Howard Skempton in conversation with Esther Cavett: it is about time

Howard Skempton has contributed to British musical life for more than half a century, as composer, performer and commentator. His output includes pieces for solo piano, accordion, cello, and guitar, chamber ensemble, orchestra, and voice.

In the early Summer of 2016, Skempton met Esther Cavett—who conceived the idea for an (auto)biography about Skempton, undertook the transcriptions within it, and compiled its materials—in order to discuss the nature of the project. The following is an edited transcript of their conversations, showing their hopes for the project and giving a flavour of how it eventually turned out.

Howard Skempton in conversation with Esther Cavett

EC:  I thought it would be useful to have a discussion about the nature of our book project now that we have a general sense of what it might look like.  You and I plan to have a series of conversations about specific aspects of your life and music, and I have now had confirmation from a group of experienced commentators, Matthew Head, Heather Wiebe, Arnold Whittall and Pwyll Ap Siôn, that they will contribute reflections on our conversations.

HS:  Inventive thinking is what the book should be about, and the idea of making sense of what goes in to creating music, what we are doing with it.  I’m convinced the reflections will form the main substance of the book.  I love the idea that your and my discussions might, as it were, prompt good thinking.  And to that extent, I would like to provide no more than is required to do just that.  The facts of my life and music may be of interest, but they are not primary.

EC: Effectively there will be “parallel processes” happening in the book.  First, there will be our conversations. These will go through your life and music in roughly chronological order but not, I hope, in the old-fashioned, “life and works” kind of way. Our conversations will start each of the main chapters, and the second half of each main chapter will be a “reflection” on our conversation by another commentator. The reader can either read our conversations sequentially or read each chapter as a conversation and reflection on related topics. There will also be a chapter where I interview people who have commissioned and performed your music, because they will bring their own perspectives. The book will finish with your authorised list of works and a discography.

My hope is that the book will prompt consideration of how we write about a creative life, and the process of creating such knowledge.  I used to do a lot of work on Mozart, and became fascinated about how myths were created around his life­–or should I say lives, because there have been so many different views of Mozart created over the centuries (from Nissen and Niemetchek to Hildesheimer and Eisen), not to mention of his music.   I am looking forward to seeing what comes of this collective effort of understanding you and your creative output. 

The last chapter of the book, not mentioned in this transcript because it was not in the original proposal, is Cavett’s reflection on the nature of the project post its completion.

HS: So, this project could be a case study which is not so much about me as about writing about a creative artist.  I would have liked to read such a study when I was a young man. I was very interested when I was young in certain books on composers.  Arthur Honegger wrote a book called I am a composer.  And there were Copland’s books on composing, too.  I was interested in what characterises a composer’s life, what form it might take.  And that is not what is normally discussed in a book on a composer’s life and works. 

EC:  Looking at the book’s outline, you’ll see I’ve suggested it starts with a timeline of key dates in your life and events in the world around you which you consider had some impact on you.  We can talk these through when we meet later this summer.

HS:  This list of key dates could be extremely simple.  Indeed, in a sense, my list of compositions is my biography.  My CV has reduced in this way because I lost interest in other things.  But I could put in important performances.  Maybe I could put a general note in of places I went to which had an influence on what happened later in my life, and people I met who were important to me. 

In the event, Matthew Head and Cavett, as co-editors, tracked Skempton down at a conference, like a couple of investigative journalists, jotting Skempton’s timeline on the back of an envelope as they walked together through the Yorkshire Sculpture Park–as memorialised in Plate 1.3 of the book.

Howard Skempton in conversation with Esther Cavett

EC: The other part of the book we should talk about is the end of it: a list of your compositions.  This will be as inclusive as we can make it, so consisting of published works, but also unpublished ones if you have a record of them.

Head complied an “authorised worklist” for the book, and also a discography of Skempton’s recorded music, as Appendices 1 and 2. 

