The following conversation appears as part of an extensive portfolio of new and newly translated literature celebrating the work of Paul Griffiths. Click here for full details on Music & Literature no. 7.


MM: Writing about music doesn’t strike me as the sort of vocation one plans to pursue, in and of itself. The most common scenario seems to be falling into it by accident, and discovering along the way that one actually has an affinity for this odd, difficult, arcane art of using words to describe sounds. How did you first begin?

PG: I distrust autobiography, but here’s an anecdote. As a student, I was a member of the Oxford University Contemporary Music Society, which put on concerts with some very fine performers. I still remember the first time I heard the Berg Piano Sonata (1908) (which was then as new as Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître is now), played by Julian Jacobson. At another of the Society’s concerts, it turned out that I was the only person in the audience who didn’t have a piece on the program, so I had to write the review for the student newspaper. That was the start.

That said, I’m not convinced that writing about music is any more difficult than writing about other things, but you’re right that it’s not an obvious career choice. On the other hand, I’m not convinced “choice” is quite the word here. What you want to do in your working life is going to be limited by what you’re able to do, what you have the opportunity to do, what you need to do, to support yourself, and what you feel you must do for the sake of other people, living or not. You’re fortunate if the restrictions, necessities, and obligations can all be reconfigured as desires.


MM: What sorts of critical and literary models did you look to when you were starting out?

PG: During the period I’m thinking of, when I was in my early twenties, I read every book on music in the Oxford City Library; there must have been a couple of hundred. Richard Kostelanetz’s John Cage anthology and the English version of Pierre Boulez’s Penser la musique aujourd’hui were both published in 1971, and I bought them right away; I think I had Cage’s own first two books, Silence and A Year from Monday, by then, too. Music, the Arts, and Ideas (Leonard B. Meyer) I must have bought and read a little later, in or soon after 1973, which is the date on the fourth impression I still have. That’s also the date of Karl H. Wörner’s Stockhausen book, which I bought when it came out—and the same goes for Jonathan Cott’s Stockhausen interviews and Cornelius Cardew’s Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, both published the following year. Heady times. I had, too, complete runs of Perspectives of New Music and Die Reihe, as well as many issues of Soundings and Tempo, which, all together, made a pretty complete library of what was available in English by 1974 on music since 1945.


MM: Not a bad roll call…

PG: Actually, it seems a rather short list, but if you compare it with what’s available now on music of the last twenty-nine years, since 1987…a sign of cultural disarray. Of course, the other big difference today is that there’s so much more music readily available, which, with the absence of guidance, would make the situation completely bewildering for someone as I was, pretty much self-taught.

In any case, by the age of twenty-six, thanks to the BBC and my reading, backed up by occasional concerts and opera performances, I had a fairly solid background in the classics and in contemporary music. I don’t think I’d come across much writing about music from “literary” sources, though the writers I’d been reading most avidly—Borges, Calvino, and especially Beckett—had a colossal effect, immediate and lasting.


MM: You had a front row seat for the collapse of newspaper criticism. How did the job (d)evolve in the decades during which you were active as a critic?

PG: The papers on which I started, in the early 1970s—the London Times and the Financial Times—each had an arts page that was precisely that: a page. But it still had room for three music reviews, at a length of up to six hundred words for a concert and nine hundred for an opera. That allowed space for serious discussion of works and performances, and one had the sense of writing for people who were interested in hearing about how Mitsuko Uchida played Mozart, or Simon Rattle’s first Bruckner, or a new song cycle by Harrison Birtwistle. Also, reviews always appeared the following morning (except in the case of Saturday events); they were news.

One key moment in the change came in January 1986, when the London Times converted to computerized production, which somehow slowed down the whole process, so that reviews henceforth rarely appeared until two or three days had passed. In another paradox, arts pages became arts sections, with several pages, but the space for reviews went down, so that there were fewer of them, and shorter. There’s a big difference between six hundred words and four hundred, or more often three-fifty. The bubble rises to the surface and goes pop.

But of course, it would give Rupert Murdoch far too much credit to blame him for all this. He was reacting to what he perceived readers as wanting, and that no longer included a continuing concern with musical culture, or any kind of culture. This was the Thatcher-Reagan era. We did things differently now.


MM: And if anything, the situation has gotten far, far worse in the years since then.

