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Oliver Knussen

Oliver Knussen (born 1952) leapt to fame in the early 1980s with the Glyndebourne production of his spectacular opera ‘Where the Wild Things Are’; in a rare interview, this colourful composer tells Daniel Jaffé how writing for children changed his music. A slightly shortened version of this article was published by Classic CD, February 1999.

Photograph © Maurice Foxall
“One thing I feel very lucky in,” says Oliver Knussen, “is that I think my response to music has remained pretty much unchanged since I was a kid. It’s basically what I breathe; I can’t imagine it not being there.” Something of a child prodigy, Knussen had the inestimable advantage of being born into a musical family: his father, a professional double bassist, played in several premieres of Britten’s music. Aged 15, Knussen himself conducted the London premiere of his own First Symphony. While readily admitting the advantage of hearing his orchestral works almost as soon as they were written, he regrets that making such “big risks” under the inevitable glare of publicity “possibly made me a bit too cautious”. Certainly his notorious slowness in composing has affected his latter career – nowadays he is in greater demand for his formidable conducting skills.

But what music! Had Ravel absorbed more of Stravinsky’s angular style, plus something of Berg’s rigorous sense of structure and his more outlandish flights of imagination, his music might have ended up sounding rather like Knussen’s. Other parallels could be drawn between Knussen and Ravel: both are meticulous miniaturists, brilliant masters of the orchestra, profoundly guarded about the “meaning” of their music and – perhaps most strikingly – both combine a child-like, almost na?ve delight in music with a profound understanding of it at its most “advanced” (Ravel was one of the very few musicians who understood Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring from the start).

In person Knussen, formidable in build and girth as he is, comes across as shy and somehow vulnerable. He is happiest when talking about recording – “I’m a lot more comfortable in performing in front of an audience than I used to be, but it’s not my home turf; I much prefer the studio, really” – and describes sessions with different orchestras with an enthusiasm such as a schoolboy may have once compared the relative merits of train sets. He has even been considering writing a work specifically for CD: after all, he says, “my approach to recordings is much less ‘OK, let’s have a document of what we did in the concert hall’ and much closer to a film-maker’s kind of approach – essentially a way of gathering raw material to get a performance that you actually couldn’t possibly get ‘live’.”

When asked about more personal matters like his actual creative work, he is a touch more diffident and draws his right arm across his expansive belly, clutching his left elbow while he chain smokes. But he is pleased when, upon mentioning that he is to record his two operas – Where the Wild Things are and Higgledy Piggledy Pop! (both based on children’s books by Maurice Sendak) – I let slip that I have a much loved LP of the former: he then tells with relish why that LP “sounds much better than on any other format of Wild Things”.

Wild Things was first recorded in the early days of CD: without such technical marvels as sound compression to cope with the work’s enormous dynamic range, the overall sound level had to be “jacked down” (as Knussen says) to a rather dull, flat sound. Disappointed by this, Knussen was then told by the record company, Unicorn Kanchana, that the LP version was to be cut at Decca’s plant. Excited at the prospect of having his music “cut” by the firm responsible for such sonic spectaculars as Solti’s Ring cycle and Salome, Knussen came along and watched as two senior cutting engineers made an initial test cut. Finding the result disappointing, Knussen asked if they’d worked on Solti’s famous recordings. “Oh yes, sure”, they answered. “Well why does that sound so different?” he asked. “D’you mean this?” said one of the engineers, and, Knussen recalls, “flicked two switches and this sound came out” – big, sonorous and exciting. “It was just something they’d never done unless they were asked to!” says Knussen with evident delight.

He is equally excited that the new Deutsche Grammophon recording will finally couple the two operas: “everything about them was designed to be complementary. People have small parts in one and big parts in the other; the stage sets of Higgledy were black and white and only went into colour in the last scene, while Wild Things is all very much in colour; Wild Things is big and opulent – the orchestra’s playing hell for leather most of the time – and there’s very little singing; while Higgledy is an opera that actually starts with somebody singing and no orchestra, and as it were builds towards a big tutti scene about half-way through.”

