Interview with the 2020 Tippett Medallist

The winner of the inaugural 2020 Tippett Medal is John Casken for The Shackled King, drama for bass, mezzo-soprano and ensemble based on Shakespeare’s King Lear. The jury stated: ‘The winning piece exhibited a level of creative excellence which was impossible to ignore. Imaginatively presented and ideally matching the quality of the composition, a piece which demands a rich future life.’ The following is a transcript of an interview conducted between the composer and RMA Student Committee member Niki Zohdi.

Niki Zohdi (NZ): Congratulations on receiving the Tippett Medal for The Shackled King! Could you describe what it means to you as a composer to receive the Tippett Medal?

John Casken (JC): I wasn’t expecting it at all! It means a great deal. This is the second medal I have won relating to British composers. The first medal I won was the First Britten Award for Musical Composition for my first opera Golem in 1990. It meant a lot to me to receive a medal for my very first opera in the name of a composer for whom opera played such an important role in his life. Many years later, to win the Inaugural Tippett Medal for a chamber opera is a beautiful coincidence. 

I first met Tippett when he came to the Bath Festival in 1980 and I was the featured composer. I wrote a piece called Firewhirl for soprano and small ensemble. I was very touched when somebody reported that Tippett enjoyed the piece and also said ‘you see, they are still learning from Stravinsky’. 

NZ: Is Stravinsky a composer whom you would pin down as being an influence on you?

JC: He is one of many. I think that his early ballets are magnificent – his grasp of ground-breaking rhythmic ideas from The Rite of Spring onwards and then when his pieces became much leaner from around about 1920 and his discovery of Baroque and Classical music injected a new clarity in his music; I admire that hugely. He was always reinventing himself and always looking for new ways forward. The journey he took from the early works to the late serial works was incredible. 

NZ: How did you get into composing? What fuelled this from an early age, and are these fundamental interests still there for you?

JC: I grew up in Barnsley and I wasn’t really interested in composing early on. I began composing rather late and was inspired by a combination of Delius and Debussy. One day, my music teacher at school wanted me to listen to Berg’s Violin Concerto and it completely blew my mind. I had shown a lot of interest in early twentieth century music, particularly Bartók. I didn’t know anything about Berg, but it was his way of balancing the intellectual side with a huge warmth of expression that I later came to admire and that made such a deep impression on me. It has always been an ambition of mine to try to be rational in my choice of notes but not to lose sight of the fact that I have to communicate feelings through music. If you don’t communicate feelings, there is something missing. 

I went on to study in Birmingham as an undergraduate and really struggled as a composer. For two years, I didn’t write anything worth listening to. In my third year, I wrote a piece for violin and piano called Proklamations (after Prokofiev) and it was a revelation to me that I wrote a piece which stood on its own. This gave me a lot of confidence and helped me develop rather quickly. I stayed on to do a master’s at Birmingham with John Joubert and Peter Dickinson. Peter made me analyse Boulez, Messiaen, and Stockhausen, and exposed me to Cage. One day, he invited me to his house to look at scores by Lutosławski and I felt as if a curtain was raised. It was avant-garde music with a deeply personal and poetic expression at its heart. That determined me to obtain a scholarship to study in Poland at, what is now called, the Chopin Academy. My teacher was Andrzej Dobrowolski who was very demanding. He would not let anything slip by and I learnt a lot from him. Eventually, I met Lutosławski and had many consultations with him as well as developing a close personal relationship. The musical journey, for me, was very bumpy with lots of stops and very rapid starts.

NZ: You mention the visual arts on your website and you describe your music as ‘windswept, dreamy, turbulent, melancholic and painterly’ – I find that these words perfectly sum up your music. What are your interests in the visual arts and how do they relate to your music?

JC: I continue to paint and it’s important to me. The thing about composing music is that you internalise the music, and it is only when the forces get together that you actually realise in a live environment what works and what its flaws are. It is very difficult to step back when your head is in the score. With painting, you can step back and see the whole thing – it is immediate. 

On the more creative side of it, there are similar things to consider between painting and composing. We talk about colour in music and we talk about colour in the visual arts, and they mean similar yet extremely different things. In painting, it’s about how things react to light and how they relate to one another. In music, harmony and timbre of instrumental combinations determine colour. In both the visual arts and music, we talk about contour, line, texture, density, and we are engaged in the same activity: composing a space.

