Composer Francis Pott

On creativity, faith and the transcendent

SINCE A MID-LIFE CRISIS of faith drove him beyond established religion, composer Francis Pott’s choral music has become increasingly searching, both of the human spirit, and the ways of history in all its moral turpitude. His working process – eclectic, full of intuitive method, and open to postmodernism – has won him many accolades and prestigious commissions. Yet he wears his distinction with extraordinary lightness, and is a creative seeker of genuine spiritual and theological integrity.

We talk in his studio outside Winchester, surrounded by large exquisitely hand-written scores, neatly inscribed in sharp pencil; white light streams across the keys of a spotless Clavinova. As his conversation reveals, Pott is a deeply sensitive man of acute intelligence, not one to dismiss complexity or to settle for easy answers about the nature of creativity or his own journeying in faith.

FP: My decision to compose happened bit by bit. I was a chorister at New College Oxford. Most of us choristers tried to compose, but not that many carried on. The two of us who did were me and Howard Goodall. We used to compose in the same room at school, and he was always a splendid joker, as well as a serious musician. I remember that, if I got up to go to the loo, I would come back and look at my music, and – it was like a moment in The Shining – it was covered in sharps and flats, and I’d think, I must be losing it …

CC: At least he didn’t rub anything out! And did you then retaliate?

FP: I retaliated quite recently by informing him that he was entirely responsible for the formation of my adult style!

CC: Well, let’s look at that style. You could so easily have become a standard church music composer, but, as it is, yours has become a unique and dynamic voice. Were you ever consciously seeking that original voice, or did it naturally emerge from your musical personality and experience?

FP: I don’t think one can try to be original, and, well, in many ways you have to try not to be. It’s something that just happens – or doesn’t. I remember Robin Holloway saying that composition is like a great cauldron into which you throw all sorts of things, everything that’s influenced you, and you end up with a sort of eclectic soup. You stir them all around and what comes out of it is whatever defines you. But it’s a question of appropriating what’s valuable and rejecting what isn’t.

CC: Can you tell us a bit more about that process?

FP: Well, there are different types of originality. There are those pushing the envelope in all kinds of ways, and then there are those of us who turn back and seek the road less travelled. But one’s mature style is the sum many earlier compositional selves, any one of which may rise again to the surface at odd moments or in specific works’

CC: I sense you are a composer who is grounded in the Cathedral Tradition, and yet there is a real sense of a personal search. Would you say your style emerged as a by- product of whatever it was you were searching for? And might that have been something spiritual?

FP: I think that must have come later. But the desire to express myself in sound came early on. And I think it was something to do with the fact that, if you consider the history of specifically British church music, you could say there is a considerable vacuum between the post-Reformation period and the beginnings of folk-song-led modalities in the 20th Century And it makes one simultaneously very responsive to the old and the new, and the sense of the new reinventing something centuries old.

CC: As in the music of Vaughan Williams?

FP: Yes, and then I was fascinated by Kenneth Leighton, and used to have great fun imitating his characteristic discordant cadences, as a chorister. But I soon realized I needed to work harder at discovering exactly what it was he had borrowed from the past. It is clear there is a lot of counterpoint in it, and – I loved counterpoint. I was already writing fugues.

CC: How old were you at that point?

FP: I was thirteen.

CC: Did you ever feel under any pressure, later on, to engage with serialism, or developments in aleatoric or electro-acoustic music?

FP: If we’re pursuing it into the territory of individual composers, I’ve never felt any desire whatsoever to imitate Schoenberg. And Webern’s music is very epigrammatic, and so condensed it’s almost the extreme opposite of my own work.

There are of course purely pragmatic and common-sense things to be learned from serialism. There is value in simply considering that, if you write serially, you are not going to use any of the elements of the chromatic scale until you have used them all once already. It’s an approach to composition that, if it has any parallels in earlier music, goes back to the 16th Century and early polyphony, where the mathematical aspect was so much in evidence. It’s more akin to doing a Sudoku puzzle than the workings of intuition. I’m happy with the idea that one uses both, but if one uses one to the exclusion of the other, it seems, to me, to be becoming too mechanical.

CC: You are noted for having written some very large-scale pieces for massed forces, such as the Song on the End of the World(1999) and The Cloud of Unknowing(2005). How about small-scale? Are you interested in giving voice to intimacy?

FP: Well, I have written a number of pieces which are only two minutes long, but if you are known as the person who wrote the two-hour Organ Symphony (Christus, 1986-1990), you will never live it down. It doesn’t matter how many pieces you write that are only two minutes, you will always be that madman.

