Judith Weir. Photograph by Benjamin Ealovega Photography

Judith Weir CBE in conversation with Ed Hughes. 1

In this conversation, Judith Weir discusses with Ed Hughes aspects of her work in the context of connections with historical music. Though comparatively rare there are two examples in her work which overtly explore early musical scores as vessels for modern thought. Judith Weir speaks of working with and appreciating old music as a natural ‘affinity’ but not often as a public process. Recomposition can on occasion be a way to inhabit ‘fantastic’ early music material but there is also, for Judith Weir, a strong sense of resistance to the old; that the vital aspect of composition should be in the transformation and indeed that she understands a general dislike of quotation. Nevertheless, at a deeper level, Weir acknowledges the importance of indirect influences and recalls her exploration of Bach’s repertoire through a handful of organ lessons while at school as a teenager. Weir remarks on the fascination of playing three parts with the feet and the two hands – perhaps there is a sense in which this early exploration of contrapuntal music helped to shape compositional methods later on. Nevertheless, while acknowledging the productive tension between repertoire and contemporary expression, Weir asserts a resistance to the old – apart from occasional works – in the comment ‘When I am composing I am really not thinking about style at all’.

Ed Hughes: While thinking about ‘recomposition’ and its fit within the modern compositional voice – a paradox, perhaps – I read that some of your earliest works were modelled on existing music 2. There seems to be two approaches amongst composers: one which references other music from within a composition, in a complex or even covert way, the other where a new composition is openly modelled on an existing work. Are there any acknowledged pieces that are openly modelled on earlier work?

Judith Weir: I can give two examples immediately, and they are both Perotin motets. One is based on Sederunt Principes, and the other is Viderunt Omnes (in All the Ends of the Earth (1999)). The modelling is very evident with material like Perotin. It’s quite easy to imagine that such material could be very plastic and capable of being moulded in various ways. Sederunt Principes was a piece for a big instrumental ensemble: that’s quite an old piece and I can’t really remember too much about writing it. But Viderunt Omnes – which is 20 years old now and gets performed reasonably often and is recorded – is based on the Perotin motet, but only taking the plainsong element “Vi-“, and then about two minutes later “De-“, and so on; and then, filling in the spaces with another text which is freely composed.

Example: Judith Weir: All the Ends of the Earth (1999)

But I think of it as totally modelled on the Perotin because it’s got the exact spacings of the plainsong and, as you know, these become closer and closer together as the work proceeds.

EH: There’s a marvellous motet called ‘Nuper Rosarum Flores’ by Dufay which I learnt about at university in which the musical material gradually accelerates in a proportional relationship.

JW: Yes that’s a very interesting possibility. It’s almost like modern ideas of timing in composition – for example the golden section, or where form is conceived as a spiral so that the spaces between elements become gradually closer and closer together.

EH: Was this idea to build a new work out of a Perotin model one that you conceived, or was it suggested?

JW: It was a commission but it was one I very much wanted to do. It fitted into a request which was to write a piece for a series to do with the end of the last millennium. So, one thought was to go back 1000 years to the music that was about to be heard then. It didn’t seem at the time at all like a weird way to work, and that may well have been because I’d had really quite a long experience of considering models. I too have done very extreme editions of older music – like the transformation of King Arthur by Martin Butler and Peter Wiegold. I’ve certainly done that in my time – not necessarily as a published work but perhaps for use somewhere. Working with old music is natural to me.

EH: This reminds me that last week I met Robin Holloway in Cambridge. I’ve only just properly discovered his Gilded Goldbergs (for two pianos, after J S Bach, op 86 (1992-1997)).

JW: That’s one of the great [pieces] – I’m so glad you mentioned that – it’s marvellous.

EH: In the liner notes to the CD recording3 – generous because they give such insights into the ways in which the pieces were made through a diary of composition – Robin Holloway comments that, though the pieces started as practical arrangements, as he began to work on the variations ‘ “interference” crackled the transmission’; meaning that the creative spirit kicked in uninvited.

