Harrison Birtwistle at 80: a study day

BBC Symphony Orchestra

Barbican Centre

Institute of Musical Research, University of London

Birtwistle at 80

Sunday 25 May 2014

Morning IMR Symposium


Chair and Convenor: Professor Jonathan Cross (University of Oxford)

1030  Dr Heather Wiebe (King’s College London): ‘Birtwistle in Aldeburgh, 1968’

1110  Professor Arnold Whittall (Emeritus, King’s College London): ‘“Night’s rhythm coming in”: sketching the later Birtwistle’

1150  Short break

1200  Professor Ulrich Mosch (Université de Genève): ‘The composer’s eye: Harrison Birtwistle, Wolfgang Rihm, and the visual arts’

1240  Dr David Beard (Cardiff University): ‘“The mystery of the kiosk composer”: Harrison Birtwistle’s creative processes explained’

1320  End


Barbican/BBC Study Afternoon


1500  Welcome and introduction

1505  Professor Jonathan Cross (University of Oxford): ‘Why Birtwistle’s music matters’

By way of introduction to the ‘Birtwistle at 80’ series at the Barbican, this talk will survey the themes of the composer’s creative work over the past fifty years, and will suggest some reasons as to why it continues to speak so powerfully to audiences, even in the 21st century.

1545  Professor Fiona Sampson (poet, University of Roehampton), ‘Birtwistle among the poets’

Harrison Birtwistle’s many collaborations with poets have produced some of his best-known work, in opera, chamber music, song and music theatre.  We look at ways in which poetry seems peculiarly well suited to his music.

1625  Break

1645  Paul Griffiths obe (writer and broadcaster): ‘Birtwistle’s time and ours’

Essential Birtwistlian concepts and components – broken continuity, defective scales, dislocated pulses, remote references – speak of and to our period of uncertain restabilizing. It is not surprising, then, that his music, while in many ways so distinctive, has these qualities in common with the work of other composers writing now.

1720  Sir Harrison Birtwistle in conversation with Fiona Maddocks (The Observer)

1800  End



David Beard: ‘“The mystery of the kiosk composer”: Harrison Birtwistle’s creative processes explained’

It is widely known that random numbers and other randomising procedures are integral to Birtwistle’s creative practice yet journalists frequently suggest that little is known about these working methods. A case in point is a profile for The Guardian by Patrick Wright titled ‘The mystery of the kiosk composer’, which refers both to Birtwistle’s preference for working in a cabin some distance from his house and his reluctance to explain his compositional processes.

Yet thousands of pages of sketches and other unpublished documents provide ample evidence of the way that Birtwistle works. Drawing on items held at the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel and an important new collection acquired by the British Library in 2013, previously owned by the composer’s son, Silas, this talk will present an overview of Birtwistle’s creative processes with a focus on his use of random numbers.

The significance of these techniques has prompted a range of responses. While it is generally agreed that numbers are the composer’s ‘prime method of messing things up’ (Hall, 1984), that they disturb a logic that might otherwise become too predictable, there is some dispute over their actual significance. Stephen Walsh, for example, argues that the numbers are ‘irrelevant’ as they do no harm to the larger idea, or ‘Image’, to which the composer aspires. By contrast, Robert Adlington – paraphrasing Adorno – argues that ‘Birtwistle’s constructional procedures are driven not so much by the desire to say things of a new refinement and clarity, as the wish “to make things in ignorance of what they are”.’

Adlington’s quotation from Adorno’s 1961 Darmstadt lecture ‘Vers une musique informelle’ recalls important debates from the 1950s centred on John Cage, Pierre Boulez and the use of chance. These debates, which coincided with Birtwistle’s earliest published compositions, suggest perspectives on authorial subjectivity that I will explore in relation to a range of examples from the sketches. These sources reveal numerous ways in which Birtwistle devolves decision making to systems, highlighting a dialectical relationship at the heart of his creative practice between the chosen and the random, but also a space for surprise and, even, some mystery.

Ulrich Mosch: ‘The composer's eye: Harrison Birtwistle, Wolfgang Rihm and the visual arts’

Belonging to different generations and coming from different musical origins, both the English composer Harrison Birtwistle and the German composer Wolfgang Rihm have a deep-seated sense for the visual arts. In interviews and writings they often refer to artists, in particular to painters, using, as Birtwistle put it, ‘the subject matter to express paint and painting, rather than the other way round’. This talk will explore the significance of the experience of visual art for the respective thinking and creative activity of the two composers, focussing on the notions 'line' and 'musical object'.

Arnold Whittall: ‘“Night’s rhythm coming in”: sketching the later Birtwistle’

David Harsent’s texts for Harrison Birtwistle’s Songs from the Same Earth (2013) portray an Orpheus-like individual haunted by loss.  At the same time, the poetry enforces a distinction between the creative, narrating persona and the ‘you’ being described and analysed, as if to provoke perceptions about the way this composer can convey an intensely personal impression while at the same time abstracting aesthetic essences that transcend the merely autobiographical. 

One feature of Birtwistle’s later compositions has been a number of explicit references to John Dowland and his contemporaries: and while the transcriptions of 2009’s Semper Dowland, semper dolens: theatre of melancholy might appear to continue the principle of his earlier reworkings of Bach and others, the much more oblique allusions to Dowland’s music in the orchestral compositions The Shadow of Night and Night’s Black Bird suggest a deeper affinity that has important implications for our understanding of the contemporary composer’s relationship to society and its institutional structures.  Images of night and shadowing create a conceptual screen against which distinctive musical narratives can be projected, and behind which the composer can preserve at least a degree of emotional detachment.  This sets the stage for some basic comparisons between Birtwistle and his close contemporary Peter Maxwell Davies.

