Martin Butler in conversation with Ed Hughes. 1

Martin Butler is a British composer, pianist, and Professor of Music at University of Sussex.

In this conversation, Martin Butler talks to Ed Hughes about new methods developed through his ensemble notes inégales which negotiate composition and improvisation by reimagining repertoire, and revisiting the memory of performances. In this ensemble’s re-imagining of English composer Henry Purcell’s King Arthur, a collaborative reading of a text creates a unique performance on each occasion. Neither conventional transcription, nor aiming for permanent status, this is rather an ephemeral meditation on identity which can be documented (through video) but is not captured in a score. Martin Butler distinguishes between working with the ‘skeleton’ of an old score, and his own approach of ‘getting under the skin’ of Purcell in order to evoke the process of working in towards the true meaning of the old text and how it can be understood or received today. The conversation also touched on the difficulties inherent in historical consciousness – how composers resolve training around originality and the problematising of quotation and mixing of genres. Are these ‘educational’ processes robust and vital, or stifling to creativity, free expression and exploration of identity?

Martin: One piece on the new CD is Lovesongs Waltzes 2 and I only just remembered, in the light of what you were saying about delving into the past, or referencing the past, that’s a piece that references (not directly) Brahmsian styles very consciously; the title is a weird translation of Liebeslieder Walzer (Brahms op. 52 and op. 65).

Ed: Could I start then by asking you what’s your feeling about recomposition as a creative act?

MB: Well, I don’t think that my Brahms-influenced piece is recomposition. It’s a series of stylistic nods, really. I wouldn’t even say borrowing – because there is nothing quoted. And actually – do you remember that piano piece, On the Rocks? 3 which homages Debussy but more kind of pastiche-y and self-consciously. But again, no quotes. But that’s in distinction to what Peter Wiegold and I did with (Henry Purcell’s) King Arthur 4 which was recomposition – or partly recomposition.

EH: So, was that a special and slightly unusual thing to do in terms of your normal composition practice?

MB: Yes, it was very different – and it couldn’t have happened without the whole inégales  experience. 5 It couldn’t have happened without using a mad orchestra of disparate cultures and backgrounds. People who can’t read music, people who can read music, jazz people, world music people. And, first of all, producing King Arthur 6 – not all of King Arthur – a chunk of King Arthur – and creating a kind of cyclic structure by repeating it, twice. That’s a kind of Berio, modernist, layering idea – so it accrues different patinas of improvisations, colours and textures, and meanings, theatrically when we did it.

Martin Butler, Peter Wiegold, notes inégales King Arthur after Purcell [extract]

EH: Also, this sounds like a recovery of ancient musical practices, perhaps?

MB: Yes, exactly, old practices, cyclic structures. Repeating patterns – the cantus firmus or whatever it is. And Purcell, with his ground basses, is just made for that. He used those bass lines a lot. So (we had) recompositions, and just rearrangements. And then free composition over a bass line or whatever it happened to be, related to the original Purcell. So, it’s a real mixture of different things. It wasn’t just me and Peter. As always with the band, notes inégales, it came out of improvisation practice from those different traditions and cultures we have represented in the orchestra. Something like thirty people – a mad, creative, mixed band. It did sound amazing. But part of that, I have to say, was that Peter and I could suggest very crude, global strategies, of layering and decoration, and alliances between different parts of the orchestra, things like foregrounding, and assigning different textural roles and functions to different bits of the orchestra on different cycles or repetitions of a movement, or aria, or whatever it is. And then, letting them improvise with those broad structures in mind. And seeing what happens – and letting them shape it. And more or less solidifying the outcome. Write it down, if you want to. Record it as a score. But we didn’t see any point in doing that – we could never recreate it. We could do it again, with the same principles. 

EH: There were two performances and they were different, is that right?

MB: They weren’t structurally different – they were the same series of events. But yes in terms of musical details they were very different, on certain levels.

EH: So, it wasn’t scored out.

MB: It was a minimal, bare-bones rehearsal score. Which in some places did have a lot of detail. But then improvised upon, according to certain rules and approaches that we suggested. But that’s not recorded in detail in the score, and neither did it need to be. In fact it would have ruined the effect that we were after. That’s both the joy and the drawback of working that way. You can’t repeat things. But you can document them – we have actually recorded everything we have done – every note that has been played over seven years.

EH: That’s quite an archive, that’s better than my cassette tape collection

MB: Don’t talk to me about cassette tapes in your garage, I’ve got plenty of those.

EH: So in terms of process were you and Peter equally responsible for all numbers? Or did you alternate?

MB: We took it in turns, and assigned each other bits to do. And some of it we worked on together – we literally got in the same room together and decided how to do things. Peter had a bigger role to play in the performance – he was beating and using his hand signals – the practice of inégales realisation very much comes from him. I was more like a continuo player – this was my role in the band – to make sure everything is together and provide the glue! But in terms of curating the piece, yes, we were pretty much equal. And you can’t work with everyone like that. It doesn’t always work. And Peter’s got strong ideas about stuff, and so have I. We’ve never done anything quite like that before, on that scale.

