Rozalie Hirs: ‘A song is no longer poetry, it is music’

Just out: Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht:
Rozalie Hirs (1965) is multi-talented. She has made a name for herself as a poet and as a composer. For Dreams of Airs she wrote the poems as well as the instrumental and electronic music. The cycle is inspired by the physical phenomenon of binaural beating: when your left and right ears are offered two almost identical tones, your brain creates a third (phantom) tone that consists of the difference in frequency between the two. This creates an ultra-low tone, which can evoke different moods. Dreams of Airs was premiered in November Music in 2018, and will be again performed in TivoliVredenburg on Sunday 6 January.

Hirs was born in Gouda and studied chemistry at the University of Twente and composition at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague, with,Diderik Wagenaar and Louis Andriessen. In New York she continued her studies with the French spectralist Tristan Murail at Columbia University. In 2007 she obtained the ‘Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA)’ there with her dissertation on spectral composition techniques and the composition Platonic ID.

She published six collections of poems, verses from which were included in several anthologies of best Dutch poetry. She also writes in English and German, and in 2017 her multilingual collection gestammelte werke appeared at the German publisher KOOKbooks. Her poetry and music are both lyrical and experimental. She often combines traditional instruments with electronic sounds and collaborates with visual artists and graphic designers.

Though Hirs regularly recites her own poems, whether or not embedded in music, Dreams of Airs is her first full-length poetry/music cycle. The title has an ambiguous meaning. “When Irish people pronounce my surname, it sounds like ‘airs’, so it’s about ‘dreams of Hirs’. On the other hand ‘air’ is the English word for song or melody, so at the same time it concerns ‘dreams of melodies’. This refers to the memory of melodies, of which only the text and the rhythm remain. For me, a song is no longer poetry, it has become music because of the composer’s interpretation. With spoken language you stay closer to the original poetry. You show the rhythm of language, which has not yet become singing.

This time Hirs does not speak her verses herself, they are recited by Nora Fischer. “In the thirty years that I have been reciting poetry, I have developed my own speech melody. It has taken me years to translate my typical intonation and speech rhythm into a notation, so that my piece can be performed even when I am no longer around. The funny thing is that at the premiere my mother had the feeling that I was on stage myself, so the notation had truly captured the essence of my voice.”

The speech melody, the rhythm and the intonation are all fully composed. “But because I didn’t want to force Nora to imitate my voice, I indicate the pitches with crosses. It sounds natural and simple, but at the same time it is very specific, because I have my own conception of tonality. All tones are connected to each other and are always present to a greater or lesser extent, only the centres of gravity shift. Nora must stay true to the overall form – the Gestalt – but may transpose it to her own root tone. The dreaming from the title refers not only to the meditative, contemplative way in which the poems are expressed, but also to their content and the way they are treated musically.

Most of the texts are in Dutch, but there are also German and English verses. “The libretto begins with an emerging day and ends with an apotheosis, a philosophical reflection on love, based on an idea of Erasmus. I see Dreams of Airs as a Manifesto for Europe, for expressing oneself in different languages is a first step in communication. It is humanistic and idealistic, it is about the freedom of imagination, about inner seeing and hearing. I look at it from the individual’s perspective. You can reach out to another person by speaking their language. This includes not only the melody and the meaning, but also the sound itself. – Speaking that is, not singing.

The binaural beatings function as sound spaces that bring the listener into a certain state of mind. The left and right loudspeakers have slightly different tones. If there are also differences in timing, you get a spatial sound. In my piece, both an electronic spatiality and a feeling of pulse are created. To enhance the latter effect I insert extra electronic pulses. My intention is that as soon as your brain creates such a binaural beating, this frequency evokes states of mind such as meditation, alertness, creativity, dreams or flow.

The cycle has seven movements, in which only a few times the full ensemble plays. “I built the piece from the fifth movement, Infinity Stairs, a trio for flute, bass clarinet and electric guitar. That’s the only movement in which the voice doesn’t participate, so the listener gets some rest. This trio is about ascending and descending, just like the infinite ascending and descending steps in the famous etching of Maurits Escher. I have tried to translate this optical illusion into an auditory illusion – tones you think you hear but that don’t actually sound.

The other movements were shaped around this. “It opens with bird twittering, a solo flute and solo voice, in the second movement the voice comes together with a number of instruments. The third is a tutti about an encounter with death, it is an ode to life. The fourth movement is for solo voice and describes the physical desire. Part six is about the sea, and the concluding poem is a hymn to love, in which all instruments come together with the voice. In essence, Dreams of Airs is one big daydream about imagination, how language arises, while speaking and dreaming.”

6 January 2019, 8 pm: Rozalie Hirs Dreams of Airs, TivoliVredenburg Spectra Enaemble & Nora Fischer / Filip Rathé; visuals by Boris Tellegen and  Geert Jan Mulder. I’ll moderate an interactive talk with Hirs after the concert.

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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 published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht' in 2018.
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