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Birtwistle interview about new orchestral work Deep Time

(March 2017)

Harrison Birtwistle introduces his new orchestral work, Deep Time, resonating with temporal and seismic themes and premiered under the baton of Daniel Barenboim in Berlin in June.

Where does the idea of Deep Time come from?
It’s a fairly recent term coined by John McPhee in a 1981 book Basin and Range, which refers to the idea of measuring things on a vast temporal scale beyond human comprehension such as the age of rocks. The concept of Deep Time follows on from the work of the 18th century Scottish geologist James Hutton who proposed that the processes of rock erosion, sedimentation and formation have ‘no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’, a state of perpetual change I’ve always been interested in.

How does this take musical form?
When I lived on the Scottish island of Raasay I discovered that some of the oldest and youngest rocks sit together because of a broad geological faultline. This was a seismic catastrophe that’s hard to imagine when you see it today with the violence frozen as if in a photograph. One time has erupted into the other time creating a discontinuity that has parallels with the new orchestral piece. However I want to be clear that the work is not about geology, it is not descriptive of anything specific.

But the themes of time and strata connect Deep Time to many other of your works?
Yes. I’m particularly thinking of The Triumph of Time and Earth Dances and you could view the new work as the final panel in a triptych, though they weren’t planned like this. The Triumph of Time is a processional in which nothing changes – the slow passing of time is the controlling factor, like in the Bruegel woodcut in which the elephant’s pace determines things. Earth Dances is different because it is totally linear and there is no simultaneity, the music taking the form of overlapping layers of material and activity. In Deep Time it is as if those strata are blown apart into chaos.

How do you bring order to this chaos?
That’s my challenge as a composer. In music you can’t or don’t want to achieve this sort of discontinuity because each work has to be experienced by a listener in real clock time. Some form of logic either emerges because things inevitably follow other things, or it’s imposed by the composer to create a specific route through the material. Think of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments – the composer is supposed to have cut up the music into little pieces of paper and shuffled it, yet to my ears you hear a clear continuity.

So you’re crafting the final shape of the material?
It’s closer to the work of a carver than a modeller. I’m usually cutting away material rather than adding it on. The final Deep Time is intended as a 20-minute work but the base material I’m working with is in a sense endless. So I’m selecting, trimming, ordering, discovering departures, arrivals, and echoes of earlier events.

Do you have an overall plan for the shape of the new piece?
Not in the usual sense. The perceived structure across time isn’t controlled by harmonic rhythm or tonality as in traditional music. But there are repetitive aspects and ostinato sections that create recognisable patterns both at the slow deep level in the background and in the foreground detail. There’s also often a continuum that underpins things – it comes and goes so you can’t hear it all the time.

Does Deep Time have a particular colour?
It’s for a pretty standard orchestra, with some emphasis on the dark colours I prefer, with two tubas and double low woodwind, plus two harps, piano and four percussion players. The foreign body is the soprano saxophone which I also used in The Triumph of Time. Although seated within the orchestra I never think it comfortably blends into the overall sound so I’ve allowed it to remain as a special voice.

Daniel Barenboim conducts the first performances this summer.
Yes, he gave the premieres of Exody in 1998 and The Last Supper in 2000 and has conducted The Triumph of Time so I’m pleased he’s enthusiastic enough to come back for another piece from me. However, I decided to dedicate the score of Deep Time to Peter Maxwell Davies. His death last year meant aspects of our friendship had to remain unresolved but Max and I shared a number of things: exploring the avant-garde and medieval music together as students in Manchester and beyond and enjoying a similar sense of humour. Most importantly from the perspective of time we were born the same year and are of the same age.


Harrison Birtwistle
Deep Time
(2016) 20’
for orchestra
Commissioned by Staatsoper Unter den Linden Berlin and BBC Radio 3

5 June 2017 (world premiere)
Philharmonie, Berlin
6 June 2017
Konzerthaus, Berlin
Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim



Photo: Hanya Chlala/ArenaPAL

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