Anthony Gilbert

INTERVIEW between J. McL. GLOVER and ANTHONY GILBERT, June 1998

JG: Can I ask you something about teaching first? You’ve been teaching composition successfully for quite a time now, haven’t you, Anthony. What is it ­ 40 years? Do you regard yourself as a successful teacher?

AG: Hmm. Well yes, statistically, if the proportion of Firsts is anything to go by. But, you know, it's not necessarily the students who get Firsts who get on [in the profession]. That seems to depend on a lot of other things, which I can't determine. On them, mostly.

How did you discover you had ability?

As a teacher? Well, I’d done a bit of language teaching, here and there.....I'd trained as a linguist first, and worked in that area for about 5 years while I was studying composition. But it was two composer colleagues, Peter Dickinson and Michael Graubart, who suggested, quite strongly, that I could teach music. I even seriously considered going to teacher training college, but the job at Schotts came up, so I became an editor instead, to earn my bread.

So what did set you off teaching?

I sort of slid into it sideways. In 1968 I was invited to do a term at the City Lit[erary Institute] in London, teaching serial techniques, and straight after that Don Banks, who was Head of Adult Studies music at Goldsmiths College, asked me to take the evening composition class there. I did that for 5 years, and gradually other teaching gathered round it.

So you must have had some ability?

Well, maybe... But certainly I found it enormously interesting.

Do you have any sort of philosophy, as a teacher?

Over the years I suppose one has developed. I don’t believe in teaching prescriptively - I’ve never believed there were absolute rights or wrongs in any artform, and I don’t lay down formulas. Now that I’m teaching young people with what I hope are serious aspirations, I feel it’s important to deal with them honestly, so that they don’t spend 4 years working at something they’re.....not going to be much good at.

Tactfully, I hope?

Well, that can be a problem.... But there has to be some sort of inner drive, some sort of dialogue - you can’t teach an unresponsive student. But you asked about philosophy. Logic is the basis. I don’t mean the basis of philosophy, though that’s also true. I mean, getting them to pursue logical procedures. For me it doesn’t matter whether it’s the classical logic of, say, sonata form, or some highly personal thought process - so long as it works for the piece. This is important from the start. And also, for my students, developing their technical vocabulary is fundamental. Creating a logical syntax for themselves. But of paramount importance, I would say, throughout, is that I can share their vision, and then I can help them to realise it. That needs a measure of insight - sometimes a lot, when they’re not so good at expressing their ideas.

Now, Anthony, what set you off composing? When I knew you half a century ago, you were just a, perhaps, not very good pianist, with no sign of a desire to compose.

No, no, I’d always ‘made up’ music in my head. I thought everyone did when I was a kid. Gradually as I learnt more about it, as a choirboy and a not very good pianist, I felt the need to write it down. Hearing my first live orchestral concert really lit the touchpaper.... It was actually conducted by the father [Walter Goehr] of Sandy Goehr who later became my main composition teacher. But it took years more to acquire the confidence to commit myself, to...to commit my life to it. I have to say I didn’t get much encouragement! Except, I should say, from some leading members of the profession like Britten, Seiber and of course Alexander Goehr himself, who was also a great practical help in getting things performed. He also taught me without payment, otherwise I probably couldn’t have carried on, with mouths to feed on a tight budget.

Was there any connection between composing and your training as a translator?

I suppose, thinking about it, there were quite strong connections, though I wasn’t particularly aware of them at the time. Languages develop the ear and the aural memory enormously. And they also give one an excellent training in understanding the power of syntax and structure. The logic of language. And then of course, later on, when I became convinced of the virtue of setting words to music, my language training gave me a good insight into shades of meaning. This was true in the case of foreign as well as English texts, obviously ...

What set you off on your particular stylistic track? Did you have difficulty discovering a ‘language’ for yourself, like so many young composers seem to?