CC: You have contributed a chapter to Contemporary Music and Spirituality (co-edited by Robert Scholl and Sander van Maas, Routledge, 2013). Can you tell us a bit about your own take on the relationship between music, as an art form, and the spiritual? Or something about your own personal trajectory within those terms.

FP: My own spiritual starting point was within the Anglican Church. I was confirmed when I was 14, and real doubts didn’t set in until much later on. And when they did, I think that was because of the state of the world, and questions as to how a good God can either allow this to happen, or be powerless to intervene. And it’s also about the onset of a much greater intellectual unease, influenced by scientific rationalism. 

CC: Influenced by thinkers such as Dawkins, perhaps?

FP: Not so much Dawkins. As an agnostic, I acknowledge the rights of other people to believe otherwise, and I don’t feel Dawkins does that. I believe there is something positive and fruitful in the idea that one should care one way or the other. I think it was Paul Tillich who said that the only true atheism is not caring one way or the other whether God exists.

CC: But, for all your agnostic humanism, you still draw inspiration from aspects of the Christian tradition?

FP: Since I have had a bit of a parting of the ways with the Church, I am more interested in interrogating the state of the world through the prism of the Crucifixion and what it means emblematically. For example, the phenomenon of man’s inhumanity to man. It seems to me the lonely, suffering figure on the cross could just as well be the unknown soldier. I took on that ambiguity in The Cloud of Unknowing(2005). But I am not sure whether my parting of the ways is with God or just with the Church.

CC: There’s quite a big difference, isn’t there?

FP: Yes, there is a big difference. But I think my doubts arose when I was a lay clerk at Winchester Cathedral. It bothered me, say, that after I had an operation and the memory (or non-memory) of that kind of surgically-induced oblivion, I thought yes, that must be what it’s like when the light’s switched off. That must be it. I find it very difficult to grasp any notion of the resurrection, and it seems that if you’re not getting past that, you are not getting anywhere else.

CC: How, then, do you understand the word ‘spiritual’ in the context of your music? So many of the forms and texts you use are ones that are traditionally associated with the life of faith. The word ‘spiritual’ is often raised in connection with your work – can you explain it?

FP: Well, firstly, one should mention that it is difficult to get away from the fact that a great deal of what we regard as articles of faith have been written by composers in the grip of doubt or unbelief. Agnostics, or people who can’t categorize themselves. A contemporary example is John Rutter, who has said he feels more moved by the ageless grandeur of the liturgy than he does by religion itself.

CC: A cultural response, perhaps.

FP: Yes. But it’s not just Rutter, it’s Brahms, Vaughan Williams, Finzi, Howells, you know, a lot of composers who were essentially quite humanistic. And I honestly don’t know what I mean by spiritual, unless it’s something to do with an interior life.

Whether it’s co-existent with human life, or whether it’s an intimation of what could lie beyond, and what that might be like, it’s difficult to say. My music might conjure those images for other people, and that’s fine, but it’s difficult for me to say exactly what is meant by the spiritual.

CC: Do you think there has been a return to what people think of as ‘spiritual’ music since the1990s? 

FP: I think if you are divorcing spiritual from religious there is a strange and rather paradoxical situation, where there is an inarticulate thirst for spirituality of some kind, and yet an ever-more determined moving-away-from established religion, leaving people without belief systems. This encourages a kind of rather ill-defined, amorphous world music that is devoid of cultural references. I personally find some of this kind of music rather bland – it’s supposed to take you to some other place, but when I get there I want to come back pretty quickly… (laughs).

CC: There has definitely been a rise in the number of accomplished composers writing for the church. Gabriel Jackson, James Whitbourn, Bob Chilcott, James MacMillan, Eric Whitacre, and the list goes on.

FP: Well, these are quite a diverse group. Chilcott uses keyboard instruments a lot. Gabriel Jackson’s music is very polyphonic, and whatever he might say, it’s extremely skillfully conceived in terms of polyphonic texture, and extremely memorable as well. I think Bob is aiming at a different market.

CC: What typically catalyzes a new work, these days?

FP: My work is often prompted by a specific circumstance, such as a commission, which can shape the direction the music takes. For example, the piece I’ve just written, At First Light, which Commotio will perform next year, was a commission from somebody I’d known slightly for many years, in Philadelphia, and whom I finally met in 2012. Then he wanted a piece in commemoration of his mother. He wanted there to be a solo cello in it, not a piano, then he said: There’s just one thing about all your Latin polyphony, I’m Jewish, so – can you do it in Hebrew?

CC: Ah! Did you feel challenged by the prospect, and if so why?

FP: Yes, I said I can’t do those words, because I don’t speak Hebrew. The concept was so far from what I wanted to do, and from anything I thought might ever get performed again. So, the texts we used in the end – after a long collaboration – are ones that take you outside the specifics of any one religion. It is a collection of humanistic texts (for example there is poetry by Wendell Berry about following the dead to their graves) and is about human experience on a level that everyone can relate to.