JW: I can think of all sorts of marvellous things about that project. Firstly just that he would have liked to have heard the counterpoint a bit more, but it was squashed in between the hands, so he had to have some means of widening it out – that was an early perception I think. And, also, that he played it with his pupils. I thought he should have had a teaching award for that project as well as artistic recognition. It was such a pure representation of what he does. I heard Huw Watkins and Ryan Wigglesworth play it.

EH: It came to my mind because clearly you wouldn’t have taken on a Perotin project if it hadn’t in some way been close to your compositional interests. And so building on that – and being aware of Robin Holloway’s work – that there’s a practical reason for starting (e.g. the two manuals on the old keyboard creating lines tricky to realise on a modern piano) – is it the case that work like this becomes a dialogue with musical notation, or with musical history? And what are the benefits of such work – for example it’s recorded that for Robin Holloway the engagement with Schumann was important creatively?

JW: Firstly there is the great pleasure of getting much closer to that model than one would do otherwise. I don’t perform in music, or conduct, and so just to look at it that carefully is fantastic – a sense of exploration. And of course, with the model there, one overcomes the perennial questions of ‘where shall I start’, or ‘what can I do’. Probably you should have the ‘where shall I start’ question before you go and work on that particular Perotin piece. But it’s a feeling of carving something out of some fantastic material, through a possibly more relaxed compositional process because there’s something there very clearly to work with.

EH: Can you recall any experiences with pre-existing music that you consider to be formative to your musical language? For example, Shirley Thompson was telling me that she was leader of her youth orchestra in Newham and they played Beethoven symphonies and Bach’s Passions every year, and that Beethoven 9 was formative upon the eventual overall outline and structure of her own New Nation Symphony, a portrait of London. Or in my own case I was transfixed at an early stage by the CD recording of John Sheppard’s music, by the Tallis Scholars.

JW: I wouldn’t know where to start because my whole wish to compose came out of my love of earlier music. It was difficult for people of my generation to hear music quite as old as, say, Sheppard. There weren’t recordings, really; but, being an oboe player as a student, I performed a huge range of music. Often when talking about a piece of music of mine, I recall some model that occurred to me – it’s almost difficult while working on a piece not to do that, to make a link conceptually to a pre-existing work – and so, just as you’re saying, the way that you compose [is conditioned by formative experiences with existing music]. Just to give one example, thinking back to my teens, I was given the chance by the person who taught me music at school to study organ. She said “I’m an organist, would you like to have organ lessons?” It was a weird experience – but I remember it being fascinating doing these three parts with the feet and the two hands. I think the furthest I got was Bach’s Orgelbüchlein – the easier movements – and somehow, the separation of the three lines, the top, middle and bottom – stayed with me. That’s an example that has come to mind, this afternoon.

EH: I was listening to I Broke Off a Golden Branch (1991) and I have that sense of two musics going across co-existing instruments, almost in two different registers.

JW: Yes that’s probably right – it’s a work with two bass instruments, and an upper and lower part – I’m sure that’s right; I could find many examples of that. That’s completely relevant to me.

EH: Do you connect with traditions and histories of music through the medium of instruments themselves? So I’m thinking of Art of Touching the Keyboard (1983), for example. Are you reaching into histories through the medium of the keyboard itself?

JW: I’m sure that is right – particularly working with solo instruments. It seems natural to think about their whole repertory. Often the players themselves offer you these incredible nuggets of inspiration, from their experience. The most recent piece I’ve composed like that is an Oboe Concerto (2018), and I’ve just got back from performances in Australia. I used to play the oboe so I can supply that history myself but [the soloist and I] were definitely talking in terms of the oboe repertory and making comparisons with this or that concerto from the past. It was a way of discussing the music that I’d written. I’d emphasise this is not because those pieces sounded like the music I had written, but there was something about the way they were written [which gave us a way of discussing the new material]. And so with instruments that I don’t play I’m really interested to hear the performers’ insights – after all, that’s their life story. If you play the horn professionally, you have spent thirty years or so thinking about these particular pieces from the past. That’s very interesting.

