An interview with John Woolrich

An interview with John Woolrich
John Woolrich – a much commissioned and frequently performed composer, a creative teacher and an original programmer – celebrates his 60th birthday in 2014. Ahead of this big year he talks to Sonia Stevenson about his career, his compositions and his passion for programming. 

This landmark birthday offers the chance to 
look back an reflect. What, for you, have been the highlights of your compositional career so far?
“Some music — a lot of chamber music for instance — is private, you eavesdrop. Other music is more public: it comes off the stage towards you. My oboe concerto, I think, struck a balance between public and private. It’s wonderful to have your music played by superb professional musicians, but it’s equally wonderful to have it played by people who aren’t paid, who make music simply for pleasure. Luciano Berio (rather beautifully) dedicated his piece Accordo to the people who work all day in schools, factories and offices, and then make music in their spare time. I’m very pleased that my viola concertante, Ulysses Awakes, has been taken up this summer by the Buskaid Soweto String Project in South Africa.” 

You’ve spoken in the past about your feeling that perfection is death, that art comes in the cracks. Is this an idea that you still adhere to and how is it interpreted in your own music?
“The idea that a work of art should be perfect, or even finished, should have died, with Beethoven and Goethe, a couple of hundred years ago. Perfection is a crazy, unrealizable, uninteresting ambition. The greatest moments in, for instance, Beethoven or Mozart are often the bits that don’t join up, the harmonies that don’t fit the melodies, the unexpected disruptions. In any act of creativity you concentrate on the rational and the conscious while leaving the door open for the gremlins to hop in. The really interesting things are those that the unconscious throws up. They can be dark, disruptive, unexpected and imperfect: messages from a stranger. I remember reading an interview in the paper with a colleague who said he only wanted to write masterpieces. But trying to evoke posterity is foolish: ‘Would you were present in flesh, hero!/ What wreathes and junketings’. Samuel Beckett makes more sense to me: ‘No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better’.”

How important, or indeed inspirational, do you find the relationship between composer and performer? 
“I’ve had more commissions over the years from performers than from committees and institutions. That’s important to me: that the people who are going to play my notes have asked for them. Inspiration can come from anywhere, sometimes in the performing character of a musician. Stravinsky said that fingers are great inspirers. For me (sadly I’m not a performer) that can mean other people’s fingers too. A commission can be a kind of portrait of the performer, both in terms of the special skills a musician might have or the limitations (a famous one-handed pianist gathered some interesting pieces).”
 
Many of your works have been inspired by music of the past – ‘Ulysses Awakes,’ for instance, is a transcription of a Monterverdi aria. How do you translate older music and make it your own?
“For me a transcription demonstrates what a composer loves in someone else’s music; it’s an intensification of an aspect of the original. So Ulysses Awakes shows what I like in Monteverdi. It’s partly a thinning out, a reduction, and partly an emphasis, an underlining. Stravinsky’s arrangements of two Hugo Wolf songs is an interesting example of that, particularly given that the musical languages of the two composers couldn’t be more different. All the notes are Wolf ’s, but there aren’t quite so many in Stravinsky’s version, the layout of the chords is Stravinskian and so is the colour of the instrumentation. It’s true to Wolf and true to Stravinsky.”
 
You are widely regarded as an excellent programmer. Is there a secret to a good programme?
"I think programming is composing, it’s a creative act: you select and organise. You make shapes with material. That’s why often the very best programmers — Boulez, Knussen, Ades, Birtwistle, for instance — are composers."

This is your last year as Artistic Director of Dartington International Summer School where you’ve done a marvellous job of bringing together professionals and amateurs, young and old, and perhaps most importantly, many different genres of music from baroque to contemporary, classical to jazz. How did you go about balancing these diverse aspects? 
"We often forget the importance of how music feels to perform: how you feel Handel’s choral music in your body, how a Schumann piano piece feels under the fingers. A Haydn quartet or a madrigal are more for the performer than for the listener. There’s a danger that we will end up with a musical culture divided between professional performers and a passive amateur audience. We neglect the amateur music maker at our peril. Dartington has what William Glock described as the ‘fruitful symbiosis of professional and amateur’. I think it’s vital for young professionals and advanced students to rub shoulders with the amateur music lover. And it’s vital for us to cherish amateur music making."