CC: As a result of the current thirst for something spiritual, yet doctrinally neutral, it seems many composers are now borrowing the characteristic forms of expression of earlier generations – Latin titles, verbatim quotes, snatches of plainchant, that kind of thing – in a way that could be deemed merely consumerist or skin-deep. Do you think the thirst for spirituality is in danger of being exploited?

FP: In a word, yes. Something that can’t but rub off on you if you’ve been passionate about Byrd and Gibbons, and, of course Bach (whose faith sustained him throughout the course of his career) is the feeling that you are an artisan, and that what you are doing takes after figures who saw their work as a ‘giving back to God’ to the best of your abilities. And this might result in something quite rigorous and complex. Consequently it sticks in the throat when you are aware that a piece of music could have been written in the time it takes to perform it. It does something to your estimate of the value of the thing. For example, Tavener.

CC: Did you know John Tavener?

FP: Yes, he had a connection with Winchester Cathedral, and used sometimes to attend the choir’s recordings of his works. It would be a cheap shot to say, as people did of Poulenc, ‘Part charlatan, part priest’, or to compare him to Liszt who took only the vows that suited him, as a priest, that sort of thing. I think there was some shameless playing to the gallery, on John Tavener’s part, and yet there was also a genuine depth of faith. I think he believed utterly in what he wrote. I find some of it underwhelming in the extreme, and some of it absolutely heart-stopping. And there isn’t a distinction between those things in terms of complexity.

CC: Yes. So, why do you think that is?

FP: One can’t always put one’s finger on how he did it. He had an unmatched awareness of cathedral acoustics, and of spatial effects, and of how chords, that might sound horrible if combined simultaneously on the piano, might sound staggeringly effective if you placed two choirs at either end of the cathedral and let them resound in that space. In his piece As One Who Has Slept. Tavener seems almost to tap into something not unlike the sensibility of Bach … it is transcendently beautiful.

CC: With Pärt and Tavener, I think the public are very responsive to the sense that someone’s faith and life and work are all of a piece. I think it says something about the times we are living in. But don’t you think it’s also very easy to convey a sort of false sense of spiritual wellbeing?

FP: Yes, it’s possible this speaks to the same part of the popular consciousness as that which brought about a mass outpouring of grief at Princess Diana’s funeral. There’s a kind of need to be overwhelmed and brought low, for some reason that seems to lie outside the music itself. It’s not so much the message the music brings, as the pre-existent expectation that the music will be cathartic in some way.

CC: Absolutely.

FP: I think Arvo Pärt is an interesting case, as his earlier music is not very well known. Pärt wrote a number of really knotty and difficult symphonies before turning his back on this sort of language. His later music is like that game where you have a tower of matchsticks, and you take it in turns to pull one out, and don’t want to be the person who precipitates the collapse. It’s a case of, how much can you take away before the lineaments of it are lost and it becomes unrecognizable as music? It’s like something Alfred Brendel once said of late Liszt, ‘This is music that sits right on the edge of silence’. But there are more notes in Liszt.

CC: A lot more, I would think!

FP: Yes, but this is in reference to late Liszt which sounds nothing like his earlier music. It’s tonally unresolved music that just – hovers. There are a number of pieces about Venice that are chimeric and indistinct. Extraordinary. But, I find the idea of what Pärt is doing much more interesting than the result.

CC: You do occasionally use medieval Christian texts, yourself, I think? For example in your 2005 oratorio, The Cloud of Unknowing.

FP: Yes. The anonymous 14th Century text of The Cloud is remarkable, partly in that it is advocating the practice of faith above all through a very active, hands-on charity. It is an urgent plea that we have this narrow window in which to make a difference. This kind of Christianity seems to be much more compelling than its more passive counterpart. Perhaps it’s the case that if you look for a spiritual experience merely on your knees, you may not find it. But if you go into war-torn zones, with good intentions, as do Médicins sans Frontières, something extraordinary might happen. It’s like trying to be original as a composer, if you try to be, it won’t happen.

CC: Would you say that music is inherently spiritual, or transcendent?

FP: It inherently can be. But there’s so much tat around as well, so it’s not always the case. There’s something Matisse once said, though. Although he wasn’t sure what he believed in, he said that, to create something, you had to put yourself ‘in a condition of prayer’. And I think I understand what he’s getting at.

CC: What do you understand by the concept of inspiration? Is it something coming from within you, or externally? Do you believe in it?

