Julian Broughton interview

Steve Crowther: Can you tell us something of your background? 

Julian Broughton: I went to a grammar school, and then to Cambridge, but playing in a folk band and working on a pig farm in Alsace were also important parts of my education!  My parents were both teachers, and never really stepped out of role, so my childhood was very very educational. . .  That was also a privilege, of course, and in musical terms, it meant that I was supported in my wish to learn the piano and the violin and, later, composition.  I composed from about the age of 6 (at first my father wrote down what I invented), but didn’t really learn much about it until the grammar school where I had an extraordinarily gifted teacher in Quintus Benziger – inventive, open-minded, challenging. Even his name was extraordinary!

SC: Can you describe your new work to us?

JB: If you call something a string quartet then you will probably be writing for two violins, one viola and a cello.  In the past, you would probably go a step further, and think of the string quartet not only as a medium, but also as a form: a work in four movements (typically), with structures taken from a limited array of possibilities.  After writing two string quartets that don’t follow the standard four-movement pattern, I felt like writing one that did.  My Quartet No.3 has a decidedly classical aspect, although it doesn’t stick rigidly to traditional structures.  So the first movement has a strong sense of dynamic contrast, and there are clear moments of recapitulation; but it also incorporates a fugue – and the fugue is itself both interrupted and recapitulated (and disobeys some of the usual constraints).  The second movement is slow and expressive, but is also (largely) a fugue.  I think my early enthusiasm for the quartets of Tippett is evident from both these movements.  The third movement is an extended scherzo, which plays with the contrast between rhythmically ‘bumpy’ passages (where the time signature keeps changing) and a lyrical episode in regular time.  Again, the sense of contrast and recapitulation is important. The final movement is less interested in sharp contrast, although its lyrical flow is interrupted at times by sterner gestures.  It ends on an elegiac note.

SC:Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?

JB: I sometimes write at the piano, and always check what I’m inventing on the piano, but I also work away from it.  It definitely helps me to spend some time just trying to imagine the music, and I sometimes do this while walking somewhere.  I don’t pre-plan on paper, and I often find myself already thinking about a piece without having consciously started to do so.  Once I have an idea going, I will sometimes plan the overall shape of a piece before going too much further.  With the scherzo of my quartet, I think I started a little way in, and later realized that I needed to add something introductory.  Usually I feel I have to start by listening inwardly to the music that seems to be there, and then I try to capture it and work with it.  Sometimes this involves a lot of thought, and a lot of mistakes, and at other times I would say that I feel my way towards what sounds right, and what appears to work well.

SC:Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?

JB: It is always very good to know the performers, but I often write music without having a particular performer in mind. In such cases, I imagine an ideal performer!

SC:How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?

JB: Lucid and animated.

SC:What motivates you to compose? 

JB: Composing is like searching for something, or trying to ‘capture’ something, which you feel has an inescapable and desirable vitality;  and so you want to share this treasure with other people!

SC:Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?

JB: I don’t identify with any one composer, and (or but) I do wish I knew more of the work of other living composers. Among those whose work I do know, I particularly admire David Matthews for the confident range of expression in his music, its dynamism, and its willingness to draw on whatever musical materials – idiom, form, idea – feel right for the job.

SC:If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?

JB: Beethoven.  I would bring a hearing aid for him, of course, and would then ask him to improvise a piano duet with me (if there was one in the pub). We might then explore how far we shared a musical sense of humour.

SC:Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.

JB: In no particular order, and bearing in mind that tomorrow I might give a different answer:Monteverdi:Vespers  Beethoven: String quartet in Eb, op.127; Sibelius: Symphony no.5and Tapiola; Tippett: Ritual Dances from The Midsummer Marriage; Vaughan Williams: Norfolk Rhapsody; Britten:Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes;  Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro.  If I had to select just one, it would be Tapiola– the final B major chord of that extraordinary work steps briefly into an entirely different world from the storm and distress of the piece up to that point.  This new world is fragile, but wonderful – somehow consoling, but without the least trace of sentimentality.

SC:…and a book?

JB: I think it would be Birdsongby Sebastian Faulks – because it explores what is left of humanity (and for humanity) when people treat other people as the objects of systematic and mechanized violence.  Somehow the book manages to be not entirely hopeless. . . 

SC:…a film?

JB: I would have to choose from something I’ve seen recently, as I’m very ignorant about film.  I would say Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, because of its sensitive awareness of the way violence and empathy can both be found in any one of us.

SC:… and a luxury item?

JB: a Fazzioli grand piano (tuning hammer included).