Steve Crowther: Peter, I thought that Adieu to all alluring toys was such a captivating title that we chose it as a tag line for the concert itself! Where did it come from?
Peter Reynolds: I’ve been interested in inscriptions on church memorials for sometime now, particularly the ones from the eighteenth century. On one level, many of them are no more than doggerel, but they also have a sincerity and innocence that is very moving. Two of the epitaphs I’ve used are written to the memory of small children whilst another warns of the inevitability of our mortality. They are innocent, naïve and sentimental, but the words nonetheless are full of light, optimism and even humour, far removed from our more recent view of mortality. It is these qualities that the music seeks to capture; it’s a difficult balancing act, particularly in a culture where irony is so much a part of our way of expressing ourselves. So, to answer your question, the title is simply a line taken from one of these inscriptions, which I collected from a tiny country church in Breconshire. It appears in the first of the three settings that make up the piece. Although they’re being issued as part of Paul’s new CD on the Meridian label of contemporary British song, I tend to think of the piece as a short cantata in the eighteenth century sense of the word.
SC: Can you describe the process of setting them?
PR: Like, I suspect, a lot of composers, I used to be very highly structured in my approach to composition, but these days I am more interested in a more spontaneous approach. So, much of the music was set down in quite a free way over about a period of six months, but then gradually sculpted into the final result. There were recently some fascinating talks in the Radio 3 series, The Essay, on creativity in middle age (which, I suppose, is where I find myself now). One of the contributors, the writer Frances Fyfield, defined artists as either working from the inside-out or the outside-in. I suppose I belong to the outside-in camp: hacking away to discover the shape beneath.
SC: Do you write at the piano, do you sing during the compositional process?
PR: Most of my work is done at my desk, though I do use the piano to check harmony and the like. One of the advantages (and there aren’t many) of being a lousy pianist, is that one is thrown back on one’s internal musical imagination, rather than composing through improvisation (though there’s nothing wrong with that). I also craft all my music on paper, and do not use music software. This is a deliberate decision: it slows me down and makes me consider more carefully what I write. I remember that Morton Feldman used to say that copying out his music in different drafts brought him closer to the material.
SC: Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a voice in mind?
PR: Yes, I think that it’s crucial to either know the performers or to have some sense of the occasion or space for which the piece is being composed; I’m totally at one with Britten’s views on this. These days I find it virtually impossible to start writing unless I know these things. For me music doesn’t exist until it’s performed.
SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
PR: This is the question that every composer dreads and, without being coy about it, I don’t really think I know. Obviously, one becomes aware of (or friends remark on) certain technical or stylistic traits, but I feel that it’s better not to get caught up with consciously identifying these. But there are things that have become apparent to me, particularly in the last five years during which there has been quite a change in my music. I’ve finally discovered that I really don’t enjoy working on large-scale forms (though most of the music I love most is composed in those forms): I prefer far more to work on a small canvas: eight minutes is now a long piece from my point of view.
I also like to work with very simple material and to expand and shape it quite organically. I’ve increasingly rejected systematic forms and techniques and like to spend a lot of time considering the work and revising it before it goes to performance (though this isn’t always possible).
SC: What motivates you to compose?
PR: Well, it’s the only job really worth doing and as things never match up to one’s expectations, it becomes a life-long search to try and achieve that unachievable perfection.
SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
PR: I find that I tend to identify more with makers working in other media these days, like Richard Long for instance, rather than the contemporary music circus, but the kind of composers I identify with would probably include people like Howard Skempton or Laurence Crane.
SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
PR: I always regret never having met Michael Tippett, although I often heard him speak or saw him from a distance at concerts. I admire him for his humanity, his ability to put music in a much wider context than just music.
SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
PR: This is so difficult and one’s choice changes from week to week, day to day, but this morning it would be:
Fuweles in the frith (anonymous – 1280s or 90s)
Brumel: Gloria (from the Earthquake Mass)
Haydn: Symphony No.22 (Philosopher)
Bach: Cantata No.151. Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kommt
Busoni: Berceuse élégiaque
Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instrument
Feldman: Piano & String Quartet
The piece from these that I’d choose would be Fuweles in the frith. Written in the thirteenth century, it’s a bare two-part vocal piece of the utmost simplicity and timelessness, lasting about two minutes. We have no idea who composed it and it doesn’t matter: it’s the kind condition to which I feel all people making things should aspire.
SC: …and a book?
PR: In Parenthesis by David Jones
PR: Almost anything by Ingmar Bergman
SC: … and a luxury item?
PR: A real summer?
SC: Amen to that. Peter Reynolds, thank you