Grove Conversations: Paul Griffiths
Paul Griffiths at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, 2010. Painting: Howard Hodgkin, Where the Deer and the Antelope Play, 2001–07, oil on wood, 2.038×2.67 m; © 2012 Howard Hodgkin, courtesy of Gagosian Gallery
In February 2012, the Grove Music Online editors talked to the contemporary music scholar about his multi-faceted career and his involvement with Grove in print and online.
Paul Griffiths has had a profound influence on the coverage of music since 1900 in Grove, and consequently on music scholarship in general. Like many of the young editors hired by Stanley Sadie to pull together The New Grove beginning in 1973, he was fresh out of school when given the enormous challenge of planning out the scope and depth of an area not already comprised in the dictionary. His writing and his coordination with scholars in many countries set a high standard that Grove Music Online continues to emulate in updated and new entries on living musicians and composers. While he continues to contribute to Grove, he has become a prolific author and editor on music, music critic, novelist, and librettist.
Deane L. Root
Editor in Chief
Last year, OUP released the third edition of Modern Music and After. Originally published in 1981 as Modern Music: The Avant Garde since 1945, your book has remained the definitive text on post WWII music. In the thirty years since the first edition, how has your thinking about post-war music changed as the music itself has evolved?
A lot, of course. But also not so much, as comparison of those editions will show. The 2011 version takes over a good deal from the 1981, reflecting my view that the music written in the fifties and sixties by composers such as Boulez, Nono, Berio, Stockhausen, Ligeti, and others remains important to us. Also, with rare exceptions (many of Ligeti’s works, for example, or Berio’s Sequenzas), this music has not been assimilated into musical culture. It may even be less known now than it was in the seventies. The book tries to make a case for it, and for later music that responds to it, or that seems to spring from the same fundamental doubt.
In a way the success of the modernist enterprise makes any current appraisal of it impossible. IRCAM’s ‘Brahms’ website documents the work of more than two thousand living composers, so that, if we assume each of them to be producing an hour of music each year, one would have to spend six hours a day listening to new pieces, each just once, in order to keep up. In that respect alone the situation has changed drastically since 1981.
Do you think critical writing about music is better or worse than it was thirty years ago?
The same, because there will always be good writers. They are just more difficult to find—and have probably disappeared from newspapers.
Have you ever had a composer react badly to something you’ve written about him or her?
Yes—and I’m sure this has happened many, many more times than I know. One who did write to me was Stockhausen, but only because what I’d written about his Harlekin had been—leaving out the qualifications, of course—presented by a German news agency as a frontal attack. Here we are again with how the world has changed since, in this case, the mid-seventies. Can one imagine an agency in Angela Merkel’s Germany rushing to publicize disparagement of Wolfgang Rihm?
In addition to writing scholarly books and articles, you’ve written many liner notes for recordings. Your program notes for the Miller Theatre at Columbia University won you an ASCAP-Deems Taylor award last year. Is it different writing for the broader audience?
I think any difference comes essentially from the topic, the function and the genre. A book is different from a review or a program note. A brief introduction to music since Debussy is different from an essay of similar length on the work of Alexander Goehr. A program note has a job to do: to encourage and inform but not direct the listener’s experience. A dictionary entry is a different thing. Beyond that, I work on the principle that if I can understand what I write (and generally I can), then so can anyone with an adult level of literacy.
You are kind enough to mention this award—the first I have received for writing about music. There is an irony attached, maybe more than one. I’ve been writing program notes for forty years and must by now have done several thousand, on music from the ars subtilior to works by composers now in their thirties. Just once do I write on something by a rock musician (Lou Reed) and I get a prize.
You are also a novelist. Your most recent novel, let me tell you (Reality Street Editions, Hastings, 2008) is made up of words taken only from Ophelia’s lines in Hamlet, which you remaster in a variety of ways. Your approach to the text would seem to have some things in common with the compositional techniques of some of the 20th-century composers you’ve written about. Was it inspired by the musicians you study?
