Julian Bream on World Travel, Compositions for Guitar, & Cricket

Julian Bream playing a lute
Julian Bream playing a lute
Interview by Colin Cooper & Maurice Summerfield | From the February 1986 issue of Classical Guitar

Julian Bream: The beautiful spire at Salisbury is falling down. They’re all working like mad to raise some money for it. Of course, it’s an enormous undertaking to repair it, so I’m doing a little concert in the Trinity Chapel, situated in the cathedral. I’ve checked the sound, and it’s very nice, very intimate. I’m doing that on Saturday, just to raise a bit of dough for them, you know.

Then I go to America, and then to Japan. First I go to California, that’s right, and then, after, Japan—where the hell?—Hong Kong and Taipei and Singapore on the way home. Quite a long trip.

So that’s what’s on my mind at the moment—if anything’s on my mind.

Note: This is part of our ongoing series celebrating the legacy of Julian Bream, who passed away this year at the age of 87.

Colin Cooper: Do you still enjoy all this travelling?

I can’t say that I do. On the other hand it is one’s job. And I’ve done it for a very long time now, so that probably if I didn’t travel around I might easily fall to pieces, psychologically. I have to say it gets tiring, particularly the change of hours and that sort of thing. I sometimes find that very, very tiring. So I have to space my concerts and pace my life, and when I go from one continent to another I have to take extra care.

For example, my next tour is in California, but I will first go to New York because I have to sort out, amongst other things, some tax procedures. I’m taxed in about twelve different countries. It always seems to me very complicated. I have an accountant in America who deals with all that. In the event that’s not a bad idea because it means I’ll stop a couple of days in New York and get used to that time change, which is five hours, and then I’ll go across to California, where I’ll stay with a friend north of San Francisco for a few days, and then hopefully I’ll have got largely into that time zone.

Then I’ll start my tour of California. After half a dozen concerts I’ll leave San Francisco for Tokyo, I’ll give myself five free days there. In effect it’s four days, because you go through the International Date Line. So you see, I’m very careful to give myself time. It is important. You find that you’re working when you’re supposed to be at optimum form, at four o’clock in the morning UK time, or some ridiculous hour like that. The old body’s not used to responding that fast. So I’m very careful.

Mind you, I’m also very fortunate to be able to organise it like that. A lot of performers actually have to take the date when the date comes. Then you can be in all sorts of jetlag trouble. But I plan everything two years ahead of time. Of course, agents naturally always want you to play every night. I’ve never done that. I’ve never done concerts back to back, as they say, at least not for many years. I always have a rest day. In fact it very rarely is a rest day, because you’re travelling, but it does enable you to get your bearings when you’ve got to a new city and of course practise a bit and generally settle in. So I am fortunate like that, and I find that absolutely essential if I want to be at my best.

Maurice Summerfield: Does plane travel worry you?

Not really, no. I consider myself to be in the lap of the gods when I’m travelling by air. But I do take a lot of work with me to occupy myself. I’ll be taking some old lute book with me on this trip, and I’ll be putting the music into staff notation, and things of that nature. In fact, on one round-the-world trip I did three years ago I transcribed a whole Schubert string quartet for two guitars. It was a perfect jet job to do, particularly as the last leg of the flight was 40 hours, can you imagine. I found it was a marvelous exercise. I had to pull the whole string quartet to pieces and then re-assemble it on two guitars, making two interesting parts, not having one play the top two parts and one the bottom two, but to amalgamate the work so that it was a concerted duo. It was very stimulating to do. Luckily I can read scores quite easily, so I didn’t need an instrument near at hand.

In fact I enjoyed doing it so much that I was rather grateful for the tour. And in the event it worked quite well.

CC: Didn’t you and John Williams play it at your 50th birthday concert at the Wigmore Hall?

That was the piece. But I must add that to sit down and do something like that takes a lot of time. There are of course certain little projects you can stop and start within an hour or so. But there are also certain things that you’ve really got to carry on with. It’s a bit like writing: you’ve just got to keep the flow going. A great aeroplane trip like that was the perfect solution.

CC: Have you any such plans for this trip?

I have bought a rather beautiful 10-course lute which I had made for me by a very good Swiss maker called Luc Breton. There’s a whole lot of literature for 10-course lute which I really couldn’t tackle satisfactorily with my 8-course instrument. I can read from tablature, but I always like to see the music laid out on bass and treble clefs, so that I can see the whole contrapuntal view. So that’s what I’m going to do on this particular trip.

I’ve done a number of little jet projects like that. When I had to learn the baroque guitar for this filming on Channel 4 (Guitarra!), I hadn’t as much time as I would have wished and, you know, I had to learn the bloody thing! And that takes time. The whole instrument has a different sort of feel. So I took reams of Gaspar Sanz’s tablatures on tour. Instead of utilising valuable time at home sorting than out, I sorted them out on the plane.

