Sound World’s Julian Leeks spoke to Geoff at his home in the Cotswolds before the composer relocated to his native East Anglia.
I visited Geoff on a sunny day in March with the stunning views over the Frome Valley providing a beautiful back drop for a thoroughly enjoyable and thought provoking chat about music, composition and much more…
I’ve known Geoff for many years now. He was Professor of Composition when I began my PhD. at Bristol University and I am fortunate to have worked with him on educational projects for New Music in the South West (now Sound World). I have also commissioned new works from him on behalf of NMSW.
We began by discussing how ‘classical’ music sits within the broader context of musical culture.
JL: Is there something that distinguishes music in the western classical tradition from other music?
GP: I do think classical music belongs in the same sort of group as, for example, high literature. A great many of the expressions of any art form in any particular time are not meant to be particularly thoughtful or to take you particularly deeply but I take classical music to be something that continues to matter, that comes from a heritage of trying to balance thought feeling and soul.
I say that in relation to the western tradition but I’ve been interested in various other cultures where I always seem to like the classical culture and in some cases they still persist, but it’s always in danger of getting washed away by consumerism…
JL: Well this is something we’ll come on to… But from a composing point of view, what distinguishes classical music? What does a composer do that is different from what a songwriter does?
GP: Well one point is the matter of structural scale, the size of the architecture. The popular conception is that a piece of music is really one idea, repeated quite a lot, that doesn’t really go anywhere – and pop intensely does that. Furthermore, it’s very much performer based, on the personality and particularity of the group or the singer and the following that goes with that.
So, classical music is quite different from the point of view that it’s not generally restricted to, or particularly for, the personality of the individual performing it. One would hope that various people would perform it. And, as I say, there’s a sense of scale. Very often it either takes you somewhere or it goes more deeply into the ramifications of a certain idea – which is both the beauty of it and, for some people, what’s off putting and tedious about it; it depends on your point of view.
JL: If this music has a special capacity for reflection and depth does that confer on the composer a special responsibility to society? Should composers tackle the problems of the world as they see them or is it perfectly legitimate to divorce oneself from whatever is happening and just write music?
GP: I think it’s both. Take a composer like Ravel who, I think, had no larger agenda or feeling of responsibility, he lived a very closed social life, was well off and did what he loved doing and we’re all very grateful for it; and it didn’t really matter at all whether he felt he was doing it for society.
Now, French tradition has tended to be like that, it’s for the pleasure of the music and it’s a very fine tradition. The German tradition has tended to be more philosophical…questioning our deepest feelings and role in life…looking at What is Society? What do we need to Say?
I think the first duty is to use one’s talent as well as one can. For myself, it is tied up with society but I don’t disparage people for whom it isn’t.
JL: People often talk about artists and composers as if they have some kind of special understanding or knowledge and I’m rather suspicious of that. And I’m suspicious of the idea that artists who are innovative or original are brave. There’s no reason why an artists shouldn’t have a special insight, but then someone from any walk of life might have. And as for brave, do you think a composer can be brave?
GP: Certainly not brave in the sense that a soldier risking his life in battle is brave, but Edgar Varese said that composition is for the very few because you needed to go into yourself, and if cracks appear or you meet a real crisis nobody can help you. You’re stuck in a world that no one else can understand. So it needs bravery in that sense. If you feel driven to go past what is an obvious solution, to search out that which hasn’t been said before, that can be quite a psychological journey. In that sense there’s a difference between the brave attitude and the “well, let’s use what we can” attitude.
But you’ve got to put it in perspective, there are things that people do that are far more difficult.
JL: That idea of searching for something new is interesting. Xenakis said, “I don’t exist unless I’m doing something new.” That’s not meant to dismiss tradition, rather to suggest we should create something new, from a position of understanding tradition. But this has almost become the fundamental requirement of composers. In contemporary music you will frequently hear people reacting to a new work by saying, “It’s not very original.” This is before any mention of quality and I wonder if this is to do with the academisation of music and music departments having to justify their existence in terms of “original research”.
