Composer Victoria Borisova-Ollas: ‘I wondered what the music of the pharaohs sounded like’


The latest achievement of the Russian-Swedish composer Victoria Borisova-Ollas (1969) is Dracula. This opera based on Bram Stoker’s book on the famous vampire was premièred at The Stockholm Royal Opera in October 2017. ‘A colourful and highly atmospheric musical score’, containing ‘one of the most emotional scenes in any Swedish opera’, wrote a critic.

Seven years earlier she composed her highly successful clarinet concerto Golden Dances of the Pharaohs for Martin Fröst and the Swedish Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. This was dubbed ‘a wondrous song from an ancient realm that reaches very far’.

On Saturday 13 January 2018 the concerto will be performed in NTRZaterdagMatinee by Residentie Orkest and Martin Fröst. In 2010 Fröst also played the Dutch première, with the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra; I interviewed Borisova-Ollas for the live broadcast on TROS Radio 4.

You were born in Wladiwostok in the easternmost part of Russia, near China and Korea. Yet you studied in Moscow, why so far away?

Russia is a very big country, indeed. The Soviet educational system was good, but centralized. If you didn’t live in the central towns of Moscow, Leningrad or Kiev, you had to go far away to study. I had wanted to be a composer from when I was very young, but the academy of music in Wladiwostok didn’t offer composition in its curriculum.

Therefore my mother sent me to The Central Music School in Moscow when I was 13 years old; it was the junior department of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory. Fortunately that same year they decided to do an experiment and let us, who were still quite young, study composition directly as a main subject.

Why did you continue your studies in Sweden and England after graduating?

I went to Sweden because I married a Swedish man. I had already finished my education by then, but found the climate in Sweden very much different from what I was used to in Russia. I realized that in order to understand how the cultural climate works in Sweden, I should continue my schooling there. After having studied at the Malmö College of Music for some years, I took part in an exchange programme with the Royal College of Music in London. I was really curious to find out how people teach composition in different countries.

What were the differences?

I found the British system to be rather similar to the Soviet one. You start studying music from an early age and move through ever higher levels of education to eventually reach the conservatory. A difference was that in England you had more opportunities to study modern styles of composing; during my years in Russia contemporary music was only just being discovered.

In Sweden I couldn’t quite work out where and when musical education actually started. Almost all of my fellow composition students had only had private teaching. There were no schools or music gymnasiums to prepare young people, so it was all up to chance: if you were lucky with your first teacher maybe you could enrol at the conservatoire. The basics of music were learnt at a much later stage than in Russia and Britain. Fortunately all this has changed, there are more music schools now in Sweden.

You composed ‘Golden Dances of the Pharaohs’ in 2010. Was it your own idea, or a commission?

I had been thinking of doing something with ancient Egypt for a while, already. I always have a list of some ten titles in my mind. When Martin Fröst asked me to write a clarinet concerto for him, the theme of the pharaohs immediately sprang to mind. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra who commissioned it also thought it a great idea, so we decided to go ahead and do it.

Why ‘golden dances’, not just ‘dances’?

My idea was to create something dancing for Martin Fröst, who is not only a great clarinettist, but also moves very beautifully while playing. When I was thinking of his stage performance, I came across an art-book on ancient Egypt. On the cover was the famous golden mask of pharaoh Tutankhamun. This image is iconic: when we think of ancient Egypt, we think of gold, of mighty things.

Curiously however we  never think of sounds. We know practically everything of their daily habits, but not about the instruments the Egyptians used, how they danced or how they sang. The mask triggered my imagination. I thought: let’s imagine a dancing party in the pharaoh’s palace. How could it have sounded? With this in mind I started composing.

At the beginning we hear a voice on tape. Who is this, and what text is he reciting?

It’s Martin Fröst himself, whose voice has a kind of ancient…

…timbre?

Yes, we changed the timbre of his voice. Thus I refer to Herodotus, the father of historians, who travelled through Egypt in the 5th century B.C. I quote a text from the book he wrote about this: ‘Concerning Egypt I will now speak at length, because nowhere are there so many marvellous things, nor in the whole world besides are there to be seen so many works of unspeakable greatness.’ I asked Martin to read these words, and then we gave the recording an ancient touch.

Since you’re deeply rooted in Swedish musical life now, do you consider yourself a Russian or a Swedish composer?

I would like to see myself and my music to be cosmopolitan. And anyway, what might the nationality of music be?

More info and tickets here.

Part of my talk with Borisova-Ollas can be heard on YouTube

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