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Diana Burrell

With many composers seeming to fall into one of two categories – either the esoterically academic, or the accessible populist – Diana Burrell has succeeded in avoiding both with music that is both utterly new and yet communicative; she talks to Daniel Jaffé about remaining true to herself . A slightly shortened version of this article was published by Classic CD, July 1999.

Diana Burrell

“I try and find a language which doesn’t disregard everything which has happened in the twentieth century” says Burrell; “that does acknowledge Stravinsky and Schoenberg, Boulez and all these others, whilst being simple enough to work for the concert hall, or church, or for young people – the wider community in some way. But which acknowledges that this is where we are – we can’t go back. You can’t unpick the twentieth century.”

Diana Burrell draws colours and music from conventional forces – symphony orchestras, choirs and conventional solo instruments – that are evocative yet quite unlike anything else one has heard. Her music recalls several things – Stravinsky in its use of clean colours, Ives in the sometimes overwhelming proliferation of detail, and Janácek with its abrupt yet expressive gestures – but owes nothing to any of them. It’s a unique voice. Yet in person she’s a modest, softly spoken middle-aged woman – her sole unexpected habit is to occasionally take out and trim a cigar for smoking. When talking of her work she can be so vague that one almost gets the impression she creates her vigorous music only by chance. But her mastery is evident in such works as her Viola Concerto (winner of Classic CD’s “Living Composer” category in 1998) or her latest magnum opus, Symphonies of Flocks, Herds and Shoals (1997); written for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, this uses an extraordinary battery of percussion including ocean drums and rain makers, and strikingly during the final section has two groups of string players process to the back of the auditorium to play in antiphony with the main orchestra.

It may be no coincidence that such an individualist should come from the provinces – as did Janácek (whom Burrell herself cites as another earlier individualist). Diana Burrell grew up in 1950s Norwich, at that time a backwater for music of any kind – Brahms was considered the latest word in musical culture. Revelation came during her last years at school, when the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra came on tour to Norwich and played Nielsen’s First Symphony: “I just thought that piece was quite unlike anything I had ever heard, and I thought ‘I want to do that! I want to be in there writing these sorts of sounds.’” Burrell was particularly struck by the clarity of Nielsen’s orchestration – “this very fresh breeziness to it. Predominant woodwind, which I like very much. Not everything was underpinned by thick string writing, which had appeared to me to be the case with earlier pieces.”

In addition to the well-worn classics, Burrell had also imbibed Anglican church music, her father being deputy organist at Norwich Cathedral. She’s since written her fair share of “religious” works – the Missa Sancte Endeliente, Come Holy Ghost, Christo Paremus Cantica, etc. etc. – but is uneasy with the idea of being a Christian composer: “I know all that scene very well; in fact that is all I did know – that’s why the Nielsen made such an impact on me. And I’m really interested in religion; I’ve fought with it. I can’t say I’m a practising Christian any more – I would like to be, actually. I have a sense of something quite big, ‘beyond’, I suppose. I just can’t tie it all down to this middle-eastern guy who lived 2,000 years ago! It’s beyond that. That seems quite parochial.”

On the other hand community and the interrelation of living things has preoccupied Burrell: “I think I’m aware of huge spaces and vast areas and loneliness; a lot of my works, even the ones that don’t look as if they’re to do with any kind of spirituality, sets the individual against the crowd; that’s a concept I quite like. [Strangely enough, she professes to dislike the music of that other East Anglian who shares this fixation, Britten.] That’s why I’m quite interested in the concerto format.”

Apart from her Viola Concerto – “I regard it as my human work” – Burrell has composed “wild and bird-like” concertos each for flute and clarinet. Her extraordinary mastery of instruments and the variety of sounds they can make very much reflects her “hands on” experience, unfettered – as she herself suggests – by her lack of formal instruction in composition: “I didn’t go through the usual routes of studying with someone and, you know, all the usual influences; I had to very much forge my own way.” Even her time at Cambridge University made no obvious impact on her as a composer: “you didn’t specialise in any particular thing. Everybody did a bit of composition in their last year. I desperately wanted to do it very well, but I was quite a beginner compared to some of the others, so I kept fairly quiet about it. Certainly what I was writing then was really poor standard!”

More useful to Burrell was playing viola in youth and student orchestras. She truly started composing, though, while freelancing as a music teacher. In the early 1970s she was teaching in “a very rough girls’ school in Surrey” and – “not wanting to do Dido and Aeneas” – wrote an opera. There were practical advantages to starting in this way: “you couldn’t sit around thinking ‘I wonder if this is going to work?’ You had a class of 36 there, so you had to make sure it did – you had to make sure you finished it in that time. And the opera I wrote, we had the performances all lined up, and you knew the kids could only do so much: it had to work, basically.”

