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The interview


Michael Tippett's New Years

A conversation with James Kearney

  20:30, 28th January 1988: The Free Trade Hall, Manchester. An 83 year old man in a light blue blazer strode slowly, straight backed trough the serried ranks of the Halle Orchestra string players. He was greeted by the applause of a large audience. He was frowning slightly, as if tense or in pain, for he had survived major surgery on cancer only the previous October [1987]. Attending a three – week festival of his own life’s composition, and that of his musical mentor Claude Debussy, Sir Michael Tippett was come to direct his 3rd symphony for soprano and orchestra. He bowed once, propped his long-limbed frame on a stool, and began to conduct, his hands fluttering about like palsied butterflies.

 He shaped an authoritative interpretation of a work completed in 1972. It sounded incredibly dangerous, despite orchestral blunders, with the singer Faye Robinson keening in words that grieved for the evil in man ("And did my brother die of frostbite in the camp?/ And my sister charred to cinders in the oven?"), grieved for the limit of human compassion ("As I drew nurture from my mother’s breast/ I drank in sorrow with her milk) and proclaimed Martin Luther King’s dream of a more compassionate world ("I have a dream… that my strong arms shall lift the lame… and we’ll whirl our way over the visionary Earth in mutual celebration").

 The audience’s reaction to Tippett’s vision was prolonged and heartfelt applause and cheering. Faye Robison and Tippett returned again and again to the stage front to general acclaim – until Tippett eventually flapped his hands impatiently, as if to say, "That’s enough of that!", and departed, the shouts still resounding.

Sir Michael Tippett

Sir Michael acknowledging applause on the platform after a concert in The Free Trade Hall on February 2nd 1988

 In a plush hotel suite I met Tippett’s friend and amanuensis, Mr. Meirion Brown, a music critican for The Guardian and critic of Tippett’s work. Although he spoke for Sir Michael who was resting in an adjacent bedroom, his anecdotes and comments had an authority springing from years’ memories of Tippett’s company and labour. Trough this rare chance to relate his own activities he said as much about Tippett as himself.

 "I have known him personally 25 years, first meeting him when I was a Cambridge postgrad in 1962, although I was already fascinated and fanatical about his music. However, it was more than just liking his music – I discovered we had many attitudes in common, something I realised from reading his volume of musical and philosophical essays "Moving into Aquarius". I am a music critic and performer, not a composer – but if I had been a composer, Tippett is the sort of artist I would have liked to be. Partly because, (a) his music has wonderful qualities of lyricism, singing, and counterpoint identified with very strongly, and (b) Tippett is a man of ideas. He is not just a composer who writes notes and music pieces all the time, but a man who thinks deeply about life and other human things, as well as being a pacifist, which I am also. So when I read "Moving into Aquarius" I felt a common spirit – here was a man who felt a terribly deep concern for what happens in the natural world and for other people."

 At this point, the bedroom door cracked ajar, and Sir Michael Tippett peeped furtively at us. He opened the door fully, exclaiming "I woke up!" as if waking up was the oddest thing to do. Shuffling barefoot into the room, he exchanged pleasantries, lifted The Guardian from the coffee table and returned to his room.

 Bowen resumed "He is interested in other people sometimes to the extent that if they are interesting they are useful! I myself help him on minor musical points – he would ring me for samples of jazz boogie – woogie, I would write them down and send them in the post. Also from the period of the mid seventies when he became globally famous, and travelled and conducted abroad, touring the Far East, Australia and the U.S.A., I have been his companion and administrator. It came to the point that to prevent him from being overstrained by professional commitments, he needed someone to say "That’s enough! You go to bed and rest, and I’ll look after the arrangements".

 "However, the more I know him, the more I realise his creative side is also a mystery in that he is acutely sensitive to everything, he has antennae which react to events and experiences, some of which are transformed into music and sounds. Some of his more amazing creations I could never predict because it is the work of geniuses. He picks a lot of things up from everyday life, and acts like a musical sponge. He is not a systematic listener, and like many composers listens to other music in order to steal from it, to find a correspondence in sound to some experience within himself which is already in gestation. He will listen to any kind of music uninhibited – he was very excited by the records of The Police I played him one time. Tippett’s greatest influence has been Purcell and Beethoven, but he has developed his own style, so that his creative life is now full of accidents when hearing anything can stimulate him. Sometimes there is no reaction, other times – wow!"

 When Tippett is not globetrotting, the daily routine on his Wiltshire farm is fixed and orderly, conductive to a state of calm necessary to release the energies of composition. He usually composes from 9.30 to 12:30, has lunch and walks that off alone in the surrounding countryside. Returning, he reconsiders compositional problems for a few meditative hours. Instead of listening to music, he prefers to gawp at the telly during the evening for relaxation's, enjoying in particular glossy U.S.A. soaps – but his mind is frequently analysing all he watches for future use in his music. Documentary series such as Davis Attenborough’s Life on Earth and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man have been Tippett’s strongest television inspirations. That is the quality of Tippett I particularly like – that he considers a media as global as TV a useful inspiration for his music, instead of juggling exclusively with the abstruse, inhuman musical theorizing common to many avant-garde composers.