Certainly my writing in all fields has been influenced by all the music I’ve heard—perhaps most obviously, I’d like to think, in matters of rhythm and phrasing, but also where questions of form and technique are concerned. The guiding idea in let me tell you—that of using a limited repertory of elements (in this case the 480-odd words spoken by Ophelia in the Shakespeare play)—has parallels in Cage, Messiaen, and Boulez, to mention three composers on whom I’ve written. What also appeals to me—in their work and in that of Ligeti or Berio—is the use of a highly formal device to put together something that sounds immediate, unconstrained. And because one of the words Ophelia has is “music,” I was able to say things about that.
As a librettist, what kinds of adaptations do you make to your writing style to accommodate the different composers?
I’ve been lucky in my collaborators—Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Tan Dun, Elliott Carter, Frances-Marie Uitti, Ludwig van Beethoven, and currently James Wood and Hans Abrahamsen—but each case is different, because one tries to write something to suit the individual concerned. For example, Carter wanted a comedy, and it seemed to me essential to try to give him opportunities for the separate time-streams he's so good at. But it's always working in the dark to be writing words that must be consumed by music you haven't heard. Mozart and Beethoven were easier collaborators in a way, because they'd already completed their share (unfinished Italian comedies and insert arias in the case of the former, Egmont and other theatre music in that of the latter). Currently I'm working on an opera after Gulliver's Travels with James Wood, who wants most of the libretto in invented languages (Lilliputian, Brobdingnagian, etc.), and a concert piece for soprano and orchestra by Hans Abrahamsen. Nothing is more satisfying—if also a little melancholy—than hearing one's words disappear into a beautiful vocal line.
Tell us about your involvement with Stanley Sadie and the first New Grove (1980).
Grove was my graduate school. I started there at the age of twenty-four and a half, and within weeks had full responsibility for the twentieth century (excluding the U.S., which was an area on its own), i.e., for about 10% of the book. My top musical qualification was Grade VI Piano. (I’d studied biochemistry at Oxford.) Well, this is autobiography, and boring, but it may give some idea of Stanley Sadie’s openness and generosity. He had a total ignoramus in front of him, but he trusted me, and somehow it worked. I learned a huge amount about music at Grove, and a huge amount about writing.
Stanley was up to speed with every area of the dictionary, so that he could identify problems with copy in an instant, and he was ready to discuss basic matters of policy with his juniors on a completely equal footing—though he could be sharp when he knew he was right.
The Grove office of the seventies was compact: we occupied a suite of six or eight rooms, and there were about twenty of us working there full-time. Most of us were in our twenties, and so regarded Stanley as an avuncular figure—a role he played rather well. It was a family business. Area editors, generally working outside London, dropped in from time to time. We even saw the fabled Wiley Hitchcock, in charge of U.S. entries. Some contributors, too, paid us a call. It was all very human-scale. Not to be forgotten, too, is the guiding influence exerted by someone who wasn't at all a musician but a professional publisher and a man of generous humanity and wide culture: Richard Garnett.
What do you think of the ways in which Grove has changed over the last thirty years? Do you have any advice for its current (and future) editors and contributors?
I have a fondness, of course, for the edition on which I worked for six or seven years at a crucial point in my life—not only for that reason but also because we still believed then that we were making something for the non-professional as well as for scholars. Later Grove teams can hardly be blamed for how much the world has changed, but I would like to hope that there could again be a time when knowledge could be transmitted beyond the bounds of the academy.
I think many of us would agree that we live in a time when the economy of wealth has been stretched, the rich now richer than they were, say, forty years ago, the less advantaged less advantaged. I believe this to be true also of the economy of knowledge. Maybe there isn't too much we can do about the economy of wealth, but as scholars, writers, and editors we do have it in our power to spread knowledge a little more widely than the culture would seem to like at the moment.
This goes back to what I said before. Let's try to think not just of our colleagues, not just of our students, but of somebody in a library somewhere who simply wants to KNOW.
This is the first in what we hope will become a regular series of interviews with Grove Music contributors. If you would like to suggest a contributor to be featured in this space, please contact us at email@example.com.