Interview with Peter Dickinson by James Jolly

Interview with Peter Dickinson by James Jolly, Editor in Chief, The Gramophone, at the Garrick Club, London, on 11 November 2014 [in Peter Dickinson: Words and Music, Boydell 2016]

Gramophone Milestones: podcast

In association with EFG International, the private bank for classical music

JJ The milestone we’re celebrating is the 80th birthday of composer, pianist, scholar, teacher, author and Gramophone contributor Peter Dickinson. I asked him if it was difficult juggling the various strands of his musical life.

PD There were times when I had so much of my own work to do that I checked out of the academic system, mostly in the 80s, when I had a high profile – the South Bank Show did a feature with Melvyn Bragg; the Piano Concerto was in the Proms; the Violin Concerto was a BBC commission. Before that it was possible within a teaching job to find time for composition, as long as you don’t insist on writing too much music. I like to think of composers who consider what they do carefully and don’t churn it out. Elliott Carter seems to be a model of how to spend a year on a good piece.

JJ As a teacher did you find it stimulating for your own composition to spend time with young musicians?

PD Yes, I did. But the further up you go in the academic hierarchy, the more time you have to spend on administration. I had a big department at Goldsmiths, University of London; less so when I was teaching at the College of St Mark and St John, then in Chelsea; then at Birmingham University, in the Extramural Department where we put on courses for adults. I was able to pioneer a weekly programme where people came on Tuesday to study the music being played by the CBSO on Thursday. This was very rewarding. It gave me an interaction with people and I had that too in my career as a pianist with my sister, mezzo-soprano Meriel Dickinson. We did all-Satie programmes, with readings, round the festivals, which we recorded and broadcast; then we did single poet programmes in the Purcell Room and for Radio 3 – settings of Joyce, Auden, Stevie Smith, E. E. Cummings. I’ve always had a strong literary bent as you can tell from my song cycles. All these things add up.

JJ Do you think it’s important for a composer to be a performer?

PD Some are: some aren’t. Look at Britten, Poulenc too. Others don’t play anything in particular – like Wagner. Each composer has a different pattern of using other things to reach a public and help define what he or she wants to do.

JJ Organ music was important at university. Was that ever a possible profession?

PD It goes back to my time at school where the Director of Music got me to learn the organ and I got the organ scholarship to Queens’ College, Cambridge. The route into cathedral music could have followed but instead I went to America. I owed that to my father who must have thought I didn’t know what to do.

JJ Was he right?
PD Definitely. He was a pioneer in the development of contact lenses and had professional connections and friends in America, so instead of my going to Paris or Rome I went to New York, as a graduate student at the Juilliard School. It was a very exciting environment and at the time in the late 50s London had hardly got going: I was very lucky to be there. I met Carter, and Varèse in a concert interval. It was amazing meeting Cage and I wrote reviews of what went on in Greenwich Village. If I hadn’t met Cage I wouldn’t have taken him seriously – I was the first person in this country to write a long periodical article about Cage in Music and Musicians in 1965. He was a very remarkable human being. Obviously I wasn’t pushed into all of that myself but I learnt from it in ways that were extremely valuable. The whole American thing, where they valued their own composers and had a mix of different kinds of music, affected me deeply especially when I started a new Music Department at Keele University in 1974 and we were able to have an American music programme. At that time there were few programmes like that in America itself. In 1983 a hundred people came over from the States to an American Music Conference held at Keele.

JJ In the 1960s the music of Ives was finally being performed. He was a great influence?

PD I remember hearing The Unanswered Question for the first time in New York and then the Concord Sonata in Charles Jones’ graduate class at Juilliard. It had a great impact on me but I wasn’t really able to absorb those things in my own work at that stage. I did many Ives songs with my sister; took part in the Ives Centenary programme on BBC 2; I created the Ives Choir of Keele University to do some of the big songs with massed voices. Ives was important.

JJ Ives and Cage, obviously very different people, and their music is very different. In a way they’re almost more important for the ideas they came up with and the way they fomented discussion. They were powerhouses of a new way of thinking about music.

PD The Ives people and the Cage people wouldn’t want to hear you say that: they would think that the works themselves are the things that matter!

JJ Of course they would, but Cage was more than just a composer – he was a whole aesthetic movement in one man.