EH: I share the impulse to compose from a love of existing music. I appreciate Robin Hollway’s idea of ‘interference crackling the transmission’ because there’s a sense there that something new proceeds from what one’s building on. I’m intrigued also by the experience of being taught – Shirley Thompson and Errolyn Wallen, for example, have both spoken about the controlling or limited values of composition teachers when they were students who essentially said you can’t compose like that – you must use the methods of serialism and modernism. It makes me think that if one builds composition merely on techniques and therefore removes it from tradition there’s an impoverishment there which also creates a difficult tension. And in terms of the dilemma between having a new voice, a modern voice, and reaching back into the past in a way that is still fresh, I’m reminded of a recent very interesting talk by Pascal Dusapin before the performance of his dance opera Passion (2008) in which he said although he’s referencing the world of the early Baroque, and he immerses himself in musical histories and musical ideas, when it comes to composing, he said, ‘I close the book’, and the music is ‘totally my own’. I wondered what you think about that: is modern music still affronted by quotation?

JW: Funnily enough, the word ‘quotation’ would affront me a bit. There was a fashion when I was a very young composer, and I’m thinking of people even like Maxwell Davies but much lesser people also, who really would do that; you would hear the usual sort of modern [textures] and then there would be a little sentence from Monteverdi, or whatever; that seemed to me to be not quite right, really. I’d exempt something like Berio’s Sinfonia (1968-9) – that’s not the same thing at all. That actual thing of somebody else’s music appearing, especially recognisably, in the middle of your own, that would worry me too. But I know exactly what you are talking about. In a way I am a bit like Dusapin. I’m constantly out hearing this or that piece of old music. But when I am composing, I really am in a different world. I’m not really thinking about style at all.  And, at my stage, I really have stopped worrying about how modern it is. In a sense, in the context I compose for, it increasingly is not an issue. But I know exactly what you’re talking about because I wouldn’t want to hear a piece that sounded like a historical pastiche. I’d think, I’d rather be hearing the real work – Bach, or whatever. I think it’s a very interesting and dynamic question, and difficult to solve.

EH: This is helping me to understand that connection to histories of music needs to involve transformation or assimilation.

JW: I would say so – I think it’s very interesting when people create dynamic contrasts with some old piece of material, but I feel it’s not really the thing I’m doing myself. And I think critical commentaries are often so pleased to have an easy link – I mean if a journalist was going to write about your work and you say, ‘Oh yes, I was thinking about Bach’, then they gratefully latch on to that, and then it does sound like everything is a tribute act – but it really doesn’t work like that.

EH: Was Perotin therefore a specialist piece, a one-off?

JW: Yes – and I think it would be wrong to do that again, ever. It was a special idea that came out of that particular work, and the context of writing the piece. Yes – I think that could soon become quite a lazy thing – for example ‘now here is my new work based on’ the next great choral work!

EH: Yes, you express the dangers of that very clearly. But I still think there can be value and interest creatively and analytically in having a composer’s eyes and/or ears on earlier music through acts of recomposition. I was exploring Dunstaple’s (c.1390-1453) Veni Sancte Spiritus – multi-layered piece – and commentators rightly talk about the use of thirds which come over as an almost exotic effect. But for me it was helpful to go over that piece from a recomposition perspective, to experience the move from open fifths and octaves, to a moment where the third is added, as though with fresh ears, as a powerful event. A different sonority in fact. So that when you listen – with different ears [e.g. through recomposition] – to this music these moments are very striking.

JW: Yes – and often there will be tiny details that may not be that structurally enormous. I think that’s right. In almost any classical symphony there’ll be a strange moment with implications that you would never stop a rehearsal to remark on. Yes, you’re right, when I started as a composer it was not really possible to be based in these past composers – which is why Robin Holloway was such a controversial figure. Now the situation is different.