 Bowen himself appreciated this sence of relevance, "Technically, Tippett’s other operas (like The Knot Garden and The Ice Break) are very filmatic and incorporate visual techniques taken from TV and cinema. Instead of the usual operatic interlude, where the curtain comes up and down and there is a lot of clumping about behind the scenes as the set is changed, in his recent operas Tippett simply gives a stage direction like "dissolve". It is similar to edit – shots in TV drama, where one second you are in a room and the next you are in a street. That is why Tippett prefers working with theatre and film producers who can visualise and implement his novel ideas for the stage".

 Instead of reacting to certain events and characters in TV soaps Tippett concentrates on the dramatic structures of the scenes: they tend to last only a few minutes, and certain shows combine song and dance, which will be two aspects of his forthcoming stage drama "New Year".

 "New Year" which should be completed this September [1988], was directly influenced by the quirky BBC TV play "The flipside of Dominic Hyde" and it’s sequel "Another flip for Dominic" broadcast a few years ago. Dominic Hyde lived in future Britain and was transported back to the present day to solve a social problem. Instead he falls in love with a woman and becomes his own ancestor by impregnating her.

Bowen remembered that these plays, "just knocked him sideways, and they formed his scenario for a new opera. Eventually however, Tippett had to remove the Hyde influence, otherwise he’d have been threatened with litigation! So, "New Year" is about dreams and aspirations, involving two couples and using space travel instead of time travel. A young man based in outer space loves a young earth woman, and complications naturally ensue. In the other pair, the protagonist is what he calls the Loner Woman, a child psychologist who has tremendous helping delinquents, but cannot relate to the world outside herself. So it is about her own emotional development and focuses on her fraught relationship with her Rastafarian stepson."

"Helping Tippett with this opera has involved researching the orchestration of musicals and playing Bob Marley LPs and videos to help him absorb the reggae styles, which he won't copy straight off, but use to write something of the same expression. I've been working with the rock producer Mike Thorne, developing music and effects for the space travel within the opera. Tippett discovered that Peter Brooks' series of essays on theatrical styles, "The Empty Space", crystallised several concepts he was trying to involve in "New Year." The second act displays what Brooks calls "Rough Theatre", like circus and vaudeville, while the third act features 'Holy Theatre', like a classic Greek drama separate from the vernacular."

The bedroom door opened again, Tippett strode out refreshed, and I found myself sitting inches away from an artist whose compositions shall ensure the memory of his name and achievement long decades to come.

Tippett complained "I was trying to read about this SDP merger rigmarole, but it became too hard to see – so what?!"

"He comes from Northern Ireland" Bowen remarked to Tippett.

"Really!" and he appraised me with startled eyebrows and incredibly bright, youthful eyes – the blue slightly fogged and there was a vagueness in his look caused by the lack of peripheral vision within the eye. "I had a wonderful time in the Republic when I was younger, travelling round the island", he continued and then immediately embarked on vivid descriptions of routes and places he had visited with a friend. Unselfconsciously, he combined references to his favourite poet, Yeats, (whose work was introduced to him by T.S. Eliot) with his travels in areas of Co. Galway associated with that poet. His archaeological knowledge of the ancient grave site of New Grange alternated with comments on the occult significance of Stone Henge and the thoughtless damage of tourists and property developers on areas of ancient heritage. He would emphasise points by squeezing my arm. Tippett’s age – spotted hands were slim and delicate and at other times wove expressive movements to complement his words. He related musical anecdotes, recalling the first rehearsal of the Third Symphony mentioned above, startled by the way the singer Heather Harper pronounced "Mother" in the line quoted [at the very beginning of this interview]. Apparently, it was her Belfast accent resurfacing, the inflections of the city of her birth. He recalled old plans to write music commemorating the Easter 1916 Uprising in Dublin, so memorably celebrated in Yeats’ great poem. The transcendental implications of the revolution occurring at Easter had greatly interested him. Eventually, I flustered, "There’s still a lot I don’t know about my country..."

"Well, I know a great deal more than you do, that’s for certain!" Tippett jabbed. Then he would wink at Bowen, as he did at the end of any impressive comment, as if to say "That’ll impress the lad, won’t it!" When Bowen spoke, he always referred to Tippett as "he", which was strangely unsettling, as if Tippett were not present. But it was a great hour’s yarn with the two men, and Tippett showed unforced interest in anything I had to say of life, home and ambitions.

I finished by asking Tippett if he had ever reflected on the way the latter part of his life had been more eventful and "fulfilling" than most older people might expect. Firstly, he corrected me on the poor choice of "fulfilling".

"I was publicly obscure in those early days," he said, "but in no way was it unfulfilling. Public notice does not necessarily accord with internal fulfilment. But I know what you are getting at. Curiously but no – I’ve seldom become nostalgic or settled because I feel I am still doing so much, I am always looking forward to the future, to what I can do next."

He winked at Bowen and grasped my hand.

© James Kearney.

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