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The trials of modern music - as a British composer sees it

The British have come, the British have come. As part of the massive celebration honoring 200 years of relations between Great Britain and the United States, several of the United Kingdom's premier performance groups are visiting these shores - the Royal Ballet; the London Symphony Orchestra, Claudio Abbado, music director; the Monteverdi Choir, John Eliot Gardiner, director (see April 16 article on these pages).

For modern-music fans, probably the most exciting group to visit is the Fires of London, under the direction of its founder and conductor, the composer Peter Maxwell Davies. Mr. Davies was here recently, and I chatted with him about his group and about his thoughts in general on music (his own and others).

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When the composer is not traveling, he lives on an island in the Orkneys, off the northern coast of Scotland. He is a gentle yet intense man, who talks softly with economical, precise use of words. His gaze is deep and inquisitive, and his face quietly reflects the mood of the subject he is talking about. I began by asking him about the history of his performance group.

''The Fires of London was in existence from 1967 as the Pierrot Players first. And then, in 1971, when my co-director Harrison Birtwistle left the group , we changed the name to Fires of London,'' so he has been associated with it for quite a long time. ''Fires'' occupies his time as both conductor and composer, so that much of his music has been written for them.

''If you write a piece for the Fires of London you'll get hundreds of performances, not only with the Fires, but with other groups. If you write a big orchestral piece, the chances of performance are much more limited, so it is a real luxury (to write for large orchestra).'' One of the special events about the group's three-night stand at the Symphony Space on Manhattan's Upper West Side (next Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) is the world premiere of a work Elliott Carter wrote especially for the group.

Mr. Davies commented: ''I like his work a lot. We've done quite a few of his pieces with the Fires, and I'm very pleased he's written 'Triple-Duo' for us.'' The Davies works to be heard represent a spread from 1969 to 1978, and include the US premieres of ''Le Jongleur de Notre Dame,'' ''Image, Reflection, Shadow, '' and such music-theater classics as ''Eight Songs for a Mad Song'' and ''Miss Donnithorne's Maggot.''

Does he consider any composer to have been a major influence? ''When I was very young, it was Bartok-Stravinsky-Schonberg. A little later, Sibelius. As time went on, more Bartok, and then more Schonberg, and the whole Viennese school.

''And then, eventually, people like Boulez, Stockhausen, and Berlioz - the generation before me. And one's gone on and I think learnt the whole time. I'm still very open to influences, but I think as you get older, they become transformed much more into your own language, which I think naturally defines itself much more clearly. You just write that (language) without thinking, as your own handwriting is recognizably yours. Although if you become self-consciously 'yours' then that's time to shut up the shutters and go home!''

Much of Mr. Davies's recent work has come about through commission, and I was curious to know if that sort of motivation for composing ever interfered with inspiration. ''If you get an idea, you start working on it. You can't let the commissions lag, because you've got deadlines to meet. But usually if you get an idea for a particular kind of piece, somebody sooner or later is going to want to commission it. Because there are commissions coming in now, you make your natural inclination - your idea that you got for writing a piece of music - fit into one or another of the slots that are potentially there.''

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Several times in the course of our talk, he noted how difficult it is to compose big works because the chance of getting them performed - the composer's only way to communicate his ideas to a public - are so few. This summer his opera ''Taverner'' is being revived at Covent Garden, and naturally he is pleased about that.

This got him talking about the larger issue of contemporary music and the public. ''I think part of the problem is the music itself. Part of it is the natural conservatism of audiences: In the last half century and more, music has become rather difficult for the audiences and the audiences have become rather difficult for the composers.

''You don't write your work to be difficult. You don't write it to be obscure. You write it to be as clear as you possibly can. You hope that people are going to enjoy it.

''I do expect audiences to do a little bit of work. After all, I've done a lot for work for the piece. And you can't compromise your imagery, or your ideas , nor your structure, nor your sound, in order to make it accessible to people who perhaps might prefer it if modern music consisted solely of pseudo-Tchaikovsky!''

He noted that conservatism of management overshadows the decision process in new music. ''So much money is involved, since new music needs a lot of rehearsal , otherwise it sounds dreadful. All right, there was a historical difficulty and now the time has come to try and get over that difficulty. There are composers - you've got plenty of them here - who are writing perfectly accessible music which will get us our audiences back. And I don't think there's any doubt of that.''

Watching the sea from his window was the inspiration for the wave motifs of his Second Symphony. ''It's a strange thing how something like that which is terribly simple can act as a catalyst and stimulate your imagination. That liberated all kinds of musical ideas - just a small perception like that. I don't know how that works.''

Mr. Davies frankly admits that he can work on several pieces at once - sometimes one in the morning, another in the afternoon, and still another in the evening, there is no overlap.

What's coming up? I asked. ''There's another symphony up there somewhere. I've got a couple of music-theater pieces brewing, too. I'll get around to those at the end of the year,'' after he has finished three chamber orchestra commissions.

He does not see the point of tearing up older works - ''if it's no good, it's no good and I'm not ashamed of it.'' Nor can he talk about his favorite work: ''As Bruckner said, 'They are my children.' If you say you like one, it's probably unfair to the others. Besides, its usually the one I'm working on at that moment.''

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