EH: Can I ask why you did it? Was it the Englishness of it…?

MB: It was the Englishness of it… We wanted to do something at Spitalfields. 7 And we’d been talking to Spitalfields for a couple of years, actually, to see what we could do. And the idea didn’t come from them – we just suddenly realised that Purcell was in the air and made the connection with Wilton’s Music Hall 8 which is a prime Spitalfields venue. And it’s a stone’s throw from where Purcell used to recruit these school kids, trumpeters, from an academy down the road. That he would probably have used for King Arthur and for many other things. And this whole thing about the Frost Fairs, when the Thames in the 17th century froze over, it doesn’t now but it did then because it was much wider and shallower, so you had these funfairs and circuses, where elephants walked backwards and forwards across the Thames in the dead of Winter. And this was a great idea to make contact with the local area. And reading about life in that area of London at that time made you realise it was very multicultural. Extraordinary range of different cultures, ideas, foods…. And that’s our band. And so, King Arthur – it’s not really an opera at all. It’s often referred to as a ‘semi-opera’. It hasn’t got a plot. It’s just a sequence of vaguely interlocking episodes. Built out of ideas and representations of England, mythologies, King Arthur and Merlin and all that, the theme of love, ideas from John Dryden,9 slightly metaphysical stuff. We had the character of Dryden in the show. Walking around, pontificating. So there’s a whole mixture of different things. And the third act which is where Cupid wakes and warns the ‘Cold Genius’; and the Spirit of Love is there; so there’s a metaphysical exploration of the idea of love and different forms of love; so we played with that. We got Murray Lachlan Young,10 the performance poet, to do a master of ceremonies role – he had worked with us before. And he was fantastic, as a wizard, banging his wand, making magic – and he’s very funny too. So, it was a real entertainment. And a riff on what we thought Purcell’s view of what it was.

EH: That touches on my interest in the reasons why you reached back – is it fair to say there’s a response to the site/location, but there’s also this interest in making the history come alive? Making the history of music contemporary?

MB: Yes – and making it matter to our present. Because none of that would be as interesting if it didn’t resonate with the situation of our country now. To do with English identity or British identity. Role, function, multi-culturalism. Entertainment, versus celebrity, versus mythologies, all that stuff. That’s all happening now too. But in a different way. You take modern musicians but mix with modern meanings from a range of different musical cultures, traditions and backgrounds, and musical literacy backgrounds too, and put them all in one orchestra, and see what happens, with some very simple guidelines and approaches, and map that on to an ancient masterpiece, like Purcell’s very fluid piece of theatre – I mean what is it? A sequence of arias and some recitatives, with slightly dense and unfathomable philosophical discourses from Dryden, about identity – so it just seemed like a good mix. And we then let the compositional tools and strategies reflect that. A mixture of specifics – recompositions, a kind of free-floating broad brush approach to arrangement, with an extraordinary diversity of musicians. And, yes, recomposition. We had the skeleton of the Purcell but it wasn’t using the structure to then mould our own material. It was actually taking as read Purcell’s forms and structures, and trying to get under the skin of it.

EH: Judith Weir says recomposition should only be an occasional thing. I was remembering I had been to see a piece of Pascal Dusapin’s at the South Bank. It was a piece they had revived, called Passion. 11 And it’s an attempt to recreate the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, but he calls it a dance opera. And it was originally commissioned as a reworking of Monteverdi. But he refused to do that. So he made his own new piece, and was in a slightly conflicted position of being somebody who was working with the past, from an ideas and conceptual point of view, but actually his inner core as a modernist composer was saying you can’t quote. In the Q&A I asked him – given that you are clearly somebody who is deeply engaged in music and music history as well as philosophy why rule out quotation? And he just said, I immerse myself in this music for weeks and weeks, and then I close the book. The [resulting] music is totally my own.

MB: These modernists, scared to death! From our generation we were taught to borrow things and to be post-modern was bad. And to parade and to strut your stuff with commercial or popular entertainment – anything that smacks of that is bad. Very boring nonsense really. But no composers of our generation, you, me, Judith and beyond, escaped those ideologies. Unless you were studying with Philip Glass. People spent years and years trying to get out of that strait-jacket.

EH: This may be partly what I’m working through – talking to people. I’ve learnt so much: partly by talking to people about their formative experiences. For example Shirley Thompson said how difficult and problematic their experience at university was of learning to compose because she was told unless she wrote like Birtwistle she was bad.

