Interview with Tom Service, BBC Music Matters, May 2016





TS It’s a little invidious to attempt to sum up at least a fourfold career as writer, performer, university teacher and of course composer. One of the things that strikes me in Words and Music is where all this might have come from. Was it obvious that you were going to pursue this kind of life in music?

PD I don’t think it was. Things came out of my interests like finding sheet music of Satie and Lennox Berkeley in the Cambridge music shop when I was at school. I didn’t know any other music like that and it was a revelation. A different way of making music from all the academic studies we had to do at Cambridge.

TS These encounters inspired a very particular canon of interests. As much Virgil Thomson and Billy Mayerl as Bach and everybody else. Also Lord Berners.

PD Cage too – meeting him around 1960 when nobody in England was taking him seriously. Because I met him I did. He was just a wonderful human being. That created my enthusiasm for what he was doing even if I didn’t go all the way with him, as you can tell from my music. But I owe a lot to those Cage pieces which put together all kinds of stuff. My bigger works are assemblies composing with three or four different strands of music. Then I let some of the separate ingredients have their own lives so that a rag out of the Piano Concerto has been recorded as a piano solo. So has a blues take-off of Edward MacDowell’s To a Wild Rose. This confused people. Was I trying to be popular?

TS There’s an amazing moment in the Piano Concerto when a piano cadenza leads to the rag in the distance on an upright piano. Confrontations like that in your music are very new, not like other composers.

PD Max Davies has done something similar in his foxtrots in St. Thomas Wake although people have made the point that I do it with affection and he was rubbing our noses in 1930s politics. It is a strange situation when the ragtime piano emerges. Some of my things are comic: I involve myself in take-offs – Charles Ives’ word – and the rag and blues versions of To a Wild Rose are the basis of a large organ work, the Blue Rose Variations. It’s quite a strange way of working but perhaps it provides something that you couldn’t get in any other way.

TS That encounter with Satie and Berkeley is one musical epiphany but your relationship with America is another. What do you think of that American influence?

PD It changed my life. I was quite early amongst British composers who went to the States. Max Davies, Jonathan Harvey and Harry Birtwistle went later. The impact of New York was extraordinary. London was dull around 1960: New York was mind-blowing.

TS Some of your reviews for The Musical Times cover David Tudor playing Cage; you were unflattering about Busotti; and then Carter. When you look back do you think you got it right?

PD I got the Carter Second String Quartet right, I’m glad to say. I first met Carter at Juilliard, then kept in touch. My sister and I performed and recorded some of his songs. A big part of my career is that I was fortunate to have a sister who could sing contemporary music and we went around Europe but not America. We commissioned pieces from composers such as Panufnik, Berkeley, Crosse, Harvey – all on CD. These were people I admired and respected.

TS What did you react against in British music at that time?

PD At Cambridge there was nobody with an open mind except Phillip Radcliffe who was pretty eccentric. He even met Morton Feldman when he went to Cambridge and Feldman talked about ‘that old guy who seems to like new music’. I’ve told stories in my book about what Professor Hadley said about modern music.

TS Brilliantly blue language! It feels as if Cambridge was a very cloistered place to be, even for early music.

PD It was getting quite exciting because of Thurston Dart, scholar and performer who brought early music to life. A little later came the great pioneer David Munrow – he’s in the book as I wrote two pieces for him. He brought early music into the public sphere in a unique way.

TS How did you experience new possibilities and take them on in your own work? Did you think that Cage and Busotti had gone too far?

PD Things like La Monte Young’s Poem for Tables and Chairs, where benches are dragged round outside the hall to make shrieking sounds. That seemed to be going too far sixty years ago!

TS It’s an openness to new possibilities.

PD I think the main thing is that all kinds of music can belong together. There’s also the impact of African American music on European composers. Things have never been the same since. I took it up in the form of ragtime, which I was performing in our American music concerts. Rags are the first examples of notated music in that tradition. It’s lively and life-affirming.

TS You trace the African American influences on European music back to Delius and before. It’s a revelatory chapter in the book.

PD Sousa brought rags across around 1900; Satie wrote syncopated pieces from 1904; Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk (1908) is a brilliant confrontation between Wagner and ragtime. Can you imagine anything stranger? The first accompanying chord is the Tristan chord, which most people don’t realise as it doesn’t come back. Stravinsky was sent sheet music of rags which got built into his rhythmic style as in his Ragtime for Eleven Instruments (1917-18) and Piano Rag Music (1919). And you’ve got British composers like Lambert, a genius in his way.

TS Another important influence for you. When you returned from the US you set about changing the culture through your work in universities, especially at Keele. This was a way of inculcating this openness into a whole generation of students.

PD I’d learnt something special at Juilliard about how to study music. The Americans seemed to have got that openness right whereas we have been restricted. At Keele we had an MA in American Music and style studies for undergraduates could be as rags rather than string quartets in the style of Haydn. We also studied popular song of the 1920s and 30s, another golden age of American music. You can see that now as those musicals are going into the opera houses.

TS How radical was that at the time?

