"I'm an old lion" Profile: Harrison Birtwistle

Photograph: Getty Images

“I find composing is either completely impossible or too easy – it’s never just running on the flat.” At 78, Harrison Birtwistle may have
a knighthood but he’s not ready to rest easy. The contradictions and tensions, even anger, that have animated his work since the 1960s still preoccupy him. Described variously as difficult, fierce, inscrutable and highbrow – both composer and his music make for a bracing afternoon’s company.

The composer William Walton once described Benjamin Britten as the “head-prefect” of English music. A few generations on and Peter Maxwell-Davies, current master of the Queen’s music, is surely the headmaster – the genial public face of classical music. Birtwistle, by contrast, despite producing game-changing works that include his 1984 opera, The Mask of Orpheus (hailed by the media as “the greatest achievement by a British composer in our time”), feels more like the staffroom contrarian – beloved of students and respected by colleagues but unwilling to indulge anyone, least of all himself.

“I am very wary of cliché”, he explains, Lancashire evident in his vowels and no-nonsense sentiment alike. “I think it was Auden who said that you spend the first 30 years of your career copying other people and the next 30 copying yourself. When my music feels as though it’s just composing itself, that’s when I get worried or start feeling guilty. I often worry that I’ve created a musical solution that I haven’t earned, that I’ve picked it ready-made from a bag rather than been true to the moment.”

This self-reflective critical instinct together with a robust disregard for outside opinion (the musicologist Nicholas Cook once described him as having “something bordering on contempt for his listeners”) have also played their part in Birtwistle’s lifestyle. A desire for solitude and nature seems the common link between the Hebrides, rural France and now the tiny Wiltshire village of Mere, where he has made his homes over the years. His current house, in a converted silk factory, is set back from the street behind a barred gate – a cast-iron discouragement to visitors. So what does it take to extricate him from his beloved garden and get him back to the concert hall? “An accident!”

There’ll be no escaping later this month, when Birtwistle appears in conversation at the Southbank Centre before a performance of his music by the London Sinfonietta. While protesting that it’s impossible for him to explain his own music (“I find things in my work once I’ve written it but I can’t subscribe to the assumption that, as a composer, I intended them all along”) he’s voluble in praise of the ensemble with which he has collaborated for 50 years. “So many of their ideals are also mine; they’re what you might call a composite virtuosity.”

Featuring Birtwistle classics including Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum (whose mechanistic processes, described by the composer as “cubist”, take their influence from Paul Klee), and the spatially dramatised Cortege and Five Distances for Five Instruments, the concert also premieres a new work. In Broken Images takes its title from a Robert Graves poem and its philosophy of understanding through confusion, creativity through chaos, resonates strongly with Birtwistle’s own processes. “It’s about juxtaposing something with its opposite, setting accidents against accidents.”

Relying for many years on charts of random numbers to generate musical structures (“I don’t need them any more, I can create my own random now”), Birtwistle embraces the anarchy of chance and rejects his authority as composer. “Rhythm is this arithmetical thing, so you set up certain relationships without the possibility of knowing how they’ll emerge. You put everything in a bag, then stand back and light the fuse.”

Birtwistle and Tony Harrison’s folk opera, Bow Down, on UK tour, extends that idea further. Improvised through workshops, the work was only notated after the first performance. “An intelligent performer would take the piece and push it in their own direction, would continue the improvisation.” Yet even Birtwistle has his limits. “I don’t care if a performance isn’t the exact published version, but if people are going to change it then they would have to come up with a version that’s better than ours.”

Of all the legends that surround Birtwistle – his anti-pop-music outburst at the 2006 Ivor Novello Awards (“I had drunk too much champagne and was being forced to listen to the most terrible crap”), his seemingly contradictory love of Roy Orbison (“His was a wonderful voice, a proper singer’s voice”), and a Desert Island Discs selection that included Frankie Valli alongside Schubert and the English renaissance maverick Robert Fayrfax, none is more enduring than the furore surrounding the performance of his Panic at the Last Night of the Proms.

Described in one review as “a musical up-yours” to the establishment, was the pulsing, shrieking Panic with its saxophone solo and drum kit really intended as such? “Absolutely not”, he says, seriously. “It wasn’t even composed for that occasion. I just wanted to write a dithyramb – a wild hymn to Dionysus. It was a bit of fun that got rather misunderstood.” Brightening up, he adds by way of afterthought: “It didn’t do my career any harm though”.

Reticent about his own music and uncomfortable discussing his future projects (a piece based around the Latin names of extinct moths, scored for female voices, alto flute and three harps) Birtwistle suddenly unbends at a passing mention of Schumann. “A fantastic composer. I’ve only discovered him properly in recent years but his Piano Concerto is one of the great pieces of music.” It’s all rather unexpected from a man who freely acknowledges that he “wouldn’t sit down with a glass of whisky and want to listen to a symphony”.

Schumann, Roy Orbison, a retreat from the wilds of the Hebrides to the Wiltshire countryside: has Birtwistle – as one music critic recently claimed – finally begun to mellow? “Whoever said that, tell him I’m an old lion; if he turns his back for even a moment I’ll bite his neck.” The composer smiles, apparently benign, but as I depart I’m careful always to keep one eye on England’s most ferocious classical voice, whose teeth are as sharp as ever.

“In Portrait: Harrison Birtwistle” is at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1, on 24 May