In the recent surge of CD’s featuring music by women composers This Be Her Verse offers a veritable breath of fresh air. South African soprano Golda Schultz works from an intrinsic motivation.
In the booklet she writes how she always strived to give voice to unexplored corners of the female perspective in songs written by male composers. During a run-through of Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade, she realized something essential was missing: the woman’s voice itself.
However brilliantly Schubert depicted ‘the obsession, the restlessness and the sheer panicked joy’ of a young girl overwhelmed by her first love, ‘still, for me, her true voice was missing’. Schultz stopped rehearsal halfway through the piece: ‘What if a woman told her own story?’ she asked her pianist Jonathan Ware. – And got to work.
She commissioned a song cycle from Kathleen Tagg on Lila Palmer’s three-part poem This Be Her Verse, about a woman who takes her life into her own hands. In the title song, muffled strings sound a heartbeat under increasingly agitated outbursts from the soprano who rebels against ‘His ego self’. After this follow hilarious settings of ‘Wedding’, in which a bride waits in vain for her groom, and ‘Single Bed’, about the benefits of living alone and sleeping between clean sheets. The short cycle is a gem of modern Lied-writing.
Schultz also unearthed a setting of Erlkönig by Emilie Mayer, a composer who was forgotten soon after her death in 1883, but has recently been re-discovered. In her unprecedentedly intense setting of Goethe’s poem, Mayer emulates her predecessor Schubert. Powerful rumblings of the piano evoke the child’s fear of the murderous fairy king, whose coaxing whisperings are caught in sweetly flowing lines from the soprano.
No less exciting is Rebecca Clarke’s Tiger, in which pounding chords and half-whispered melodic phrases make the dark tenor of William Blake’s poem perfectly palpable. In Lieder opus 12, Clara Schumann demonstrates her talent for pairing an expressive vocal part with an equally incandescent piano accompaniment.
Nadia Boulanger’s music may be less poignant than her sister Lili’s, but the recitative style and slow pace of Cantique emanate a serene and wistful charm.
With her nimble voice and perfect diction, Schultz irrevocably takes you in for the 18 highly varied songs on this CD, aided in no small part by the alert and responsive accompaniment of Jonathan Ware. Buy this CD!
As with many a composer, Emilie Mayer (1812-1883) was very successful during her lifetime, but was forgotten almost immediately after her death. The German historian Barbara Beuys is now restoring her to her former glory with the biography Emilie Mayer, Europas größte Komponistin (Emilie Mayer, Europe’s greatest female composer).
Mayer composed in all genres and left behind a large oeuvre, including eight highly praised symphonies, seven concert overtures and ten string quartets.
Yet in 1893 – only 12 years after her death – a German critic wrote about the premiere of a symphony by Luise Adolpha le Beau that ‘this is unique, a symphony by a lady we have never heard before’.
Beuys gave het biography the somewhat provocative subtitle ‘Europe’s greatest composer’. In an interview, she laconically states that some exaggeration is appropriate to draw attention to your subject.
Moreover, she stresses that Mayer was considered one of the most important composers of her time, and that critics started to emphasise her gender less and less.
Those who listen to Mayer’s colourful symphonies – numbers 3 and 6 have just been recorded by the Philharmonisches Orchester Bremerhaven – and the beautiful songs on the also recently released CD This Be Her Verse by Golda Schultz and Jonathan Ware, will wholeheartedly support Beuys’ decision. Mayer has an enormous flair for orchestration and her setting of Goethe’s poem Erlkönig is at least as chilling as Schubert’s.
On the basis of the little source material available, Beuys tries to sketch Mayer’s personality. This paints a picture of a self-assured woman, who worked purposefully to realise her dreams and deliberately remained unmarried. Thus she was able to avoid the fate of her contemporaries Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann, who as composers always remained in the shadow of their brother and husband respectively.
In 1850 Mayer even organised a concert in the Royal Theatre in Berlin, dedicated entirely to her own music and made available free of charge by Friedrich Wilhelm IV. – With foresight, she had earlier given his wife Elisabeth of Prussia a bread sculpture of her own making. The sovereign was so impressed that she awarded Mayer with a gold medal.
In her ‘royal’ concert, Mayer presented chamber music as well as choral works, an overture and the premiere of her Third Symphony. This was performed by Wilhelm Wieprecht’s leading orchestra Euterpe, with whom she was studying orchestration at the time.
One critic speaks of ‘captivating phrases’ and ‘a confident command of the material’. The influential Ludwig Rellstab praises the way the themes ‘flow smoothly through the securely defined realm of tonal colours, often with surprising elegance’.
Mayer also managed to lure her former teacher Carl Loewe to Berlin from Stettin, the city she moved to in 1840. This was shortly after the unspecified suicide of her father, who ran a pharmacy in the town of Friedland and had wholeheartedly supported her talent.
Although Loewe was somewhat sceptical about female composers, he had immediately accepted Mayer as a composition student on the basis of her earlier work. Thanks to him, Mayer became a well-known figure in Stettin’s lively music scene, where her first two symphonies were also successfully premiered.
Gradually, her fame grew and her music was heard in such important cultural centres as Leipzig, Brussels, Vienna and Budapest. She negotiated the publication of her compositions courteously but firmly with the leading publisher Bote & Bock. But despite this glittering career, her fame fades soon after her death.
Beuys is a dedicated but somewhat wide-ranging author, who provides all the people discussed with an extensive biography. – Even when Mayer probably did not know them, like the French composer Louise Farrenc. Moreover, Beuys – no doubt due to a lack of sources – makes quite a few assumptions, which are not always convincing.
The book is off to a fascinating start. It is rather a shock when Beuys points out that women were independent until the 18th century, but were then labelled impotent beings by the Enlightenment philosopher J.J. Rousseau. However, since the author keeps on stressing the point that females were reduced to incubators, she ultimately gets on one’s nerves: yeah, we know it now!
The biographer’s devotion to her subject is sincere, however, and Emilie Mayer’s music deserves to be heard. Apparently Beuys’ appeal has not fallen on deaf ears, as shown by the increasing number of performances, the recent CD-releaes and the first edition being sold out soon after publication.
– As I wrote before: the female composer is definitely on the rise!
The CD Arc by the Intercontinental Ensemble is entirely dedicated to music by women composers. It is a recent trend: after ages of neglect, the female composer is finally on the rise. Ensembles, orchestras and musicians whose programmes up to now featured only music by (mainly dead) white males, are suddenly championing their music.
As an advocate of women composers, I naturally applaud every performance and each new recording, though at times they provoke a somewhat wry feeling. The compositions on Arc seem to have been chosen only because they were written by women, they lack inner coherence.
In the CD booklet, the musicians faithfully admit that it was difficult – ‘a nightmare’ – to find a link between the compositions. So, after much deliberation, they chose the title Arc, to indicate that bridges are being built between periods and styles.
One must praise their honesty, but just as with the CD Celebrating Women! released last year by The Hague String Trio, I wish there was a stronger intrinsic motivation. On the positive side though, the musicians have actively sought out repertoire composed by women, and may continue to do so in the future.
Seen from that angle, we can consider the CD as a wonderful adventure, for ourselves and the musicians. Each composition on the disc offers such a totally different sound world that one has to keep adjusting one’s ears.
In Collage van een Achtvlak (Collage of an octahedron) Bianca Bongers constructs a pointillist musicscape from sustained and short notes. This is followed by Drei Romanzen for piano solo by Clara Schumann, in an arrangement by violinist Ernst Spyckerelle for the nine musicians of his ensemble.
The piece comes as a shock, and only after a few minutes do my ears register how cleverly the lyrical melodies from the original are distributed among the four strings and five winds. The third movement, ‘agitato’ in a fast 3/8 metre, is somewhat less effective, though: it lacks Schumann’s passionate, pithy power.
After this utterly romantic composition, my ears have to clear yet another hurdle for the disruptive Emotional Diversity by the Armenian Aregnaz Martirosyan. This expresses her dismay about the war between her homeland and Azerbaijan in 2020 in screeching glissandi, loud banging on the soundboards and frantic blasts from the horns.
Next, Sarah Neutkens immerses us in a bath of melancholy in September, giving horn player Simão Fonseca ample opportunity to display his considerable skills in spun-out lines that lithely traverse from the highest to the lowest registers.
In the concluding Nonet by Louise Farrenc we return to the 19th century: she composed it in 1849, four years before Schumann’s Romanzen. The symphonic proportions of this rather classical work come out well in the punctual and informed performance by the Intercontinental Ensemble. The nine musicians clearly feel completely at ease in this more traditional, tonal language.
The works presented are fascinating enough in themselves, but having to constantly shift one’s listening posture makes it difficult to fully appreciate them. The CD would have been stronger with a different choice and/or order of pieces.
But since now they have found that female composers write substantial and interesting music, surely the musicians will be able to offer a more coherent selection of compositions on their next album.
On her latest album, alto saxophonist Annelies Vrieswijk presents music by three French composers who have been very inspirational for her. The title is as simple as it is effective: Héroines.
She graduated with honours twice: in 2006 Annelies Vrieswijk received her Bachelor saxophone with Peter Stam at the Prince Claus Conservatoire in Groningen, two years later she completed her Master with Arno Bornkamp at the Amsterdam Conservatoire. There she also met pianist Mark Toxopeus, with whom she formed the Duo Vrieswijk-Toxopeus and later the Rodion Trio, together with clarinettist Diederik Ornée.
On Héroines she once more joins forces with Toxopeus. It is a tribute to three relatively unknown French composers whom Vrieswijk considers to be her heroes. Paule Maurice (1910-1967); Jeanine Rueff (1922-1999) and Lucie Robert (1936-2019) were born a decade apart, but all studied with the same teachers at the Paris Conservatoire. Later they also taught there and all three composed a lot for saxophone, which Vrieswijk attributes in her CD booklet to their warm ties with colleagues in the saxophone department.
It is convenient that their music is presented in chronological order. This way we can judge whether, and to what extent, the three composers were inspired by contemporary developments. Maurice writes virtuoso music, which stays within the traditional framework but is performed by Vrieswijk with apparent gusto.
After the whirling Volio for alto saxophone solo, Toxopeus joins her for the five-part suite Tableaux de Provence. Here they take us on an infectious journey along very different atmospheres; from carefree cheerfulness to melancholy and bravura.
The technically demanding Sonata for solo alto saxophone by Jeanine Rueff from 1969 is more contemporary. The score abounds in large intervals and strong contrasts in dynamics, tempo and atmosphere, occasionally spiced up with a tiny pinch of jazz. But here too, there is no trace of innovations made by such greats as Schönberg or Stravinsky. The same goes for the highly lyrical Chanson et passepied for alto saxophone and piano.
The solo piece Perpetuum Mobile by Lucie Robert from 1989 makes me perk up my ears. Apparently from out of nowhere, Vrieswijk makes low, sustained tones swell, which are then interrupted by sudden rests and flashing outbursts in the higher registers.
The notes gradually become faster and faster, and almost casually, modern playing techniques are introduced, such as slaps, flatterzunge and multiphonics. Towards the end, quickly tumbling motives suggest the compelling movement of the title. Cadenza with pounding piano clusters and screeching sounds from the alto saxophone is also very appealing.
Vrieswijk and Toxopeus form a happy combination. Toxopeus matches Vrieswijk’s velvety tone with an equally refined touch and responds to powerful blasts from the saxophone with pointed keyboard playing. Their interplay, and interpretation of the various pieces are exemplary.
As a bonus, the CD booklet offers a number of beautiful portraits of Vrieswijk, made by Maaike Eijkman.
Shocked on learning how Russian soldiers had ruthlessly killed innocent civilians in the Ukrainian city of Bucha in March 2022, Roman Stolyar composed B-ut-c-h-a for piano and strings. Though he offered the score as a free download, the piece has not yet been performed. – Interview with a musician who dares speak out against Putin’s war on Ukraine in the face of severe oppression and the threat of hefty fines or even imprisonment.
I met the Siberian composer and improvising musician Roman Stolyar (Novosibirsk, 1967) at the festival Two Days and Two Nights of New Music in Odessa in 1998. Musicians from former Soviet countries shared their hope that cultural exchange with the West would help pave their way to freedom and democracy. However, the ethnic wars in former Yugoslavia kept raging on, and ever since Vladimir Putin came to power in 1999, he has been tightening his grip on what he considers to be Russia’s righful territories.
Still it came as a shock when the Russian Army invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Like many artists and musicians, Stolyar at once decided to follow his conscience and go out on the streets to condemn the war. Poignant coincidence: on 1 March, barely a week after the invasion, the release of his latest CD Savjest, To Follow was scheduled. It contains four improvisations inspired by the Yugoslav wars; ‘savjest’ is Serbian for ‘conscience’.
What made you decide to dedicate a CD to the wars in former Yugoslavia?
In July 2021, I spent ten days in the city of Zenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina, participating in the theatre workshop series A Beloved Enemy. It was my first visit to Bosnia, a country I knew very little about. But the more I talked to the locals, the greater my shock. It was beyond my conception how profoundly and tragically the bloody war of thirty years ago was still dividing people. I asked myself: where was I when this tragedy unfolded? How come I had no idea that these terrible things could take place?
It is one thing to read about past and current wars in the newspapers, but it’s something else entirely when you talk to people who lived through them. A few months after my return to Saint Petersburg, I suddenly felt a strong impulse to talk about the Bosnian tragedy through music. This was during an improvisation concert: the moment I hit the piano keyboard I knew that what I was going to play would reflect on the Bosnian war. Later the recording of this performance became the first track of the album.
However, I felt that releasing a CD doesn’t suffice to tell people about that ‘unknown’ tragedy. Fortunately I had met Maja Zećo in Zenica, a talented Bosnian actress who had sought refuge in Austria during the war, and is now living in Berlin. Together with Ina Arnautalić, another Bosnian refugee, she had initiated the play Was haben wir gelacht (How we laughed), about how humour had helped them endure the hardships of war. I saw the production in Berlin.
It’s a true masterpiece, touching and profound. I was so impressed that I asked Maja to team up together, and we are currently working on a project called Libera Me. It will be an immersive performance, combining live sound and acting with sound mixes based on interviews with witnesses of the Bosnian war. Initially, we wanted to focus on the consequences of the war in Bosnia and its impact on human relationships – but then Putin invaded the Ukraine.
We saw so many similarities that we decided to incorporate both disasters in our show. Thus we want to bring across how damaging wars are to human relationships, and how difficult, painful but necessary it is to to liberate ourselves from old fears, hatred and mistrust caused by a tragic past. Libera Me is still a work in progress, but I wrote an essay about it for the Russian Opposition Arts Review magazine.
Why did you add ‘To Follow’ after ‘savjest’ in the title of your CD?
I decided to use the Bosnian word ‘savjest’ (conscience) right after I decided to record a solo piano album adressing my experiences in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Then I recalled the title of a wonderful album by the Canadian jazz legend Paul Bley, Open, To Love. My title is both a tribute to Bley, who has always inspired me, and a call to follow one’s conscience regardless of circumstances. – As I did in the improvisations on this album.
What does the project A Beloved Enemy entail?
This workshop series is organized by representatives of several theatres of former Yugoslavia. I found it very stimulating to take part in one of them. Twenty artists from nine countries (mainly actors and performers, I was the only musician) performed theatre plays, prepared shows in small teams and interviewed local people on the street. Although for some this might be just another international event, for me it was very meaningful; it worked many changes in me. Which, to be honest, were rather more painful than joyful. But sometimes you have to experience pain to achieve something new.
Shortly before the release of the CD Putin invaded Ukraine. Had you or anyone in your surroundings seen this coming?
I remember this day acutely. I was in Tallinn, working on sounds for a new theatre play directed by Boris Pavlovich. This examines human behaviour in Stalin’s concentration camps. When, in the early morning of 24 February, I read about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, I felt an enormous pain in my heart. – Like many Russians, I had not expected this could happen.
At once some questions arose that still haunt me: ‘How will we, Ukrainians and Russians, live after this bloody war? What kind of relationships will we have? Are they ruined forever, or will we at least have a small chance of restoring them? I think these thoughts wouldn’t have crossed my mind before my Bosnian experience.
Roman Stolyar composes B-ut-c-h-a: ‘How will we, Ukrainians and Russians, live after this bloody war? Are our relationships ruined forever, or will we have a chance of restoring them?’
Only hours after the attack I received messages from Bosnian friends – three in a row – with deep and warm words of support. They know exactly what war is, and responded immediately.
Around noon I joined a group of demonstrators in front of the Russian Embassy in Tallinn, where many Ukrainians, Estonians and Russians had assembled. I soon understood I could not remain silent, so I took the megaphone and said: ‘I am Russian, and I am against the war. Please remember that the Ukrainians are not our enemies, it is our bloody dictator who started this massacre, not the Russian nation.’
I also asked the crowd not to listen to politicians who try to divide us: ‘We must overcome the hatred they sow among us, for the sake of the future!’ I am not sure if my words were actually heard, but I still hold the same opinion: even in this tragic present, we must think of our future world and of peace in the future. This has been on my mind forever since 24 February.
How come so many Russians seem to support this war?
Many are brainwashed by Russian propaganda, and consider all this evidence to be ‘fake’. Even when their Ukrainian relatives show them live, via their smartphones, how their homes, schools and hospitals are being bombed, they still believe these are being destroyed by ‘Ukrainian Nazis’. I have little understanding for people who don’t seek independent info about what’s happening.
Fortunately the vast majority of my friends are against the war, and many are protesting openly. Some of them have been arrested or beaten up by the police, others have left the country because it would be dangerous to stay in Russia. Tragically, however, they sometimes face hostile treatment from Europeans, simply because of their Russian passports: despite their anti-war activities, they are called ‘aggressors’ and ‘occupiers’.
Roman Stolyar composes B-ut-c-h-a: ‘Tragically Russian anti-war activists sometimes face hostile treatment from Europeans, who call them “aggressors” and “occupiers”.’
In an email you wrote that ‘St. Petersburg is going wild’. In what sense?
According to recent research, most anti-war protests in Russia are taking place in Saint Petersburg. And the police here are the cruellest in our country – we’ve learned that from previous protests organized by the opposition. Now we no longer have any solid opposition, because many of its leaders are in prison. There are fewer and fewer protests, for it’s extremely dangerous.
People are detained just for wearing yellow and blue, for showing signs like ‘Stop the War!’ or ‘Thou shalt not kill’, or for posting anti-war slogans on social networks. You can even be fined for standing near a single protester, which is considered ‘silent support of discrediting the Russian army’.
Nevertheless, people are still protesting, and in trying to stay safe they find new ways. Anti-war slogans are being written on walls and bridges, and little mannikins carrying anti-war slogans are popping up in secluded nooks and crannies of Saint Petersburg.
You composed B-ut-c-h-a to commemorate the victims of Bucha. How did you get to know about these war crimes?
Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are officially blocked in Russia, but many people use VPNs to read and post on these social media. Besides, there are alternative YouTube channels, many of them initiated by Russian journalists who are risking a lot to keep us informed about what’s happening in Ukraine. So we are not fully isolated from news: those who really want to know have ample opportunities to find unbiassed information.
Why did you choose the combination piano/string orchestra for B-ut-c-h-a?
To be honest, there’s no clear answer to this. Usually the idea of a composition suggests itself without any explanations. Perhaps B-ut-c-h-a is written for string orchestra because I’ve composed many pieces for strings, and the piano may have appeared because I’m a pianist. However, there is one rational element in this piece: the basic sequence consists of the notes si bemol – do – do – si – la. In German music notation this forms the motif B – C – C – H – A. And since in early music do/C was called ut, this translates to B-ut-c-h-a.
This sequence is repeated over and over again, like an idée fixe. Gradually it becomes an inexorable earworm: you can’t get it out of your system, you hear it day and night. This may be tragic and painful, for you can’t avoid it, can’t hide from it, can’t just close your eyes and pretend nothing is happening. You have to live with this knowledge, this pain, this tragedy.
You placed B-ut-c-h-a on Instagram, sharing the score for free. Don’t you fear this may have serious repercussions?
Part of myself is obviously scared, but another part feels absolutely certain I must to do what I consider necessary – if I were to stop, I’d lose my self-respect. I openly tell my Russian colleagues and friends what I think about this war, though in Russia it’s even forbidden now to use this word: we must call it a ‘special military operation’.
Roman Stolyar offers score of B-ut-c-h-a as free download: ‘Part of myself is obviously scared, but another part feels absolutely certain I must do this – if I were to stop, I’d lose my self-respect.’
Also, on Facebook and Instagram I tell my international colleagues and friends about the anti-war protests in Russia, for I think this is important. Sadly, there is a certain tendency in the West to demonize Russian people, to accuse us of not having done enough to prevent the war, to stop Putin.
But these Westerners have the privilege of living in democratic societies, and just don’t understand that democratic institution are not functioning here. Putin doesn’t listen to the people and ignores their opinions, he doesn’t care about what his subjects think. We are protesting not because we believe we can change anything, but simply because we can’t accept what is happening in this country.
What was the general response to B-ut-c-h-a?
I sent the score to two orchestras – one in Saint Petersburg and one in Moscow. The first wrote the familiar polite dismissal note: ‘Thank you, we’ll take a look at the score and let you know.’ The other wrote something like: ‘We’ll try to perform it next season, but actually it will only be truly possible when the dictatorship ends.’ Perhaps I must be more persistent and ask more orchestras to perform this music.
How do you feel about colleagues not speaking out?
In most cases I understand them, though it’s sometimes hard to accept – but they have families, each has their own circumstances and reasons for keeping silent. What I can’t stand though, is when people (including artists) support the war in word and deed. The more so when they do this in order to get more money or better jobs.
This attitude offends my conscience. I was shocked by a recent interview with an anonymous reporter from an official Russian TV channel. She said almost all journalists employed there know they are spreading lies, and yet stay on because it earns them a huge income. This is truly disgusting.
What do you hope to achieve with B-ut-c-h-a?
Seriously, I never wanted to achieve anything with my music. I am what I am, I share with an audience what I think and feel, and then it’s their choice to follow my thoughts and feelings or to reject them. I believe that music can influence people’s attitude to reality, and I’d be happy if at least one listener would be inspired by what I share.
On 16 and 17 June, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra will present the world premiere of Elena Firsova’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra. She was inspired by a quotation from Boris Pasternak and a motif from Beethoven. I interviewed her for an article in the Dutch music magazine De Nieuwe Muze: ‘Edison Denisov taught me how to write effectively for orchestra.’
‘For me, composing means self-development, contact with beauty, and connection with the immaterial world’, says Elena Firsova (1950). ‘Composers have a lot in common with priests and gardeners.’ Thus her compositional attitude comes close to that of Sofia Gubaidulina, with whom she has been friends for decades. ‘Our friendship goes back to 1975, when we spent a summer together in Sortavala, not far from Finland.’
Whereas Gubaidulina is a frequent guest at the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Firsova’s music was only performed once before; in 2006 the orchestra premiered The Garden of Dreams. The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra is her second commission, written for artist in residence Yefim Bronfman as part of the Horizon series.
Elena Firsova was born on 21 March 1950 in Leningrad, today’s St. Petersburg. She grew up in a family of scientists: her father was a famous atomic physicist, her mother was a teacher at an important physics institute in Moscow. When she was six years old, she moved to Moscow with her parents, where she started composing in secondary school. At 16, she went to a music school, soon attracting attention for the high quality of her pieces.
In 1970 she was admitted to the Moscow Conservatoire, where she studied composition, analysis and orchestration. During her studies, she wrote the chamber opera Feast of the Plague. This is based on Alexander Pushkin’s play which would also inspire Gubaidulina for an orchestral work in 2005. In 1972, she married the composer Dmitri Smirnov, who, like her, studied in Moscow.
During her studies, she became friends with Edison Denisov and Philip Herschkowitz, both of whom composed atonal music. – Herschkowitz had even studied with Anton Webern before the outbreak of the Second World War, and was one of his most important pupils. In 1946, he settled in Moscow, where he became an inspired promoter of twelve-tone music.
As a private teacher Herschkowitz had a great influence on several generations of Russian musicians. He especially inspired composers of the so-called ‘underground division’, whose music the regime frowned upon. Firsova and Smirnov found themselves in the company of leading figures of the avant-garde such as Denisov, Gubaidulina, Alfred Schnittke and Valentin Silvestrov.
Elena Firsova: ‘Edison Denisov was our dear older friend and a lifelong inspiration. Dmitri [Smirnov] and I loved his compositions. We learned a lot by listening to them and analysing his scores.’
Looking back, Firsova says: ‘I got to know Herschkowitz through Dmitri, who had some private lessons from him while studying at the conservatoire. When we met Philip again in 1982, we took lessons from him together.’
It must have been a godsend to hear first-hand accounts of Webern, one of the great masters of the Second Viennese School. However, Herschkowitz was apparently not very forthcoming with information: ‘He rarely spoke about his former teacher. He only told us how he had paid a last visit to Webern in 1939, just before he fled from Vienna’. Indirectly Webern did influence their relationship, though: ‘Philip had been taught for free, and therefore refused to accept money from me and Dmitri.’
It was however not Herschkowitz , but his student Denisov who put Firsova on the track of atonal composition. Though Denisov was never her official teacher, she regards him as a role model. ‘He was our dear older friend and a lifelong inspiration. Dmitri and I loved his compositions and learned a lot by listening to them and analysing his scores.’
Just like Denisov, Firsova employs serial techniques, but instead of bone-dry pieces, she manages to write appealing and deeply moving music that gets under one’s skin. She combines serial compositional techniques with a poetic and humanistic attitude; her work is extremely refined. The pulse is often slow and her focus is more on timbre than on melody or harmony. She shares this sensitivity to sound with Denisov: ‘He taught me how to write effectively for orchestra.’
Partly thanks to Edison Denisov, she developed a lifelong love for the work of Osip Mandelstam, the poet who was murdered in a Gulag camp in 1938. Together with colleagues such as Anna Akhmatova and Nikolai Gumilyov, he belonged to the so-called ‘Acmeists’, who in the 1920s strove to write concise and clear poetry. She admires Mandelstam’s conciseness: ‘His poetry is written exactly as I would like to compose my music. I feel close to him, to his inner sensations, his attitude towards art and death.’
Firsova, like many Russians, was interested in poetry from the very beginning. This interest is partly rooted in the communist repression, when poets criticised the regime between the lines, while at the same time gratifying the search for spiritual meaning. – The current regime may cherish close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, but in the Soviet Union openly professing a religion was certainly not encouraged.
Just as Mandelstam generates terse meanings in just a few words, Firsova paints beautiful soundscapes permeated with melancholy, with seemingly simple means. She based many compositions on his verses. An unmistakable highlight are the seven cantatas for soprano and (chamber) orchestra that she composed between 1979 and 2009.
Firsova also greatly admires Mandelstam’s kindred spirit Anna Akhmatova, whose Requiem she set for soprano, choir and orchestra in 2003. This fourteen-part epic, written between 1935 and 1961, poignantly expresses the sufferings under the Stalin dictatorship. It is considered the most important document about the period of the Great Terror, and was forbidden literature. On the sly people passed on the poems orally.
Firsova matches Akhmatova’s gripping verses by portraying the feelings of suffering, powerlessness and dismay in an alternation of tormented stillness, hair-raising dissonances, furious percussion, and loudly blaring references to the Dies Irae motif. A second thread is the theme D-Eflat-C-H, the German note names for the initials of Dmitri Shostakovich. In 2006 she also incorporated this musical motif in The Garden of Dreams for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.
She calls Shostakovich ‘my first god’, but her attitude towards her illustrious predecessor seems somewhat ambivalent. The Garden of Dreams describes a dream in which someone in a beautiful garden keeps coming across the motif of his initials. Finally, the person arrives at a gigantic statue of Shostakovich, which, like Pushkin’s Stone Guest, is both enchanting and terrifying.
This ambivalence is understandable, because for a long time Shostakovich dominated the musical life in the Soviet Union; as a budding composer it’s only natural to try and escape from such an immense shadow. Though, of course, during his lifetime Shostakovich suffered strong repression from the apparatchiks.
One of the low points was the infamous meeting of the Union of Soviet Composers in 1948, when chairman Tikhon Khrennikov accused him, along with such greats as Prokofiev and Khachaturian, of ‘formalist perversions and anti-democratic tendencies’.
Tikhon Khrennikov 1948: ‘Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Khatchaturian display formalist perversions and anti-democratic tendencies.’ Tikhon Khrennikov 1979: ‘Elena Firsova, Dmitri Smirnov and Sofia Gubaidulina compose pointless and noisy mud.’
Khrennikov stayed in power after Stalin’s death in 1953. Though the communist system became somewhat less rigid, the circumstances for adventurous composers remained precarious. Some thirty years after Shostakovich’s condemnation, Khrennikov attacked a younger generation during the Sixth Congress of the Composers’ Union in 1979.
He was particularly irked because works by Elena Firsova, her husband Dmitri Smirnov, Sofia Gubaidulina and others had been performed abroad without permission. ‘They are terrible composers, whose music is pointless and noisy mud instead of real musical innovation’, he roared. ‘They should be denied the right to represent Soviet music abroad.’ – Unintentionally thus paying them a great compliment.
The consequences were less far-reaching than for Shostakovich and his fellow sufferers. The music of ‘the seven of Khrennikov’, as they went down in history, could no longer be played on radio and TV, and it was forbidden to publish their scores. ‘But’, says Firsova, ‘our pieces were hardly played anyway, except in the hall of the Composers’ Union.’ One commission was withdrawn: ‘Dmitri and I were to write music for 21 television documentaries for the Hermitage, but this was stopped after three episodes.’
When in 1990 party leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced more openness, the ‘terrible composers’ revived the Association for Contemporary Music (ACM). This had been initiated in 1923 by Nikolai Roslavets to promote the work of avant-garde composers, but had soon foundered because of opposition from the state. The new ACM set up an intensive exchange with the West, bringing modernists such as Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen to Moscow.
Like its predecessor the new ACM was short-lived, for when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, many composers left the country. Firsova and Smirnov moved to England, where their daughter Alissa would develop into a successful composer and their son Philip into a renowned artist; Smirnov would succumb to corona in 2020.
Shortly after her immigration, Firsova received a commission from the BBC Symphony Orchestra of Wales. This was a welcome boost: ‘At the time I was toying with the idea of an orchestral composition, which became Cassandra opus 60.’ This was premiered in 1993. The title not only refers to the Trojan visionary, she explains: ‘I also had images in mind of the uncertain situation in the Russia I left behind. I was worried about the future and the fate of our world.’
Pasternak & Beethoven
Her new Piano Concerto is inspired by a quotation from Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago: ‘Art always deals with two things – it reflects on the mystery and meaning of death.’ It is self-evident to her how we should interpret this: ‘It relates to me and my music: a newly created work of art brings life, new life.’
Elena Firsova: ‘My Piano Concerto is the “twin” of my Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra. In both concertos I quote the motif “muss es sein?” from Beethoven’s last string quartet opus 135.’
Musically, she calls her Piano Concerto a ‘twin’ of her 2015 Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra. ‘That’s unintentional, mind you. I noticed at one point, to my own surprise, that in both concertos I quote the well-known motif ‘muss es sein?’ from Beethoven’s last string quartet opus 135.’
She completed her Piano Concerto in 2020, the year she lost her husband. Yet it is certainly not a disguised in memoriam for Smirnov, she emphasises: ‘I finished it in March, when Dmitri was already ill, but still at home. He died in hospital on 9 April 2020’. A month later she sent the fully elaborated score to her publisher Sikorski in Hamburg.
In 2022 her misgivings about the future of Russia as expressed in Cassandra three decades earlier, turned out to be prophetic. Much to Firsova’s dismay: ‘The war against Ukraine fills me with deep shame, I count myself lucky that I left Russia thirty years ago, and was last there seventeen years ago.’
Whereas the Dutch government seems to regard culture as a superfluous luxury, other countries cherish its intrinsic value. The Latvian Music Information Centre regularly presents new CDs by composers from Latvia. In 2021 it released Trumpets of Angels with six organ works by Indra Riše, named after the first piece on the CD. I asked Riše about her fascinations, the appeal of the organ and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
When I first heard works by Indra Riše (1961) I was immediately hooked. Whatever instrument she writes for, her music always breathes a great naturalness and spaciousness. She has a special flair for composing for the human voice and when one day my chamber choir Amphion planned an Eastern European programme, I immediately proposed some of her songs. Both my fellow singers and the audience loved them. – To top it all off, Riše travelled all the way from Riga to attend our concert.*
Riše grew up in Dobele, about 80 kilometres south-west of the capital Riga. The provincial town has about 8,000 inhabitants and lies in the predominantly agricultural area of Zemgale. ‘But we also have beautiful forests’, emphasises the ever-cheerful composer, who nurtures a great love of nature. – When she came to our concert in 2018, she spent the night in a village in Brabant to avoid the hustle and bustle of Amsterdam.
As in many Baltic states, choral life flourished in Dobele, but remarkably, the young Riše did not like singing at all: ‘I avoided it as much as possible and only later became interested in choral singing. Not as a singer, but as a composer. At my mother’s instigation, I went to the local music school, where I learned to play the piano.’
She was the only child of a single mother. ‘This was very common in Latvia at the time’, Riše explains, recalling how her family suffered under the Stalin repression. ‘My grandparents were among the first to be deported to Siberia in 1941, along with my mother of four and her sister of eight. My grandfather was put on transport to a labour camp in a cattle wagon, my grandmother and the two girls were sent in a completely different direction in another cattle car. She never saw her husband again.’
As if by a miracle, her grandfather survived the penal camp: ‘He returned to Latvia after 40 years – old and sick, but unbroken.’ Her grandmother was less fortunate: ‘Due to the harsh cold of the permafrost, she died of pneumonia at the age of 35; her grave is unknown. My mother and aunt remained in Siberia under the supervision of other deportees until they were allowed to return to Latvia 6 years later.’
Because of the many deportations and fatalities of the Soviet terror, there was a shortage of men: ‘Of the few who survived, many fled to the West, especially intelligent and enterprising people. This often left the women alone. My father already had a family of his own and did not want to take on extra responsibility. I know little more about him than that he studied forestry.’
War against Ukraine: the agony of an empire
With such a background, many might become cynical, but Riše lacks any trace of this. Though she does admit being highly disturbed by the Russian war against Ukraine: ‘It reminds us of our own recent history of extermination, deportation and 50 years of occupation. These are still fresh in our memory, so we support the Ukrainians as much as we can; we have taken in over 30,000 refugees.’
‘Russia is a very dangerous and unpredictable neighbour, but for the moment everything is OK in Latvia. We listen to the latest news and cross our fingers for Ukraine. However, our country harbours many disloyal Russians, who (still) celebrate the Russian occupation of Latvia on 9 May. This is very distressing, and our government has decided to ban their annual meeting. It seems to me that this war is the agony of the great empire, which causes immense destruction and sacrifice. Let’s hope it all ends in a fiasco.’
Composer Indra Riše: ‘Russia’s war against Ukraine seems to me to be the agony of an empire. It causes great destruction and sacrifice. Let’s hope it will soon end in a fiasco.’
