Harrison Birtwistle Studies ed. by David Beard, Kenneth Gloag, and Nicholas Jones (review)
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Harrison Birtwistle Studies. Edited by David Beard, Kenneth Gloag, and Nicholas Jones. pp. xvi + 316. ( Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2015, £ 65.00. ISBN 978-1-107-09374-4.)

Nicholas Jones's chapter in this book, 'The Sound of Raasay: Birtwistle's Hebridean Experience', reproduces a photograph of Birtwistle's 'former cottage and composer-studio' on the Isle of Raasay (p. 179). The cottage is of basic design, with the composer's octagonal studio placed alongside. In front of the buildings is the Sound of Raasay, and beyond that, dominating everything, are the fiercely sharp-edged, [End Page 669] snow-capped Cuillin hills (the photograph was taken in February 2014) under a sky that, if not quite louring (there's a bit of sunshine) is clearly working up to it. Jones doesn't discuss the image, but it is tempting to say that it tells you everything you need to know about Birtwistle's music: it instantly conjures the elemental and melancholic qualities that have long been seen as central to his voice, while the mirroring of natural and man-made shapes—the triangles of the mountains and the cottage's gable—as well as the structure of the octagonal studio, resonate with his apparently geometrical attitude towards his material and its working-out. Of course, Birtwistle's music is more varied than a single image can suggest, but it is very far from what might be implied by his 1989–94 work Three Settings of Celan being played at the Darmstadt Festival under the heading of 'new eclecticism', as reported in Mark Delaere's chapter, 'Gigue Machine and other Gigs: Birtwistle in Europe and Beyond' (p. 286). Birtwistle mines a relatively narrow seam, however rich, and there is a monolithic aspect across his output, with none of the overt changes of style, technique, or manner found in his fellow so-called Manchester School colleagues, Alexander Goehr and Peter Maxwell Davies. This monolithic aspect is reflected in Birtwistle scholarship: it is striking that the analytically based chapters in this book are very similar in approach, and that by far the majority of the volume draws on the close study of scores. Only Jones's discussion of the influence of landscape and place, Tom Hall's tracing of the relationship between Birtwistle and Peter Zinovieff, and Delaere's discussion of Birtwistle performances in Europe veer from the path, and even then half of Delaere's chapter is analytical and both Jones's and Hall's have substantial analytical passages too.

Analysis has dominated discussion of Birtwistle's music from Michael Hall's pioneering Harrison Birtwistle (London, 1984) onwards, the authors of the subsequent major studies—Jonathan Cross, Robert Adlington, and David Beard—all having trained in the subdiscipline. This reflects much of the scholarship of post-1945 modernist music, of course, born of a fascination with the construction of music the cogency of which might be sensed but which is difficult directly to hear. That Birtwistle is difficult to 'de-code' from the score, too, is quickly manifest to anyone who tries to do it; while this book certainly makes valiant strides in furthering understanding of aspects of Birtwistle's compositional technique, it is clear that there is much that remains (for the moment, at least) intractable.

The book begins, appropriately enough, with a description by Arnold Whittall of the opening of Melencolia I (1976), the locus classicus of Birtwistleian creatio ex nihilo. Despite its title—'"Let it drift": Birtwistle's Late-Modernist Music Dramas'—Whittall's chapter mentions works for the stage only in passing. Rather, he explores a number of orchestral and chamber-music works from Earth Dances (1986) to String Quartet: The Tree of Strings (2007) and the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra that epitomize 'the essence of Birtwistle's approach to the genres of dramatic composition, and … his response to the aesthetic and cultural challenges of modern times' (p. 13). Whittall offers telling observations on the effects of key moments in a number of scores, but it is for a series of evocative, thought-provoking statements regarding Birtwistle's relationship with modernism and the strategies of contemporary music theory that the chapter is most...