Interview with Anthony Powers
What's the most exciting thing about being a composer writing now, at the beginning of the 21st century?
At the start of the 20th century that would have been one of the most remarkable times in the history of English music - and European too of course! With the twenty-first, it’s harder to say. New music seems to be losing its way in the clamorous attention given to pop and rock (now routinely, and confusingly, called contemporary or new music). Composers and their works (unless ‘about’ climate change or a current issue that will attract funding) are not important to most people, even to those who follow new developments in the other arts. One often feels more depressed than excited, but the best thing for me is writing for the many outstanding (often young) players and singers in this country who are selflessly committed to new work of many kinds.
Until comparatively recently, audiences listened almost solely to the contemporary classical music of their time. Now that we perform such a broad range of music, do you think the contemporary audience has become more specialised, and does that affect your writing in a any way?
No, you can only honestly write for yourself and the idea of a specialized audience is dreadful. A kind lady once told me after a concert in which a new piece of mine had been played at the Wigmore Hall, along with Schubert and other standard repertoire, that she had come to hear the Trout Quintet, but preferred mine. That sort of open-minded approach is admirable (and rather encouraging to a composer!) but I fear all too rare.
If you could go for coffee with any composer born before 1900, who would it be, and what would you ask them?
Brahms famously liked his coffee, but would not have liked to be asked questions. It would be interesting to know, perhaps after a good lunch, beer and Schnapps, what he really thought about Wagner.
To aid their writing, Beethoven liked his long walks in the Vienna woods, Brahms liked his Austrian lakes, and Satie was fond of the odd absinthe. What does it for you?!?
Walking certainly, a soak in the bath sometimes, but as someone once said ‘work creates ideas’ and keeping going with what you’re writing, however slowly and frustratingly, is often the best way
Do you have any personality traits that you consider to be peculiar to composers?
Not that I’m aware of – though composers can be peculiar! You do have to like your own company, as it’s a lonely process and nobody else can help.
Where did you grow up and did the local landscape have a bearing on your music?
London, but with summers in Suffolk: unfortunately Britten had already rather cornered the market there. I have written a number of pieces that reflect the landscape of Herefordshire and the Marches where I’ve lived for many years
What was your most inspiring/memorable musical experience as a young musician growing up?
Probably singing Bach at school. To be ‘inside’ the St Matthew Passion at 13 or 14 is quite an education: otherwise London concerts, which in my teenage years ( late 60s and early 70s) were so much more interesting than now – Boulez at the BBC, the early years of the London Sinfonietta etc. We were lucky, and that’s not just nostalgia. It was a golden age.
We're delighted that the starting point for the creation of this Piano Trio was the work we commissioned from you for the Chamber Music 2000 scheme in 2010. An extended version of this piece now forms the second movement of the set, entitled 'The Lover's Ghost'.
Can you explain the creative process of forming this larger scale work from the single movement?
I thought it needed some friends, so added other movements until an overall shape emerged. Though it may not sound like it, the beautiful late Trio of Fauré was much in my mind at the time.
Three folk song melodies are woven into the fabric of your Piano Trio, specifically named in the central three movements - 'The Lover's Ghost', 'Ratcliffe Highway' and 'The trees they grow so high'. In your programme note you describe how "these ballads are no pastoral idylls; their often dark and troubling narratives have as much bearing on the form and character of the music of these movements as do the tunes themselves".
Do these songs hold particular significance for you, and are there threads of meaning from their narratives which seem to run through the work as a whole?
Not particularly. They are good tunes and good material, though it’s true that the words or stories – as so often in folksongs – are remarkable too. The tunes, though sometimes evident, are also variously buried in the music (and ‘The trees..’ is in any case a less well-known version from Devon) so spotting them is not necessarily the point.
Which other influences came to bear on the development and reflection on this raw material in the outer movements of the trio?
As ever, simply an attempt to make a coherent piece. The tunes hung around, so they form a background (on the whole) to the outer movements that don’t carry titles, often refracted through different registers, modes and harmonic contexts.
Do you feel that music is a reflection of your conscious self - the 'self' which those close to you would describe as 'composer's name'?! Or does your music allow you to access a self which is 'other' in some way?
I really don’t know. Self-analysis of this sort is rarely productive (it does seem to have been so for Tippett, if not his music), and any analysis probably best left to others.
If finance and time were no obstacle (ha ha!), what piece would you write next and where would you go to write it?
There’s an opera…and maybe a third symphony.
What message or advice wild you give to the next generation of composers?
Trust your ears and musical instincts rather than systems or methods - and not always the advice of others .
What would be your top 5 desert island discs?
Only five? I’d want music I don’t know very well. They would change all the time, so with any luck I won’t ever be asked to choose them for Radio 4!