When I was a young composer in England, Oliver Knussen was encouraging of my work, and in 1982 conducted the first performance of my Concerto for Orchestra with the London Sinfonietta. The following year, I moved to Australia, but I stayed in touch with him. Receiving letters in his tiny, precise handwriting was always an education. He was possibly the wisest musician I ever met.

In July 1992, I was in Europe collecting the final interviews for my book Composer to Composer. One morning, I drove from London to Birmingham to interview Karlheinz Stockhausen, who was preparing a performance of Sternklang in a park, then headed east to Cambridge for an interview over afternoon tea with Alexander Goehr. Finally, I drove as far east as you can can go in England, to Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast, where Britten had lived and had his festival. By now, Oliver Knussen was an Artistic Director of the Aldebugh Festival and, a couple of years earlier, had moved from London to live there.

It was already the middle of the evening by the time I arrived. I’d had a big day and was ready for a drink. Olly didn’t much like doing interviews – in his later years he did hardly any – so as soon as I walked in his front door, he opened a bottle of red wine. Another bottle followed, and then another. His cellar seemed to be mostly up-market Penfolds. What ensued was a wide-ranging and rather frank exchange that, for reasons of space, never made it into the book – something I’ve always regretted. It finally appeared in 24 Hours magazine in September 1994.

Oliver Knussen in the 1990s. Photograph © Clive Barda

ANDREW FORD: I suppose I should begin by clarifying whether I am talking to Oliver Knussen the composer or Oliver Knussen the conductor.

OLIVER KNUSSEN: If you’re asking me the question here, at home, then you’re asking the composer. The conducting takes an awful lot of time these days, but one of the reasons I’ve moved out of town is that one gets less bothered here – I’ve actually composed more in the last year than I have in the past three years anywhere else. The conducting started out as something I liked to do, and turned into something to make a living with – which it still is – and then it became something to fill in the gaps when I was having trouble composing. Now I’m trying to make it go into reverse, which is very hard.

AF: Your music is very distinctive. It’s not what one would call eclectic, in spite of the references. And yet you’ve conducted the widest range of music; your sympathies seem to be almost mindbogglingly broad.

OK: Except that what I think I do as a conductor is pretty much limited to this century at least; I’ve resisted a lot of invitations from the bigger orchestras to do standard rep, on the grounds that it’s not my job. I still think that fundamentally my job as a conductor is to do my contemporaries – which quickly turns, for practical reasons, into doing the whole 20th century. Of course, one then starts to do primarily things one cares about – cares about as a composer – but I find that whereas I was sympathetic to unbelievable quantities of music 10 or 15 years ago, there’s less music I actually like now (though I can still respect things I don’t like). Maybe that’s helping the composing; I don’t know.

AF: How do you begin a piece?

OK: After the operas (Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop!) I stopped composing for a year or more. Now my pieces are very much responses to people or to something external. In a funny sort of way, all the recent pieces have started out as piėces d’occasion. I find, these days, that I need to know exactly who is going to play the thing. For example, there’s a little orchestral piece called Flourish with Fireworks which was the first piece after the operas. It’s a tiny but very elaborate thing, and was written because Michael Tilson Thomas, who I’ve been friends with for 20 years, got the job of principal conductor of the [London Symphony Orchestra] which my dad used to play in. They asked for a fanfare and I wanted to write a little bit more.

Then there was a song cycle for Jane Manning. That started out because I needed to write a little song for Bernstein’s 70th birthday at Tanglewood. And while I was at Tanglewood, I met the pianist Peter Serkin, who was putting together a recital program – of all new pieces – which he was going to tour. He commissioned an entire recital: Berio, Takemitsu, Henze. Kirchner, me – eight or nine people. I was so blown away buy a big pianist doing that – normally their idea of a major career move is to go from playing Beethoven to playing Rachmaninov – that it was something I really wanted to do.

The next one was the Whitman Settings for [the soprano] Lucy Shelton, who I’d just worked with. The point is that I respect all of those people enormously and I wanted to do something for them. This sounds terribly twee, but it became like writing a letter to them. Somehow the problems of style and significance vanish, so the piece, by being very personally addressed, becomes musically quite objective and I find myself feeling very free. I don’t know whether that makes any sense to you or not, but it feels good.

