When did you first hear Radiohead’s music? I actually heard Jonny Greenwood play my own Electric Counterpoint without knowing anything about Radiohead. It was at the Sacrum Profanum festival in Kraków, and I was intrigued by this guy who had taken the trouble to record all the tracks himself – and he’s playing on the new album. I went online and discovered he was a trained violist and a composer, who’d become a rock star. There were all these rehearsal videos of them just dressed in t-shirts, no flying carpets, no ridiculous MTV effects, just guys seriously involved in playing, and I was impressed by the honesty of their music-making.
Why did those two songs interest you? They just said “Hey! we’re for you”. It’s three-chord rock, but harmonically unusual. I’ve fragmented the melody of ‘Everything in its right place’. The way the word ‘everything’ was tonic-dominant-tonic grabbed me: if you wanted to boil Western harmony down to its essentials that’d be it. I liked the elusive harmonies in ‘Jigsaw Falling into Place’; they appear slightly altered in all three fast sections.
The new album is recorded by Alan Pierson’s Alarm Will Sound, but your own ensemble is still very active?
Too right. My ensemble has just been involved in three days of concerts at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) to celebrate Nonesuch’s 50th birthday. We have a lot to thank [Nonesuch founder] Bob Hurwitz for. The record business is dead, the internet swallowed it up, so the survival of Nonesuch is miraculous `– except it’s appeal is so clear. One individual with that level of vision and commitment can make all the difference. Bob Hurwitz was always led by a simple dictum: if I like it, I’ll record it. And he took the absolute best of what he liked, be it rock groups like the Black Keys, Stephen Sondheim, Jeremy Denk’s incredible Goldberg Variations or the works of Riley, Adams and myself.
Why the choice of instrumentation for your new work Quartet? When most people hear the word quartet they think two violin, a viola and a cello. I see two pianos and two vibraphones! If you think of The Desert Music, Daniel Variations, Double Sextet, Music for 18 Musicians, they all have that core rhythm section of two pianos, two mallet instruments. In this piece I make that driving force the focus. I love the boppa bass piano can give you, along with its lightness, and the silvery sparkle of vibraphone, with its potential to vary articulation and sustain sound with pedal. Colin’s fantastic to write for because he’s both a remarkable virtuoso and an ensemble player.
Colin Currie has said it’s one of the freest pieces you’ve written? Well, it’s certainly one of the most complicated I’ve ever done. There are a lot of rapid key changes, which isn’t like me, and there aren’t long periods of continuity. It’s like a dance piece, and fairly difficult to perform, so I’m very curious to see how Colin and friends will work it all out.
You are still composing at quite a rate, what other ambitions do you have? My and Beryl Korot’s video opera The Cave is in partial hibernation in Frankfurt at the moment, and I really hope it will have more outings. It’s never been more topical, more urgent: its focus is the birthplace of Abraham, which is in modern Basra. The first Gulf War was starting when it premiered. Look at what’s happening there now. I’m afraid it will never lose its relevance. We’re hoping for a major presentation in New York in 2016. We’re working on getting it down from five screens to one, so it can tour more easily: when Beryl and I worked on it in the early 1990s the technology was just not there, but it’s improving all the time.