PG: The place of criticism in this world is indeed awkward, and I’m glad I didn’t survive, as a journalist, into a time when every review must include a star rating. Criticism is, for sure, about judgment, stated or implied, but much more about understanding, to which the numbers from one to five have no relevance.


MM: Do you subscribe to the idea that the internet and the (now not quite so very) new media can offer a space for “understanding,” as you put it?

PG: It’s indeed sometimes said that the internet, with its limitless space, provides the platform for criticism that newspapers relinquished a generation ago. Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see it. There’s a lot of shouting going on, but not much talk. And I wouldn’t expect there to be when the internet is both product and example of a disintegrated culture. The question is far larger than music criticism: how shall we integrate ourselves again?

Criticism, in the sense of an engagement that strives to elucidate and interpret rather than award points, seems to me to be integral to a shared culture and unsustainable without such a culture. Where music is concerned, we find both arriving together; significant markers might be Ignaz Pleyel’s complete edition of the Haydn string quartets (1802), implying a classic status for these works, and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s review of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony (1810). More than two centuries later, with the culture fast atomizing, criticism loses its function.


MM: But surely this isn’t a new problem. One thinks of what T.S. Eliot had to say on the matter, or (since you mentioned his book) Leonard Meyer and his “steady-state” culture…

PG: You’re right, of course, to point out that nothing I’m saying is very new, but I don’t think L. B. Meyer or T. S. Eliot were foreseeing the cultural anomie we now witness.


MM: To whom, then, is the critic responsible in such a situation—if in many cases arts criticism has become a question of the tail wagging the dog?

PG: Issues of responsibility are, as you suggest, implicated. The critic’s primary responsibility is, or was, to the culture—not, of course, as a historical phenomenon but as a growing, changing entity. I had the great luck to witness, in my late teens and very early twenties, the culture transforming itself in front of me: David Munrow was an older boy at my high school, Emma Kirkby and Andrew Parrott were Oxford contemporaries, and, also at Oxford, I was one of eight people in the audience when Steve Reich blew in with Four Organs and Phase Patterns (both 1970). Just a few years later, of course, what we called “early music” and what we did not always yet call “minimalism” were firmly established growth areas in this constantly mutating conundrum of shifting perspectives around a few fixed points, this thing that was musical culture.

With no culture to support and to challenge, no culture to substantiate its position, criticism becomes as weightless as Amazon customer reviews or TripAdvisor reports.

However, I feel somewhat embarrassed to have gone on at such length about the current impossibility of criticism when we face equally the current impossibility—or, at least, extreme difficulty—of composition, in the sense, again, of creating music that comes from and contributes to an evolving culture. I could point to some pieces of the last few years that seem to be achieving this, but they would all be by composers who were up and running by the start of the eighties, such as Salvatore Sciarrino and George Benjamin.


MM: So what’s the answer? If I may pose it in personal terms, I don’t think it’s too melodramatic to say that a life in which there isn’t any room for King Lear (for performing it, reading it, thinking about it, and for all that it represents) isn’t one I have much interest in living, and yet unfortunately one can imagine many future scenarios (dystopian or otherwise) in which that room no longer exists. So that’s to say that maybe we as a civilization have gotten precisely the culture we deserve.

PG: Of course I absolutely agree with you in holding the experience of great art—and the sense of belonging to a collectivity finding its ideals, its fears, its self-discoveries, and its aspirations conveyed by such art—to be indispensable to a meaningful life. But I fear we may be in a shrinking minority on this one. The danger I see is not cataclysmic; it is, rather, the slow and steady progress of ignorance and inability, a progress assisted by the decline in education and the increasing closure of popular media (television, radio, cinema, newspapers, magazines, public libraries) to great art, whether of yesterday or today.

Also, I’m not sure that to say “we as a civilization have gotten the culture we deserve” entirely meets the case, not least because I can’t extricate “culture” from “civilization.” What most characterizes our culture—absence, disintegration, devaluing—has been promoted by those in charge of our society, but one could equally note that the irrelevance of art has been posited by artists themselves, at least since 4’33” (1952), which is now almost a lifetime ago. Much as I might wish to, I don’t really want to blame George W. Bush any more than I want to blame John M. Cage; the phenomenon is very much larger than either.

