Despite having had over six hundred performances throughout the world since its premiere six years ago. Peter Maxwell Davies‘ highly-acclaimed opera The Lighthouse arrives in Glasgow for the first time this month. Perhaps even more significant for its composer, however. is its next destination — Orkney‘s St Magnus Festival. It is now ten years since the festival, now internationally renowned, was founded by Maxwell Davies, but the earliest seeds of its conception were probably planted long before that.
In the early Seventies, his repressive music schooling in his home town of Manchester far behind him, ‘Max‘ as he is affectionately known by colleagues, was living variously in London and Dorset. ‘It was noisy and not quite working. I wrote an awful lot in ‘69 — a fantastic amount of music, and I really wanted to work my way through these terrific ideas I seemed to be getting, but quietly and in peace. And I was on holiday in Orkney — not really thinking I would find anywhere to live — and one of those extraordinary things happened. I went out to Hoy and saw this house, which had no roof, no windows and no door. had a stream going in one end and out of the other, was on the top of a cliff, and I thought, this is where I want to write music. Four years later I moved in - and that‘s where I‘ve written all my work.‘
He still lives there for over half the year. The crackly phone line that connected us was not to his own cottage however, — the nearest British Telecom gets to that is an isolated phone box - and he was just about to disappear out of technological reach. Why this self-imposed exile? ‘First ofall. having to work just without distractions: no telephone, no electricity, collecting and sawing up wood, digging peat, carrying water — all those things, I think give you a very good sense of proportion. And also, I think, with no mechanical sounds, you really do learn to listen. You listen to yourself for a start, but also to the sound of sea, wind — just the natural sounds which seem to clean your whole being out. And I
think it was a tremendous point of renewal for me. People in cities, I think, listen to different things and at a different pace. Even now when I go over— I‘m going over tomorrow - it will be a couple of days before I can really listen properly.’
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Sarah Hemming talks to Peter Maxwell Davies whose opera The Lighthouse comes to Glasgow’s Theatre Royal for the first time on 20 June.
Living in Orkney has had a profound effect on his music, the austere beauty of the islands constantly inspiring him, the folk music, atmosphere, poetry of Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown and ‘a tremendous sense of the past‘ all influencing and reemerging in his music. From his love of the place grew the idea for a
festival. ‘I thought it would be nice to :
do a festival where first of all we could involve the local people and then in a way say thank you for the inspiration which I‘d got out of the place. At the very first one, we did the opera The Martyrdom of St Magnus based on George Mackay Brown‘s novel Magnus, and I remember feeling terribly nervous conducting that in the cathedral with the bones of St Magnus in the pillar nearby. I kept feeling that he was going to lean out and say. “No me boy, it wasn’t like that at all . . .".‘ The supernatural really did seem to appear during the premiere of The Lighthouse, however. Based on fact, The Lighthouse tells the spine-chilling tale of the mysterious
, disappearance ofthree lighthouse
keepers from the Flannan Isle
lighthouse off Lewis in 1900. The I uncanny event so frightened people
that the lighthouse has never since been manned— the light becoming
: fully automated. On the night ofthe
opera’s premiere it unaccountany went out. Had that frightened him?
: ‘It gave me pause, put it like that.’
His own version offers various
. possible explanations, but no real
’ answer: ‘Really it’s a psychological : drama going on inside the minds of E the three people caged together in
i that way.‘
It is an intense, gripping piece, that
seems to pin people to their seats
I wherever it goes. Though Maxwell ~ Davies’ music is complex, often
; demandingly so, he feels that it is
readily accessible to people, and the powerful effect of The Lighthouse is testimony to the fact that music can suggest psychological states to people that are beyond the power of words. ‘You can create so much atmosphere, so many tensions inside music. I think ideas don‘t necessarily have to be verbal ideas - an idea can be a visual idea, it can be a sound idea and it can be pretty powerful and can communicate. And being a composer. halfyour thoughts at least are concerned with that kind of sound image that expresses a state of mind in purely musical terms.‘
He does speak, however, unusually immaculately phrased prose, his manner precise but friendly. He laughs readily and an irascible anti-pomp and circumstance streak of humour has characterised much of his music. One of his earlier works started with the unlikely subject of a No 11 Bus, while Jimmy the Postie, a concert overture to be premiered at this year‘s Festival, describes his Orkney postman: ‘He‘s full of humours and a
very individual kind of island character. I’ve written a piece which I think reﬂects some of his characteristics.‘
And how does Jimmy take to his prospective immortality? ‘Mixed feelings, I think. He doesn‘t know quite what he‘s in for. I‘m hoping even he might like it.‘
Not everyone in Orkney has welcomed the festival with open arms, however, and it still has its opponents. Mindful of this, perhaps. Maxwell Davies tries to keep out of
I the limelight to some degree. This : year, although several works of his a will be performed — most
importantly a new violin concerto to be premiered by the Royal Philharmonic with Isaac Stern as
soloist and Andre Previn as
5 conductor— he himselfwill not
conduct much. ‘I try very hard not to hog this festival. It would be very
easy as Artistic Director to be seen to i
take over too much. though it is very important that we do some of my work because that attracts sponsorship, which I realise from a purely pragmatic point of view.‘ Island life, however, has changed
even in the time he has been there. In '
Into the Labyrinth, a work for solo voice, with words by George Mackay Brown, he lamented the inroads being made by technology on the islands. He also intends to help give voice to Orkney‘s views about Dounreay. Ask him about it and his voice changes timbre. ‘Oh they are absolutely against Dounreay. Desperate. I was reading today that the sheep on the hills around
Cumbria have got so many bequerels '
of radioactivity in them now that it‘s beyond the level the EEC will allow for human consumption. It would be an end to fishing and agriculture in Orkney, and probably mean the end of the community as we know it.‘
BACKLIST TO THE LIGHTHOUSE Composer Peter Maxwell Davies.
TO THE BOOKSHOP
Alan Taylor on some sporty tomes.
TO THE DISCO .
Late night Terp51chore.
TO THE SMOKE How to get to London.
TO THE TELEPHONE
Ring up some food
The List 13— 26June 33