In conversation with Dan Shilladay
An illuminating discussion between the Berkeley Ensemble's Dan Shilladay and the Ensemble's patron, Michael Berkeley CBE
Dan Shilladay writes: As a student, I devoured many of the conversations with... books that were a fashionable (and also very readable) way of introducing several of the great post-war composers. When I came to write the liner notes for the ensemble’s 2018 recording of a selection of Michael Berkeley’s chamber music, Winter Fragments, it was with a nostalgia for these books that I asked Michael if we might have a conversation in a similar vein. He kindly agreed, and his fascinating insights drew praise from several reviewers. Here they are again – if they inspire you to take a listen to the music we discussed, the album is available to stream on Spotify, or to buy from Resonus.
Dan Shilladay: The pieces collected together on the disc span more than thirty years of work. How has your approach changed over this period?
Michael Berkeley: I came out of quite a tonal tradition with Lennox [Berkeley, Michael’s father] and Britten, but then I got very interested in a more avant-garde approach to music: I worked with Birtwistle and talked to Lutosławski. I would say as a result my music moved from being fairly tonally based to being much more expressionistic. I often seem to be slightly at odds with fashion; as I was becoming more expressionistic, music was going back to the tonal world of John Adams and others. But what is important in music is being yourself. That’s something I discovered from being Lennox’s son – that if you feel you’ve got something to say, that’s the most important thing, regardless of what else is going on. I’ve always done what I felt like doing at that moment.
That comes across very strongly–on this disc one might compare Catch Me If You Can, which is very frenetic and densely argued, with the almost late-Mahlerian world of Seven. It’s exhilarating to hear all these strands of your work together.
As another example, in the Clarinet Quintet there is a medieval-like melody at the beginning, something I’ve always loved from my days as a chorister at Westminster Cathedral singing Gregorian plainchant. Plainchant is very important in my music; the repeat of notes, the modal melodies. But in the quintet, almost immediately there is very jazzy music. I don’t think the audience needs to sit and think ‘there’s a medieval bit, now there is jazz’–it just needs to work for them, but each piece needs an organic structure in the mind of the composer.
Could you elaborate on your aims regarding your listeners? You’ve described your own music as having ‘a strong emotional content, which audiences react to’.
My mother had Lithuanian Jewish blood; I think there’s a part of me that responds to that in my writing, and to which audiences in turn respond in my music. I think for me, the catharsis of being moved in a piece of music is very important. You mentioned Mahler…
In relation to Seven, yes, which reminded me of the opening of the Ninth Symphony, where Mahler’s simple two-note question finds some kind of interim ‘solution’ at its close. Your harp figure similarly seems to pose a question – ostensibly a simple one, a matter of the note-to-note tensions within that phrase–but in its repetitions, it acquires something more.
Exactly. The emotion can be very distilled, in a way. It’s also a bit like Satie–a very simple thing has a kind of cumulative effect. Similarly, one of the songs of Winter Fragments has a simple, folk-like feel to it.
For the musicians, too, that movement is a relaxation, a contrast from the more heightened music around it.
This idea often appears in my music, because I think it gives a moment of respite in the middle of what is often a very turbulent landscape. Catch Me If You Can is another example. It was written for the Haffner Wind Ensemble to take into schools, which immediately made me think of Janáček’s Mládí(‘Youth’), but also the rather cruel games that children play. So even that piece has a very simple tune in the slow movement, not unlike a viola piece I wrote, Odd Man Out, about the child that is excluded. Amongst all this swirling activity, you focus for contrast on the solitary individual. But the other aim of that movement–as in Winter Fragments – is that less is more. The frenetic activity stops and you have a very small, but hopefully beautifully crafted, touching, lyrical moment.
For me, the most touching and lyrical moment of the disc is your Rilke Sonnet.
I think that’s one of the best pieces I’ve written, because it’s stripped down; there’s no extraneous material. I adored the Rilke poem, the idea of the almost-girl who in a sense doesn’t exist. I’m really glad you recorded it, as that piece gets to the essence of what I can sometimes do. There are pieces like that – often fragments in larger canvasses – where you feel that you touch the beating heart of the music.
