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John Butt is currently with us conducting our tour of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio which has its last performance tonight, in Southwell. We put our speed interview questions to him:
What/when was your big breakthrough?
Well, I’ve had some fortunate opportunities in several aspects of my career, but I suppose as a conductor, the most significant was the first recording I did with the Dunedin Consort (Messiah in its Dublin version, 2006), which got a couple of major awards.
What do you fear the most?
In terms of performing, about which I tend to be quite intensive, it’s probably about having a complete energy block. This does happen often in everyday life (owing to an underlying condition) but never, so far, in performing or rehearsing. I suppose, in general, I fear most a decline in physical and mental abilities.
Which mobile number do you call the most?
My wife, Sally’s, by a long way – she’s very fond of the phone.
What – or where – is perfection?
Difficult one – I tend to think of it as an infinite process rather than as something that’s ever achieved. Bach’s attitude to composition is an obvious example of this – I’m sure that if he were still alive he’d still be working on the same pieces. And, if perfection ever seems to be achieved, isn’t it often a little dull? Performing with period instruments is an excellent case in point: you give up some of the perfections of what some might see as technical ‘progress’ (in terms of both instruments and the playing techniques), but gain other types of perfection in terms of tone, intonation, articulation (and, not least, the enquiring attitude of the performer). With older types of tuning you get some intervals that are acoustically close to perfect, but others that definitely aren’t, and these often have expressive connotations – thereby heading in the direction of yet another type of perfection…
Who is your favourite hero from fiction (book/comic/film/opera) – and why?
Undoubtedly ‘Marcel’ from Marcel Proust’s great novel. He’s a bit of a weed in many respects, but what a complex, detailed and wonderfully ironic weed! No-one else captures so strikingly the paradoxes of consciousness and the little inconsistencies and delusions that we all try to hide from the world.
What’s your favourite ritual?
Depends what counts as a ritual. Reading in the bath seems to be a regular one. And many years ago I started to learn tai chi, which I still try to practise (unfortunately, not every day at the moment); among its many other benefits, there is certainly a ritualistic element, in the sense the you follow a prescribed sequence of movements that modifies your state of mind. I have always had a weakness for the most elaborate of Christian liturgies too, although I fear my appreciation is largely aesthetic.
Which living person do you most admire (and why)?
Another difficult one, given that I spend so much time admiring dead people. And many of the living people I admire are personal acquaintances who do remarkable, but unpublic, things against all odds. There are obviously plenty of musicians, academics and world figures whom I admire, but I suppose those whom I admire most at the moment are the types of people who are trying to make sense of our world and its historical/cultural situation, and who fumble for possibilities for the future: Fredric Jameson, Jürgen Habermas, Noam Chomsky, people like that – but it’s hard to make a single choice.
What other talent or skill would you like to possess?
Musically, I’d love to have better pitch memory (in fact, musical memory in general) and to be able to improvise much better. I could be infinitely better at languages and have a more mathematical brain too. It would be good to have some (any!) athletic skills as well. Sounds as if I’m a bit short on most sorts of skill…
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
That it’s worth having ambitious and goals, and working towards them, but not to be surprised if achieving them is in some ways disappointing or unpleasant. I remember desperately wishing to be the organ scholar at King’s Cambridge during all my teen years. Once I got there, I had probably some of the worst experiences I’ve ever had, beginning virtually on day one, but also many unexpected good ones – and of course a whole body of musical and personal experience that I could have acquired virtually nowhere else at that age. And of course it opened the door to so many opportunities I didn’t know I wanted (such as becoming an academic). And becoming an academic made me want to become a different sort of performer. So perhaps it’s a matter of combining enthusiasm for the possibilities at any particular moment with a sense of flexibility in the face of the unexpected.
What is the most played piece of music on your MP3 player or in your CD collection?
Bruckner – symphony 5 or 6, probably (or 8, or 3 perhaps? I’ve lost 9 and don’t particularly like 4). I can’t understand why so many people find Bruckner boring.
What’s the best thing about working with the OAE?
The opportunity to work with fantastically experienced, enquiring musicians, who together form a band that it is universally respected for its initiative and flexibility.