Do we focus on originality to the detriment of music?
GP: I think it’s quite regrettable that music has got so tangled up with PhDs. And it’s regrettable that there’s funding as long as we are pretending to do something other than what we are really doing. There doesn’t seem to be the political will to honour the importance of a culture in the same way that there is for ‘research’.
JL: Do you think it’s worse for music than for other arts?
GP: I have come across the results of that way of thinking (which is academic in a bad sense) and it’s certainly bad for music – well, it just disappears.
I remember my piano teacher as an undergraduate – harpsichordist Charles Spinks, a very fine man – he was shaking his head about music in universities. He was happy to teach but didn’t think it should be happening in a university.
If you want to be a musician you should really be at a music college because of the primacy of the music itself, of making music, thinking music, the tradition of performance and communication, and it has become academised, so theorising and writing about music seem, in a university, to be held in higher esteem than doing it. It’s something to really question, but if we really question it, what will happen is it gets taken away and nothing else gets put back instead.
JL: I’d like to bring the conversation back to you for a while, if I may. You’ve said in the past that’s a young composer, you were in the Benjamin Britten tradition. Was it at East Anglia University that you were introduced to modernism?
GP: Not at East Anglia, that was later.
There was no such thing as studying composition at UEA. I was self taught from around 14. And still was when I wrote my first professional piece Wymondham Chants . Then I met modernism. And I’ve never had anything as successful as Wymondham Chants since! It makes me wonder whether I shouldn’t have embraced Modernism: but I did.
JL: Well in those days students were corralled down a particular avenue. That’s not so much the case now, but there is a balance to be drawn between coercing someone and challenging them. If you say to students, here you are at university, with all the opportunities that entails, just go and do want you want, then most people will stick with what they already know, what is familiar and enjoyable.
Most people won’t explore or experiment unless there’s a good reason to.
GP: Yes, and for my generation there were compelling reasons. Britain had been a cultural backwater. It had not picked up the enormous changes that had swept over most of Europe, and so we were in catch-up mode. Especially as, having lost the colonies, we were no longer self-sufficient and were – doing the opposite of what’s happening today – trying to embrace Europe and learn from it.
So there was a feeling that – hey, I knew more about Schönberg’s life than my own for a while! It seemed really important to have that basis: whereas the composers who’ve endured are those like Steve Reich who’ve shrugged off the baggage and said, well I don’t care, Schönberg’s my granddad’s age and long dead – it doesn’t matter. And that was probably correct as well. But it’s to do with where we each were at that point.
JL: But that’s also a product of where people come from and you might expect the American tradition to seem less challenging than the European, because it’s much more influenced by popular culture. The fact that Reich is more popular than Schönberg doesn’t necessarily mean that he is right.
GP: No, but then there’s the whole question of whether anybody is right, whether there’s rightness or wrongness beyond what people happen to like.
JL: This idea of what is accessible or challenging brings us back to the idea of what a composer’s responsibilities are. It’s hard to argue that modernism hasn’t driven a wedge between the composer and the audience. Do you think composers have a duty to be advocates for their own work? Either by talking about it or by writing music that acknowledges the fact that people generally need to be drawn into listening?
GP: There are a lot of questions tied up in that.
The duty to be an advocate… Certainly, any composer who doesn’t seem to believe in his or her ‘product’ is unlikely to get very far.
JL: You can have conviction but not be an advocate. You can shut yourself away and just compose – like Birtwistle who does very little.
GP: He’s got very deep conviction but doesn’t need to advocate.
JL: Well you could argue that from his perspective as a composer he doesn’t need to, but as far as music itself goes, it might be good if he did.
GP: I think Maxwell Davies is a really interesting person from that point of view because as Master of the Queen’s Music (and Judith Weir now) he used that as a platform to give talks and lectures which is something that he’d always done, he’d always advocated communication and it’s certainly beneficial to this world of classical music that we’re talking about to have lots of people speaking up very vividly and interestingly about it, if they’re fitted to that particular task, but it doesn’t suit everybody. And Birtwistle…?
