JIMMY SAVILE: KILLING MACHINE
flute, baritone sax, accordion, piano, percussion, cello
first performed by Tirolean Ensemble for Contemporary Music, Edinburgh, 2002.
About the Piece
So, you’re probably wondering about this piece and its title. Before we go any further, I should point out that this piece was written in 2002.
Like I imagine most other composers or artists do, I sometime wonder about the worth or the impact of what I do when I write music. Certainly the world would continue spinning regardless of whether I wrote another note or not. It’s not something I dwell on too much, since it can be a little depressing, but it does sometimes put things in perspective.
It’s quite a different story in the opposite direction of course, by which I mean the impact of the world on us as artists, and it's perhaps one of the main motivations of many – that of creating work that is a response to the world around them.
It’s not often that real world events take a turn that somehow have a direct impact on our existing works, for example forever preventing future performances.
I have one such piece.
Way back in 2002, the now defunct Society for the Promotion of New Music (What became the organisation Sound and Music) asked me to write a piece for a concert in Edinburgh by the visiting Austrian ensemble the Tirolean Ensemble for Contemporary Music (TiCOM for short) under the leadership of composer Gunther Zechberger, who I remember as an older, very cool and collected, chain smoking composer.
It was a bit of a weird line-up of instruments: flute, baritone sax, accordion, piano, percussion and cello. I think because I had written a few works for odd instrumentations, SPNM thought that I might be the right choice. (I had written a piece for 5 pairs of scissors, one for 8 fretless basses, one for 6-string bass, piano & percussion, which isn’t at all odd, but from a contemporary classical perspective at the time probably seemed more unusual).
It took me while to get into the piece and figure out what it was to be. My way of working is that I start writing and as I get further into the writing, what the piece is and what it’s concerned with tends to emerge from the writing, which is usually when I arrive at the title. Then the rest of the piece is written with this more consciously in mind.
And that’s what happened here. I’d got ten or so bars in when I hit upon a possible title. When I first thought of it, it seemed a completely ridiculous idea for the name of piece, I couldn’t hand a piece over to SPNM with a title as stupid as that, which would then be played by a top flight Austrian ensemble.
But I liked it. It had made me laugh, and, more pertinently, I could now see how to write the piece, and what I could do with it. It had legs, so to speak. So the title stuck:
Jimmy Savile: Killing Machine
Now, it’s worth pointing out once again that this was in 2002, when for the most part most of the British public thought of Savile as a TV personality, albeit a slightly weird one of yesteryear. I’d grown up watching Jim’ll Fix It, while the generation older than myself had grown up listening to him DJ on radio. There was no doubt he was an odd man, known amongst other things for his strange mannerisms, sayings and noises he would make. Impersonations of him were frequent.
To put it another way, I wrote a piece with the title Jimmy Savile: Killing Machine at a time when the idea of Jimmy Savile being a more sinister figure was still a somewhat comical one.
As is generally the case, I had to send the programme note several weeks before the performance. I remember sending a very odd and perhaps slightly defensive email to SPNM attempting to justify the title of the piece. This wasn’t a piece about Jimmy Savile, but a piece about a giant killer robot built in the image of Savile, and that was quite different. A stupid premise, admittedly, but an innocent one.
At the time I was writing it, I was studying a Masters in Composition. It was the summer break but I went into speak to my composition tutor and talk to him about the piece. I told him the title, and that was the first moment I got any inkling that I should pause for thought.
‘Eh, I’d be VERY careful with that.’
‘I’d just be VERY careful.’
Anyway after a bit of a chat and discussion of Savile’s supposedly litigious nature, I found myself suitably rattled. But by now I was quite far into the piece, and some of those aforementioned mannerisms of his had sort of found their way into the piece, albeit as interpreted by me, via the voice of an imaginary killer robot built in his image. So I couldn’t really change it.
But I was nervous enough to change the spelling of his name in the title. Jimmy Savile: Killing Machine became Jimi Savil: Killing Machine. Thinking about it now, I realise I always thought his name was spelled ‘Saville’, so leaving aside the fact that litigious action as a result of the premier of a piece in a not hugely prestigious concert on a dark, miserable, rainy night in Edinburgh was already hugely unlikely, I could have left the title as it was.
While I was still writing the piece, I lived in fear that Savile, who was already a fairly elderly celebrity might die before the piece was performed and it would have to be pulled. I flew into a panic one night watching the BBC news on hearing the tone of voice reserved for a deceased celebrity and seeing an image flash up on the screen of what I thought on first glance was Savile. OH NO! NOOO! Oh no wait,…Phew, it’s not him. It’s Richard Harris. That’s awful, I know, but I’d spent a lot of time on this piece (They actually did look a little alike).
TiCOM were a great ensemble – great players that worked really hard. They also had no idea how who Jimmy Savile was. Trying to explain the mannerisms of a 70s tv personality to an ensemble of Austrian musician is something no amount of musical training prepares one for.
The only other thing I remember about the rehearsals and the performance was that there was another composer having a number of works performed in the concert. I’d never met him before, but I somehow instantly hated him when I did. Nothing that he did or said (he was actually quite pleasant to me), not even because of his music (which I didn’t like so much, but didn’t have a strong reaction to), no reason at all that I could detect. Just something about his very being resulted in me instantly disliking him intensely. I did nothing to communicate this in any way, and I remained courteous, if potentially a bit cold. I’ve never met him again, nor have I come across his work since (though a quick Google search reveals he’s still working). So it’s really apropos of nothing, but it’s interesting to look back on this and reflect on my capacity then, as now, to be a dick.
The performance came and went and that was essentially it. Unusual instrumentations, as interesting as they are tend to mean less chance of repeated performances. The Scottish rock band Aereogramme (I shared a flat with their guitarist Iain at the time) sampled the opening chord from the piece and used it on their song No Really, Everything’s Fine from the album Sleep & Release, which was nice. To their credit, they changed the spelling of his name back to my original (also incorrect) spelling.
I think it was a few days after the premiere was the first time I heard someone say ‘so do you know the rumours about Savile?’ (I think it was the bass player from Aereogramme, Campbell that brought it up). I hadn't heard them. They were pretty out-there rumours, really far-fetched stuff, but they stayed rumours until recently.
12 or so years later and following his death, the fairly horrific truths about this man exploded across the media. They just kept coming. Scores of abuses far beyond what the wildest rumours could have suggested. It was all true and worse.
In that moment, all remnants of Savile's former identity as a DJ and TV were swept away, leaving behind the huge, ghoulish silhouette of the most prolific serial abuser the modern world has ever known.
Also swept away by the torrent of revelations was another victim - admittedly a fairly inconsequential one in the face of considerably larger and darker horrors: my piece, and any possible future for it. There was no possible way I could ever have another performance of Jimmy Savile: Killing Machine, not only because no ensemble would ever touch it, but because any performance would be seen as opportunistic, and as an attention-grabbing attempt to shock or create publicity.
Some have suggested albeit jokingly that I could change the name. Jimmy Somerville: Killing Machine? Jason Statham: Killing Machine? Jimmy Stewart: Killing Machine? None of them would work. Whether I like it or not, it was a piece about Savile, or at least a piece about a killer robot built in his image.
I choose to list Jimmy Savile: Killing Machine in my catalog of works partly because of its innocuous origins, and partly because from a purely musical perspective it was a seminal piece in my compositional development. A lot of the way I think about music, about rhythm, about line is owed to the writing of that piece. The writing’s not perfect by any means, but it was a pretty decent piece with some good moments in it.
But I guess you’ll never know. A minor piece of art crushed under the horrendous legacy of its repulsive muse.