Sir Harrison Birtwistle


Sir Harrison Birtwistle was granted the first Roche Commissions award in 2003. His composition, “Night’s Black Bird”, had its world premiere in Lucerne on August 21, 2004.

Harrison Birtwistle, the first Roche Commissions composer, was born in England in 1934 and is one of the world’s greatest and most original composers. After spells as a Visiting Professor at universities in the United States, he was appointed Music Director of the National Theatre and, later, Director of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London. In 1988 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. His most outstanding works include the operas "Punch and Judy" and "The Last Supper", the orchestral work "Earth Dances" and the song cycle "Pulse Shadows", based on poems by Paul Celan.

A collection of Sir Harrison Birtwistle's orchestral works, “Night’s Black Bird”, “The Shadow of Night” and “The Cry of Anubis”, performed by The Hallé has been released commercially on a CD by NMC Recordings in May 2011.

Invention and Innovation in Art and Science

When in the spring of 2003 Sir Harrison Birtwistle received the first Roche Commissions he also visited the Research and Development Center of Roche in Basel. It was at the occasion of this visit that Sir Harrison Birtwistle and Professor Klaus Lindpaintner, then Head of Roche Genetics in Basel, engaged in intense discussions which profoundly impressed both of them. The following text is based on a later conversation between the two men which took place in London on May 25, 2004.

An excerpt from the conversation:

Harrison Birtwistle: I have often asked myself about the nature of an idea. What is an idea? What happens to an idea in the course of realizing it? I wonder, in your field, Professor Lindpaintner, where is the beginning of an idea, what is it? The idea is like a bright light and light starts to fade and then you are confronted with actuality because you cannot be inspired forever. What I try to do with students is to make them realize what the idea is and how you explore it, to its next degree, to really push it as far as you can, to keep the light shining, as it were. It is different if you are in the line of continuity, or if there is a context. Then it is easier, in a way. I can think of an idea now and in the course of doing it I am interested in what happens.

Klaus Lindpaintner: Well, you see, Sir Harrison, in many ways I think it is similar in science. You have an idea and then you follow it up, you actually go about what we call reducing it to practice, or realising it. Perhaps it’s less exploring the light itself, but first of all questioning whether the light’s really there in the first place, making sure it’s a star, a solar system, not a shooting star. I guess in art a shooting star, as long as it’s beautiful while it lasts, may be as good as a sun. In science it’s not and that is where the drudgery starts, when nine out of ten experiments to figure out the difference between shooting star and solar system fail. What actually is very important in science aside from, obviously, pursuing the goal you set – and I wonder how much that plays a role in your field? – is to keep your eyes open for serendipity.

Read the full conversation in the publication...