Christian Morris talks to Judith Weir, whose new opera Miss Fortune will receive its UK première on 12th March at the Royal Opera House.
What drew you to composition? Do you remember your first pieces?
My first pieces were at secondary school. What drew me was finding something that would bring my performing friends together. I played music and I saw it as a fun activity rather than high-level art. I knew a very odd combination of performers. There simply didn’t exist the kind of music we needed to play and so I started to devise music that would fit everybody in.
You played oboe in the National Youth Orchestra. Was that something that you considered doing professionally instead of composition?
Difficult to think myself back. If ever I was that way minded I very soon didn’t think so. I played okay and, as you say, for a short time I played in the NYO, but never as a leading player and it was very clear to me, meeting top performers, that I wouldn’t ever be of that standard and anyway – I knew this from my teacher Robin Miller, who was a leading orchestral musician – I could see that it was a hard life as a player.
You had some lessons with John Tavener whilst at school. Was this as formal as, say, the Bridge-Britten arrangement?
I think it was quite the opposite. He was good enough to have me around to his house probably, in total, about five or six times over a couple of years. I lived in the same outer London suburb as he did and the person that introduced us was my teacher at secondary school, who vaguely knew him. So it was very good of him to give me the time because he was a celebrity young composer, not needing financially to do teaching as most young people do. He would look at what I had done and just make general comments which, nevertheless, were very good, because they were right on the button. I also heard about what he was interested in.
And he was in his more radical phase then?
Indeed, that’s absolutely right. These days, people don’t all know about his early work. A composer we listened to a lot together was the late serial Stravinsky. I remember him playing to me the Huxley Variations, which is an extreme twelve-tone piece. We would discuss these works. His own music had a very wide group of influences. I suppose now we would call it postmodernist, but there was a lot more to it than that.
You studied with Robin Holloway and then, at Tanglewood with Gunther Schuller. Were these important influences?
You know, this thing about how teachers influence you, it sometimes gives the wrong impression that you’ve just sat down and absorbed their music note-by-note; but it’s more their thoughts and their way of going about things that are influential. Gunther in particular, and I think he’s famous for this – he’s had pupils like Ollie Knussen and Simon Bainbridge – was an extreme brain-box about the orchestra, instrumentation, the super-practicalities of writing music.
And he has had a very varied life.
Exactly. He started off as a prodigy horn player, conducted and has run a lot of musical institutions. He ran the New England Conservatory, and Tanglewood itself for a while so, yes, a musician on all fronts.
It’s often noted that your works have descriptive titles. Is that a starting point for your composing or is it notes first?
It tends to be notes first. I think that the title can be a crystallization of the concept which, as we all know, often doesn’t first appear in such a perfect way as you might describe it afterwards. Latterly I’ve tried not to lay such emphasis on the title – I feel that’s become a bit of a cliché around the music scene. When I started, yes, I was attracted by using the idea of a title as a point of clarity for myself and I suppose for others listening to the piece. Also, particularly when I started out, new pieces by other composers tended to have very abstract names, often derived from science and maths, so there was a little bit of fun in choosing titles which had nothing to do with that.
Do you compose your way into a piece, letting the music have its say and then impose a structure upon it, or is it clear in your mind even as you’re beginning?
It seems to me that I start by sketching in a most vague way and that might just be intervals or odd phrases or trying to write a line or something. Gradually an order emerges, or rather I find that I go back to one bit of material rather than another and then I try and see why it is that this bit of material is better than the other bit. But there is also a contrary answer that I’m interested in, which I often speak to students about. I think I often start, even before I get to the sketching stage, with some kind of concept that I’d like to fulfil in a piece. But then, once I start on this sketching and exploring, it sometimes seems that the material is fighting the concept. You would like to write a piece like this but it doesn’t seem like you are writing it.
That’s the thing about the music having its say? You have to accommodate the musical material. You do find that?
Yes, very much so. I would also say that one of the most interesting things is, once the piece is finally written, it often appears that the concept has been fulfilled, but not in the way that you thought it would be.
It’s a mysterious business?
Exactly. It really is so.
And you’re a pen and paper composer? No computers.
That’s not a deliberate decision. I’m of the generation that had to do music by pen and paper and I’m not computer illiterate – I do use it for quite a few things. I should say first and foremost I’m very fortunate to be published by a generous publisher, Chester Novello, who have never objected to doing the computer side of things for me. Indeed, they have often observed that they would rather do it for me than get my (possibly bug-ridden) computer versions of my pieces. I think that’s ended up with the ultra-good situation of being edited twice: once on the manuscript and once on the processed copy.
And there are probably younger composers grateful for the editing work!