MB: I sort of suffered from it from Tony Gilbert:12 we suffered in the ’60s to forge this language; you can’t ignore it – you have to adopt it. I always use a quote from Jacob Druckman13 – the American composer, really good composer. He said, not being a serialist composer on the East coast in the 1960s and 1970s was like not being a Catholic in Rome in the 13th century. My own answer to all this is where do you fit Berio’s Sinfonia?14 It’s such a powerful work – and he quotes the whole Mahler movement verbatim.15 And then slaps all these other quotes on top of it. And that’s it. It’s a mosaic.

EH: I was talking to my composition class about Berio’s O King16 as a study in scaling up. This was a great study in a very focused way of writing for small ensemble. And then how you transpose it on to the large scale canvas [of the second movement of Berio’s Sinfonia]. And it is very different from the ‘Mahler’ movement but it is also revolutionary.

MB: It’s the slow movement of the symphony. Always remember that about O King. It’s a prayer, it’s a memorial piece. And then after it you get the musical journey. It’s the prayer before you go into the feast. It does have extraordinary orchestration.

EH: Going back to the modernist/quotation problem. I went to a talk recently by Brian Ferneyhough17 which was chaired by Julian Anderson. Ferneyhough said I do recall the days when student composers were writing 12 note music, and they came up with the first five notes of the series and it was pretty good, and then they’d realise they still have to put the other seven in. Robin Holloway18 was next to me and he immediately said, ‘I remember it well’. It seemed to encapsulate the experience of a whole generation.

MB: Isn’t it Robin Holloway who came up with the infamous exam question which was something like at what point does an ism become a wasm? … Anyway, Judith was at King Arthur. She said, not quite understanding it, aren’t Martin’s orchestrations wonderful?

EH: I guess that’s a tribute to the work and the quality of the collaboration.

MB: It did sound fantastic.

EH: In a way, perhaps that does have to be spelt out – it does come over to the naïve listener as beautifully organic – so one might well think that is the product of a single mind as opposed to a collective. It’s a tribute to the process.

MB: It’s a tribute to the process – absolutely. Well, Peter’s been at it much longer than me. But I have been working with him for a long time now. Right back to the 1980s so I have sort of absorbed it too. It is a process, it is a practice, a kind of combination of approaches to improvisation. Not fusion. We hate fusion. But we like banging things against each other for friction – styles, traditions.

EH: I remember that was the principle of the club nights.

MB: It still is.

EH: So you hate fusion?

MB: Yes the idea of taking one thing from one tradition and another from another into a pot and stirring it around. No – it’s important to respect the two things as separate, and then see how they connect. 

EH: You know your Preludes inégales which I think are beautiful – you know I turned the pages for you when you played them at Sussex.

MB: You did – and that’s all on Youtube.

Professor Martin Butler plays his own composition at the University of Sussex.

EH: That was four years ago now. Are there still just three of them? Could you tell me once more about the process – you improvised them?

MB: They started as my memories of specific improvisations I did – two out of three at the Club. I didn’t write them down at the time and they weren’t recorded. Sometime later I remembered what I could of them and wrote that down, and very quickly started to improvise on that. That piece of paper with half remembered details of what I did.

EH: So was the notation an essential medium or interface?

MB: The notation started as a way of recording my memory – I deliberately didn’t listen to any recordings. I thought it would be interesting to set up a layering process whereby I would do fresh improvisations based on what was in front of me on the page. And then more writing down and more improvisations. It was about four or five times that process of going back and forth. So they are more like compositions than improvisations in the end – because you’ve got the quite detailed score, but they are rooted in something that was quite the opposite. It wasn’t just me writing a piece based on improvisation it was me remembering an improvisation, writing a piece, improvising on it, remembering that, and ending up with a solid object.

EH: That’s a great description of a flowing process that is highly adaptive. It seemed to combine classical harmony with arborescences – things flowing off.

MB: Yes. I remember thinking at the time that that process was kind of a physical one because in my house I had my computer up in my work room upstairs, and the piano downstairs, so I’d be running up and down – so the actual process involved carrying a piece of paper up the stairs. And bringing it down again. So it was actually quite physical. I intended to write more – or to use that process to write something else – but I haven’t found the right project.

EH: Do they reach back to tradition at all?

MB: No, not at all. One or two of them are jazzy – the prevailing stylistic patina of the band. I do remember the one in the middle was an improv led by me on the night and went off on all sorts of free-jazz. I think in terms of what you are asking me about there is an interesting territory in my activities as a performer and my training – almost inescapably you are engaging with what your hands have learnt to play and what you have been studying and thinking about since you were a teenager. And the question becomes, how do you open the door to it. The question becomes how much do you open the door to that, and how much do you keep it closed. You’re taking ideas, techniques and strategies – I find myself always thinking about Beethoven, what more do you need? He’s got the answer to everything.

EH: I found myself reading about Schoenberg and the Imagination19 – and this led me to an interview posted online that he gave to a radio station in California in which he owed a great deal to Mozart’s string quartets.20

MB: Well, his quartets are very much endebted to Mozartian writing…