I now compose instinctively meaning that often I don’t always know at the outset where the piece is heading. The intellectual process means that I have to be absolutely convinced why I have taken a particular road. With a painting, I know what my frame is and where my boundaries are. I know where the big shapes are and the little shapes are and how they can be composed within that framework to create, for me, a satisfying whole. Music, on the other hand, moves in time and plays with time and memory.

One thing I found with writing The Shackled King and working with Shakespeare’s text, and in my previous work for the same ensemble, Kokoschka’s Doll, the difference between the text and the music is that the music not only allows for characterisation but it also allows space. Music can freeze the drama or move it forward rapidly. You don’t really get that chance with a spoken play. In setting Shakespeare’s words to music, I could use interludes to stretch and freeze time. This is quite different from painting because one could say that painting freezes the whole thing anyway. I am fascinated by the similarities and differences between painting and music, and I find them wonderfully complementary. When I describe my music as ‘painterly’, it is to do with my thought that music without colour is impossible. Music with a sense of its inner harmony and resonance is something that I aim to achieve. In many ways, this is similar to trying to create a canvas where different colours are either consonant or dissonant with each other, reacting together creating varying tensions.

NZ: How did The Shackled King come about and what was your approach to writing the piece?

JC: Ensemble Counterpoise commissioned it. This is my third piece for the ensemble. The first, Deadly Pleasures, is a melodrama for narrator, saxophone, trumpet, violin, and piano with a text setting by D. M. Thomas from his novel Ararat. It was a real challenge to make this unusual ensemble work.

After this, Barry Millington, the director of Counterpoise, asked me to write another piece based on the life of the painter Oskar Kokoschka and his relationship with Alma Mahler. When he told me about it, I was very moved by the story. Sir John Tomlinson sang the role of Kokoschka and I created my own text by drawing on Kokoschka’s letters to imagine how his relationship with Alma Mahler may be represented through music. 

I had developed a strong working relationship with John Tomlinson. We recorded Kokoschka’s Doll in 2018 and afterwards John said to me that he was playing King Lear in a production where all the characters were going to be played by trained opera singers. Deborah Calland (joint-director of Counterpoise), with Barry Millington, had been thinking about using aspects of King Lear as the basis for another work and I was asked if this would be of interest, bringing their ideas together with John’s role as Lear. Also, I had seen the young mezzo-soprano Rozanna Madylus playing the role of Alma Mahler in Barry’s creation with his own text and songs by Alma, Zemlinksy, Gustav Mahler and Wagner – ‘The Art of Love’. Telling the story of Alma’s early life, this led naturally into the second half of the programme and to Kokoschka’s Doll. I loved Rozanna’s singing and she was developing into a very fine young performer.

So, the ground was set and the new work resulted in an exploration of the relationship between Lear and his daughter, Cordelia, and also Lear and The Fool. It was also John’s idea to begin at the end of the play when they are in prison together and then have flashbacks to earlier scenes. My idea was to replay the final scene a number of times as a kind of varied ritornello before the next flashback. 

John sent a draft of his ideas for the way we might use Shakespeare’s text but in a different order and then I worked on his draft and sent him my thoughts. The process of sending each other versions back and forth continued for some time until we were happy that we had the final text. A true collaboration. The final text is all Shakespeare but, as we say, adapted by John Tomlinson and John Casken. One of the challenges of working with Shakespeare is that the words are so fabulously rich and dense and symphonic, and setting them to music can take those qualities away. King Lear is a wonderful and devastating story and I felt I had two ideal performers in John and Rozanna. John would be the perfect Lear, and I was able to give Rozanna two characterisations: the beautiful and innocent Cordelia (and briefly the characters of Goneril and Regan where she had to be scheming and insincere). She also had to be The Fool and play the part of this rather cheeky philosopher. She was absolutely brilliant at playing all the roles. I hoped, when composing the piece, that the music I was writing would allow these characterisations to come through. 

With Kokoschka’s Doll, I explored the entire continuum between speaking and full singing, so you get spoken, rhythmicised speech, half spoken, half sung, sprechgesang and full singing. What I explored with John in Kokoschka’s Doll was how to transition from one to the other so it felt completely natural. When setting Shakespeare, this becomes an advantage because when you have dense and difficult lines, they can be spoken and when you have lines which need to be songs, the lyrical aspect can come through.

