Roger Jones interviews 9/11 composer Richard Blackford

An interview with 9/11 composer Richard Blackford (RJ)

September 11th 2011 will see the premiere of Richard Blackford’s latest choral work Not in Our Time which has links with the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York ten years ago. It explores an extremely topical and relevant subject: the relationship between Christianity and Islam from the time of the Crusades until the present day. Here Richard talks about the work and his career to date.

Richard Blackford. Picture © Edward Salter.

What made you take up music in the first place?

RB. I did a school exchange in Munich where I saw a great deal of opera and contemporary music theatre. When I saw a performance of Berg’s Lulu , I was so impressed that I decided that this was just what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to write abstract music but music with words, for the theatre, film and dance. And this has constituted most of my output over the past 35 years; I love the stimulus of working with another medium. One of the reasons I wanted to work with Hans Werner Henze in Rome is because he was closely involved with the theatre and ballet.

I see you have written over 200 film scores. How did that come about?

RB. I was very fortunate. When I was 40 I was asked to do a pilot for ZDF (the German TV company). This was enormously successful; they kept on giving me commissions and I virtually became their house composer. One of the fantastic things about writing film music is that you get a chance to hear on Saturday the music you composed on Thursday. Coming up with new ideas quickly is a great challenge and some composers can’t stand the stress, but I’ve always loved it.

Do you do much conducting?

RB. I was music director of the Royal Ballet School for five years and have conducted a lot of ballets. It was particularly exciting conducting at the Royal Opera House for Dame Ninette de Valois’ 90th birthday before the Queen. For the performances I wrote a ballet with texts by Dame Ninette. Conducting has always taken second place to composition, although recently I’ ve been conducting concerts of other composers’ music in the Czech Republic. I was introduced to the Brno Philharmonic by my publisher, I went to see them and they wanted to play my Violin Concerto. We recorded it there and they invited me to be their composer in residence – the first since Janacek. I’ve always admired Janacek and my music is heavily influenced by his. In my first season with them they asked me to conduct The Cunning Little Vixen Suite.They were fantastic.

You’ve also written operas, including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

RB. Sir Gawain was a community opera. It was 1978 and I had just come back from working with Hans Werner Henze. A gentleman in the village where I was living phoned me up to say the villagers had recently performed Noye’s Fludde to great acclaim and were looking round for another community opera to perform. Since they couldn’t find anything suitable, they invited me to write one, and it was performed by a cast of eighty with an 80-strong orchestra. To my amazement the national press turned up and the BBC made a documentary feature of it. Argo wanted to record it and that opera has now been performed 40 or 50 times.

Do you find community opera and choral music are closely related?

I find writing for choruses, particularly amateur choruses, immensely satisfying. One of the things I love about it is that the music must inherently be less demanding than the music you write for professional ensembles.On the other hand, I don’t write simplistic music, but music which is challenging and rewarding, and it is so exciting to hear a work sung by 150 people.

Some of your works have a political element. I’m thinking particularly of Voices of Exile

That’s correct. Voices of Exile is about displaced persons and refugees. It is like a song cycle in which I use recordings of people who are exiles. In a sense Not in Our Time is a development of this; the feeling of loss is similar. But it’s a much more powerful and controversial piece with dramatic scenes involving Crusader armies singing their battle hymns to the accompaniment of trumpets and drums.

Where did the idea of Not in Our Time spring from?

RB. I’ve always been interested in writing a piece about the Crusades and the idea of people going to war for a spiritual reason. When doing research some years ago it struck me that the Crusaders made war because they felt God was on their side, and the Muslims they were fighting also believed God was on their side. Later I saw a TV programme which showed George Bush talking about a “crusade” and a “war on terror” which sent shock waves through the Arab world. In the West the crusades are viewed as something that happened a very long time ago, but for many Arabs they have never stopped; they perceive the Western invasion of Iraq in terms of a crusade and see the Israelis as crusaders – so it isn’t just a Christian thing. I thought it would be interesting to juxtapose texts from the post-9/11 era with texts from the First Crusade. The more I researched, the more I found a great similarity between the language of those people who whipped up the populace to go to war in God’s name.

Are you taking sides in this work?

