A conversation with Harrison Birtwistle

Adlington, R. (2003) A conversation with Harrison Birtwistle. In: Aspects of British Music of the 1990s. Routledge, pp. 111-118. ISBN 9780754630418 (hardback) 9781138258419 (paperback) 9781315096803 (e-book)


I met with Harrison Birtwistle in early February 2000. Our main topic of conversation was the Nine Movements for String Quartet, but we also touched upon other recent works. Birtwistle had been working that week on settings of the poetry of Lorinne Niedecker for soprano and cello, and he referred to them more than once in the course of our discussion. The Last Supper had also been recently completed – ‘every last note’, as the composer commented with evident relish. An informal parting exchange on this latest music theatre work revealed that it promised a move away from the relative conventionality of The Second Mrs Kong: Birtwistle was keen to point out that, in contrast to Gawain and Mrs Kong, he had avoided calling the work an opera, preferring instead the label ‘dramatic tableaux’. One of the respects in which the piece differs from these earlier works of the 1990s is in its treatment of the performing space. By placing loudspeakers around the whole auditorium, so that sound is projected at the audience from all sides, and by bringing individual instrumentalists up out of the orchestral pit to comment upon the action from the edges of the stage, The Last Supper reintroduces into the theatre the sort of rethinking of performance configurations that is so characteristic of Birtwistle’s instrumental music.

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