Yes, long may it last, then everyone’s happy. I will say, though, that one of my favourite bits of the compositional process, which is not really to do with composition, is once I’ve got a bit of really worked-on music that’s ready for copying, I love the penmanship of writing it out. But I’m very aware that that’s not the point of the exercise!
Do you have a set composing routine?
Alas, no. All the days are so different and it’s by no means the case that I have every day to compose. It tends to go in little segments of two or three hours where I can find them. And then it is just the question of almost closing down and focusing in on the job.
You can switch it on and off?
Well I can’t really, so in a sense it is almost akin to meditation, not that meditation is something I do. But it’s probably a bit like that. You have to shut yourself down and get into the vibe. A very helpful thing of course, as we’ve just said, is that I don’t work on a computer so I don’t have the temptation to roam the internet when I’m trying to work. It’s about finding that space where I am absolutely submerged and, if the task is interesting enough, that does happen.
It is often said that there is a strong element of folk music in your music. Would you agree with that?
I think the phrase folk music is not wide enough. I would say vernacular sources, which come from all over the world. It’s interesting, we tend to use the phrase folk music when we’re talking about the music from Britain, but it could be anything really. I think increasingly that it’s a background influence or something that I have absorbed. I guess I become less aware of it. It’s become part of my system.
Was this a rejection of what was around you or, perhaps, because of the melodic element, which is important in your work, you were innately drawn to it?
I see it as an attempt to widen the palette of my music and of other music. You’ve got to remember that when I was growing up, the first new music that I heard was in the 1960s and, as we know, there was quite a doctrinaire modern music scene then. I still like a lot of music from the 50s and 60s and enjoy the rare occasions to hear major works from that period. Of course there were already composers who were were “correcting “ the extreme stylistic purity of that time, composers like the Maxwell Davies of the 60s and 70s and also Berio, who were interpolating all sorts of things into modernist models. So that was something that was starting to happen anyway and I think that really I was trying to add my own sources to that mix. Certainly I felt that it grew out of modernism. I’ve often said that I wouldn’t have become a composer if I hadn’t grown up during that period because it was so very interesting. So it was an attempt to find some place for myself in that musical era.
So you wouldn’t consider yourself a postmodernist?
Well, I don’t know. I can see what people mean by the term. Many might find this a ridiculous thing of me to say, but I regard myself as a very evolved modernist. I know about modernism, as a teacher I’ve taught a lot of the pre and post-Second World War classics and I believe I’ve understood something of them. But we’re all different people and society moves on, so I’ve tried to add what I know as well.
In your music there is a strong element of melody. Do you think that is something too often neglected in contemporary music?
Well, as we know, it just depends by what you mean by melody. There are beautiful examples of line in Schoenberg or Boulez. I think now, of course, with everything going today on we can’t say that melody and line is missing from music. But you can’t deny that there was something about the way that integral serialism was constructed which meant that the horizontal line was the last thing that the composer was thinking about.
Whilst there are elements of tonality in your music, it always manages to sound fresh. Is it a difficult path using those elements and at the same time avoiding the clichés associated them?
I know exactly what you mean. I was one of the last generation to have big time harmony and counterpoint training. For us that was pretty much what our university course consisted of, so for me that’s a separate area from what I do in free composition. Tonal music for me means a particular system, so what I do isn’t like that in my mind and therefore I feel there’s not too much danger of my writing derivative tonal music, because I’m not working in that idiom. More often the harmony comes out of a mode or a series. I do compare that with serial working because you’re working with a small set of pitches and that somehow creates a characteristic harmonic imprint. Perhaps the one danger I’ve been aware of with my music is in performance, because sometimes people will happen upon a piece and feel that it’s got very beautiful harmonies evocative of the tonal repertory. And they will start to perform it in a very, I would say, nineteenth century way, particularly with a lot of rhythmic rubato. They feel they’re being expressive and sensitive which, after all, we’ve been told that new music isn’t, but the thing I most often have to do at rehearsals is to uphold the regularity of the beat. If there is any rhythmic flexibility, I’ve written it in already. Metrical modulation, and again some people might be surprised to hear me say this, but that’s a very natural concept to me.
Metric modulation as in Carter?
Indeed. Ways of getting from one tempo to another or from one kind of music to another. I don’t wish people to put in rallentandi because it’s all in the music.
Are there non-musical influences you consider to be important in your music, Chinese philosophy for example?
I’ve been composing for a very long time and so I change and the things that interest me change. We’ve talked about the whole area of the vernacular and folk culture. That certainly is present. Chinese is a sort of hobby for me; for years I’ve being trying to learn Chinese. But the relationship between that and music is hard to define.
Maybe it’s to do with the element of storytelling, another important element in your work.
Again I think that comes from a vernacular approach to explaining things really. That’s what storytelling is. It’s an informal explanation.