Despite the absence of a father, she had a happy childhood: ‘My mother was a chemical engineer. She had studied in Leningrad, and was an enthusiast for classical music. ‘During my school years, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, we took the train to Riga every weekend to go to the ballet, opera or theatre. We also visited as many exhibitions as possible. All in all, it was the best aesthetic upbringing imaginable, but as a child I absorbed it all rather unconsciously.’
The family was not rich: ‘We lived in a one-room flat with wood-burning stove. Yet we owned a piano, probably the only thing left from my deported grandparents; it had been played by my grandmother, who was a primary school teacher in the small town of Durbe.’
From the age of seven, Riše was taught piano according to the strict Soviet education system: ‘First you had lessons for eight years at the children’s music school, then four years at the secondary music school and then another five years at the conservatory. This means I had seventeen years of full-time piano lessons. I had started because of my mother, but playing came easily to me and gradually I came to enjoy it more and more.’
From performing to composing
In 1985 she completed her piano studies at the Jāzeps Vītols Conservatory in Riga. Not long after, she shifted her attention to composing: ‘During my piano studies I got to know a large repertoire of beautiful music. But increasingly I felt that I was somehow limiting myself by performing the music of others. My imagination demanded a different kind of expression, and by and by I started composing my own pieces. At first mainly for piano, but soon also for other instruments and ensembles.’
Initially she combined her professional practice as a pianist with composing: ‘But this was tough, and I only managed thanks to the unbridled energy of youth. At some point I understood that I had to choose one or the other.’ She decided on composition, and went to study with Pēteris Plakidis at the Riga Conservatory.
This turned out to be a bull’s-eye: ‘Plakidis was an exceptionally erudite musician and composer, and a walking encyclopaedia at that.’ Her teacher was not easy-going, though: ‘He was extremely strict and critical, and quick to find clumsy or meaningless passages in my compositions. But he taught me to solve such technical and orchestral weaknesses in a creative way. I enjoyed every lesson, he was a true master!’
She graduated in 1990, the same year in which the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra premiered her first orchestral work, Metamorfozes. The title is telling, says Riše: ‘At the time, I led a restless and active life, with the motto: today I am no longer who I was yesterday and tomorrow I will be different from today.’ Indeed, the twelve-minute piece is a succession of rapidly changing atmospheres, but the melodic richness that is so characteristic of her later style is already abundantly audible.
Denmark: new musical territories
In 1993, she won a scholarship for a postgraduate course in Denmark. ‘In 1991, Latvia had regained its independence, and Denmark was one of the first countries to recognise us.’ The country offered young talents from the Baltic States a scholarship for further studies and launched a competition, which Riše won. Being accustomed to the strict hierarchy of the Soviet system, moving to Denmark felt like a relief: ‘I got more creative freedom and could spread my wings internationally.’
Musically, Riše entered a new and unfamiliar world: ‘In Denmark, contemporary music was very abstract and far removed from the classical tradition as I knew it. Because of our strong tradition of folk music and choral singing Latvian composers wrote in a more conservative style.’ In her new homeland Riše started experimenting with modernist techniques: ‘I dabbled in all of them, but after a while I decided this was not my way, and returned to a clearer and simpler musical language.’
Electronic music turned out to be quite inspirational though: ‘Its many possibilities have definitely changed my thinking about music.’ She employed electronic processes in several compositions, such as the naive-estranging Pictures of Childhood from 1996. A mezzo-soprano enters into dialogue with a wondrous array of recorded sounds, and her own electronically distorted voice. But above all, thanks to electronics, Riše has developed a skill for eliciting special timbres from acoustic instruments.
Throughout the years of experimenting with modern composition techniques and electronics, Riše has remained true to her Latvian roots. ‘I may have gained many new impressions outside Latvia, but my background and inspiration always shimmered through my music. Nowadays, I can honestly say that I belong to the contemporary Latvian composing scene, in which sobriety, simplicity and clarity of form predominate.’
Nature is an important source of inspiration: ‘It was created by God. You can look at it endlessly and be inspired by it.’ This reflects on the way she composes: ‘I don’t follow preconceived schemes or models, but work very intuitively. I go out and, like a snail, move my “antennae” to pick up vibrations from the universe, bringing them to earth in the form of music as it were. For music must come from the soul. If it comes from the head, I get bored.’
This sounds rather metaphysical, is she religious? ‘Yes and no’, she answers. ‘Yes, because something wonderful has been created, like the earth, nature, the sea, and so on. Something that was not man-made and of which I am just a small part. On the other hand, no, because I don’t need a church or religion to understand and accept all this.’
Trumpets of Angels
Her CD Trumpets of Angels contains six compositions for organ. As a student Riše played the organ herself, and she cherishes warm memories of this period. ‘It is a complicated instrument and practical experience helps enormously in understanding it. Organists are a separate group of people, very different from pianists, wind players or string players; I felt like part of a family. We helped and supported each other, and even today organists give me tips for improvements of a new score. I enjoy this two-way traffic between composer and performer.’
The album offers a fine sample of her skills. The title piece Trumpets of Angels for organ solo is dedicated to a deceased friend: ‘She was a radiant and spiritual personality. When she died, I imagined that an angel greeted her soul at the gates of another world, with jubilant trumpets.’ The six-minute piece opens with playful figurations in the highest registers, set against roaring chords in the low register. The succeeding tender interplay of musical lines seems to depict the gentle character of the deceased, after which the music dies away in peaceful quietude.
Composer Indra Riše: ‘I go out and, like a snail, move my “antennae” to pick up vibrations from the universe, bringing them to earth in the form of music. For music must come from the soul. If it comes from the head, I get bored.’
Indra Riše combines the majestic organ with other instruments and the human voice with obvious ease. As in Songs of Happiness, which she composed in honour of the Latvian poet couple Rainis and Aspazia. Riše: ‘They fought for Latvian independence and are national heroes, I much admire their poetry. Their 150th anniversary in 2014 was celebrated grandly in our country, and the state commissioned me to write this cycle. I chose five poems by Rainis, in fact disguised love letters to Aspazia.’
Illuminated by the Sun was composed for solo organ, yet I also hear woodblocks, exclamations similar to Wagner’s ‘hojotoho’ and birdsong. Did Riše use electronics here? ‘No’, she laughs, ‘I tried to treat the organ as an electronic instrument – without using electronics. I added two woodblocks to the instrument, which are played by the organist. And I used the voices of the organist and the registrant, who also operates a plastic nightingale filled with water. Thus I have tried to imitate sounds from nature, such as a storm, the cries of birds or people calling to each other in the woods.’
Strength and endurance
In Interaction for organ and flute the organ only makes its appearance after five minutes. ‘I wrote it for the flutist Imants Sneibis, who draws an admirable wealth of colour from his instrument. At the time I was very inspired by the music of Kaija Saariaho, feeling attracted to the hushed tones and barely perceptible nuances that create an intimate, emotional atmosphere. The first five minutes are a monologue by the flute, after which it becomes part of a dramatic story together with the organ.’
The concluding Fire Ritual for solo organ harks back to an old Baltic ritual, says Riše: ‘This was organised four times a year. During the summer and winter solstices and at the spring and autumn equinoxes, when day and night are of equal length. In spring, people pleaded for success in tilling the land; in summer, they prayed to the sun; in autumn, they gave thanks for the harvest; and in winter, they burned away all negative energy, emotions and diseases.
Proudly: ‘I feel at home in these Latvian traditions, where strength and endurance are passed on from generation to generation.’
*On 11 June, Chamber Choir Amphion will sing ‘Lūgšana par mūsu zemi’ in Oranjekerk, Amsterdam. In this 4-part song Riše celebrates her homeland Latvia.
In collaboration with AMMODO, Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ regularly presents brand new compositions intended to reach a general audience. In the afternoon, a piece is worked on extensively in a public rehearsal; in the evening, the world premiere is performed.
On both occasions I ask the composer beforehand about the how and why of their composition. On Thursday 19 May we will zoom in on MARS I by the Irish Jennifer Walshe. She composed this multimedia work for Klangforum Wien and the singers Juliet Fraser* and Elaine Mitchener.
The performance is directed by Delyana Lazarova. From 11:30 a.m. to noon, I will discuss MARS I with Walshe on Foyerdeck I, after which the ensemble devotes the entire afternoon to its rehearsal. Prior to the world premiere that evening, I will interview Walshe once again.** She already answered some basic questions.
From 11:30 a.m. to noon, I will discuss MARS I with Walshe on Foyerdeck I, after which the ensemble devotes the entire afternoon to its rehearsal. Prior to the world premiere that evening, I will interview Walshe again, and she already answered some basic questions.
What characterizes you as a composer?
‘I am a composer who works not only with sound, but also with film, text and movement.’
What is the first thing you do when you get a commission?
‘The beginning of a commission is incredibly exciting, because you find yourself in the “latent space” of what the project could become – anything seems possible. I have folders full of sounds and notebooks of ideas, with in the back of my mind as many as a hundred different versions of how the piece might turn out.’
‘As I work on it, the piece gradually starts to emerge, and my job is to interfere with the process as little as possible, so that it can develop freely.’
What is MARS I about and how did you approach your composition?
‘MARS I is the first in a series of planned pieces about the planet Mars. Thinking through Mars seems to me to be one of the best ways to reflect on the current era. Why do we want to travel to Mars? Why do some people think colonizing another planet is a good idea?’
‘Is there life there? Should we not be using the available resources to deal with climate change instead?Why are the richest men on Earth starting space travel companies? What role will Artificial Intelligence and robotics play in our lives in the future?’
‘Prior to a new composition, I always do in-depth research. I visit museums, watch films, read books and talk to experts. In this case, I also studied famous photographs of Mars. Two of them are recreated and projected during the performance. Also, three robots on stage follow the trajectories that the Perseverance Rover takes on Mars every day.’
Which pictures are involved and how are they reconstructed?
‘One of the percussionists makes two sketches with watercolours and salt, replicating two famous photographs of Mars. Starting with the first picture ever taken of the red planet. That was a black-and-white photograph made in 1907 by Earl Carl Slipher from the Lowell Observatory in Arizona.’
‘The second sketch is based on the last photograph of Mars still taken from Earth. It was shot by Ben Leighton in 1956 from the Mount Wilson Observatory in California. So both images were created before any spacecraft flew to the planet to shoot high-resolution images on the spot.’
‘The images mark the beginning and end of the era when mankind observed the planet from afar, when we still thought it was “alive.” In 1965, the Mariner 4 sent back the first pictures taken in close proximity to the planet. Leighton himself decoded them, discovering that the red planet was a barren wasteland.’
‘The sketches of those two iconic photographs will be made under a microscope and are projected on-stage during the performance.’
Jennifer Walshe composes Mars I for Klangforum Wien: ‘Why do we want to travel to Mars? Why do some people think colonizing another planet is a good idea?’
‘There are three small robots in the piece. They follow – to scale – the trajectories that the Perseverance Rover undertakes on the map of Mars. This is updated daily, so that I can see, for example, that the rover has travelled 5.27 metres 4 sols ago. (A Martian day is a sol).’
‘The rovers look for signs of past life and collect samples of rock and regolith (chunks of weathered material and dust). This is how NASA hopes to determine the geology and climate of Mars. During the performance, my three robots will follow selected trajectories that the Perserverance and other rovers have taken on Mars.’
‘I know of its existence, but it didn’t influence my own piece. I was inspired for MARS I by the writings of Mary Stewart Johnson, Mary Roach, Octavia Butler and Kim Stanley Robinson; life and work of astronauts like Ed White, and by all the scientists and astronomers I have spoken to.’
‘And, of course, by the intelligence, critical insight and wry humour of Mark O’Connell, who wrote the libretto.’
*Fraser fell ill with corona, and is replaced by Lore Lixenberg.
For Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931), composing is anything but a frivolous affair: every note stems from a deep-rooted belief in man’s connection with the universe. This must be cherished, to protect mankind from degeneration.
On Friday 13 May, the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Nicholas Collon will perform the long-awaited Dutch premiere of her orchestral work Der Zorn Gottes (God’s Wrath) in the AVROTROSVrijdagconcert. It is an arrangement for orchestra she made in 2019 of the seventh movement from her large-scale oratorio Über Liebe und Hass (About Love & Hate).
Tragic and profound art
‘Without tragic and profound art, entropy arises,’ Sofia Gubaidulina said in an interview with yours truly. ‘Everything in nature, including mankind, strives towards levelling and it is the artist’s task to resist that. I see it as my task to give a voice to the spiritual element’. Despite her advanced age (she turned 91 last October), Gubaidulina continues to work tirelessly to encourage mankind to reflect.
The Tatar-Russian composer is a convinced member of the Russian Orthodox Church. It is no exaggeration to say that each new composition is a tribute to God, just as it was for composers such as Bach and Bruckner.
Her works often bear religious titles and she has made acclaimed settings of the St. John Passion and St Francis’ Canticle of the Sun, among others. In 2016 she composed her nine-part oratorio Über Liebe und Hass, on prayers and psalms in various languages, of which the Der Zorn Gottes formed the seventh movement.
Because she felt there was more to the material , she made a new version for orchestra in 2019, for the Salzburg Festival. The premiere fell through due to corona, but the piece was still performed at the Wien Modern festival in November 2020, as a live stream without an audience. A year later, it was released on CD.
The seventeen-minute piece is dedicated to ‘the great Beethoven’ and opens with mighty, ominous upheavals of (very) low strings and winds, aptly evoking an angry God. The percussionists scourge their instruments with sledgehammer blows, while echoing bells and frenzied lines of high woodwinds and strings paint a picture of a crowd that fearfully ducks away.
‘In Der Zorn Gottes Sofia Gubaidulina has blown the Trumpets of Jericho. Only Beethoven could match such an intense song of rage that makes you prick up your ears.’
After a short, somewhat lighter passage, the dark, dissonant lows return. Flaring cries in the higher registers are contrasted with heavy, descending lines, intersected with ethereal rising motives from piccolo and solo violin.
Soon, however, we find ourselves in the same unfathomable depth with which the composition opened. From here, via constantly rising patterns, an impressive climax is built up. After a sudden silence and a short chorale Der Zorn Gottes ends in an apocalyptic finale.
Trumpets of Jericho
The press was wildly enthusiastic. ‘It is as if Gubaidulina has blown the trumpets of Jericho’, wrote one reviewer. The capricious lines […] recall the messianic emphasis of fear and terror in the face of the divine’, wrote another.
A third concluded: ‘Broad brass salvos are followed by such an intense song of rage that only a composer like Beethoven could have made you prick up your ears like that.’
Der Zorn Gottes makes the earth tremble and inevitably gets under your skin. It is the umpteenth masterpiece that Gubaidulina has given us, may many more follow!
Friday 13 May 2022 8.15 pm, AVROTROSVrijdagconcert TivoliVredenburg, Utrecht Dutch Radio Philharmonic Orchestra / Nicholas Collon Sofia Gubaidulina: Der Zorn Gottes, NL premiere, broadcast live on Radio 4.
On Friday 6 May 2022 Beat Furrer makes his debut with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with his brand new Sechs Gesänge. He used texts from Sara Gallardo’s novel Eisejuaz about the fate of the indigenous inhabitants of the Amazon: ‘Eisejuaz is forced to fell the trees that form the basis of his life’.
In the music of the Swiss-Austrian composer Beat Furrer (Schaffhausen, 1954), concepts such as melody, harmony and rhythm hardly seem to matter anymore. Yet with his fragmented sound universe, he achieves an intense emotional eloquence. During the Holland Festival in 2007, for example, he was highly praised for Fama, a ‘drama of listening’. In 2019, he received equally favourable reviews for his opera Violetter Schnee, in which five snowed-in people seem to be experiencing the downfall of the earth.
Colonialism leads to loss of identity
The score of Sechs Gesänge is also teeming with the seemingly incoherent emitted sounds of a twelve-member choir. The texts are taken from Eisejuaz, a novel published by the Argentine Sara Gallardo in 1968. ‘Her book was ground-breaking’, says Furrer enthusiastically in a video interview.
‘For the first time in history, an indigenous inhabitant of the Amazon region is given the opportunity to speak. The book is based on an interview with Eisejuaz, who goes by his Spanish name Lisandro Vega. He has to earn his living in a sawmill, where he fells the trees that make up his livelihood. It is a form of colonial violence that leads to a loss of identity.’
The idea for his composition arose a few years ago, when he read about the Dispute of Valladolid in 1550: ‘The Spaniards debated whether the original inhabitants of the conquered territories in the Americas were human beings. The Dominican bishop Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda argued that they had no souls and therefore could be killed and plundered.’
Beat Furrer: ‘Colonialism robbed Eisejuaz of his identity. With my Sechs Gesänge I hope to give him back his original voice.’
His counterpart, Bartholomew de las Casas, stood up for them and pleaded for equal rights. I was immediately captivated and started reading more about this still topical subject. Like Tristes Tropiques by Claude Levi-Strauss about dying cultures. It was a real stroke of luck when I stumbled across Eisejuaz.’
Separated from nature
With its abundant word repetitions, the libretto of Sechs Gesänge has the air of a litany. ‘I built it from loose phrases, sentences and words from the novel. Eisejuaz is closely linked to nature; he does not see himself as a separate individual but as one with his environment. However, this connection has been lost. The singers represent the voices of messengers from his old world. They send Eisejuaz word from the trees, the animals, even the wind.’
‘Eisejuaz’ animism has nothing esoteric for me’, Furrer emphasises. ‘I see it as a tragic fact that we have become separated from nature. The decision to separate man from nature was already taken in Aristotle’s time. A fatal mistake. There is a very beautiful moment in the novel. Eisejuaz describes how a cloud slides in front of the sun: “She looks at me, I look at her, but she says nothing. She used to speak to me!” I find this heart-breaking.’
‘For me, it is essential to restore the connection between man and nature, as philosophers have been advocating since Romanticism, when the great industrialisation left its mark on the landscape. In the songs of Schubert and the paintings of Casper David Friedrich, nature is personalised.’
Furrer is convinced that the human voice has something physical, which the other can experience: ‘When I hear your voice or someone else’s, or an animal’s or whatever, I am physically connected to it. That is why I hesitated about the title piece. First I thought of Anrufungen (Invocations), because Eisejuaz has lost contact with the beings and entities from his old world, who keep calling to him.’
Messages from a lost world
The invocations of Eisejuaz and tidings of the messengers are interpreted by the singers: ‘My idea is that he hears their voices and we hear them with him. The orchestra absorbs them into the sound, like a resonator. Sometimes they get a lot of space, sometimes less. At times, the orchestra just produces a range of different sound colours, sometimes heavy, sometimes light, like the rustling of the wind. At other times the fabric is quite homogeneous, as if orchestra and singers together form one voice that shouts, screams or sings.’
Each part has a different character, though for example movements 1 and 4 contain the same texts: an enumeration of types of wood and calls such as ‘break my heart’, and ‘build your houses in my heart’. Musically, however, they are very different, says Furrer.
Beat Furrer: ‘Eisejuaz loses his animistic contact with the world around him. This is not at all esoteric, but tragic: it was a fatal mistake to detach ourselves from nature.’
‘The first movement has a slow, lingering pace, in which the high tenors and basses are constantly interrupted by an almost animal-like voice from the depths of the orchestra, with instruments such as double bassoon, baritone saxophone and tuba. In the fourth movement, the orchestra suggests a gust of wind with fast string movements, which constantly change in colour and intensity. Quasi-calling voices gradually emerge from these agile sounds.’
These are often microtonal, with deviations from the regular intonation noted down to the smallest detail. Furrer: ‘In my harmonic system, sounds are constantly transforming. For example, one pure chord gradually changes into another via minute intervals, all derived from the overtone series.’
This makes his Sechs Gesänge seem a far cry from Zaín by Cristóbal de Morales (1500-1553), which is also on the programme. Furrer: ‘Naturally, my work sounds different, but with me too the vocal element is central. Music from the Renaissance and early Baroque was an important source of inspiration because of its unprecedented vocal richness, which was later lost. A Wagner singer can neither perform my music nor that of Morales; his or her voice simply lacks the flexibility to do so.’
Art is essential
Furrer is pleased Morales is programmed alongside his music: ‘He lived at the time of that horrific conference, as did Francisco Guerrero and Thomas Luís de Victoria. While bishop De Sepúlveda argued that the colonised natives were not human, the greatest Spanish music ever was composed! This was in stark contrast to the cruel reality. But that is precisely the function of art: it reflects on the world around us.’
Furrer here refers to Russia’s war against Ukraine: ‘It seemed unthinkable that something like this could ever happen again. I think art is more important now than ever, purely for survival. That is why I end my Sechs Gesänge with the words: “I wanted to shout but I had no voice”. – I wanted to give that voice back to Eisejuaz.’
This interview was first published in Dutch in Preludium, the magazine of Concertgebouw and Concertgebouw Orchestra.
Sechs Gesänge Beat Furrer will be premiered in Concertgebouw Amsterdam on 6 and 7 May. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Cantando Admont will be conducted by David Robertson.
On 10 May, the Opera Ballet Flanders presents the world premiere of The Convert by Wim Henderickx. The libretto was written by Krystian Lada and is based on the book of the same name by Stefan Hertmans. At the time of the First Crusade, a young Catholic woman converts to the Jewish faith and finds herself torn between two worlds.
‘It was love at first sight’, enthuses Wim Henderickx during a Skype conversation. ‘I was working on a play about Hadewych when The Convert was mentioned in a television programme. I had been searching for a suitable opera-subject for ages. I bought the book, read it in two days and sketched my entire opera on the third.’
The theme of someone who burns their boats behind them has preoccupied him all his life: ‘It touches on essential questions about the human condition that are typical of my humanity, my being a composer. How far can you go as a person before you capitulate? Why do people commit suicide, when and why do they finally give up? Vigdis, the main character in Hertmans’ novel, keeps going until the bitter end and eventually breaks down both mentally and physically.’
But this is not the only appeal of the book, which is based on historical facts: ‘A second theme is the religious question, which is still very topical today. Replace the Taliban with the Crusaders and you have a reverse jihad, perpetrated by the West from our religious point of view. At the same time, it touches on a current cultural problem: what if you fall in love with the wrong person? When a Moroccan girl falls for a western boy, or vice versa?’
Henderickx regards this as a timeless theme that lies at the core of opera: ‘It is about impossible love, a human drama. As a young, naive girl, Vigdis is attracted to David, a somewhat exotic boy from another culture, the son of a rabbi. She recklessly converts to his faith, without considering the consequences. Her Catholic surroundings cannot accept such a step, so she has to flee from certain death for the rest of her life.’
Wim Henderickx on his opera The Convert: ‘During the first Crusade, Vigdis recklessly converts to the Jewish faith of David. Her Catholic surroundings cannot accept this, so she must flee from certain death for the rest of her life.’
Henderickx feels compassion for Vigdis, who changes her name to Hamoutal at her Jewish baptism: ‘She comes from a well-to-do Viking family, but realises fairly quickly that she has irrevocably lost all her privileges and the respect and love of her relatives. She is happy with David and is lovingly accepted into the Jewish community, but must hide from the ruthless wrath of her parents. This makes her doubt her faith as well, hence the subtitle Praying to whom?’
TORN BETWEEN TWO WORLDS
The young couple make a long and harsh hike from Normandy to a village in the Provence, where they find shelter through a befriended rabbi and will have two children. On the way, they are constantly harassed by people who think they recognise them and threaten to report them to her parents. In such anxious moments, Vigdis at times lapses into reciting her familiar Catholic prayers, to David’s slight annoyance.
Still, we should not be too hard on him, Henderickx says: ‘David belongs to a dominant culture and simply cannot help himself. After all, Vigdis was neither requested nor required to convert, but once she has taken that step there is no way back: she must from then on abide by Jewish laws.’
‘I myself live in the Jewish neighbourhood in Antwerp. It’s my experience that their religion is not driven by a missionary urge as are Christianity and Islam, so I can understand David’s reaction. But despite everything he is a gentle and caring man. He does try to reassure Vigdis, but finds it difficult when she prays to her Christian God. Of course you can wonder why he didn’t convert to her faith, but in the end David too must pay for his choice of Vigdis with his life.’
FROM NAIVE TEENAGER TO CARING MOTHER
When Crusaders pass through the village where the family is hiding, they carry out a bloody pogrom. They kill David in front of Vigdis, who is pregnant with their third child. One of the knights recognises her and spares her life, but takes her children with him. Again she has to flee. Ever fearful of discovery, she loses her new-born baby on the way. After much wandering, she ends up in Cairo, where she marries an older man, with whom she has another child.
Henderickx: ‘Vigdis is an incredibly strong woman. In the beginning, she is still a somewhat thoughtless young girl, but she develops into a loving mother who never gives up. When her new husband finds out that her children are living with her parents in Normandy, she immediately returns to France, determined to retrieve them. She takes her son with her, but when the infant dies on the way, she loses her mind. Broken, she returns to the village where she once lived with David. She hides in a cave, where she neglects herself and lives like an animal.’
BREAKDOWN AND REDEMPTION
‘I wrote her to pieces at the end’, says Henderickx, almost apologetically, ‘I really let her break down completely’. This is in line with Hertmans’ novel, in which Vigdis dies witless and ragged, after eating poisonous mushrooms. Krystian Lada’s libretto follows the original closely, but in consultation with Henderickx he sometimes made minor changes to the original. ‘I found Vigdis’ inglorious death a little too desolate; I didn’t want to end my opera like that. But how then? In the end I opted for a twofold finale.’
Wim Henderickx on his opera The Convert: ‘Vigdis almost literally loses her voice. Towards the end it is ripped apart by electronics, and she only utters incoherent, desperate sounds.’
‘The horror of her fate is expressed in Vigdis almost literally losing her voice. She descends into a very low register, where she switches from a half-sung Sprechstimme to a spoken voice. This is manipulated and, as it were, ripped apart by electronics. Thus her voice becomes a succession of incoherent, desperately emitted sounds. But I needed a catharsis, to overshadow this intense drama. That is why the choir sings the Kaddish at the end, a Jewish prayer for redemption and peace.’
Just as the opera ends with a Jewish prayer sung in Aramaic, it begins with the Catholic Magnificat, sung in Latin. ‘In the extremes of the opera, the two great cultures at issue stand side by side, or if you like, opposite each other’, says Henderickx. These different worlds are also reflected in the music: ‘I was inspired by Catholic and Jewish chants, but never used literal quotations. Open fifths and the ringing of church bells evoke associations with the world of Vigdis, while sliding microtones refer to David’s oriental background.’
COEXISTING SOUND WORLDS
The orchestra also includes three instruments that are characteristic of the Middle East: an oud (a plucked instrument akin to the lute); a qanûn (a trapeze-shaped plank zither strung with three-stranded strings) and a duduk (a double reed instrument with a muffled sound, akin to the oboe).
Henderickx did not use a church organ, which could function as a typical western counterpart to the eastern instruments. He does however make frequent use of clarinets: ‘There are three clarinettists, the third of whom also plays bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet. In this way I can suggest various organ registrations. Like the more oriental instruments, this gives me the opportunity to add extra layers of sound that recall the world of Vigdis and David. After all, the sound universes of both parties, both religions and cultures coexisted.’
Even more important, he believes, is to make the universal, timeless aspect of their story tangible: ‘By spicing up the somewhat archaic sound textures with modern dissonances, I draw the story into the modern age. Thus, right at the start, the Magnificat is accompanied by the sounds of duduk, qanûn and oud. These different musical worlds are encompassed by a large melodic line. For it is all about Great Emotions! I am not at all afraid to underline them in my music.’ To illustrate this, he sings in flowery coloratura: ‘Ma-hag-ni-hi-fi-cat’.
TIME BECOMES SPACE
He consciously avoided the use of leitmotifs: ‘I have tried to transcend that, it’s not about whether the music follows the story or vice versa. It all belongs together, it is one trip. There are recurring elements, such as ostinatos, drones and a kind of empty sound in which time becomes space. Vigdis literally sings about this. It is an idea that fascinates me as a composer: music is an art of time, but what if that time becomes space and comes to a standstill? We translate this thought into the concert hall, where we place speakers around the audience so that the sound comes from all sides.’
‘This concept of time becoming space is more important to me than whether Vigdis is accompanied by a horn or a trumpet or a melodic motif. I have tried to express her emotions along the way – from young girl to caring mother to half-wild woman. One problem was that from beginning to end she is on the road, fleeing from one country to another. First with David, then alone.’
Henderickx feared The Convert might become an opera about travel: ‘To avoid this, I have created different musical layers. First there is the dramatic stratum, in which the pace must be maintained. Take for instance the pogrom at the end of the first act. That has become an impressive war scene, with screaming people, an “exploding orchestra”, and an animalistic howl from Vigdis when David is killed.’
MEDIEVAL STORY HIGHLY TOPICAL
‘On the other hand, moments are needed to create inner peace. For example, at the beginning of the second act Vigdis sings a lament, while cradling her new-born baby. Krystian and I have also included a few dreams that act as a counterbalance to the hectic nature of travel. In these, a different type of music can be heard, in which everything seems to come to a standstill. These moments also give the audience a chance to catch their breath.’
‘For, once again: the story may be set in the Middle Ages, but it is more topical than ever. That is what I want to make palpable with my opera.’
This article first appeared in the April issue of the Dutch music magazine Luister. I translated it at the request of Norsk Musikforlag, Henderickx’ publisher.
On Sunday 18 December 2022 Wim Henderickx sadly died of a stroke, only 60 years old.
The Amsterdam-based Alma Quartet fosters varied audiences and adventurous collaborations. They play in packed night clubs with top DJs, premiere daring new works by experimental composers, or simply perform the standard repertoire at top notch level. On 28 April they join forces with the Dutch percussionist Dominique Vleeshouwers in the Concertgebouw for a concert showcasing Samuel Adams.
Sam Adams (San Francisco, 1985) had been named composer in residence of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in 2020-2021, which capacity he would spend three months in the city. Inspired by the Dutch capital he was to compose a new work for the Alma Quartet, but due to the pandemic, his residency was postponed until the next season. – When covid once again threw a spanner in the works. The blog underneath is an adaptation of my article for Preludium, the joint magazine of Concertgebouw and Concertgebouw Orchestra.
The commissioned work fell prey to the pandemic as well. Instead, the deferred programme now includes two Dutch premieres: ‘Field’ for solo percussion and Sundial for string quartet and percussion. Despite the various mishaps, Marc Daniel van Biemen, first violinist of the Alma Quartet looks forward to the concert: ‘We put together our programme in close consultation with Sam, who I became friends with at the Yale School of Music.’
The concert opens with ‘Field’ for percussion solo, the third movement from Adams’ full-length ballet Lyra, which premiered in October 2021 and recently appeared on CD. Inspired by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice the five-minute fragment is set for vibraphone, snare drums, bongo and bass drum. Repetitive motifs in the high registers of the vibraphone in particular are interspersed with field recordings of creaking and abrasive sounds that evoke an African atmosphere.
In transit by the Dutch composer Joey Roukens is set for string quartet and percussion. Repetitive patterns create a hallucinatory atmosphere that abruptly turns into a sonorous lament. Then again the musicians take an unexpected new turn, working up to a climax of furious strokes on the strings and ferocious blows on a snare drum. Roukens’ grooving syncopation excellently matches Adams’ energy.
Just when you think it’s finished, Roukens serves up a sweet-voiced chorale that seems to float weightlessly in space. ‘We love it that In transit occasionally seems to take a wrong turn’, says Van Biemen, ‘we like to put the audience on the wrong track.’ It was his suggestion to programme Roukens: ‘It was a great shame to only play along with Dominique Vleeshouwers in Sam’s piece.’
REVOLUTION CAPTURED IN SOUND
Carrot Revolution by Gabriella Smith was proposed by Adams, though. Van Biemen: ‘Sam was very enthusiastic about her quartet and when I listened to it, I had a euphoric response myself. What a splendid performance piece!’
Smith often draws inspiration from the environment. She was interested in nature conservation as a teenager and spent five years volunteering at a songbird research project in Point Reyes, California. She started playing the violin when she was seven and began composing shortly afterwards. – One of her teachers was John Adams, Sam’s father.
Gabriella Smith’s Carrot Revolution is an irrepressibly propelling tangle of fierce bowing, sweeping outbursts, splashing pizzicati and wild drumming on the cello; a revolution captured in sound.
Smith’s quartet is one long, irrepressibly propelling tangle of fierce bowing, sweeping outbursts, splashing pizzicati and wild drumming on the cello; a revolution captured in sound. After about eight minutes, both the energy and volume decrease, with descending lines creating an uneasy atmosphere. As if flowers are hanging their heads for lack of water. Like a laboriously starting engine, the cello resumes its percussive drumming, taking the other players in tow. Their frenetic screeching glissandi arrive at a swirling, fortissimo climax which ends abruptly in nothingness.
The odd piece out seems to be Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, but Van Biemen thinks otherwise: ‘A concert inspired by America simply wouldn’t be complete without the ultimate work for string quartet’, he says. ‘Everyone knows it, this second movement of Barber’s String Quartet from 1936 is one of the most played classical works ever.’
With its melancholy tone and drawn-out melodies, Adagio for Strings points forward to the ‘new spiritual music’ of composers such as Arvo Pärt and John Tavener, with whom Barber shares his love for a rich tonal sound world. This connects seamlessly with Adams’ Sundial for string quartet and percussion.
Adams concurs: ‘Harmony plays an important role in all my music. In Sundial I treat the five voices somewhat like the reverb pedal of a piano; the strings extend the percussion sounds and vice versa, creating a kind of “hyper-resonance”. The percussion only consists of metal instruments: vibraphone, crotales and cowbells. Their somewhat out of tune sound is perhaps best known from Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, and combines beautifully with the precise, almost sterile sound of the vibraphone.’
‘Sundial works exactly like its namesake’, explains Adams: ‘The five instruments project a series of musical shadows that, in constant motion, reveal the passage of time in the shape of an arc. And like a sundial, when the music is warmest, the shadows are least transparent.’
In Sam Adams’ Sundial the string quartet and percussion project a series of musical shadows that, in constant motion, reveal the passage of time in the shape of an arc.
‘Most of the work is made of two distinct types of music: “rocking” music of fast, pulsing dual harmonies swaying back and forth, and “cyclic” music of slightly off-kilter contrapuntal figurations that blossom over long stretches of time. Only in the final minutes does the music break out of these two types of material, ascending to a ringing, intensely bright conclusion.’
DAUNTING BUT EXCITING
The programme is definitely interesting, but is the combination of strings and percussion not daunting? Van Biemen: ‘Of course it is a challenge to find the right balance in dynamics. Also, we must play lyrically while performing fairly rhythmic music. However, I find this combination particularly attractive because the overall timbre is totally different from that of regular quintet line-ups.’
Van Biemen concludes with gusto: ‘I really look forward to taking the audience along on an exciting musical adventure!’
The CD As I go off to War by the Latvian Gundega Šmite was released last year, and has since gained an unintended extra charge by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is a publication of the Latvian Music Information Centre, which is very active in the promotion of composers from Latvia.
This in stark contrast with the Netherlands, where the arts are basically considered a superfluous luxury. In the Baltic States, people cherish the connecting powers of art and music. Nor do they overlook women: As I go off to War is just one of several portrait cd’s the centre dedicated to women composers. In her fourteen-part cycle for soprano, bass-baritone, violin, double bass, accordion and piano, Šmite zooms in on the soldier’s life.