She denys, though, that any of her scoring – though Landscape (1988), for instance, includes steel pans and recorders – was inspired by her teaching experience: “I’m always looking for new styles and juxtaposition of new styles. I can’t bear the attitude of people who say ‘oh, well that works well; therefore I’ll do it again’. I think that’s a kind of artistic death. You need always to take risks. Also I get bored, so easily. I think ‘what can I do now that I haven’t tried?’” She cites Bronze (1998), a piece written for the Brunel Ensemble in Bristol: “it’s got a big cymbalon part and a prepared piano, bamboo chimes, and a lot of woodwind multiphonics – where woodwind players can get harmonics with certain fingerings to create strange chord sounds; there is this passage where there’s cymbalon, prepared piano and multiphonics all at once – I thought ‘this is a great sound!’ But again it’s not very conventional really. Also I probably won’t want to do that anymore, I’ll have to find something else now.”

In the late 1970s Burrell gave up most of her teaching to pursue freelance orchestral playing. Richard Hickox, a one-time fellow student, offered her occasional work with his City of London Sinfonia which he had formed on leaving Cambridge: “Actually Richard Hickox in a sense got me started as a composer, because he ran the St Endellion Music Festival – still does – in Cornwall, which I used to go as a viola player. One day he said ‘you ought to write something for this Festival’, and I said, ‘yes, I’d love to do that’.” The result was a large-scale mass, Missa Sancte Endeliente (1980). Burrell was advised to send a recording of its first performance to a BBC Radio 3 producer; he liked it sufficiently to arrange a live broadcast of its repeat performance at the Spitalfields Festival with the LSO Chorus. “What was amazing was that the BBC just said ‘oh yes, it can go out live on a Saturday night on the Festival’. I was a completely unknown name, and it was a huge piece; and they were prepared to just do it. They wouldn’t now, I think.”

Although this colourful, vigorous and appealing work made a positive impression on the critics, sadly its very length and the forces required have militated against the Missa being frequently heard: “it was for an amateur festival,” explains Burrell, “so there was no question of paying people: it’s got five soloists, double choir and huge orchestra. It’s also very localised in that it’s about a Cornish Saint that no one’s ever heard about, and it’s got some Cornish in it.” Well, stranger things have become fashionable – try John Tavener’s Greek Orthodox music. In any case, Burrell has scored more recent hits with large-scale yet less extravagently scored works such as the aforementioned Symphonies of Flocks...

So evocative and colourful are her pieces and their titles that one might assume that Burrell aims to depict something from the start: “People always think that I’m inspired by something outside,” she says, “and that a title will come first and I write to it. That’s very rarely the case; even something like Das Meer [das so gross und wiet ist, da wimmelt’s ohne Zahl, grosse und kleine Tiere – in full!], which has got such an evocative title; the piece was almost written before that.” Her organ piece Arched Forms with Bells (1990) is one exception. This, it turns out, was largely due to the circumstances of its commission: “It was a BBC commission for the Proms. I suppose they’d fixed up the main orchestras and big conductors first, and then in the end they start with the smaller things. David Titterington was asked to do an organ recital, and he said ‘how about a new commission’; and they said ‘great, yes’. So I got commissioned, but it was so late in the whole planning process that they actually wanted to know what the programme notes and title were going to be within about a week!” Burrell had been “reading a lot” about Kandinsky, and inspired by his use of “lines, points, curves and planes”, began to get very visual ideas. “I didn’t want to write just an ‘effects’ organ piece,” says Burrell; “I wanted to write something that was ‘symphonic’, so it is a quite highly architecturally organized piece in a way a lot of organ music isn’t, funnily enough. In spite of my church music background with my father being an organist, I actually wanted to get away from anything liturgical and write something that could be played as part of a concert.”

Its first performance proved far from ideal: “the Albert Hall organ is really not up to it!” recalls Burrell with wry amusement; “Because it’s so hot in the Albert Hall, and the organ’s such a big, unweildy thing – it’s not very safe. It actually broke, or the wind pressure came off, just as it was coming up to the end of the first part, when the music is coming back to you; it suddenly went very quiet! It was just a big flute sound or something dreadful. I remember sitting there quite calmly thinking ‘I wonder what they’ll do; they’ll have to stop’. But it all came back on again.”

So much for the premi?re. What of the new recording? “Kevin Bowyer has his own ideas about things” says Burrell. As she explains, the piece’s end “imitates all the odd harmonies that church bells set up – the overtones and things. That actually was supposed to be the human element in the piece – bells ringing representing community with weddings, funerals, Easter celebrations or whatever. But Kevin said ‘Can I add real bells at the end?’ And I said, ‘OK, yeah let’s give it a try.’ And then he said ‘And it will sound really good, I think, if I switch the organ off so that the sound slides down.’ Which you can only do on some instruments – you can’t do it on the Albert Hall one. So I said ‘OK, let’s give it a try’. And it does sound amazing. I like it when performers come up with ideas, doing things differently.”


Viola Concerto; Landscape; Das Meer, das so gross und weit ist; Resurrection
Jane Atkins (viola); Northern Sinfonia/John Lubbock

“Mandelion” – Burrell: Arched Forms with Bells; plus organ works by Graham, Iliff, Gowers, Ridout, Pärt, Tavener, Ferneyhough and Mellers
Kevin Bowyer
Nimbus NI 5580/1

Article © Daniel Jaffé Daniel Jaffé’s Homepage

SheetMusic by Diana Burrell