Interview / Classical Book Recommendation of the month:
This is a condensed version of an interview with British composer and conductor Oliver Knussen (b. 1952) by Paul Griffiths. It’s part of several interviews included in Griffith’s “New sounds, new personalities: British composers of the 1980’s” (the format of this interview is similar to the format we will be using at composersnewpencil.com for interviewing composers and performers).
Oliver Knussen’s music occupies a regularly revisited place in concert and opera programmes worldwide. His Third Symphony, his opera Where the Wild Things Are and Violin Concerto are among the most frequently performed British works of recent times.
Paul Griffiths: Do you keep regular hours for composing?
Oliver Knussen: I’m trying to learn how to. My regular hours used to be from 11 at night till 4 in the morning, largely because that’s when the phone doesn’t ring and there are less things to think about. But it’s often very difficult to keep regular hours if you’re under a lot of psychological pressure because you’re late, as I often have been. You tend to work extremely hard for two or three months on absurdly little sleep, and then stop dead for the same amount of time because you’re exhausted.
P.G.: Do you work on more than one piece at a time?
O.K.: Not exactly. I have a big piece on the go for three to five years: The Concerto for Orchestra, The Third Symphony, Wild Things and now Higglety Pigglety Pop! Other pieces are composed against their background presence, in gaps between periods of work on them, but never at the same time.
P.G.: How do you start a piece?
O.K.: I usually have a very specific idea of the sound of one moment, like a photograph, which I then write down. It might be just a pair of chords, or a line, or a bit of layered polyphonic texture, but always instrumentally conceived from the beginning – I can’t conceive pitch in the abstract, divorced from timbre. Then I try to work out the background of the idea, where it’s come from and what it implies, and design the rest of the piece out of that. I’ve always tended to feel a responsibility to this original idea, to finding a form which the ‘given’ belongs in – though sometimes things don’t work out the way they are supposed to, and a work can hang fire because altogether the wrong route was chosen.
I sometimes think that I don’t ever really finish: I think endlessly with matters of detail because the textures of my music, though they’re often elaborate, are also transparent to a large degree, and audible detailing is critical. Aside from which, in order for a whole to be convincing, its components must function properly.
P.G.: Except that the rules are your own.
O.K: True, although one’s own rules are frequently hard to rationalize, and therefore to bend! But there are always contextual harmonic concerns to be taken into account, or odd rhythmical number workings going on. For example, sizeable sections of some pieces are scaffolded by big polyrhythms which govern overlapping cycles of short phrases: say, one phrase will recur six times while another recurs five times over the same period of time (this is again a Carter-derived thing, of course), so that one implies a tension between two units which begin at the same moment, pull apart and meet together at the end.
P.G.: But the repetitions won’t be exact?
O.K.: Apart from the basic scheme of cross-pulses, which will usually be kept intact, we’re not really talking about repetitions at all (I have a basic guilt complex about unvaried repetition, except in very special circumstances!). It’s probably closer if you picture continuous, simultaneous stretches of through-composed music which have been arbitrarily cut into short slabs and then separated according to the pulse scheme, although of course the composition may have been conceived in the reverse of that procedure. And I may find that these slabs are too close for too long, or too far apart for too long, so that there’s no tension: in almost every case it’s actually a question of tension between parts that will bother me. I’ll spend days puzzling over a problem like that, and then when it’s played people say, ‘But your music sounds effortless!’ It’s quite ironic, really – but then I suppose one doesn’t ‘hear’ the effort in Brahms, or Debussy either, to take two favourite composers of mine – though I think Berg is probably the composer I feel closest too, and one certainly senses it there.
But I don’ regard a high degree of self-scrutiny as anything less than necessary. I was fortunate in that my first teacher, John Lambert, insisted on the avoidance of easy formulae or padding – unjustified literal repetition of any kind in particular – which is an attitude I suspect he partly inherited from his teacher Nadia Boulanger. I think this is probably the root of my obsession with following through the implications of what you could call musical cross-hatching. For example, in the first interlude of Where the Wild Things Are there’s a long horn melody over mixed piano and harp arpeggios on each beat. The arpeggiated chords start at two notes and build to twelve, while the actual harmony shifts gradually. Now the way those chords are distributed and arpeggiated each time was more than a week’s work. It may seem nonsensical to fuss that way, particularly as this is only one of three or four layer operating in that section, but the point to me is that you can focus your ear, if you so choose, on that accompaniment figure and find that those arpeggiations are doing something constructive.