Author of the recent magisterial biography Benjamin Britten: A Life In The Twentieth Century, Paul Kildea’s experience as an acclaimed conductor has helped ignite insights into both the poetics and the real-politic of music, which breathe vivid life into his writings. With admirable candour and clarity he allows Britten the man to exist on his own terms, perhaps for the first time in print, while invoking the often turbulent splendour of the composer’s works as though the reader were sat amidst the finest performance. Formerly Artistic Director of Wigmore Hall in London and Head Of Music at the Aldeburgh Festival, Kildea is now based in London working on his next book.
1 What is your favourite surface?
It is a visual rather than a tactile thing, but turquoise with spider webbing beneath the surface is hard to beat.
2 In what weather do you think best and why?
Heavy rain. The sound is hypnotic and the reality of it keeps me indoors at my desk, literally entranced. It does not make me think analytically, but it does make me think creatively.
3 Describe your favourite meal?
Good food cooked by friends. Or good food cooked by me a day or two before I eat it, when I can actually taste it.
4 What qualities do you most admire in an object?
Function and beauty, though I’ll do the latter quite happily when the former is nowhere to be seen.
5 What is your first olfactory memory?
It may not be the first, but as a boy I would walk through a tree-enclosed laneway by my house that every spring emitted a sour, pungent smell. I was equipped to identify the smell only once I reached adolescence.
6 What fictitious place would you most like to visit?
I once commissioned an orchestral song cycle from Oscar Strasnoy and writer Alberto Manguel, whose Dictionary of Imaginary Places is a brilliant romp through literary fantasia. He is fond of Freedonia under governor Rufus T. Firefly (Grouch Marx), as am I. What could possibly go wrong? Leonard Bernstein’s version of Voltaire’s El Dorado – full of sheep, gold, and that poor booby Candide – though sumptuous of sound, is very much a distant second.
7 What do you like the smell of?
Leather. Sage. Newly published books or magazines (suck on that, Kindle). Zest.
8 Recount your last remembered dream?
Probably the one where I find out now that I failed Year 12 Physics all those years ago and must re-sit the exam today if I want to hold on to subsequent qualifications. Most people have their own performance-anxiety dream. Mine comes round especially vividly every year when A Level results are announced.
9 How should a table sound?
Wooden. Marble is for pastry. Glass for windows.
10 What piece of art would you most like to live with?
I have a friend who wished he could have bought Tracey Emin’s My Bed and made it – cleaned the sheets, picked up the mess on the floor, given the room a good airing. I’d plump for something in Moscow’s New Tretyakov Gallery, a piece of Russian Cubist art c. 1915 – before the catastrophe.
11 Which sense disturbs you most frequently?
Hearing. The world is too loud.
12 Which sense would you miss the most?
Hearing. The world contains some amazing music.
13 What song or piece of music best expresses your mood today?
Today I’m writing a piece about Britten’s Nocturne, a work of brazen pessimism, full of the nightmarish sounds of the September Massacres, populated by ghosts from the Somme. This cannot but fail to affect my mood.
14 What is your favourite view from any window?
The sea. It doesn’t matter which sea, or which window.