AF: Yes, it does make sense. To date, I’ve written eight pieces for the tenor Gerald English – I’m about to start number nine – and five pieces involving the pianist Lisa Moore. I know their instruments so well – that woman’s piano, that man’s voice.

OK: Yes, that’s right! But it’s also got something to do with the fact that the available media and range of styles are so vast now, and the pressure to produce a certain type of piece for a certain occasion is so strong, that if you write music which addresses a musically literate person on a level they will appreciate and understand, those problems vanish. One simply begins to write what one can write.

In 1991, Mozart’s own thematic catalogue came out in facsimile. The idea of someone sitting down every week or two and, as a matter of course, jotting in the first four bars of what he’d done, struck me very forcefully. It looks as if Mozart had no preconceptions about the value of what he was doing, other than that he had to write that piece for that occasion; he did it as well as he could and that was that. The whole business of ‘Where do I fit in the world?’ or ‘What am I trying to say?’ shouldn’t be present. Maybe it should be present when you’re thinking about the piece, but not when you’re actually writing.

AF: The pieces you’ve mentioned are not big pieces. This seems to be something of a current trend in your work.

OK: Well, I’ve got to write some big pieces next, so I’m scared to death.

AF: Do you have an overall view of a piece in your mind when you begin to write it – something like a photograph to which you can return at moments when you’re, perhaps, uncertain what to write next?

OK: I usually write a little bit – four or five bars, perhaps – and then design the shape of the whole piece out of that. What makes me want to write the piece is to fulfil that shape. I can’t tell you, at this point, what it’s going to sound like. And neither do I always stick to the original shape, but it gives me a reason to begin. A couple of pieces of recent vintage have been settings of words. One of the things that has stimulated me to get going has been to find a poem that I like and to set it for instruments . . .

AF: Hence the piece for the Lincoln Center players . . .

OK: Yes, Songs Without Voices. In one case, it’s a setting of a poem for one instrument, with some harmonies over the top; in others, the ‘voice’ part careers around over three or four octaves.

AF: And do you actually set the syllables?

OK: Syllable by syllable . . . except where I think it needs a melisma, where I’ll do that – exactly like you would for a voice. But Henze has been working this way, on and off, for 40 years, and Robin Holloway too – it’s nothing new.

AF: What you’re describing is also very like the Baudelaire poem in the last movement of Berg’s Lyric Suite. But why would you choose not to set actual words? Unless, of course, like Berg, you were trying to conceal a love affair?

OK: Actually, more like draw attention to it. If it wasn’t for the annotated score Berg made, we’d never have known. I suppose what it comes down to is that while you’re writing an abstract piece, the words act as a sort of cantus firmus, rhythmically and also for types of musical character and intensities.

AF: Here we are in Aldeburgh – Britten country – and Britten is possibly the prime example in the 20th century of one composer writing for a particular performer [Peter Pears] over and over again. There actually seems to be a phenomenon that occurs when another tenor sings Britten’s music – he very often sounds like Pears. Perhaps it’s because he’s listened to the recordings. But I suspect the music was so finely crafted for Pears’s voice – its strengths and its quirks – that the voice itself is present in the score.

OK: I think the interesting thing is that Pears’s voice was not a conventional tenor voice. Where most tenors have a hole – around E – Pears had his strength. If you take the ‘Great Bear and Pleiades’ aria from Peter Grimes, you have a whole aria written on a break [in the voice] that nobody else can sing on very well. To a certain extent it’s exploitative of that. But the pieces of Britten for Pears which interest me more are works like the Nocturne and Who Are These Children?, which are very private pieces. That brings up a question, which you’re not asking, but which I’ll answer anyway, namely ‘How the hell do I feel living in Aldeburgh and writing music?’

AF: It was on my list.

OK: Being involved with the Festival [as an Artistic Director], it’s sensible to be around, but I’d always resisted living here. It does make a lot of sense, though: instead of mega-meetings in London, I’m just available. But I don’t have any sense of the ghost of Britten just over my shoulder: if I even thought about that, I’d be completely frozen. Perhaps the fact that I knew him slightly helps to avoid that problem.

AF: I remember, when I went to university in 1975, ostentatiously proclaiming my loathing of Peter Grimes. I mean it was all so terribly regressive and so forth. I’ve found myself changing my mind, of course, and Britten is now one of my favourite composers. Are you able to say how important Britten’s position is in 20th-century music? What has his contribution been?

