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Each of the 39 ‘encounters’ in this 500-page book is prefaced by a summary of both the preparation for, and the circumstances of, the interview – most of them conducted face-to-face, some chiefly by email. Andrew Palmer bases his interviews on a sequence of standard questions relating to working methods (pencil or computer?), perceived Britishness, desire to communicate with (or please) an audience, etc, and of course he receives many similar answers. To give some idea of the range of interviewees, I would select Birtwistle, Maxwell Davies, Goehr, Saxton, Tavener, Rutter, MacMillan, Wiseman, Beamish, Musgrave, Goodall, Frances-Hoad, Phibbs, Coult and Weir.

Many composers here are perfectly happy if a listener imagines an unintended picture or a story in their piece of music. as John McCabe says, ‘It shows that there’s something in it that they respond to, and that they’re being creative with it.’ Robin Holloway was delighted with ‘Oh, we just loved the bit with the alligators!’ after a performance of his third concerto for orchestra had been introduced by Michael Tilson Thomas as ‘inspired by a visit to South America, and this and that sight’.

Two interesting points emerge from the question of supposed British or English qualities in these composers’ music. Most of them found this element very difficult to define, whereas foreigners hear national connections between, say, Vaughan Williams and Birtwistle that we overlook.

Non-musicians generally will have little idea of the tremendous struggle, regular loss of confidence and diverse frustrations which make up the life of a composer – just like that of any creative person. David Matthews provides a painful reminder: ‘At the beginning of every new piece, I wonder how I ever wrote any of my music … I think I can’t do it any more – I feel I really don’t know how to compose.’

The appendix has ‘advice for the Young composer’. unsurprisingly, many composers emphasise above all ‘Be yourself’, but also we find ‘Keep writing – don’t wait for inspiration’, ‘Make friends with performers’, but, less predictably, one composer warns ‘don’t take any advice’.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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