Composer Lera Auerbach on 72 Angels: ‘The sounds decide’

Since the Russian-American Lera Auerbach (Chelyabinsk, 1973) made her debut in Carnegie Hall in 2002, her career has soared. She played her own Suite for piano, violin and orchestra with Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica, and performed in prestigious halls in both East and West.

Auerbach won numerous awards and has made a name for herself with large-scale works. An early success was her ballet The Little Mermaid, which she created with the choreographer John Neubauer for the Royal Danish Ballet in 2005.

She wrote many concertos and other orchestral works, composed two opera’s, three requiems, and was highly lauded for the oratorio Praise of Peace that she wrote for the Verbier Festival in 2013. Her music has a transcendental quality that speaks to the heart.

On 3 November 2016 the Netherlands Chamber Choir and Raschèr Saxophone Quartet will première her latest work: 72 Angels, in splendore lucis in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ Amsterdam. She based this expansive work on the Hebrew names of the angels, as derived from the book of Exodus. This composition is very important to her, and she has been reluctant to talk about it in public. For this one occasion she agreed to make an exception:

Nederlands Kamerkoor (c) Schreurs

Nederlands Kamerkoor (c) Schreurs

Composer in the shadow

In general, I am avoiding giving interviews. I feel that a composer needs to remain in the shadows in order not to betray his or her work. This is especially important with 72 Angels, given its unusual nature. I would appreciate for you to mention this, since I have declined all other interviews about this work. I am making an exception in your case because of our connection from the past and because I felt that your questions were not intrusive in an unwelcoming way.’*

When and why did you decide to write a work on 72 angels?

The concept for this work preoccupied me for over twenty years. I envisioned it as a choral piece from the start but decided to include a saxophone quartet after my first collaboration with the Raschèr Saxophone Quartet. They premièred my Gallows Songs in 2013 together with the women of the WDR Radio Choir.

I feel the sound of the saxophone is limitless in colour and expression. It can roar like a wild animal and sound like a shofar. Four of them together may evoke the sound of powerful trumpets, delicate woodwinds or even of a mystical glass harmonica.

How have you shaped your composition?

In essence, 72 Angels is a long, intense prayer, full of passion and hope. It is structured in the form of 72 prelude-evocations and an epilogue: ‘Amen’. There is no text other than the names of the angels, which I derived through an arcane interpretation of Exodus 14:19-21. Each prelude is a meditation on one name. Every angel is different and has his own personality both spiritually and musically.

The 72 preludes are interconnected, and performed without pauses, creating a whole continuous composition of some 80 minutes, rather than 72 separate short pieces. Structurally, the work divides into two parts at Prelude 36 and in three sections at preludes 24 and 48, representing unity and division: Two in One (Duality) and Three in One (Trinity.) At these demarcation points, all of the previously introduced names of angels are recited.

The piece concludes with ‘Amen’, a quiet postlude-meditation. It is the coda of the work and is built upon the overtone series, which is the origin of all sound.

Raschère Saxophone Quartet

Raschèr Saxophone Quartet

How do the saxophone quartet and the choir interact?

Sometimes the quartet leads the choir, at other times it blends and supports it, or is in dialogue with the voices. The interaction between the four players themselves is comparable to that in a string quartet. The sounds decide what happens musically, I just follow.

In your score you write that ‘a saxophone quartet can ignite the fire while transcending its burn.’ How are we to understand this?

Worthwhile art, be it music or literature or painting, leaves burning marks in our memory. It cannot be forgotten, it ignites passion, reaches the deepest roots and helps to transcend limitations. A saxophone quartet, with its wide range of colour and dynamics, is capable of inspiring this. 

Are all angels good spirits in your view? Or are there also dark angels, fiery angels, perhaps even frightening ones?

As with my Requiem – Ode to Peace, the intent for 72 Angels is to focus on that which is shared among different cultures in their religious, spiritual, esoteric and mythological traditions. I wish to put emphasis on that which unites us through shared connections. These 72 evocations celebrate all angels in all their multi-faceted variations.

Of course anything in excess becomes its opposite. Shadows are caused by light. I am a writer, I believe in the power of words. Since I am also a composer, I believe in the power of words as sounds, in the power of music. Music can bypass consciousness and the limitations of the language, it can move us through emotion and emphasise that which makes us human.  

Is your new work closer to Requiem – Ode to Peace or to Gallows Songs?

There is no similar work in my catalogue. It connects to the Requiem – Ode to Peace as both works stress unity among different belief systems. It connects to the Gallows Songs as it is for a choir and saxophone quartet. In all other ways, it is entirely different from them as well as from all other compositions I have written. 

My wish is for each listener and performer to embrace his or her personal interpretation of 72 Angels. 

* We discussed her development and music extensively for Radio 4, the Dutch classical radio station in 2011. The Dutch Radio Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra performed her Serenade for a Melancholic Sea.

 72 Angels, in splendore lucis; Dutch Chamber Choir and Raschèr Saxophone Quartet under the baton of Peter Dijkstra. For playlist click here.

With Lera Auerbach after world première 72 Angels in Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ, 3 November 2016

With Lera Auerbach after world première 72 Angels in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ, 3 November 2016

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One Response to Composer Lera Auerbach on 72 Angels: ‘The sounds decide’

  1. Pingback: Peter Dijkstra: ‘Glass was as groundbreaking as Harnoncourt’ | Thea Derks – Music Journalist

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