JL: You’re absolutely right, some people are suited to it and some people aren’t. But what about from a compositional perspective. I was talking to Jean-Paul Metzger, he doesn’t feel the need to entertain people. He feels there’s enough entertainment in the world, that it’s not his job as a composer. Which is entirely legitimate as philosophical position, but as a composer I want people to listen to my music.
GP: Well it’s interesting that Jean-Paul is French, he’s fastidious, very talented and perhaps has the Ravel, Boulez view of what music is for. There tends not to be any didactic element in the French tradition.
JL: But I’m interested in what composers can do, compositionally, to promote their art. Most people listen to music because they enjoy it. For centuries composers have drawn unsuspecting audiences into profound music by, to put it crudely, sugar coating the surface a little.
It’s not fashionable, but I like the idea that a composer can win someone over rather than just do exactly what he or she wants, saying “there it is, take it or leave it.” The idea that the composer can bring the listener into his or her world and give them an experience they weren’t expecting or looking for.
A lot of today’s music is intensely personal to the composer (and that is an essential quality, one must retain that) but means little to anyone beyond a tiny, devoted few who are prepared or inclined to spend the time really digging into it.
GP: I think in the fullness of time that is indeed how it has turned out. There’s an awful lot of densely composed, carefully thought, very sincerely wrought music that doesn’t really interest the listener, doesn’t seem to reach out to the listeners wavelength and in many ways, that’s been partly based on a fallacy that comes out of looking at music history. Of course, if we go back to Mozart, it’s not only that his music reached out, but he was also innovating and far more complex than most people really wanted.
When we study music, we are generally studying the history of trailblazing – the first person to do “this”.
Or to take it from a slightly different point of view, you could say that it’s not to do with individuals (which is the way that music history has been done, in the same way that history was about the kings), and actually what shapes things is the collective, it is the society.
So what happened looking at Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann, these are four stages of Germanic thinking, socially different as, first of all, the old order was broken up by revolution and then there was the era of the pale, quiet man, the anti-hero, which Schubert and Schumann gave voice to. Their influence spread through lots of other Schuberts and Schumanns, and then that works until there’s another big crisis, in the 19th century and obviously plenty in the 20th century.
So, if one looks at it that way, the individual composer has no real choice over what’s important and what isn’t. The great tide of history will select what it wants to rejoice over or reflect on. That just puts a different perspective on where we place ourselves and well, we do our best, but we don’t really know what the world that we’re in is.
JL: Well in terms of how things develop in a broad sense, I think that’s true, but could I just bring things back to how things are today? Because I think we face a specific and unique set of problems.
The internet gives us instant access to the entire back catalogue of music history meaning there is no imperative to focus on the present. Fewer people are learning instruments, leading to a less musically literate audience and, we are told, attentions spans are shrinking along with our appetite for deferred gratification.
At the same time composers are writing difficult music requiring, of its audience, advanced musical understanding, perseverance, thought and patience. It seems a perfect mismatch between composer and audience.
This is why I want to press you on whether composers have a duty to address this in some way, as part of the husbandry of their art.
GP: It’s ironic that the composer who spoke most about comprehensibility was Schönberg, who people find least comprehensible. But it goes to show that people who are innovating a lot may well feel a responsibility but still not manage to solve it, to make their ideas clear. Because, as he said, not many people are interested in difficult thoughts.
It’s not just thoughts of course, first of all music works through sound. I look back on my own pieces and now see why some of the earlier pieces have remained intractable. Because often, perhaps, they weren’t graceful enough, they didn’t concede enough to the time needed to make a point in a coaxing and beautiful way. There’s an art of seduction involved in composition as well as all the thought. And I must say over the last ten years or so, it may be partly age, but I think it’s partly the era we’re in, I’ve simplified enormously, I’m almost entirely a tonal composer these days; coming at it freshly, from a different [direction].
JL: Are you glad to be given the opportunity to do that or do you wish you weren’t in a time where that seems necessary?