The subtitle Dainu kamermisteria (Folksong Mystery) refers to a Latvian form of folk poetry and music that goes back centuries. A daina traditionally consists of short, four-line poems without rhyme, usually in the verse foot of a trochee. They are sung over a drone, often from a kokle, a Latvian psalter.
The texts generally display a pre-Christian symbolism and describe village life. Remarkably, any trace of heroes is lacking. Over 200,000 copies of these traditional songs have been collected in the National Library of Latvia.
In the CD booklet Šmite writes that she has chosen ten poems which pose essential questions about life. Most importantly: who is prepared to sacrifice his life and happiness for a grand concept? She argues that this problem has occupied the minds of young Latvians for centuries. – For Ukrainians today the matter is rather less abstract: they simply have to fight in order to survive.
The ten dainas highlight different aspects of a soldier’s life: the parting of loved ones, the loss of those left behind, the futility of war and the soldier’s eventual return, dead or alive. ‘The verses describe the human weaknesses that surface as soon as a young man is called to arms,’ Šmite writes.
Most of the texts take a female perspective, of mothers, sisters and brides. This inevitably conjures up images of the countless Ukrainian women and children who have been cast adrift and are seeking refuge abroad. Once in a while a combatant himself describes his aversion to the bloodshed and begs to be allowed to stay at home.
Šmite explicitly carries a pacifist message. Against all odds, she asks herself: ‘Will there come a time when we look back on the horrors of war as something from the past, which we have overcome thanks to our spiritual strength?’ – At the moment, the prospects are far from favourable.
In her song cycle ‘As I go off to War’ Gundega Šmite powerfully voices man’s suffering, courage and perseverance. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine it has gained an extra charge.
In ten songs, separated by four instrumental intermezzi, Ensemble Arcandela leads us through a colourful soundscape. Mysterious rustlings of the violin, rhythmic drumming on the double bass, sparse piano notes and restless outbursts of the accordion express the various states of mind.
Šmite organically blends influences from folk and jazz in with modern composed music. The simple melody lines and the folkish, clear voice of soprano Aiga Bokanova at times bring Stravinsky’s Svadebka, the Peasant Wedding to mind. The repetitive motifs and the sonorous operatic voice of the bass-baritone Kārlis Saržants create a ritualistic, incantatory atmosphere.
Courage and perseverance
Although the music loses some of its impact as the cycle progresses, it poignantly expresses man’s suffering, courage and perseverance. An absolute highlight is the song ‘Neigh, neigh, grey horse’. Raw screams from the singers and furious Bartók-pizzicati from the double bass aptly express the soldier’s distress, and his desire to be released from the violence of war. Even if you do not understand Latvian, the tenor of the lyrics is perfectly understandable.
Recently, a Ukrainian woman shared on social media how a particular piece of music had comforted her in the bomb shelter. – May this CD also offer some solace to the plagued Ukrainians.
Read an urgent appeal on Facebook from Nazar Rozlutky, who fights in the Ukrainian army. He asks us to not look away but help Ukraine fight the Russians.
Zeynep Gedizlioğlu (Izmir, 1977) has won the German Composer Prize 2022 in the chamber music category. The jury of the Akademie Deutscher Musikautor*innen writes: ‘She has made a name for herself far beyond the borders of Germany with her colourful, diverse, innovative and exciting music. Her strength lies especially in smaller, soloistic ensembles.’
Gedizlioğlu is little known in the Netherlands, but in 2019 the German Ensemble Modern presented the world premiere of Nacht, alongside the brand new composition Assange – Fragmente einer Unzeit by the German-Dutch composer Iris ter Schiphorst. Both composers were my guests at the introduction to the concert on 7 November in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ. I had already interviewed Gedizlioğlu for a short article for its website. This has since been taken offline, so I have adapted my text for this post.
Zeynep Gedizlioğlu was born in Izmir in 1977 and studied composition with Cengiz Tanc in Istanbul. She then moved to Europe. There she studied composition with Theo Brandmüller in Saarbrücken, Ivan Fedele in Strasbourg and Wolfgang Rihm in Karlsruhe. She won several awards and participated in the renowned Summer Course for New Music in Darmstadt. She also studied electronic music at IRCAM in Paris. Since the end of 2001 she has been living and working in Berlin.
Like Ter Schiphorst, Gedizlioğlu sometimes reflects on current events. In 2007 she composed her second string quartet, Susma (‘don’t be silent’) for the Arditti Quartet. It is dedicated to the Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink, who was murdered earlier that year.
Fierce attacks, shrill dissonances, thundering pizzicati and slipshod glissandi create an uncanny atmosphere. In this way, she makes the sultry climate and the increasing lack of freedom in Turkey almost physically tangible. In 2014 she composed the equally oppressive Kelimeler (‘key word’) for Neue Vokalsolisten Stuttgart. This was the same period when Erdogan forcefully suppressed protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square.
Gedizlioğlu developed the piece from the character of the Turkish language and chose words of darkness and determination. The five vocalists utter terrifying cries, hum unpleasantly high notes and interrupt each other with mysterious whispers. The restless, raw music gets under your skin.
‘There is no compromise between dark and darkness’, she explained. ‘There is no light or white darkness, only darkness. I embrace the realisation that there are no compromises.’
Zeynep Gedizlioğlu: ‘There is no light or white darkness, only darkness. I embrace the realisation that there are no compromises.’
In 2019, Gedizlioğlu composed Nacht, commissioned by Ensemble Modern. She told me that she had chosen a new direction: ‘I wrote my own text – directly in German – which is spoken and whispered by the musicians during the performance.’
She confided that it had been an exciting experiment: ‘By trying something relatively new for me, I took a risk, because the outcome is unpredictable. Each individual performer, but also the music itself, reacts both to the sound of the text and to its meaning. This creates an interaction that increasingly transforms (or should transform) into an interaction between music and text.’
She also said that she envisions night rather as a place or a space than as a phenomenon that extends over a certain time. ‘It is a place of whispers, of futile attempts to say something. Because the musicians must pronounce their text within a limited space of time, a certain franticness and urgency are created.’
Incidentally, the text is not necessarily intelligible: ‘The silences between the various passages are perhaps even more important than the sounding notes.’ Nacht was beautifully performed by Ensemble Modern on that 7th November 2019. Unfortunately, there are no reviews but I can wholeheartedly endorse the jury’s verdict.
Nacht proved to be a compelling and oppressive work, that once more illustrated how colourful and exciting Gedizlioğlu’s writing is. Hopefully the German award will bring it more to attention in the Netherlands.
In the autumn of 2021 the British pianist Martin Jones released the first volume of his recording of the complete piano works of Elisabeth Lutyens (1906-1983). She was a flamboyant personality who challenged the misogyny of the music world and fought like a lion to get her compositions performed. She was the first British composer to embrace twelve-tone music – though not through Schoenberg, as she claims, but by her own efforts, by studying Henry Purcell’s Fantasias.
Be that as it may, her love for atonal music was not taken kindly to, and she was meekly called ‘twelve-note Lizzy’. Conversely, she harboured deep contempt for composing peers such as Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst and Arnold Bax, whose music she described as ‘the cowpat school’. Due to the constant lack of appreciation, Lutyens became somewhat embittered; of necessity she composed a lot of film music. – And so, through the back door, she managed to make atonal music salacious after all.
However, in the 1950s and 1960s she gained late recognition, when she was discovered by a younger and more adventurous generation of composers, the most famous of whom were Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle. They rebelled against the conservative curriculum at the Manchester Conservatoire and travelled to London to seek inspiration from Lutyens. They have gone down in history as the ‘Manchester School’.
As a child Lutyens had been taught piano by an aunt whose teacher had herself been a pupil of Clara Schumann. All her life, Lutyens continued to compose for the instrument, and Martin Jones is now recording all her piano pieces on CD. Curiously, he begins with music from the last decade of her life, when she confided to an acquaintance: ‘I have resigned myself to composing for myself, my friends, and to pass the time’.
The five pieces performed by Jones, however, do not make the impression of being obligatory pastimes at all. The Seven Preludes for Piano opus 126 from 1978 are sparkling and lively, recalling Debussy’s preludes in their clarity, thanks in part to Jones’ fine playing. Five Impromptus opus 116 (1977) and the seventeen minute long The Great Seas opus 132 (1979) also have a dreamy atmosphere, despite some occasional pounding chords.
Lutyens does not clog up her scores, but lets her music breathe from beginning to end; often her tones seem to float freely in space. Only intermittently do we hear the large intervals that are so characteristic of atonal music, and always there is this luxurious feeling of spatiality.
Perhaps the most radical is the oldest piece on the CD, Plenum opus 86, which she composed in 1974. It subtly demonstrates her mastery of serial composition techniques. The 12-tone row she posits at the beginning returns as a palindrome at the end. It moreover illustrates she was well acquainted with contemporary playing techniques, for at times the pianist plucks the piano strings directly.
Elisabeth Lutyens does not clog up her scores, but lets her music breathe from beginning to end; often her tones seem to float freely in space.
The concluding La natura dell’Aqua opus 154 (1981) is riddled with written-out silences, which give the music a meditative atmosphere. However, this is regularly interrupted by eruptions of fast, short strings of notes that aptly evoke the image of a gurgling fountain.
Martin Jones effortlessly switches between a fairy-tale velvet touch to brisk, firm banging when the music demands it. He is the ideal performer of Lutyens’ piano music, an interesting mix of sweet impressionism and abrasive severity – British modernism imbued with French perfume.
The New York Times called her ‘one of the most inventive, surprising composers’, Time Out New York dubbed Missy Mazzoli the ‘Mozart of the new millennium’. The magazine Musical America proclaimed her Composer of the Year 2022. In September her opera The Listeners will have its belated premiere at the National Opera in Norway; the production was cancelled last year due to corona. I interviewed Mazzoli about her background and inspirations.
In 2012, Missy Mazzoli (1980) attracted attention with her chamber opera Song from the Uproar, about the intriguing life of Isabelle Eberhardt. Four years later, her opera Breaking the Waves, based on the film of the same name by Lars von Trier, was received with even more enthusiasm. Proving Up, a disturbing commentary on the American Dream, also won critical acclaim in 2018. Her opera The Listeners will have its delayed premiere in September 2022; the production was cancelled last year due to corona.
Although she is widely known for her musical-theatrical work, at the outset of her career Mazzoli had vowed never to venture into this genre. ‘Opera is too complicated and too comprehensive and besides, you are dependent on a lot of people’, she said in an interview. Her opinion changed dramatically when she got to know the diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt.
This Swiss-Russian adventurer (1877-1904) traversed the desert on horseback, dressed as a man. She visited Islamic sacred places and fund her travels with articles in European newspapers, published under the pseudonym Si Mahmoud. She died at the age of 27, when her hut was swept away by a sudden mudslide. After her tragic death, her diaries were found and published.
Her colourful life appealed to many imaginations. When Mazzoli heard a radio programme about Eberhardt, she was so intrigued that she immediately decided to immortalise the Swiss adventurer in music. She discerned in her passions and struggle for independence ‘a direct connection to all the contradictions that still define women’s lives’. She wished to give the public the chance ‘to experience the world of Isabelle, a world that appeals to several senses’. Despite her earlier aversion, she concluded that opera was the most suitable genre to achieve this.
Coincidentally, she was 27 years old herself when she started on her opera. The libretto was written by the Canadian-American playwright Royce Vavrek, who has been dubbed the ‘Metastasio of the downtown opera scene’. In 2018 she wrote a second opera, Breaking the Waves, about the deeply religious Bess McNeill who sacrifices her honour and life for her handsome lover Jan, who becomes paralysed by an accident on his drilling rig.
Missy Mazzoli: ‘I value stories in which women step outside themselves and do things that are shockingly out of character, in order to maintain agency.’
As she had been moved by Eberhardt’s story earlier, this time Mazzoli was impressed by the female hero in Von Trier’s film. Instantly she knew she wanted dedicate an opera to the ‘crushing vulnerability, unwavering faith and shocking courage’ of Bess McNeill. Again, she asked Vavrek to provide the libretto. In her music she has managed to bring across the complexity of Von Trier’s main characters. Jan voices his desire for Bess in a tender but at once calculating manner. Bess sings fragile melodies against a turbulent, distorted accompaniment, which make her longings and inner anger palpable. A critic proclaimed Breaking the Waves ‘one of the best American operas of the 21st century’.
People in impossible situations
For Proving Up (2018) she again collaborated with Vavrek. This time there was no direct cause, it was a commission from the Washington National Opera. ‘We went looking for a subject that was current, unusual and uniquely American,’ says Mazzoli. They chose a short story by Karen Russell, a dystopian vision of the American Dream. A settler family bravely endures all kinds of adversity and works very hard, but is still unsuccessful. Mazzoli sees similarities with our times: ‘They are ordinary people in an impossible situation, trying to prove themselves even on the brink of the abyss.’
In Proving Up, the dead come to life and animals are made part of the characters’ inner turmoil. Mazzoli captures this somewhat surrealistic tenor by incorporating acoustic guitars, harmonicas, scrap percussion and harpsichord in the chamber orchestra. The opera got favourable reviews: ‘The music evokes uneasiness; even in the rare happy moments, the orchestration has an undercurrent of tension,’ judged one reviewer. ‘This vivid work crackles with the dangerous, captivating power of heat illumination’, wrote another. ‘Little House on the Prairie meets The Shining’, yet another reviewer summed it up succinctly.
As a matter of course Mazzoli again asked Royce Vavrek to write the libretto for her fourth opera, The Listeners. Surprisingly it is based on the novel of the same name by Jordan Tannahill, which was published in 2021. How did she manage to get permission so quickly to base an opera on it? Mazzoli laughs: ‘It was exactly the other way round! Royce and I developed the idea with Jordan before he turned it into a book. Actually, the opera was supposed to premiere before the release of the book, but the production was cancelled due to corona.’
Desire to belong
The main character in The Listeners is a middle-class mother who notices a hum, an inexplicable high-frequency environmental noise. Only a select number of people can hear it – the ‘Listeners’ from the title. Soon a neighbourhood group is formed that tries to solve the mystery of the hum, but then an engaging leader appears who suggests it has a spiritual meaning. The meetings take on cult-like proportions and it gradually becomes clear that this community is on a collision course with destruction.
Reading the synopsis, one inevitably gets associations with Trump’s style of government, steeped in hatred and suspicion. Can we interpret The Listeners as an indictment of his presidency and unfounded accusations of voter fraud? Mazzoli: ‘There are clear parallels with Trump’s presidency, but I think it is a widespread phenomenon. The opera addresses the effect of charismatic leaders on a vulnerable and panicky part of society. It is about our desperate desire to belong, our search for community and meaning, and about how charismatic leaders exploit these needs.’
Vulnerable people swayed by charismatic leaders
In her own programme notes we read: ‘The Listeners explores how far we, as Americans, are willing to go to find a sense of place and purpose. An essential part of our American identity is a sense of earned and inevitable success and happiness. When this supposed future collides with the realities and difficulties of everyday life, greedy leaders offering a “quick fix” can easily capitalise on the vulnerability of lonely and distraught people.’
Missy Mazzoli: ‘Although America is a prosperous country, one misstep or setback (loss of a job, an accident, a sick relative) can lead to financial and personal ruin. Charismatic leaders capitalise on this vulnerability.’
Does Mazzoli think that Americans are more likely to follow such leaders? ‘In every country you find people who fall under the spell of inspiring politicians and cult leaders, but I think this is more common in countries without a social safety net. Although America is a prosperous country, one misstep or setback (loss of a job, an accident, a sick relative) can lead to financial and personal ruin.’
Women struggling to maintain agency
If Corona does not throw yet another spanner in the works, The Listeners will have its world premiere at the National Opera in Norway coming September, coinciding with Mazzoli’s honourable title ‘Composer of the Year 2022’. The magazine Musical America established the award in 1992 and it has previously gone to such luminaries as John Adams (1997), Arvo Pärt (2005) and Julia Wolfe (2019). Though it neither involves prize money nor a commission, Mazzoli is delighted: ‘It’s great to be associated with composers such as Meredith Monk, Julia Wolfe and Joan Tower.’
It is no coincidence that she mentions female composers, for only six of the thirty previous awardees are women. This flagrant undervaluation is a recurring theme in Mazzoli’s work. ‘Being a woman in a male-dominated world, struggling to find an identity is one of my big themes. My opera characters serve as dramatic archetypes for our complex, modern-day fears, desires and strife. I value stories in which women step outside themselves and do things that are shockingly out of character, in order to maintain agency.’
She regularly speaks out against the dominant role that aged white men have played – and often still play – in the music world, and actively strives to diversify it. When she was Mead Composer-in-Residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (2018-2021) she drastically reshuffled their programming: ‘I am proud to have been able to programme music by female and coloured composers such as Jessie Montgomery, Sky Macklay, Morgan Krauss, Kate Moore, Suzanne Farrin and Meredith Monk, to name but a few.’
Missy Mazzoli: ‘#MeToo gave women a much-needed language and a platform to expose abuses. Before that, the consensus was to keep quiet if teachers made sexist remarks or treated you unequally, for it might negatively impact your career.’
The theme is so close to her heart because as an aspiring composer she herself had to deal with prejudice and sexism. On many occasions she recalled that Louis Andriessen, with whom she studied at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague, was the first ever mentor to treat her as an equal: ‘He believed in my abilities, even before I did it myself. We not only talked extensively about music, but also about literature, philosophy, film and theatre.’
Yet at times he would comment on her appearance, or call her a ‘sweet girl’, causing her discomfort. ‘These were things that I felt he would not say to my male peers. Then the feeling of being an equal turned into the feeling of being a little girl.’ She does not blame him personally, though, but rather the prevailing mores at conservatoires.
‘In roughly the first 200 years of their existence, there were no female professors. A staggering statistic, which needs no explanation of how unfair the situation was. Students need role models, so composition departments must be dramatically expanded to include more women, non-binary individuals, and people of colour.’
Mazzoli feels supported by the #MeToo movement. ‘It gave women a much-needed language and a platform to expose abuses. Before that, the consensus was to keep quiet if teachers made sexist remarks or treated you unequally. Above all, you were supposed not to play the martyr, because if you did, it would have a negative impact on your career. That said, the effect of #MeToo on academia has been less than I expected, for composition departments are still overwhelmingly dominated by white men.’
Yet, there are also some bright spots. In 2018 Mazzoli received a commission from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, as the first woman ever; four years later she boasts the title Composer of the Year 2022. In this same year her Austrian colleague Olga Neuwirth received both the Grawemeyer Award and the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize.
The Austrian politician Jörg Haider once labelled her work as Weltkatzenmusik (‘cat’s wailing music’). When his extreme right Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs joined the government in 2000, this led to mass protests. At one such meeting, Olga Neuwirth (Graz, 1968), denounced his anti-intellectual and anti-cultural agenda under the slogan ‘Ich lass mich nicht wegjodeln’ (I won’t be yodelled away).
The rest is history: Haider crashed with his sports car in 2008, Neuwirth ranks as one of the most important composers of our time. This year she receives both the Grawemeyer Award and the Ernst von Siemens Musikpreis 2022.
Neuwirth grew up in an artistic and progressive environment, with a well-known jazz pianist and piano teacher as father, a literary inspired woman as mother and an avant-garde composer as uncle. The home of her ‘hippie-like’ family was a coming and going of artists and musicians, including many Afro-American jazz greats. When she was twelve, she wrote a play about this, which was even performed in the school theatre.
Play with identities
All this sounds more idyllic than it was, because the downside of her parents’ freedom-loving mentality was that as a child she was ‘dragged everywhere and randomly put to sleep somewhere’, as she said in an interview in 2015. Moreover, her parents and their friends were constantly moving ‘on the brink of self-destruction’, so that as an adolescent she had the paradoxical feeling of having to save them from destruction. ‘You get to know a lot of human abysses in the process,’ she said in the same article.
From an early age, Olga Neuwirth has fearlessly pursued her own way. She dares to take a stand and to row against the tide, and teams up a lot with the controversial Austrian star author Elfride Jelinek; like this Nobel Prize winner, she fervently defends the women’s cause. That Neuwirth is socially committed, likes to take a closer look at our darkest motives and is fascinated by changing identities, seems almost self-evident.
Breakthrough opera Bählamms Fest
At the age of 22, she already overwhelmed the new-music audience with the mini-operas Der Wald and Körperliche Veränderungen, inspired by texts by Jelinek. The first is an indictment of environmental pollution, in which she introduces a forest as an acting character. In the black-comic Körperliche Veränderungen, the pomposity of men is ridiculed. Traditional authority relationships remain intact even after Tarzan and Jane have changed voices and roles.
In 1999, Neuwirth made her international breakthrough with her ‘animated opera’ Bählamms Fest, also based on a libretto by Jelinek, in which a family assault each other in a gruesome manner. The main character Theodora starts an affair with her brother-in-law, half-wolf, half-human. Her lover makes several bloody victims before abandoning her. That Theodora does not subsequently go mad, or throw herself off the cliff in despair, can be seen as Neuwirth’s middle finger to the usual opera practice.
Electronics and video
Like many of her peers, Neuwirth often works with electronics and video. One of her first projects was Canon of Funny Phases, which she made with her sister Flora in 1989. A one-minute animated film is shown on sixteen different video screens in immediate succession, like a strict musical canon. For the renowned Quay Brothers, she composed music for a Coca Cola commercial in 1993. After the company rejected it as ‘harmful to the youth’, the Brothers used it for their animated film The Calligrapher.
In 2003, Neuwirth attracted attention with her video opera Lost Highway, for which Jelinek again provided the text, based on the film of the same name by David Lynch. Five years later she composed Kloing! for pianist and interactive video, in which she intersperses existing (cartoon) film images with live shots from the stage. In this tragicomic piece, a pianist battles a computer that controls the keys of his instrument and eventually makes it impossible for him to play at all.
In Torsion for bassoon and pre-recorded material (also 2003), the performer is made to accompany field recordings. The piece was composed for the French bassoonist Patrick Gallois, and is inspired by the building Daniel Libeskind designed for the Jewish Museum in Berlin that opened in 2001. Five vertical concrete shafts symbolise the void created by the Nazis’ Endlösungspolitik. Neuwirth made sound recordings in these deserted spaces, which cut through the bassoonist’s dazzlingly virtuoso discourse five times.
Olga Neuwirth does not compose music ‘to lull the masses to sleep’. Instead of lyrical melodies and ear-pleasing harmonies, she concocts angular and abrasive sound spectra.
Neuwirth does not compose music ‘to lull the masses to sleep’. Instead of lyrical melodies and ear-pleasing harmonies, she concocts angular and abrasive sound spectra. She spices her music with distorted fragments from classical masterpieces, pop music and jazz. Besides (live) electronics, she employs electric guitars, toy instruments and ‘forgotten’ instruments such as harpsichord or theremin. Woodwind players produce ‘tooth tones’, glissandi and multiphonics; brass players don a huge range of mutes; string players use their fingernails. She often creates an alienating effect with microtonal sound fabrics.
Her research on the effect of sound on space lead to her ground-breaking Le Encantadas. Neuwirth completed this full-length work for six spatially arranged ensemble groups, samples and live electronics in 2015. It is named after Herman Melville’s novella of the same name, which comprises ten philosophical ‘sketches’ of the Galapagos archipelago, describing both their immense beauty and their desolate inhospitality.
In search of the unfathomably deep sea, Neuwirth went to Venice, where at the age of 16 she had heard the premiere of the opera Prometeo by Luigi Nono in the Chiesia di San Lorenzo. This ‘tragedy of listening’ made an indelible impression. When she accidentally entered the church in 1997, she was so struck by its special acoustics that she decided to preserve it. She recorded its acoustic relationships into a computer programme, thus enabling their exact reproduction in other spaces.
In Le Encantadas we make an imaginary journey along various islands. The acoustics are manipulated in such a way that sometimes we seem to find ourselves to be in the immense space of San Lorenzo, at other times in a narrow back room. Neuwirth intersperses the music with recordings of splashing water, ringing church bells, talking people and even an aria by the Japanese cyber diva Hatsune Miku. Its premiere in the Donaueschinger Musiktagen in 2016 was greeted with rave reviews.
In 2019 Neuwirth and librettist Catherine Filloux based the opera Orlando on Virginia Woolf’s classic novel of the same name, published in 1928. In this ‘fictional musical biography’ the nobleman Orlando from Elizabethan times wakes up as a woman after a long slumber, living on into the 20th century. In spite of this sex change he/she remains unchanged in character, without ageing significantly. Neuwirth’s Orlando continues the story into 2019.
The writer Orlando falls in love with a woman during the hippie era and becomes acquainted with current phenomena such as the new right-wing movements. At the centre of the composition is the paraphrase: renaissance madrigals are washed over by swirling glissandi, out-of-tune harpsichords are crossed with sounds from such unlikely sources as car brakes and thunder plates. Thus Neuwirth creates new music from historical or historically inspired material.
Grawemeyer Award and Ernst von Siemenspreis
Orlando was the first opera ever to be staged in the 150-year history of the Vienna Opera House. It received great critical acclaim and won her the 2022 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, comprising $100,000. Neuwirth was also awarded this year’s Ernst von Siemens Musikpreis, which even amounts to € 250,000.
In a statement the Von Siemens Foundation calls her ‘one of the most influential composers of her time, who propagates feminist themes, breaks new ground, is not afraid to address grievances and gives contemporary music a new face’. Neuwirth described the main character Orlando as a person ‘who refuses to be patronized and treated in a condescending manner’ – an apt description of herself. She added that this is the everyday experience of women ‘with no end in sight’.
Neuwirth being awarded two such prestigious prizes in one and the same year may seem to indicate that the times they are a-changing…
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In March 2022 the Paris Mozart Orchestra tours Europe with ‘Diversita #3’, a programme featuring works by Ludwig van Beethoven, Igor Stravinsky, Clara Schumann and Silvia Colasanti. Isata Kanneh-Mason will play the solo part in the Piano Concerto Clara Schumann composed between 1833-1835. The orchestra will present its programme on 12 March in De Doelen, Rotterdam, and on 15 March in Concertgebouw Amsterdam.
Clara Schumann was brought up on music. Her father, Friedrich Wieck, was a music publisher, singing teacher, pianist and piano therapist; mother Marianne Tromlitz was a successful singer and pianist. Because of his frequent outbursts of anger, she left Friedrich when Clara was only five years old.
As a pedagogue, however, Friedrich was very gifted. He taught in a playful manner and made ear training and other training into enjoyable activities. Soon, Clara could sight-read very well; moreover, she turned out to be a great improviser.
Everyone who mattered at the time came to the Wieck house, where her father organised soirées at which Clara played for an interested but critical audience. This is how she got to know Robert Schumann, who moved into the family when she was eleven. Two years later she started what would become her Piano Concerto in A minor.
At the end of 1833, she completed a one-movement ‘Konzertsatz’ that she orchestrated herself. Robert made some ‘improvements’ to the instrumentation, after which she performed the piece in several concerts as a 14-year-old child prodigy. After this, she gradually expanded it to a three-movement concerto, with the original Konzertsatz serving as the finale.
In 1834 she wrote the first movement, which opens with a martial theme in majestic chords from the orchestra, followed by a virtuoso piano part. The following year she composed the middle movement, the intensely lilting ‘Romanze’ for cello and piano.
The two instruments circle each other like a pair of lovers – at the time Clara was in love with the cellist August Theodor Müller. The orchestra remains silent, but towards the end soft timpani rolls mark the transition to the third movement, which opens with clarion calls and a powerful, rising motive in octaves from the pianist.
A year later, Clara orchestrated the piece once more, undoing Robert’s revisions. Twelve days before her sixteenth birthday in September 1835, she completed this new version of her Piano Concerto. In November she played the premiere herself, with the Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Felix Mendelssohn.
In March 2022 the Paris Mozart Orchestra tours Europe with ‘Diversita #3’, a programme featuring works by Ludwig van Beethoven, Igor Stravinsky, Clara Schumann and Silvia Colasanti. She is the only living composer on the roster. The orchestra will present its programme featuring Schumann’s Piano Concerto and Colasanti’s Capriccio a due on 12 March in De Doelen, Rotterdam, and on 15 March in Concertgebouw Amsterdam.
Whether flowing melodies, driving rhythms or dense clouds of sound, the music of Silvia Colasanti (Rome, 1975) always remains lyrical. In Italy, she is regarded as one of the most important composers of her time; her music is represented by the prestigious music publisher Ricordi.
In the Netherlands she received commissions from the Eduard van Beinum Stichting (Burning, 2010) and the String Quartet Biennale (Ogni cosa ad ogni cosa ha detto addio, 2018), but as far as we know her work will be heard for the first time in De Doelen and the Concertgebouw.
Colasanti studied at the Conservatorio Santa Cecilia and the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome. In 2012, she achieved international fame with her opera La Metamorfosi, inspired by Franz Kafka. Five years later she based the chamber opera Le imperdonabili. L’ultima lettera di Etty Hillesum on life and work of the Dutch resistance fighter of the same name.
Capriccio a due for two violins and string orchestra dates from 2013. Colasanti wrote it at the request of violinist couple Salvatore Accardo and Laura Gorna, to whom she also dedicated it. Accardo and Gorna played the premiere at the opening of the 2013-14 concert season of the Istituzione Universitaria dei Concerti in Rome. Critics responded enthusiastically, calling it ‘extremely varied and lively’ and praising its ‘balanced, clearly recognisable structure’.
Capriccio a due is played without a conductor and has many characteristics of a baroque double concerto. There is a continuous dialogue between the soloists and orchestra and between the two violinists themselves.
After a stormy, four-part opening by the string orchestra, there is a whirlwind interaction between soloists and orchestra. The vibrant work brims with fiery ostinati and fierce scratches on the strings, of both tutti and soloists, alternating with more subdued passages of elongated tones and sweet lyricism. Because of the varied and subtle interplay, Capriccio a due breathes an atmosphere of chamber music.
Emotions of attraction and repulsion seem to be the cork on which the piece floats. – Just like in a marriage.
In 2014 the Ukrainians ousted their autocratic, Russian oriented president Viktor Yanukovych. Now their hard-won freedom is under attack from Vladimir Putin. In 1998 people I met at the festival Two Days & Two Nights of New Music in Odessa told me they believed hearing music from the West would ultimately be their path to democracy. Here is the article I wrote for the September issue 1998 of the British magazine The Wire.
Odessa, May 1998
For the fourth year in succession Odessa, city of the Potemkin Steps, was the scene of the festival Two Days and Two Nights of New Music this April. Crammed into a discotheque and sitting at tables, a massive crowd listened to the latest music from East and West.
An exuberant sun is shining when a group of some twenty musicians from all over Europe arrive at Odessa Airport. We are met by Karmella Tsepkolenko, artistic director of the festival, and members of the organizing Renaissance Foundation. This in turn is funded by the American Soros Foundation – there is no money for culture in Ukraine. Yet in a brochure the recently re-elected mayor Hurvitz brazenly claims all the credits for the festival.
GRAND BUT DILAPIDATED CONSERVATOIRE
Later that evening we are treated to an abundant meal, washed down with lots of vodka and champagne. The official reception takes place at the local conservatoire the next morning. The once grand, but now dilapidated building breathes a lively atmosphere. Here there will be masterclasses and workshops in the three days preceding the festival, so that the students have a chance to come into direct contact with musicians and composers from Europe and the former Soviet Union.
The workshops attract many students, yet are slightly disappointing. German composer Ernst-Helmuth Flammer gives a dense lecture on the measure in which Bruckner and Mahler point forward to new music. The interpreter monotonously recites the Russian translation, while the students take notes half-heartedly, or sneak out. French saxophonist Pierre-Stéphane Meugé arrives almost an hour late, and hasn’t prepared anything at all.
THE STATE THINKS FOR YOU
But when English trombone player Barrie Webb rolls up his sleeves to give a true old fashioned masterclass, only one student appears to have prepared something. After this, the workshop of Dutch pianist Kees Wieringa is a relief. He is working on a fiercely difficult repetitive piece by Simeon ten Holt, and the students crowd round the two pianos.
Yet also Wieringa acknowledges that only one student actually practised the score he sent them months in advance. Seemingly the students have an enormous craving for new music, but somehow it’s as if they expect that by merely listening intently, they will automatically master the techniques. The Russian composer Alexander Radvilovich explains: ‘People in the East have still not learnt to take responsibility. During the soviet regime the state thought for them. This not only explains their lax attitude, but also the fact that they don’t dare complain when somebody gives a shitty masterclass.’
Friday afternoon, at 4 pm the festival bursts loose. The Ukrainian Marine Orchestra opens with Frederic Rzewski’s Coming together. Could it be more symbolic? The venue looks a bit like the Amsterdam Paradiso, but is about twice as big. The stage stretches out into the hall, and is surrounded by tables and chairs. It is packed with a very mixed crowd. Not the specialised, intellectualist audience we are so used to in western Europe, but a healthy mix of old and young, of people who are curious about new music. The girl who serves our breakfast in the morning is present, too.
The programme is very varied and carefully composed. It continually starts with a soloist, followed by a duo fighting a musical ‘duel’, after which larger ensembles play. The entire spectrum of 20th century composition is covered. We hear large and sudden intervals in the constructivist music of Elliott Carter’s Canon for three (saxophones).
Kazakhstan composer Rachid Kallimullin adopts a lyric-expressionist tone in his solo for viola A Sinner’s Monologue; Barrie Webb performs Giacinto Scelsi’s meditative Three pezzi; Martin Bresnick’s string quartet betrays Minimalist influences, while elements of pop music can be traced in the pulsating rhythms of Dutch composer Jacob ter Veldhuis and Siberian composer Roman Stolyar.
RELAXED AND INFORMAL
The atmosphere is relaxed and informal, and it is by no means an insult if you have a chat with your neighbour. The bar remains open during concerts, and the audience sits in the dark while the performers are lit by coloured spots. Smoking however is prohibited, and it is touching to see how the crowd squeeze in and out of the hall in the short intervals between performances, for a breath of fresh air or a smoke.
Narrative pieces, especially if presented theatrically, are cheered enthusiastically, while the more intellectual works only draw a meagre applause. In Odessa classical music has not yet been turned into a religion, so the people react straight from their hearts. Violist Paul Silverthorne assesses: ‘You have to go out and grab their attention. If you play without inspiration for one second, you lose them. This is very stimulating, for it makes you play far more intensely.’
Climax of the festival is the French saxophone quartet Xasax, who present refreshingly stirring music by composers such as François Rossé and Ernest H. Papier. In the latter’s Axe à quatre the foursome carry out their prescribed dance steps with such alacrity that the audience goes berserk and demand several encores. In their interpretation even Schoenberg swings.
HIGH ARTISTIC LEVEL
The artistic level of all the performers, from both East and West, is strikingly high. Unfortunately the music from the East, with twenty out of eighty compositions, is slightly underrepresented. This is a shame, for I wouldn’t like to have missed the splendidly nervous string quartet Consequences of Ukrainian composer Alexander Krasotov, nor the lively Sempre Ostinato of Rumanian Cornel Taranu in which a busily gesticulating clarinet is bedded in evocative rustling chords on the strings of a piano.