PD Absolutely. That’s why Cage is so important to the art world these days. It’s the whole Duchamp tradition – they’re taking up Cage in ways that hadn’t happened before. I think it’s the inclusiveness of both those two composers that is very interesting. With Ives the popular music of his time, which might have been looked down on, was part of an art culture as well. With Cage it’s anything that is making a noise anywhere that can be included in one’s concept of music. These are pretty shattering ideas in ways that we’re still digesting.

JJ At the time a lot of your contemporaries would have been looking to mainland Europe engaging with what was happening in modernism but you were not just looking but were actually over there. Do you feel you were set apart from people like Birtwistle and Davies?

PD Yes: I don’t really fit anything. I suppose I’m a bit mid-Atlantic and would hope my music would be understood by Americans. Recently the American Clark Rundell conducted my Violin Concerto on the new CD and seemed to know what it was all about, in the way that David Atherton did earlier with the two keyboard concertos, which was very rewarding. But I’ve also been involved in French music.

JJ Having absorbed American music in situ, you’re a Francophile when it comes to French music.

PD I’ve mentioned the Satie programmes my sister and I did and I’ve been fascinated by the techniques of Satie - the kaleidoscopic treatment in a piece like his Prelude en tapisserie. It uses what I later called style-modulation. A term I invented to indicate a change of style in a musical work which is controlled as closely as changes in key. It’s also rewarding to see how a composer who’s been regarded as on the fringes as an interesting historical figure has now entered into a main stream thanks to Feldman and Cage. He was always revered anyway by composers like Milhaud and Poulenc, who played his music beautifully.

JJ We’ve talked about Ives and Cage but in a way Satie’s almost another mini aesthetic movement because he fomented ideas that other people took much further.

PD They also worked in more than one medium at once. Cage was also a writer. Satie was too and he made those lovely drawings. It seems to be a twentieth-century thing – Schoenberg, Gershwin and E. E. Cummings were painters too.

JJ Ezra Pound wrote music.

PD Of course, that opera.

JJ With Ives, the idea of overlaying textures with different musical ideas led you, as it were, to compose over the top of Satie in the three Gnossienne pieces you created from the Satie originals.

PD That was a bit of a landmark. I had a commission from the Feeney Trust in 1970 and wrote the orchestral Satie Transformations which has straight versions of Satie with swung ones at the same time. You hear them both at once! I find it fascinating to live in two different worlds and actually put them together instead of merely juxtaposing them.

JJ You’ve written three concertos, starting with the Organ Concerto.

PD That was written for Simon Preston in 1971, very well recorded by Jennifer Bate. I think it’s quite demanding. I remember Simon saying to me: ‘whatever you do, don’t make it difficult!’ The trouble is that if you want to find new territory you’ve got to push the boat out. That can get you into difficulties and you’re not going to enter the very limited rank of organ concertos that are actually played – Handel, Saint-Saëns, Poulenc. Also I made the mistake of finishing the concerto not with a bang but a celeste solo wandering off into the distance!

JJ The form of the concerto has almost become politicised – you’ve got the soloist, the orchestra and you can put them together as companions or adversaries. How do you see the role of soloist in your concertos?

PD The soloist is part of the whole scene and sometimes his nose is put out of joint. In the Piano Concerto there’s a ragtime upright in the back of the orchestra that strikes up against the main piano, which then decorates the tonal rag which is a version of the main themes of a very complex piece. I don’t want to be psychological about it: the soloist is just part of it. Or, another example, in the Organ Concerto a chord on full organ is obliterated by the sound of the four percussionists. That’s the moment of epiphany when the clearest version of the song the concerto is based on comes up as a blues.

JJ Listening to the new recording, dynamic range strikes one immediately: they are very loud works but also have moments of incredible delicacy and quietness .

PD The recording of the Piano Concerto is absolutely stunning: everything is caught, beautifully done.

JJ The Violin Concerto is new to the catalogue.

PD This was a BBC commission in 1986 and I decided to write it in memory of Ralph Holmes, the great British violinist who died in his forties in 1984. I’m interested in things that might have been. The first performance was given by Ernst Kovacic who said that Beethoven’s sketches show that he had thought of the opening theme of the Spring Sonata, on which my concerto is based, as a waltz. I thought of it as a 1930s pop song rather like ‘Blue Moon’. It bothered me and I had to write it down and it became part of the whole concerto. I was delighted when Chloë Hanslip agreed to play it with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

JJ  When you take the theme of a Beethoven sonata and reinvent it, it sets up all sorts of connections in your mind – in delicious ways when I listen to your music and I think: ‘Hang on, I know that..’

