Interview with Terry Blacker on the Concertante Works

Terry Blacker interview with Gordon Crosse.

TB. Can I begin by asking why Ariadne, Thel and Wildboy are not called concertos?

GC. That’s a very good question! Well, concerto for me still means something that’s full of display element, that is, someone who is very much showing off with nobody getting in the way. It’s not true of a lot of pieces called ‘concerto’, I know, but I still think that’s an important part of it. If a soloist feels the orchestra is taking half the limelight then it’s not quite a concerto in the modern use of the word. I suppose when it was used in the 18th century it didn’t mean the same thing – or in the 19th century – but people still do write concertos in that sense. Something like the violin concerto of Bartok is very clearly a concerto; there’s absolutely no doubt, however interesting the orchestral part is. I think one should reserve the word for pieces that do that. But, where there’s a solo part that’s elaborate but belongs more to the body of the piece, I think ‘concerto’ was a word that was used a lot, in things like Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante. It just means playing together, I know, but it was really to diffuse the criticism that it wasn’t a concerto. The first sort of concerto I wrote was the first violin concerto, which was called Concerto da Camera, and Manoug Parikian played it. He quite enjoyed playing it, I think, but he commented at one rehearsal as he was pointedly playing the opening of the Bartok to warm up, “Gordon, when are you going to write a proper concerto?”

TB. How much did you know about the performers of each piece before you began writing?

GC. Quite a lot, because that’s one of the points of all three pieces and I hope to make it a set of five or six one day, if I get to know other players. There were four people that I knew or aimed to get to know when I was writing the pieces. Sarah [Francis] had asked me for a piece and she had played in some of my children’s pieces and she used to do work at the BBC and that’s how I got to know her. Richard Adeney enjoyed the oboe piece and said “Can I have one like it?” and that was when I got the idea of trying to do a piece for each of the woodwind or the whole quintet. Some of them are less inspiring and I haven’t an idea for a bassoon at all. In the case of the clarinet it was more for the ensemble – it was written for the Nash Ensemble – and I didn’t know Anthony Pay personally, but knew his playing, so it was always written with somebody in mind.

TB. Does the music of each concerto arise from the players themselves or what they can do?

GC. Well, it always started that way, as if it was meant to be some kind of character study of an individual player, but then the music gets its own life and it goes on. I’ve always like the idea of writing for particular people because if you write in a very abstract way, just for an oboeist, you’re writing for a kind if common denominator and the music can lack a bit of character. Because you write for one particular oboeist who does one particular thing very well, it doesn’t mean another player who doesn’t do the same thing can’t do it but it means it has a particular character to it. I think a lot of writing which is done in a rather abstract way, not imagining the sound, is very bad writing.

TB. Are you projecting a dramatic presentation of the player or in the instrument?

GC. Well, in two cases that’s true of these pieces, it’s a direct result of the sort of programmatic ideas behind them. Ariadne isn’t very strong that way but it’s simply that I wanted the actual picture on stage to look like somebody surrounded by a ring of players. I used the idea of the players all being in a ring (in) occasional parts of the music where music passes from player to player (so that) it goes round in a circle. Also I think any concerto is a dramatic performance. Anything you can put into the music to help a performer concentrate on the physical – I know a lot of players strive to forget that. I find it very awkward. It’s particular with bad oboists. They do terrible things with their reeds and it’s quite difficult to persuade Sarah that she really didn’t need to do that all the time. On the other hand, Anthony Pay need no persuading. He had a natural dramatic sense and I had him standing up and sitting down and things of that kind which he was all too keen to do. (He) made a lot of suggestions himself and eventually gave a performance – I think misguidedly – but he wanted to be in jeans while everybody else was in evening dress to point the dramatic difference between his character and theirs. I didn’t think it worked; but he was involved to that extent and I really encouraged that.

TB. In general what technical discussions did you have with the performers?