The same goes for the mysterious-dramatic octet Beyond the white boundary of Ukrainian Ludmilla Samodaieva. She, however says: ‘For us it is important the festival brings music from the West, so we can define our position. Anyway, the share of music from the East is already larger than in the previous editions.’ Integration takes time, after all, and this festival is doing the best it can. When Sunday morning at five o’clock the last note is sounded, the hall is still packed with people. They’ll have to survive for a whole year on what this festival presents in new music. An inconceivable thought for us, spoiled westerners.
NEW MUSIC PAVES THE WAY TO CHANGE
Asked what this festival means for the people in Odessa, critic Ute Kilter, who presents her own tv-programme on culture, states: ‘By being confronted with new music and musicians from the West, slowly but inevitably a new way of thinking will seep into people’s consciousness.’
‘We will gradually learn to be more aware of our own responsibilities towards life. This is of immense importance to bring about changes in our politically and socially totally corrupted and mafia-controlled country. Eventually we will therefore become a civilised nation.’
Through the contact with people from the East, we on the other hand, may find our way back to what music is about: emotion and vitality.
In my programme An Ox on the Roofof Sunday 6 March 5 pm I will exclusively play music by Ukrainian composers. After airing the transmission remains available for listening online.
In 2011, Dutch National Opera presented the world premiere of Orest, directed by Katie Mitchell. Eleven years later, the Opera Forward Festival stages Eurydice – Die Liebenden, blind, for which Manfred Trojahn also wrote the libretto himself. The premiere is scheduled for 5 March 2022 at the Amsterdam Opera.
Again, the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra is in the pit, but this time Pierre Audi is directing. I interviewed Trojahn after a rehearsal: ‘Having heard the piece a few times now, I wonder if my music isn’t too lyrical.’
The idea of dedicating an opera to Eurydice had preoccupied Manfred Trojahn (1949) for some time. He wanted to tell the story from her own perspective. After all, the Greek myth revolves mainly around Orpheus, who wants to retrieve his deceased lover from the dead. But other interpretations are possible, says the composer/librettist: ‘Of course you can interpret the myth as a metaphor for death, but you can also read it differently, as a metaphor for liberation.’
In his opinion, Eurydice is a woman of some age: ‘She has gained life experience, which Orpheus lacks. He is a young man with certain conceptions of life, but when it comes to love, he is a blank slate. At the beginning of the opera, he meets Eurydice more or less by chance, on the train. He has seen her, has immediately become interested and sings a sonnet by Rilke, unaccompanied by the orchestra. But she has left him to meet with Pluto, the god of death. – Which signifies she is planning to commit suicide.
The train, which gradually changes into a ship, leads to Hades, ‘the other side’ in the words of the libretto. The chance encounter with Orpheus is also significant for Eurydice. ‘Orpheus is someone with whom she immediately forgets everything she has experienced up to that point’, says Trojahn. ‘At that moment she no longer wants to die. Then she must figure out how to get herself out of this situation, because her appointment with Pluto stands and he will not simply let her go.’
Pluto repeatedly shows up as a troublemaker between Eurydice and Orpheus. To this end, he assumes the appearance of her former lovers, with whom she has had more or less happy affairs. Trojahn: ‘By playing all these different roles, Pluto tries to throw Eurydice, and especially Orpheus, off balance.’
He succeeds excellently: ‘Young men invariably think that the person they are in love with has no past. They lack the experience that life has been lived, they cannot imagine that their loved one already has a history. When that person tells them about former lovers, this is not always easy for them to bear.’
Manfred Trojahn: ‘Young men invariably think that the person they are in love with has no past. Orpheus cannot imagine that Eurydice already has a history, it is hard for him to bear when she speaks about former lovers.’
Trojahn gives an example from his personal life. ‘I remember a story about how my father demanded my mother to destroy the letters of all his predecessors. He simply could not bear the thought that there had been others before him. I have not been able to check this with him myself, though, as I have not known him well. But I know from my own experience that the younger a man, the more insecure he is in life.’
In the opera, Orpheus keeps asking Eurydice whether this or that man was ‘the first’ or ‘the only one’, like a jealous lover. ‘I don’t know if I would call this jealousy’, Trojahn objects. ‘It’s mainly about insecurity. – Though jealousy is a form of insecurity, too, of course. You are not sure whether the person you love also cares about you. Orpheus struggles with such questions. At least in the first act. Things are different when they meet again on the other side.’
Eurydice in turn seems to play with Orpheus’ feelings. She keeps saying she doesn’t know what she is looking for, who she is waiting for, or who she is on her way to. At the same time she talks about (and to) her former lovers, or claims to love Orpheus. Trojahn: ‘Whether she is playing with him I dare not say, but she is not a straightforward character. She is open to all possibilities. She is a woman who is very vague.’
French kind of vagueness
This, too, is rooted in his own experiences, Trojahn explains: ‘Especially in France, I have met many women who showed this kind of vague behaviour – without me having an affair with them, by the way. It is a playful way of dealing with facts that is strange to me as a German, but which I recognise in people in the arts sector. Eurydice is typically an actress.’
This refers to one of his sources of inspiration, Jean Anouilh’s play Eurydice, which takes place in the theatre world. ‘But even more so, I have been inspired by films such as L’Année dernière à Marienbad by Alain Resnais’, says Trojahn. ‘When a man incidentally meets a woman, he says they have already encountered each other the year before. She, however, can’t remember anything about this. – Or pretends she can’t remember. That is the kind of woman I have tried to describe.’
Trojahn often says our human actions are triggered by our emotions. What drives Eurydice? ‘Perhaps she is driven by a wide range of emotions, perhaps even too many. On the other hand, her vagueness and elusiveness may spring from a natural inclination not to be moved or hurt. But I, as author, cannot be the interpreter of my characters, I leave that to the performers.’
Manfred Trojahn: ‘Eurydice’s vagueness and elusiveness may spring from a natural tendency not to be moved or hurt.’
We have to take the latter literally. During our conversation, Trojahn lets slip several times that Audi’s staging has given him other insights. Like the role of Proserpina, who advises Orpheus to leave the dead alone and focus on the living instead. Trojahn: ‘Referring to herself, actually. Pierre’s stage directions made me realise that Pluto may have commanded her to try and seduce Orpheus.’
Orpheus, however, rejects Proserpina’s advances: ‘This shows how attached he has become to Eurydice and how important it is for him to find her and make it clear that he loves her. – Now it is too late. But he is determined to find her. With an even more beautiful performance of the Rilke sonnet, this time accompanied by the orchestra, he manages to persuade Pluto to let him retrieve Eurydice from the dead.’
Whether he succeeds remains open. Towards the end of the opera, Orpheus and Eurydice meet in the underworld and declare their love. He says he has found her ‘like a blind man’ and asks her to come with him. She hesitates: should she follow him ‘blindly’, and will she recognise him?
This explains the subtitle Die Liebenden, blind, says Trojahn: ‘First, of course, there is Pluto’s condition that Orpheus may only free his beloved on condition that he does not look at her. Secondly, both lovers are blind all the time. They just don’t get to the point of recognition where you say: I am so close to you now, that I know who you really are as a human being.’
Did the myth lie?
After their final dialogue, Eurydice asks Orpheus to embrace her, ‘this one, everlasting second’. In the libretto we read: ‘Is it a farewell? Did the myth lie? Trojahn: ‘In Pierre’s direction, Orpheus falls to the ground here, but whether he dies remains unclear. This touches on a second layer of meaning: perhaps the story is not primarily about death, but about another kind of continuance for the two protagonists. A way in which they have a chance with each other.
Perhaps not quite coincidentally, the Opera Forward Festival simultaneously stages a production which offers yet another perspective, Orphée’|L’Amour|Eurydice. This forms part of the talent development programme of Dutch Nationale Opera, The Dutch Touring Opera and Opera Zuid. In this version Eurydice writes Orpheus that she is leaving him.
She refuses to be the object of his wallowing self-pity: ‘I am not me because of you. I am not a song you can create.’ She leaves him for good with the words ‘I have never been more alive!’ What does Trojahn think of this take on the story?
‘This is definitely a possible interpretation’, he answers, ‘but it would not interest me. Of course, there is a selfish side to Orpheus’ grief, but in writing uuscha letter Eurydice closes all doors. Nothing is possible anymore, but that does not suit my way of thinking. I am not one for such immovable positions.’
Lyricism and balance
Back to his own Eurydice – Die Liebenden, blind. How did he shape his opera musically? ‘It has a very different atmosphere than we know from, say, Orest. It is not about sharp, dramatic contrasts, there is a certain balance.’
‘Ultimately, that too is a French influence, because even in the work of Cocteau or Anouilh, great emotions always remain a little concealed. My opera is very lyrical. During today’s rehearsal, I often asked myself: isn’t it getting too lyrical?’
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Huba de Graaff (Amsterdam, 1959) is one of the most original composers in the Netherlands. In her idiosyncratic music theatre shows, she brings speakers to life (Lautsprecher Arnolt, 2003), explores the common ground between Flemish polyphony and monkey song (Apera, 2013), bases a libretto on the lustful moans of a copulating couple (Pornopera, 2015) or takes a close look at a national trauma (De Lamp, 2020).
In her latest production, the ‘rock performance’ FF:And here I am, a lonely woman, she focuses on the Persian poet and filmmaker Forough Farrokhzad (1935–1967). Due to limited seating capacity, the premiere in Theater Kikker Utrecht has been divided over two evenings: Tuesday 15 and Wednesday 16 February 2022. As in much of her work, electronics and music go hand in hand in FF. I interviewed De Graaff about her inspiration and musical development.
MUSICAL (GREAT) GRANDFATHER
Huba de Graaff stems from a musical family. Her great grandfather Isaac Mossel (1870–1923) played the cello in the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Concertgebouworkest; her grandfather Cok de Graaff (1904–1988) studied the violin at the Amsterdam Conservatoire. He played the banjo in The Indian Jazz Band of Mossel’s son Hans, and married his daughter Gretel. As a child Huba de Graaff often improvised on the violin with her grandfather: ‘But at that time he was no longer a professional musician, he had switched to photography.’
TAKING APART BALLPOINTS
That Huba de Graaff has her artistry and musicality from no strangers seems obvious. ‘As a child, I was always tinkering – soldering, knitting, carpentry, all kinds of things. In primary school I wrote my first musical, for which I organised the cast and a performance myself. – Pretty much what I still do today.’ Her later love of technology and computers was also instilled at an early age: ‘According to my parents, I could already take a biro apart when I was one and a half years old.’
In the 1970–80s, she played violin, vocals and keyboards in bands like The Dutch, Transister and The Tapes, while simultaneously studying violin at the Sweelinck Conservatoire. ‘Well, that study didn’t amount to much’, she says. I was in the first batch of the improvisation course, but they didn’t have a violin teacher yet… I actually learned everything from the Transister boys in the field of solfeggio, stage presentation, studio work and suchlike. Especially from their front man Robert Jan Stips, one of the nicest Dutch pop musicians I know.’
While she was raising hell on stage, dressed in miniskirt and a reddish wig, she studied electronic music at the Institute of Sonology in Utrecht and composition at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague. One of her teachers was Dick Raaijmakers, the godfather of electronic music in the Netherlands. But the self–willed, freedom–loving Huba de Graaff clashed with Raaijmakers’ somewhat dogmatic approach.
EVERYTHING AT ONCE
‘While I wanted to do everything at once, he kept trying to dissuade me from this. You had to come to the core: bare, stripped down. This is this and that is that: the Method. More than Louis Andriessen, he embodied what became known as ‘The Hague School’. In his approach to music Raaijmakers was quite strict and Calvinistic. Above all, you shouldn’t mix everything up. But I wanted both rotating speakers, and loud singing in a tin dress, and piezo grids, and computer violin, and mini–televisions, and a PA above the audience, and whee-whoo carts driving around.’
Huba de Graaff: ‘My ideas spring from the need to hear something specific, to try something out, the need for a new experiment.’
De Graaff is referring here to her ground–breaking performance/installation Corenicken from 1991. In it, those present are treated to an immense range of sounds, from a dizzying array of sources arranged above, below and around them. In the centre, 32 miniature television screens emit animated patterns, while scattering around different voices of the composition through their speakers. Dressed in her ‘Japon Fuzz’, a tin dress fitted with electronics that react to her movements, De Graaff generates alienating fuzz and feedback sounds. For Corenicken she developed her own software. ‘Those computers weren’t all too complex, 8–bits, 6502 machine language, that sort of thing,’ she says carelessly.
A striking constant in her work is the combination of electronics and the human voice. Where does this fascination come from? ‘Our hearing is primarily focused on perceiving the Other: another voice.’ She gives an example: ‘Sometimes you are listening to music, becoming completely absorbed in another world; transcending the earthly babble. But then suddenly someone starts singing – and at once you are distracted.’
‘So when I started working with moving sound, I realised that it would have the greatest effect in combination with voice. Of course, the shrill sounds of a whee-whoo train passing by attract attention. But a singing choir, all of its speaker heads pointing at you and singing: ‘crawl into me, come into me, come into us’ (Lautsprecher Arnolt) works better. Then, as a listener, you register the movement of the sound more clearly.’
‘In the 70s and 80s, when I was studying sonology, electronic music mainly came out of loudspeakers. So you were sitting in a concert hall listening to a bunch of speakers on a stage. So static and so non–musical! But all sounds produced by humans or animals originate from movement. Music – organised sound to quote Varèse – arises from the expression of a physical emotion. From a gesture, a movement. That’s why I thought: if those loudspeakers could also move while “singing”, then you would again arrive at a “natural” sound.’
‘Moreover, I often find opera singing terribly ugly. That is why I started experimenting with other forms of using the voice. In Pornopera, I investigated where our “classical” way of singing comes from, while Apera zooms in on the question of why everyone is talking so much, instead of singing.’
In her performances, De Graaff deals with the most diverse themes, both topical and controversial. In The Death of Poppaea (2006) and Pulchalchiajev (2019), for example, she addresses the pitfalls of social media. In The Naked Shit Songs, based on a transcribed interview of Theo van Gogh with the artists Gilbert & George (2017), she zooms in on the discomfort we experience when someone vents their politically incorrect opinions. How does she conceive her compositions?
‘Usually, my ideas spring from the need to hear something specific, to try something out, the need for a new experiment. These experiments often have a conceptual and social starting point. In one of my last productions, De Lamp (The Lamp) I tried to compose as “Dutch” and nationalistic as possible. This resulted in dreadful harmonies and super–dry music. The challenge for me then was: how long would I be able to keep this up?’
‘In Pulchalchiajev, about an successful influencer who loses her footing when she is accused of deception and culpable homicide, I experimented with instability. No fixed tones, no fixed assumptions, no truths, but a world full of lies.’ To be socially committed is a matter of course for De Graaff: ‘How could it be otherwise? I live and compose in the here and now, and relate to the world, as I think any artist should.’
FOROUGH FARROKHZAD: REBEL WITH A CAUSE
Her new production FF: And here I am, a lonely woman, a tribute to the Persian artist Forough Farrokhzad, has a personal component. De Graaff feels an affinity with the liberated poet, filmmaker and feminist whose work was long banned in Iran, and is still viewed with suspicion by the current regime: ‘As a person, she is a symbol of the independent (Iranian) woman: a rebel, someone who breaks taboos and frees herself from her traditional role.’
Because of her self–confident attitude to life and her unwavering championship of the female voice, Farrokhzad led a rather isolated existence. Just as Huba de Graaff operates somewhat in the margins of Dutch music life with her provocative productions.
She discovered Farrokhzad through The Naked Shit Songs. ‘For this opera I had managed to engage Selim Doğru’s Re–Art World Music Choir. Imra Dinçer was one of the singers, and afterwards she approached me for a collaborative project.’
‘I hardly knew Dinçer, but decided to be open-minded and see where this would lead us. I visited her performance Ulrike about Ulrike Meinhof and then we started talking about what we would like to make together. It was soon clear: something about strong women. Then Dinçer came along with a book of poetry by Forough Farrokhzad, in which she had written a nice dedication:
“From Imra to Huba on behalf of all women daring to sin at least once in their lifetime. Long live rebels!”
‘I was like: Forough who?? As so many Western-bubble people, I had never heard of this Persian poet. Yet she turned out to be insanely famous. Not so much in our parts, but worldwide she is still the “Iranian equivalent of a rock star” as the Washington Post once wrote.’
De Graaff recognizes herself in Farrokhzad and quotes approvingly from an interview:
“Of course we compose poetry out of personal need, an irresistible calling… but what happens after we commit our poems to the page? We must be judged and feel that we have made a difference, made a connection, and that we are responsible. […] In this field, an artist’s work is private and individualistic. How long can he or she survive this isolation, conversing only with the door and the four walls? […] The only way to survive is that one should reach such a state of detachment and maturity that he or she can become both a builder of and a mouthpiece for her world, both an observer and a judge.”
LIFE STOPS AT PREGNANCY
As a starting point for FF, De Graaff and Dinçer chose the poem Let us believe in the beginning of the cold season, published posthumously in 1965. It is one of Farrokhzad’s longest and most reflective poems: ‘In it, a woman’s life stops the moment she becomes pregnant. At least, that’s how I interpret it, but at every rehearsal we end up discussing the interpretation. The subtitle of our show, “And here I am / A lonely woman”, quotes two verses from this poem.’
How did De Graaff translate Farrokhzad’s poetry into music? ‘Of course, this has been done many times before, but usually the music is rather Persian-oriented. And then a voice starts declaiming in Farsi… I wanted her poems to appeal to a Western audience as well, so I was inspired by protest songs. Take her poem Sin, which we will play as an encore – this is inspired by The People United will never be defeated, in the version by my wonderful teacher Fredric Rzewski.’
That ties in nicely with the idea of a rock performance, in which De Graaff herself signs for electric violin and noise: ‘It is a kind of retro–experience for me: back to my pop–band past. I suddenly felt a strong urge to make LIVE music once again, in a carefree way. I am on stage with great musicians and I love electronic sounds and amplified instruments.’
UNWANTED AND UNHEARD
What can we expect musically? ‘Fine, catchy stuff that takes you through a rather unfathomable poem. I use many sound samples and images from her award-winning documentary The House is Black, about a group of outcasts in a leper colony. Afterwards, we play the film in full, because to me, FF is also about being open to the invisible, the excluded, the unheard. For me that includes noise, the frayed edges, the pimples and the “unwanted” by-noises. Perfection is boring and inhumane!’
‘All in all, it will be a forty–minute epic pop–ballad, culminating in a gigantic electronic rock apotheosis. Topped off with an encore of the world-famous and infamous poem Sin, which celebrates female sexuality, in the guise of a protest song. We hope everyone will sing along at the top of their lungs!’
Though her regular partners Erik-Ward Geerlings (director/librettist) and Marien Jongewaard (actor) helped realize FF, in fact the whole production is now carried by women. ‘It’s an all–female cast indeed. But I never wanted to present myself as a WOMAN composer. What the fuck. I’m just a woman and these musicians are TOP.’
After the interview however, she sends me an e-mail about how she has struggled with her womanhood. ‘My new performance is partly about feminism. It is a subject that I have never dared or wanted to tackle until now. I am not a victim! But now that I am getting older, I notice how important it is to name injustice. Not so much for myself, but for all the younger women of today. If only life were fair for all women and girls around the globe.’
‘I have always done what I wanted. At least I was convinced I had, but people sometimes said: “women can’t compose”. In the backward, ultra–patriarchal Dutch society I naturally looked for ways to survive. So I cheerfully declared: OK, so women can’t compose, then I’ll do something completely different, with experiments and electronics…! Maybe, if I had not been pushed aside by that male gaze, I would have become a different type of composer.’
Huba de Graaff: ‘To this day Forough Farrohkzad inspires countless girls and young women who feel the need to break away from imposed rules, standards and morals. She was a paragon of rebellion.’
‘Yes, I make music that creates a different perspective on a text, on a poem. And always: outside the established disciplines, boxes and conventions. I turn an interview into an opera, singing monkeys into a performance, I transform city sounds into literature, I let the GPS in the car sing the direction. Experimenting with the conversion of one ‘form’ into another, in order to arrive at something new. From an open mind, amazement, and with cheerful and loving attention to every sound detail.’
‘Forough Farrokhzad still inspires countless girls and young women who feel the need to break away from imposed rules, standards and morals. She was a paragon of rebellion and zest for life. Determined to study, not letting herself be limited by conservative husbands and/or surroundings. She is a heroine for all those girls who fight for their own lives. Rebel-girls who quarrel with their parents, teachers, the state, politicians. If only we had more of these.’
She once more quotes Forough:“If my poems have an aspect of femininity, it is of course quite natural. After all, fortunately I am a woman.”
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I must confess: when I opened the envelope containing the new CD Canto by the Oerknal ensemble, I was completely surprised. I had never heard of Lewis Nielson, to whose music the disc is dedicated.
That his name did not immediately ring a bell is not really surprising though, since Nielson moves somewhat outside of the regular modern music circuit. If you link his name to renowned ensembles such as Klangforum Wien, Musikfabrik or Asko|Schönberg, you only find him in the capacity as a teacher-of.
Conductor Gregory Charette also studied with Nielson, and now honours his teacher with a musical portrait. Significant detail: the album contains three compositions which have never been recorded before.
Yet the American has been around for a while. He was born in Washington D.C. in 1950. When he was nine years old, he moved with his parents to England, where he studied at the Royal College of Music.
Nielson continued his studies at the Universities of Massachusetts and Iowa, and was himself a teacher of music theory and composition at the University of Georgia and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music for many years; he retired in 2015.
THINKING PERSON’S COMPOSER
In the CD booklet, Nielson is called a ‘thinking person’s composer’, because in his music he tirelessly broaches topical and philosophical themes. In a polemical manifesto on his website, he rails at just about everything and everyone. He calls himself a ‘sociopath’, who ‘fights against the society that confines him or her’, and refuses to accept ‘the rules that govern society’.
However, those who expect to get a dose of uncompromising protest music will be disappointed. The three compositions are very subtle and pleasing to the ear. The thirty minute long Cilice addresses the theme of penance and forgiveness. It combines texts from the Psalms with poems by such diverse poets as Baudelaire, Hölderlin, Celan and Dante. The title refers to the rough-haired robe that Catholics used to wear as a form of self-flagellation.
For the performance, Oerknal joins forces with the Damask Vocal Quartet, that presents a stunning range of flawlessly intoned dissonant harmonies. At other times, they employ a recitative that is reminiscent of Gregorian chant, then again declaim spoken texts, sing virtuoso melismas, or produce rhythmic percussive sounds, to an equally punctilious accompaniment from the musicians.
The instrumentalists sometimes also sing. The combination of their untrained voices with the four professional singers of the Damask Vocal Quartet offers a varied palette of timbres, which remains captivating from beginning to end.
The other works on the disc, Crisis of Consciousness and You Choose are both based on verses by the El Salvadorian poet Roque Dalton, a communist activist who was executed by his own comrades.
In Crisis of Conscience, the instrumentalists recite the text in a folkish, husky voice; You Choose is more pointilistic and consists of a succession of short instrumental eruptions and ditto voices. Mysterious and oppressive, and excellently performed.
Oerknal and Gregory Charette can’t be praised enough for choosing to honour this underexposed composer. – Lewis Nielson, remember that name!
Hans Abrahamsen hopes to celebrate his 70th birthday in December 2022, but is already a central composer in NTR ZaterdagMatinee. On 29 January his Horn Concerto received its belated Dutch premiere; in May Asko|Schönberg will perform his trilogy Winternacht / Wald / Schnee and a month later his opera The Snow Queen, based on an Andersen fairy-tale, will get its first performance in The Netherlands. On Saturday 12 February his song cycle Let me tell you will sound for the second time in this radio series.
Abrahamsen wrote Let me tell you for the Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, who premiered it in 2013 with the Berlin Philharmonic, ensuring his international breakthrough. In February 2014 Hannigan sang the first Dutch performance both with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra in Rotterdam, and with the Dutch Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in Amsterdam. Now she returns for a second run in NTRZaterdagMatinee.
BLINDING RAYS OF LIGHT
Let me tell you continues to deeply impress both critics and audience. ‘An effervescent fountain sprays indefinable, high-pitched sounds of glockenspiel, woodwinds and violins, making the power of Ophelia’s love tangible’, wrote Biëlla Luttmer in de Volkskrant, after its Dutch premiere. She described the sweeping brushes in the death scene at the end as ‘a snow scene from Thomas Mann’s novel Der Zauberberg congealed into sound’.
In 2016, Abrahamsen was awarded the authoritative American Grawemeyer Award. A year later, the serene song cycle was released on a CD, again incurring rave reviews. According to the daily newspaper NRC, a ‘magical prism of sound’ was transformed into ‘blinding rays of light or downy snowfall’; The Guardian heard a ‘typically spare and wintry’ orchestral sound, offering ‘a magical panoply of spangly microtonal sounds’. The Gramophone dubbed it ‘a small, tragic Winterreise’.
Abrahamsen composed Let me tell you at the request of Barbara Hannigan, who was impressed by his subtle use of colour and the emotional eloquence of his music. In an interview with yours truly, she said: ‘I admire his originality and gentleness.’ She added: ‘I have gone through all the possibilities of my voice with Hans, but have made it clear to him that boundaries can always be broken.’
The title Let me tell you is taken from Paul Griffiths’ 2008 novella of the same name, in which Ophelia tells her story in exactly the 481 words Shakespeare allows her to speak in Hamlet. By arranging these differently each time, Griffiths creates a kind of autobiography, in which Ophelia reflects on her life. In about thirty minutes, she transforms from a defenceless victim into a self-confident woman who resumes control over her fate.
‘In some 30 minutes Ophelia transforms from a defenceless victim into a self-confident woman who resumes control over her fate.’
Griffiths composed a libretto of seven songs, divided over three movements. In the first, ‘Let me tell you how it was’, Ophelia looks back to a time when there was ‘no music’ in her life. With high piccolo tones and bell-like sounds of a celesta, Abrahamsen sketches a tenuous, dreamlike world in which each and every movement seems to be solidified. The soprano gropes her way through stratospheric heights and abyssal lows, with sustained tones; sometimes with a stuttering voice that evokes Monteverdi’s stile concitato.
The second movement, ‘Let me tell you how it is’, is a passionate declaration of love to Hamlet – ‘you have sun-blasted me / and turned me to light’. The music is agile and passionate, with fierce coloraturas from the soprano and swirling cascades of crystalline sounds after her sighed ‘You have made me like glass – like glass in an ecstasy from your light / like glass in which light rained’.
FEET SHUFFLING IN THE SNOW
In the concluding movement, ‘I know you are there,’ Ophelia looks to the future: ‘I will find you’, she sings, as she steps into a snowy world full of identical frost flowers. The serenity of the first movement returns, with spun out lines of the soprano swaying on a sea of fragile, slowly drifting sound fabrics.
‘I will go on’, she concludes, while a percussionist imitates her shuffling feet in the snow by rubbing a sheet of paper over a large drum. While the music slowly fades away, a question floats up from the almost sacred silence: does Ophelia die, or does she enter a new life?
Waving Farewell is the name of the CD dedicated to Vitězslava Kaprálová, that was released in 2021 on the budget label Naxos. An apt title: two years after she completed the song of that name, she suddenly succumbed to a mysterious illness, probably typhoid. Thus her career was cut short. She would have celebrated her 107th birthday on 24 January 2022.
As so often happens, her music was soon forgotten after her death, as I found when in 2007 I decided to make her Composer of the Week on Dutch Radio 4. Little material was available, and only thanks to Karla Hartl, director of the Canada based Kaprálová Society, I was able to broadcast historic recordings from the Czech Radio. Fortunately her music has since then been gradually rediscovered, and is now available on several cd’s.
PROMISE OF CZECHOSLOVAKIA
During her sadly short life, Vitězslava Kaprálová (1915-1940) was considered the great promise of Czechoslovakia*. Although she only lived to be twenty-five, at her premature death she left behind an impressive oeuvre of some fifty compositions, varying from orchestral works to intimate chamber music. She elaborated on the style of her compatriots Janáček and Martinů, and was also inspired by the neoclassicism of composers such as Milhaud and Honegger, whom she met in Paris. Her music is full of capricious melodic lines and harrowing harmonies in which a glowing, Slavic passion rages.
Vitězslava Kaprálová was born on 24 January 1915 in Brno, the capital of Moravia, the eastern part of the Czech Republic*. She was the only child of composer Václav Kaprál and Vitězslava Uhlirova, a qualified singing teacher. Her father was considered one of the most important composers of his generation and had studied with Janáček, who was also born and raised in Moravia. This region had traditionally been much more Slavic in orientation than western Bohemia, which was more oriented towards German culture. Janáček – and after him Martinů and Kaprálová – deliberately sought inspiration in Moravian folk music.
Vitězslava was surrounded by music from childhood. At an early age, she also showed great musical talent, which her parents cherished. Her father was not only a composer but also a pianist and choirmaster, and ran a music school together with his wife. They energetically took up their daughter’s musical education and she wrote her first pieces when she was only nine years old.
When she decided to become a composer and conductor, her parents were initially sceptical, however. For one thing they wanted Vitězslava to continue their music school, but moreover, her father did not believe that a woman could hold her own in two such typically male professions. He hoped to spare her a disappointment.
But the young Kaprálová persevered. At the age of 15, she was admitted to the Brno Conservatory for both “male” professions; composition with Vilém Petrželka – also a former student of Janáček – and conducting with Zdeněk Chalabala. She was very productive and already during her studies realised a large number of compositions. These far exceeded the level of a beginner and were often performed by her fellow students.
The Miniaturni Suite for piano solo from 1931, for example, excels in colourful harmonies and an almost orchestral sound at times. – Four years later, she made a setting for orchestra, in which already her refined sense of timbre manifests itself. The CD Waving Farewell offers a beautiful performance by the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Kenneth Kiesler.
SONGS & POETRY
Thanks to her mother, Kaprálová developed a great love for songs, and she was an avid reader of poetry. She also wrote poems herself, and during her studies her great talent for setting lyrics revealed itself. In Two Songs opus 4 [not on the CD], for example, the soprano follows the often tricky accents of the Czech language quite naturally, as Janáček had done before her. The swirling piano part is reminiscent of Debussy and Ravel, while firmly hammered chords give the melancholy poetry an extra charge.
Kaprálová was only 17 when she composed these compelling songs, and during her short life she would become one of her country’s best-loved song composers. Early on in her career, a critic noted: ‘Her colourful piano parts are not merely accompaniment, but form a close bond with the text. She is a master at creating atmosphere’.
During her short life Vitězslava Kaprálová (1915-1940) developed into one of Czechoslovakia’s best-loved song composers. One critic wrote: ‘Her colourful piano parts are not merely accompaniment, but form a close bond with the text.’
In 1935, Kaprálová completed her training with a Piano Concerto, conducted by herself. She graduated cum laude, with the highest marks of her class, and won the coveted Smetana Prize, as the first woman ever. The performance was open to the public and made a great impression on all present. The Piano Concerto received rave reviews in all the national newspapers and even attracted the attention of the international press. The Prager Tagesblatt spoke of ‘an astonishingly spirited musical talent’, but complained that ‘the organisers only had the first part of the work performed’.
This is indeed a pity, because the Piano Concerto brims with youthful energy and in the last movement it is reminiscent of Stravinsky’s tempestuous rhythms. On the portrait CD, the Taiwanese pianist Amy I-Lin Cheng strings pearly virtuoso runs and subdued lyricism to solid pillars of chords with self-evident ease, and receives lively counterplay from the University of Michigan Orchestra and conductor Kiesler.
MASTER STUDENT AT PRAGUE CONSERVATOIRE
The fame of the talented and charming Kaprálová had rushed from Brno to Prague, where she was admitted to the Master’s programme of the Conservatory immediately after graduation. There she had access to the best teachers in the country. She was accepted into the composition class of Vitězslav Novák, an absolute master who himself had been trained by no one less than Antonín Dvorák. She was also admitted to the conducting class of Václav Talich, chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and director of the National Theatre in Prague. – This was by no means a matter of course: Talich considered only five students worthy of his master class; Novák also accepted only five students that year.
At the Prague Conservatoire, Kaprálová again commanded respect with her great talent and enormous drive – and once more she was top of her class. Because Novák thought highly of her, he subjected her to rigorous training. Under his guidance, Kaprálová developed into one of the most respected composers of her generation. In no time her music was on the programmes of prestigious institutions such as Pritomnost (‘attention/presence’), the most important association for contemporary music, and the artists’ circle Umělecká Beseda (‘artist’s talk’), co-founded by Smetana. Both organisations are still active today. Kaprálová’s music was regularly broadcast on Czech radio.
Her greatest love was still the composition of songs, but at Novák’s insistence she immersed herself in other genres as well. This did not always go smoothly. After she had composed a string quartet in a short time in 1935, she wrote a somewhat frustrated postcard to her parents: ‘Too bad I didn’t finish my songs. I stopped working on them because Novák did not want them.’
In 1937 Kaprálová concluded her studies with her strict composition teacher with the Military Sinfonietta, which she dedicated to Edvard Beneš, president of the young republic of Czechoslovakia. These were difficult times, for the independence that had only been obtained in 1919 was already under threat from Hitler’s expansionism.
In her own commentary, Kaprálová writes how she had tried to capture her emotions on the theme of national identity in music. The word military in the title is, according to her, ‘not a call to war’ but represents her need to ‘defend that which is sacred to our nation’. The Military Sinfonietta, with its clarion call and Balkan rhythms, recalls Janáček’s piece of the same name. – the world premiere of which had been directed by her teacher Talich in 1926.
In November 1937 Kaprálová herself conducted the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in the premiere of her Military Sinfonietta. Initially, the musicians of the renowned orchestra reacted sceptically. Kaprálová was only 22 years old and, perhaps even worse, she belonged to the so-called ‘weaker sex’. But thanks to her energy and professionalism, she managed to win over the unwilling after just a few bars and the performance was a resounding success. A year later, the piece also meant her international breakthrough; it is performed brilliantly on the CD.
In 1937, the year she graduated with Novák, Kaprálová met her compatriot Bohuslav Martinů, who lived in Paris, for the first time. During a visit to Prague, he was deeply impressed by the young composer and conductor and suggested she come and study with him. Kaprálová had actually wanted to go to Vienna to spread her wings with the pianist, composer and conductor Felix Weingartner, but she was persuaded by Martinů. She applied for, and was granted, a scholarship by the French government and settled in Paris.
In addition to her composition lessons with Martinů, she studied conducting in the French capital with the world-famous Charles Munch at the Ecole Normale. As before in Prague, Kaprálová threw herself wholeheartedly into the fashionable Parisian life and broadened her intellectual and artistic horizons. She visited galleries, lectures and literary evenings and listened eagerly to the latest works of composers such as Schoenberg, Bartók, Prokofiev and Milhaud, at concerts of the Sociéte de la musique contemporaine.
She developed a deep friendship with the twenty-five years older Martinů and conducted his Harpsichord Concerto with great success. They shared many musical interests. Both cherished their Moravian roots, but embraced modern developments as well. In particular, they were inspired by neoclassicism, which was popular in Paris at the time, and in which composers drew on models from the classical period.