And would you say that storytelling is an important aspect in your works that are ostensibly non-dramatic?
I think that could be exaggerated as an explanation. I’ve found it very helpful to have an interest in storytelling; as you say, even with abstract work, one can explain a piece in those terms – though I think the music is created as much in abstract ways as in narrative ways.
A work that is occasionally used in relation to your music is ‘Brittenesque’. Do you accept that?
I think every British composer of my age grew up with Britten. His music was everywhere – I can even remember at my primary school sitting on the floor of the hall singing one of the songs from Friday Afternoons and also hearing a broadcast of Saint Nicolas. Many of his major pieces were being composed at the time. It would be difficult to get away from Britten’s work, which musically I do admire very much. But I’m not one of those people who know all of his output, despite my own interest in opera. I think there is a similarity in that his music has tonal relationships, melodic line and setting of English texts in quite a naturalistic way. So I’m not denying that but, in fact, when I was a student the fashionable composer we all listened to and admired from that generation was Tippett. To us, Britten at that time was identified with the past. I don’t feel that now and I do know more about Britten, though I still admire Tippett as well.
What music do you listen to for pleasure?
It’s hard to answer that ! – it constantly changes. Nowadays we have access to such a variety of music, that’s one of the things I enjoy about today. I can be a voracious listener and get very caught up in almost anything. For example, two or three years ago Stephen Cleobury at King’s College Cambridge asked me to do a concert with him where the choir would sing music within their repertory and I would write some music to go with it. As the centrepiece of this concert we chose a mass by Christopher Tye, who had attended King’s College a few hundred years before I did. Then we were trying to think of an opening piece for this concert. Stephen said ‘Why not the John Browne Stabat Mater?’ I hadn’t the faintest what he meant, but it’s a piece from the Eton Choirbook. So I got all the records. I should have investigated this as a student, but almost none of it was recorded. It’s all fabulous. I got very interested in every single one of the composers. This is very characteristic of my listening.
Would you have any advice for a young composer starting out?
I think the key thing is to write the music that you want to write, that interests you. I see many students not quite doing that, in a sense I did it myself. At the beginning you’re unsure, but you must make for that thing that you want. And I don’t think that courses in composition always bring that about. Of course they’re trying to, because they’re showing every which source that you could go to. But sometimes what gets lost is that wish, the urge, the passion to do a it. If you pursue your thing, in the end you will get better at it and it’ll become clear.
So do you have any thoughts on how composition should be taught?
Whilst I’ve been and am involved with university courses, what I do these days is not, in my opinion, teaching. I confine myself to seeing postgraduates who are, in a sense, already off on their lives as composers, so it’s usually giving practical help and suggestions. It’s an FAQ for me: ‘Can composition be taught?’ I’m not sure. I think what can be taught are a whole lot of technicalities and exposure to a wide range of music. It’s helpful to have that, but there comes that moment of writing the music. I think it’s more a reactive activity for the so-called teacher, who will perhaps give some thoughts on how things are turning out, but in the end it is the impulse of the composer that counts.
Looking to the future. The UK première of Miss Fortune is on March 12th at the Royal Opera House. Tell us a little about the opera.
It was a co-commission between two big opera houses (Bregenz and the Royal Opera House) – and it will also have a new production in Santa Fe in a couple of years time. So it’s going to be on big stages and involves a chorus. It has a cast of major singers, though not new music specialists. I say this because it’s a work that will have to live in the conventional operatic world. In a sense it references that world but I hope in a way that also renews it, as well as being playful with its conventions. The original material came from a Sicilian folk story about a young woman from a wealthy family who suddenly lose all their money, and she has to live as a poor person. So, as with most things, there’s a dynamic contrast between the world of the rich and the word of the poor, plus an element of chance in what our fortunes are. In the original folk story this is embodied by the personal appearances of a character who is Fate. In some ways it is a very simple story told with simple operatic devices.
The story is traditional, but it’s your own libretto again?
Yes. It’s told very much as a contemporary story. I think what I’ve got from folk sources is not a wish to go back to those folk-tale worlds but – I use this world ‘vernacular’ more and more – it’s a way of connecting with every day life.
And further into the future, are there any plans for new works. Or is that secret?
It’s not a secret! You know, projects develop. I find that I don’t compose any faster and there doesn’t seem to be any extra time to compose in. I will say that, having done the opera, and that took me the best part of three years, at the moment I’m really enjoying writing quite a lot of instrumental music. I’ve always felt that a balance between writing vocal music and abstract music for instruments is important for me – because technique has to continue to evolve, and this is the best way to do it.
For more information:
Judith Weir at Chester Novello
Royal Opera House Miss Fortune page