‘Music is losing its currency; I feel that very strongly. It’s become absolutely devalued through popular culture. Not that I’m against popular culture, but there’s so much music around: you scan the airwaves on the radio and the whole world’s full of music that nobody is listening to. The function of music has changed and I could imagine that there will be a new sort of musical elitism, at least I’d like to think that there will be because if we’re in situation where people don’t listen to music, there are equivalent composers writing music that doesn’t have to be listened to - it just titillates. It’s that way of listening where you can go to sleep in a piece, wake up and you’re still in the same music. So I think we might move into a situation where by necessity there will be composers writing music that you have to listen to. All this ‘designer music’ is just a sort of sentimental extremism. I heard Mahler Ten recently, and that’s a very dangerous piece for a composer to listen to today because you can very quickly just imitate the surface of that music and write long, meaningful lines. That’s why I think there’s a new elitism. Elitism for me is a terrible word - a sort of club which anyone can join; it’s got an open membership. It seems to me that the world is going to get very divided.
Modernism comes in phases. We’re going through a phase where it’s not very important; rather it’s the rediscovery of certain things that were lost. But you can’t embrace- the entire universe and entire culture at any one point in history, and in any creative situation you have to define what you are going to control, because you can’t control everything, every possible parameter - it’s been tried and we know what the results sound like … I think music - talking, say, about Stockhausen and people like that - were around during a period of musical cubism. Historically it was absolutely logical and necessary, or at least it seemed to be, whereas nowadays I really feel sorry for young composers because when I was that age the issues seemed to be very clear. But the interesting thing about cubism is that whatever you think about it the world will never be the same again, and if you look at what cubism has done to the world we see it everywhere, in tables and chairs, it permeates our whole existence. I think modernism will always move in phases like that. It’s like the discovery of perspective. It’s always just after the point at which something’s invented that the most exciting developments take place. With perspective, you find someone like Piero and then Mantegna immediately realising all the possibilities of the new system. Or with cinema, where almost as soon as it’s invented you have Eisenstein, and still no one’s really progressed beyond what he did. There are watersheds in the time. It’s the same with electronic music: how do you find the necessity for it, historically or otherwise? Now with technology you find you can do the most miraculous things which are immediately boring. They’re tedious because they’ve no energy, it’s all on the surface - it’s a kind of jewellery. It’s as though you’ve heard that there’s this amazing violinist so you write just for this astonishing technique, but there’s no motivation underneath. I can’t believe that the new technology isn’t going to be important, but there is something very important to me which is human performance, and by that I don’t mean technically - how fast your fingers can move, or whatever - but something to do with an association with human breathing or just the expression of doing something which when it really works for me is what it’s all about, that when it is to do with technology it’s never a pe$ormance. And maybe that’s because I’m old fashioned, but performance to me is really when it starts to happen; something to do with how it breaths, how a performance can bring a layer to something which you never expected, another dimension - that’s when it’s wonderful; that’s the excitement. I’ve worked with high technology and there’s no excitement. I’m fascinated by magic, and I like conjuring tricks when I know I’m being deceived, and that aspect to me is also about performance. The conjuring trick is also a performance: you know the guy’s not hanging on the end of a rope, and that I find really exciting, but with technology it’s not there. I have heard some wonderful things and I’m sure it’s got to happen, hasn’t it? So maybe creativity is a little bit behind: it’s not shadowing us, we’re shadowing it.
Microtonal music is another good example (although personally I have enough trouble with 12 notes). People were in the same position as the technology; they could understand it, but they didn’t have a music to fit it. When you think of Haba’s quartetone music it’s unrecognisable, it’s unlistenable to in some ways because you’re already adjusting it and trying to turn it into semitones, because ostensibly the music is the same only with the intervals cut into two. I can see that spectral music is a very genuine way of looking at this problem and how composers like Murail have arrived at that not because ‘wouldn’t it be nice to divide that in half’ but because it comes out of real acoustics and there’s an analogy there between the two things.
I’ve never thought about nationalism, I don’t even know what it is. I think it’s something you could have had in the 19th-century, but I’m not so sure what it would be any more. I was looking at a book of Ben Nicholson - it’s like a sort of lyrical version of Picasso and Mondriaan, you can see the two things, and it’s quite English in a way, and yet at the time I think he was considered quite a modernist in England. I don’t know about what the English thing is. There are things which you can say are English or nationalist, but it’s not a question of things you can self-consciously do, whatever it is, I’ve never even tried to define it … I think the people who come off worst are those who self-consciously try to be part of a tradition.
If there’s an ‘English’ quality to my music it’s something I can’t do anything about. I don’t think Holst was ever an English composer. I think probably Vaughan Williams was, but they were both very self-consciously trying to be English; not British, but English, with that sort of modality, those musical landscapes plus a little tickle at Tudor music, although I don’t think they ever really heard it or properly understood it in the way we do. In fact if you listen to Tudor music, to a composer like Fayrfax, I think there’s something very English about it - that’s just an intuitive thing, I’d never dream of trying to explain what it is - a sort of lyrical quality, something mellifluous, melismatic. I don’t know it too well, but it does sound English to me, or maybe that’s just through association …
On the establishment
The situations I work in are establishment, but I don’t think the establishment knows what I do. I’m part of the establishment in some way, but I don’t think what I do is part of the establishment; I don’t think they’d recognise it if they fell over it. I think maybe the establishment needs icons or whatever we are, and I’ve never been consciously part of the establishment, or have never tried to be part of the establishment any more than I’ve ever tried to be part of tradition. But the establishment needs people to listen to, and maybe that’s one of the reasons I accepted a knighthood because I tried to just do something for the things that I stand for. It’s a difficult thing to be and I myself have always been an outsider. I feel an outsider and the more inside I am the more outside I feel …’
Interview by Gavin Thomas