Knussen is particularly looking forward to recording the final full version of Higgledy Piggledy: “the circumstances I wrote it in made it very late [for its first performance] so it was done in various unfinished or temporary versions. It never really had the chance that [Wild Things] did. So I’m busy sprucing it up and getting it exactly the way I planned it to be in the first place. It would be lovely at some point to be able to reintegrate a new recording with the old visuals, which still exist of course on video.” The video is something of a poignant memory for Knussen – “I can’t listen to it now”; on one hand it is a memento of Maurice Sendak’s wonderful stage sets, “now destroyed, courtesy of Glyndebourne”; on the other, the music was incomplete when the video was made, so stretches now linked by orchestral interludes were then filled by “a sort of bit of a wallpaper that I did”.

Clearly the original production was not altogether a happy experience: “There’s an awful lot said about that business with it being presented unfinished and late and all that, but actually I was just totally exhausted at that time. If I look at the actual amount that I did write in the late ‘70s - which was a lot of my chamber pieces, and Coursing and the Third Symphony and Wild Things, all in the space of about four years or something like that; at the time I thought I was being very slow, but I was actually working absolutely flat out. And I think at a certain point you just need to take stock.”

So what did Knussen gain from writing the operas? “It did force me to open out in a way that I didn’t think I probably could. You have to remember that my first symphony was really a kiddie piece, written when I was about 14. My longest pieces, my biggest single spans were 15 minutes. My pieces remain on the short side and they tend to have lot crammed into them. I think the experience of doing the operas helped me to sharpen up the way I wrote melodic lines, if you like, but it sharpened the harmony up because to a certain extent – I hate using the buzz-‘a’-word: ‘accessible’ – but to a certain extent I did bear in mind that these were going to be listened to young people amongst others. I tried to make my music much more direct, and it brought some things out onto the surface – what was already there underneath, and possibly what I was shyer about. The interesting thing is that the pieces I’ve written since then are much more strict technically: they set up little rules and they obey them quite tightly. Everything is very concentrated, and the relationships are very precise: it’s a lot more chiselled than it was before.”

But even those post-Sendak pieces have an appealing directness. There’s his exuberant Flourish with Fireworks (1988), or the Whitman Settings (1991) which use “obvious” yet highly effective word painting that recalls Britten’s: for instance “A Noiseless Patient Spider” opens with widely separated chords, the vast chasm between representing “the vacant vast surrounding” which the spider has to “explore” by launching its threads. I point this out to Knussen, who insists: “that movement’s probably the most complex thing of anything I’ve done at all, the way it’s put together. But however complex the workings of what I do, or however manic the working out of detail, I do tend to approach things from the point of view of the effect, which is also what Britten did. And I find Britten’s architecture and his way of placing things, his way of using the forces at his disposal – for example if you look at the scores of Owen Wingrave and Death in Venice, and you count, in those massive scores of two hours or more, how many bars there are where everybody’s actually playing together, you can actually count them on the fingers of one hand in each case. He’s very conscious of the element that he’s playing with; he uses them and deploys them with enormous care. Now the reason that he’s doing that is because he’s very sure of the effect that he wants, and the techniques grows out the effect he wants to make, and he was a very, very good technician. So I’m interested in technique from that point of view and I’m not so interested in it from the point of view of exploring something for its own sake.“

Since Knussen’s last “big” work, the Horn Concerto (1994) written for Barry Tuckwell, there have been a few things since including a Fantazia, and a Prayer Bell sketch for piano which Knussen wrote in memory of the composer and close personal friend Takemitsu. As Knussen tells me this, he wanders off towards a cupboard; for a thrilling moment I believe he’s about to bring me a fresh new manuscript. But no, it’s yet another pack of cigarettes which he promptly starts. He now talks of a choral piece, Chiara, which “I’ve been writing for centuries – when I’ve done people will say ‘oh, is that all?’ It’s only about ten minutes or so.” Inspired by the unlikely duo of Ligeti and Respighi (particularly the latter’s Church Windows), he started composing the piece in 1971 – “a piece for chorus and orchestra and also solo soprano with two obligato harps”. Encouraged by Michael Tilson Thomas, Knussen got a first version finished: “I wrote all the choral parts, and sent them off and the chorus director said ‘There is no way we could do this in the time’. It was just an amateur chorus. So I shelved it, and did some more work on it a few years later and then for the Almeida Festival in ‘86 I reworked the choral parts and got a piece done just called Frammenti da Chiara which is about an 8 or 9 minute piece for two female choruses; and then the whole thing was supposed to have been done at the Proms the next year and I got snarled up. Then the whole piece was supposed to have been done two years ago – that got snarled up as well. But the thing is that every time… for example two years ago before I realised I wouldn’t get it done a lot of the music for the soprano and two harps was written and all the choral music was written and some chunks of the orchestral music was written back in the early ‘70s; and there are all these things, they’re like sort of tectonic plates – they’re fixed things that glide around, and every time I go back to them I want to put them into a slightly different place. So it’s now getting to a point where even if I only wrote a bar a year for the next 20 years or something I’d get it done anyway so it’ll all get finished at some point.”