GC. First of all I had to know a fair bit about the instrument, just in general, not just the elementary things like notes that it can’t play – although that’s not always obvious. The flute, for example. I learned at a very late stage in my career just how much more extended at the top of its compass the flute can be. All the textbooks say it goes up to top C and that’s it. Well, this is not true; there’s a whole collection of notes people can play above that and so I learned about things like that. The oboe I actually played when I was 15 so I could feel it under my fingers a bit. I mean I couldn’t actually play it – like William Walton always said he could play his violin concerto but it happened to take five hours, it must have taken me a day to get through Ariadne. Clarinet, I don’t know, it’s more neutral sort of instrument. I tried to avoid some of the clichés of clarinet writing occasionally; all the squeaks and constant register changes and things of that sort. If it’s an example of the sort of technical discussions or the sort of technical things you bear in mind for a player – Sarah is an absolutely stunning oboist, classical oboe technique and I don’t know of a better oboist, but if you ask her to attempt some of the new sounds on the oboe she is very embarrassed about it. She just doesn’t like it; it sounds as if she’s got water in the octave key to her. I see no point in asking a performer to do something which makes them feel very uncomfortable if you’re writing specifically for them, so there are no Holligerisms whatsoever in the part. Just to get my own back I then made it as difficult a piece of classical oboe writing as I could and it does take her right to the limits. I’d simply ask her “Can you play this?” “What’s your trill like on a B flat” etc. I had to change one passage, I think, because she didn’t have a C sharp trill key on her oboe because it was French – that sort of thing.

TB. Turning to the music itself – what influence does the music of Lutoslawski have on your own music?

GC. Well, I suppose any composer whose music you like n some ways gets inside you and it can’t help having an influence, but that’s true of dozens of other composers I wouldn’t have said really influenced me. I’m not particularly anxious consciously to be influenced by Lutoslawski – I don’t find him a very interesting composer, really quite thin, but I suppose above all just practicality is one of the most sensible ways composers – in terms of actually writing things down, what it looks like on the page – can learn from Lutoslawski.

TB. In your own music, what is the relationship between strict serialism and lyrical melody?

GC. Now you’ve opened a huge, huge can of worms. I suppose I could answer that by simply saying it is the most important relationship in all my music. I’ve got two people inside me somehow, as I expect most composers have. One is by training and study, experience and everything, totally involved in the mechanics of the music and therefore interested in all the new ideas that were around at an impressionable age, and that, above all, was the serialism of the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s. It’s always a curiously selfish concern in a composer that you’re just involved in the state of the art when of course nobody else thinks of music like that. At the opposite extreme I think composers have a kind of natural flow of sound that comes out of them in the things you hear when you’re dreaming, and all composers have different compromises – how these two sides of them meet – but I suspect recently people haven’t given too much conscious thought to the problems of what happens when your natural instincts meet your intellectual concerns. The actual way I make a piece starts at that point, that I have often two ideas for a piece, one is about its abstract structure and what sorts of things I would like to experiment with and the other is literally a good old-fashioned inspiration. Sometimes half the time taken writing the piece is simply trying to make one fit the other. If it never fits, then the piece gets thrown away. So the first idea for Ariadne was just being obsessed, as I am in several pieces, with the rising ‘C-D-E’ and it really grew from that. The more you think about the inspiration, the more it starts to flower into other procedures which aren’t inspired in the same way, or you can be inspired in how you use the procedures. So it’s very, very central to me. How can you still be concerned with the structure of music – I really think you’ve got to think about these things.

TB. Despite using melody then, do you need to account for every note according to some kind of serial procedure?