GP: I think we’re in a time where the, as we see in the dislocation across society, extreme forward moving and extreme retrogressive looking attitudes often coexist, perhaps in the very same people, and the centre is really having a problem in holding these things together. We’ve got a very unviable, alarming world right now. But when you think, what can a composer possibly do in difficult times? then probably, offering images of peace, hope and healing, is one of the best things one could do. Just the same as, if you’re dealing with a situation in which a lot of people have been physically hurt, then you offer comfort and help as much as you can.
So, it sounds a bit desperate to put it that way but I really think things have become so fragmented, and the tradition itself is all so lost, that we’re forced to go back to earlier basics about music and to take that opportunity to offer succour.
JL: That’s interesting because that goes back to one’s social responsibility as a composer rather than the composer’s responsibilities as a proselytiser of the art.
Is it something that has happened naturally, something you’ve become aware of in retrospect or did you consciously decide that the times in which we live require something different?
GP: For me it’s been a bit of a surprise.
It’s impossible for me to untangle the fact that I left Manchester in 2001 and came to Bristol. Manchester had afforded many more opportunities to work with modern-minded performers and to find an audience. I think that what you might call a “conservative tendency” in my own music was probably enhanced by being in a place where there was not such a strong modern tradition.
I found it a bit of a shock when I came to Bristol University actually. It didn’t need most of the things I’d spent the last 20 years of my life teaching and thinking about. But at the same time I think it’s been part of a general change, and so actually addressing the community and people I see around me, I think is in harmony with the broader change.
JL: Since the post-war period art, and in particular visual art, seems to have focused less on beauty and the elevation of the human spirit and more on the ugliness and the grimness of the world. Does the change that you describe mean a more direct form of communication, perhaps a return to the importance of beauty?
GP: Well, I’d say Yes, but there’s a lot of things I’d want to untangle. Beauty isn’t the same as sentiment, or certainly not sentimentality. But it does mean seeing… what should I say… the sort of glow [slight chuckle] of things, which comes from how we should be adjusted, to Nature, and to Ourselves.
Now, we do live in a very dislocated world. The modern city lifestyle, working on computers, television, advertising and the rest of it is all splitting away and us endless transient images. And this is unhealthy. This is not sustainable. We are full of false values and our whole economic structure is now to try to all fit into the mould required by people who want to sell things – and other people’s jobs depend on keeping that going.
It seems to be an unsustainable system but that’s what we’re in. Now the artist actually has the lovely position of saying what should it be? Maybe there won’t be very many people who are interested but those who are can share the feeling that there ARE positive things in life, and it’s unifying and a positive experience.
So, Beauty in that sense, Yes. Wholeness. And that does feed back into psychological depth, self-knowledge, the spiritual dimension. These things seem to me, and a lot of people, to be part of the wholeness of our lives. I think what’s tragic is the number of things which have really split off and they just exist without that.
JL: Now, Sound World is very focused on education and supporting young composers and I’d like to ask what advice you would give to a young composer concerned with developing an original compositional voice.
I’m concerned that originality is sometimes taken as meaning conforming to a contemporary stereotype. I prefer to look at a piece of music’s originality more in terms of whether it says something personal about the composer that couldn’t be said be someone else. Within that context, what should a young composer do when he or she is trying to find their voice.
GP: I certainly think a young composer has to make something that’s coherent, never mind the actual style and it’s likely to be derivative, no harm in that. Then it really takes a lot of time, both to develop an individual personality and then to find its musical voice. I don’t think one can really force it.
I think there are two issues here. One is that a lot of music exists very happily without needing to find an individual voice. A lot of it is functional. Film music serves a certain narrative and film composers, especially TV composers are not supposed to put themselves in it too much. And you could say the same is true for composers, who you might call functional composers, such as Rutter and Jenkins, who are very widely performed because they are “performable” and they don’t shock too much, they do fit some prescription and it does work. They know their craft and it’s really a craftsmanship type of job.