PD  Wilfrid Mellers was a pioneer at the University of York. Following his example – his 1964 Music in a New Found Land is still one of the best studies of American music – it was possible to stand on his shoulders and go on from there. I tried to do that at Keele: I was very aware of it. Other people followed and you’ve now got whole degrees in popular music. Whereas I may have thought of popular music as an ingredient it has now galloped as a subject in its own right.

TS You were against another musical establishment where the path of progress, in America and here, was to compose in one single style. This was the exact opposite of your style modulation idea of putting different styles together and making them work as the fabric of the pieces.

PD There was a very powerful serial establishment, especially in American universities. You could even claim that Stravinsky was affected by it. His later pieces don’t do as well as some of the earlier ones.

TS You were running counter to that. This was bold new thinking.

PD Well, I hope so. One did get misunderstood sometimes, but that’s par for the course.

TS Alongside that you were composing, performing – not just with your sister. How was it possible to have all those parallel tracks running together in your life?

PD They weren’t quite running together. Sometimes there would be more emphasis on one, as in the 80s, when I had a high profile with the Piano Concerto in the Proms, a BBC commission for the Violin Concerto, recordings too. Then I would retrench a bit and I decided to make available my wonderful archive of interviews done for Radio 3 documentaries. When you make these programmes, you probably have fifteen hours of interview tapes; the programme would be under an hour; and the BBC won’t have kept the original tapes. I transcribed all my interviews in books about Barber, Cage, Lennox Berkeley and Lord Berners, whose amusing approach has probably affected me quite a lot.

TS You make it sound like it was relatively straightforward.

PD But I had to keep in practice as well because I was doing recitals with my sister in the 80s and I was lucky to have that opportunity.

TS It’s an eccentric collection of musical lodestars. Why the attraction of those kind of figures whom some would think of as on the margins of musical history but who were in the centre of your life?

PD  I think one of my problems has been that I rather like things on the margins. Berners was a very remarkable man. He composed avant-garde music during World War I in Rome when Stravinsky was a friend. Diaghilev too. He could paint rather well, and he wrote novels, some translated into French and Swedish. There’s a kind of expertise: whatever Berners does he does well, but he knows his limits. Perhaps I’m like that: I hope I am anyway.

TS Are there technical things you’ve taken from Berners or Satie?

PD Yes, Satie said that he might have written quite a lot of music, but every note has been in the right place. It’s that sheer perfection that Satie has above Berners. His method of construction is very fascinating. His Prelude en tapisserie is a series of fragments that are shuffled rather like a pack of cards. It gives you the sort of continuity you wouldn’t have expected in any other way, but it works – a fascinating atmosphere. Some of his early Rosicrucian music is like that too. And he’s getting much more attention these days. He was practically lunatic fringe when we started giving concerts with his music in the later 60s. There are other composers who have been affected by Satie – Cage and Feldman and more.

TS Your own three concertos – for organ, piano and violin – demonstrate the process of style modulation. How do you think about what that process is?

PD In a way I think it’s a bit like a novel. You have a chapter that goes to a certain point; the plot goes on and on; then something changes. I think of those concertos a bit like that. There’s a continuity but you don’t quite know where it’s going to go, especially if it involves different types of music. Is that helpful?

TS Indeed. But the ambition here is very big since you’re creating a diversity and showing that here’s a link between ragtime and modernist gestures, but also it should have a continuity. Not a sense of chaos but that there should also be a wider shape and a bigger journey. That’s a big ambition for those pieces.

PD The journey in the Violin Concerto is extraordinary. I played Beethoven’s Spring Sonata with Ralph Holmes – it’s now on CD. After he prematurely died, I decided to make the Concerto in memory of him and I turned the opening melody of the first movement of the sonata into a 1930s popular song. So you get different versions – straight Beethoven and the pop song version – which interact. I suppose any in memoriam piece is about death, although I don’t go far down the line of saying what I meant there’s something special about death if somebody dies young. You feel angry, as with David Munrow. Ralph Holmes was a violinist in the tradition of Menuhin, a wonderful musician and I’d hoped I might help to keep his reputation alive.

TS In the book you talk about T. S. Eliot where these games of styles are happening all the time. For many decades in the twentieth century composers didn’t do this but you did.

PD The Waste Land is a clear example. You’ve got the voices of the women in the pub and serious stuff at the same time. In the original version that Ezra Pound cut there was even more of the vernacular. People found The Waste Land difficult to digest at first, so they didn’t really notice it: it hasn’t gone into music in that way, has it?

TS No but using that as a kind of permission is a powerful thing to do.

PD I use that in my style modulation chapter, not only in literature but also painting – Dali and Magritte. You see those big paintings of Dali with strange things in the landscape and you wonder what they are, where they came from and what they mean. The sub-conscious is coming up – fascinating.

TS Is that the case in your music too?

PD Perhaps it is in the multiple pieces. Some of the chamber works too and with the works using recording playback.

TS What about the influence of literature and your encounter with figures like W. H. Auden, Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis?