GC. I’d split that into two: account for every note and according to some kind of serial procedure. [The] answer to [the] first question is very simple: Yes, in a sense, assuming this is about a piece I’ actually working on; it’s very difficult sometimes in an older piece to account for every note, as you will discover, but yes, I feel there ought to be a good reason why it’s that and not another if you’re challenged, otherwise it’s got a quality of arbitrariness. Sometimes the reason is simply – well – I like it; I don’t rule that out. The second part is simply that I’ve found that on the whole serial procedures are the ones I feel happiest with, but it isn’t always that. I’m quite happy to make the music – or I try to make the freedom out of the serial process; it’s possible to do that.

TB. What value, if any, do you feel a serial analysis has in discussing your own music?

GC. Well, I’m sure my answer to that is a general answer – what value it has in relation to any music. I haven’t actually got any ideas absolutely together on this but I think we indulge in a lot of loose thinking about analysis. First of all, I think analysis is a very valuable thing, because it focuses attention on the music, and not all the extraneous things, so I think performers ought to analyse a lot more than they do, just as a means of learning a piece or whatever. Anybody involved in the making of the music, the performers, the composer, other composers involved in learning from other music. I mean, that’s where you learn to compose, after all; rules don’t exist, pieces exist. I can’t see any other way of doing that other than what actually happens; how did he make it? None of these activities have got anything to do with what goes on when the music reaches a listener, and I see no reason for explaining why that note is there and that note is there, to someone who’s come to the concert to hear the piece. I’d make a comparison with –say – architecture, that it’s very interesting to the person looking at the building to have all sorts of design ideas pointed out to you. I think that’s good – you suddenly look at it afresh and think “ah, yes – I hadn’t thought of that”. There are musical equivalents of that in programme notes which actually make people listen differently. But, if you start explaining how the bricks were made and the physical theories of tension in the steel beams, what’s that going to do for you? If you’re looking at it and thinking “How could I make a building like that?” you’ve got to know about tensions in steel beams. Composers seem to spend half their time writing programme notes to other composers, that’s what upsets me. It’s not that I think they’re wrong, what they say isn’t nonsense, but it’s of no particular validity in a programme note.

TB. What were the reasons for the use of three quotes in Wildboy?

GC. Oh, that was quite simple really. The piece, if it can be about anything very simple – I mean it’s about itself in the end – is what you make of it. My starting point is particularly the Truffaut film ‘L’enfant Sauvage’ and I was very struck in the film by the very positive way Truffaut presents civilisation as opposed to the natural savage world and was actually suggesting civilisation was a good thing. I’ve got a sort of 18th century naïve belief in the fact that it is better to be civilised than to be savage because to be civilised is to be human. It’s not universally held these days. There are all sorts of things in the film which are badges for this, beautifully made things, there’s a lot of lovely pictures of beautifully made pottery jugs. When he teaches the boy to spell he does it with a set of wooden alphabet letters which are absolutely exquisitely made – I wanted to get one for my children immediately. Obviously you can’t put visual things like that in a piece but I wanted to suggest somehow the existence of music as an emblem of civilisation; music is one of the things that comes out of being civilised. At least music as we are talking about in concert halls and so any music would have done. I t was simply a question of referring outside my music to other music. The fact that it happens to be pieces by Max Davies, Sandy Goehr and Harry Birtwistle is purely private, to the extent that I grew up geographically in Manchester, but I wasn’t part of that group and I was really just displaying that part of English music which perhaps I most admire. I do feel, although I don’t [always] like [their] style, actually as substance, they are three of the best around.

TB. What about the Ockeghem quote in your Second Violin Concerto. Is that different?