How and when things will change, no one can say. However, there may be signs of a more integrated culture somewhere way over the horizon, which would have to be supported by—and support—a more integrated society. Here’s one example of what could happen, and I won’t apologize for going back to 1945, because that’s where our troubles started. The much questioned aim for “total serialism” had at least one thing going for it, that it was a joint endeavor, and that its goal was a kind of music that had little to do with the composer’s individuality. Such was the goal, too, of course, of Cage’s chance operations at exactly the same time. And perhaps it was the goal a decade later of La Monte Young’s move from the work to the state, and, a few years after that, of New York minimalism at its earliest point, when Philip Glass and Steve Reich were playing each other’s music and borrowing each other’s ideas.

Somehow, though, that goal was rapidly abandoned, to the extent that we now have a world in which composers have to exert themselves as personalities, in their music and aside from their music. This could change. Perhaps it must change. We’re familiar with musical cultures that have more or less fixed works with no composer’s name attached: folk song as it was before recent times, European liturgical chant, Japanese gagaku. Such a culture can thrive for centuries and can develop. It may once again become ours.


MM: To my ears, there is still time, your recorded collaboration with cellist Frances-Marie Uitti, embodies something of this mindset. Maybe it’s partly because of Uitti’s association with Giacinto Scelsi, a composer who was very much concerned with the problem of “integrating ourselves again.” I suppose this is as good an excuse as any to discuss it, so could you tell me how the there is still time project came about?

PG: The thing started in January 1997, when Frances-Marie Uitti was in New York doing a performance-demonstration on Scelsi at the Italian Institute. That was also the night when Elliott Carter, as we were walking up the stairs afterwards, asked me to go and see him about an opera. I met Uitti a couple of days later for lunch (I think I was interviewing her for the Times), and she took me by surprise, asking if I had any writing she could see with a view to creating something for cello and speaking voice. It didn’t occur to me (not then, and not for some time) that she meant as a duet; since she can play the cello with two bows, it seemed obvious she’d be able to speak at the same time.

I gave her maybe a hundred pages, on paper, of material I’d written in Ophelian, and she took this away. A little later she wrote to me identifying some passages she wanted to use, including all those, I think, that ended up in the recording. But we had barely worked together at all before August 2003, when we got into the studio, in Oslo, where it all, or almost all, simply emerged, often in a first take, thanks in large measure to [producer] Manfred Eicher’s knowing exactly what to say and when.


MM: What is the relationship with let me tell you?

PG: By the time the recording was made, the original material had transformed itself utterly into let me tell you, and I don’t think there’s much textual overlap between the two. Also, of course, the fictional situation is entirely different. The narrator of there is still time is definitely not Ophelia; since this was my part (as had somehow finally come out), it couldn’t be, not if we were to keep a thread of naturalism. So I see no problem at all in regarding there is still time as fully independent from let me tell you, though nested in the same Ophelian family, along with sundry other creatures.


MM: Do you have any sense of how Uitti derived her musical component from reading your texts?

PG: I can’t answer in detail about how Uitti worked on her musical material. My impression was that she arrived with some material and some ideas about where it was to be used, but that she allowed herself always to be spontaneous. In other words, she behaved like a good improviser. She certainly had an effect on my readings, in ways I couldn’t have predicted, and left me with the wish that I, too, could fully improvise—at the level of text and not just of reading. But I still haven’t worked out how this could be possible, except at a larghissimo.

This touches on a difference between words and music, that automatic writing, or speaking, is exceedingly hard to bring off, whereas we can all keep a musical line spinning along. This must be because the syntactical rules in verbal language are so much more complex, and come hurtling into force as soon as you hit on the first word.

It’s another difference, however, that makes speech with music so tricky to bring off—or, rather, a nest of differences, having to do with unrelated and even contrary experiences of time in the two media, and also with dissimilar modes of perception and comprehension. Classical examples, such as those of Beethoven, get around this by largely alternating between music and speech. there is still time is a very rare example of the two being simultaneous, interrelated, distinct, and both equally perceptible—and I can give my opinion here because the achievement is all Uitti’s.


MM: You alluded to Elliott Carter before. Why do you think he approached you to write the libretto for What Next?, his opera?

PG: It was always my belief—though Carter didn’t say so until the work was done—that he asked me because he thought I had some understanding of his music, and of course I tried to bring any such understanding to bear on what I wrote. Hence the characters who seem to be existing in different time frames: Mama thinking back to a happier past, Stella locked into one moment and eternity, Rose in the repetitive world of performance, Zen in the no-time of a philosophy he barely understands (if at all) but triumphantly pronounces, Harry or Larry deflating them all while at the same time (as it were…) perhaps showing the greatest consciousness both of their fictive time as characters and their real time as singers.


