An Interview with Frank Denyer

By · Photography © Suhail Merchant · Date 7/26/2018

Frank Denyer’s works draw from many sources. In the 1970s, he did ethnomusicological fieldwork with the Pokot tribe in Kenya. Studying at Wesleyan, he encountered musical giants Morton Feldman and John Cage, with Harry Partch providing undoubted additional influence. Hand-made instruments are a standard feature in his compositions. Combined with a Feldman-like approach to time, he displays an acute sensitivity to timbre and a determination never to conform to what is expected. Overlooked until recent shifts in musical taste, his distinctive works are becoming increasingly visible. His first recording on the label another timbre, of “The Fish that became the Sun,” is due out this fall, and a recent concert showed that there is obvious appetite for Denyer’s work. The late, eminent musicologist Bob Gilmore said, “There are signs today of a counter-trend, the growing recognition by a number of contemporary musicians that the body of work Denyer has created over the past 40 years is—just maybe—one of the better-kept secrets of English music.”I started by asking him about his recent orchestra works “The Colours of Jellyfish” (2010) and “Linear Topography” (2016)—before these, he’d always insisted he would never write for orchestra.

Frank Denyer 
Frank Denyer 

VAN: How did your first orchestral piece “The Colours of Jellyfish”—commissioned by Ilan Volkov for the Scottish Symphony Orchestra—come about?

Frank Denyer: Ilan twisted my arm to do that one. He rang me up and said, “I would like to commission an orchestral piece,” and I said, after a pause, “I think you’ve got the wrong guy. If you know anything about my music, you know that I don’t do anything like that. I’m not who you think I am.” The upshot of this conversation was that he said, “Let’s meet and talk about it,” and so we did.

I was quite determined I wasn’t going to engage with anything as stupid as an orchestral piece. Having turned down commissions for orchestral pieces before, I thought I had some pretty good objections, which I started to put to him. He wouldn’t hear any of them. I started by saying, “There are a lot of people in a symphony orchestra, I don’t think I can deal with so many people.” He said, “Well, anything more than 10 is fine.” I went on, “There are all those strings, all playing exactly the same.” He countered, “The piece doesn’t have to have strings at all.” “Well, I might want them all scattered around the place.”

You were trying every possible way you could think of to get out of the commission?

I went to extremes: “I might want them to stand on their heads, who knows?” “Well, that’s fine” [laughs]. “It might be really long, who knows?” “The length is no objection.” “I might have a choir.” “Oh yes, that’s fine.”

Every time I went completely over the limit—or thought I did—he said “fine.” So I went home thinking, “Oh God, I’ve got to re-think this entirely.”

You had to think up something really outlandish to get out of it?

No, I had accepted that there was nothing outlandish enough. I’d played all my cards [laughs].

Why did Volkov still want it?

I had said to him, overstating my case to make the point, that one of the reasons I don’t write for orchestra is I think the orchestra is an unhelpful institution. I don’t like how it’s set up with its ingrained conservatism and implied rigid musical attitudes, and I don’t think it has any future. “Yes,” he said, “the orchestra’s in crisis, that’s why I’m asking people completely outside the orchestral world, like you, to do something.” That’s how it went. But you can’t get rid of orchestras because apart from their wonderful repertoire, it is the one structure that allows a large number of players to work together.

What does the title “Linear Topography” mean?

It’s merely factual. The work is linear insofar as it consists of a single line, all the way through, mainly in unison. Absolutely linear.

But there’s more to it than that.

Yes, there may be other things. But a line is a line. Even if interruptions occur from time to time. A river is a river: it might bifurcate into little tributaries occasionally and do other strange things, but it doesn’t stop being one line. So that’s the linear part. The topography is defined by its characteristic shape and the features of landscape through which it flows.

It has these intercuttings that make it distinctive, in my opinion.

I don’t agree, it’s not really like that. Musically I seem to be defined by certain obsessions which recur from piece to piece, they don’t change. Occasionally I look up and think, “I haven’t really developed that—that part needs some re-thinking.” Some aspects are overlooked because I’ve been thinking about other things, like the line. There are two basic compositional components for me: one is linearity (since I began composing I’ve been composing lines as far as I’m concerned), and the other is the conception of time.

You’ve referred to Curt Sachs’s ideas about the most fundamental aspects of music being seen in limited note melodies and “tumbling strains.”

He believed it was one of the starting points, one of the basic motivations of music, one of the earliest musical forms that we can know about. Also, one of the most universal.

I remember quite distinctly: I was in India, it must have been around ’74. I was lecturing there. I had to present classes about Sachs and I remember sitting in my flat thinking, “What does a limited note melody mean? What is a note?”

Do you think you approach music from a more ethnographic perspective due to your work in Kenya, with the Pokot? Your piece “Whispers,” for solo voice, is ritualistic in character.

I’m not sure I know what this means. “Whispers” was a piece I knew I had to write for quite some years. I knew I would eventually write a solo piece, but I didn’t know quite how to do it. And when I did do it, it became a sequence of 17 tiny pieces, and, unlike most of my pieces, I composed it very fast—about four pieces a day or something.

You’ve referred to your approach as global, rather than parochial. That seems ethnomusicological to me in the sense that you work with music that is decidedly non-Western.

But it is Western—it’s everything. We can’t go on with this meaningless division into “Western” and “non-Western.” There is only a single human culture. Our roots are in that, just as everybody else’s are. It’s a common root that we all have; we all came out of Africa. The phrase I want to discuss is this whole notion of “other” cultures. What is “them,” what is “us”?

The world is very divided. How many of our colleagues know any musician in a different tradition like the Indian? The division between our life and tribal life in Africa would be an even bigger gulf and yet it is all one tradition, in one meaningful sense. It all comes from the same roots, the same concepts. The one thing that binds us together is, wherever we find ourselves, we know we can share that life has changed completely since the days of our parents and we don’t know where that’s left us; what the questions to answer are; what appropriate behavior is. We are constantly struggling as a society to go on, change is happening so rapidly. Somebody in a village in Afghanistan, or in New York City—these are common problems.

Do you have any remaining compositional ambitions?

I wrote a large piece for 35 musicians, “The Fish that became the Sun,” years ago. The majority are invented instruments, 89 new instruments, including eunuch flutes. Nobody knows what they are—I have all the instruments, they’re in my garage. At about 50 minutes long it has never been performed. The one thing I want to get done in this life is to get it performed. ¶