of re-invention which sets him as a composer apart from mere note-spinners. I probably don’t have the security Britten did in the continued validity of the very simplest means. It is the most difficult thing in the world to do what Britten did, and now that he has gone it’s practically impossible. I don’t know of anyone who’s been able to do it.

DB. How do you go about composing?

GC. Getting to know the poetry; when I know which line is coming next then I feel ready to do something with it.

DB. Was it the tunes that came first or the textures?

GC. Well, it’s always difficult to describe the process of composition, because it is a feedback process. It’s not static, it isn’t one-dimensional, you don’t just think of the tune and then think of something else. You start thinking about the tune and then that feeds back to what kind of texture it is, and then when you think about the texture, that feeds back to the tune, and they’re constantly interacting with one another. But more than any other pieces, yes, the tune and the surface of the piece come first: what it is you hear most readily. Partly out of respect for the performers, it is one of the few areas where I do have to be aware of the limitations of the performers, children are just a special case of amateurs. To ask them to look for the tune within a hidden texture is a degree of musical sophistication which is perhaps a little unreasonable. I think the tune or the principal idea has to be very clearly in the foreground; so that you play it to them and they learn it. So the tune actually came first, in a few cases the sound came first.

DB. Did you deliberately take the Stravinsky quotation?

GC. I’m really crosse with myself about that, because (although) I’m a great believer in pinching people’s ideas, I’ve always followed the advice of Vaughan Williams which is “to crib wherever you like, but you must always know you’re cribbing”. But that is a real unconscious plagiarism in a sense, not only the outline but even the sound of mixing trumpet, oboe and clarinet together is so close to the Stravinsky Octet that if it had been pointed out to me while I was working on it it would have been so strong that I’d found something else to do. So it was not conscious – it was a classic piece of “botton-drawism”. I was so obsessed with my own idea which I’ve been trying to find a home for for two or three years, it is really simply the idea of playing around with minor thirds and noticing how the pattern comes out.

DB. The three note motive which pervades the whole work – that was conscious too then?

GC. Yes. Meet My Folks is a very serial piece, you can look at almost every bar of it and if you treat it as six note serialism and not twelve note, except that those six notes have another six which makes up a twelve note, so when the weed grows in “My Aunt” I wanted a terrifying moment of it growing to fill the whole universe you see, well, it fills the whole chromatic universe, it becomes a twelve note row and uses all of the twelve notes as it grows.

DB. Rats Away, was written before or after Meet My Folks?

GC. Well, about the same time. One of the schools that toom part in the Huntingdonshire schools thing was a particular specialist musical school and had quite a lively music teacher, and before we actually gave the first performance at Aldeburgh of Meet My Folks, I’d done this extra little piece. It’s always been a little bit of an ugly duckling, among my children’s pieces. I suspect it’s not very well written because I’ve never heard a performance of it which is any good, they all get the speeds wrong. It never sounds remotely right. I think the trouble is, they need slightly older children than young primary schools, but in the score it’s written for a C.P, school [County Primary], and as a result only primary schools try it and make a mess of it. It’s a middle school piece.

DB. Did you consciously use serialism again (in Rats Away!)?

GC. A bit, nothing like as rigorous. It’s just a habit of thought which I really derived from Britten, not from Schoenberg. Britten was a very serial composer in a way, in the last ten years or so of his life he consistently wrote very nearly twelve tone music. Britten has a habit that whenever he played something it would be followed by the same thing upside down. In every one of his operas the motives are heard both ways up very quickly and it’s just got into my bloodstream too. So there is a lot of that going on. If a tune of mine is sixteen bars it’s as well to have a look at the first four because you’ll probably find that the first four are one way, the second four are backwards, the third are upside down and the fourth are backwards and upside down. If it can be made to produce an interesting tune! If it can’t I’ll change the odd note.

DB. Are there any of Britten’s childrens works which had a direct effect upon you when you came to write music for children?

GC. Well I think above all Noye’s Fludde because there he did one thing which I regard as crucial to the existence of interesting music for children, and that is the presence of at least one professional musician, if it’s only the teacher playing the piano, but otherwise it’s too limiting if they’re left entirely to what they can do, entirely on their own, and the one piece of music for children which I don’t really like is that little thing I did for the BBC called Ahmet the Woodseller. I suppose that piece has had more performances, it has certainly sold more copies than any other score, all sorts of schools did it. But it was far too limiting, there were too many things I wasn’t allowed to do and the accompaniments are boring because it had to be based on easily learnt little patterns, and there was no teacher around, it had to be done entirely on the television screen. The tunes are not all that uninteresting. That’s the only piece that doesn’t involve grown-ups or very competent people, that (i.e. where there are grown-ups or competent people present) allows the complexities to disappear into one corner and the simplicities into another. That was the most important thing Britten did, to involve children regularly in his adult work, it poses a lot of practical problems. But Noye’s Fludde particularly, that is a particular masterpiece.

DB. What about Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle and Williamson, the general music climate of the time, how much if anything was that an impact?

