At Swim-Two-Birds: double concerto for violin & cello by Pascal Dusapin

‘I’ll never write a motif, rhythm, or chord that I cannot sing,’ Pascal Dusapin (Nancy, 1955) once said. And indeed, all his music has a vocal, cantabile quality. On Saturday 30 September the Dutch Radio Philharmonic Orchestra will première his concerto At Swim-Two-Birds for violin, cello, and orchestra in Amsterdam Concertgebouw. Soloists are the violinist Viktoria Mullova and the cellist Matthew Barley, to whom the piece is dedicated. The première is broadcast live on Radio 4, organizer of the concert series NTR ZaterdagMatinee.

As a child Dusapin was so impressed when he first heard a jazz trio, that he decided there and then to start playing the clarinet. From his tenth he developed a passion for organ, but only when he heard Arcana by Edgard Varèse, he knew he wanted to spend the rest of his life composing.

Colourful tapestries

Instead of going to a conservatory – which he deemed too academic – Dusapin studied art history and aesthetics at the Sorbonne. He developed his compositional skills mainly on his own, yet did take some seminars with Iannis Xenakis between 1974 and 1978. He considered the Greek composer to be the living heir of Varèse. Unlike his heroes, he was not interested in using electronics in the compositional process. With purely physical instruments Dusapin creates highly organic music, full of colourful sound tapestries and lyrical solos.

He composed At Swim-Two Birds at the request of the violinist Viktoria Mullova and the cellist Matthew Barley. At first Dusapin had doubts about writing yet another piece for solo strings. Having recently finished both a violin and a cello concerto, he ‘felt a bit swamped by these two instruments’. When Mullova and Barley opined that the combination of a violin and a cello would make ‘a new instrument altogether’, he accepted the commission after all: ‘This changed everything.’

Extravagant narrative

While composing, Dusapin stumbled upon the experimental novel At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien from 1939. This is literally swarming with unlikely figures and characters, who in the end take over the initiative from the author. It is a mixture of farce, satire and fantasy and ranks as one of the important exponents of postmodern literature.

‘I was struck by the narrative and formal extravagance of this book’, says Dusapin. But though he took its title, he never intended his concerto to be a musical equivalent. Rather more he was taken in with the way the characters become entangled with each other. –  ‘And then, of course, there are two birds in the title…’.

Sensually intertwined

The number two not only applies to the soloists, but also to the form of the concerto. Instead of the current three, At Swim-Two-Birds has only two movements, both slow. Dusapin gives a lot of room to the soloists, who often play virtuoso solo lines against a silent orchestra. At other times the two ‘birds’ sensually intertwine in soaring duets, the orchestra moving in so cautiously you hardly notice they’re taking part in the argument.

The overall pace is slow, but towards the end vehement tapping on a tambourine triggers a faster tempo, while the dynamics become louder. The solo violin ‘breaks loose’ in staggeringly virtuosic figurations, giving the orchestra and fellow soloist the go-by. Yet they pull themselves together quickly, ‘overtaking’ the violin and restoring the quiet atmosphere. The concerto ends with softly rumbling drums and gongs, the string orchestra playing a chord that slowly fades away into nothingness.

I hope the actual performance will be as enchanting as is promised by the score.

Saturday 30 September, 2.15 p.m. Concertgebouw Amsterdam
Radio Filhamonisch Orkest / Markus Stenz
Ligeti: Lontano
Dusapin: At Swim-Two Birds
Info and tickets:

Photo credit: Jean Radel

About theaderks

Thea Derks is a Dutch music journalist, who studied musicology at Amsterdam University. She' specialized in contemporary music and always has an eye open for women composers. In 2014 she wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw and in 2018 she published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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