But unlike the members of the so-called “Groupe des Six”, Kaprálová did not seek to connect with cabaret and vaudeville; she developed a sparkling, but extremely serious voice in which every note has meaning. Beneath the surface, there always shimmers a Slavic melancholy.
LOVE AFFAIR WITH MARTINŮ
Gradually, her friendship with Martinů developed into a love affair; he even for a while considered leaving his wife. In June 1938 he accompanied Kaprálová to the sixteenth meeting of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) in London. She had the honour to open the festival with her Military Sinfonietta, in which she herself conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Once again, she was the first woman ever to do so. And again she garnered great acclaim, as Martinů proudly reported in a Czech newspaper: ‘Her international debut was a success, both with the critics and the audience, promising and encouraging’.
The critic of the British magazine Musical Opinion called Military Sinfonietta ‘an astonishing piece of orchestral writing, logical and balanced in its conception’. His colleague of Time Magazine even proclaimed her ‘the star of the opening concert’. The recording was not only broadcast by the BBC in England, but also by CBS radio in the United States.
Kaprálová spent the rest of the summer months of 1938 in her beloved holiday resort Tre Studne, some 90 kilometres northwest of Brno. Martinů had left earlier to visit friends and family in his native region and joined her later. The couple enjoyed a few happy weeks together, but Martinů returned to Paris in August. Kaprálová intended to follow him in the autumn, but her scholarship had expired and the French authorities refused to provide another. It took Martinů a lot of persuasion to get the authorities to grant her a scholarship after all, and she returned to France in early 1939.
Meanwhile, the political situation had become grim: in March 1939, Czechoslovakia was annexed by Hitler, as a result of which Kaprálová became cut off from her relatives and attached herself even more strongly to Martinů. Because of the threat of war, they made plans to leave Europe together. Kaprálová hoped to get a scholarship to continue her studies at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, but nothing came of it. She spent the holidays alone in Augerville la Rivière, not far from Paris. Meanwhile, her relationship with Martinů cooled down somewhat.
Shocked by the sudden occupation of her fatherland, Kaprálová sought to join the Czech community in Paris. This included the writer Jiří Mucha, who worked on the libretto for Martinů’s Polní mše (‘Field Mass’). This cantata was intended as a tribute to the Czech volunteers who fought in the French army.
Kaprálová also became strongly involved in the resistance movement in exile. She founded a choir, wrote articles for the exile weekly La cause Tchecoslovaque, composed music for the radio and collaborated with Martinů on a theatre project directed by Hugo Haas. Hugo was the brother of the composer Pavel Haas, who was to be murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz in 1944.
Martinů was still not divorced from his wife and Kaprálová got a relationship with Jiří Mucha, whom she married in April 1940. As the Germans advanced further and further towards Paris, Mucha asked her to come to Montpellier, where he was stationed. In this period Kaprálová became seriously ill, but the doctors consulted did not recognise the symptoms.
Mucha finally took her to a hospital in Montpellier, where she died on 16 June 1940. For a long time it was thought that she suffered from tuberculosis, but recent research indicates that she probably succumbed to an attack of typhus. In any case, she was far too young, only 25 years old.
With six compositions, the CD Waving Farewell provides a small, but representative insight into Kaprálová’s enormous talent. Especially her songs are deeply moving. Like Sbohem a šáteček (‘Waving farewell’), after which the CD is named. Languishing vocal lines against passionate notes from the woodwind and brass make the sadness of parting very poignant.
Had Kaprálová been granted time to live, she would undoubtedly have become one of the most valued composers of the 20th century. In 1946 the prestigious Czech Academy of Sciences and Arts awarded her posthumous membership.
*Czechoslovakia was separated into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.
In their podcast series Never heard of?! NPO Radio 4 and VPRO Vrije Geluiden showcase female composers. In short episodes of 15 to 18 minutes, Rae Milford and Andrea van Pol alternately shed light on their life and work. On 6 August 2021 it was the turn of Ethel Smyth (1858-1944).
Thus we learn that Smyth ended up in prison as a suffragette, where she immediately composed her March of the Women; that she was friends with contemporaries such as Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms and enjoyed the patronage of celebrities such as Princesse de Polignac, Empress Eugénie and Queen Victoria. After her death in 1944, her music soon disappeared from the repertoire. ‘But she was convinced that new generations would rediscover her work’, Van Pol and Milford conclude their podcast.
ETHEL SMYTH: VITAL AND FEARLESS
‘If I hadn’t had three things that have nothing to do with music, I would have gone to waste from loneliness and disillusionment at an early age’, wrote Ethel Smyth when she was sixty. Those three things were: ‘A cast iron constitution, an outspoken fighting mentality and a modest but independent income.’ Many people know Smyth mainly as one of the famous English suffragettes, who fought for women’s right to vote and wrote the famous March of the Women, which became a sort of battle song.
Smyth had enormous vitality and led a stormy life, in which she made no secret of her love for women. But most importantly, in a time when women were hardly taken seriously as composers, she created an impressive oeuvre, in which large-scale choral and orchestral works abound. Unlike many of her peers, she did not need to limit herself to composing chamber music.
Smyth wrote no less than six operas, of which Der Wald was staged by the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1903. – Never before had an opera by a woman been heard there, and it would last until 2016 before this occurred once more, when they staged L’amour de loin by Kaija Saariaho. Smyth’s most successful and best-known opera The Wreckers seems to have been the model for the opera Peter Grimes, which Benjamin Britten composed a year after her death.
A LIFE FOR MUSIC
Ethel Smyth was an original and strong-willed soul who did not allow herself to be dictated to by anything or anyone. Her fighting spirit came from no strangers: she was born the daughter of an army general, on 22 April 1858. As was customary in upper-class circles, she was taught by governesses as a child and then sent to a boarding school.
Her upbringing naturally included piano lessons, and when Smyth learned to play Beethoven’s piano sonatas, she decided to ‘devote my life to music’- A salient detail: just like Beethoven, Smyth would become deaf at an early age.
In a time when women were hardly taken seriously as composers, Ethel Smyth created an impressive oeuvre, in which large-scale choral and orchestral works abound.
When she announced at 17 that she was going to study composition, her father exclaimed that he would ‘rather see her dead and buried’. Whereupon she decided on the spot to ‘make life at home into such hell that my parents had to let me go’, as she commemorates in her hilarious memoirs. In 1877 she went to the Leipzig Conservatory, where she studied with Carl Reinecke and others.
Characteristic for her critical and independent mind is that after one year only Smyth left the academy, dissatisfied with the teaching climate. She continued to live in Leipzig, however, where she became intensely involved in musical life. She was soon on friendly terms with musicians such as Johannes Brahms, Edvard Grieg, Joseph Joachim, Julius Röntgen and Clara Schumann, who stimulated her compositional aspirations. Because of her fearless, determined attitude and musical intensity, Brahms jokingly called her ‘the oboe’.
She studied privately with Heinrich von Herzogenberg, whose teaching made her blossom. She also fell madly in love with his wife Lisl, the first in a series of fervently loved women. ‘If I ever worshipped a creature on earth, it was Lisl’, she would later say. ‘She was attractive, intelligent and musically extraordinarily gifted’.
Elisabeth had studied with Brahms for a short time, whose music Ethel greatly admired. She also had great respect for Bach, whom she described as ‘the beginning and end of music’. This love is reflected in her Prelude and Fugue for piano solo, which she composed in 1880.
POWERFUL GESTURES – MELODIC RICHNESS
Ethel Smyth gradually developed her own style, rooted in Romanticism and interspersed with Wagner, Debussy and English folklore. Whatever genre she composed in, her music always grabs you by the scruff of the neck with its powerful gestures, overwhelming melodic richness and varied, well-balanced structures.
Her music was frequently performed by famous musicians in prestigious halls. Yet it was not until 1883 that she published her first opus, the String Quintet in E major opus 1. This work is influenced by her affair with Elizabeth von Herzogenberg, who was a fervent advocate of Antonin Dvořák. Smyth had met Dvořák herself and in the first movement of her quintet, we clearly recognise elements of Bohemian folk music.
The String Quintet had its premiere in the Leipzig Gewandhaus. ‘The piece lacks the feminine charm one would expect from a female composer’, wrote one critic. Smyth was annoyed by such preconceived judgements, but could let them slide because she did not have to live off her compositions.
Independent and headstrong as she was, she also flouted social conventions. Sometimes she even managed to antagonise her best friends. When, in 1884, her relationship with Elisabeth van Herzogenberg had turned into a close friendship, she began an affair with her Lisl’s brother-in-law Harry Brewster. Lisl was affronted and turned away from her in shock. Though this saddened Smyth, she did not give up on Brewster; to ease the heartache, she bought a little dog, Marco.
In the same period, Peter Tchaikovsky advised her to start writing orchestral works. He gave her some instrumentation advice and wrote to a friend: ‘She is one of the few female composers who really matter. She has composed several interesting works. The best of these is a Violin Sonata, which I heard in an excellent performance by the composer herself and the violinist A Brodsky.’ – He is referring here to Adolph Brodsky, a famous Russian violinist who spent some time in Leipzig. In response to Tchaikovsky’s exhortation, Smyth wrote her ambitious, almost forty-minute long Serenade in 1889.
The Serenade had its world premiere in 1890 in the renowned Chrystal Palace in London. It was also her first composition to be performed in England. Earlier that year she had returned from Leipzig to her native country, where she fell in love with yet another woman, Pauline Trevelyan. ‘Her extreme gentleness and fragile beauty adorn her soul’, she wrote of her new lover.
Trevelyan was a devout Catholic and her intense devotion to this faith inspired Smyth to compose a grand Mass in D for soloists, choir and orchestra. She completed this over one-hour long work in a year, mostly at Cap Martin, near Monaco. Here, her friend Empress Eugénie, the widow of Napoleon III, had a summer villa. When she had finished her Mass in 1891, Smyth played two parts for Eugénie and Queen Victoria during a stay at the royal castle Balmoral in Scotland.
In her memoirs, Smyth reports vividly: ‘It involved me singing both the choral parts and the solos and trumpeting the orchestral effects as well as I could. One particular effect in the drums even involved footwork, and I imagine that – at least in terms of volume – choir and orchestra were hardly missed.’ Queen Victoria was very impressed and invited her to come and play a longer excerpt. Her son Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, then arranged for the Royal Choral Society to premiere the Mass on 18 January 1893 in the Royal Albert Hall.
The premiere of the Mass in 1893 was well received, except for one sour response. ‘It was funny to see a female composer trying to ascend to the higher regions of musical art’, wrote one critic. George Bernard Shaw described the Mass as ‘the light literature of church music’. Such criticisms increasingly antagonised Smyth and contributed to her eventually becoming an active campaigner for women’s suffrage.
Sir Thomas Beecham: ‘The prisoners marched across the courtyard singing March of the Women at the top of their voices, while Ethel Smyth, from a window, beat time in almost Bacchic frenzy with a toothbrush’.
Smyth had always had a great affinity with the human voice, and after the success of her Mass in D, she began work on the first of six operas, Fantasio. She wrote the libretto with Harry Brewster, her only male lover. After endless peddling, the opera was finally performed in Weimar. Shortly afterwards, she completed Der Wald, which was staged with great success at Covent Garden in 1902 – described by Smyth as ‘the only blazing triumph I ever had’.
The American premiere in the New York MET a year later led to questionable praise in The Telegraph: ‘This little woman writes music with a masculine hand and has a sound and logical brain, such as is supposed to be the especial gift of the rougher sex. There is not a weak or effeminate note in Der Wald, nor an unstable sentiment.’
For her next opera, The Wreckers, Harry Brewster again wrote the libretto, based on a legend Smyth had heard in Cornwall. The inhabitants of an 18th century fishing village lure cargo ships onto the cliffs, after which they plunder them. The lovers Thirza and Mark rebel against this and light warning fires. They are discovered and locked up in a cave, where they are drowned in the rising tide.
The Wreckers premiered in Leipzig in 1906, in a drastically shortened version. Nevertheless, The Times judged it to be ‘one of the very few modern operas that we should count as Great Art’. In England, the opera was performed three years later, but despite its success and the power of the score, it is rarely if ever performed on stage today. My attempts to interest programmers and conductors invariably came to nothing.
At the beginning of the 20th century, when Smyth had a brief affair with Princesse de Polignac and started to spice up her music with touches of French flair. In 1910, she received an honorary doctorate from Durham University and that same year she fell in love with Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the English women’s movement. She decided to devote the next two years to the cause of women’s suffrage and became one of the militant suffragettes. After throwing a stone through the windows of the Home Office, she was sentenced to six weeks in prison.
While in prison, she promptly wrote the protest piece March of the Women for female choir, which would become the anthem of the women’s movement. When Sir Thomas Beecham visited her in prison, he stumbled on a scene typical of Smyth. The prisoners marched across the courtyard singing March of the Women at the top of their voices, while Smyth, from a window, ‘beaming with delight, beat time in almost Bacchic frenzy with a toothbrush’.
After this, Smyth composed her comic opera The Boatswain’s Mate, in which the high-spirited Mrs. Waters rejects two suitors because she does not see any point in giving up ‘my independence for Mr. Wrong’. – Smyth herself had always refused to marry her lifelong friend Harry Brewster, who died in 1908. – In her opera she included quotes from March of the Women.
In the early twentieth century, Smyth slowly lost her hearing, which made composing more difficult. She therefore developed another talent: writing. In 1919, a two-volume autobiography, Impressions that Remained, was published. Thanks to its lively style it was highly successful, providing her with a welcome extra income. In 1922, she was knighted, in recognition of her great importance to English musical life. Henceforth she went through life as Dame Ethel Smyth; four years later she received an honorary doctorate from Oxford.
Despite her deafness, Ethel Smyth continued to compose. In 1927 she wrote her much-praised Concerto for violin, horn and orchestra. In 1930 she wrote her last large-scale work, the impressive cantata/vocal symphony The Prison for soprano, baritone, choir and orchestra on a metaphysical text by Brewster.
OBLIVION AND BELATED RECOGNITION
Smyth remained militant in the last decades of her life, campaigning for the right of women to play in orchestras and to compose. Her music was heavily promoted by such luminaries as Thomas Beecham and Bruno Walter, who described her as ‘a composer of great significance’.
Towards the end of her life, however, Ethel Smyth’s music fell out of favour and was less frequently performed. Many saw her as an eccentric composer who published amusing memoirs. On the other hand, she also received belated recognition.
Bernard Shaw, for instance, responded enthusiastically to a new performance of her Mass in D: ‘Dear Lady Ethel, thank you for persuading me to listen to that Mass. Wonderful! […] It was your music that cured me forever of the old delusion that women could not do the work of men in art and other things.’ Shaw even confessed that without Smyth he would never have been able to write his play Saint Joan.
After a short illness Ethel Smyth died on 8 May 1944, at the age of 86. Her unfailing confidence in the power of her music proved prophetic, as Van Pol and Milford observe in their podcast. Lately, Smyth’s ever-scintillating music has been resurrected (be it sparsely) in concert halls and on CD.
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A 1958 radio documentary features testimonies from Ethel Smyth herself, Thomas Beecham, Bruno Walter, Ethel Davidson (niece of Smyth), C S Lang, Ronald Storrs, Adrian Boult, Herbert van Thal & others.
The adventurous label TRPTK produces special CDs all the time, and the Russian-Dutch cellist Maya Fridman is a regular guest. If I counted correctly, some eight CDs by – and with her – have already been released, some of them solo.
Recently the ninth disc appeared, on which she and the North Netherlands Orchestra (NNO) give a dazzling performance of two cello concertos by Jan-Peter de Graaff (1992).
De Graaff, born in 1992 in Papendrecht and raised on the island of Terschelling, loves the grand gesture. He decided to embrace the symphony orchestra against the advice of his composition teacher Martijn Padding, who considered it hopelessly outdated. Nor does De Graaff shy away from using equally ‘old-fashioned’ genres such as the concerto; he has already produced five of them.
Rimpelingen (Ripples), his Concerto No. 4 for cello and orchestra (2017), impressed cellist Maya Fridman so deeply that she asked De Graaff to write a new concerto for her. No wonder, because he lets the soloist explore all the possibilities of the instrument, while not skimping on beautiful melodies along the way.
De Graaff is a master at sculpting with sounds, loosely adhering to traditional harmonies without becoming predictable. Ripples is essentially an extended solo for the cello, subtly supported by interjections from the orchestra in ever changing colours, like ripples on a swaying water surface. His overwhelming wealth of ideas does at times put your attention to the test, though.
In Concerto No. 5, The Forest in April (2021) De Graaff again deftly folds the orchestral voices around a virtuoso, varied cello part. The piece is inspired by our destructive relationship with nature, which is expressed in a fierce battle between soloist and orchestra in the second movement. Ominous dissonant harmonies and thundering percussion seem to herald the Apocalypse here.
Fridman’s impassioned recitation is matched by the equally empathic and precise playing of the NNO conducted by Sander Teepen (No.4) and Nicolò Foron (No.5). The crisp and well-balanced recording technique gives their performance extra depth.
Elise Caluwaerts not only smoothly sings the most acrobatic coloraturas, but also impresses in pieces of which the ink is still wet. Together with Marianna Shirinyan she has recorded all of Alma Mahler‘s songs for CD – on Alma’s own grand piano.
‘The period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries has always fascinated me’, says Elise Caluwaerts. ‘From the paintings of Gustav Klimt over Claude Debussy’s Poèmes de Baudelaire to characters in novels such as Eline Vere and Hans Castorp, and the symphonies of Gustav Mahler.’
Her interest was nurtured by her environment: ‘I grew up in a family with five children, where reading books and making music were greatly stimulated. My parents, my sisters and my brother are all very well–read, and everyone plays at least one instrument. My childhood consisted of exchanging books and playing the piano four–handed or singing polyphonically with my sisters.
When she read the letters of Camille Claudel, the soprano was deeply moved: ‘She was a great artist, who was unjustly hidden away in a madhouse by her mother and brother. Through her story, I became obsessed with the fate of other female artists and eventually came across the early diaries of Alma Mahler.’
‘What struck me – apart from her rich love life – was the duality between Alma’s desire for freedom and her willingness to submit to the male artists around her. – The seed had been planted to search for her music and bring it to the stage one day.’
Her fascination with Alma Mahler was given a firm boost when she met Marina Mahler, the granddaughter of Alma and Gustav: ‘We met in London a few years ago through common friends. It was a defining experience: ‘Marina’s mother Anna was the second daughter of Alma and Gustav. I immediately inquired about her grandmother, which pleasantly affected Marina. Usually people enquire after her grandfather Gustav, but I was curious to know how she remembered her grandmother, whose impressive diaries I had read.’
The acquaintance was extra special, because of the likeness between Marina and her grandmother, says Caluwaerts: ‘When contemporaries described Alma, they invariably emphasised her magnetism and irresistibility. Marina has inherited these qualities for one hundred percent, you feel inescapably attracted to her. – This goes for everyone who meets her.’
Conversely, Marina Mahler also felt a click with Caluwaerts: ‘In the meantime we have built a fine friendship. Marina told me that her mother Anna had lived and worked in Italy for years and that Alma’s grand piano still resides in her house in Spoleto. In 2010 she founded the Anna Mahler Association, which has opened the villa and Sol LeWitt’s adjacent studio to artists and musicians. I immediately decided to record Alma’s songs there, ordered all her scores and started to study them in depth.’
ALMA MAHLER SONGS: NATURAL AND SENSUAL
When Caluwaerts perused the scores, she was quite impressed: ‘Her work is full of romance, at times almost Wagnerian through-composed, complex and fascinating. What really appealed to me was her genius and spirit, which shines through all her songs. I was awed and surprised: how can the music of such a young girl be so natural and passionate, so full of sex/sensuality?’
Taken with the quality and charm of alma Mahler’s songs, the soprano immediately performed some in the Dead Ladies Show, a literary-musical programme based on the work of remarkable women from the past. ‘It is an initiative from New York that was introduced in Belgium by the writer Gaea Schoeters. I also programmed a cycle by Alma in a “regular” recital, which, due to Covid-19 I have unfortunately not been able to perform very often.’
Programming music by Alma Mahler may sound more obvious than it is, Caluwaerts continues: ‘Many programmers appear to be unfamiliar with her work. They often respond positively when I propose to sing her songs, but mainly because they think it an ‘original’ idea. After the concert I regularly get somewhat surprised reactions, when they share how brilliant they found her music. Apparently, they had different expectations.’
Soprano Elise Caluwaerts: ‘The songs of Alma Mahler are intense and sensual, and make one crave for more. If only her talent would not have been cut short!’
Before Alma married Gustav Mahler, she had a relationship with his total opposite, Alexander von Zemlinsky, a composer who was exploring new ways. Unlike Gustav, he wholeheartedly supported Alma in her artistic aspirations; she studied composition with him. He was also the teacher of Arnold Schönberg, who eventually developed atonality, and established the so-called ‘Second Viennese School’, together with his students Anton Webern and Alban Berg.
Caluwaerts previously recorded Berg’s songs on CD. How do they compare with Alma Mahler’s? ‘Her style is clearly influenced by Zemlinsky, but I also hear similarities with Berg’s Sieben frühe Lieder, especially in the excursions into more late- and post-romantic harmonies.’
‘Her songs are beautiful, grand, intense and compelling; they are all gems, well written and wonderful to sing! You inevitably crave for more, but unfortunately only seventeen of her songs have survived. As with Lili Boulanger, I wonder what would have happened if her talent had not been cut short.’
ALMA MAHLER’S GRAND PIANO
Alma Mahler’s grand piano in Spoleto will be played by Marianna Shirinyan. It’s a bonus that she can play Alma Mahler’s piano, but this does require some preparation, Caluwaerts acknowledges: ‘It has a beautiful sound, but the passing of time has left its mark on the instrument. Together with Steinway Italy, we are currently working on a final revision. And before the actual recording, I will bring along my friends Benedikte van Garsse and Chris Taerwe from Quatre Mains to tune it. I want the very best people there; they also tune for organisations like the Salzburg Festival.’
Besides using the original grand piano Alma Mahler played, the singer has another surprise up her sleeve. ‘Along with the songs, we also recorded some diary extracts. Via Marina, I came into contact with Cate Haste, who has written a biography of Alma Mahler in 2019, drawing on her as yet unpublished diaries.’
‘These date from the time she lived in Hollywood and was friends with people like Marlene Dietrich and Leonard Bernstein. The quotes will be recited and possibly filmed, but we are still discussing the exact details with Marina. We hope that by offering a mix of texts written by Alma in her early and later life, we can provide a good picture of her rich universe, in the context of her time.’
She finds it hard to name which song she likes best: ‘If you had asked me this earlier on, I would probably have chosen ‘Hymne’ and ‘Lobgesang’, but every time I read through a song I discover new elements in it. That’s what makes it so fascinating to immerse oneself in a composer.’
The hardest song to master was ‘Hymne an die Nacht’ from the collection Fünf Gesänge, published in 1924. The song has long, strung-out sentences and very surprising harmonic turns. It seems as if you never arrive, very Wagnerian, you get a feeling of timelessness.’
How did Caluwaerts prepare for the recordings? ‘I always try to get as close as possible to a work by researching the text, the poet, the composer and the circumstances in which a song was written. I try to make a personal link and seek possibilities for a new interpretation.’
‘Of course I have listened to existing recordings, but I am mainly guided by my own imagination. I try to make a personal link and seek possibilities for a new interpretation. As a singer, you must in a sense make different worlds merge into one. In essence, singing is something sensual, in which the spirit, soul, heart, head and body ultimately come together.’
The CD release was planned for January 2022but has been postponed to May 2022 due to Covid-19.
On 21 December Ig Henneman (1945) celebrates her 76th birthday. In September 2021 the adventurous vio(lin)ist, improviser, composer and feminist was appointed Knight of the Order of Orange-Nassau for her contribution to the rich Dutch musical life. She still tirelessly continues performing and composing. A nice occasion to re-post my review of her CD Indigo that was released in 1998.
Amsterdam, 25 January 1999
One hundred (and one) years ago, the National Exhibition of Women’s Labour was held in The Hague. The aim was to break through the prevailing view that a woman could only fulfil subservient tasks. The ‘weaker sex’ became increasingly self-aware and also demanded an independent position in the creative professions.
Therefore, during the exhibition, many compositions by women were performed. They considered themselves professional composers, as evidenced by their membership of the Genootschap Nederlandse Componisten, but their work was only performed on special occasions around the theme of ‘women’.
Not much has changed since then: although the Netherlands has several interesting female composers, they are rarely heard on the concert stage, not to mention in CD releases.
That is why the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment declared 1998 to be the commemoration year of the above exhibition, with events throughout the Netherlands. In 1898 Cornélie van Oosterzee composed a cantata for the opening, this time viola player and composer Ig Henneman was commissioned to write music for the closing event.
Commemoration of the National Exhibition of Women’s Labour
This took place last November in congress centre the RAI in Amsterdam, and was recorded on the CD Indigo. Henneman is one of the few women who have managed to gain a foothold on the Dutch concert stage since the 1970s and this is largely due to the fact that she performs her own work and releases it on her own label Wig.
For this project, she was inspired by the poetry of women such as Henriëtte Roland Holst, Ida Gerhardt and Albertina Soepboer, which in more or less explicit terms testify to the unease they feel with the role that is forced upon them. Holst’s resigned, but under the skin angry words O dark depths are captured in music that initially sounds light and airy, but soon becomes violent and dramatic.
In Den Haag 1898, a text that denounces the exploitation of women in sewing workshops, we hear the machines rattling and jamming, while the singing refers to socialist battle songs. Nachtzwart (Nightblack) based on Van Oosterzee’s cantata, breathes a dark atmosphere, while in Ontkomen (Escape) a claustrophobic feeling is aroused by long, solemn lines from which the voice cannot escape.
The title track Indigo is mysterious and charged, with alternating whispers and screams, blurring the boundaries between voices and instruments. Femina’s amusingly ironic tone is translated into cheerfully repeated runs in a swinging rhythm, in which clarinet and bass clarinet aptly imitate animal sounds. As always, Henneman gives her musicians plenty of room to improvise.
Yesterday’s future is still a long way off, but as long as we can still laugh, there is hope, Henneman tells us. And right she is!
The National Opera opened the new season 2021-22 on 4 September with Alexander von Zemlinsky’s little-performed opera Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) from 1922. The libretto is based on the short story The Birthday of the Infant by Oscar Wilde, and has a wry personal component. Now that theatres have closed once more because of a new Covid-19 lockdown the opera house offers Der Zwerg as a free stream.
Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942) initially enjoyed great success as a composer, but as a Jew was forced to leave Berlin and return to his native Austria in 1933. When, five years later, the Nazis also took over power there, he fled to America, where he made a meagre living composing occasional works.
Zemlinksy is mainly remembered as a celebrity acquaintance. He is often described as a protégé of Brahms, who was so impressed by his early works that he recommended him to his publisher Simrock.
We also know him as the conductor of the amateur orchestra Polyhymnia, in which Arnold Schoenberg played a rickety cello towards the end of the nineteenth century. Zemlinsky would also be Schoenberg’s first and only music teacher, and became his brother-in-law when Schoenberg married his sister Mathilde.
MODERN BUT NOT ATONAL
Born in Vienna in 1871 to a Catholic convert to Judaism and a Sephardic-Islamic mother, Zemlinsky proved exceptionally musical at the age of four. He studied piano, composition and music theory at the Vienna Conservatory.
Although he became friends with Schönberg and was closely involved in his transition to atonality, he never completely abandoned tonality in his own compositions. Over the years, this even became an increasing bone of contention between the two, even though as a conductor Zemlinsky remained a staunch advocate of Schönberg’s music.
When Austria joined Nazi Germany in 1938, Zemlinsky fled to the United States. His music was performed less and less and he led an unremarkable and disillusioned existence; he died in 1942. The New York Times devoted an obituary to his demise, which, remained largely unnoticed in Europe. It was only in the 1960s that his music was sparsely rediscovered, in the wake of Mahler’s.
This was mainly due to the similarities between Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and the Zemlinksy’s Lyrical Symphony that also features two vocal soloists. They perform verses by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, whom Zemlinsky knew personally. Where Mahler sings of his lost youth, Zemlinsky describes a love that is doomed to fail; both compositions are permeated with unfulfilled longing.
A recurring motif in the Lyric Symphony is a yearning quarter leap upwards, followed by a descending second, which recalls Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. This seems to be an implicit reference to Zemlinsky’s tragic affair with his composition student Alma Schindler. Although she loved him passionately, she mockingly called him ‘the dwarf’ because of his small stature.
As fate would have it, she rejected him for Gustav Mahler, who had premiered his opera Es war einmal (Once upon a time) at the Vienna Court Opera in 1899. Salient detail: Alma had met Mahler through Zemlinsky, and married him in 1902. – After which, incidentally, her own compositional development was cut short, which some may consider a deserved twist of fate.
That Zemlinsky saw opera material in Oscar Wilde’s story The Birthday of the Infanta is very understandable from the point of view of his failed relationship with Alma. For her twelfth birthday, the Spanish princess royal receives a hunchbacked dwarf as a present. He dances exuberantly for her and the guests, unaware of his stature and the immense hilarity he causes.
When the girl gives him a white rose, he takes this as a sign of her love. – Until he sees his reflection in the mirror, realises that he has been laughed at all along and dies on the spot of a broken heart. The princess is furious and angrily demands that future birthday presents ‘please have no heart!’
Dutch film and theatre director Nanouk Leopold made her opera debut with Der Zwerg. In her staging she zooms in on the question of whether, in a world of outward show, we are capable of respecting the Other in their Otherness. At the same time she addresses the vulnerability of the artist in our society.
By dressing up the dwarf as a colourful bird, while the princess and her entourage are all clad in candyfloss pink attire she makes it clear the true ugliness is not in the dwarf, but in their inability to think outside the box of their own limited view of humanity.
Zemlinsky wrote scintillating music for Der Zwerg. Neoclassical and late-Romantic passages contrast with vehement expressionism, especially in the title role. This is sung by the American dramatic tenor Clay Hilley; the soprano Lenneke Ruiten sings the role of the princess. Clay Hilley made a lasting impression with his impassioned portrayal of the dwarf, whose ecstatic love and broken pride he made keenly palpable.
With this production the Italian conductor Lorenzo Viotti at once proved his prowess as the new chief conductor of Dutch National Opera.
‘All of my creative inspiration comes from music, from euphony that acts as an ideal reflection or embodiment of a homeland. Aspiring for this ideal is the most important theme in my work.’
This is the motto of the Latvian composer Georgs Pelēcis, to whom the Amstel Saxophone Quartet has dedicated a full CD. This will be presented at Orgelpark Amsterdam on 10 December 2021.
Georgs Pelēcis was born in Riga in 1947 and started out his musical career at the Emīls Dārziņš Music School, the junior department of the Riga Conservatoire (today called the Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Academy of Music). He was a chorister in the renowned Dārziņš School boys’ choir, and also took lessons in piano and violin and studied composition with Ģederts Ramans.
After finishing this musical college he moved to Moscow, to study composition with Aram Khachaturian at the Piotr Tchaikovsky State Conservatory. In 1970 he graduated with the Double Concerto for Balalaika, Baritone-Saxophone and Orchestra. He returned to Riga, where, much to his surprise, he was at once invited to teach polyphony at the Music Academy. ‘I didn’t have any particular interest in the subject. On the contrary, I had passed the exam and was happy it was over’, he confessed in an interview with his composer colleague Jānis Petraškevičs in 2018.
Yet Pelēcis felt honoured by the request and accepted the position anyway, even though a serious methodology for teaching polyphony was not at hand. After having taught the subject for four years, he realized that he ‘did not know anything’, and decided to move back to Moscow.
He studied with Professor Vladimir Protopopov, fnishing his studies in 1977 with a dissertation on the Flemish polyphonist Johannes Ockeghem. Hereafter he quickly developed into one of the foremost researchers in this field, publishing over thirty academic works. In 1993 his study of Pierluigi Palestrina was awarded a medal by the International Palestrina Centre.
It proved not always easy to balance his research with his compositional activities, though. In the seventies and eighties there were times when he feared he might never compose again. Yet, while he never gave up his position as a professor of counterpoint and fugue at the Latvian Academy of Music, he soon realized that ‘writing music is definitely my priority’, and concentrated more on composing.
Georgs Pelēcis: ‘Minimalists such as Steve Reich and Simeon ten Holt make euphony a colossal source of joy.’
Pelēcis is a great admirer of the clever and intricate polyphony of Bach and Palestrina and is averse to the quest for innovation that so long dominated the musical avant-garde. To his view composers must not approach music in a dialectic way: rather than feeling obliged to always be in a metaphoric ‘military front line’, he chooses to also cherish the achievements of the past. The influence of early music clearly shines through his own music, which is always melodic and euphonious.
This does not mean he rejects all modern developments, though. He highly values the repetitive patterns of minimalists such as Steve Reich and Simeon ten Holt. ‘They make euphony a colossal source of joy’, he confided to Petraškevičs in 2018. ‘All of those rhythm patterns they play around with, it’s a creative and perceptive joy!’ In his own compositions he makes abundant use of repetitive patterns, though he would never call this approach ‘minimalist’. He prefers the term ‘maximalism’, for after all, the composer squeezes a maximum of musical material from one single pattern.
Though using polyphonic techniques, the music of Pelēcis is never ponderous or academic. He creates a simple, open and sometimes humorous voice that immediately speaks to our heart and soul. Because of its spiritual connotations his work is often mentioned in one breath with that of composers such as Arvo Pärt or John Tavener. To his own detriment he is sometimes even dubbed ‘the naïvist of Latvian music’.
This epithet does not do justice to his warm and lively style that is brimming with zest for life. As the Latvian composer and teacher Imants Zemzaris once suggested, we should rather speak of ‘new consonant music, where euphony is the harmonic ideal’. Or, to quote tenor saxophonist Bas Apswoude of the Amstel Quartet: ‘Despite its simplicity the music of Pelēcis is never superficial, perhaps because of its sincerity, effective use of counterpoint and sophisticated rhythmicality.’
On their CD Celebrating Women! The Hague String Trio present world premiere recordings by four female composers. – At once also the only works in their repertoire by members of their own sex. Perhaps they want to hitch a ride on the discussion about the still underexposed position of female composers that has flared up again after #MeToo. A theme which over the past decades was addressed again and again by a wide range of musicologists, music journalists and historians.
As one of them, I have some trouble with the title Celebrating Women! – By explicitly mentioning the gender of the composers, you unintentionally confirm the ingrained prejudice that there is such a thing as ‘female’ music. But ok, I’ll forgive the three musicians, for most concert programmes and CD’ s are still filled with music by – mostly dead – white males. Any attention to their female counterparts is a bonus.
The CD opens with the String Trio that the Australian Miriam Hyde (1913-2005) composed in 1932. With its melodious, elegant themes, this will certainly appeal to a large audience. The Suite for violin, viola and cello by Emmy Frensel-Wegener (1901-1971) from 1925 is more adventurous. Although composed seven years earlier, it sounds more modern than Hyde’s Trio. The Suite is a fresh and sparkling piece full of catchy rhythms and compelling melodies, performed with contagious zest by The Hague String Trio.
Miriam Hyde, Emmy Frensel-Wegener, Ethel Smyth and Irene Britton-Smith could not have wished for better ambassadors of their music than The Hague String Trio.
