The BBC Mu­sic Mag­a­zine In­ter­view


BBC Music Magazine - - Contents - Kate Molle­son

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’

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