Howard Goodall, profile, by Edward Seckerson in The Independent (1993)

  • Posted on 1 June 1993 at 1:16pm
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If you knew Howard Goodall’s music only from his musicals, then you’d probably expect to find him at a modest upright piano, a mug of tea on the one hand, a pile of manuscript paper on the other. But step into his Londonstudio and the console of synthesisers and sequencers – a kind of musical mission control – tell you that Goodall has his fingers in other musical pies: the nice little earners, the commercial marketplace of TV and film, of jingles and sig-tunes. Music to measure. This gear looks like it would function quite satisfactorily without a composer attached to it. The music goes round and round and it comes out here.

But Goodall, you can tell, is almost apologetic about it. In these days of desktop publishing, where scores get printed-out rather than hand-written, where you don’t necessarily get to see and touch the composer’s personality as it translates to the page, he’s quick to reassert his allegiance to the old ways. At heart he’s a home-spun, hands-on kind of composer, born and raised in the English choral tradition, a Christ Church Oxford man (a First, of course), a chorister from the age of eight. Composition is a 24-hour, non-stop process for him. Most of his ideas, his “tunes”, happen in his head. And he’s a man of many tunes – tunes for all occasions. Some you may recognise without actually knowing their source (Blackadder, Not the Nine O’Clock News, Red Dwarf), others shall remain anonymous. Some of the work is ephemeral, heard today, forgotten tomorrow, but it all enjoys his fastidious workmanship, be it his latest music-theatre project or a pot-noodles ad. He takes pride. The bottom line is that some things he has to write, some he needs to write.

He needs to write for the theatre. And he’d like to make a difference. To some extent he has – more than his track record might suggest. Of three shows thus far produced, one – The Hired Man, a collaboration with Melvyn Bragg – is probably a masterpiece, the other two –Girlfriends and Days of Hope – ambitious, honourable failures. All three took a leap of faith with their choice of subjects alone. Goodall has never much liked musicals (is there a better reason for writing them?). As a schoolboy, he got excited about A Chorus Line, he continues to be dazzled by Sondheim, and would love to have written West Side Story: “Wouldn’t we all? Not only is it great music, but it’s germane to the times in which it was created. To me that’s important in a popular artform: relevance for its audience. The potential of the musical still excites me – the right marriage of music and drama can be the most powerful alchemy we have. But I want immediacy, I want to be drawn in, moved. Too often the musical seems to be living in the past. And it’s reflected in the music, the kind of music you only ever hear in musicals.”

We’re on dangerous ground here, but he has a point. Individualism in the musicals is at a premium. Lloyd Webber does his thing with magnificent post-Franz Lehar extravagance, Sondheim is the tortured gymnast and, among newer notables, there’s a brilliant American called William Finn, who wrote a show called Falsettos, and Lucy Simon (sister of Carly), whose strikingly beautiful The Secret Garden promised great things. So did Goodall’s The Hired Man (Ivor Novello award-winner 1984). Here was a score that owed nothing to transatlantic models, a score that wholeheartedly tapped into the rich vein of English folk music, yet somehow, miraculously, managed to avoid pastiche. Goodall’s tunes were entirely his own: lusty, sinewy, deceptively simple anthems, worksongs, pastoral ballads full of unexpected catches and turns and intervals that soared and stirred. A new and distinctive melodic voice. “My ability to write melody – not necessarily good melody, I should add – appears to be there all the time; it’s like a constantly running tap that I choose to put the cup under or not.” Giving that melody form and eventually words (the tune usually comes first) take a little longer. It’s a physical as well as mental process. “I like to feel my way into a song. As soon as I’ve got the basic melody down, it’s the tactility of singing and playing at the same time that finally shapes it. I have to feel how the line works the voice, make sure I’m not writing for a voice that doesn’t exist. I could list you a hundred things that are wrong with my music, but I do know it’s good to sing… There’s something about the sensuality of the human voice that can cast a spell, almost irrespective of the words it’s singing. Now, I appreciate that would be anathema to someone like Sondheim, but a sense you’ll know what is being sung because the voice communicates its emotion in a deeply sensual way. A great singer will make you weep where another, singing exactly the same words and music, can make you want to turn over. Maybe I’m too much in love with voices.”

Maybe Sondheim is too much in love with words. That’s where the rhythmic energy of his music comes from. It’s no secret that the human voice is not his first love; that he doesn’t compose at the keyboard for fear that he might only compose what he can play (he has a lazy left hand). It’s all in the music. “Yes, it’s true. I think a score like Sunday in the Park is just fabulous, but I could never go through the entanglements that he goes through with his pieces. At some point I’d have to leave the time-signature where it is and really let the melody go.” Which is precisely, of course, what Goodall does.

He takes me step by step through the genesis of one of his most beautiful songs, from the elusive first kernel of phrase through to the fine-tuning, where one single semitone interval can make the dif-ference between mundanity and memorability. “The Song of the English Volunteer‘ comes from his Spanish Civil War show Days of Hope. He was looking to create a little piece ofEngland in a score of Spanish tinta: he had in mind a long, semi-modal, hymnic tune of the kind that grows seamlessly in the singing of it. The chorus reaches up the octave as the heart leaps on the words “Oh,England!”: “English rural”, he calls it.

And there’s more where that came from in Silas Marner, his major commission for this year’s Salisbury Festival. Two central themes drew Goodall to George Eliot’s novella: one man pitted against a community (as opposed to one man who is the community in The Hired Man), and the power of love versus money – Silas’s salvation. What began as a stage work has come out more like a church parable, a latterday baroque passion, a celebration of Goodall’s own passion for effusive choral polyphony. Silas is a score of many voices, multi-layed. At its heart is the lone weaver, and in true baroque fashion a solo instrument, a cello, is his constant companion. “Rather like his loom,” says Goodall. “So whenever he sings, it’s just him and the cello quite literally interweaving in this strange and obsessive way.” Even the inarticulate have a voice in music drama. Goodall wrote Silas at a particularly lonely time in his own life.

Meanwhile, back in the big city, there’s work in progress: not so much “English rural”, more “urban renewal”. Goodall is unlocking another part of himself, that part which loves loud, sensual, rhythmic pop music, the drive of Steve Reich-ish minimalism, Paul Simon, Mark Knopfler, Prince. We’re talking here about a contemporary re-working of a certain “Much ado about nothing“. Goodall worries about his ability to parody, the ease with which, in his commercial work, he can enter other musical worlds for comic or dramatic effect. Is Goodall still Goodall? His demo-tape starts pumping iron, rhythm piled on rhythm. That’s a departure – rhythm-led Goodall. Then a love song. The tap is still running.