Pièce de résistance is the String Trio in D major op.6 by Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), written in 1884 by this self-willed composer and suffragette. Smyth was a friend of such greats as Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, and the British Queen Victoria was a great admirer of her music. In 1922, Smyth was the first female composer to receive the title Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In 1903, the Metropolitan Opera staged her opera Der Wald; it would not be until 2016 that the New York house programmed another opera by a woman, L’amour de loin by Kaija Saariaho.
Like all of Smyth’s music, this ambitious, four-movement trio is particularly lively and varied. In an abundance of artfully woven melodic lines, she displays her perfect mastery of the string trio medium. In the process, Smyth incorporates themes from various traditions. Thus in the first movement we hear references to ‘Glory, glory, Hallelujah’, while the main theme of the second is derived from the Scottish folk song The Crab. The subdued slow third movement is an arrangement of Bach’s chorale Vater Unser im Himmelreich; the robust dance rhythm in the finale links up with British folk music.
The CD closes with the Fugue in G minor by Irene Britton Smith (1907-1999), the least known of the four. This composer of Afro-American, Crow and Cherokee descent studied composition pretty much all her life, among others with the renowned Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Her Fugue, composed in 1938, is a fine example of contrapuntal composition, the theme of which is vaguely reminiscent of Bach’s Das musikalische Opfer.
The Hague String Trio performs all four compositions to the highest possible standard. Every note is crisp and pure, not one entry is missed – the alert way in which the three musicians respond to each other and their overwhelming enthusiasm for the music irrevocably drag one along. The recording technique is also excellent. Hyde, Frensel-Wegener, Smyth and Britton-Smith could not have wished for better ambassadors.
Let’s hope this CD is not a one-off for The Hague String Trio, but rather the upbeat to an ever expanding repertoire of neglected gems by women composers.
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The Ukrainian-Dutch composer Maxim Shalygin has established himself firmly in our Dutch musical life with his adventurous pieces. Last October, his choral work While Combing Your Hair, dedicated to the Belarusian dissident Maria Kaleshnikava, was a great success.
In September, the Dag in de Branding festival staged the first public performance of Severade, a full-length work for cellist Maya Fridman, Cello8tet Amsterdam and 25 mechanical instruments by Rob van den Broek. Who is he and what is the background of Severade?
Maxim Shalygin was born in 1985 in Kamianske, a medium-sized town about 450 kilometres southeast of Kyiv. Although he was not born into a musical family, at the age of six he went to the local music school and then to musical college, the preliminary course of the conservatory. There he studied bayan with Alexander Kornev, with piano and conducting as subsidiary subjects.
IRINA IVASHENKO – THE IDEAL MENTOR
In his biography we further read that he studied composition with Irina Ivashenko. But a search for her name on the internet or social media yields no mention at all. Who is she? She was one of the teachers at the music college in Kamianske and I had composition lessons from her from the age of fourteen. – On a voluntary basis, because composition was not on the curriculum. Irina taught me in her spare time and did not charge a penny for it. The last two years before I went to the conservatoire, we met up other almost every day.’
She played an important role in his life, Shalygin continues: ‘We became good friends and at one point she dedicated just about all her free time to tutor me. Not only composition, but also harmony, solfeggio, music history, analysis and even art history, poetry and film. She was extremely versatile, it was an incredible time for me. I realise more and more that in those four years she taught me all the important basics. No composition teacher after her taught me as much as she did.’
What made her teaching so special? ‘Besides her broad interest and knowledge of music and culture in general, her way of teaching was remarkable. She had an interesting approach for every subject. For example, to my first lesson in harmony I brought along a tome that everyone at school used. She immediately told me never to bring it again, because we would be studying harmony from music history itself.’
‘For each subject we addressed, she gave examples of the great works from the canon, which she played at the piano – by heart. And after I had played through a few pages of my own new piece, she selected a few bars and explained why I should keep them and discard the rest. Step by step, she thus guided me through my first compositions. Thanks to her, I developed a profound knowledge of musical structure.’
ST. PETERSBURG CONSERVATOIRE – DISAPPOINTMENT
After completing his training, Shalygin did not move on to the Kyiv Conservatoire, but went to Saint Petersburg instead. ‘This was because Irina considered the Saint Petersburg Conservatoire the best place to study composition. She still had contacts with some of her former teachers and they advised me to attend the class of Boris Tishchenko. But I was very disappointed with the composition department and the education in general. Soon I withdrew to the library. There I listened to recordings and studied scores that were not available in my hometown.’
After a year he returned to Ukraine. In retrospect, his short stay in Saint Petersburg was fruitful, because ‘I realised that it was time to choose my own path. I left in April, before the end of the academic year, and that same summer I was accepted into the Kyiv Conservatoire, where I found the freedom I was looking for.’
Maxim Shalygin: ‘No composition teacher has taught me more than Irina Ivashenko’.
‘Here the teaching was aimed at helping you find your own individual voice as a composer, while at the same time you were thoroughly trained in music theory. I still remember the analysis class of Mykola Kovalinas, who had developed his own method. This immensely stimulated my imagination. There were times I would be studying a score for 12 hours a day!’
In 2010, he obtained his master’s degree with the Triple Concerto for violin, cello, piano and orchestra. He then came to the Netherlands, where a year later he completed a second master’s degree in composition with Cornelis de Bondt and Diderik Wagenaar at the Royal Conservatoire. He has been living and working in The Hague ever since. The ties with Ukraine remain warm, however; Ukrainian television followed his trail in The Netherlands for an hour-long documentary that will be broadcast in November 2021.
In December, his Severade for 9 cello’s and the newly built sound sculpture will be performed three times. The composition is part of a ‘project for life’ on which Shalygin has been working since 2017. This ever-expanding cycle of full-length compositions for equal instruments is encapsulated under the umbrella title S I M I L A R. Up to now three ‘chapters’ have been completed.
In 2017, Lacrymosa for 7 violins was premiered in the Gaudeamus Music Week; two years later followed by Todos los fuegos el fuegofor 8 saxophones; both have been released on CD. In April 2021 Severade, its third movement sounded for the first time in an empty TivoliVredenburg. Chapters four through six are already in the making, for 4 pianos; 5 recorders and 6 percussionists respectively.
SEVERADE – 9 CELLOS AND SOUND SCULPTURE
Shalygin composed the 75-minute Severade for Cello Octet Amsterdam and Maya Fridman, for whom he previously composed the ground-breaking Canti d’inizio e fine. Severade is a contraction of ‘sever’, the Russian word for ‘north’ and serenade. Especially for this composition, artist Rob van den Broek developed 25 mechanical wooden instruments, which function as extensions of the acoustic cellos. These are controlled by the nine musicians and together form a spectacular sound sculpture.
The idea for this came about more or less by accident, says Shalygin: ‘Normally I compose for purely acoustic instruments, and this time I had nine cellos in mind. But while I was thinking about my piece, I met Rob and suddenly an idea sprang to mind: maybe we can build an instrument that a cellist can operate while playing.’ That turned out to be easier said than done: ‘If we had known how long and difficult the road would be to reach a satisfactory result, we probably wouldn’t have started our endeavour.’
‘But once we had jumped in at the deep end, we didn’t want to give up. The entire process of developing, experimenting and trying out took a year and a half. I still remember how I felt when I received the first instruments from Rob. For a day I stared at them in my otherwise empty studio. I had no idea what to do with them, even though it had been my own initiative. But gradually I began to understand how I could use these new instruments in my piece. Once that coin dropped, writing Severade was actually a light and exciting journey.’
Each of the eight tutti cellists plays their own cello as well as a set of three wooden instruments, strung with horsehair strings and tuned differently. These are driven by a (silent) motor, operated by the respective cellist. The most important object is a long, pipe-shaped sound box to the left of the musician, which resembles a rectangular cello. A thick string is rubbed by a wooden wheel, creating mysterious, long-drawn-out bourdon tones.
Next to it is a rotating wooden tube, whose eight strings are struck by as many mallets, creating tinkling pizzicati. A smaller wooden cylinder with eight thinner strings is plucked by a rotating wheel and creates a loop of ever-changing chords. Soloist Maya Fridman resides on a platform in the centre, like a high priestess. She operates a so-called dodecagon, a twelve-sided kind of lyre. Its walls consist of 150 randomly tuned metal bars which are triggered by an uncontrolled bouncing ping-pong ball.
With his mechanically driven sound sculpture, Shalygin reflects on the development of the cello. He seamlessly blends the sounds of the age-old acoustic instrument with those of a futuristic ‘robot cello’. In the ear-catching, but extremely complex sound fabrics, it is often impossible to distinguish where the music comes from. The constantly resounding drones seem to stop time and create an almost mythical feeling of infinity.
Severade is a sequence of slowly building climaxes and diminuendos sloping down to near-silence. Sonorous chorales of ascending and descending glissandi are juxtaposed with virtuoso layers of titillating pizzicati, angelic flageolets and alienating microtones.
The slow pass, the melancholic, often descending melodic lines and sustained notes create a serene and ritualistic atmosphere, which is reinforced by hauntingly repeated short strokes. The interaction between solo cello and tutti is like one breathing organism. As a listener, you are irrevocably carried away on a nocturnal journey through a fairytale landscape.
With his combination of acoustic and mechanical instruments, Shalygin weaves a convincing blend out of Slavic emotionality and Western sobriety – precisely the ‘northern serenade’ to which the title Severade refers.
Severade can be heard 3 times in December 2021 1 Dec: De Vereeniging Nijmegen 2 Dec: Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ Amsterdam (During the introduction I will speak with Shalygin and Van den Broek) 3 Dec: 12 TivoliVredenburg Utrecht
Update 27 November: unfortunately all concerts have been cancelled because of the new corona measures.
In Le Grand Macabre, the only opera György Ligeti ever composed, the protagonist Nekrotzar announces the end of time, but at the moment supreme he is the only one who perishes. The absurdist work was staged in this country in 1998 by the Netherlands Travelling Opera. On 27 November, the NTRZaterdagMatinee presents a concert performance, with the Netherland Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Netherlands Radio Choir conducted by regular guest conductor James Gaffigan.
György Ligeti (1923-2006) was an original mind, who did not let anyone dictate the rules. In 1956, he fled the Hungarian dictatorship and knocked on the door of Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne, whose tape composition Gesang der Jünglinge had made a deep impression on him. He had once heard it on a German radio station – in a mutilated version, because the Hungarian government distorted Western broadcasts with electronic signals.
AVERSE TO DOGMATISM
Although he was generously included in the circle of avant-garde composers around Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez, Ligeti refused to embrace their serialism, based on mathematical principles. He had not fled a political dictatorship in order to submit to a musical one. In contrast to the strict ordering of all musical parameters, he placed a large degree of freedom. Instead of the imperative tone and rhythm sequences, he used clusters of microtones swarming through each other in a free rhythmic pattern. In 1960, he established his name for good with the orchestral work Apparitions.
But he was too idiosyncratic to limit himself to one particular style and, moreover, cared little for the heavy-handed seriousness of many of his colleagues. In his music there was room for humour and irony. For Die Zukunft der Musik, he chalked only a few instructions on a blackboard in 1961, and a year later he placed 100 metronomes on the stage in Poème symphonique. With their ticking in different tempi, they created a complex ‘micropolyphony’.
The world premiere in 1963 in the town hall of Hilversum caused quite a stir. It had been commissioned by the Gaudeamus Music Week and was performed at the closing concert of this international competition for young composers. The audience listened attentively and applauded politely afterwards, but the municipality of Hilversum asked the national broadcasting company NTS not to show the film.
The newspaper Trouw deemed the concert a success, however: ‘It was a delightful parody on the musical experiment that so many young composers are pursuing with deadly seriousness. In 2003, the piece was performed in NTRZaterdagMatinee and in 2020, the filmed recording was recovered and shown at the Gaudeamus Festival.
LE GRAND MACABRE
Time and again, Ligeti chose new paths and continued to surprise his audience. In 1966, for instance, he created harmonic anchor points in his choral work Lux Aeterna. From 1974-77, he worked on what would become his magnum opus, the opera Le Grand Macabre. It is based on the absurdist play Ballade du Grand Macabre by the Belgian author Michel de Ghelderode and is set in Breugel’s time. The hero Nekrotzar – the ‘Grand Macabre’ of the title – announces the end of time, which will take place at midnight. The fear of death constantly haunts the play, but when twelve o’clock finally strikes, Nekrotzar is the only one to die.
In Le Grand Macabre, Ligeti brought together everything he had achieved so far; the music is often downright hilarious. The opera opens with an overture of car horns and juxtaposes Rossini-like arias with alienating recitatives and abyssal screams. The singers burp and we are treated to the sound of whips and other ‘unmusical’ objects. This gives the musical references to predecessors such as Rossini and Monteverdi an ironic charge.
The opera premiered in Stockholm in 1978, but Ligeti radically revised the score in 1996. He made several cuts and set spoken passages to music after all. This revised version was premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 1997, directed by Peter Sellars. His staging greatly displeased Ligeti. Instead of the intended ambiguity the American director had made the approaching Apocalypse explicit with references to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. By turning it into a ‘pamphlet against nuclear energy’, Sellars had robbed him of his opera, Ligeti felt.
EXTREMES AND BLACK HUMOUR
A year later, the Dutch Travelling Opera staged Le Grand Macabre for the first time in our country, on the occasion of Ligeti’s seventy-fifth birthday. The French director Stanislas Nordey was responsible for the direction. The Asko and Schönberg Ensemble and the Choir of the Travelling Opera were conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw, a great advocate of Ligeti’s music. – Five years later he was the one to put the Poème symphonique on the programme of NTRZaterdagMatinee.
In his biography, De Leeuw calls the opera characteristic of Ligeti, in whom he discerns an almost violent side: ‘That need for madness, hysteria, extreme states of mind, black humour goes a long way. This is most strongly expressed in Le Grand Macabre, in which he ridicules death. Everything is grotesque in the piece. He turns the world upside down with bizarre characters, incongruous stories, absurdist twists, but also in his instrumentation. – Just think of the opening with car horns.’
The production was well received. The newspaper NRC praised the ‘visually sober, almost concertante production’; Trouw lauded the way in which Nekrotzar was immediately recognisable as an outsider. His appearance as a ‘crazy businessman in a blue mackintosh’ contrasted sharply with the white Pierrot outfits of his fellow actors. The Eindhovens Dagblad spoke of an ‘excellent portrayal of Ligeti’s idea of a man who tries to escape death in a monstrous Breugelian landscape’.
Ligeti himself attended a performance on 8 June 1998 in the Stadsschouwburg in Amsterdam. His arrival had been awaited with some trepidation, considering his reaction to Sellars’ 1997 production, but this time he was extremely satisfied. At the final applause, he stepped onto the stage, bowed deeply to the performers and exuberantly shook hands with conductor Reinbert de Leeuw. Only then did he turn to the audience to receive their loud cheering.
In two acts and four scenes, we follow the drunkard Piet the Pot, who experiences the wildest of adventures and is relegated to his unwilling help by Nekrotzar (Death). Nekrotzar proclaims in increasingly ominous terms that he will destroy the world. At midnight, a comet will strike: ‘The bodies of the people will be scorched, and all will turn into charred corpses, and will shrink like shrivelled heads!’ – Words that sound frighteningly topical in the light of the climate crisis and corona pandemic.
The libretto is a dazzling parody of the human desire for debauchery, intemperance, sex and power. The names of the love couple Amanda (Servando) and Amanda (Clitoris) speak for themselves, but politics are also ridiculed. Prince Go-Go rides a rocking horse, and from this position he urges two politicians to put the ‘interests of the nation’ above their own. – A parallel with Prime Minister Rutte and Minister of Public Health Hugo de Jonge springs to mind.
The music is a long succession of humorous pastiches and persiflages of (song) styles from earlier days. The second act opens with the ringing of doorbells and alarm clocks, seemingly announcing the end of time. Mutilated quotations from Scott Joplin to Beethoven can be heard. At the end of the third scene, when the planet Saturn crashes, the strings play a raw sort of lament, followed by swelling crescendos and decrescendos in the winds. The apocalypse seems to be a fact.
In the fourth scene, Ligeti depicts the post-apocalyptic landscape with sweet chords and harmonics in the low strings, accompanied by a prominent harmonica. It appears that everyone is still alive. In a slapstick-like passage with abrasive clusters of woodwinds and furious percussion, three soldiers and Prince Go-Go set off in pursuit of Nekrotzar. He must ultimately acknowledge his defeat and disappears into thin air, under the estranging sounds of a mirror canon in the strings.
The opera concludes with a succession of tonal chords deprived of their functional context. Then the entire cast turns to the audience: The opera concludes with a succession of tonal chords deprived of their functional context. Then the entire cast turns to the audience: ‘Fear not to die, good people all! No one knows when his hour will fall! And when it comes, then let it be… Farewell, till then in cheerfulness!’
This could just as easily be an appeal both to the vaccine opponents who fear unforeseen consequences of the shot, and to those who believe that vaccination should be made mandatory…
Born in Tilburg, the Netherlands, in 1964, Richard Rijnvos avoids the beaten tracks; his work cannot be pigeonholed. Indeed, he does not regard ‘style’ as a starting point, but as the unsuspected outcome of the creative process. On Saturday 13 November, the Residentie Orchestra and Slagwerk Den Haag present the world premiere of Afrique, the fourth part of his seven-movement orchestral cycle Grand Atlas. The concert forms part of Festival Dag in de Branding, and is conducted by Antony Hermus.
Early on in his career Rijnvos developed a preference for composing multi-movement compositions. Between 1995 and 2000, for instance, he wrote the eighty-minute cycle Block-Beuys. It was inspired by the pavilion of the same name, which is dedicated to this German artist in the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt. In 2001, Rijnvos started the still expanding cycle La Serenissima about the city of Venice and in 2008 he completed his six-part orchestral cycle Uptown|Downtown, dedicated to the city of New York.
SOUNDING WORLD ATLAS
The seed for his ambitious cycle Grand Atlas was sown in 2004, when he completed the final movement of La Serenissima. This semi-theatrical composition for voice, tuba and ensemble is called mappamondo and was inspired by the fifteenth-century Venetian monk Fra Mauro. He belonged to the hermit order of the Camaldolese, a branch of the Benedictines, and lived in a monastery on the Isola di San Michele in the Venetian lagoon.
‘Fra Mauro was considered the most important cartographer of his time’, says Rijnvos. ‘He spent most of his life working on an impressive world map. This is how I came up with the idea of creating my own, musical version. A kind of sounding atlas, in which each of the seven continents is represented in an orchestral composition. Thus I creep into Fra Mauro’s mind.’ In each movement he also incorporates elements from the musical culture of the continent in question.
Richard Rijnvos: ‘Grand Atlas is a sounding atlas, in which each of the seven continents is represented in an orchestral composition.’
Three of the seven movements have already been premiered: Antarctique (2012); Asie (2015) and Amérique du Nord (2016). Of the remaining four, Amérique du Sud (2019) and Europe (2020) have been completed but not yet performed, partly because the planned concerts were postponed due to the corona-pandemic. On Saturday 13 November, the Residentie Orchestra and Slagwerk Den Haag will perform the world premiere of Afrique in the newly opened cultural centre Amare on the Spuiplein in The Hague.
Afrique was commissioned by the Residentie Orchestra and Slagwerk Den Haag. Prior to the premiere, I will give the first lecture of my three-part course on modern music in Amare. I will zoom in on the development of rhythm from roughly 1900 onwards, and the related rise of percussion ensembles. In the last fifteen minutes I will interview Richard Rijnvos about his new piece.
TRAVELLING DOWN THE NILE
On his website Rijnvos writes about Afrique: ‘Our clockwise journey begins in North Africa, more precisely, the heart of Egypt. On our way to the historic monuments, temples and tombs near Karnak and Luxor, we hear snatches of native music coming from afar. Approaching the village of El-Tod, we clearly distinguish the characteristic sound of the mizmar, an extremely loud double-reed woodwind instrument.’
‘It’s a sort of Arabic oboe, which, due to its trumpet-like bell, easily manages the kind of volume we normally expect from brass. Two players improvise in a quasi-unison manner, whilst a third persists in sustaining what seems to be a never-ending, piercing, yet seducing drone. Traditional drums, such as darbuka, duff and duhulla provide a stirring accompaniment.’
‘We descend by boat down the Nile, all the way to Lake Victoria in Uganda, East Africa. The hospitable locals of Nakibembe, a small village in Busoga, treat us to an evening of their indigenous music. The central instrument is the embaire, a xylophone about 2.5 metres long, played by six people, seated three on each side. It has gigantic keys made from ensambiya wood, and is placed on a huge hole in the ground for resonance purposes. The music is lively and cheerful, with untrained voices singing along every now and then.’
FLUTE PLAYING, DANCING & SINGING
‘Our travels continue via the east coast, in the direction of Southern Africa, to Botswana, where we meet the Balete people. In these regions, the focus is not so much on percussion. Instead, the locals play reed flutes, so-called ditlhaka, and they tend to gather in ensembles that incorporate dozens of participants, performing traditional dances, which can last for hours. The common practice is for men to play a variety of different-sized flutes, while dancing counter-clockwise in a circle, surrounded by women and young girls clapping.’
‘Travelling back north via the west coast, to Central Africa, we cross the rainforest of Cameroon, home of the Baka people. Their music is mainly vocal, displaying a striking polyphonic sophistication. Based on repetitive melodic fragments, with little variation, but lots of improvisation, they dance, sing and yodel as part of healing rituals, initiation rituals, funerals, but also for sheer entertainment.’
‘Our voyage ends in Senegal, West Africa, where the Wolof people preserve the Sabar drumming tradition. Among its most renowned pioneers was maestro Doudou N’Diaye Rose (1930-2015), and it is in his memory we finish with an orchestral remix of his legendary and utterly exhilarating “Rose Rhythm”.’
I hope to see you at the concert – and of course you are welcome to attend my lecture!
In 1984, the German label ECM initiated its NEW SERIES to promote the ‘neo-spiritual’ music of such greats as Arvo Pärt & Giya Kancheli. Their style was considered kitschy at the time, but later they grew into highly lauded composers. The Greek-German composer and conductor Konstantia Gourzi (1962) is undeniably a kindred spirit.
Anájikon is named after the string quartet of the same name from 2015, part of her cycle about angels. Under the subtitle ‘The Angel in the Blue Garden’, Gourzi takes us through an idyllic, highly consonant soundscape in three movements. The four strings seem to compete over who can play the most beautiful melody, accompanied by repeated notes from the others.
The four-movement cycle Ny-él, Two Angels in the White Garden for orchestra also belongs to the angel series, but has a slightly different character. Sliding lines, furious rhythms and exuberant use of drums and bells create an archaic sound world that recalls the traditional music of Greece.
In the opening piece Hommage à Mozart, viola and piano circle each other with melodies built on church scales. The simple, repetitive motifs are reminiscent of the solemn singing of the Orthodox rite; Mozart seems galaxies away.
The performances are exemplary, the recording techniques is crystal clear though not sterile. The continuous euphony makes one yearn for some shrieking dissonance that might give the music a bit more spunk.
Despite the ominous clouds on the sleeve, Anájikon is ideal for those who like to immerse themselves in a sound world where the sun always seems to shine.
While for many the corona-lockdown implied a considerable loss of work, violinist/composer Hawar Tawfiq (1982) was busier than ever. Since April 2020, he has been working continuously on four pieces, of which the previously postponed Babylon aan de IJssel will have its world premiere in November Music on 13 November.
On 4 November, the first performance of his Requiem des fleurs et des nuages, composed for the opening of this festival, will be heard in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ; on 2 December, Exigeant for harpsichord is the mandatory work for the annual Prix Annelie de Man competition, and on 23 December, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra will play his brand new orchestral work M.C. Escher’s Imagination.
Tawfiq came to the Netherlands from Iraq in 1998, obtaining Dutch citizenship fifteen years later. He studied violin with Alexander Kerr, concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and took master classes with Herman Krebbers. His composition teachers were Alexander Hrisanide and Roderik de Man. I interviewed him about his background and development.
CLASSICAL MUSIC HIP IN BAGHDAD
Hawar Tawfiq grew up in Sulaymaniyah, a city in the northeast of Iaqi Kurdistan. Although he started playing the violin when he was nine, he was not born into a musical family, he says: ‘My youngest sister liked to sing, but purely as an amateur. It was my (elder) brother Salar who incited my love for classical music.’
This was not Arab or Kurdish, but Western classical music, which is less remarkable to Tawfiq than it may seem to us. ‘My brother is a painter and studied in Baghdad in the mid-1980s, at that time the place to be for young people. They were very Western-oriented: Russian literature, classical music, everything that came from Europe and America was considered hip. They actively searched for and listened to recordings of Western classical music. My brother brought home cassette tapes from Baghdad, for example with Beethoven’s symphonies.’
‘I was only four or five years old and I would listen to those tapes through my headphones. At least, that’s what my brother told me later, I have no memory of this.’ That he started to play the violin at the age of nine is essentially due to the First Gulf War and the subsequent Kurdish Revolution in 1990-91, he observes: ‘We were forced to spend a lot of time in our basement and, as a nine-year-old, I was bored to death.’
‘Looking for something to play with, I found a box of cassettes somewhere in a corner.’ Again he started listening, this time deliberately. ‘Most of the tapes contained Kurdish songs, which I put aside. Suddenly one cassette caught my attention – not even because I liked it so much, but because it sounded so different! I played it again and again, without knowing what it was – it was a copied tape with no label. My brother called it “classical music” and I started to like it more and more. Only much later I found out it was Bach’s Second Suite for flute and strings.’
CLASSICAL MUSIC SYMBOLISES SAFETY
Captivated by Bach’s ingenious polyphonic textures, he went in search of cassettes with similar music. ‘I didn’t know what “classical music” actually was. But because my brother told me that people in Europe and America listened to this every day, I thought it was their folk music. I thought: people do their shopping and other daily chores, and then listen to that music. Thus I came to associate classical music with safety.’
Hawar Tawfiq: ‘I thought: people in America and Europe do their shopping and on coming home they listen to classical music. Thus I came to associate this music with safety.’
Not surprising, for his own environment was far from safe. Although weakened by his defeat in the Gulf War, dictator Saddam Hussein remained in power anyway. ‘Because of the repression of the Kurds, we lived in Iran for a year, until a general pardon allowed us to return to Sulaymaniyah. When the situation stabilised, I said that I wanted to study classical music. I chose the piano, but my brother had heard many Russian orchestras in Baghdad and thought that first I should listen to a violin, the “king of instruments”.’
‘He also talked about musical concepts such as vibrato, crescendo and decrescendo, which he said were possible on a violin but not on a piano. Together we went to Alan Arif’s music school, a private institute. When I mentioned I was hesitating between piano and violin, the choice was quickly made: because we did not own a piano I would not be able to study at home, so it was the violin for me.’
TELEPHONE WIRE AS VIOLIN STRING
This proved to be a golden move: ‘I had no interest in folk music or Kurdish traditional music and Alan Arif had a thorough knowledge of the classical Western canon. He had studied in Baghdad with Russian pedagogues and was the best violin teacher in the city; today he lives in Germany. I studied with him for six years, but when I enrolled at the conservatoire in the Netherlands, I had to start all over again.’
‘This was because the school in Sulaymaniyah did not have a gradual teaching method. Nor did we have any good instruments. I remember that at one point I used the telephone wire for an E-string. On the other hand, theoretical subjects like solfeggio and harmony were excellent in Sulaymaniyah. – The first two years at the Tilburg Conservatoire were a piece of cake for me!’
STROKE OF LUCK
How did he end up at the Conservatory? ‘That’s a long story’, he sighs. ‘I arrived in Nijmegen on 20 October 1998 and was taken to a refugee centre in Oisterwijk two days later, together with six other minor asylum seekers. I asked the desk clerk if there was a library, for I wanted to learn Dutch as soon as possible.’
‘In the ten years she had been working at the centre, she had never been asked this question before. She was so pleasantly surprised that the next day she brought a glossary of Dutch words and a cassette tape with their pronunciation. I immediately started to learn them by heart; my target was 10 new words a day; I would not go to bed before I had mastered them.’
‘After a month, I joined the Dutch class of Mieke van der Loop. She was amazed at my knowledge of the language, and enquired after my background in Kurdistan. When I told her about my violin playing, she said she played the piano herself and that her colleague Marieke Willekens was am amateur violinist. The next day Marieke brought along her instrument.’
‘I played a piece for them, they thought I was talented and then regularly invited me to their home for dinner and to play music together. We became friends for life. Marieke eventually made sure that I was not stowed away in an asylum seekers centre, but could rent a room in her house. Thanks to her as well, in August 1999 I applied for the Tilburg Conservatoire, where I was admitted to the preparatory class.’
POOR VIOLIN TECHNIQUE
Tawfiq studied like a man possessed, not only to improve his poor violin technique, but also to pass his state examination and improve his Dutch. His violin teacher Annemieke Corstens coached him with great patience and tact. ‘I had to learn many things all over again, but she always treated me kindly and calmly. Totally different from the teacher-student relationship I was used to in Iraq.’
He also studied for a year with Alexander Kerr, concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. ‘He was great! He could really play anything, was a very good teacher, and played so beautifully that you were automatically motivated.’
Hawar Tawfiq: ‘Merely standing next to Herman Krebbers would make you play better! He could make you perform in a way you didn’t know you were capable of.’
He also cherishes dear memories of Hagai Shaham: ‘In 2003 he gave a masterclass in Tilburg; I was his last student that afternoon. I came on stage, saw him standing there and something changed in me! I played the first movement from Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto. It went very well and afterwards he told the audience, “I have nothing, or very little, to say to this young man!” Of course he still gave me some tips, for example how I could improve the double stops at the end.’
His masterclasses with Herman Krebbers were absolutely magical, he says: ‘Merely standing next to him would make you play better! He could make you perform in a way you didn’t know you were capable of. He taught me that every note, every sound, every musical phrase must be connected with a deep inner expression and musicality. In one 15-minute lesson I played 70 times better, you can see that on YouTube.’
Although as a violin soloist he performed with renowned ensembles and orchestras, we now mainly know him as a composer. Because of his many composition commissions, violin playing has somewhat receded into the background these days, he admits. ‘I do occasionally play string quartets with friends, though. And while composing I always have my violin within reach, to quickly check a passage for strings.’
‘But more importantly, learning the violin has immensely enriched my thinking about composition. I understand how an instrumentalist feels when he/she plays my music for the first time. And when I work on a piece, for example for orchestra, in my imagination I play all the instruments myself, from flute and oboe to percussion. That involvement is much greater and therefore more gratifying.’
‘Composing had never really occurred to me’, Tawfiq continues. ‘It came about by chance, in 1999. When Mieke van der Loop had her birthday, I wanted to give her something very personal. I decided to write a piece for her, and made a variation on Happy Birthday. I received many positive responses and it had come so easily to me that I decided to compose another piece, Rhapsody for piano. I dedicated this to my violin teacher Annemieke Corstens, because I was so impressed by her. This is on YouTube, too, with paintings by my brother Salar.’
‘Annemieke gave the sheet music to the piano teacher of the Conservatoire, who referred me to Alexander Hrisanide. When I presented my piece to him, he brutally criticised it: he found it predictable, uniform and boring, because it was tonal. I had no idea what that meant, so he explained the difference between tonality and atonality.’
‘He explained that if people can sing along with your piece at first hearing, you haven’t gone deep enough. I was outraged. But shortly afterwards, when my Rhapsody was performed in public, a man in front of me started singing along after a few bars. I then returned to Alexander to study composition with him.’
ALEXANDER HRISANIDE: FATHER FIGURE
Tawfiq may have felt ‘wrung out’ at his first meeting with Alexander Hrisanide, these days his enthusiasm for his teacher knows no bounds. ‘In the field of music, I have learned too much from him to mention. His most important lesson was that, as a classical contemporary composer, you must always present something the audience has never heard before. Therefore you need to develop and constantly improve your personal sound world. Predictability is out of the question, unless you want to write light or commercial music.
Hawar Tawfiq: ‘The most important lesson Alexander Hrisanide taught me was that, as a classical contemporary composer, you must always present something the audience has never heard before. Predictability is out of the question.’
‘Alexander was sweet when you spoke to him, but incredibly strict in his teaching! From the very first lesson, he never took my inexperience and young age into account; he always vented his unmitigated opinion.’ This seems to stem from a strong faith in his pupil’s abilities: ‘Sometimes his lessons lasted for three days, then I was allowed to stay with him. We listened to and analysed countless works throughout history. Especially Bach, but he was also fond of Beethoven’s Variations and Mozart’s Sonatas.’
‘He mastered many languages and could speak with unprecedented concentration about proportions and structure. I like how he always sought connections between what he had taught in class and what we saw outside. He had a special view on architecture. For example, he would point to two adjacent buildings and ask me to describe what was beautiful or ugly in their proportions. Or he would remark that the surrounding streets were so dark because people had forgotten to take the incidence of light into account.’
‘Alexander also impressed me with his enormous general knowledge, he was like a walking encyclopaedia. For instance, he explained to me why the Kurds have no country and what mistakes they had made. As a Kurd, I was completely ignorant of this! He also told me about the huge influence philosophers such as Plato and Socrates have had on the formation of Europe. But also the Bible, the French Revolution, and so on.’
Gradually, Hrisanide grew into a father figure: Between the lines, he also raised me. In fifteen years in Iraq, I had seen four wars, a lot of cruelty and bitterness. But the blow from the Dutch state was even harder and more painful, because I was not prepared for it. Alexander helped me not to lose myself. Like many others, he gave me a sense of security, welcome, self-confidence, self-worth.’
Hawar Tawfiq refers to the cold-hearted way in which the Dutch Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND) refused to grant him a residence permit in 2003, after five years of litigation. Thanks to considerable lobbying by his friends, teachers and other prominent figures from the music world, he got permission to finish his studies at the conservatoire. But even after he had completed his masters in violin (2008) and composition (2011) they still wanted to turn him away. It wasn’t until 2013 that he finally obtained the coveted Dutch citizenship.
This long and difficult journey is expressed in Babylon aan de IJssel, which Tawfiq composed for the 30th anniversary of the Hexagon Ensemble. Librettist Marcel Roijaards intertwines the ancient Gilgamesh epic with the fate of asylum seekers. An IND employee has to decide whether or not to grant a residence permit to a young Iraqi. She adopts the same callous attitude as the officials who had to decide on Tawfiq’s own fate.
In this music theatre piece, Tawfiq places eighteen Kurdish and two Iranian musicians alongside the pianist and five wind players of the Hexagon Ensemble. This seems paradoxical, given his earlier disinterest in the traditional music of his homeland. Tawfiq laughs: ‘When I wanted to study classical music, my mother was very much against it, but I was an adolescent and insisted on it.’
‘My brother had preceded me in a way, because when he wanted to become a painter, my mother had been very much opposed to this as well. He then completed his studies in engineering with honours. Upon his return from Baghdad he gave his diploma to my mother: this is for you, now I am going to do what I want! Salar supported me when I wanted to study music.’
‘In the end, my mother gave in, but she insisted that I would be able to play Kurdish songs for our visitors. – Or must I tell them you are going to play Mozart and Beethoven, that angry gentleman? (I had a picture of Beethoven in my room.) On the rebound, I decided that all Kurdish music was stupid and refused to delve into it.’