OK: I don’t think there’s been enough distance. What I find the most incredible feature of Britten’s music – especially pieces like the Nocturne and Death in Venice and Curlew River – is that there’s a very apprehensible surface which works because he was a terrific craftsman, but underneath it there’s something else very strong. Although the harmony is triadic-tonal, or modal-tonal if you like, Britten’s methods are nevertheless an attractive counter-pole, in some ways, to Schoenberg’s. The network of relationships is probably just as rich, it’s just that the terms in which they’re expressed are not the same at all. If you examine Death in Venice from a motivic point of view, it is manically integrated, rather like late Webern, although the time scale and the manner are anything but. For me, Britten is one of those composers who, rather than trying to do something new and different, is trying to say something important with means that can communicate very directly. He deals with imponderables in a very commonsensical way.

AF: We’re not merely coming to terms with Britten, though, are we? As the century draws to a close, there is an extraordinarily rich and varied legacy of music about which we still need to make our minds up – whether as composer or listeners.

OK: I think that’s true of most periods of music. It was true of the late 18th and early 19th centuries – Romanticism also grew from a period of stocktaking. If you take someone who was supposed to have been completely an innovator – like Berlioz – Berlioz is unthinkable without Gluck, without Beethoven…

AF: Weber…

OK: Without Weber, without Cherubini – whom he hated. And out of that, something very strong comes. In the 20th-century, if you take Messiaen – although that music is apparently totally individualistic – it is unthinkable without Debussy, without Berlioz or Stravinsky or 19th-century French church music. It’s also unthinkable without Dukas, curiously enough, although that’s very hard to prove. Unless you’re at a specific point in history – as with Boulez, Stockhausen and Nono – where it’s necessary to start, tabula rasa, and do something different, then you will, of course, always be taking stock of the past. This doesn’t mean I’m pro neo-this, neo-that and neo-the-other, but I think that for composers of our generation, it’s important to look very carefully at what’s happened over the whole of the last 70 years . . . and then try either not to think about it while we’re composing or take the bull by the horns and try to tackle it head on like Robin Holloway does.

AF: Like Britten you were a very early starter as a composer. When you hear your first symphony now, what do you think of it?

OK: I don’t hear my first symphony now. Nobody plays it and I wouldn’t want it to be played. But I’m quite proud that I had the tenacity to get to the end of a half-hour piece when I was 14 . . . Because I find it very hard now.

AF: Is there anything that you recognise in your early pieces that is still part of your compositional make-up?

OK: There’s one thing I wouldn’t have recognised until a year ago, which is that what the piece is going to be made of is said at the very beginning, and in a very obvious way – I’ve apparently always begun by putting the cards on the table. Perhaps I should try something different.

AF: It’s very clear in your early pieces what music you love. In Choral, there’s what seems to me like a quotation . . .

OK: . . . from the Ligeti Requiem.

AF: No, I was going to say Bluebeard’s Castle.

OK: I didn’t know about that . . . Though I did like Bartók’s three stage works very much. But I remember going home from concerts and often thinking ‘I have to do something like that’. Nowadays if that idea came into my head, I’d make myself sleep it off. But it was like a momentary infatuation which can turn into something deeper. Did you find that?

AF: Absolutely! Although in fact the last time we really sat down and talked – about ten years ago, before I went to Australia – you told me you couldn’t pick any of the influences in my music. I took it to be a compliment at the time, but I’ve wondered about the remark since, and I’m not convinced it’s necessarily a good thing to find no influences in a composer’s music.

OK: Well, if it hadn’t been intended as a compliment, I wouldn’t have bothered to say it! This is a very curious thing. Birtwistle – who I think is a genuinely individualistic composer – says there’s something in each of his pieces which is under the surface, and which, by the next piece, has gone to another level, and by the next piece has reached the top; it’s a constant process of transformation.

I think if you start out writing pieces about other music, let’s say, you will add a certain gloss, which is unwitting. Maybe by the second piece the unwitting bit is at the middle level, and then, after say ten pieces, it’s taken over completely. I suppose I would hate it if someone said my music came from nowhere. And yet with one of the composers whose music I love above all – Debussy – I don’t really understand where that music comes from. By Debussy’s late pieces, I don’t even understand what it’s about. Listening to a Debussy étude is a bit like watching a film of Houdini getting out of an impossible knot.

