The BBC Music Magazine Interview
THE BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE INTERVIEW
Composer Jonathan Dove talks to
‘Ishould have probably cleaned what looks like blood off my hands before the photoshoot!’ Jonathan Dove has been correcting scores in red ink, and he apologises for the not-bloodstains on his fingers. We’re at his kitchen table in Hackney: a sparse and stylish apartment where the main event is a handsome grand piano. Dove pours out tea (rooibos earl grey) from a technical-looking teapot into mugs printed with a line of music from his latest operatic comedy, Marx in London. ‘Opening night gifts for the crew,’ he explains, with a smile that acknowledges the irony of Marx-themed merchandise.
Dove, one of Britain’s most compelling, accessible, prolific and socially engaged opera composers, is turning 60. It’s standard etiquette to say that someone
doesn’t look a certain age but he genuinely appears decades younger. We’ll come to the subject of birthdays and celebration and retrospection, but the most immediate concern is sitting in front of us on the table. It’s his latest album – a collection of orchestral music performed by the BBC Philharmonic and featuring two major works relating to climate change.
Hojoki (2006) is a piece for orchestra and countertenor about a 12th-century monk who experiences extreme weather events – ‘the kind we know we’re going to get more of in coming years,’ says Dove. ‘Earthquakes, droughts, fires. All of the predictions are coming true faster than anyone thought they would.’ Gaia Theory (2014) was inspired by the writing of James Lovelock, the veteran ecologist whose core assertion is that the earth behaves as a self-regulating organism and maintains surface conditions that are favourable for life. Lovelock describes us all being locked in a dance in which everything changes together, and Dove’s musical response is accordingly vital and optimistic.
Climate change awareness in the UK has shifted gear dramatically in recent
months thanks to the momentum behind Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion, but Dove has been writing his concern into his music for some time. In 2008 he was invited on a trip to the Arctic – a project called Cape Farewell, organised to allow artists to witness climate change firsthand. Alongside Martha Wainwright, KT Tunstall, Jarvis Cocker and the beatboxer Shlomo, he was guided up the coastline of Greenland. ‘So beautiful!’ he recalls. ‘Northern lights, phosphorescence in the sea. But the Inuit guide pointed out that it should have all been ice. I remember thinking back then, “this doesn’t have to be the end of the world if we act now”. But it seems like nothing has changed.’
The point of Cape Farewell was that climate scientists had been articulating their alarm for years and were looking for new ways to make their findings hit home with the general public. That’s where the artists came in. ‘For songwriters, there’s a tradition of protest songs,’ says Dove.
‘But how could I respond as someone who writes opera and concert music? It took me quite a long time to work it out.’ His first responses were allegorical. He wrote an opera called The Walk from the Garden, about Adam and Eve being kicked out of Eden. His outdoors opera The Day After retold Ovid’s myth of Phaeton, whose hubris essentially causes global warming. Now he’s interested in climate refugees, looking at the drama of human pain and resourcefulness. ‘Human drama is what opera is good at,’ he says. ‘I think it’s worthwhile telling these stories so an audience can place themselves in the first person of that story for a while. That’s what music can offer that maybe a news item can’t. It can let us sit with a subject. It can ask us to imagine being the refugees who are forced to leave our homes. Music can stir our empathy.’
Storytelling with a social conscience: that’s what Dove does best, and he gets away with it because he never lets his message tip over into earnest moralising. The refugee character in his opera Flight is depicted with compassion and dignity, a countertenor voice full of pathos. Marx in London is a surprisingly winning combination of farce and political doctrine featuring classic operatic tropes including the illegitimate son who turns up and pretends to be a piano teacher. Another aspect of Dove’s brilliance is his ability to tap an audience’s appetite. When he writes for children he doesn’t speak down to them, and he never lets the energy drop. In his opera The Adventures of Pinocchio (2007), he had the sense to do what Walt Disney didn’t: to leave in the darkest, most brutal aspects of the tale, to recognise that kids can handle it. The Hackney Chronicles (2001) gave nine year-olds the responsibility of not only singing, but also of running an entire opera company. When he writes for amateurs, he doesn’t patronise them – in fact, he recognises they bring a special vibrancy to the
stage. And when he works collaboratively, making community operas that gather music and stories from participants right from the start of the process, he says he thinks of himself as a modern-day public letter writer. ‘We all have music in our heads,’ he says. ‘I’m just lucky that I’m able to write it down.’