MM: You’ve been collaborators, as it were, with Mozart and Beethoven, producing texts or translations for adaptations of their works, but I wonder if this wasn’t even more intimidating—having to live up to the standard of the classic American modernist poetry Carter had already set in previous pieces by that point.

PG: In a way, happily, it wasn’t intimidating that here was a composer who’d set, brilliantly, poetry by Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery, and Robert Lowell. For one thing, the three works concerned—Carter’s kind-of trilogy for voices and ensemble, A Mirror on Which to Dwell, Syringa, and In Sleep, In Thunder—were all by then at least fifteen years old, and his only vocal work since, Of Challenge and of Love (1994), had been a song cycle to poems by John Hollander—admittedly, an outstanding writer, too. So there was little in the way of an immediate yardstick or reference point.

Also, during the years between 1981 (end of the trilogy) and 1997 Carter’s style changed considerably. Small pieces, instrumental miniatures lasting just a few minutes, which had hitherto been rare in his output, became frequent, appearing almost annually. (One, Shard for guitar, he wrote while the libretto was in progress.) There was also a rapprochement with his Parisian-neoclassical self of half a century before. And the music was now more consistently comic—which would have been one reason for him to want to write a comic opera. But most importantly, the poetry of Bishop, Ashbery, Lowell, and Hollander is not such as would spring from the lips of operatic characters. Their example was therefore irrelevant.


Photograph of a 2007 performance of  What Next?  at the Miller Theater. Courtesy of Paul Griffiths.

Photograph of a 2007 performance of What Next? at the Miller Theater. Courtesy of Paul Griffiths.

MM: Not even Syringa, with its two textual streams—Ashbery and ancient Greek?

PG: To the extent that Syringa is operatic, it’s two interlaced monodramas, and with single characters you have much more freedom in terms of language, because they do not have to communicate (or fail to communicate) on their own level of being. Also, Syringa isn’t a comedy.


MM: Did Carter provide you with any particular guidance as to the style of the libretto?

PG: I asked Carter at an early stage what sort of language he wanted, whether in any kind of poetic form, and there didn’t seem to be an answer. Like many composers, he didn’t fully know what he wanted or didn’t want until he saw it—or, in the case of an instrumental nuance, heard it. In order to spread the options, I tried various things that were, in comparison with the final text, much more abstract in terms of language or situation, but these he didn’t want. What gradually emerged was that he needed rather plain, everyday discourse, and the problem then became that of finding a dramatic form in which such discourse could unfold and could require to be sung.

But the libretto has been much criticized, and it’s beside the point now for me to try to justify it. Its justification is the musical drama it helped bring about.


MM: In your case, the distinction between “creative” writing like there is still time and the What Next? libretto, on the one hand, and commentary or critical writing, on the other, has often been blurred. With your notes for recordings in particular, you have sometimes taken stylistic departures that few other music writers would risk. To select one semi-random example, you wrote a text for the booklet to Austrian composer-pianist Thomas Larcher’s Ixxu (ECM, 2006) that is not, perhaps, worlds away from there is still time. Let me quote an excerpt:

as if musical compositions were so close that one of them could visit another
as if they could remember each other
as if they could not but remember each other
as if they could not but remember each other and were
as if everything were known and yet
as if there could be sounds—pure sounds—sounds so pure they seem to be singing for the first time

In cases such as these, what’s the relationship between text and recording?

PG: A text for a recording is intimately connected with the music—it lies right up against the disc, and is not available other than with that disc—and at the same time has the possibility to be more independent than a concert-program note can be, for two reasons. In the first place, a recording will be heard more than once, and the text, re-read or remembered, can be a kind of springboard against which people can go on testing their responses. Secondly, I imagine people listening to a recording alone, and one addresses the solitary individual differently from how one addresses an audience of several hundred. One can shuffle off the public voice. With regard to that Larcher release, I could not have written like that other than for ECM, for its particular ethos. In sum, the text is a reaction not only to the music but also to the medium, in general and in specifics.


MM: Aside from the question of “voice,” how does this compare to a program note for a live performance?

