Wow. Americans ask much better questions than Brits at our gigs.
John Butt is about to direct a very different Night Shift on 22 November, which will see the dramatic work of Handel played in a totally different environment. We chatted to him about fears, rituals and Flowerpot Men…
How did you get into music?
My uncle was a professional musician and my father a very keen amateur. But the real catalyst was my fear of bellows, seeded by a particularly aggressive pair that once featured on ‘Bill and Ben the flowerpot men’. Soon after this ‘Blue Peter’ taught me that organs had bellows, seen in a visit to the organ at the Albert Hall and also central to the story of the composition of ‘Silent Night’ (when mice destroyed the bellows of the organ just before Christmas, necessitating the composition of a new carol). So, my fear of bellows became transmuted into my fascination with the organ – which I began to learn at 11. I still play the organ a lot, but don’t particularly enjoy listening to organs – just the latent power mania remains, I suppose.
When did you realize you wanted to make music your career?
Somehow my parents and I assumed I would be a scientist, like my father, and I even got a school prize for taking radioactive isotopes into school in wonderfully heavy lead castles (not sure school kids do that sort of thing today!). Suddenly, though, it turned out that, enthusiastic while I was, I was entirely hopeless at science and mathematics. Almost simultaneously, my organ mania took hold, and I also started to learn the violin and sing in a choir. Although I was never as good as I hoped (or even pretended to be) this route seemed the most promising.
What do you fear the most?
For myself, a loss of energy and ability (I feel that most of the things at which I am successful are only a matter of momentary luck!). But there are many far more important things to worry about in the world at large.
Which mobile number do you call the most?
My wife’s, Sally, by a very long way.
When you’re not busy practicing/performing, what do you like to do in your spare time?
Well, being active as an academic, many of my pastimes often become areas of study – so one of my great interests at present is Alfred Hitchcock and films in general. But this does appear to be becoming a bit of an academic field now (namely the relation between Hitchcock and the aesthetics of ‘absolute music’). Perhaps the only area in which my academic side is unlikely to intrude is my interest in classic cars – reading about them and driving them wherever possible. Unfortunately, my mechanical abilities are very poor.
Who’s your musical hero?
Bach is the figure I’ve concerned myself most – and his way of thinking (or organising thought), and embodying feeling in music is astonishing to me. But Bruckner remains my favourite composer!
Do you have any pre-concert rituals?
Not really – since working in so many environments in so many differing circumstances makes it difficult to be consistent. Good to lie down if I can…
If you could choose to work in a different profession, what would it be and why?
Well, I suppose it would be another area of academia – history, literature, philosophy or even theology – so not much of a different profession. I couldn’t really envision not working in music or academia though.
What are you reading at the moment?
I have to read quite a few things in music and associated subjects (bits of Merleau-Ponty’s ‘Phenomenology of Perception’ at present). But in literature I’m still on the last volume of the new(ish) translation of Proust – I’ve read the old Scott-Montcrieff translation about three times in the past. This latest reading has taken me about 8 years so far, so my Proust-reading abilities seem to be slowing down.
Who’s your favourite musician/band at the moment? (doesn’t have to be classical!)
I’m not very good at this sort of thing. My favourite band would have to be my 16-year-old daughter’s one – ‘Failure by design’ – which premiered at Arrochar’s ‘Three villages hall’ a few months ago. Unfortunately I’ve missed all their gigs so far, but I’ve seen a few clips, often have to drive them around to practice, and have heard them working downstairs.
In the classical field I suppose Gustav Leonhardt has been in my thoughts since his death earlier this year – I knew him fairly well and learned a lot when preparing choirs for him back in my California days. Although one does not have to agree with everything he did or said, there’s absolutely no doubting the enormous influence he held over multiple generations of music making in the Baroque field.
What’s the best thing about working with the OAE?
The freshness and sense of enquiry among all the players and singers. This group has a real self motivation, which it would be good to see exported far and wide.
Why should people come to the Night Shift?
Hopefully we’ll be able to make the music ‘happen’ in a way that makes live presentation really worthwhile. The one we’re doing features Handel’s maddest work – the Dixit Dominus – which pushes the conventions of its age to manic extremes. I hope the Night Shift atmosphere will really be able to capture that sense of wildness.