That’s the subject of Rilke’s sonnet: the nature of perception, if I’ve understood it correctly.
That’s why I wanted to retain the original German: partly because no translation did it justice, but also because it lends the piece the ethereal nature of the poem, its untouchable quality.
It’s clear that how your music is perceived or its affective power is central to your work.
And of course, a recording such as this one represents an opportunity for listeners to get a bit more under the skin of a composer. Familiarity in contemporary music breeds the opposite of contempt.
As a broadcaster, and particularly as director of the Cheltenham Festival, you’ve done much to make the world of contemporary music more familiar. Similarly, your programme notes for your own pieces often allude to poetic or emotional content, but also to some of their technical workings, too. Do you consider these details to be important for your audience?
People do respond to knowing a little bit about how a piece is put together. When you take something apart for an audience and then put it back together, there’s a gleam of recognition in their eye when they hear it in the concert. To point out how a theme from a piece’s opening is restated backwards at the end…
– as in the Clarinet Quintet –
Yes – you could ask whether that, as a technique, is interesting, but I think it is. Think of how one might talk of an artist and the way they use their palette, or how an architect creates or echoes lines in a building. We should give audiences as much as we can for them to hold on to without baffling them.
But with regard to the actual technical workings of your music: do you consider these as legible, expressive and necessary, as well as interesting? (In contrast to, say, Birtwistle, whose techniques are often hidden or encoded.)
I do, of course, have processes and thoughts that are not revealed. That is why the magic of music lies in its abstraction.
On the question of technique, you write in your programme note to Winter Fragments that ‘composers often tend to destroy words before recreating them’. Could you describe this process of destruction and recreation?
You can of course take a poem &ndash ;Britten is superb at doing this – and just enrich it, just lay it out as its own rhythm suggests. But I think that very often, when a composer sets a text, they need to destroy a poem and recreate it in their own image. If it’s perfect in its own way, what can you add to it? You need to walk around the back of it, or start taking it to pieces – perhaps pulling the head off and putting it on a different way. That is a compliment to the poet: to try and get into their mind, or to rewrite poetry in terms of music.
And this has led you to write your own texts; there are some in Winter Fragments and also Touch Light, another piece the ensemble has played and recorded.
There have been some short pieces where I just couldn’t find anything that encapsulated what I wanted to say. As in the case of Touch Light, which was inspired by the great baroque operatic masters – Monteverdi and others – whose arias set just a few repeated words; why not just create your own? It doesn’t mean to say one is by any means a poet, rather, just creating an addition to the musical vocabulary.
One could view the titles you give to your pieces in a similar way. They are often poetic, but occasionally you’ve chosen generic or abstract ones, such as with the Clarinet Quintet. Where does the titling of a piece sit in your creative process? Does it affect the composition or reflect it? Is it an aid to listening?
By way of an example, I wrote a string quintet with two cellos for the Chilingirian Quartet, which I called Abstract Mirror. I thought that was a completely valid use of a title, because the extra cello could join the upper or lower strings. The two groups offered mirror images of each other in the composition so I felt that particular title worked. With Winter Fragments I just loved the play on the words: these are fragments of winter, but winter also fragments. I suppose as a broadcaster and avid reader I like to play on words.
So, to press a point: why is your clarinet quintet just the Clarinet Quintet?
To be honest, nothing sprang to mind. Titles can be useful, but they do take the listener down a certain road, which one should sometimes avoid. With the Clarinet Quintet, I just wanted it to unfold in its own way.
But it’s a very illustrious field. In calling it ‘Clarinet Quintet’ did you feel the weight of history?
I’ve never worried about that. People used to ask me if it was difficult being Lennox’s son, and I would answer no, because I feel I’m such a different animal. We all have to stand up and be counted next to our famous predecessors. I just wanted to write the piece I was going to write.
You’ve always done what you felt like doing at that moment.
Yes – exactly.