Dove grew up in Blackheath, London, where he learned the piano, organ, violin and viola and went to see every production going at the nearby Greenwich Theatre. He went on to read music at Cambridge University and study composition with Robin Holloway, then became music adviser to the Almeida Theatre. ‘I was a pretty late starter,’ he says. ‘I only really got going with composition when I was nearly 30.’ His breakthrough came when he discovered he could make the sounds he wanted to hear, not the sounds he thought he should be writing. That happened through working with dancers. ‘Imagining people moving to my music was exciting, and there was a freedom because I knew the audience would be watching the dance. It let me off the hook. I was able to stop worrying about whether I was advancing the history of Western music, whether I was allowed to make certain sounds.’
‘There’s always a voice somewhere – I won’t name any particular newspaper critics – that says modern music shouldn’t sound a certain way. I found that working in a context where critics weren’t even attending, and anyway where we were doing something more important, which was telling a story… I found that a very nice way of sidestepping the factions and the dogma.’ He describes feeling ‘as though there was a respectable avant-garde going on somewhere else, and that my music definitely wasn’t part of it. Eventually I accepted that the world is large and I learned it was OK that I was doing my thing.’ Now he acknowledges that he is probably perceived as being part of an establishment. ‘If you stick around long enough, it’s inevitable.’ Does that bother him? ‘I can’t claim these kind of thoughts have seriously got in the way. In the end, I can only write the music I want to hear, and if nobody else wanted to hear it, well, that would be bad luck.’
But people did and still do want to hear his music. His 60th-birthday year brings multiple celebrations: the BBC Singers did a concert in January; students at Trinity Laban did a concert in March; he has just taken the reins as artistic director of the revamped Salisbury International Arts Festival; and there’s more to come at the Lichfield, King’s Lynn and Cheltenham festivals (see ‘Whole lotta Dove’, p39). The party lasts through to December, when singers Nicky Spence, Claire Booth and Susan Bickley stage an all-dove song recital at Wigmore Hall.
How does it feel, all the laudatory retrospection? ‘I guess it’s rewarding to feel that pieces I wrote a long time ago still have a life in them.’ Is it like looking back over old photographs? Did he sound younger back then? He grins. ‘Definitely. I used to feel my idiom was suited to magic and comedy. Over time, the subjects I’ve taken on have demanded that I find darker colours. Writing a piece about living in Damascus, for example.’ He’s referring to
In Damascus (2016), a work for tenor and string quartet that faces up to personal responses to the Syrian war. The beauty of the score is its restraint. The words are direct and the music stays true to that. That’s maturity: the sense to not say too much. ‘I’ll go with that,’ he smiles. ‘I’m not sure I had the means to write that music earlier. I never want my pieces to be lectures or sermons.’ What’s the key to avoiding that? ‘You don’t pretend you’ve got the answers, but you can certainly ask the questions.’
At the heart of this year is a commission for the BBC Proms, joining up with the 90th anniversary of the BBC Symphony Chorus. ‘Basically a double invitation for some celebration music,’ Dove says. But when he learned his new piece would be opening a concert that also includes Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, his mind went straight to the text. ‘My first thought was: “Alle Menschen werden Brüder”. We are all brothers. Of course we are – we’re all descended from Mitochondrial Eve. At a time when national divisions feel to be increasing, remember how much we share? Now, that is something to celebrate.’
‘I stopped worrying about whether I was advancing the history of Western music’
With feeling: ‘Music can stir our empathy’
Opera talk: Glyndebourne’s general director Anthony Whitworth Jones chats about Flight with Dove in 1998
From where I sit: ‘I don’t pretend to have the answers’