GC. That’s much more powerful for me. I can’t really explain it totally but it was a piece of music which I first came across when I was a student at Oxford and one of the things that was a revelation to me was medieval music. This was long before the early music craze had hit everybody. Normally you went through life not knowing about music written before about 1550. I discovered medieval and early Renaissance music while I was there [Oxford] and I did it as a special subject. Very early on, one of the pieces I found in an anthology was this little Ockeghem chanson and I thought it very beautiful. It just stuck in my head and it still, as a haunting phrase, comes back again and again and again. So it’s just because I can’t leave it alone. It’s in the violin concerto because the violin concerto uses masses of ideas from an opera called The Story of Vasco and in the opera there are real reasons – it’s a love song and it’s an opera very much about the effects of war and therefore stands for its opposite – make love not war. I was very interested at the time, I still am to some extent, that the way in which you play a tune can totally destroy that tune and make it something else. Composers sometimes forget that. I always think that’s what happens in Cesar Franck’s symphony for example, when he blasts out that beautiful slow movement tune at the end of the finale and ruins it; because it’s a wonderful tune when it’s [accompanied by] pizzicato strings and cor anglais solo. When it’s belted out by [the] whole orchestra he doesn’t seem to sense that it has totally changed, and playing it that way isn’t elevating the tune, it’s changing it totally. That was the reason for the big outburst in the violin concerto where [there is] a phrase which I’m very fond of which is ethereal [p.8, figure F]; when you play it Messiaen-like, very loud (p.108 figure QQ) it’s a different thing, it’s crude and I put it in acknowledging its crudity. So it’s all that sort of thing that all gets attached to that little Ockeghem tune. It could have been any other tune that happened to have hit me at age 20.

TB. In Thel, you use a pattern of notes based on the name of the performer, Richard Adeney. Have you ever used this technique in any other works?

GC. Yes, I often doodle. If a piece is written for somebody (I think) well, does their name make something interesting? If it doesn’t I forget about it, if it does I explore it. Or then I forget about it because I just want to change the odd note. Music acrostics always fascinate me. Anything that produces a clear little musical shape can be very useful, so telephone numbers have been pressed into service before now. TB. Did you use that technique in either Ariadne or Wildboy? GC. Not in Ariadne, there’s nothing as far as I know, although I’m sometimes surprised at how things happen unconsciously. My own name is a perfect cadence, G C, and perhaps that’s why I still quite like the sound of a perfect cadence. Wildboy does it deliberately, in a different way. You probably didn’t pick it up, it doesn’t really matter, but in the three quotations, each of them is introduced in the style of the composer to some extent, by a rhythmic presentation of their name. [Harrison Birtwistle’s] favourite instrument always seemed to be the claves. He’s forever clicking claves in these pieces so there’s a little claves click. [This is] not something I ever put into programme notes because I don’t think people pick them up. It’s like gargoyles in an old cathedral – nobody ever seems them but the stonemasons enjoyed it.

TB. In your letter you spoke of the breaking up of the line of thought which produced three concertantes. Could you explain the reasons for this?

GC. Well, it’s quite simply historical accident. I wrote these pieces within a few years of each other, about roughly two-year intervals, and I was interested in the same sort of thing at each stage, both technically and in terms of programmes. I then write lots of other things for one reason and another and at the moment I’m really rather fascinated by the possibilities of writing much more abstract pieces, or at least keeping the programmes very much more in the background. One has a limited number of obsessions and three of them have been fairly well explored in those pieces. I might go back and re-explore them, the Wildboy idea in particular I’d like to have another look at. TB. Is any one of the three concertantes a particular favourite?

GC. I find Ariadne, the first one, is still the most successful. The other are even more interesting but only in parts. I don’t feel that as a whole they are as successful as Ariadne.

TB. What musical plans are you engaged in at the moment, and what projects do you have for the future?

GC. I’m writing a fair bit of chamber music one way and another at the moment. I did write a string quartet two or three years ago, and waited for years to write any chamber music, because I still think it’s the most difficult thing to do, I suddenly found, partly because of commissions that happened to come my way, partly out of interest, that I’ve done a clarinet trio recently and I’m thinking about a good old-fashioned piano trio some time next year. I had a bit of a gap because I’ve been doing a lot of music for television. They are all quite small pieces. The one thing which I would really like to do is to get to grips with a nice big orchestral piece again – and there doesn’t seem to be any particular chance of doing that in the near future.