GC. Not a lot, no. I did have the advantage before I went to university (it was a mistake in most respects but quite useful), I taught for two years in a prep school. It put me off the public school system for the rest of my life, irrevocably, but it meant I had two years dealing on a day-to-day basis with 7 to 12 year-olds, which remains my favourite age. That’s another difference, I think between me and just about everyone else who’s written for children that I can think of, even Britten is writing for slightly older, more expert performers (and I think having been through public school) for a much more sophisticated musical set-up, that the choirboy tradition is not that far away, however much he’s changed that tradition in what he asks for. Max was almost entirely writing for secondary, grammar school children and nobody, apart from Carl Orff and all that lot was writing for me what was the most enchanting age group of all, and that’s the biggest difference I think between me and other people. That’s the sound I want, a mixed group of boys and girls singing their hearts out in the classroom. There is a certain roughness and fun about it that I find choirboys don’t have and girls’ choirs certainly don’t have.

DB. Have you written anything for the BBC that went straight into the classroom?

GC. No, I just that piece and masses of other people did masses of other pieces, I think that the whole “interesting music for children” movement which was around, say, for five or ten years in the 60s has really gone into decline, we’re back to the bad old days when any old rubbish would do for children, and the catalogues are full of abysmal pieces, parasitic on what composers have done. The children need live music, there is not a lot of stretching going on these days.

DB. What do we need in schools today?

GC. The trouble is, anything I say will be remote from the reality of what in fact is happening. It’s only as my own children are now eleven and eight I’ve realised the full horror of what is not happening in schools; if I were a teacher I would just despair. I wouldn’t begin to know what to do, I don’t know what to do. I’ve always felt you’ve got to start at the top somehow, make life easier for music teachers, give them the resources, the money, the backing – just to take music seriously. Any successful secondary school music teacher is for me a hero. I think it is a very vital part of a lot of children’s education. Music is simply basically not taken seriously, and that’s all you need to do really. If you can make some way of people taking more seriously in schools and not just as decoration for speech-day, you’d get somewhere.

DB. You’ve not recently written for school?

GC. Not really, no. Each piece I wrote for children, with the exception of Ahmet, was a kind of step, and I’ve only ever written one of each kind of piece. I’ve never repeated it. So I’ve never written another Meet My Folks, I did another Ted Hughes piece, The Demon of Adachigahara, that was an attempt to use much bigger forces and also be dramatic, and then that finally became a full blown opera which tipped out of children’s music altogether, really, and it’s just an opera, Potter Thompson. I did go backwards with Holly from the Bongs, – OUP have not promoted it, it’s a genuine opera than a musical. It’s (the text) the best little nativity play I’ve seen. So I did that afterwards, but since then, no, I haven’t done anything. The occasion has never come up, and partly this feeling that the situation has been getting steadily worse in schools rather than better and not having the energy any more to cope with the hassle of making things happen, and all the people I used to know in musical education have moved on to other things and the new generation of county music advisers and so on are very keen to build up their orchestras, choirs and Saturday morning schools, but not very involved creatively.

DB. Can I go on to talk about Ted Hughes, you seem to have a great literary sensitivity and the words you choose are not just any old words, there is a depth behind the lyrics you’ve chosen. Can you develop that more?

GC. I’ve never believed, and this is another legacy from Britten, that if something is too silly to say you sing it. I think that’s a myth based to a large extent on our total parochial unawareness of German literature. The tradition of songwriting has always been one of finding poems that do have a merit, but which will allow them to be turned, or are chemically changed, into something else, because it isn’t a poem by the time you’ve finished with it, it’s a new thing called a song.

DB. How did you come to write the Demon of Adachigahara with Ted Hughes?

GC. Well, I’d asked him vaguely after doing Meet My Folks if he’s got anything else, he’s a very uncommunicative man. But he did send me a great pile of odds and ends he’s done for BBC radio school; amongst all this was an arrangement, which had never been broadcast or done, a very long, and I didn’t think terribly successful version of this Japanese folktale. I simply said to him “Look, I’ve got to write this piece for Shropshire schools, could I use this is a basis but just cut it down to the bone?” and he said “Do what you like!” So the text in a sense is just my applying a vigorous blue pencil. The words in Demon of Adachigahara are just functional.

DB. What about Rats Away!, that prayer, what’s behind all that for you?

GC. I just happened to like the text, I knew Britten had set it and I just did a kind of doggerel version myself. It’s in Middle English I think, the original one – I kept a few things like the “muteez” and so on so you’ve got interesting rhythms, but I just like the text, there’s no other reason.

DB. Can I pick upon that when you mention “muteez” like you used “booteez” in Meet My Folks and then in Ahmet the “muss muss muss” – are these techniques which you consciously used?

GC. I do believe I invented that. It became an absolute cliché to make rhythm out of words but it was a quite original idea to provide the accompaniment and I noticed that the last syllable they said each time always was appropriate to the next verse, so the sound of sss had to do with buzzing and the sound of the dan-sss goes into ice – but they always fitted, there were good reasons. Then John Hosier with Ahmet came up with the idea (and I think, from the fact that he listened to Meet My Folks) of doing the little dance accompaniment out of the words, and I think nearly every wretched piece they did in the series (BBC) for about the next four or five years used this idea until it became another cliché.