NZ: Have you felt a transformation in your approach to writing opera or music theatre from Golem to The Shackled King with God’s Liar in between?

JC: The great thing about working on Golem was that, before writing the work, I was very aware of the different musics that composers of my generation were writing that seemed to subscribe to the broad aesthetic of modernism. When I was writing Golem, I realised that I didn’t really care for this aesthetic anymore. Pierre Audi, who commissioned the opera for the Almeida Festival, said to me (as I was writing my own libretto) that ‘if the words are right, the music will be right’. Working on this piece and generally with stage works, it can open up enormously the range of expressive and musical possibilities. There are bits of Golem which sound very modern and bits which contain folksong and other very different styles.

When I got to writing God’s Liar, I was desperate to write another opera and nobody really believed that Tolstoy’s short story Father Sergius was a suitable subject. But then I asked Keith Warner, who had directed Golem with Opera Omaha, and he said it was just right for me. It has many possibilities and ethical questions in the text that could be developed into a lively piece of music-theatre. Again, I wrote my own libretto but this time in collaboration with Emma Warner, Keith’s wife.

Then the three Counterpoise music-theatre pieces came: the first is a melodrama, the second a monodrama, and the final is a drama for music. I resisted calling it a chamber opera for a while, but I think The Shackled King is a chamber opera.

NZ: The Shackled King was performed at the Northern Aldborough Festival in June 2022?

JC: Yes, that was the second performance. The first performance was at the Buxton International Festival in 2021 but John Tomlinson lost his voice. The performance was so moving because John was terrified that nothing would come out of his mouth. When he gave his first lines, Rozanna burst into tears because it was so moving. As the performance went on, he found one or two things he could sing. We went from the raging, angry and vengeful Lear to a rather frightened and diminished old man – it was spell-binding. Also, the chemistry between John and Rozanna was absolutely riveting. 

At the Northern Aldborough performance, John had recovered and gave the most magnificent performance. It was also meant to be performed at Wigmore Hall in January 2023, but John got COVID so the performance had to be cancelled. 

NZ: What a wonderful person and singer to work with in Sir John Tomlinson!

JC: He has such a wonderful stage presence. He is also wise, enthusiastic, and phenomenally intelligent. It is great when you’re working with performers who possess fantastic musical skills and the ability to bring something that goes way beyond the notes on the page.

NZ: You are currently an Emeritus Professor at the University of Manchester, and pedagogy seems to have played a big role in your career as a composer. Can you talk more about this?

JC: Teaching has been very important to me and I found it a way of learning. I started lecturing back at Birmingham in 1973 when I was only a bit older than the students I was teaching. I had a lot of catching up to do at the time and it was this catch-up that made me listen to and study all of the music I should have known years before that. I learnt an awful lot from my students. 

I currently run an amateur chamber choir where I live in Northumberland. We sing a wide range of music from Renaissance music through to the present day. It’s often very hard music, including pieces of my own and stylistically very different from what the singers may be used to. This means that I have to teach them how to sing this music, about the music, how lines and chords relate. I love being able to get a small choir in a rural community in Northumberland to a point where they can put on impressive concerts of unusual and interesting programmes.

NZ: Have you got any general advice for young composers?

JC: Do what you want to do but do it with a sense of determination. However, don’t be too influenced by others or by current trends. You cannot look for your own voice. If you have a personal voice, it will emerge and you have to build on that and build on it slowly.

Niki Zohdi is a composer, tenor and conductor born in Blackburn, England. He completed his music undergraduate degree and composition master’s degree at Goldsmiths under the tutelage of Roger Redgate. Niki is currently a practice-led PhD researcher in composition at the University of Leeds supervised by Mic Spencer and Martin Iddon, exploring collision and proximity in his music. He has also received tuition in composition from Chaya Czernowin. His music has been performed, workshopped and recorded in the UK, Europe and Israel by the Ligeti string quartet, Carlos Cordeiro, and Seth Josel amongst others. As well as being a composer, Niki is an active tenor both as a soloist and in professional choirs throughout Lancashire and Yorkshire. He is also on the editorial boards of Leeds Postgraduate Review and CePRA Journal.

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