Steve Crowther: Can you tell us something of your background?
PG: I got interested in new music when I was about 13 and, living about 20 miles north of London, I used to go to lots of concerts there during the early 70s, many of which were conducted by Boulez. In ’73 I heard Boulez conduct Birtwistle’s The Triumph of Time at the Proms and that was it really – although I’d been listening to lots of Stockhausen, Berio, Boulez etc., it was this Birtwistle piece that I really found I connected with. I got to meet Birtwistle through his agent when I was 16 and he put me in touch with Maxwell Davies as he very astutely thought he was the right teacher for me. It was a great move as I’d already analyzed Max’s Antechrist and really liked it. I studied with Max at the Dartington Summer School of Music and privately from ’75 to ’81, which overlapped with my time at York University between ’76 and ’83 where I did a great deal of clarinet playing. These two different experiences gave me a grounding in rigorous compositional techniques combined with a practical, performer-centered approach to realizing my ideas.
SC: Can you describe the programmed works to us?
PG: The concert on October 2nd doesn’t contain any new pieces of mine as such, but the two that are being played have just been released on a new CD called Homage (MSV28591). All four pieces on the CD pay homage to a creative artist in one way or another, so the Elegy for solo cello that will be performed by Sophie Harris was inspired by a visit to the grave of the poet Edward Thomas who was killed in World War I, and the Piano Trio is subtitled Homage to Chagall, which is self-explanatory. The CD starts with a piano quartet entitled Tiers of Time which pays homage to the composer John Casken, and the most recent piece on the disc is Shifting Thresholds which dates from 2016. It’s a big, 30-minute, structurally complex piece inspired by Samuel Beckett’s novel Malone Dies. It’s also my third Gemini commission.
SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
PG: For me there is always a dynamic interplay between planning and how material might develop and change the plan. There is also nothing “pre” about planning – it’s an important and vital part of composing, as I like to have a thorough understanding of what the formal and structural processes will be and what the architecture of the piece might look like. Non-musical sources, usually literary, are usually an important part of the compositional process as they help in the creation of innovative structures. However, the actual material and how it develops (which I hear primarily in my head, but which I might try out on a piano or clarinet) can make me change the plan, so there’s a constant tussle between these aspects of a piece.
SC: Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
PG: Yes, for me it is important to know the performers, and with Gemini I have an ensemble I have worked with for nearly 30 years, so I know them very well. But it’s not just their sound that’s important to me, but the fact that they understand where my music is coming from and what drives it, especially in terms of extra-musical literary or fine art influences. Also, because they are friends, I can ask them about various performance issues or techniques that a new piece might involve, and I find that sort of professional interaction vital.
SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
PG: I think most people would say it’s dark-hued and dramatic, but shot through with moments of light, and that’s fair enough. There’s often a lot of rhythmic intricacy with considerable use of metric modulation, partly because there are usually processes unfolding at different rates against one another, which also involve complex voice leading. All this gives the music a certain dramatic visceral quality. However, in addition to this musical surface I think the music also conveys the idea that this is all the result of structural and formal depth, so there is a lot going on below the surface.
SC: What motivates you to compose?
PG: I write when I have something to say. I find I can’t produce something just because someone has asked for it (even if a lot of money is involved); I have to create a need to fulfill a commission. Luckily these days most of what I write is the result of my suggestions to a commissioner regarding what I already would like to write.
SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
PG: Harrison Birtwistle’s work is certainly still important to me as is that of John Casken, Michael Finnissy and Wolfgang Rihm. I also greatly admire the work of some of my younger colleagues at Manchester University like Camden Reeves and Richard Whalley — they have produced some terrific pieces.
SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
PG: I don’t think he drank beer, but I’d like a chat with Elliott Carter. He was at Dartington the first year I went in ’75 and hearing his first three string quartets there made a big impact on me. Now that I have a better understanding of his work there are some things I would really like to discuss with him.
SC: Now for some Desert Island Discs-ery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
- Bach: Goldberg Variations
- Beethoven: String Quartet in C-sharp minor Op.131
- Sibelius: Symphony No.5
- Berg: Wozzeck
- Elliott Carter: String Quartet No.1
- Britten: Billy Budd
- Harrison Birtwistle: The Triumph of Time
- Peter Maxwell Davies: Ave Maris Stella
If I could only have one it would be the Berg.
SC: …and a book?:
PG: If I can have the Bible anyway, then it would be James Joyce’s Ulysses, but it would be the Bible if I can’t have that anyway.
SC: …a film?
PG: Most probably Apocalypse Now
SC: … and a luxury item?
PG: Beer – preferably Rodenbach Grand Cru!