FP: Yes and No. I believe in it to the extent that I think there exists a state of greater receptiveness. It’s a bit like drinking beer without swallowing. The idea that you don’t have to make any effort, it just happens. The sense that you could almost take it down by dictation. It’s not always the case that it’s particularly high-flown music, but … 

CC: Can you tell us a bit more about that experience?

FP: It happened to me with the last movement of the Viola Sonata. It just kept on coming for three days.

CC: Do you find you need to be alone for that to happen?

FP: Not necessarily. It can happen on a train, for example. But it’s the carrying on until it be finished that requires you be alone. It reminds me of something Vernon Watkins once apparently said to his wife, namely, that inspiration is like listening down a bad telephone line, with all the crackle, and then suddenly the line clears and the voice is speaking and you are scribbling to get it all down. Then it fades again.

CC: I think it has to be an incoming call, doesn’t it? So, we’ve talked about spirituality and inspiration. Can you tell us something about the origins and inspiration behind one of your more recent works?

FP: Well my 2012 piece, Word, was an unusually specific commission, by a clergyman and theologian, the Revd Dr. Nicholas Fisher. He wanted it to be a ‘meditation on the meaning of the gospels for a postmodern age’ including settings of five poems by RS Thomas, combined with lines from the Prologue to St John’s gospel, in the NRSV translation. When I heard this my heart sank – I love RS Thomas, but he is practically un-settable.

CC: What is it that is difficult about the Thomas poems?

FP: I suppose the rhythms are meant to represent the theological idea of Christ as stumbling block, and the effect of them is as though one were stubbing one’s foot against inconvenient truths. But it is rhythmically very, very counterintuitive.

CC: Did it take much longer than usual for you to work on?

FP: Well, I set about doing this, but it was very tough. It was partly the rhythmic challenges, and it was partly that RS Thomas sounds like a hermit sitting on the top of a mountain on his own! And it is this lonely, rather angry voice that is at odds with everything. You find you keep on wishing it were a solo, and consequently setting it like a sort of Greek chorus – which is a composite voice, yet one voice.

CC: So, quite a challenge for you to move away from polyphony.

FP: Yes, it was a case of thinking, I can’t do counterpart any more, so what do I do? I am so used to working polyphonically. But I just had to go about it in a different way. In the end, the bits from John’s Prologue are, not quite like chorales, but perhaps a bit like the spirituals in Tippett’s A Child of Our Time. But I also ended up looking at things like Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, as I really needed to get right away from counterpoint. It throws a much greater prominence onto the organ part, but not to an overwhelming extent.

CC: Are you happy with how it has turned out?

FP: The jury’s out really. Commotio are performing it in Oxford next month. We shall see.

CC: Do you think there is such a thing as a visionary composer?

FP: The most obvious candidate, I suppose, is Mahler. But I can’t think of anyone else other than – well, Scriabin and maybe Bruckner. But Bruckner doesn’t do it for me, I’m afraid.

CC: What do you understand by the ‘transcendent’ in music?

FP: You can make a case for it to mean different things. For example, it may mean something which sets its gaze on the hereafter, or it may simply mean something that, from the point of view of the listener, takes them out of themselves. But the latter threatens to confer transcendency on everything, or on more then perhaps deserves it. If it merely leaves you with a comfortable glow, rather than having actually changed you, is it transcendent? Feeling good is not the same as undergoing a kind of rebirth. And so much depends on one’s prior state of mind. And the same piece might have a completely different effect on different days.

CC: Have you been drawn to any non-Christian spiritual traditions, say of meditation?

FP: I think practicing [piano] is a form of meditation. I’ve got a book by Stephen Batchelor who is a kind of secular Buddhist, and where he has a chapter on the practice of secular meditation. I find that quite interesting. 

CC: And it combines well, I imagine with an open approach to both music and to other belief systems?

FP: Yes. I have been happy to proceed eclectically and without imposing any explicit doctrine on my work. My approach just emerges naturally from my practice and my interests. When you start out as a composer, you get a certain way before the question of whether anyone will ever listen to you ever arises – by when you are doing it anyway! Not long ago, I read a CD note on music by a rather splendid maverick American composer called Paul Schoenfield, and it said something like: ‘I knew long ago that Western music was all washed up, so I just carried on doing it anyway.’ But I think that’s an acknowledgement there might be a finite number of new angles and methodologies.

Francie Pott trained in the choir of New College, Oxford, then went on to Winchester, and then to Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he studied with the composers Hugh Wood and Robin Holloway. Some years later he joined the back row at Winchester Cathedral while holding down a lectureship at St Hilda’s, Oxford.

In 2001 Pott was appointed Director of London College of Music, in the University of West London. He now holds the LCM Chair in Composition.

Photo illustration by Rumen Mitchinov

Catherine Coldstream MONK

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