I think it’s a great thing to be able to utilise time. I find time a very remarkable and immensely valuable gift that we are given. On the other hand, to have time to reflect is very important too. I’m quite happy doing nothing. In fact, I’m most happy doing nothing. And I make sure that I do have a little bit of my life where I can just fiddle about in the garden or simply do nothing. I find it’s important. The world is so compressed these days. So much is sort of required of you, in a strange and somewhat threatening way. Whereas in the ‘60s one’s life seemed very much more relaxed.

It’s a global village these days, with jets and communications and telex machines bouncing off satellites. We don’t necessarily realise the compound situation of it all as it slowly evolves over the years. And that can make life rather more intensely complicated for the internationally travelling artist.

Therefore I think it’s important to have certain times when you, as it were, go blank. You empty out all your feelings and thoughts. Also, for guitarists or lutenists, there’s a hell of a lot of preparation of music. You might do an arrangement, you know; you get the idea, and you make a pencil rough of it, and then you try it over. You fiddle with it. It can take a long time.

You need reflective time, just for ideas to seep into you and to find out the most imaginative way to do things. Then, when you’ve done that, you’ve got to make a fair copy, and then you’ve got to learn the thing. Whereas most pianists just go to Augeners or Schotts or wherever and buy Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, or something like that. It’s on the shelf.

But if you want to play Cordoba by Albéniz, and want to arrange it yourself, then you might get other versions to see how other people have done it. Then of course you’ve got to have an original piano version yourself. The whole thing can turn out to be a terrific production if you’re a guitarist!

Then of course you’ve got to learn new works when nobody’s done them. You’ve got to use your imagination. When a new work is written, it’s a new challenge. Not just to play the notes—that can be hard enough—but to make musical sense of something that’s new. I sometimes think pianists and violinists have got it easy from that point of view.

When I think of what I did on that Spanish series on TV, the amount of notes I actually wrote. All the old music transcribed—it’s no good giving vihuela tablature to a recording producer or film director. He wouldn’t know that from a slice of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

So just preparing the scores is a time-consuming operation. Yes, time is a commodity to take care of—even to cherish.


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MS: Isn’t it a case for having an assistant?

Actually, I’ll let you into a secret. I like the whole idea of physically doing it myself. But you have to prepare yourself, or your life, in such a way so that you can manage to do it. But I have to confess that I do enjoy doing it. I’m not very good in any case at delegating work, by nature. For example, I’m won’t let anybody touch my rose garden. Now that has to be ridiculous. Surely somebody in the garden can clip a few flowers or prune a few bushes? But I’ve got a thing about that. It’s got to be done properly, or at least what I call properly. All that cutting that goes on throughout the year has got to be done how I want it to be done. So I’m landed with having to do it myself. It’s bloody stupid, really. It’s possibly a personal psychological fault, but I do get nervous when I have to rely on other people doing something which I could do myself. It’s not a clever thing by any means. It’s just how you’re made. I suppose one is born like that.

MS: If you’re passionate about something, you don’t want to entrust that passion to anyone else.

Perhaps, but there are times when you may be too passionate about something. And there must obviously be times when you could faithfully entrust a project into other hands. But I actually like writing; I like the physical thing of doing it. And when you’re writing it yourself, you know, you learn about it, the music, in a strange way—the architecture of the music.

CC: You have composed, haven’t you? Do you still?

I write a little bit. Not very much. It’s like some physiotherapy. I get some ideas, and it can be such a bore because I may want to get on with something else. I then have to sit down and write it out. It may be only four bars. It may be just two. But I get it down, particularly if I think it might be an interesting idea. Then perhaps some time later I will look at it again, and try and develop it into some sort of compositional form. I find that the hardest. To get ideas is not all that difficult, but to make a composition I find jolly hard, because that’s what composition is—composing parts and putting them together. I find it very hard but nevertheless stimulating. It’s a great challenge. And when I’ve finished it—and, alas, a lot of pieces are left unfinished—I get sort of bored. I chuck it in a drawer and lock it up. There have been many compositions I’ve started, and I think, well, one day, you know…

I just get stuck. I think perhaps I’ll take it on holiday, to the seaside, and look at it again—but, you know, I never do.

MS: Has anything been published yet?

Oh no. I wouldn’t do that. I just don’t think they’re good enough. They’re exercises, really. Having had a number of pieces written for me—and I’ve often worked quite intimately with composers on a variety of pieces for the guitar—I think it’s very important to know how the mechanics of composition work. You may not be very good at it; you may write rather bad or boring music, but you know at least how it works. It’s like learning a foreign language. You learn the guitar. You may have a terrible accent, you may have a very limited vocabulary, yet you learn enough about the grammar to make some cohesive sense of what you’re trying to say. And if you’re working with somebody else who knows his musical grammar a damned sight better than you do, it can be a most stimulating affair.