‘Once I was in The Netherlands I only spoke to my mother occasionally, over a bad telephone connection. One day she told me she had missed me so much that she had entered my room, taken a cassette tape and listened to it.’
She thought it was incredibly beautiful, she confessed: ‘How sad that it takes us humans so long to recognise beauty, can you forgive me? It was a very emotional conversation, for both of us. Afterwards, I realised that I had reacted just as inveterately to Kurdish music, and started looking for recordings.’
‘I even dedicated my master’s thesis to how I could integrate the deviant scales and intervals of Eastern music into my own work. For my final exam I wrote Dedication, for a combination of Western and Eastern instruments and electronics. That too is on YouTube.’
‘From the very beginning, I have been inspired by Kurdish literature though, especially by poetry. In Kurdistan, you are steeped in poetry, it is a natural part of your education, both at home and at school. In that respect, Kurdish culture is richer than Dutch culture. I do not have the impression that young people here read many poems, or cherish their national culture.’
His love of poetry is also expressed in his ‘Bosch Requiem’ for baritone and orchestra. ‘Most Requiems are melancholic and approach death from a religious angle. But then you emphasise the sadness of the bereaved; moreover religions often claim to have the definitive answer to existential questions. I had a more universally human approach in mind. So I chose four poems from different cultures, by Bachtyar Ali, Hans Andreus and Anton van Wilderode. Apart from the last one, these have been translated into Russian, French and Italian.’
Hawar Tawfiq: ‘Religions often claim to have the definitive answer to existential questions. For my Requiem I had a more universally human approach in mind. So I chose poems from different cultures, by Bachtyar Ali, Hans Andreus and Anton van Wilderode.’
‘My piece is dedicated to Alexander Hrisanide. He could suddenly stop in the middle of the street, and with a smile take pictures of a flower that had made its way out through wire and broken tiles. He opened my eyes to the beauty of life.’
‘During the last phase of his life, I regularly visited him in the care facility where he was forced to stay. He often told me he would like to die, but to his regret woke up every morning. On leaving him one day I expressed my concern for him. He replied that he had had a good life, but that he was worrying about me. That even in his last days he was still concerned about the future of his loved ones was touching. That is why I dedicated my requiem to him.’
‘The title Requiem des fleurs et des nuages is taken from a verse in the fifth movement: “Death gives us the chance to be a flower, to be a cloud, to be water.” – In French, his favourite language.’
At the request of Jörgen van Rijen, solo trombonist of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Tan Dun composed a concerto that will have its world premiere on 5 November 2021. The intriguing title is Three Muses in Video Game. How did he come up with this title?
‘When I first met Jörgen, I thought he was a cool guy, easy to talk to, eat and drink with’, Tan Dun recalls in an e-mail interview. ‘We had great times in Amsterdam and during the Shanghai Arts Festival, our souls connected. I knew immediately that he was an artist I would like to work with. Only later did I discover that he is one of the best trombonists in the world.’
How did he come up with the idea to call his solo concerto Three Muses in Video Game? Tan Dun: ‘The covid-19 pandemic brought the whole world to a standstill, but as artists, we will not be silenced. What intrigued me in the recent period were all those online and digital art forms that flourished, such as live streaming, virtual performances and video games.’
Yet the direct inspiration lies in Dunhuang, he writes: ‘This was an ancient outpost along the Silk Road, where generations of monks and pilgrims carved shrines out of the rock and painted the cliffs. They are known today as the Mogao Caves. Together with a Chinese company, I researched and recreated the instruments depicted there.’
‘For my trombone concerto, I have chosen three of these ancient instruments, cultural relics from thousands of years ago that are in danger of disappearing. They became my three muses and represent a dialogue between past and present. Between past and future. Between reality and imagination.’
His concerto creates more than usual a ‘feeling of action and reaction’, he writes. ‘That is the influence of the video games.’ However, he emphasises that his piece is not related to any particular video game: ‘My piece is purely abstract, the relationship lies only in the chosen rhythms, the action, the tempos and the repetitions. There is no specific story behind it, but there is a link to the heroes of our history, our old legends and stories, which, like the instruments, have been dismissed and forgotten. I wanted my concerto to reflect all this, but also connect to something ancient and spiritual.’
THE THREE MUSES
‘The three muses/instruments are exotic but also very beautiful. Many of the earliest scores in China were written precisely for these three instruments, but none of them still exists in its original form. The xiqin, for example, was a ‘stringed muse’, which has disappeared but has been transformed into the modern erhu, which was inspired by it. This two-stringed viol, with its slightly haunting sound, is the most popular and moving Chinese string instrument.’
Tan Dun: ‘The glissando is an important form and structure of Eastern culture, language, and of course music.’
The first movement, ‘Muse of Bili’, is named after the bili, a double-reed instrument with a warm, muffled sound, akin to the oboe. Yet in this opening movement, the soloist is given a large variety of glissandos to play. What is the idea behind this? ‘The glissando is an important form and structure of Eastern culture, language and of course music. The glissando gesture is also related to our communication with nature: one fluent, all-encompassing sweep… In the old drawings of Dunhuang, the artists depicted not only rhythms and melodies, but also timbres, tempo and volume. How avant-garde!’
SOUND OF AN UNKNOWN POWER
‘Most of the paintings show gestures related to what we now call ‘glissando’: we see traces of clouds, of wind, of running water. The ancient scores and instruments reflect these in their music.’ The composer does not answer the question why precisely the second movement, named after the xiqin, lacks these glissandos – these are far easier to realise on a string instrument than on a wind instrument.
But Tan Dun does respond enthusiastically when I suggest the chords of the orchestral trombones at the beginning of the third movement seem to be derived from the sound of the Chinese mouth organ sheng, the ‘muse’ after which it is named.
‘Yes! What I find so interesting about the sheng is that this instrument is strongly related to the Western organ. This used to be called ‘the voice of God’, or ‘the poetry of the church’. Similarly, the Chinese mouth organ, one of the earliest instruments in the East, was described as ‘the sound of heaven’, ‘the sound of Buddha’, ‘the sound of nature’, ‘the sound of an unknown power’. You see? It doesn’t matter if it’s East or West, for me these two instruments are undeniably connected.’
He even thinks about further exploring their relationship in a double concerto: ‘I would like to have Buddha talking to Jesus. Why? Because I believe that these two instruments are related not only in shape and sound but also in the expression of spiritual beliefs.’ Interesting in this context is that the three trombones in the regular orchestra line-up traditionally refer to the Divine Trinity. ‘The trombone therefore meets my needs perfectly,’ agrees Tan Dun. ‘It is itself an ancient instrument, it relates excellently to those historical images and can convincingly recreate the ancient echoes.’
He concludes with a philosophical reflection: ‘All this just proves that as human beings we are all the same, whether we come from the East, the South, the North or the West.’
This articlewas commissioned and first published in Dutch by Preludium, the music magazine of Concertgebouw and Concertgebouw Orchestra. 5 November Concertgebouw Tan Dun:Three Musis in Video Game written for and premiered by Concertgebouworkest & trombone player Jörgen van Rijen Due to the Covid-19 travel restrictions Tan Dun can’t conduct the concert himself. The South-Korean conductor Shiyeon Sung takes his place, making her debut with the Concertgebouw Orchestra.
At the request of Asko|Schönberg, Calliope Tsoupaki created Odysseus, in collaboration with visual artist Awoiska van der Molen. What happens when we are in danger of losing control, when an action leads to irreversible consequences? The full-length piece premieres on 10 November in November Music Den Bosch and will have three more performances in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ Amsterdam, TivoliVredenburg Utrecht and De Doelen Rotterdam.
In recent decades, Calliope Tsoupaki (Piraeus, 1963) has become one of the most important composers in the Netherlands country. From 2018 she was Composer Laureate, on 10 November 2021 she will hand over the baton to her successor Martin Fondse. In this capacity, she wrote several – free downloadable – compositions in response to the corona pandemic. For instance the frequently performed solo Thin Air for random instrument, for which she received the Matthijs Vermeulen Prize this summer.
Although she studied composition with Louis Andriessen, Tsoupaki did not embrace his percussive style based on contrasting musical blocks, which caused a furore as the ‘Hague School’. She creates her own language, fusing elements from musical traditions of Greece and the Middle East with early and new European music. For subject matter she often seeks inspiration in her background, too, as in her successful St. Luke’s Passion from 2008 and her Bosch Requiem Liknon, which she composed for November Music in 2019.
ODYSSEUS INVOKES HIS OWN DOOM – JUST LIKE US
The full-length Odysseus is inspired by Homer’s epic of the same name (Ulysses in English). ‘I have read it thoroughly several times’, she says. She was attracted by the non-linear form of storytelling. ‘We hear the same stories over and over again, from three different levels: the world of the gods, the world of man and the underworld. We all know the overall story, so I didn’t have to retell this: Ulysses sets off on a journey and returns after an endless voyage of adventure and misfortune.’
While reading, she noticed that the events are always told second-hand: ‘We are never on the spot, so you lose track of time. And despite all his adventures, Ulysses is actually just standing still, he is empty inside. We are witness to this, I call this viewing the void. He – but also his crew – moreover incurs his own misfortune by invariably doing the opposite of what is sensible. Against his better judgement he goes to the Cyclops; his men, despite his explicit prohibition, open the bag of headwinds.’
In this Tsoupaki discerns a parallel with our present times: ‘For decades, scientists have been telling us how to prevent a climate crisis, but we refuse to listen and are deliberately heading for a catastrophe.’ She is convinced that nature will win in the end: ‘Despite all human intervention, wind, sea, mountains and rocks have remained themselves for millennia, since long before the emergence of our sense of time. In my mind’s ear, this prehistoric, cosmic emptiness has a primal sound. It is a metallic kind of noise that embraces us, as it were, and runs through my piece like a keynote.’
The percussionist therefore plays an important role in Odysseus, she says: ‘He represents the world of the gods. In addition to that metallic primal sound he also creates raging storms and gentle breezes. He stands apart from the other musicians and has no rhythmic part, but gives space and breath to the piece with his buzzing singing bowls. The percussionist sets the music in motion or makes it stop; in essence, he determines the fate of Ulysses.’
Calliope Tsoupaki: ‘Ulysses is actually immobile, he is empty inside. We are witness to this, I call this “viewing the void”. The listener must get the feeling of having encountered him personally.’
She explicitly avoided a linear structure herself: ‘My piece does have two parts, ‘The Journey’ and ‘The Return’, but despite some vague points of recognition, both lack a sequential line. That was an exciting experiment in form. In music, you can say many things at once and I made lavish use of that. Not in the sense of associations with Homer’s epic, such as “here we hear the Cyclops”; “now he is with Circe” or whatever; it is more abstract. Different compositional layers are constantly sliding over each other.’
These act as signals or formulas, which she has given names in her mind (though not in the score): ‘For instance “The High Song”, a kind of lamentation, or “The Rising Sun”, which refers to the dawn of day.’ They are emphatically not meant to be illustrative: ‘The lament is not bound to one person, but applies to the whole of the voices; there may also be several sunrises in succession. Mind you, they are not leitmotifs, I have deconstructed the elements in the story and turned them into sound. Just as in Homer’s epic, you have to distil your own story from all that information.’
ROCK: THREAT OR PROTECTION?
While composing, she had a photograph of a rock by Awoiska van der Molen in mind: ‘The rock is very imposing and evokes many emotions: will it destroy me or protect me? At the same time, the image has something ambiguous about it: we look at it, but we don’t know exactly what we see, it could also be something else. The picture forms an inseparable part of the piece and will be projected during the performance.’
Van der Molen adds: ‘At a chance meeting, Calliope told me about a boat trip on a Greek sea, where she saw the rocks glide past in the dark. I then showed her a snapshot of a shimmering Greek rock that I had just taken with my smartphone. This image touched her so deeply that she suggested we work together. I returned to the rock in question and used my professional camera to make variations on the first photo. This gave rise to the idea of projecting them into and over each other during the concert.’
When Tsoupaki presented her first musical sketches, she explained that the sea plays an important role in her piece as well. That triggered Van der Molen: ‘In my archive I had a series of swirling black water, photographed near a Greek island. We decided to make a combination of the rock and the liquid water surface, which move and come together in the projections.’
STONE BLENDS IN WITH WATER
Van der Molen emphasises that her images are not illustrations of the music: ‘I don’t believe they can be, but as artists Calliope and I are soul mates. Right from our first meeting we found each other in the intense connection with the invisible, but tangible forces of nature, in this case on Greek soil. My images arose from this bodily experience of being in this nature, and are in line with Calliope’s musical imagination.’
Just as Tsoupaki had the photographs in mind during her work, Van der Molen listened to the music: ‘As a midi file, admittedly, but it certainly inspired me. While listening, I tried to let the images breathe, either on their own rhythm or with the intensity or the drift of the moving and living Ulysses. Like Calliope, I did not work in a narrative way; the images overlap each other, layer upon layer. Sometimes they look like skins, sometimes like feelings or pieces of meat that have been torn open.’
Odysseus is the final part of a trilogy of musical theatre pieces without song or dance. In 2010, Tsoupaki created Medea, a melodrama without voice, for the MAE Ensemble; three years later she composed Narcissus, Play for Music and Scent, for Nieuw Amsterdams Peil. Tsoupaki: ‘My intention is to realise the grand feeling of an opera or ballet with a (relatively) small ensemble. The dramaturgy is in my music.’ That demands a lot from the performers, she acknowledges: ‘My notes are not difficult in themselves, but the musicians must completely immerse themselves in Ulysses’ introspective journey. They should play as if they were undertaking this trip themselves on the spot. Ideally, the audience should go home with the feeling of having encountered Ulysses in person.’
The star of the Palestinian singer, composer and flute player Nai Barghouti is rising in the Netherlands. She was a guest of the renowned tv-show Podium Witteman, won the Concertgebouw Young Talent Award 2020, and boasts almost 80,000 followers on Instagram. On 7 November she will close the Eratofestival Meppel with a concert in St. Mary’s , that was built in 1422. For the first time in its history Arabic music will sound in this Christian place of worship. Who is Barghouti, and what can we expect from her concert with qanun-player Khalil Khoury?
Barghouti grew up in the city of Ramallah, some twenty kilometres north of Jerusalem. It currently serves as the de facto administrative capital of the Palestinian National Authority. Her mother is a sex educator and used to sing in a choir for a hobby, her father is an engineer and human right’s activist. The love for music runs in the family, for her elder sister Jenna studied the violin, and Nai herself enrolled at the Edward Said Conservatoire to study the flute when she was only six years old.
Troubling checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem
This musical background sounds mundane enough, but for Europeans it is hard to imagine what life is like in a country that is eternally under the threat of attack. Was there any such thing as a regular cultural scene she could move in, as we know it in our safe Western cities? ‘It was definitely tough to grow up in a country that was occupied my entire life’, says Barghouti. ‘Many things were far more difficult than in a free country, such as commuting between cities. I lived in Ramallah and studied in Jerusalem, two cities separated by the main checkpoint of Qalandia.’
‘This – illegal – Israeli checkpoint meant it was a true struggle for me each week to get to my classes in Jerusalem. In fact it affects the life of every Palestinian: not being able to move freely we can’t enjoy our home country as we should be able to. Nevertheless, Ramallah was always striving to stay active culturally, so I did get the opportunity to go to concerts. We did have international artists visiting, such as the Gipsy Kings and the percussion ensemble Stomp. Also Akram Khan, one of the biggest modern dance companies, performed there. It has meant the world to me to have been raised in Ramallah.’
Singing and flute playing
However, from early on Barghouti was subjected to oppression and racism, she says: ‘Growing up under military occupation in Ramallah, I experienced humiliation on a daily basis, though far less than Palestinians living in Jerusalem or Gaza.’ When she was 7 years old she was so disturbed by the devastating effects of the ongoing injustice she herself and her people suffered, that she felt she needed to vocalize her feelings through music.
‘I had been singing ever since I was four years old, I loved it’, she remembers. ‘My mother was my first teacher, she taught me many classical Arabic songs.’ However, once she was admitted to the Edward Said Conservatoire she chose to study the flute. Was this perhaps because ‘Nai’ is the name of a flute that is typical of the Middle-East? ‘No, it was rather a random choice, I was very young still and had nothing specific in mind, only that I wanted to study an instrument. So I simply picked the flute and started learning.’
At the conservatoire she studied Western classical music on her flute for about ten years. But when she had to decide on her advanced studies abroad, she switched over to singing for her major subject. ‘I continued studying the flute as a minor, though.’ When she was 16, in 2013, she auditioned for Bloomington in the United States, where she hoped to complete her bachelor of music. ‘I had been introduced by my sister, who was already studying the violin there. I applied and was accepted. The curriculum focussed on Western classical musical history and theory, but I was eager to learn more about jazz singing.’
Jazz and Arabic music
After two years, Barghouti felt Bloomington was not quite the right place for her, and she decided to move to Amsterdam. ‘This was thanks to one of the visiting professors, Darmon Meader, a jazz singer and saxophonist. He suggested that the Amsterdam Conservatoire might fit in perfectly with what I was aiming for musically.’
‘I enrolled in their jazz department in 2016, where I studied with different teachers. The school offered a lot of diversity in its curriculum and allowed me the space to continue working on my own projects. They welcomed my Arabic music roots and helped me incorporate them in my studies.’
Her interest in jazz had already been kindled at a very young age: ‘As mentioned before, my mother’s hobby used to be choir singing and my sister Jenna played the violin. My father was a choreographer for a while, so I was immersed in all types of music from forever. This ranged from Western, Arabic and Indian classical music to pop or jazz.’
Nai Barghouti: ‘There is no such thing as one Arabic style of classical music, there is a great variety. From Egypt to Lebanon, to Syria, Iraq, North Africa, they all sound very different!’
‘I have always felt there was a strong connection between Arabic music and jazz, and was very keen on finding out what exactly this relationship entailed, and how I could incorporate this in my own music. Mind you, though, there is no such thing as one Arabic style or genre. There is an enormous diversity: from Egypt to Lebanon, to Syria, Iraq, North Africa, they all sound very different! I’m interested in all of these styles, but mainly learnt those of Egypt and Lebanon while growing up. There is a strong Palestinian folk tradition as well, some elements of which find their way into my own compositions.’
Barghouti once said she is more interested in the voice itself as an instrument, than in its use for storytelling.’ How are we to understand this? ‘The voice can do so much more than just sing lyrics. – Of course the texts are important, but if you leave them out, the voice can express itself in the way an instrument would, by using certain syllables. For instance in jazz, there is a lot of scat singing, and I wondered how I could use this in Arabic music.’
‘In my concerts I explored this idea in my singing, and some of my fans then coined the term ‘naistrumenting’. Nowadays I use the term ‘naistrumentation’ to describe the art of using the voice as an instrument. This means I have an ornamental approach. I ask myself which ornaments in my singing I can employ in an instrumental way to connect to the listener, rather than only use my voice to express the meaning of a text. By the way, this was the subject of the thesis with which I completed my master’s degree in Amsterdam.’
Concertgebouw Young Talent Award and Palestine Youth Orchestra
Winning the Concertgebouw Young Talent Award 2020 was a huge honour, she say: ‘When I came to Amsterdam, one of the very first things I saw was this beautiful concert hall I had been hearing so much about! Online I had watched many performances by incredible artists there, for instance by Aretha Franklin. So it was a dream come true to not only attend concerts live in the Concertgebouw, but to perform there myself. Being given the Concergebouw Young Talent Award was a bonus. It has opened many doors, in the Netherlands and abroad.’
The same goes for the Palestine Youth Orchestra, in which she started out as a flute player and now regularly performs with as a vocalist. ‘The orchestra is very important to all Palestinians, I think. It is one of the few ensembles that emerged from Palestine and has had the opportunity to perform all over the world. It is valuable that Western audiences get a chance to perceive Palestine in a new way: a musical, artistic way, not only political.’
Politics and Identity
‘Playing music is of great importance to us. However, we can’t deny the politics that come with being Palestinians. Even meeting each other as an orchestra is difficult, because of all the different places we come from. This requires an immense lot of administration; it’s impossible to rehearse in Palestine. We must always assemble in Europe or elsewhere, so we only get together before touring. The existence of the Palestine Youth Orchestra is in itself a protest against the occupation. By playing music together we demonstrate we will never give up defying this.’
In her lyrics Barghouti addresses the ongoing difficulties caused by the occupation. Would she call herself an activist performer? ‘Naturally these problems form an intrinsic part of my music, but I wouldn’t call this activist, I would simply call this being a Palestinian. It is who I am, who we are. Even though we don’t show our concerns intentionally, they inevitably seep through our music: we can’t separate ourselves from our identity.’
The power of music
Since her work testifies to the predicament of the Palestinians, does she think music can help change the situation? ‘I do have faith in the power of music, it can raise awareness, create a common language between people. However I don’t think it can solve problems, nor should it be used as a tool to whitewash crimes. But music must speak out about what is going on in the world, be it directly or indirectly, it must be true and honest. In that sense I do believe it can help change the world.’
For the closing concert of the Eratofestival on 7 November she will bring along qanun player Khalil Khoury. ‘Actually I’m really excited about this’, she says. ‘It is the first time we will perform as a duo only, I think the combination of qanun and voice is very beautiful. We will bring a mix of Palestinian music, covers, arrangements of songs we usually play with a larger band, but also some brand new stuff we composed together. We will present many different songs, it will be a concert full of love and hope.’
Four hundred years ago, on 16 October 1621 to be precise, the organist, harpsichordist and composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck died in Amsterdam. Musicians from all over Europe flocked to the Dutch capital to hear the ‘Orpheus of Amsterdam’, and through his students, his influence reached as far as Johann Sebastian Bach. To celebrate the 400th anniversary of Sweelinck’s demise,
Joey Roukens composed a tribute, Vertekende Fantasie for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, that will be premiered on 29 October. It is his fourth commission from the orchestra, and I interviewed the composer for their magazine Preludium.
‘It is a great privilege to write for a top ensemble like the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’, says Roukens (1982). ‘It gives a feeling of recognition that they have faith in me. Even though it’s my fourth commission, it remains challenging.’ However, it has become slightly less daunting over time, he acknowledges: ‘I no longer feel obliged to take into account what they like or dislike. With Out of Control, my first commission eleven years ago, I still thought I had to connect to the orchestra’s great Mahler tradition. As I get older, I worry less about the reputation of the performers or the repertoire they are renowned for. The RCO can handle anything, even if something is relatively far removed from them stylistically.’
Connection to Sweelinck
Sweelinck is not the first composer that springs to mind when thinking of Roukens, yet the idea of a tribute did not come out of the blue, he explains. ‘Sweelinck runs like a small thread through my works. There is a Sweelinck quote in my string quartet Visions at Sea, about the maritime past of the Netherlands. There are also references to his music in my Percussion Concerto and in the more recent Angeli for female voices and cellos. I regularly play his keyboard works at the piano and it just so happens that artistic assistant Mark van Dongen of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra lives just around the corner from me. During incidental meetings in the street I told him about my love for Sweelinck.’
So when the idea of a tribute arose, the link with Roukens was obvious. The composer immediately seized upon the idea: ‘I found it a nice commission, but also a rather difficult one. For how can one, as a contemporary composer, honour such a specific predecessor from the 16th/17th century in a meaningful way? For me, Sweelinck is perhaps the greatest composer the Netherlands has ever produced. In any case, he is the most important Dutch composer of keyboard music. Via his pupils Scheidt and Scheidemann there is a direct line of influence through to Bach.’ Sweelinck’s vocal music attracts him slightly less, though: ‘The Cantiones Sacrae are splendid, but they are still entirely in the polyphonic tradition of the Renaissance, while his keyboard works already point forward to the Baroque.’
Artful structures from indifferent themes
He got to know Sweelinck’s music from the renowned Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, an English collection of 16th and 17th century keyboard music. ‘As a teenager I borrowed the book from the library and when I played it through on the piano I found one Toccata (SwWV 296) by a certain J.P. Sweelinck among all those pieces, mostly by English composers. It immediately appealed to me. The piece lasts only about five minutes but is typical of his keyboard style; I still often play it during my daily piano playing sessions. I especially love his Fantasies and Variations. It is music of enormous beauty and inventiveness, which, although built on English and Italian influences, still has its own unique character.’
Roukens once told me he did not consider himself a great melodist. This partly explains his affinity with Sweelinck, he says: ‘In that respect I find him fascinating, because his melodies – or rather his themes – are often not terribly captivating or distinctive in themselves. What makes his music interesting is how he subjects a simple theme to all kinds of contrapuntal techniques and figurations and creates a beautiful structure out of it. You can see this especially in the Fantasies, of which I have analysed several. These usually consist of just one, often unremarkable theme, which he artfully transforms into larger structures.’
Joey Roukens: ‘Vertekende Fantasie is Sweelinck seen through contemporary glasses.’
His love for Sweelinck’s Fantasies is reflected in the title Vertekende Fantasie (‘Distorted Fantasy’). Does this perhaps refer to one specific piece? ‘Yes, it does, the Fantasy SwWV 259 in Dorian mode, in which he once more creates an imposing structure from a rather “neutral” basic theme. I wanted to compose something in which the spirit of Sweelinck resounds, not a piece with one small quotation that has nothing to do with the rest. That’s how I came up with the idea of taking Sweelinck’s language as a starting point, but seen through contemporary glasses.’
‘My composition oscillates between the language of Sweelinck and my own. It’s a bit like hearing Sweelinck as in a dream – strangely distorted, surrealistically skewed. Somewhat comparable to how Berio approached Schubert’s music in Rendering. Sweelinck is never far away, but there is hardly a bar in which his notes sound completely original.’
Estranging and surrealist
How has he proceeded? ‘I always start the composition process by running my hands over the piano keys. However, since this time the rough basic material already existed, I started improvising over it. My piece starts and ends serene and meditative, just like most of Sweelinck’s works. But there are also great contrasts, moments of climax build-up and a transition to an intermediate section that is energetic and strongly rhythmic.’
‘These elements are characteristic of my style, but only came into use long after Sweelinck’s time. I briefly considered adding the organ, but in the end I thought it more interesting to use instruments that one would not readily associate with Sweelinck, such as piano, celesta, harp and percussion. That increases the estranging and surrealistic effect. In any case I have searched for more unusual colours and timbres in my orchestration.’
In 2017, at the request of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, he also composed a tribute to Leonard Bernstein, Boundless. In an interview at the time, he said he had had to discard quite a bit of material because it remained too close to Bernstein’s style. Did this problem occur again? ‘No, this time I had to delete considerably less. Precisely because Sweelinck’s music is so far removed from mine in terms of time and style, it was easier to honour him.’
The difficulty lay rather in finding the right concept, he says. ‘Although I will always be a slow writer, once I had found the right entrance, composing went smoothly.’
In 2011, Maxim Shalygin (Ukraine, 1985) came to the Netherlands to study composition with Cornelis de Bondt and Diderik Wagenaar at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague. He never left and has meanwhile acquired a firm position in Dutch musical life with his adventurous pieces.
Commissioned by the AVROTROSVrijdagconcert he composed While Combing Your Hair for the Dutch Radio Choir. Peter Dijkstra will conduct the world premiere in the Jacobi Church in Utrecht on 8 October. The concert will be broadcast live on Radio 4.
The short piece is an indictment of the repression in Belarus and is dedicated to the musician and dissident Maria Kalesnikava. She was one of the three women who led the resistance against Aleksandr Lukashenko’s dictatorial regime in 2020. She was arrested, but when the authorities wanted to deport her, she demonstratively tore up her passport and was imprisoned. Recently, she was sentenced to 11 years in prison in a closed mock trial.
This was not only a blow to the opposition in Belarus and to Kalesnikava herself, but also a shock for Shalygin: ‘We met several times in Germany and became good friends. She is a warm, honest person, a moving personality. I miss her terribly.’ The composer seized the commission from AVROTROSVrijdagconcert offered him to express his feelings in music.
PERSONAL LETTER TO KALESNIKAVA
He wrote the text for his choral composition himself, which reads both like a lament and an attempt to buck Kalesnikava up. How did he conceive his text and who is actually speaking? Shalygin: ‘It is my personal letter to Maria. At the same time, it is indeed not always clear who is speaking; sometimes we hear voices in our heads.’
The writing process was difficult, says Shalygin: ‘On the one hand, my text is very personal, but at the same time I wanted to convey universal emotions through imagery. After I had finished a first draft, my friend Paul van der Woerd helped me improve it.’
Asked how he translated his poetic words into music, he replies in metaphor: ‘The structure of While Combing Your Hair reminds me of a stream that springs from a small source and rapidly expands into a mountain river, which in turn flows into a calm lake and freezes in it.’
Beautiful, but what should we expect from this in terms of sound? ‘I usually compose tonal music that sometimes becomes polytonal, or transitions into so-called extended tonality’, says Shalygin.‘I have been researching these techniques for years and have discovered how to develop them musically. Thus, this piece starts tonally and undergoes many modulations across different keys, to end up again in a simple, tonal music with a bright melody.’
VIBRATING BUT CALM CHORD
‘This melody is sung twice, but in a different colour scheme. Then it is incorporated into a polytonal chord that suddenly begins to vibrate.’ The vibration Shalygin refers to arises from the dissonant composition of this final chord (c-des-d-es-e-f-ges-g-as-a-b), in which with the exception of the b-flat all twelve semitones sound simultaneously.
Yet the ending does not evoke tension, but sounds instead very natural and calm, Shalygin emphasises: ‘While Combing Your Hair is my musical letter to Maria Kalesnikava. I want to float on the music and end up in the lakes I have never seen before and hope she can listen to my piece soon, sitting next to me in the concert hall.’
While Combing Your Hair
Wake up from your dream and look up straight to the sea. Would you be silent, if its color turned suddenly red? And from the emerald sky hundreds of various animals will start to fall down. Will you believe the rainbow’s still near, when at night the seagulls start screaming above all flooded market places, will you take the hairbrush and start combing your dazzlingly stunning white hair? The sound of the broken mirrors will freeze in the air: thousands of silent shards! And you will see lonely boats in quiet lakes with faces of fish: praying, trembling and crying in primeval fear. Let your hand shield your blue eyes so darkness will be like blood in a world out of golden salt. Stay in silence, and lift up your sorrowful, exhausted face to the Sun. Then flocks of birds will descend to every home, people will hear them sing in their backyards. And smiles will suddenly cover their frightened yet trustful and beautiful souls.
Apart from the world premiere ofWhile Combing Your Hair the choir will sing music by Dvorák, Bruckner and others.
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On his CD La muse oubliée, Spanish-British pianist Antonio Oyarzabal places thirteen well-known and lesser-known composing ladies in the spotlight. The title speaks volumes, of course, because for centuries women were considered only as inspirers/muses, while their own compositions remained undervalued and unperformed.
But what drives a male musician to delve into the work of women composers? ‘I grew up in a world full of women who were independent, creative, strong and intelligent,’ Oyarzabal answers. He dedicated the CD to his mother, who taught him ‘to be curious about the unknown. From the time I was little I wondered where they were anyway, the women who were not mentioned in class, but whose presence you could still feel.’
not the exception but the rule
An exception was Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729) whose music he got to know at an early age. ‘This was when I started studying harpsichord in addition to piano.’ Later on, during a course in modern piano music, he got to know pieces by such luminaries as Elena Firsova, Sofia Gubaidulina and Karen Tanaka. ‘That felt like a privilege, for which I am grateful, but it shouldn’t be the exception but the rule!’
‘And my own passion for French music – impressionism, Groupe des Six – led me to discover Germaine Tailleferre and Lili Boulanger quite early on’, he adds. ‘The sound worlds of these two wonderful composers had a clear impact on me, and I have been including their works in my different programmes for years now. In my recitals I often play music by other fantastic women composers as well, such as Henriëtte Bosmans and Rebecca Clarke.’
He decided to undertake a year of research to discover even more neglected ‘female notes’. This proved to be easier said than done: ‘Unfortunately, the works discussed in biographies and encyclopedias often turned out to be impossible to find, or in poorly edited editions.’ Only later did he find his way to such institutions as Archiv Frau & Musik in Frankfurt am Main and Furore Verlag in Kassel, which specialize in music by women. ‘And the Dutch publisher Donemus helped me find scores of Henriëtte Bosmans.’
Bosmans may not have made it to the CD, but there is plenty to enjoy; Oyarzabal offers a fascinating selection of four centuries of music. In addition to the inevitable Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann and Lili Boulanger, he showcases a wide variety of composers. Ranging from the aforementioned Jacquet de la Guerre, court composer of Louis XIV, to Ruth Crawford (1901-1953), serialist avant-la-lettre, and from Mana Zucca (1885-1981) to Vítězslava Kaprálová (1915-1940), who like Leoš Janáček and her lover Bohuslav Martinů was inspired by the folk music of her homeland Moravia.
Arranged by mood
Remarkably, Oyarzabal has not arranged the pieces chronologically, but by mood. This works wonderfully well. For example, the Scottish Legend by Amy Beach (1867-1944), inspired by Scottish folk music, connects seamlessly with the romantic Prelude op. 73 by Zucca. After Beach, the swirling Femmes de légende by Mel Bonis (1858-1937), sometimes reminiscent of Debussy, sound completely natural. Nor is there a clash with the next track, featuring the contrapuntal Sélection de pièces de clavecin by Jacquet de la Guerre; pity though the virtuoso grace notes do not always sound as smooth as one would wish.
With his firm, clear toucher, Oyarzabal makes every note audible; in whichever style he plays, the music always sounds transparent. With his down-to-earth interpretation, he avoids sentimentality. Even Clara Schumann’s hyper romantic Drei Romanzen exude a somewhat matter-of-fact, detached atmosphere. But with his consistently unadorned interpretation, the pianist forges the various pieces into one coherent whole. Which, moreover, begins and ends in C-sharp minor, as he observes in the CD booklet.
Sadly, even today good performances of music by women are still rare. La muse oubliée offers a welcome addition to the existing body of recordings.
This article first appeared in both the Dutch and German issues of the music jounal Pianist.
Antonio Oyarzabal: La muse oubliée Music by 13 female composers LBS Classical LBS52021
Recently Ten Songs of Change by composer-pianist Marion von Tilzer appeared on CD and LP. She composed this I Ching-inspired cycle of poetry and music for and with cellist Maya Fridman; author Lulu Wang selected the poems. Von Tilzer: ‘In China the I Ching (TheBook of Changes) has the status of our Bible’.
‘Maya and I met in the winter of 2018 and immediately got into a conversation about mysticism,’ Marion von Tilzer (1968) explains enthusiastically. Shortly after, Fridman suggested devoting a composition for cello, piano and voice to TheBook of Changes. She wanted to collaborate with the Chinese author Lulu Wang, who lives in the Netherlands.
This idea immediately struck a chord with Von Tilzer: ‘I thought it was a wonderful prospect to be able to work with two such extraordinary artists, and fortunately Wang was willing to participate. Then Maya and I started brainstorming.’
Both had to acknowledge not to have an in-depth understanding of the Chinese book of proverbs. Von Tilzer: ‘Although I regularly read a translation that I had acquired in 1992, the book remained cryptic to me. Through the project I learned to understand it better, partly thanks to the insights and ideas of Lulu Wang. We often think of The Book of Changes as an oracle book, but it is a classic literary work that in China has the status of our Bible. Philosophical movements like Taoism and Confucianism converge in it.’
