The Axe Manual, Harrison Birtwistle

MIT students push a piano off a roof
The enfant terrible of British classical music rips through the glossy exterior of the piano, revealing its bracing, percussive underbelly.

“Brutal” and “violent” were not uncommon adjectives in reviews for the torrent of concerts in the UK featuring Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s music in this, his eightieth year. In part these flow from a reputation embellished by performances like the boisterous, free-jazz inflected Panic for a bewildered television audience at the Last Night of the Proms in 1995. But as even a cursory listen to Panic reveals, Britain’s leading composer – once booed off the Ivor Novello Awards stage for asking the great and good of British rock why their music was “so fucking loud” – is neither a scholastic aesthete nor a careless provocateur. Like so many of Birtwistle’s compositions, Panic is methodically obsessed with rhythm, and the very “shape” of sound that so concerned modernist predecessors like Igor Stravinsky and Edgard Varèse.

Birtwistle is darkly aware of what one of his early orchestral pieces called The Triumph of Time; there, the deliberately funereal pace seems to suspend time itself (and its consequences), in moments reminiscent of György Ligeti’s Atmosphères, until this tension necessarily resolves into apocalyptic climax. His recent piano music pushes these preoccupations further, with compositions aptly named – Harrison’s Clocks, Gigue Machine – to evoke the mechanistic parallels of rhythmical devices in music and in industrial production.

Birtwistle’s sensitivity to rhythm, and to the texture of sound, is most obvious in the mercurial duo The Axe Manual, composed for piano and percussion in 2000. The name is, in typical Birtwistle fashion, a pun on the name of pianist Emanuel Ax, for whom it was initially written. In his notes on the piece Birtwistle speaks of the fictional “meta-manual”, a percussive amalgam of an instrument for which The Axe Manual is allegedly composed. And when sensitively performed, as in the excellent recording by Nicolas Hodges and Claire Edwardes, the interplay of pianist and percussionist in the piece is so seamless that the lines of separation begin to smudge.

The Axe Manual reminds us, like a great deal of modernist composition for piano, of the percussive machines literally hidden within the belly of the instrument, and coyly suggests that the dark glossy exterior of a Steinway might be a kind of mystification. The result is bracing: the percussion part draws on an array of textures and timbres – marimba, vibraphone, hi-hat, tom-toms, congas, bongos, cowbell, and wood blocks – and yet when heard alongside the piano in the sinuous and layered exchanges of the piece, one begins to perceive a single, unified rhythmic line: the beguiling song of the “meta-manual”.

Listening notes: There is a three-part structure to The Axe Manual, as Birtwistle variously switches the piano’s chief interlocutor within the percussion section. The first of these is the uneasy but virtuosic exchange of piano and marimba, lapsing into jittery interludes of drums and temple blocks from 3:42 to 4:46 and again at 5:50 through to the 9-minute mark. From here the piece transitions into a slower middle section underpinned by a meditative vibraphone and the sharp interjections of wooden blocks. Listen at 16:05 for the trilled piano and the suddenly aggressive vibraphone, leading into the thrillingly cacophonic final section.

Image: MIT students push a piano off a roof (Evan Richman/Boston Globe)