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Writing towards Music: A Conversation with Paul Griffiths

Writing towards Music: A Conversation with Paul Griffiths

Matt Mendez: 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?

Paul Griffiths: 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.

Graal théâtres: Paul Griffiths on Kaija Saariaho, Florence Delay, and Jacques Roubaud

Graal théâtres: Paul Griffiths on Kaija Saariaho, Florence Delay, and Jacques Roubaud

Galehaut: I am a character.

Violin: Perhaps I am too. I have no physical existence. I am not an object, though I need a certain class of objects—wooden boxes with strings and a bow—to be heard in the real world. I am represented, bodied forth, by these objects, just as you are by a voice, even a silently reading voice. I am not to be identified with the object that renders me, nor with the musician, any more than you are with the voice relating your words, or the reader or actor whose voice this is.

When Kaija Saariaho describes her 1994 composition Graal théâtre as being “for violin and orchestra,” or as a “violin concerto,” we may imagine her to have had in mind a musical instrument in its actuality, including its tuning and its responses, and we may suppose her to have been considering also Gidon Kremer, her destined performer, but she will have been thinking not only of but through these manifest conditions of her work, to me, to an entity whose features are not materials and dimensions, not personality and technique, but sound, and a design for sound, and experiences of that sound through time.