PD They started purely because I fell in love with Auden’s poetry as a schoolboy. When I’d finished my Four Auden Songs I wrote to ask him for permission. I got such a nice letter back saying that if there was any chance of hearing them, he’d be delighted. When I saw he was giving a reading in Cambridge I wrote again and offered to arrange a performance. He came and inscribed my book: ‘To Peter Dickinson with many thanks for his nice settings’. The Philip Larkin connection was similar in that I’d admired his poetry for many years. I was asked to examine a thesis at Hull, and I accepted on condition that I could meet Larkin. Then we had a correspondence and I mentioned setting his poetry to music: he didn’t like the idea. After he died, I went to the memorial service at Westminster Abbey which included a performance of Bechet’s Blue Horizon. This experience gave rise to my Larkin’s Jazz where I have the poems spoken to a musical background rather than sung. The structure was similar to Boulez’ Le marteau sans maitre.

TS You’ve got a cultural collision here with the speaking voice, memories of jazz and Boulez. You talk about how Larkin’s relationship with jazz was with the earlier period: he stopped with Bop. He thought that if the poems have done their job, full of music already, so they don’t need to be set as it would be gilding the lily.

PD It was Kingsley Amis who protested that I was going to do this piece as a tribute to Larkin saying it was the last thing the poet would have wanted. I went to see Amis and he said: ‘if I was Minister of Culture I wouldn’t let you use the poems’. I said that such an idea could only come from the Soviet system he detests. I won that one.

TS From where we are now and your attempt to put different styles together and compose with them, it seems not just of its time but ahead of its time. If you think of what composers are doing now: they may not call it style modulation but in effect that’s what they’re doing.

PD I very much admire what composers like Tom Ades and Mark Anthony Turnage are doing. In America there’s William Bolcom although there’s a kind of middle stream of accessible music that comes from composers in residence with orchestras where they won’t have to go too far or they’ll upset the subscribers. This is distressing although it’s hard to define territory for a composer. I sometimes get complaints that my music is too difficult. Well, you’ve got to push the boat out a bit to find some new territory and one hopes it’s worth the difficulties. When I wrote the Organ Concerto for Simon Preston, he implored me not to make it too difficult; Christopher Robinson, who gave the second performance said it was the most difficult thing he’d ever played; Jennifer Bate made the fine recording.

TS Maybe one of the consequences of that openness –

PD It’s a very selective openness. Stephen Banfield points out that I’m not interested in American musicals, or even Bernstein and prefer ragtime and blues.

TS For younger composers these days is there a neglect of tradition and consequent danger of superficiality?

PD Everything is mixed up. I felt it was easy to trace things up to about 1960. Since then, the development of what I call cultural fragmentation has taken over and we’re now finding that younger composers, like Roxanna Panufnik, go to sources in the Middle East for melodies. Menuhin played with Ravi Shankar. All these musics are coming together in a way that wasn’t envisaged even fifty years ago. A huge thing is the involvement of classical music with rock music and vice versa.

TS Potentially it’s quite fertile if people are approaching it without an ideological idea of something being better than something else. This opportunity relates to the work that you’ve done. There is a more level way of listening: it’s all there.

PD I hope we’re liberated from the idea that if you’re serious you’ve got to be dissonant. It goes back to Milton Babbitt who said: ‘Who cares if you listen?’ That attitude has set back classical music for a long time. How we get out of it, I’m not sure. There’s wonderful work going on in music education. I operate the Rainbow Dickinson Trust which supports various kinds of musical endeavour.

TS Does that make you optimistic about the future?

PD I think you’ve got to be optimistic, or you’d die of depression! Or in my case, since I live near the sea, you’d swim out to sea.

TS The book has a distinguished discography. Are there particular performances you’re especially fond of?

PD That’s quite a hard question. I remember that Copland was asked about this and he said he was like a mother and he loved all his children!

TS We haven’t talked enough about you and Meriel together.

PD There is one special piece. It’s called Surrealist Landscape and brings together quite a lot of my interests. It sets a poem by Lord Berners and requires a recording of a simple song to be played back and then live elements, including plucking strings inside the piano, are superimposed with atmospheric results. We did first recordings of Thomson, Cage, Carter and Copland. Virgil Thomson came to dinner; heard his recording; then said: That’s everything it oughta be’.

TS High praise from Virgil Thomson! That disc of the three concertos must give you satisfaction.

PD  They’re not perfect, that’s the trouble. The Piano Concerto is terrific; the organ in the Organ Concerto is a bit distant; and the balance is not correct in the Violin Concerto. But the soloists were all wonderful and I’m very pleased to have them all together.

TS What are you working on now?

PD I’m making an orchestral version of the Suite: The Unicorns. I did that for the Suite for the Centenary of Lord Berners. I wrote it for a film, played it myself on the clavichord; then I turned it into a suite for clavichord; finally, it was an orchestral work. It’s a very accessible piece because when you write for the clavichord you can say things you’d never dream of saying in public.

TS With such a tiny and private instrument.

PD It’s that accessible element of my work that goes into the new orchestral version of The Unicorns. I suppose you could say overall that I’m one of the most stylistically diverse composers around.

TS I think you definitely could.

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