We return to Knussen’s Takemitsu piece unexpectedly when I ask him about a comment he once made – “You don’t plumb your depths to write a terribly self-expressive piece”; so does he agree with Stravinsky that music could not express anything?

“Ooh no,” he says, most emphatically. “No, that’s quite precise. He said ‘Music by its very nature is not capable of expressing anything’. Now, listen to one bar of The Rake’s Progress, or The Fairy’s Kiss or the Requiem Canticles, and you realise that it’s either a major smokescreen or he meant something else. But what I think he meant was ‘not capable of expressing anything concrete’. Now I don’t think a composer who is actually writing a piece of music should be conscious of self-expression. I hate the idea of somebody sitting down and thinking ‘Alright, I feel sad’ or ‘My cat’s just died. I’m going to write a Requiem Mass for the cat’.

“On the other hand if somebody wants to remember something – for example look at what I did with the Prayer Bell sketch, the piano piece in memory of Takemitsu: he was a person I cared a lot about as a friend – I was devastated when he died. I took a chord that he used in virtually every one of his pieces in the ‘80s and I took a title that he hadn’t used – because he was going to write a piece called Prayer Bell at some point – and I took various little objects that reminded me of him in that way, and I then fashioned a little piece from that; it was like taking his chord for a walk around various objects that I associated with him, or various ways of thinking. But you have to invent technical procedures to do that.

“I’ll give you another example: the little piece Songs without Voices [1991-2], which is in memory of Panufnik. Now various people have said to me that’s very ‘touching’ or very ‘sad’. Actually I sat down and I thought, ‘Why do I find Panufnik’s music interesting – I find it interesting because the way he uses and manipulates cells [very short musical ideas]. Now what would happen if I manipulated cells?’ So that’s what I did, and it was like a little counterpoint exercise of a certain kind. Now, the fact that one was feeling something at the time it seems to me affects what at that moment seems to you to be right notes or the wrong notes, and that certain things will fit into a certain mood or atmosphere – that I have no problem with at all. If the piece turns out to be ‘touching’ as a memorial, then the composer has done his job well. If the composer sat down and says ‘I going to write a touching piece; I don’t want a dry eye in the house’, I think that’s disgusting. It’s manipulative, and I’m not interested in manipulating except obviously you have to if you’re writing dramatic music.”

So hasn’t Knussen ever consciously written emotional music? “There’s one piece, and I shan’t tell you which one, where I certainly did. I thought ‘OK, this is where it’s really going to tear at the heart-strings’.” He breaks into a self-deprecating chuckle; “No, you know, I don’t mean that way! I mean – I thought ‘OK, it’s going in that direction, I’ll just push it a bit further’, and I cringe every time I get to that bit because it’s not… I think it would have been better if I hadn’t done that.” Nonetheless he’s “delighted” when I tell him I find a lot of his music poignant, and later admits that he loves Tchaikovsky and finds Schumann’s Liederkreis, Op. 24 “incredibly moving”. “To me,” he says, “real music is real music when you’re not sitting around thinking it’s music – it actually takes you over.”


Higglety Pigglety Pop! & Where the Wild Things Are
Cynthia Buchan; Lisa Saffer; London Sinfonietta/Knussen
Deutsche Grammophon 469 566-2 Buy here

Symphonies Nos. 2 & 3; Coursing; etc.
Philharmonia Orchestra/Tilson Thomas; London Sinfonietta/Knussen; etc.
Unicorn-Kanchana UKCD2010 Buy here

Hums and songs of Winnie-the-Pooh; Sonya’s Lullaby; Océan de terre; etc.
Peter Serkin (piano); Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center/Knussen
EMI 5752962 Buy here

Horn Concerto; The Way to Castle Yonder; Whitman Settings; etc.
Barry Tuckwell; London Sinfonietta/Knussen
Deutsche Grammophon 474 322-2 Buy here

Article © Daniel Jaffé

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