I did study a bit of composition when I was a student at the Royal College. I found the whole idea of studying composition infinitely valuable later on. Not actually so much for my own little efforts, but actually to understand other composers’ music and just to be able to help them or try and see what they’re trying to get at.

Sometimes a modern score can be rather obscure when you first look at it. Yet you’re bound to form opinions about it, and that initial opinion actually can be a little dangerous. Because a new score can breed a reaction, in a strange and not always positive way, perhaps because you feel uncomfortable or insecure with new ideas you have to address yourself to. And sometimes composers have got new ideas and new things they want to say. But you’re not quite abreast of it, and therefore it’s no bad thing to be familiar with traditional compositional procedures. It can act as a good springboard into uncharted land.

CC: In that sense, should every guitarist be a composer?

Not necessarily. But it’s like many things in life; the more you know about it, the more enjoyment you can get from it. For example, I’m crazy about cricket. So crazy that I actually play the game.

Every time I play a game of cricket, I put my whole career in jeopardy. But it’s because I have a tremendous urge to do it. I only take really what one might call calculated risks. Touch wood, I’ve been very lucky. I’ll never be able to play again, because of my recent arm injury, but I’ve had tremendous enjoyment from it, because I’ve studied all the technique of batting and bowling, very sedulously, if that’s the word. And I often go to Lords when I have a little time in the summer. In fact, I go every year to the test match there. Love it. I can see by the way a particular batsman is batting, the problems he’s having to face over a particular bowler, or maybe the pitch is in a certain condition and the ball is doing strange things—I’m absolutely absorbed. And I get a fantastic enjoyment out of watching. Many people may go to a cricket match and just love the game for the game’s sake, and if it’s a lovely day there can be no more pleasant way of spending a beautiful Sunday or Saturday afternoon. Now they may get probably as much enjoyment as I do, but I suspect not. Because I really get a terrific enjoyment from knowing what the batsman is doing and how and why he does something beautiful, or is trapped with his knickers in a twist.

It’s a heightened enjoyment. And I believe that in music, as indeed in any art or any pursuit of any hobby whatever, the more you know, the more you enjoy. At least I think so. So I feel, for example, that a serious instrumentalist who really wants to know about his or her art should study a little composition. They may not be good at it, they may be very bad at it, but to know how it’s done, or roughly how it’s done, gives you in my opinion another profound insight into things.

But it can also add greatly to the enjoyment. Going back to the rose garden, I’ve read books on pruning, what manure to put on, when you do this and do the spraying and all that. Well, you know, I get such a kick out of that. That’s why I’m in the stupid position of not letting anybody touch them.

I do believe that the more you know, the more you enjoy. And I think that every musician—I’m not talking about an amateur musician—any musican who comes out of the royal schools of music should know something about composition if they’re going to become professional players, or if they want to. While it’s not vital, as has been proved, I just think it may add a great deal to those individuals who can summon up the enthusiasm to do so.

CC: Cricketers of course have had to cope with the different techniques of the one-day game. Have guitarists had to make any radical changes like that?

No, I don’t think so. I think what has happened in this case is that in order for something to survive, it’s had to change. Although one’s frightfully idealistic and all that sort of thing, the best insurance for survival is money or the making of it. I was just thinking the other day, when I was in Italy, about all those 16th and 17th century German lute makers who went down to northern Italy—you can’t say it was just because of the weather. They went down there obviously because there was a demand for good lutes. And the indigenous wood was good, naturally. But I suspect they went down there largely because of commercial attractions; there was a demand for their instruments. I feel pretty sure of that. They wouldn’t go there if there was no demand, would they? Yet I do believe that all those factors like wood and ideal humidity—they all came together. But there were also the wonderful city courts where they engaged those fantastic players and composers, and the standard was obviously phenomenally high. So all those guys trekked down from Germany and set up their workshops there. You could say in one way that it was the financial or the commercial possibilities that encouraged them, and that I can believe.

Has anything happened in a poor country of any great cultural value? All art seems to flourish in conditions of relative peace and prosperity. You see it today. For example, London was a tremendous musical capital from about 1955 to 1975. That was a time when there seemed to be much more prosperity about. There was excitement in the air. And things happened. There were also all sorts of funds available for things to happen, and the money was used relatively creatively. There was none of the continual financial cutback, as we have today.

There’s always a certain amount of waste in any centralised financial provision. You’re bound to get that. But there’s a good chance you’ll get some wonderful things too, and you’ve got to equal these things out. I really do think that fantastic events were happening in London during those years which don’t quite happen in the same way today.