RB. I’m certainly not taking sides, because I don’t see any need for conflict between Islam and the West. If I’m taking sides at all, it’s against people who manipulate others to do awful things in God’s name. There are amazing similarities between the words of Mohamad Ben Zeky after the fall of Jerusalem when he is talking about jihad and holy war and the things Al Qaeda said after 9/11. George W Bush talked about a “crusade” and then Al Qaeda started accusing Bush and the others of being “crusaders”. Even this year when Qaddafi was under fire, he talked about “crusader missiles”. This concept is still very much embedded in the Arab consciousness.

So part of my piece is about understanding this sensitivity towards “crusades”, and I hope it will show Arabs that the crusader mentality is not prevalent or wished for by most good people in the West. Finally, I read Barack Obama’s speech at Cairo University in 2009. I feel it’s a wonderful speech – one of the great speeches of our century – but highly underrated. In it he says there is nothing to separate us in our wish for peace, and that the young people of Cairo and the rest of the Arab world have the ability to change the world and effectively put an end to this crusader mentality. He quotes from three of the great religious books – the Koran, the Talmud and the Bible. all of which express the desire for peace.

Have you used a specially commissioned text ?

RB. No. I’ve used original texts from the eleventh and twenty-first centuries. I also found a wonderful poem by the American poet Hilda Doolittle, Not in Our Time, which gives the work its title. It utters a plea that we should turn our swords into ploughshares which is the recurrent theme which unifies the whole piece.

Can you say something about the structure of the work?

RB. It lasts 55 minutes without a break and is more symphonic than Voices of Exile. It has parts for a tenor soloist, a baritone soloist, an adult chorus and a children’s chorus – the children play an important role – plus an orchestra, of course. All the settings of Christian texts are sung by the tenor soloist, and the Muslim texts are sung by a baritone. For the performance I’ve asked the soloists to stand on either side of the conductor, who is rather like a mediator between the two of them. At the end they both come together to sing Barack Obama’s words in unison or one octave apart (like the priests in The Magic Flute), because in my view one of Obama’s great contributions is to try and unify East and West. The chorus then take up the material and it builds up to the conclusion of the work.

Not in Our Time has been commissioned by the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus. How did you become involved with them?

RB. They approached me. They had heard my work Mirror of Perfection and wanted to record it. Then to commemorate their 90th anniversary they commissioned Voices of Exile from me, and this was a very good experience for both sides, including the educational programme attached to it. We went into a number of schools to talk about refugees and how this work sets their music – and even took along some of the poets involved. As the chorus were approaching their centenary, they came to me again and asked if I would like them to write another large piece.

The attack on the World Trade Centre ten years ago continues to arouse strong feelings. How did the Chorus react to the controversial subject matter?

RB. The Secretary of the Bournemouth Chorus immediately saw the potential of the theme. She’s a very staunch supporter of Amnesty International and closely involved with human rights. There were some people who raised their eyebrows and concerns were expressed at a committee meeting. But David Hill, who had conducted the recording of Voices of Exile, said they should trust that I would handle this theme in the right way. When they saw the first draft of the libretto, I think their fears were allayed. I also sent it to three or four prominent Muslims and their letters came back saying that they found my treatment even-handed and certainly not offensive. Of course the vitriolic language of Pope Urban II launching the First Crusade might upset a few people, but the work as a whole does not adopt a partisan approach.

Would you like to have the work performed in the Middle East?

RB. My dream would be to have it performed in Jerusalem – ideally by Daniel Barenboim and the East-Western Divan Orchestra made up of Israelis, Palestinians and other Arabs. Incidentally, we have the American premiere in Chicago in May of next year. That’s Obama’s town and, of course, we’ll invite him – and I hope he comes.

Have you any more projects in the pipeline?

RB. I’d like to write another choral work on a particular political subject which will be intensely exciting and dramatic. I’m not sure exactly how it will work – I haven’t created the libretto yet – but I’d be thrilled if some person or group professed an interest in it.

Not in Our Time will be premiered at 6pm on 11th September at Cheltenham Town Hall by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Chorus and Children’s Chorus, conductor Gavin Carr with Paul Nilon (tenor) and Stephen Gadd (baritone). The guest narrator for Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait will be Simon Callow. The concert will be repeated at the Poole Lighthouse two days later.

Roger Jones