AF: Which living composers were important to you when you were starting out?

OK: If, by that, you mean when I was a kid, then I thought modern music was what came off the radio. In the early 1960s, that was Britten and Shostakovich and Copland and late Stravinsky, also Schoenberg and Berg, of course – Herzgewächse and the Lulu-Suite in particular.

AF: What about the more ‘advanced’ figures in British music?

OK: Sandy Goehr’s Little Symphony and Violin Concerto I heard several times very early on. I knew a lot about modern music from articles in Tempo. For instance, I knew a lot about Nick Maw’s Scenes and Arias and about Max Davies’s Second Taverner Fantasia, before I’d heard them. When Ives’s fourth symphony came out on record it knocked me sideways and I’ve never been the same since. I was at rehearsals for the first performance of Tippett’s Concerto for Orchestra, Nono’s Canti di vita e d’amore, and Henze’s fifth symphony.

The two experiences which made me want to be a composer were going with my father to rehearsals of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder under Stokowski, and all the dress rehearsals for the first production of Curlew River, directed by Britten. All these things affected me in that one went home and tried to do something like them.

AF: You’ve been implying all along that music has a great deal of meaning for you, that your individual pieces have specific meanings. How is it possible to communicate those meanings unless you’re setting a text?

OK: I got into deep shit with Steve Martland about this. I’d been in Montreux with Sandy Goehr. Now if you walk a hundred yards up the road from Montreux, you’re in Clarens by Lake Geneva, where Stravinsky wrote The Rite of Spring. And there was this huge, placid lake, with these incredible mountains on the other side. The opening of the second part of The Rite of Spring is like that, I thought. Okay, perhaps I was conditioned by Walt Disney. Anyway. Steve Martland called up one day and I told him I’d been to Clarens and I said, ‘Have you ever thought that the start of part two of The Rite of Spring is like a very placid lake?’ Then Steve wrote an article in Key Notes magazine in Holland about the incredible parochialism of the English, and how I’d said I couldn’t believe Stravinsky hadn’t been inspired by Lake Geneva – which was not what I meant at all. The point is you think in a certain way when you’re in a certain landscape.

A couple of people have said to me that the pieces I’ve written since I’ve been out here [in Aldeburgh] didn’t sound like they’d been written in the city. Well, some of them have been written here by the sea and some were written in a tiny penthouse apartment in New York – which is actually also very quiet, because you’re above everything. By the way, I couldn’t write at all in Australia; I just wanted to lie in the sun or get in the swimming pool. It’s too nice out there.

AF: But, Olly, surely there is a difference between what you mean by your music and what an audience will hear in it. I once had a girlfriend who was very fond of Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio italien, and she played me her record of it and said, ‘Can you see the cowboys?’ Of course, I couldn’t.

OK: She’d heard too much Copland.

AF: Possibly. But isn’t there an inevitable discrepancy between a composer’s intent and what individual members of an audience feel the meaning of a piece to be? It you didn’t know that Sibelius was a Finn, would you hear Finland in his music or would you, perhaps, hear the Mojave desert?

OK: Well, that’s a very interesting question, because Sibelius, who is supposed to have been the echt nationalist composer, was in fact a great structural innovator. If you listen to the fifth symphony, I suppose certain landscapes might be evoked, but you also think, what an incredible way to combine a sonata and a scherzo! Or in Tapiola – which, I have to say, would be very hard to listen to and not think of snow – one also thinks, what an incredible way of fiddling with four notes! It’s hard to tell, because what we know about Sibelius is hard to escape, and most landscape-affected composers have worn [the influence] on their sleeves. But most late Stravinsky was composed a hundred yards from Sunset Boulevard.

AF: Can you communicate anything precise with music?

OK: If I were anxious to communicate a precise meaning, I would give away the poems I’ve set in Songs Without Voices and I’m not doing that. I want people to respond to the notes and draw their own conclusions.

AF: Is that fair to the audience? To tell them that you’re setting a text that’s meaningful to you, but to leave out the words and not let on what they were?

OK: I think so, in the sense that, with Songs Without Voices, people did at least say to me that they sounded like songs.

Andrew Ford is an English-born Australian composer, radio presenter and music writer

Oliver Knussen passed away on July 8, 2018. Read our obituary here.