THE Wellspring: Conversations with David Owen Norris by his son, Barney, is both charming and a serious exploration of a life in music.
It is a moving dialogue between father and son and a meditation on the difference and similarities between musical and literary creativity.
I knew David tangentially while he lived in Andover ( I note from the book that he is in the process of moving and may well have done so by now) and I was news editor on the Andover Advertiser.
I recall a particularly pleasant afternoon interviewing him at his home for an article in the Advertiser. I think I described David as being a intensely intellectual man, but one who wears his intellect lightly. In that interview, however, I could only scratch the surface and it is fascinating to read a much more in-depth account of his life in music as a pianist and composer.
To many listeners of Radio 3 he will be familiar for his work on Building a Library but he was also one of the presenters of the drive-time show In Tune in the 1990s and he also had his own show called The Works. He presents The Chord during BBC 2’s Proms Plus every year.
Apart from being a delight to read, The Wellspring will be of interest to anyone who wants to know how music is created. It’s difficult to give any real sense of the richness of this book, so I’ll just dip in and out in the hope that will whet the appetite.
It is divided into three ‘movements’ called ‘Listening’, ‘Playing’ and ‘Writing. In ‘Listening’, after relating some of David’s early life and influences (he was born in Long Buckby, Northamptonshire in 1953) David and Barney engage in an exchange about the role of tradition in his work.
David: “I think you can use the old sounds to say something new, just as you can use the same old words in poetry.”
Later, Barney responds: “Rather delightfully then…we concluded that a tradition lives through being observed.” And a little further on David is delighted by the ‘splendid paradox that ‘traditions live and die by being observed’.
And how about this from David: “‘Metaphor of possible forms of life’ is too distant a concept for me to recognise in the actual workings of music as I know it. But I suspect it might resonate amongst fanatical Mahlerians and Wagnerians. Those audiences seem to seek a wild overdose of certain sorts of emotion, usually resolved by extinction.”
Ouch! As an unreconstructed Wagnerian that hurts! I recall having a gentle disagreement with him because I don’t have much time for his beloved Elgar and he doesn’t have much time for Wagner. David – don’t chastise the afflicted, we can’t help it!
In ‘Playing’ there is a fascinating exchange over the meaning of ideology in music with Barney claiming that the pragmatist David is actually ideological. To which David replies: “Perhaps we’ve got different definitions in our heads. For me, ideology is the opposite of pragmatic thought, a pejorative term, a set of ready-made answers which never fit.”
As I have written I’ve only been able to give a taste of the richness of this book and I hope you go out and buy it – it’s an enriching experience. The book is published by Seren but I bought my copy in Salisbury’s Waterstones. Incidentally, reading the book also prompted me to buy the double-CD Now Comes Beauty which features David’s Piano Concerto among other works commissioned by The English Music Festival. Available from EM Records, it too is well worth buying.