Well you know, composing for me has always been a process of discovery. I didn’t consciously aim to write in one way or another when I started. Initially I suppose there were models, like Stravinsky, Berg, and then Varèse and Messiaen - one has to start with a basis, of things one’s interested in pursuing. Then it was more general areas, like the technical vocabulary of Northern Indian classical music, and the colotomic music of Indonesia. Frameworks, really. I don’t think the music I’ve written has ever sounded like those musics. In answer to the first part of your question, I just wanted to write down the music I could hear in my head, or most wanted to hear. That was going to be my contribution, I felt. I couldn’t contribute much in any other direction, really. You know, for me, the only honest thing to do in composing is to write straight from the heart, guts and brain. Trying to assess what my audience would like to hear, to be ‘accessible’, would seem to me cheap and even patronising. It would also in the final analysis be pointless. An audience consists of a group of different individuals, doesn’t it? So they’ve each got their own perceptions, likes and, well, needs. After all, one isn’t putting out fodder for cattle, is one?

Well, I think you may have sort of answered my next question, about influences, but are there any composers whose music you admire in particular?

Oh hell, yes! Where do I start? Pérotin, Machaut, Monteverdi, Purcell, Sibelius, ...Moussorgsky, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Berg, Schoenberg, Webern, Varèse, Messiaen as I’ve said, ...Tippett, Britten, Lumsdaine, Goehr, lots of Birtwistle, early Maxwell Davies, Boulez, Stockhausen, George Crumb, Takemitsu, some former students of mine like Simon Holt, Robin Grant, Martin Butler - you’d better stop me...

OK, what about composers you don’t admire?

Hell, I’m not going to get into that. Of course there are heaps around - those whose posturing has nothing to do with artistic quality or those who consciously aim to be populist. The conservatives, the derivatives. Market-led, they proudly call themselves. They debase music, turn it into a commodity. Debauch it, I reckon. I call them ‘the accessibles’.

But lots of people like that kind of music...

Yeah... Lots of people like a lot of other things I don’t feel too happy about too, like - - no, I’m not going to get moralistic. I’ll leave that to the posturers.

Do you feel your work gets due recognition?

What composer does?

Well then, are there any big works you feel should be heard more?

Yes, of course... I suppose, most of them. One or two now embarrass me.

Come on, help me. Say something...

OK, sorry. ... Well.... there’s the Symphony I wrote in the early 70s, which is a huge 39-minute blast of a thing. That’s only ever been done once, by Charles Groves and the Liverpool Phil. I put a huge amount of myself into that - I blew up with encephalitis in the middle of it! It explores everything I knew at the time, musically, linguistically, technically. It comes out crude, but I think it’s a real piece. So did everyone else who heard it at the time. It’s in three movements, 13 minutes each. The first is a gradually expanding monody which succeeds not only in splitting itself up at the climax into about 13 parts but also in splitting the orchestra into two halves. The second movement, which is the one I wrote first, takes these two halves and performs a mad dance with them. It’s dedicated to the memory of Varèse, who died just before I started it. And the third movement is dedicated to Judy Garland, who’d also died - just across the river from where I was living in fact. That was a great sadness - she was one of my icons. That takes the conflicts of the second movement, negotiates them up to a big improvised-sounding climax and fades away. It’s full of hidden things about Garland - her voice, her songs, her style. I explored techniques of layering in both of those two latter movements. Each half of the orchestra is divided up into six sound-bands or pitch-bands. Regions is what I called them. And the music in each is separate, but interactive with the music in the others. I found that idea very stimulating. Well, electrifying, in fact. But it’s just a technique.

Thank you! What else?

Something called The Chakravaka-Bird. It’s a kind of radio opera, really just for one main singer, a low mezzo - I always imagined the protagonist to have a low, sexy voice like so many Indian women singers do. There are other parts of course, for tenors and counter-tenor, but it concerns this one woman’s quest, this Indian poet’s quest for union, physical as well as spiritual union with the Indian god Shiva. It’s a rare example of the main character having supplied her own texts, from beginning to end - in this case in a beautiful translation by A.K. Ramanujan. Everything that the Mahadevi character sings is her own poetry; most of what two of the other main characters sing is their poetry too.

