In December I travelled to Wiltshire to interview Harrison Birtwistle.
I began by asking some specific questions about serialism and whether or not it was a concept that was ‘vetoed’ as Anthony Gilbert had suggested to me that it had been. (The interview with Gilbert will be posted soon.) Not gaining much of a response beyond ‘I don’t know’ I outlined something of the level of detail I knew about the events, filling in space much as I am as I write this, hoping for a topic that most piqued his interest. It seems that Birtwistle is good at forgetting, which, as this week’s obituary for Alexander Piatigorsky reminded me, is ‘essential’.
Birtwistle mentioned that there had been a tiered system of students, and that Wood ‘took the third lot, Max took the second, and Sandy the first’ (LS100060 4’45”). I asked Birtwistle whether he had done any of this kind of teaching:
M: ‘So what were you doing’:
HB: ‘just hanging out’ [laughter]
At this point the interview had consisted of a series of not-quite-meetings indicative of a patient interviewee waiting for me to ask the right questions. Birtwislte then suggested that:
Most of my subsequent questions, focussing on the specifics of what went on, were unfruitful, partly due to Birtwistle’s memory of the specifics of the events or perhaps to his reluctance to share his memories. However, a number of times he focussed my attention on the manner in which the event arose, seemingly through the collective interest of an extraordinary collection of composers and performers. As the financial records show, aside from a small amount from the Arts Council (£350) in 1965, the costs of the summer schools were covered by the subscriptions paid by students. It opens an important question, which is one that stands behind so many inquiries of the past: how was it that so many who were to become so prominent all gathered at the same time as a self-sufficient collective? Birtwistle’s reluctance to answer my question about his role, prepared the conversation with the space to ask this question, downplaying his role as the official WCSS organiser. In a sense, was his role less significant than the willingness of the musical community to be self-supporting in this endeavour? Why is it that now a similar event could not take place? and what are the changes that have taken place in the music scene such that a similar event hasn’t again occurred? Birtwistle’s forgetting of the details usefully directed our conversation (or, at least, my interpretation of it) towards other ideas, ones that he could offer and that were unlikely to be found in my other interviews.
Given that my intention to study the past is so that I can better understand the present and look to the future, such questions are entirely relevant to this research.
Birtwistle continued musing on the events, on why they ended, what made them unique, and some of the works performed:
He continues, noting the obscurity of much of the repertoire programmed:
I asked Birtwistle what the need was for the WCSSs:
Part of the success of the WCSSs was the demonstration of the need for such events, evinced by the willingness of so many to gather together.
With over 100 people gathered together, and a programme that was largely informal, spontaneous music-making was possible:
Later in the interview he commented more generally on the success of the events:
So far in my research I have been struggling to find a reason for why Michael Tippett was there given that he was the only composer of his age to attend. David Lumsdaine (post forthcoming) suggested simply that people were fond of him, and others (Northcott, as well as Hall) have noted that he had worked with Walter Goehr and therefore well known to Alexander Goehr. Having spoken to Birtwistle, the attendence of Tippett (like several other aspects of the WCSSs) seems to be straightforward:
Similarly, I asked Birtwistle about improvisation and what its role was at the WCSSs. He replied that there was none as far as he remembered (LS100060, 36’01”). I asked about Cardew and the lack of pieces from him. Birtwistle replied that in that sense ‘there was no programme’ and that the choice of works was more haphazard, not designed to project any particular:
It’s difficult to judge the extent to which this is reliable. Whilst there may not have been a conscious decision to project particular repertoires and to suppress others, was it really the case that there happened simply to be no interest in, for example Webern’s instrumental music? Further investigation of the programmes of the invitation concerts is needed to compare the music played at the WCSSs with that played more widely.
In the 1965 programme for Sunday 15 August is a references to an exhibition that could be viewed during the interval. I asked Birtwistle about this:
More information about Anthony Denning is available here.
One of the most public pairings that started at the WCSS is between Birtwistle and Stephen Pruslin. It dates more precisely the beginning of Punch and Judy.
A discussion between them and Jonathan Cross about their work can be seen here:
Immediately after the 1965 WCSS, Birtwistle composed Verses, and work for clarinet and piano. I had attended a performance of it the evening before the interview, so I asked him about what was preoccuping him when he wrote it:
Since every good story needs some intrigue…:
Finally, I asked him for permission to use excerpts from the recording on this blog. It’s part of my ongoing working to record these conversations and for them to occur at the end of the interview, such that the interviewee knows what has been said and is best placed to grant meaningful permission. In this case, Birtwistle gave permission, the very topic sparking a tangential thought about how the WCSSs came about: