Me, Peer Gynt: What does it mean to be oneself?

Pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama descends to the lowest registers of her instrument with some powerful bangs, then keeps the keys pressed down. She attentively watches Maya Fridman, whose fingers slowly creep up the A-string close to the bridge of her cello. The Winter Garden of Hotel Krasnapolsky Amsterdam is saturated with eerily abrasive flageolets. Half a step higher, and yet another half tone higher the cello mixes in with the angelic choral sounds in the background. The tension becomes almost unbearable, until Fridman throws back her head ecstatically while her last sounds seem to dissolve into nothingness.

Thus ends the Epilogue of Alfred Schnittke’s ballet Peer Gynt. With this haunting movement Fridman concludes her arrangement for cello and piano of some 30 minutes from Schnittke’s two-hour-long orchestral score, titled Me, Peer Gynt. At the premiere on Monday 13 August in the Amsterdam Grachtenfestival the audience is overwhelmed by her intense performance and striking musicianship. Fridman plays the entire score by heart.

Maya Fridman, born in Moscow in 1989, is quite dauntless. Earlier this year the young cellist presented a cd with an adaptation of Prokofiev’s opera The Fiery Angel. No wonder she was nominated for this year’s Grachtenfestival Award and is one of four finalists of Dutch Classical Talent. She is also music pioneer in residence with Gaudeamus, where she will perform Me, Peer Gynt in a multimedia version.  I asked her some questions about this production.

When & why did you decide to make an adaptation of Schnittke’s ballet Peer Gynt?

This work has always had a very special meaning for me. While I was studying at the music college named after Schnittke in Moscow, I could access his archives and had the opportunity to delve into his scores. The idea to create a dramatic multimedia performance based on Peer Gynt came to me gradually, and took off after I met Tomoko Mukaiyama.

Schnittke wrote Peer Gynt for John Neumeier’s adaptation of Ibsen’s play, and it is undoubtedly one of his masterpieces. Schnittke’s music is being rediscovered and widely performed today, but there are a few works that still remain in obscurity. Unfortunately this goes for Peer Gynt, too, for in my opinion it deserves to be much better known to a general audience. I hope our production Me, Peer Gynt can give this wonderful piece a new life.

Was Schnittke’s own version of the Epilogue for cello, piano and tape an inspiration?

It was a big help to have Schnittke’s arrangement of the Epilogue in front of me all the time. I am not sure if I would have considered re-working Peer Gynt for cello and piano if this version hadn’t existed. Schnittke’s arrangement is extremely refined and minimalistic. The insane intensity is transmitted through the unending cello line, while the piano part seems to live its own life, at the same time serving as a perfect accompaniment.

I learnt a lot from analysing it, but in my arrangement I decided to focus on creating a storyline and introducing the main characters and their drama. It became a sort of a counterpart for the Epilogue where all the themes return, but ‘as incessantly shifting, unstable forms’, as a sort of afterlife of the main character.

What do you consider the core theme of Peer Gynt and what is its relevance today?

Peer Gynt symbolizes a person who has lost himself in the world of appearances. Ibsen poses one of the most crucial questions in life: What does it mean – to be oneself? The subject of Peer Gynt is relevant today as a metaphor of a man who identifies himself through the mirror of the outside world. He loses his connection with his inner core. In the end of his life journey he realizes that he is nothing but an ‘onion’ deprived of individuality – therefore he must dissolve into nothingness.

Of course this is a simplified way of describing such a philosophical parable. Nevertheless it allows me to draw a parallel between Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and many of us who, as Peer Gynt, are absorbed in phantasmagoric adventures and are swamped in social media realities. For me Peer Gynt embodies our constant attempts to identify ourselves as something we are not.

In truth we are nothing, and no knowledge can redeem us from understanding this very emptiness. The inner pain and frustration that drove Peer Gynt so far away from his beloved Solveig is something that touches me deeply in Ibsen’s story. Schnittke’s music is so descriptive and theatrical that it expresses this much more profound and pungent than words can ever do.

Schnittke composed for a ‘continuo’ of two groups of instruments: bells, glockenspiel, vibraphone, marimba on the one hand; piano, harpsichord, celesta, and harp on the other. Have you tried to capture these contrasting sound worlds?

In my first version I employed snare drums, timpani, cymbals, glockenspiel, and even tubular bells. Tomoko and I were preparing to surround ourselves with all these instruments and switch in between to create sonorities close to the original ones. But as our work progressed, our perception of the music changed and we dismissed this idea.

In this regard, Schnittke’s arrangement of the Epilogue was my best teacher and guidance: it doesn’t sound any less intense than the densely scored original version. Cello and piano tell the story in their own language, which naturally differs in colours and dynamics. But this is ultimately the goal of any arrangement: to translate the narration into a new form while staying true to its essence, preserving its melodic details and musical monumentality.

How did your collaboration with Tomoko Mukaiyama come about?

For a long time I have been much inspired by the works of Tomoko Mukaiyama. Since the idea to arrange Peer Gynt popped up, I couldn’t have conceived of realizing my project without her. She has a unique ability to create an utterly stunning music performance in which the visual medium becomes an extension of the music while retaining its own presence and reality. I am deeply grateful and honoured that she warmed to my idea enthusiastically.

We met for the first time in April 2017, at her house. Two months later we played our first concert together, during the Japanese Erotica Film Festival at the EYE museum. It is a great joy to play together with Tomoko and I sincerely enjoy our working process.

From the start we decided to split tasks. Tomoko would be responsible for the visual part and direction, I would be responsible for the musical part (arrangement). Naturally we would discuss all our decisions and I am super grateful to Tomoko for all her insightful and wise comments on the arrangement.

Tomoko made an installation/stage design using large pieces of fabric. She worked together closely with Ting Gong, with whom she realized several projects before, and with light designer Pavla Beranova and technical director Yutaka Endo.

I am deeply grateful to Gaudeamus for supporting me in this project and look forward to our performances of Me, Peer Gynt in September, when music, light and installation will unite into a whole.

Me, Peer Gynt, 6 September Korzo Theater, The Hague; 7 September Gaudeamus, Utrecht


About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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1 Response to Me, Peer Gynt: What does it mean to be oneself?

  1. Pingback: Composer Nana Forte: ‘The human voice has an immense ability to express emotions’ | Contemporary Classical – Thea Derks

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