In the end, Von Tilzer decided to take the eight trigrams that form the basis of The Book of Changes as a starting point. These are Heaven; Lake; Fire; Thunder; Wind; Water; Mountain and Earth, concepts with which she feels a connection: ‘Each trigram has its own atmosphere and also refers to seasons, parts of the day, emotions and even sounds. In those underlying stories I heard music.’
Marion von Tilzer: ‘Ten Songs of Change is a fabric of experiences and moods that reflect the constant changes in nature.’
She gives some examples: ‘The spiritual association of “Mountain” is silence, which manifests positively as introspection and negatively as stagnation. The time experience involves the early morning and the sound suggests deep, subdued tones. My music here is hushed, with a great emphasis on the low C in cello and piano.’
‘The trigram “Wind” stands for gentleness, among other things, and is set for solo cello. It is very peaceful, as if a gentle breeze is rustling through the strings. “Lake” is associated with evening, innocence and reflection and, in terms of sound, with splashing and murmuring. I taped the piano strings to shorten the tone. Combined with pizzicati from the cello, this creates a light-hearted atmosphere.’
From morning song to lullaby
The eight trigrams are arranged so that the cycle runs through the complete twenty four hours of day and night. Von Tilzer added a prologue and an epilogue: ‘It begins with a morning song and ends with a lullaby. In the prologue, Maya, improvising on her cello and with her voice, responds to a tape recording of a love song sung by a young woman of the Mosuo tribe. In the epilogue, Maya sings a poem by Li Shangyin (813-858) in Chinese, while simultaneously performing a written-out cello part.’
Six poems are woven through the cycle, hence the description ‘poetry concerto’. Contrary to expectation, these are not verses from The Book of Changes: ‘Lulu Wang intended to make a text selection to match my music, but gradually felt that poems would be a better fit. She chose poetry from the Tang and Song Dynasties (618-1279), a period that is considered the golden age of Chinese culture. ‘The poems are close to the emotions of the trigrams and the music, it is a fabric of experiences and moods that reflect the constant changes in nature.’
Von Tilzer is convinced text and music together tell one story: ‘During rehearsal, Lulu suggested poems, and Maya and I chose which one best suited the mood. Her selection is recited on the album by Lei Qiu, in Mandarin. Maybe a shame if you don’t know Chinese, but the language is so musical and fits the composition so well that it shouldn’t be a problem. Moreover, there are English translations in the booklet.’
Has the project brought her new insights herself? ‘Definitely! I have realized that we are guided by our constantly changing thoughts, which continue day and night and determine from moment to moment how we experience life. Moreover, it have come to understand that not everything can be fathomed with our intellect; there is also a deeper, intuitive truth.’
‘All 7 billion people, while different as individuals, are also connected to the energy of the earth itself, in essence we are all equal. Each of us is but a drop in an immense ocean, a soothing thought.’
This article first appeared in Dutch in the music journal Luister.
In 2020, the world premiere of Thomas Larcher‘s Third Symphony fell through due to corona. The subtitle A Line Above the Sky refers to British mountaineer Tom Ballard, who fatally crashed in 2019. It wasn’t until February 2021 that the Symphony actually sounded for the first time, in Brno; on 25 September the belated Dutch premiere will be presented by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of chief conductor Karina Canellakis as part of the radio series NTRZaterdagMatinee.
Thomas Larcher, born in 1963 in Innsbruck, is considered one of the most important composers of his generation. He is also a welcome guest in the Netherlands. He was the resident composer of the Concertgebouw in 2019-20 and the NTRZaterdagMatinee has staged many (world) premieres. Just this past May, the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, pianist Kirill Gerstein and principal conductor Karina Canellakis reaped great acclaim for the (also postponed) premiere of his Piano Concerto.
‘Pianist Kirill Gerstein and the orchestra draw you into an enchanting landscape’, wrote the Volkskrant – and gave five stars. ‘What follows is an exuberant finale on jazzy hopscotch rhythms’, the NRC noted. ‘Afterwards, you’ll want to hear Larcher’s Piano Concerto again immediately.’ I’d be surprised if his Third Symphony doesn’t lead to jubilant reviews again. The recording of its Austrian premiere in August, once more illustrates his apt sense of form and colourful way of orchestrating.
Thomas Larcher is also valued in his homeland. In 2019 he received the Grosser Österreichischer Staatspreis and last June he received the Tiroler Landespreis für Kunst. This highest art award of the Austrian state of Tyrol is not only a tribute to the musical significance of the composer and pianist, but also a thank you for his relentless commitment to the culture of his native region. In 1994 he founded the Klangspuren festival, focused on new music, followed ten years later by the interpreter’s festival Musik im Riesen; both attract international luminaries.
The mountainous landscape of Austria is a constant source of inspiration for Larcher. An avid mountaineer and skier himself, he says he finds relief and solace in its rugged nature. No wonder he is fascinated by British alpinist Tom Ballard (1988-2019). Ballard established several imaginative climbing routes, including the Seven Pillars of Wisdom on the Eiger in Switzerland. He was also the first mountaineer to solo climb all six major alpine north faces in one winter season.
In 2015, Ballard gained world fame when he created the D15 route in the Dolomites, A Line Above the Sky. He designed this track using the dry-tooling method: the climber only has crampons on his shoes and an ice axe in each hand. Back then the route was the most difficult one in the world, though it is only some 45 metres long: it starts out vertically but very soon becomes almost entirely horizontal, so that the mountaineer quasi climbs ‘under a ceiling’.
In his own programme notes, Larcher expresses his admiration for Ballard: ‘He was one of the most fascinating and best alpinists of his generation, and was particularly strong in winter climbing.’ The composer is convinced that the fact Ballard named his infamous dry-tooling route A Line Above the Sky testifies of his desire to ‘live in the light’.
As an amateur climber, Larcher recognizes the strong connection Ballard felt with the mountains, ‘those silent giants that have been watching us for a long time’. He compares the Brit’s passion for mountaineering to his own devotion to music.
Larcher, however, has less understanding for Ballard’s deliberation to put his life on the line, which eventually proved fatal to him. During an expedition to Nanga Parbat, Pakistan in February 2019, Ballard disappeared from the radar; not long after, they found his disembodied body. Larcher: ‘That someone should persist in his attempts to climb the Nanga Parbat even in very poor weather conditions is beyond me.’
For the composer, this inevitably leads to metaphysical questions such as, ‘What is life’; ‘How much is your life worth to you’, and ‘What does your life mean to others?’ With these thoughts in mind, he composed his Third Symphony in 2019. The thirty-minute piece has two, untitled movements. The first is ‘a testimony to the intensity of life’, the second a ‘Trauermusik’ (mourning music)..
FROM COOKIE TIN TO THUNDER PLATE
As in earlier orchestral works, Larcher has expanded the regular orchestral lineup. Thus, in addition to their own instruments, the wind players play slide whistles, vibraslaps and water phones. The four percussionists not only operate an array of tuned and un-tuned percussion, but also a cookie tin, a milk pan, paper, an oil drum and other unlikely musical instruments.
Wind machine and thunderplate are generously employed and a starring role is given to cimbalom, accordion, celesta, harp and piano. – Some of the piano strings are fitted with E-bows or dampened with erasers, almost a matter of course in Larcher’s sound universe.
With this orchestral apparatus, Larcher manages to evoke both the expansive vistas and the implicit menace of the mountains. In claustrophobically dense sound fabrics, ascending and descending motifs battle for precedence. Icy highs find a counterpoint in abyssal lows; frivolous swirls are intersected with ominous thunderclaps; sudden silences make you hold your breath. The pace is slow, the orchestral sound luscious and expansive; Mahler is never far away.
The soundscape constantly shifts between intoxicating stillness, arcadian lyricism, restrained tension and deafening roaring, just as in the mountains new landscapes and dangers lurk behind every corner. Striking are the many passages in which a soloist ‘climbs’ melodically up or down, while the cimbalom builds a spiky staircase with measured strokes. Toward the end, dissonant cries from the brass, solid drumbeats, violent tremoloes in the strings, a fierce accordion, and roaring tubular bells create an anxious climax.
The Symphony ends with a shrouded heartbeat in the piano, which is smothered in a charged silence, the strings softly dying away. – Suspended in mid-air hangs the almost rhetorical question: was it all worth it?
Vocalist and composer Jenny Beck is one of the four nominees of the Gaudeamus Award 2021. In fact the selection was already made last year, but due to corona the competition was postponed. During the festival Beck’s music will be featured in several concerts, including the brand new Memory Town, composed especially for ensemble VONK. On Sunday 12 September the winner will be announced. He or she will receive € 20,000 for a new composition to be premiered in the next edition.
Jenny Beck (1985) writes music for instruments, voices, electronics, and found objects in a variety of small and large ensembles. She is currently pursuing a PhD in music composition at Princeton University, and heard about the Gaudeamus competition through social media. ‘I am looking forward to spending time rehearsing with the ensembles’, she says, ‘getting to know the musicians as well as the other composers and the panellists.’*
‘I find I learn a lot about my work during rehearsals and in live concert settings. Since I’m getting the opportunity to have this experience with three of my pieces at once, I anticipate coming away with some new perspectives and ideas for my current and upcoming projects: aspects of my composing that I’d like to do more of, do less of, develop more, circle back to, etcetera.’
Your work often relates to nature, whence this interest?
‘I grew up in a tiny neighbourhood situated among farmland and forests. These environments are sonically very rich; every season has a different soundscape. And since the sounds come from the environments themselves, they are completely immersive, always all around you, with sounds emanating from seen and unseen sources, from distances near and far, from manmade objects, animals, trees, and more.’
‘You can’t always tell what sound is coming from where, and for my imaginative brain – especially as a child, especially at night – this ambiguity was and is a source of deep fantasy, both fearful and comforting. I now credit my early immersion in these soundscapes as the origin of my musical thinking, and I try to build worlds that are just as evocative and mesmerizing.’
You often employ non-musical instruments, so called ‘found objects’. How do you develop your music?
‘When I first approach a piece, I feel like I can see it as a whole entity from a distance. The work, then, is to get close to it and see what it’s made of, so that I can translate that from my inner world to this one. Each work may have different parameters or qualities that are important, whether it’s pitch, rhythm, texture, colour, space, noise, breath, flow, mood, or yet something else.’
‘Non-musical sounds can be useful if I want something that is familiar but strange, or something to fill in the gaps between more discrete sounds, or something to create a blur effect within a texture.’
‘Actually, one of my original interests with found sounds was to work with noises where ‘Actually, one of my original interests with found sounds was to work with noises where duration is built into the gesture that produces them. For example, if you pour a bowl full of beads into another bowl, the duration is set by the quantity of beads in the bowl and how fast you pour them.’
Jenny Beck: ‘I’ve been really inspired by Joan La Barbara’s approach to sound as a physical entity’
‘So then if I ask a performer to pour the bowl of beads six times, that gesture becomes a rhythm of sorts, and even a structuring element in the piece. I also do this with conventional instruments, where I ask performers to hold notes until the end of a bow or breath. – The found sounds are simply a natural extension of that concept.’
Would you have any composers who inspired you?
‘Yes! I’ve been really inspired by Joan La Barbara’s approach to sound as a physical entity; by Unsuk Chin’s rigour and attention to detail; by Jo Kondo speaking about how he lets the notes he writes tell him which note should come next; by Pauline Oliveros and Laurie Spiegel’s work with early electronic instruments, how they used technology to engage with the cosmic and sublime; and by Christine Burke and the clarity of her ideas and her commitment to them.’
Is there a piece you look especially forward to in the Gaudeamus festival?
‘I’m proud of different pieces for different reasons, since I set a specific goal for each one of them. Long It Glows, that will be performed by the New European Ensemble on Friday 10 September,was important for me because it was the first piece I wrote entirely in box notation. It ended up being more than twice as long as I expected, so that was an important lesson!’
‘It was also a risk for me to ask the musicians to pluck the piano strings and sing for a section of the piece. I wanted to open up a portal to another world within this world I’d already created; I’m really happy with how that has turned out.’
What are you working on at the moment?
‘I’ve been working on things for the last couple of years that haven’t made it out into the world yet, largely because of the pandemic. I have an album of ambient electronic music that I’m hoping to release in the coming year. It feels like a big accomplishment because it’s music that I always wanted to write. It was hiding inside me somewhere, and I was finally able to get past my mental and emotional blocks and write it.’
‘I’m also working on a big piece that I’m singing, which includes many of the same elements as Memory Town that I wrote for VONK for this festival. These pieces bring together many threads of my work – writing for voice, fully notated music, box notation, found sounds, and electronics – and I’m really excited to see how they turn out and where they will take me next.’
* It’s a jury of three: the Japanese composer Karen Tanaka, The British-American composer Oscar Bettison and the Greek-Dutch composer Calliope Tsoupaki.
On Friday 10 September at 21.30 hrs I will moderate a meet & greet with the nominees.
Composer-vocalist Annika Socolofsky is one of the four nominees for the Gaudeamus Award 2021. Two years ago this prize for young composers was won by Kelley Sheehan; last year’s competition was postponed due to corona. Socolofsky’s work will be featured during several concerts, but she also composed a new piece for the accordion/clarinet duo Zöllner-Roche especially for the festival. On Sunday 11 September the winner of the Gaudeamus Award 2021 will be announced.
‘Donnacha Dennehy, one of my mentors, encouraged me to take part in the Gaudeamus competition’, says Annika Socolofsky (1990). ‘I look forward to making live music again with fellow musicians in a concert context. For this to be my first experience back during the pandemic feels like fasting for a year and a half, and then dining at the most wonderful restaurant. As excited I am to be performing again myself, I really look forward to taking in as many concerts as I can, experiencing the premieres by my fellow nominees.’
You are both a composer and a performer, how do you see the relationship between the two?
‘For me, there is no way to un-link them. I don’t think of myself as a composer and a performer, but as a composer-performer. When I’m composing, I’m always thinking about how the music will feel in the body of the performer – what the gestures will feel like, how the energy of the piece will build and dissipate in a manner that feels natural and satisfying to play, what the dialogue will feel like between performers. I’m constantly moving around, conducting, walking, trying to get the music into my physical being, so I know it will feel natural and rewarding to perform, even if I’m not performing it myself.’
‘When I’m performing, I can’t turn off my composer mind. No two performances are alike. I’m always improvising micro variations and micro inflections that respond to the other performers, or the resonance of the hall in real time. I love being flexible and composing in-the-moment like that. You get to feed off the energy and ideas of the musicians you’re performing with. It’s an exhilarating and collaborative way of composing that I don’t get to experience when writing alone in my studio.’
Annika Socolofsky: ‘When I’m performing, I can’t turn off my composer mind.’
On your website you describe yourself as an ‘avant folk vocalist who explores corners and colours of the voice frequently deemed to be “untrained” and not “classical.” How are we to understand this?
‘I feel like I sing in all the ways that classical vocalists are told not to: I belt a lot (kind of a curated, musical shout), I do death-metal style growls, I explore types of vibrato that are not classical, I’ll use a microphone so I can produce sound that wouldn’t normally project through a concert hall in an acoustic setting, and I gravitate really strongly to the music that lies between the notes in folk music.’
‘This between-the-note music is a whole world of ornamentation, inflection, gesture, and swells that folk music lives for, but is often excluded from modern day classical vocal practice. I live for those messy moments between the notes. That is where the fun, the joy, the emotional connection lies for me.’
In this respect you often refer to Dolly Parton. What makes her so special?
‘The link between me and Dolly is those moments between the notes I’ve just mentioned. Dolly Parton is one of the greatest composers of all time, in my opinion. She’s written thousands of incredible songs that tell women’s stories. But not only is she a wonderful composer, she also approaches her vocal technique from a deeply compositional mind-set. If you take a recording of hers and hone in on a single vocal phrase and zoom in ever more closely, you will find the most spectacular density of vocal inflection, ornamentation, and nuance.’
‘But what’s so amazing to me is not the density or the nuance per se. It’s how this gorgeous web of inflections serves such a natural and powerful purpose within the larger line and the larger story of the song. Dolly’s moments-between-the-notes hit me straight in the heart. They are these pangs of emotion so small, but so powerful that I find myself breathless. Those moments mean the world to me. – I’ve been working on my Dolly Parton impersonation for years, and would be happy to demonstrate some examples of this live.’*
DEFYING SOCIETAL DEFINITIONS OF WOMANHOOD
You will perform ‘Don’t Say a Word’ in the Gaudeamus festival, which addresses the feminist issue. It strikes me that even in 2021 the theme of female composers still touches upon an open nerve. What’s your take on this?
‘I couldn’t agree with your article more: “women composers” is NOT a theme! Especially as a queer woman, I often find this kind of concert themes problematic. They try to draw some kind of sense of “universal womanhood” out of what is essentially lazy programming. Personally, I don’t feel that there IS any such thing as universal womanhood (aside from the fact that we all experience misogyny of various varieties).’
‘As a queer woman, my experience with my gender and sexuality is extraordinarily different from the one society tries to model for me. I’m constantly fighting against society’s definition of womanhood so that I can un-become the things I was taught to be that disagree with who I truly am.’
Annika Socolofsky: ‘Dolly Parton is one of the greatest composers of all time.’
‘And that’s where my piece Don’t say a word comes in. It’s part of a larger song cycle (soon to be released on CD) of feminist rager-lullabies for a new queer era. Lullabies are a centuries-old way of conditioning children with “morals” and societal expectations that are not only sexist, but also deeply homophobic. So I took these old texts from lullabies and nursery rhymes and re-set them to new music, changed the words, altered the meaning so that I could re-tell those lessons in a way that reflects the many facets of my identity.’
‘A cool thing about lullabies is that they’re the only performing space we have as vocalists where there’s no audience. When you’re singing a lullaby to a young child, they’re mostly taking in the musical aspects of the vocal line. It’s not until they are older that they really start processing the words. So mothers singing lullabies to their children are granted this safe performing space, where you can essentially sing the words and thoughts that are not safe to share in society.’
‘This is why, throughout history and across cultures, you can find so many lullabies with texts that are deeply disturbing. For example, the English language lullaby Rockabye Baby is about a baby falling to the ground from a tree. Or, there is this Sephardic lullaby, Una madre comió asado (“A mother roasts her child”). The mother sings of an invading army, and her plan to roast her child before the soldiers arrive, to save it from a worse fate.’
‘That’s dark. But in society, women are not allowed to express the darkness of motherhood, they’re not allowed to show anger, they’re not allowed to deviate from society’s definition of womanhood. As musicologist Andrew Petitt puts it, “lullabies are the space to sing the unsung, to say the unsayable. You’re alone. Nobody is listening.” So you can express feelings that are inacceptable in society.’
‘Don’t say a word is one such lullaby, which explores the text of Hush little baby, followed by an unexpected turn in the original lyrics. It also explores the word “hush” in great detail. “Hush” is an interesting word in that it can be aggressive and silencing, but also calming and loving.
Which of your pieces are you proud of most?
‘Wow, that’s really hard to answer. I have to say I am most proud of the pieces that manage to capture that Dolly Parton sense of heart-pangs. I compose so that I can hopefully connect with people the way Dolly Parton has connected with me through her music. So I’m most proud of the pieces that have managed to do that.’
On Friday 10 September at 21.30 CET I will moderate a meet & greet with the four nominees in TivoliVredenburg
*In our talk I took up Annika on her promise to impersonate Dolly Parton; it was captured on video.
On 12 September Annika Socolofsky was declared winner of the Gaudeamus Award 2021
In the United States she is a celebrity, but in the Netherlands Laura Kaminsky (1956) is fairly unknown. Undeservedly so, because her music is both powerful and poetic and has an effervescent energy. The recently released CD Fantasy contains four compositions that were written between 2007 and 2019. All pieces were composed with or for piano and are played by Ursula Oppens. The subtitle ‘Ursula Oppens plays Kaminsky‘ highlights the decades-long friendship between composer and performer.
Oppens is a well-known advocate of modern music and is also a regular guest in our country. Numerous icons of the avant-garde have composed pieces for her, including György Ligeti, Elliott Carter, Luciano Berio, Joan Tower and Meredith Monk. No wonder, because her playing is unprecedentedly rich and nuanced; she is the ideal interpreter for every composer. – Three of the pieces on the CD were composed especially for Oppens.
Like Bartók and Ligeti, Laura Kaminsky often makes use of irregular rhythms. From 1992 to 1993 she studied African drum patterns in Ghana, three years later she delved into the characteristic dance rhythms in irregular metres of Eastern Europe. Her music breathes great freedom and switches at lightning speed between weightless cascades of notes in the style of Debussy, wild hammerings in the style of Prokofiev, jazzy syncopations, and tones placed pointillistically in space.
The Piano Quintet was created in 2019 as a gift for Oppens, who celebrated her 75th birthday that year. The opening movement is built on a rhythmic groove in 13/8 time, in which piano and strings seem to want to outdo each other with fierce rhythmic motifs; the second movement is a solemnly spun-out lament; in the third and final movement, thundering piano clusters and aggressive string lines are infused with lilting lyricism. Oppens and the Cassatt String Quartet give a spirited performance.
Fantasy, the solo piece from which the CD derives its title, is the only one not written for Oppens. In the booklet Kaminsky calls their collaboration ‘a fantasy, a dream come true’. In about twenty minutes, many different atmospheres pass by. Frolicsome runs remind one of Schönberg’sPierrot lunaire and swinging boogie-woogie is alternated with faltering rhythms à la Conlon Nancarrow or a mangled waltz.
The single-movement Piano Concerto that Kaminksy composed in 2011, has a strikingly chamber music approach. It opens with a swirling cadenza over the entire piano keyboard, with a double bass sneaking in on stocking feet with long sustained notes. Magnificent solos by flute, oboe, bassoon and trumpet, gossamer strings and atmospheric percussion build the tension to a shrill, forte climax. Then the orchestra falls silent abruptly, whereupon the piano embarks on another cadenza and the story starts all over again, as it were. Hats off to Oppens, the Arizona State University Orchestra and conductor Jefferey Meyer for their excellent interpretation.
Country in turmoil
Perhaps the most beautiful piece is Reckoning for piano four hands Kaminsky composed in 2019 especially for the CD. It is performed by Oppens and Jerome Lowenthal. In her explanatory notes, Kaminsky refers to the ‘tumultuous political landscape’ and increasing polarisation in her country; the subtitle reads ‘Five Miniatures for America’. Without mentioning former President Trump by name, the titles of the five miniatures speak volumes.
In ‘Majestic. Yet.’ the two pianists create an image of a still powerful country, with solemn chords and sparkling swings of notes. ‘Hurtling. Still.’ paints a picture of stockbrokers swarming on Wall Street. Lovely motifs in the treble register are stopped by angry chords in the low register in ‘Reverie’; this procedure is intensified in ‘Divided’. In the closing ‘Forward. Yet.’ cautious optimism shines through.
For those who don’t know the music of Kaminsky, Fantasy is a brilliant introduction, for the connoisseur it is yet another confirmation of her quality.
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Her website sums it up nicely. At the age of three, Wilma Pistorius found herself irrevocably drawn to a cellist playing on the street; a year later she started her cello lessons. She not only learned to play the instrument but also made up her own tunes, and in her teens she started composing seriously. She recently completed Crossroads. The 8 movements of this cycle form the core of the debut CD of ensemble Ugly Pug. I interviewed her for Dutch Composers Now.
As so often with beautiful stories, the truth is a little more mundane. ‘I can’t really remember what I found so irresistible about the cello when I was three’, admits Wilma Pistorius (1991, Belville, South Africa). ‘We still lived in South Africa, but at the time I was in Bath, England with my parents. When I saw the busker playing, I exclaimed “Mamma, I want to do that too!” and she said I could when I was four. I remembered the promise, and just before my fourth birthday, I asked if she’d bought me a cello, yet.’
The instrument is inextricably linked to her life and work: ‘For as long as I can remember, playing the cello has been something I have always wanted to do – and have done. It has given me something that is truly mine: the relationship with myself and my creativity through the cello is very valuable. This has inevitably evolved over the years, but is still of existential significance.’
As a child, she also thought up her own tunes and wrote out existing music by ear. In my teens I started composing seriously, creating and developing musical material with attention to overarching concepts and underlying structures. Before that I didn’t really know that composing could be a profession, it seemed more like something that ‘happened’ to you.’
At thirteen, Pistorius moved to the Netherlands with her parents. ‘My father had the opportunity to obtain his doctorate here in antenatal ultrasound imaging. That was very convenient for me, because in the Netherlands there were many more opportunities to develop as an artist than in South Africa!’ She went straight to the Academie Muzikaal Talent in Utrecht, where she received cello lessons from Lenian Benjamins.
‘That was between my 13th and 18th birthday’, says Pistorius. ‘Lenian gave me a whole new perspective, teaching me to play with less tension by employing more natural gestures and making a better use of weight and gravity. She moreover told me about the Alexander Technique, for which I have been a teacher in training myself since 2017. This has not only brought me a great deal of ease and lightness in how I move, and play the cello, but also in my creative process and my entire way of being.’
TWO WORLDS MEET
At nineteen, she went to study with Jeroen den Herder at the Rotterdam Conservatoire. ‘I learned a lot from Jeroen as well. With him I really “grew up” as a cellist. I found my own voice, because he believed in me and treated me as an equal. And, since he is very much at home in the world of new music, I got the chance to immerse myself in that, too and bring two of my worlds together: cello and composition.’
During the same period, she studied composition at the Conservatory of Amsterdam with Wim Henderickx and Jorrit Tamminga. ‘It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what I learned from my various teachers. Over the years, their lessons and advice have become a whole, in which the individual threads can no longer be clearly distinguished. The most important thing I learned from them was less a matter of specifics than their overall approach. In that respect, all three of them continue to inspire me.’
A few things do stand out, however. ‘The first thing that springs to mind when I think of studying with Jeroen is that he gave me confidence as a cellist. Jorrit taught me that music can also be “cool”, and draw inspiration from other styles. My musical taste is very broad, but for a long time I thought the only thing that really counted was Classical Music (with capital letters), and that anything else ranked as guilty pleasures. Thanks to Jorrit, I dared to integrate my broad taste in my work, which ultimately leads to more inspiration!
‘And Wim… Wim’s attitude is very aesthetic. He understands the way timbre appeals to me, and how I try to capture the intangible. Because he understood these non-verbal aspects of my creative process, I learned to regard them as valuable myself. His own work also confirmed to me that, as a composer, I can and may seek out stillness and beauty.’
SERIOUS WITH A WINK
In her biography, Pistorius writes that her music is ‘serious but with a wink’. How are we to understand this? ‘In essence, my music arises from the interaction between how I experience myself and the world around me. The creative process always starts from something meaningful: something elusive that I cannot put into words. – That is precisely why I write music! In translating these abstract, sensory and inner experiences into notes and sounds, I can only be sincere. Hence “serious”.’
‘But “serious” needn’t necessarily be “heavy”. For me, lightness, humour and playfulness are essential: they are integral to how I experience the world. They contribute for instance to the meaning of a theme or a piece of music; they make it human. If something is only serious, it loses some of its meaning. By counterbalancing it with lightness, I find an opening to make it my own. Hence the “wink”.’
On her website Pistorius writes that her music has a ‘mysterious feminine ambiance’. In these (post) feminist times, this comes across as a dire form of political incorrectness. What does she mean by this? ‘As I said before, my music originates from my personal reaction to the world around me. For example, the feeling of softness and promise that a beautiful sunset evokes in me. An important part of the “interaction” comes from who I am, and the inner perception of myself.’
‘There are many different aspects of the self: “Man is an onion made up of a hundred integuments, a texture made up of many threads”, writes Herman Hesse in Steppenwolf. You experience these different aspects largely subconsciously, outside your field of vision. It is more about the way you look than what you see: a kind of lenses that colour your experience of the world around you.’
‘The way you are is different when you are gardening from when you’re playing music by yourself, or cooking for friends. Often we experience different facets simultaneously, and mostly we don’t even give it a thought. Some parts of myself are more closely connected to my creativity than others, and my femininity is inseparable from my creative process. It’s always there and it colours the way I create and think, react and feel. Sometimes it’s a conscious choice or a “tool”, sometimes it’s unconscious and I only recognise it afterwards.’
‘And “mysterious”… When I’m composing, something else comes into play, something that defies language. A feeling of profound significance, something magical that is on the verge of being clearly seen and understood; something unfamiliar and exciting that lies around the next corner, just out of reach… People have told that they sometimes experience something like that when they hear my music. So I know I’m on the right track. But it’s hard to explain, it remains elusive.’
NEW MUSIC ON EARLY INSTRUMENTS
In 2018, Ugly Pug asked her to write them a piece. The ensemble boasts an unusual combination of instruments. Juho Myllylä plays recorder and electric guitar and operates live electronics; Miron Andres plays fiddles, viola da gamba and vihuela, and Wesley Shen plays the harpsichord. ‘When they commissioned me, I at once thought of contrasts and layering,’ says Pistorius.
‘Historical instruments have something pure and direct, many timbral nuances and a certain subtlety of expression. That suits my music well. The gamba/vihuela, harpsichord, recorders, and electric guitar complement each other wonderfully: they can contrast with one another, but also blend beautifully. I can emphasise contrasts but also make the sounds blend, so that it is not always clear who is playing what. This lends itself perfectly to my layered way of writing and of playing with different timbres.’
‘The titles of the eight movements relate to the different images or ideas that form their starting point. I work with the friction between them: the field of tension itself, and what can emerge from it. Sometimes they amplify one another, at other times they overlap, or something new springs up. For example, between day and night there is dusk. It may be orange, pink, purple, yellow, while day is blue/white and night is black/grey.’
CONTRASTING OR BLENDING
‘Some contrasts inevitably presented themselves because new music is being played on historical instruments. I used hints of Baroque gestures and cadences now and then, as a respectful “flirtation” with the early style. In Crossroads, I also took inspiration from more popular music, such as by David Bowie and rock. But there are also references to Indian Ragas. Crossroads was the first piece in which I had the chance to employ the whole spectrum of my musical taste.’
On the CD, the eight movements are interspersed with compositions by others. What motivated this choice? ‘The trio asked me for a piece with a flexible duration, something that could be adapted to different concert programmes and also be used as an “umbrella” to tie a programme together. I decided to go a step further and give the players permission to play the movements in a different order, creating different contrasts each time. The only requirement is that section IV.Playful/Comfortably Dark must always play a central role, for this is the centrepiece.’
How would she describe her composition to an uninitiated audience in only one sentence? ‘Crossroads is a journey through a really dark sound landscape, where different characters, moods and colours overlap, blend and contrast with one another.’
An Italian label promoting piano music of a Ukrainian composer, it does not seem the most likely combination. Yet earlier this year, the CD Handsome Skies featuring piano works by Valentin Silvestrov (1937) arrived on my doorstep, sent from Rome by the independent label KHA Records. According to the contact person, who only introduced himself as ‘Massimiliano’, it specialises in ‘minimal music from John Cage to Arvo Pärt’.
The closest affinity is that with Pärt, of course, who became a public favourite in the mid-seventies with his so-called ‘neo-spiritual music’. Like his Estonian colleague, Silvestrov at first composed in a strict modernist idiom that brought him into conflict with the Soviet authorities, and subsequently changed over to a less complex style. His cycle Silent Songs (1977) marked the beginning of a style in which tonal, ear-catching pieces predominate, often described as ‘new simplicity’.
Valentin himself prefers to speak of ‘meta-music’ or ‘metaphorical music’, because to him, the entire music history resonates in all new compositions: ‘I do not write new music. My music is a reaction to and an echo of what already exists’.
His work is strongly focused on melody, which in Silvestrov’s view forms the basis of everything, but was direly neglected in the course of the 20th century: ‘All music is song, whether it is sung or purely instrumental.’
The twenty pieces on the CD Handsome Skies by Italian pianist Alessandro Stella are the perfect illustration of this conviction. Whether Bagatelles, Waltzes or simply Pieces, the melodic wealth is overwhelming: they all sing from beginning to end.
Silvestrov builds his melodies with tonal and modal means, which makes them recognisable and singable. Yet his flowing lines continue to surprise, in an organic way. They never become predictable or kitschy, like the music of the Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi. The motifs and melodies are given ample space and sometimes breathe the atmosphere of Satie. Such associations are blown away however by the occasional fragment of folk music or jarring rhythm.
With his poetic interpretation, velvety toucher and refined use of the sustain pedal, Alessandro Stella creates a serene peace, as if we are hearing dreamy echoes of eternity. As an Italian, he manages to touch the heart of this timeless Ukrainian stillness.
Valentin Silvestrov: Handsome Skies Alessandro Stella, piano KHA Records KHA019
In my programme An ox on the Roof 6 March 2022 on Concertzender I will play music by Silvestrov and other Ukrainian composers.
The CD Passages Through Time paints a portrait of American composer Rain Worthington in eight compositions for strings in various settings. The CD-inlay promises ‘a journey through the currents of Worthington’s musical streams’, that will ‘reveal the primal commonality of our experience of life’. This may explain the title, but the high expectations thus created are not fully met.
As a child Rain Worthington (1949) was captivated by a performance of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps. She was also attracted by the piano music of Erik Satie, while as she grew older she became interested in music from the Middle East. She travelled through Greece, Turkey and Egypt and elements from their different musical traditions found their way into her compositions.
Even before she learned to read and write notes, she started writing piano pieces. She played these by heart in the underground venue The Kitchen and the lofts of fellow artists in Soho. Worthington performed with her own bands and gradually taught herself to compose; she considers the New York downtown scene as her conservatory.
Although she shares her background with the renowned composers and musicians of Bang on a Can, she employs a completely different idiom. Worthington’s music lacks the gritty, poppy minimalism so characteristic of the work of her colleagues; nor do we hear any Stravinsky influences. She focuses on conveying emotions and writes in a classical-romantic style, incorporating modal elements that sometimes give her music an exotic touch.
The CD opens with Full Circle for cello and chamber orchestra. An intensely lyrical part by the solo cellist, beautifully played by Petr Nouzovský, is as warmly responded to by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra. The repetitive, folk music-like motifs are reminiscent of gypsy music, including the augmented seconds so typical of this genre.
A Central European sound world also resonates in Balancing on the Edge of Shadows for violin and piano. In this catchy piece, passionate outbursts from the violinist (a flawlessly intonating Audrey Wright) are embedded in sparse, cimbalom-like sounds from the pianist (an alertly responding Yundu Wang).
The bent lines of the strings in Shadows of the Wind for cello and orchestra transport us to an imaginary harem. In Dreaming Through Fog, darkly rumbling piano sounds, string tremolos and a hoarse flute played with Flatterzunge create a mysterious, foggy atmosphere that is torn apart halfway through by powerful percussion.
Worthington’s expressive music indeed evokes universal feelings of melancholy and longing. Individually, the pieces are attractive, but as they all breathe the same atmosphere, this inevitably leads to aural and emotional fatigue.
The eight compositions are perhaps better appreciated when listened to separately rather than successively. But fair is fair: the mostly Eastern European musicians know how to hit their nostalgic intent perfectly.