PG: This brings up the question of what the audience needs: preparation or reminder. I’m not sure it’s very easy to hold in your head the details of a longish program note (generally equivalent to three or four pages of Music & Literature) about a piece you haven’t heard. My guess is that most people take the program book home and read it afterwards to refresh their memories, or help explain their memories to themselves, in which case we’re dealing with impressions of memories being read to interpret memories.


MM: You don’t find this a difficult task? You said at the start of our conversation that you didn’t feel “writing about music is any more difficult than writing about other things.”

PG: No, though there is one scenario that presents special difficulties, and that is writing about a piece that hasn’t been heard, in the case of a program note for a première. You have the score, but what it says to you will depend on your knowledge of the composer’s previous work, though it may also help if the composer has written something or will answer a question or two. Here’s a favorite moment from an email exchange with Gerald Barry about his Piano Concerto:

PG:  I find just a single tympanum stroke (bar 844). Are you really going to have the Bayerischer Rundfunk get a fellow up there in full evening dress for one note?
GB: Yes, in that one stroke the timpanist must invest his whole past and all his hopes for the future!

Slowly, through such aids and through repeatedly going through the score, you build up an image of what it might be like to hear the piece—or perhaps more of what it might be like to remember the piece.


MM: Let me take a different tack, then. Do you sometimes find that conventional descriptive language isn’t up to the task at hand? The approach used in the Larcher note seems to suggest so. I’m thinking here of what Roland Barthes once wrote: “If one looks at the normal practice of music criticism (or, which is often the same thing, of conversations ‘on’ music), it can readily be seen that a work (or its performance) is only ever translated into the poorest of linguistic categories: the adjective. [...] Are we condemned to the adjective? Are we reduced to the dilemma of either the predicable or the ineffable?”

PG: Barthes is right only up to a point (as so often we all are). Adjectives can be slack (but there, I hope, is one that isn’t). On the very few occasions when I’ve been asked to teach a class on music criticism, I’ve invited the students to listen to something very short—maybe a Webern movement—and write two or three sentences without adjectives. It’s amazing what people come up with. Music has always invited a language of metaphor: “high,” “low,” “dark,” “bright,” and so on. The task is to find new metaphors, for memories of things that have not yet taken place.

But then a metaphor or simile can be something more than an adjectival phrase. It can leap across to some quite other region of experience or thought, and it can be, as music is, active. If I say “violin and cello are two frogs jumping over one another,” maybe I can convey something about motif, rhythm, tempo, and general character that would be laborious to express without such an analogy, and that, of course, needs no familiarity with musical terminology—indeed, that almost depends on an ignorance of what “frog” can mean as a musical term.


MM: What about when writing on modern and contemporary pieces (as you’ve often done) that “problematize” their musical language? Is it appropriate—or even necessary—to do the same in your own prose?

PG: This question is very interesting. Of course, you and I are talking now as if language were not problematic. We have to do this, for if we had to doubt all we say all the time, how could we go on? (The words are Ophelia’s.) When I go to the market in the next village and ask for half a dozen eggs, the smallholder doesn’t engage me in discussion of Derrida. And if language is unsalvageably “problematized,” then so is this word, as a participant in language. Indeed, it may be one of the most problematized words we have.

So no, I think it’s still useful and valid to use normal language in a program note: “The passage gathers momentum until a sudden stop reveals an oboe melody that has been present all along, based on the four-note trumpet motif that started the work,” and we all know where we are. The analogy with musical language doesn’t hold, because “language” is only a not-very-well-fitting metaphor when its components are something other than words. This is familiar territory, of course. Even the fact that we have no musical (or visual) equivalent to “word” should show us we’re in trouble.

On the other hand, it’s also useful and valid to write about music—or “towards music,” perhaps one could better say—against the grain of conventional description, and I’ve tried this on occasion, as in the Larcher note you mentioned. There are two dangers, which probably are linked: that you lose connection with what’s supposed to be the subject, and that you become pretentious. I should also add that the composer or the performers may object to notes that veer in any way out of the ordinary, in which case one loses a piece of work that can have no other purpose.

But yes, it’s good to rethink the frame, where the situation allows—which is more likely to be in a text for a recording rather than for a concert, simply because the music can be considered as present, in the same now. And for me, there has to be some frame, some form, to keep the writing in check.