HS: My friend Laurence Crane made the list up to about 1991.  From that date I noted the titles and year, of everything, even birthday tributes.  It is just scribbled down on bits of paper.  They are in an envelope and it is bang up to date, except for my most recent work which is my latest string quartet, called Moving On (2016).  I have everything.  I’m also very happy to consider how particular works relate to earlier works. It is what you do as you get older as a composer, you start working in your own tradition.  I’m very aware of how works relate to what I have done before.  I am interested in this.  I think one can rightfully call this my research.  What am I exploring in this or that work.

EC:  Do you remember all your compositions? 

HS:  I remember a lot of them.  I surprised myself recently, because all my accordion pieces which I played in a concert abroad, including my unplanned encore, I played from memory.  I don’t practise very much, so I suppose they are hard-wired somehow.  In a related vein, I tend to work and re-work the piano pieces at the piano, and on the whole a lot of those piano pieces are fully committed to memory before I put a note on paper.  Or I may have something on paper to begin with, but usually I work on them for a day or two in my head after that, until everything has been fully resolved, and in that process, one has committed everything to memory. 

EC:  Do you keep newspapers clippings about your music and performances?  Will I be able to rifle through them for information about you if I want?

HS:  I don’t go out of my way to look for reviews and keep them.  But we only have to google these to find them, except of course older things.  I don’t have a scrap book.  I don’t keep these things.  I have old files, labelled “reviews”, but I can’t even remember where these are.  I put things in storage boxes so that I can see the path ahead of me.  I am only interested really in meeting my next deadline or writing a good piece.  And so, it is hugely important to me that I get everything in order­­–but not yet.  That is the trouble.  In fact, it is also important that I tackle my “to do list”, because that gets me down. 

It is about time, or lack of it.  There was someone who wanted to seek out everything I had written, but that didn’t happen.  My wife believed very much in filing.  She didn’t pile things up as I do.  I am quite organized, though.  I do file.  Indeed, you have a very fetching blue file, with your name on it.  I brought new files recently, and I wrote neatly on them.   Blue is restful. 

The book concludes with a select bibliography which includes references to key writing about Skempton’s music.

EC:  I assume you know Kipling’s Just So Stories? What I love about that book is not just the stories, but also the wonderful illustrations and the captions to the illustrations with the authorial voice saying such things as “O best beloved, in this picture you will see . . .”, so creating a reflection on the action of the story, a moment of repose.  I would like the reflections in our book to create moments of repose, and perhaps the reader will be stimulated to have yet further thoughts when looking through the illustrations at the beginning and end of each chapter.

Illustrations give a documentary quality to the book since they are largely informal snapshots of Skempton as a young man, and more recent photographs by Julius Weinberg of the contributors of the book in conversation with one another; the book also contains images of original manuscript scores of six previously unpublished works by Skempton.

HS:  The musical quality of those Just So Stories is wonderful.  The repetition.  “By the great, green, greasy Limpopo”.  The incantatory quality of the story telling.  It is a marvel.  This is what children’s story telling should be like.  And, of course, we remember rhymes which have silly things in them, such as A.A. Milne’s What is the matter with Mary Jane. I love reading this poem because of the way the repetition is varied.  And it is the enthusiasm of the adult reader and the sound of the reading which excites the child.  I would love our book to have something of the sound of storytelling in it.  I suppose I will be telling my story.  We will have to see how that turns out.

Howard Skempton in conversation with Esther Cavett

EC:  Often I will pick up an unfamiliar book because its cover catches my eye. Then I will look at the contents page and then often flick through the index.  Just to get my bearings.  We should think about what would be nice to put on your front cover. 

The front cover shows a sketch of Skempton by his mother, who was a significant influence and support in his early life.  The back cover has a “ribbon” of small images of Skempton and Cavett in conversation.

