Listening: Harrison Birtwistle

by James M. Potter

Harrison Birtwistle performed by Ensemble ISIS, 25/06/14

Birtwistle is probably the Harrison with whom I am least familiar. Harrison Ford comes first, and then…actually I’m struggling to think of any others. I suppose a distant second could be the work of Harrison & Harrison, organ builders. Very distant second. But behind even them, Birtwistle – a lack of familiarity my phone keyboard chose to illustrate by rendering this week’s event as ‘birthwhistle concert at christ church’.

Despite him being third in this auspicious ranking, Oxford University chose to honour this particular Harrison on Wednesday by the bestowing of an honorary degree, and as part of the celebrations, the music faculty’s bewilderingly talented ISIS ensemble performed a sampling of some of his music in the evening. (We in the cathedral choir did our bit too, performing one of his motets in the course of evensong.)

It was therefore a little disappointing, for someone whose musical taste could kindly be described as eclectic, and who flatters himself fairly open-minded, to find that I didn’t get it. It wasn’t particularly that I didn’t enjoy it – I just didn’t get it. In the more concerted pieces, I wasn’t able to discern the logic underlying the composition. Notes fired out of instruments and ricocheted off one another, and I found them reverberating around my mind as it struggled to work out what their target was. There’s clearly a great deal of craft in it – there was considerable structural poise in a piece for piano and clarinet, for example – but I wasn’t fully on board. There was even a moment when the composer seemed almost to be mocking me, breaking up a sequence of atonal or possibly antitonal piano movements with an abruptly tonal reverie more reminiscent of Einaudi, before returning to the ‘house style’. I wondered whether I had drifted off and was dreaming this bizarre, interruption, tinged with horror like a child singing a nursery rhyme in one of those movies I can’t watch. The composer had managed to make tonality brutal.

At times like this, when presented with an artist of recognised genius such as Sir Harrison, I have a tendency to default to one of two binary states: 1) I’m not intelligent enough to understand this, or 2) Emperor’s New Clothes. There are of course other more moderate options, including 3) I probably need more time with this to appreciate it, or 4) Well, I was pretty tired/hungry, etc.

Conversations about this led me to Jonathan Franzen’s New Yorker essay on ‘difficult’ literature, Mr. Difficult. He writes about William Gaddis in the year when the novelist would have turned 80 (Birtwistle is also 80 this year). Some comments speak to my listening experience:

It was a struggle to figure out what, or even who, the story was about; dialogue was punctuated with dashes and largely unattributed…there came brutish party scenes, all-dialogue word storms that raged for scores of pages.

To enjoy something complicated requires work on the part of the enjoyer – of course. Opinions on just how much work one should have to do before getting to the point of enjoyment will vary greatly between people. One might imagine that, being formally trained to a greater or lesser extent in musicology, I might have a leg up in the understanding and concomitant enjoyment of Sir Harrison’s oeuvre. In some ways it’s rather reassuring to know that this is not so. Franzen writes:

I know the pleasures of a book aren’t always easy. I expect to work; I want to work. It’s also in my Protestant nature, however, to expect some reward for this work. And, although critics can give me pastoral guidance as I seek this reward, ultimately I think each individual is alone with his or her conscience.

In 1958, Milton Babbitt was able to write that the ravages of ‘populism’ had led to ‘serious’ composers being forced into isolation and perceived ‘difficulty’. He titled his essay ‘Who cares if you listen?’. Music would never ‘evolve’ if it had to meet the needs of popular taste – composers should withdraw out of the public sphere in order not to compromise their output. It’s not too difficult to draw a comparison with Birtwistle, given that the latter’s best-known foray into the media was to blast popular musicians for playing too loudly and using too many clichés. His comment ‘I don’t care about what anyone thinks of me, I just get on with what interests me’ certainly speaks of a composer with scant regard for popular taste. And so back to my reaction to his music: it is very possible that even with a little training and exposure to modernism, I’ve been sufficiently exposed to populism that it isn’t possible for me to appreciate it.

Now, I don’t see that as necessarily entailing a corruption of my aesthetic sensibility, even if I do share in the unease of being part of the ‘iPod generation’, the fear that my attention span will be curtailed by technology and choice such that eventually I won’t be able to listen to the same song for more than thirty seconds. And I’m certainly not about to dismiss Birtwistle on the evidence of a few hearings and a concert. I’ll even admit to enjoying a bit of The Minataur, that is, before I had to turn it off (that scary movie thing again). There is every possibility that at some point it will ‘click’ – it’s happened before. But in the meantime I’ll try not to beat myself up too much about not getting it.


A quick word about the playing: Ensemble ISIS, largely drawn from students and recent alumni, were fantastic. At least, I assume they were, as there were a few moments where I wouldn’t have had a clue whether they were playing the right notes or not, but it was done with considerable flair. A few years ago I occasionally sang with the choral wing of ISIS – where our main task was to sing for composers’ workshops and point out that no, the basses probably won’t enjoy sitting on a top A for nineteen bars – but we never had to confront anything as intricately tricky. Then again, this was before ISIS became a terrorist organisation.