MM: You alluded to the composer. What is your responsibility (there’s that word again) to the composer? More and more today, one finds composers (and their publishers) using the program note to dictate the terms of reception, rather than to help the listener per se. You, on the other hand, were never meant to be an appendage of the composer’s publicity team…

PG: Composers will always have final say about the text for a concert program or a recording, and so, to a degree, they take on the responsibility themselves. On the other hand, one can’t entirely trust their imperatives. As you indicate, the program note or recording text is in danger of becoming one more dead letter in a world where “communication” means “marketing.” That’s a further reason to strive, where one can, for an approach that resists such appropriation.


MM: This whole discussion puts me in mind of what Hans Keller once wrote about your book on Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress:

Most “good” books about music [...] are musically harmful, for they threaten to replace what should happen, or should have happened, in the listener’s own mind with a surrogate which he comes to depend on and which, at the same time, remains meaningless so long as it isn’t supported by his own musical experience. Once it is thus supported, however, it merely tautologises: all description of music, as distinct from its analysis, is, in this sense, pleonastic.

PG: Hans Keller, to turn to him, was formidable. To the extent that he was a critic despite himself, he was formed by and helped transform the musical culture exactly in the way I’ve been trying to describe. If I think he was wrong about the possibility or propriety of writing on music, he was right to be wrong, by which I mean not only that he spoke for a consistent, informed, and even persuasive viewpoint (that music is untranslatable) but also that he provided a corrective, a testing ground, to those of us who were daring to do what he scorned. He was certainly one who by his writing—but more by his speaking, on the radio and in the extraordinary unscripted lectures he would give—taught me a huge amount.


MM: I wonder if we could turn to your book on the midcentury French composer Jean Barraqué, The Sea on Fire. During the 1990s, you wrote an excellent note for an intégrale of Barraqué’s music on the CPO label, but I gather he’d been an important composer for you long before that.

There was a lot of support for his music in Britain in the late sixties and early seventies, thanks in some measure to two composers who otherwise shared very little: Bill Hopkins, who studied with Barraqué, and whom I came to know quite well, and Tim Souster. But the book came about because of someone else I got to know, but not until the 1990s, and that was Rose-Marie Janzen, who had served as Barraqué’s unpaid secretary and had taken charge of his papers after his death. All the material for the published works, and also anything else he had started after 1956, she quite properly deposited in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, but she held on to the juvenilia until very late in her life, and she also had all the surviving correspondence, as well as notes she had made while interviewing people who had known Barraqué closely. Very tentatively, she suggested I might write a biography, and very tentatively, I began to agree.


Courtesy of Paul Griffiths.

Courtesy of Paul Griffiths.

MM: What made you decide to write entirely in the second person? Has this limited the biography’s readership—perhaps by alienating some academic musicologists, for example?

PG: I went to Paris to examine what was available, and decided, of course, that I must do this. But—and this is very naive—I was uneasy with writing, as it were, behind the subject’s back. That was how and why I came up with the idea of writing as if to Barraqué, so that I would always keep him in view. It never occurred to me—and has not occurred to me since, not until you posed the question—that this would “alienate” an academic audience. Would that have stopped me? No, because the needs of the project, as I saw them, were paramount. However, my decision was unfortunate if it meant Barraqué’s music has gained less attention than would have been fostered by a more conventional approach. I suppose I didn’t have an academic audience in mind because somehow I’ve never accepted—despite all the evidence—that serious writing on music was destined only for university libraries. The reader I imagine, where books on music are concerned, is the reader I am and was: someone keenly interested in the topic, untrained, and with no easy access to an academic library.

By the way, this was an unusual music book for me, because I wrote it with no commission and no obvious prospect of publication. I am very grateful to the University of Rochester Press, and especially to Ralph Locke, editor of the series in which the book appeared, that they took it.


MM: Did you approach the Barraqué book as an act of advocacy? Or, for that matter, all the other work you’ve done over the years, the aim of which has been to elucidate various composers’ music?

PG: Advocacy was, and is, bound to be part of it. Schumann was an advocate for Chopin, and later for Brahms. There are composers I believe I’ve tried to promote, with considerably less success than Schumann had. But I don’t take this personally, because of how I perceive the role of criticism to be sinking. There are composers and performers today enjoying spectacular success, about whom any rational criticism could have nothing to say.