PD There’s a great deal of music about music. When you’ve got such a colossal corpus of music around, pushing back to more centuries and more cultures, we’re bound to be affected by something that touches off memory and creativity. The Organ Concerto was based on a song I wrote using a chord-progression in the first of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales. The Violin Concerto is based on the Beethoven as pop song.

JJ You never thought to take it a stage further and turn it into a 30s song, sticking some words on top?

PD Sometimes my objects, created for specific pieces, have been given an independent existence, like those transformations of Satie’s Gnossiennes – as piano pieces. In the late 80s I wrote Merseyside Echoes for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic – the objects there are a couple of imitation early Beatles songs.

JJ This is almost another side of Peter Dickinson – you get the three serious concertos, with lighter quite playful elements, but Merseyside Echoes is almost Peter Dickinson as an extra member of Les Six playing around with Beatles songs which, for a Liverpool commission, makes perfectly good sense.

PD There’s a brass piece called London Rags, written for the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, which finishes with a ragtime version of the National Anthem and ‘Rule Britannia’. Last time I heard it was an excellent performance at Michigan State University. As with my other objects, I gave those rags a separate existence as piano pieces although I wrote them specifically for the brass quintet.

JJ You’re now 80, still going strong with music performed. Are you optimistic about the future of classical music?

PD I think it’s a very complicated situation but the way we’re using music is downgrading the importance of a piece of music as something complete in itself. We’re now getting film music in concerts, on CD, on Radio 3 because it has a wider association through something else. The young use music as background; we’re landed with it in restaurants, everywhere…

JJ Do you think we no longer listen?

PD We don’t listen in the way that people used to when they were interested in studying music and there are some people who resist the idea that you learn about music. You learn about cricket and football from all the press coverage: why should people resist that in terms of music? There’s another aspect of it – the way we use music is going to condition the sort of music we’re given. If music is a kind of aural wallpaper we’re going to get low density composition that doesn’t require you to listen to it like a sonata or a symphony.

JJ If we look at the sociology of how music works, that’s something we’re going to have to get used to.

PD Popular culture has made massive inroads in the last thirty or forty years, You’ve only got to look at the shelves in a bookshop – all these biographies of pop musicians, a tiny shelf at the bottom on classical music and then it’s something very lightweight. Look at newspaper coverage – there used to be three or four critics at a London concert. Now that has to be shared with all kinds of music. One fears that for younger generations, music means some form of popular music. You can tell that on programmes like Desert Island Discs. Quite important people who would choose serious things in theatre and the visual arts tend to choose pop music. But that’s been said before – by Aaron Copland in ‘What to listen for in Music’. People seem to react badly to anything dissonant.

JJ One could flip the argument round and say that other art forms have kept closer to what the public finds acceptable in modern art, sculpture, architecture, literature and somehow the composers have gone down a path that has taken them a long way from a larger audience. There will always be a small core audience for contemporary music. Whereas a new book will be read by thousands, a new piece might be limited to a few hundred people.

PD It goes back a certain amount to administration. If you’ve got people in establishment positions, like German radio stations or the BBC under William Glock it’s possible for them to decide what’s good for people. We’ve had a main stream that’s moved along for a long time but now, thanks to all sorts of recent developments such as the internet, we’ve got cultural fragmentation – a lot of different publics who deal with their own clientele, own groups, own recording outlets and so on. You can’t see a main stream any more.

JJ Do you think it’s necessarily a bad thing? If you’ve got a main stream you’re almost forcing an establishment. If it’s fragmented you’ve got people who can stay true to their own aesthetic goals and beliefs.

PD It’s difficult to say whether it’s good or bad - that doesn’t affect the issue. We’re in this situation where you’ve got a whole lot of different publics rather than the single one assumed by Radio 3 from the 1940s onwards.

JJ It’s interesting that composers like Mark Anthony Turnage or Thomas Adès are completely comfortable with using a bass line from disco or a pop song in a piece of serious or mainstream classical music. That seems a vibrant sign that music is without boundary.

PD I agree with you. The fertilisation of one kind of music with another and the incorporation of them into a new stylistic homogeneity is fascinating and positive. That’s the way life is and it’s what we’re doing.

© 2008-23 Estate of Peter Dickinson