Proms 2017: Harrison Birtwistle – Deep Time (UK Première)

It’s easy to believe – even take for granted – that we ‘get’ Harrison Birtwistle. He represents a lot of things to a lot of people, but the tendency is to conflate the man and his music, mix in stereotypes drawing on his age and northern heritage, and arrive at a surly amalgam that, crudely stated, neither gives nor takes any shit. Very many years ago, as a callow student volunteering at the Cheltenham Music Festival, i was charged with attending to Birtwistle during his time in the town, which ultimately consisted of a brief greeting followed by my being told in no uncertain terms that he did not need looking after, and off he went. So i certainly know all about the brusqueness of the man, but his music has always been another, entirely separate, matter. To me, its primary characteristics are an earthiness, an inclination to sing in the midst of turbulence, a strong sense of persistent determination, and an urgent, passionate humanity yearning to be unleashed no matter what. These qualities have permeated his works performed at the Proms in recent years – particularly The Moth Requiem, the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra and Angel Fighter – and they manifest again in his most recent orchestral work, Deep Time, given its first UK performance at the Proms last Sunday.

That being said, there were occasions during the work where i found myself wondering if what i was hearing really was by Birtwistle. But not early on, the music establishing a dark admixture of rumble and grumble within which nascent ideas take shape. It’s a beautifully measured and arresting introduction, the strings clambering up and out of this claustrophobic gloom with such oomph that it almost seems as though, two-and-a-half minutes in, we’re already reaching a climax. But this is a mere overture to the more complex behaviour that forms the firmament of Deep Time. Birtwistle’s programme note speaks of the piece sitting alongside The Triumph of Time and Earth Dances due to its twin temporal and geological concerns. This finds expression in a fascinating underlying order that evidently has a pulse at its core, though sufficiently subterranean that it’s often masked, inaudible or simply forgotten about. Yet it finds expression in another way too, in a remarkable sense of architectonic plasticity, as though the bedrock of the piece were warping and stretching, with concomitant effects occurring on the surface. On this surface, when pulse isn’t pushing through, a plethora of melodies break out (those from a soprano sax are especially striking), invariably short-lived, broken up by unpredictable surges and lunges or multi-layered textures from the full orchestra.

This volatility, and the uncertainty it engenders, are really what Deep Time is all about (due to its similarity to the behaviour of our planet, one might almost call it Earth Dances II). There are connections to be made in terms of certain orchestrational specifics – that sax that keeps prominently recurring, and various other instrumental ‘tics’ and traits – but for the most part this is music continually reforming and reshaping, like the movement of molten rock. Birtwistle generates an exciting, intuitive soundworld from this, yet the main portion of the piece where i found myself surprised at his authorship was, i think, a byproduct of this same aural flux. Due to the ways in which Birtwistle uses the orchestra – or to be more specific, the ways in which he doesn’t, eschewing contemporary music’s obsession with extended techniques – there are times when this flux took on a kind of static quality. Most of all around the work’s centre, when the orchestra gets seemingly caught in a generalised behaviour that seemed bland in contrast to what had come before. It’s a minor quibble, possibly a churlish one, and i wonder in hindsight whether allowing the music seemingly to ‘do its own thing’ in this way, without constantly seeking attention, is actually rather refreshing. All the same, these moments did feel like detractions from an otherwise taut, carefully-controlled and enormously engaging management of the music from its filigree surface details right down to its slower-moving sediment and structural floor.

Yet to be able to wield the hefty forces employed in Deep Time – triple-wind, quadruple brass, 60 strings – with such apparent deftness and ease across multiple clearly differentiated yet interlocking and interdependent behavioural strata, all moving in a precarious, unpolished state of granular instability, is truly remarkable. This is mastery. And beyond this, i realise there’s another primary characteristic of Birtwistle’s music that i didn’t mention in my introduction and which is one of Deep Time‘s most memorable aspects: beauty. The beauty that the work regularly encounters along the way, no doubt in part due to the contrast it strikes with the churning turmoil around it – sometimes continuing through it – is often excruciatingly lovely. Apropos, the episode that begins a little over fifteen minutes in: a sudden sparsening of the texture, pitches floating in space with vestiges of (g)rumble beneath, the entire orchestra suspended for a time, only gradually – to the accompaniment of cowbells – rediscovering the concept of momentum via little sagging bursts of melody that ultimately instill a new impulse to grow and develop. The last few minutes are among the most exciting i’ve heard in recent orchestral music, still totally unpredictable, passing through a weird plunging string collapse, a network of pin-prick staccati and a massive pulsating expansion culminating in fortissimo bass drum and tam-tam tremolos, before a quiet, waning coda signed off with clangorous bells.