The cases of Tim Souster and Bill Hopkins are relevant to this, because once a composer is no longer with us—both these two were born in 1943, the year also of Brian Ferneyhough; Hopkins died at thirty-seven, Souster at fifty-one—and therefore no longer a present personality, the music fades. Neither do you have to die young for this to happen, nor do you have to be British. I could mention many U.S. composers who have become posthumously inaudible: Jacob Druckman, Donald Martino, Mel Powell, Ralph Shapey. And the same fate overtakes individual works all the time, the première being a kind of death. Even widespread esteem is no protection. Harrison Birtwistle’s Exody has had eleven performances in over seventeen years; compare that with the fifty performances enjoyed by Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta in one season (that of 1937-8) when it was new. Of course, the Bartók is for smaller resources, but it was hardly less irregular by the standards of the orchestral habits of its time, and we’re talking here about an almost hundredfold difference in exposure.


MM: Certainly this could be taken as an indictment of the current music scene—its safeness, amnesia, and (to return to Meyer) tendency towards a “steady-state.”

PG: You’re right in the sense that we no longer seem to be in for wholesale adventures such as spectral music in the seventies, minimalism in the sixties, electronic music in the fifties, and so on. For almost any composer, it might be hard to distinguish a piece written in the eighties from one dating from the current decade. You probably have to go back to the fifteenth century to find a comparable level of stylistic stability—or must we call it stagnation?


MM: Given all this, what has it been like to revisit and revise your Modern Music and After, the first edition of which came out in 1981?

PG: My book on music since 1945 gets harder to write each time, and of course that’s because such a book assumes a collectivity travelling on, with whatever internal disputes, and not a ramshackle assemblage of non-communicating individuals. I have tried, in two thoroughly revised editions, to expose and incorporate the difficulties—one might say the impossibilities—of the project. I strongly feel, nevertheless, that, despite the difficulties and even the impossibilities, there needs to be something out there that makes the case for music—and for a whole musical enterprise—that remains so little known.


MM: Did you find yourself reversing any of your opinions in the most recent edition?

PG: I was slow in the 1970s to recognize the full depth of Ligeti; in the 1980s, I was more tolerant of the revitalized symphony—which is how we experienced musical postmodernism in Britain—than I later became. I’ve revised my book on music since 1945 twice, and each time have thoroughly rewritten parts of it. Nono, for instance, had much less consideration in 1980 than he was to gain later.


MM: I took it upon myself to compare two sets of your notes for recordings of Boulez’s Pli selon pli, the first from 1983 and the second from 2002. They were totally different pieces of writing, with slightly divergent emphases, something that’s not always the case (too many program note writers just recycle the same outdated note for decades). More than that, though, the authorial voice was basically consistent from the one to the other. When you look back at old notes, do you ever find yourself asking, “What was I thinking?”

PG: Yes, I have sometimes turned up old program notes or old reviews and found they got things wrong. That can be shaming, but it’s possible to have two different opinions about the same thing, even at the same time. There’s the old story of someone bumping into a critic leaving a hall and saying: “What did you think of the concert?” Answer: “I don’t know. I haven’t written the review yet.” This is a not unfamiliar experience, that the writing takes on a logic and a purpose of its own, and almost certainly will not reflect all the ambiguities and uncertainties swimming in the writer’s consciousness.

So I don’t feel too embarrassed by the need to change my mind, and I certainly wouldn’t be kept from doing so by respect for consistency. It’s perfectly natural for views and priorities to change. Sometimes one will immediately feel a direct connection to a composer—that happened to me, for example, with Harrison Birtwistle and a little later Steve Reich—and one is then permanently branded. But the enthusiasm may come more gradually, in which case it may fluctuate.

I must confess, by the way, that I do indeed recycle things for different purposes; if one’s solved something to one’s own satisfaction, it’s not always easy or enticing to solve it again. Economic pressures also play a part, of course. But there are times, too, when a relatively generous commission gives one the freedom to keep one’s backlist closed and approach something afresh—even while knowing one will never get too far away from the place one reached before.

On the other hand, I’m very glad you find a consistency of voice, even though, of course, one of life’s tragedies is that one can never quite surprise oneself as one might wish. I certainly don’t aim for consistency, but it’s unavoidable. One is what one is.


Paul Griffiths was born in Wales in 1947.

Matthew Mendez is Digital Music Editor of Music & Literature. He is active as a critic and program annotator.