But if we’re talking of the artist as a poet-cum-envisager-of-a-world, of course it takes time to envisage that personal world. And in my own case I have to say people have quite often not understood what my world is. I have some very devoted… fans, who have followed it all the way and understand the way I zigzag between different interests and have absorbed things from different cultures, they can still hear the way I do it as my way of composing. It’s still me.
But, I am one of those people who has actually taken, outwardly, a number of apparently quite unrelated directions, whereas to me these are simply the most exciting new things that are coming into my life. But mine’s perhaps quite an unusual case: most composers are a little bit more consistent in their outward style!
JL: Well that certainly comes across in your music. Indeed, you’re composer who has done a great deal to create a synthesis between the western classical tradition and a number of musical cultures from around the world.
GP: If you look there [points to bookshelves], music of other cultures, Indian music: in my first quartet and various other pieces, African: there’s an African drumming concerto of mine… and in 2008, I went to Korea and that was one too far. Chinese and Japanese cultures also appealed to me, but I was aware that what I was trying to do in each case was to know that I am an English composer and I’m reaching out.
But in Korea I met a traditional composer who really resented me. This was what I’d always been frightened of. For as long as people seem welcoming about the interaction, that’s fine, but in Korea they’re very protective of their culture and he made it very clear that he didn’t like Westerners coming in, dabbling and “stealing their ideas”. And I thought, that’s fair enough. The moment one is creating any tension of that kind, keep away.
It’s a very complicated thing, culture, and it just suddenly snapped and I thought, I’m not going to deal with other cultures in any way again.
JL: It’s a difficult area. I quoted you on this in my PhD., about how it’s easy to take the surface detail of music from other cultures and plonk it on western foundations without any real understanding of it, so it’s really being used just as an adornment. That’s really something to be avoided but it’s something that happens a lot in pop music with people like Damon Albarn.
JL: A few quick questions to finish with.
What do you enjoy listening to today?
GP: For personal reasons really, after the death of my wife, nearly 10 years ago now, and me retiring, I actually found it very difficult to listen. And I’m still listening to very little music of any kind; which is peculiar. There’s constantly music going on in my mind because I know so much by heart and I do perform a lot. I’m doing twelve or fifteen concerts a year, so I’m learning my Beethoven and Shostakovich and things like that and contemporary pieces. But I find that I’m not listening a lot.
When I have done, I confess I’m so often quite disappointed. I wonder whether this is me getting old or whether the fact is that what seems to be treading new ground is often ground I was aware of 40 years ago. It doesn’t really take us anywhere and it may not be done any better; sometimes it can be, I’m not saying there is no talent around. It’s really complicated.
A few years back I heard a lovely piece by Luke Bedford, but I think he’s hived off to Berlin. It’s very hard for young composers to flourish in this country.
JL: Have you ever been interested in pop or rock music?
GP: I was never particularly into it, no. I like a certain amount of classical jazz, rock and pop. No, I was brought up fairly austerely, I couldn’t afford to buy records and I didn’t go to parties so it didn’t really cross my radar very much. Which would be very strange now. At 15 I spent one weekend playing the piano: the entire Beethoven sonatas, I’d learnt them all by then. And if you’re stamped with that sort of repertoire, most things do seem a bit, sort of, silly! So, I probably didn’t just do the simple enjoying enough.
JL: Can you recommend four living composers whom young people should listen to?
GP: [laughs] well… George Benjamin is one. Bristol University’s own Litha Efthymiou. John Adams and I think I’d have to put Harry Birtwistle in. And I’m afraid I wouldn’t put Rutter or Jenkins in!
My heroes used to be Ligeti and Berio.
JL: Last questions. If someone said, “Geoff who? What three pieces should I listen to, to get an idea of Geoff Poole?”
GP: [laughs], You should have given me notice for that one…
Well, you’d have to do Wymondham Chants because it’s been done 200 times around the world. That’s very early and not representative. I think… Lucifer would be well worth doing as well. And ideally, it would be my oratorio Blackbird.
These I think are… some pinnacles.