And to think some people have accused (and still accuse) Birtwistle’s music of being inaccessible. The immediacy of Deep Time belies both its aural and subtextual weight. It’s a piece that, due to operating on numerous layers simultaneously, proves all the more rewarding on repeated listenings. In other words, there’s a huge amount to take in – it’s not surprising that Birtwistle remarks how “the potential duration” of all the ideas explored in the work “are enough … to last over an hour”. Its enormity and vitality were matched by the astounding clarity that the Staatskapelle Berlin, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, brought to this first UK performance. This, too, was mastery.

Harrison Birtwistle – Deep Time (UK Première)

FLAC [134Mb]

Programme note
Deep Time was conceived as a companion to The Triumph of Time (1972–2) and Earth Dances (1985–6) with which it shares an interest in time and geology. Uniquely, however, the musical processes in Deep Time are comparable to the notion of geologic time first proposed by the eighteenth-century Scottish geologist James Hutton (1726–97). According to Hutton, geologic time involves a perpetual cycle of rock erosion, sedimentation and formation for which there is ‘no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’. This suggests an unimaginably slow process, a kind of sustained bedrock, which is present in Deep Time. But in geologic time there are also catastrophes, volcanic eruptions, resulting in a kind of chaos or frozen violence. Similarly, in Deep Time one kind of multi-layered order is superseded by another as various instrumental voices, heterophonic lines, hocketing textures and other objects follow, overlap, or are juxtaposed in a discontinuous yet related succession that is in a permanent state of exposition.

Deep Time is not a representation of Hutton’s ideas, however: it is about itself, about the perception of musical time and how long the piece lasts. In tonal music our sense of the work’s length is influenced by harmonic rhythm, which moves differently in a Haydn or Schubert symphony. But is there an equivalent in music that lacks tonality? Fundamental to Deep Time is a tension between clock time (Barenboim requested a piece lasting fifteen minutes) and the potential duration of musical ideas, of which there are enough in Deep Time to last over an hour. A piece of music occupies a fixed duration, as a painting sits in a frame, but a musical idea has its own speed, like the elephant in the procession depicted in Breugel’s The Triumph of Time. Similarly, geologic time is measured in years but has its own tempo.

Hutton was not the first to consider deep time – Leonardo da Vinci had noticed marine fossils on mountaintops and wondered how long it took for rivers to carve out valleys – but he was the first to intuit the Earth’s colossal age. The term ‘deep time’ came later, coined by James McPhee in his 1981 book Basin and Range. By then the Biblical idea of the Earth as 6,000 years old had been replaced by the current estimate of 4.5 billion years. If deep time is equivalent to the old English yard – the distance from the King’s nose to the end of his outstretched hand – then, McPhee observes, ‘one stroke of a nail file on his middle finger erases human history.’

There is violence in geologic time but also calmness after the event as experienced when viewing a landscape, for example on the island of Raasay off the west coast of Scotland. Here, where The Mask of Orpheus was composed (1973–83), some of the Earth’s oldest rock sits next to some of the youngest, the isolated fragment of a deeper process, a broad geological fault line. As in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, stillness in Deep Time does ‘not in the last resemble a peace’. Rather, it is ‘the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention’.

— Harrison Birtwistle with David Beard

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Harrison Birtwistle – Deep Time
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2 Responses to Proms 2017: Harrison Birtwistle – Deep Time (UK Première)

  1. Njabulo

    Perhaps this says more about me than it does about Birtwistle’s work, but I went back to listen to Truimph of Time after listening to Deep Time a few days ago and I finally “got” the former work. Birtwistle’s among my favourites but even though I was slightly impressed by ToT, it never really stayed with me the way that Earth Dances and (now) Deep Time did. But I seem I have an appreciation for it now that I didn’t before, strangely. Also, the beauty that you mentioned that is found in the new work also stood out to me, and took me by surprise in the best possible way.

    • 5:4

      That’s very interesting, i’ve not yet had a chance to revisit The Triumph of Time and Earth Dances since hearing Deep Time. Going to make sure i do that soon and see what happens for me…

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