MS: Where is the musical capital now?

I think things change much more today. And much quicker. Fashion changes. The cyclical change is a much shorter affair than of old. For baroque music, London is probably still quite a centre. Also Vienna. Amsterdam still has a lot going for it, but nothing quite like the vitality it had in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. I think the world is gradually coming together in such a way that those extraordinary periods in a nation’s cultural history will not burgeon as they did in the past. Paris, from about 1900 to 1925, even 1930, for painting, music and ballet must have been phenomenal. And, I would have thought, perhaps the ‘30s and ‘40s in New York was a good time. Berlin in the ‘20s and ‘30s—just pre-Hitler, you know, when Kurt Weill, Schoenberg and all those chaps lived there. It must have been an extraordinary time, though perhaps not totally congenial. But obviously it was a centre of great vitality and creativity, at least for a short period. I think that just happens. But I feel it will happen less as communications actually, sadly in a way, flatten out so many little high spots into a more bland but relatively efficient general standard. Looking back, it would seem that diversity has been the stimulus, the handmaiden, as it were, of the creative impulse.

CC: We were talking on the way here about Humphrey Searle and ‘Five’, which nobody seems to play now. ls it because of its atonal serialism?

MS: You never recorded it, did you?

No, that’s right. Let me think—that would have been written about 1970. It might have been later. It’s funny, I was giving a class somewhere not long ago, and a student came up with these pieces. I found it very extraordinary that, because I hadn’t played them for many years, I really couldn’t play them at all. They’re very complicated, and they really do need a special approach by way of preparation. Now certain pieces like the Britten Nocturnal or the Willie Walton Bagatelles or Lennox’s Sonatina, or even Michael Tippett’s piece The Blue Guitar—they can become repertoire pieces. That is to say—what’s today? Tuesday? Say somebody said, “Look, Julian, I wonder if you’d give a concert at rather short notice, and I’d very much like you to play the Britten Nocturnal.” Or the Willie Walton thing—those sort of pieces. I could actually produce quite a good performance by Saturday. And even a reasonably good one by Thursday. That is because they’re what I would call repertoire pieces. Whereas Humphrey Searle’s pieces are not. They are rather specialised pieces, and I would do them, perhaps, at some festival, particularly of contemporary music, for example, or some out-of-the-way festival that does rather special things, and furthermore they would take a long time to prepare.

On the other hand, however, some pieces engender affection, and other pieces you know probably are good pieces but they’re not pieces which you immediately respond to with the whole of your musical being, for want of another expression. But you do pieces because you think they’re good pieces, because of a reason. Maybe you think that in time you may find that you would become totally sympathetic with the composer’s idiom. So you must give it time. I think all new things need time.

It may be an interesting style of music, which has rarely been composed for the guitar, which has another kind of sonority, another sort of language, and providing the pieces aren’t too long, they may fit rather well into a conservative programme of the usual chestnuts.

I’ll give you an example of a piece that, for me, is on the margin: Hill Runes, by Peter Maxwell Davies. In fact, I could get that together in two or three days. I performed it a lot at one period, because whatever you think of the merits or demerits of the composition, and that’s always a personal thing, it’s very original and creates another type of sonority on the guitar. There’s no other piece like it in the repertoire. And it has certain sonorities which are unusual and I think very effective. So for that reason, although the piece isn’t what one would call a showstopper, it’s not going to create a fantastic success by way of applause which is measured on a seismograph or something, it’s nevertheless worthwhile and effective to have in a, recital programme.

I also had that same feeling about Five, by Humphrey Searle, and I did at least 30 performances of it a good many years ago. What I normally do with a new work is to rest it for two or three years and then come back to it. And then if I come back to it with enthusiasm, I will then resurrect it within my repertoire and perform it for a season or two.

In the meantime I may have relooked at Five and thought, well, it’s an interesting piece, yes, and it might even be fascinating, but is it going to fit in with the other pieces I’ve got on the stocks at the moment in my programme? Do I really think that is a really good piece in my heart of hearts? Forgetting my friendship for the composer or my admiration for the composer’s other music…

So sometimes a piece, I’m afraid, gets relegated to the second division. But then on the other hand, other players may take a piece up, and I’m always very pleased when that happens. Music is after all a personal thing. I commission pieces not just for myself—though of course I obviously do the first performances—but also for other players too, younger, professional players, even older players for that matter, so that they may have a few extra cherries to bite on. You might not think that’s the greatest piece, but somebody else might. There’s always that possibility.

Note: This is part one of a two-part interview. Check back next week for part two.

This article originally appeared in the February 1986 issue of Classical Guitar.