HS:  The index is another important thing. I said to the publisher of the Cornelius Cardew biography [by John Tilbury (2008)] that the index should consist mainly of names.  I can imagine referring to a lot of contemporaries in discussing my own work.  Of course, you are then immediately inviting the possibly of comparison and contrast.  It is very interesting to check the index of any book about a composer.  You can explore the index as you might explore a dictionary.

The index was created by Marie-Pierre Evans too late for acknowledgement in the book, but whose skill is gratefully acknowledged here.

EC:  I have a quick question on chapter four, on “influencing”.  This will have a different focus because it will be about how you teach. 

HS:  This is a distinct area of the book, yes, but there is a continuity in that I suppose I teach as Cardew taught.  The most important thing about Cardew was the way he encouraged.  Feldman remarked on that.  He was such a fine example at that time.  As a teacher he would encourage you to take part.  I mean, I was involved in premieres of his work from the outset.  It was incredibly exciting.  I went to London at the age of 19 and a few weeks later I was involved in the premiere of a work called The Tiger’s Mind.  I played the part of the Mind originally.  It is the most beautiful text.  Published in The Musical Times in June 1967.

EC:  You even know the month.  Your sharp memory will be useful when I come to check details with you.

HS:  Yes, I have a good memory for dates and for numbers.  I remember the birthdays of people I hardly know.  I remember bar numbers of pieces I wrote 30 years ago.  June 1967 is the month I actually met Stockhausen.  I arranged to meet Stockhausen via Cardew.  Cardew did teach at the Royal Academy of Music, where he had a rather unconventional approach.  But the way he taught me was quite different, I think because he used to see me privately.  It was much more relaxed and informal.  He didn’t keep his distance in quite the same way.  It was a private arrangement and he said he would only see me once every few weeks when I had something to show him and that he would adjust the fee accordingly.  I must have shown him one or two things at the beginning which reasonably impressed him and persuaded him to take me on.  He immediately involved me in putting on concerts, and his approach and the first things he had to say were about notation and about presentation.  About what it is to be professional.  T0his is how I teach now, which is probably why I didn’t do composition teaching in earnest until I became well established myself.

Looking back over my life, as I will need to do for our book, I feel like the robot Marvin in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy [Douglas Adams].  He said the first twenty million years were the worst.   I’m really happy now.  Obviously, I’m anxious about the next stage, the next piece.  There is always that thought that “at last I’ve met my Waterloo” and so on.  I’m under great pressure to produce the current piece for instance.  The deadline is now past.  So, I’ve now promised to send as much as I can to the processor tomorrow. I’m half way through the first of three settings.

Howard Skempton in conversation with Esther Cavett

It has been an extraordinary year.  And last year was an extraordinary year as well.

EC:  Well I hope you have many more of them.

HS: I’m afraid I can only do all this work on my own terms.  If I write a programme note it has to be written in the way I want it.  I wrote a note for my string quartet recently.  I talk about familiarity and unfamiliarity.  It is not a typical programme note.  But whatever way I do it, it all consumes time. I spent two hours this afternoon, doing my emails.  I promised myself I would not do emails at all.  But I looked and once you look you then spend hours on them.  At least I composed this morning until 2.00am.  At least I don’t have a smart phone.  But when you do look at the emails, they nag at you.  These everyday things, which mean a huge amount.  They are very important.  It is very important I send a birthday card or do a reference.  It does give you a lift when you do something to help someone.  I would rather get up at 6.00am and make up the time then.  One suddenly becomes aware of the time.  Or the washing.


Esther Cavett is Senior Research Fellow at King’s College, London. Her book Howard Skempton: Conversations and Reflections on Music, co-edited with Matthew Head, is available in hardback from Boydell Press.

Howard Skempton’s music is performed by leading artists and recorded by, amongst others, Sony and NMC.  There are informal recordings of his work on YouTube.

Howard Skempton: Conversations and Reflections on Music
by Esther Cavett
Edited by Esther Cavett, Matthew Head
Hardback / 9781783273218 / £33.75 or $60

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