What is the music like?

Well, you’ll have seen from the score that a lot of it is very still - a very expressive mezzo line intertwining with layered percussion textures. Layering again, only this time the layers don’t interact. Each player has what I call a ‘mantra’ in these long passages, played at measured time-intervals, so when they’re all chiming together there’s a sort of ritualistic feel, or something like the sound of birds in a forest. But at the end of each of these long meditations are encounters, which set Mahadevi off on a new track. The first is an encounter of repulsion, with her would-be husband. She rebels and runs off, strips naked and wanders off towards her second place of encounter, the holy city of Kalyana. There we have an encounter of dialogue, of testing, where the two main mystics, also actual poets, test her resolve, and the depths of her understanding and beliefs. They point her in the direction of Srisaila, the holy mountain, where the third encounter takes place, very much an extension of the third meditation. This of course is with Shiva himself, though in fact the union, from its early moments, is so close it’s almost as though they’re singing each other’s words.

Sounds fascinating. Is there one more work you’d like to say something about?

Well, there’s the Violin Concerto.

You mean On beholding a Rainbow... done this year at the ISCM?

Sort of. Two movements anyway. Difficult, because I’m still so close to it. (pause)

The work had 2 complete performances in 1999 with Anthony Marwood as soloist, one with Rumon Gamba conducting the BBC Philharmonic and and one with Garry Walker conducting the RNCM Orchestra. JG

Is this the Prom piece you told me about back in about 1993?

Well, it was originally supposed to be, but there was a change of leadership in the Proms before the contract was issued, and I think the new boss thought I was trying to con him when I tried to get things confirmed. They [BBC] did commission it in the end, but not for a Prom.

I see... Isn’t the title the name of a Jewish blessing?

Yes, and each movement has as a subsidiary title one of the three phrases of that blessing.

So is it a religious piece?

No. No, not particularly, but it is a piece about beliefs, in a hidden way. It’s about, well, like concertos tend to be, about an individual in some sort of conflict, oppression situation with the environment, society perhaps. I’m not saying this terribly well. The orchestra and the soloist seem to have totally different agendas to start with, in the first movement. The soloist has modal material - a symmetrical Jewish scale I was shown when I was a kid, and fragments of Jewish melody-line, elaborated and decorated in the way it happens in Indian raga music. It’s linear, intense, dark. The orchestra comments, but also pursues its own line of development, and we get climax after climax as the two elements come into conflict and start to respond to each other. The cadenza is the soloist’s last chance to make her or his point before getting caught up in the final coda, which is a long canon in about seven parts over a passacaglia-like bass. The second movement, which is about half the length of the first, just allows the soloist to sing in quasi-blues fashion through and around a.... deluge of tall harmonies. But again there’s conflict - mocking from the orchestra, a struggle for the solo line to develop its ideas. The orchestra is all vertical, the soloist is all one horizontal, yearning line. Then in the last movement it’s all line - a mad moto perpetuo in basically just two parts, the orchestral lines being inversions of the soloist’s, with their order rearranged. It’s the shortest movement - just about a third of the length of the first. A movement of flight, of fleeing, but not of reconciliation. But you just about have Hans Keller’s criteria for an ideal symphonic form: conflict, consideration, resolution - one in each movement. If you can call flight ‘resolution’. It’s one way to resolve a conflict, I guess, not always the worst. But not the best, either. No! Not fight, nor flight. Reconciliation is full resolution.

So where does the blessing come in?

Well, if there is a message, it might be “whatever happens, don’t lose faith”. Faith in whatever it was you started out believing in, before you were got at. Before the flood, metaphorical or otherwise.

That sounds like something you might have told yourself, on occasion.

I do, regularly. Not just when there’s a rainbow, either.