Heather Wiebe: ‘Birtwistle in Aldeburgh, 1968’

Birtwistle’s first opera, Punch and Judy, was commissioned by the English Opera Group and premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1968. With its complex combination of violence and artificiality, Punch and Judy might be seen as a provocation, confronting the ruling culture of British opera and middlebrow accessibility as embodied in Britten and the Aldeburgh Festival. This paper looks closely at Punch and Judy’s place within the Aldeburgh Festival in order to excavate a more complicated set of relationships between Birtwistle and the legacy of post-1945 British operatic renewal, one that circulates around questions of ritual, elitism and the limits and potential of operatic communication.


David Beard is Senior Lecturer and Director of Postgraduate Research in the School of Music, Cardiff University. His doctorate on Birtwistle’s early instrumental music (Oxford, 2000) was followed by numerous articles on the composer and by Harrison Birtwistle’s Operas and Music Theatre (Cambridge, 2012). He is the co-author of Musicology: The Key Concepts (Routledge, 2005), has chapters in Peter Maxwell Davies Studies and Ancient Drama in Music for the Modern Stage, and is currently co-editing Harrison Birtwistle Studies (Cambridge, forthcoming) and preparing a book on the music of Judith Weir.

Jonathan Cross is Professor of Musicology at the University of Oxford, and Student and Tutor in Music at Christ Church, Oxford. He writes, lectures and broadcasts on a range of issues in twentieth and twenty-first century music. His publications include Harrison Birtwistle: Man, Mind, Music (Faber, 2000), and a monograph on Birtwistle’s landmark opera The Mask of Orpheus (Ashgate, 2009). He has also published widely on Stravinsky, on whom he is completing a study for Reaktion Press. He served as Editor of Music Analysis, and is currently an Associate Editor of Grove Music Online.

Paul Griffiths is a music critic, novelist and librettist.  He has worked as chief music critic for The Times, The New Yorker and The New York Times. His writings on contemporary music are extensive, including Modern Music: A Concise History from Debussy to Boulez (Thames & Hudson, 1978) and Modern Music and After: Direction Since 1945 (three editions: 1981, 1995, 2010). He has written libretti for operas by Tan Dun (Marco Polo) and Elliott Carter (What Next?), and for a recent concert work by Hans Abrahamsen. His novels and short stories include let me tell you (2008) and The Tilted Cup (2013). He was named Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2002, a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2011, and was appointed OBE in the 2014 New Year Honours for services to music, literature, and composition.

Fiona Maddocks is The Observer's chief classical music critic. She is also UK correspondent of Scherzo magazine (Madrid) and columnist with RA Magazine. She has published a biography of Hildegard of Bingen (Headline, 2001). Her conversations with Sir Harrison Birtwistle, under the title Harrison Birtwistle: Wild Tracks – A Conversation Diary with Fiona Maddocks, are published this month by Faber.

Ulrich Mosch studied Music and German Literature in Hannover, and Musicology at the Technische Universität Berlin. Between 1990 and 2013 he was musicologist and curator of music manuscripts at the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, Switzerland, responsible for 25 collections of manuscripts and other documents. Since Autumn 2013 he has been full professor in musicology at the University of Geneva. He has published widely on music, music history and music aesthetics, mostly of the 20th and 21st centuries, including acting as editor of the selected writings of Wolfgang Rihm, and co-editor of the correspondence between Helmut Lachenmann and Luigi Nono. He has also been the co-organiser of seminars in analysis and aesthetics at the Darmstadt summer courses, and at IRCAM.

Fiona Sampson first trained as a violinist at the Royal Academy of Music. She then read English at Oxford and received a PhD in the philosophy of language from Nijmegen University in the Netherlands. Her poetry shows a particular attention to sound, and her collections include Folding the Real (2001), The Distance Between Us (2005, a novel in verse), Common Prayer (2007) and Rough Music (2010). The latter two were shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize, and Rough Music was shortlisted for the Forward Poetry Prize. She has received the Newdigate Prize and the Cholmondeley Award, and in 2011 was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She has also published academic studies on the connection of writing to health, among them The Healing Word (1999) and the edited guide Creative Writing in Health and Social Care (2004). From 2005 to 2012, she was editor of Poetry Review. She is Professor of Poetry at Roehampton University.

Arnold Whittall was the first Professor of Music Theory and Analysis in the UK, a position he held at King’s College London, where he is now Professor Emeritus. His writings on music are extensive, including Music Since the First World War (Dent, 1977) revised as Musical Composition in the Twentieth Century (Oxford, 1999), The Music of Britten and Tippett (Cambridge, 1982), Music Analysis: in Theory and Practice (with Jonathan Dunsby, Faber, 1988), Jonathan Harvey (Faber, 1999), Exploring Twentieth-Century Music (Cambridge, 2003) and The Cambridge Introduction to Serialism (2008). In 2013 he was awarded the Derek Allen Prize for outstanding published scholarly work by the British Academy.

Heather Wiebe is Lecturer in Twentieth-Century Music at King’s College London. She taught previously at the University of Virginia, and was also a fellow in the Michigan Society of Fellows at the University of Michigan. She completed her PhD at the University of California, Berkeley in 2005, after studying at McGill University and the University of Manitoba. She has made a particular study of Britten, including Britten’s Unquiet Pasts: Sound and Memory in Postwar Reconstruction (Cambridge, 2012). She is a member of the Editorial Board of The Opera Quarterly.