Interview with Sir Harrison Birtwistle

For the March/April 2009 issue of British Archaeology, I talked to the great British composer, Sir Harrison Birtwistle about music, archaeology and landscapes. We had a DVD of his opera The Minotaur in the house, and for a few weeks it became our two-year-old daughter’s favourite, ousting Pingu. My photo shows Sir Harry (right) with Julian Richards at our Stonehenge dig in 2008. This is the text of my edit from the tape. I asked why he named a piece of music – Silbury Air – after a prehistoric monument?

Birtwistle Richards

“This is hard to talk about. The idea of modern music when I was a kid, particularly in England, was something which reflected landscape. In the case of Elgar, I think that that’s something that has been imposed on it, it’s English so this is what landscape sounds like – but in fact a landscape doesn’t sound like anything.
That sort of mystical thing never interested me. But the idea of the geology and what is under the surface is something that fascinated me – I wrote a mammoth piece called Earth Dances, which is really about the nature of strata. I’ve always been a nature lover, but you have to understand that nature is a violent world, and if you go to the detail of it – butterflies, fruit, flowers – it’s symmetrical. We think of landscape as something to be amorphous, organic, rolling, yet the accumulation of symmetry is very much at odds with the mystical landscape.
[The Orkney composer] Peter Maxwell Davies is a tourist, he’s responding to something that is there. The only time I did anything like that was when something came up about the combination of instruments that you could sell music for, and my publisher said, flute duets. On the Isle of Raasay, where I lived for 10 years, by Skye, there’s a burn called Storab, a loch called Storab’s Loch and a grave, Storab’s Grave. Storab was a Viking. The legend is they chased him, and he went to the island in the loch. They couldn’t swim, so they drained the loch, and he ran down the burn and they killed him. I wrote Duets for Storab, the idea of the outsider.
Silbury Air is about place, but it’s not to do with Egdon Heath, you know, a Norfolk Rhapsody [compositions by Holst and Vaughan Williams], it’s about a different attitude to the poet of place. There’s a wonderful poem of Norman Nicholson, about the pot geranium, and he talks about the mountain at the back, but actually it becomes an emblem, a much bigger subject matter. That’s more of the artist I feel that I am, that you would use the place as an emblem for something else.
In the case of Silbury, I read a lot of speculation about what it is there for. It’s only a detail in a prehistoric landscape, like a moment. I used to go up there. It seemed to me that the landscape was like wound tissue, it’s like it’s sort of healed. Silbury is becoming part of the landscape which we accept, but its function was something completely different, a mystery, not to do with the mist being around it. How do we retain that without it being romantic? So I constructed a completely artificial arcane process for my piece. It’s like having a child, you give a child a name, you know. It is my reaction to that place, but in a non-romantic way.
Nice thing about what I do, I can live anywhere. When I did national service I was in the army up at Larkhill. We had a drunken night there at Stonehenge, I remember walking down. From other places you can’t really understand why it is where it is, but from Larkhill when you look down it seems to be absolutely the perfect natural place for Stonehenge to be.
I was a peripatetic teacher, and I started at a posh girls school called Cranborne Chase [Dorset]. When I’d been there a term, it moved to New Wardour Castle [Wiltshire]. I lived on a iron age site on Raasay, right on the shore. One day they came to the beach to take stone away to do a road, and they just took it away, the whole site. There was a cromlech there.
When I was working in Paris, we bought a derelict house in the south of France. It was not really an old house, in the sense that all we bought was four walls, so you could make it very comfortable. Where we live now [in Wiltshire] is 200 years old, it used to be a silk mill employing 33 girls. There are still mulberry trees around. I’ve got my favourite place just on Whitesheet up here, there’s an absolute perfect circle, a mound about 20 feet across. It assumes a sort of magical thing, whereas it was probably something smelly, with a lot of wood smoke, burnt offerings, I don’t know.
I never chose anything, it’s just sort of circumstance. Maybe archaeology is following me round.”


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