From The Wicker Man to the First Night of the Proms – meet Gary Carpenter

Laurence Joyce meets the British composer before the premiere of his new work at the opening night of this year's Proms

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July 2015 is proving a good month for the composer Gary Carpenter: SET, his concerto for saxophone and orchestra went down a storm in Strasbourg at its French premiere played by Iain Ballamy, and on Friday 17 July his new work Dadaville, a BBC commission and the first of 32 new works at this year’s Proms, receives its first performance at the hands of the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo.

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But you could be forgiven for not having heard of him. A friend and contemporary of the better-known British composers Simon Bainbridge and Oliver Knussen, Carpenter has spent the past 40 years largely out of the limelight, quietly getting on with the business of being a professional composer. During that time he has written six operas, five musicals (including The Streets of London and Goodnight Mister Tom), a radio music drama with Dame Iris Murdoch, and more songs, chamber music and orchestral works than you can shake a stick at.

But his musical career got off to an unusual start. One of his first professional engagements after leaving the Royal College of Music was as associate musical director on a new film to be shot in Scotland and starring Christopher Lee, Edward Woodward and Britt Ekland – The Wicker Man – for which he was paid the princely sum of £35 a week.

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“This was my first job after college. It was the only feature I worked on for many years. I was young and impressionable: I had a lot of responsibility for the music when I hardly knew which way was up and, in any case, whoever forgets their first experience of being screwed?”

The core group of musicians (Gary Carpenter, Peter Brewis, Ian Cutler, Michael Cole and Andy Tompkins, among others) appear throughout the film, both in the Green Man pub and elsewhere as part of the Scottish island community, contributing greatly to the film’s parochial atmosphere – menacing though not without a certain humour. That’s Gary on the clifftop in the final scenes, strumming a Nordic lyre as the late Christopher Lee leads Edward Woodward to his fiery destiny. 

Dance has played a big part in Gary’s life. From 1976 to 1979 he was composer in residence for Nederlands Dans Theater and in 1981 was one of eight composers chosen to attend the International Summer School taught by John Cage and Merce Cunningham at Guildford, where the evenings were devoted to performances of works composed and choreographed that day. The music and choreography were made separately. At the beginning of each evening, John Cage would pull composers’ and choreographers’ names out of a hat to decide what music would be heard with which piece of dance.

On one evening, a German composer had conceived the idea for a piece that he would perform on the cello from notes passed to him by the other composers while the dance work was in progress around him on the stage. On the spur of the moment, and in less than a minute, Gary mischievously wrote a piece that required him to completely retune the cello strings before he could perform it. And the worst of it was, he had to retune again before playing the next piece handed to him.

He was head of music at London Contemporary Dance School from 1981 until 1985, setting up instrumental and vocal lessons for the dance students and teaching musical history with special reference to dance. He enjoyed hugely the experience of working with some of the most promising dancers from around the world, some of whom have gone on to prominent positions in the fields of opera, dance and commercial music theatre – Ron Howell, Struan Leslie, Maxine Braham, Aletta Collins.

More recently in 2011 he composed a work for the London Symphony Orchestra, Fred and Ginger, inspired by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In particular he was taken by something said about their dancing by Bob Thaves (1982): “Sure he [Fred Astaire] was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards . . . and in high heels.” Gary was fascinated by this idea and used the concept in his compositional process for this piece. 

It’s the kind of ambiguity/contradiction that still interests him. I overlapped with Gary at the RCM back in the early 1970s, when he wore velvet sports jackets with jeans (clearly the mark of a genius) and had many favourite words, one of which was “ambivalent”. (I had to look it up – I was 18.) More than 40 years later, something similar has provided the inspiration for his new work for the Proms: Dadaville. 

Gary again: “I came across Max Ernst’s Dadaville at Tate Liverpool by chance and was seduced by the name before I’d really looked very closely at the artwork – which I’d assumed to be a painting. The BBC wants titles of pieces quite early on, so I gave them Dadaville and then started to worry about the music. Revisiting the Tate for a closer look, I realised it wasn’t a painting at all but a sculpture and that the seemingly impenetrable iron curtain that takes up most of the visual space was in fact made of a cork so fragile that it needed to be kept behind a glass frame for fear it might crumble if touched. This ambiguity (or contradiction) fascinated me and provided one of the two starting points, the other being the notes D and A.” 

I’ve had a sneak preview of Dadaville and like all Gary’s music it’s witty, intelligent and superbly crafted — a miniature masterpiece that will set the standard for the rest of the new works to be heard throughout Proms 2015.

It’s a far cry from The Wicker Man.

[Gary Carpenter is a professor of composition at the Royal Academy of Music and a Visiting Professor in Composition at the Royal Northern College of Music.]

The First Night of the Proms is shown Friday 17th July at 8pm on BBC2

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