‘We know exactly what the right decision is, but often choose against our intuition’ – Lera Auerbach sets 72 demons to music

Lera Auerbach (photo F. Reinhold)

In 2016, the Russian-American Lera Auerbach (1973) stunned both audience and press with her full-length cycle 72 Angels for choir and saxophone quartet. Three years later she composed a sequel, Goetia 72, dedicated to as many demons. This time the choir is accompanied by a string quartet.

The piece was premiered in Berlin in May 2019, by RIAS Chamber Choir and Michelangelo String Quartet. On 30 January co-commissioner Netherlands Kamerkoor and Quatuor Danèl will perform Goetia 72 in the Amsterdam Muziekgebouw under the baton of Peter Dijkstra. The concert forms part of the second edition of the String Quartet Biennale Amsterdam, and will then tour through Holland.

Auerbach definitely has guts. You must both be ‘a little crazy and have a touch of genius’ to write an evening-long choral work on a text limited to a list of 72 names of angels’, as a reviewer wrote after the world premiere in 2016. Perhaps you have to be even crazier to devote a cycle to as many demons, but Auerbach has unprecedented determination.

No light without shadow

‘I made the first sketches for 72 Angels more than twenty years ago, but no conductor wanted to perform the cycle’, she says. ‘Therefore it seemed even more unrealistic to create a piece about 72 demons, but one cannot have light without shadow, shadows are caused by light.’ Auerbach here refers to the subtitles of her two compositions. The angels bathe ‘in splendore lucis’ (in bright light), the demons dwell ‘in umbra lucis’ (the shadow of light).

For her first cycle she picked the names of the angels from the Bible book of Exodus, this time she consulted the Ars u Goetia. This is the first part of The Key of Solomon, an anonymous collection of magical practices written in the 17th century. It mentions the names of the 72 demons that King Solomon is said to have locked in a sealed vessel. ‘That book was only the departure point for the sourcing of the names’, Auerbach stresses. ‘I have consulted countless other sources, for each name has multiple variants in different esoteric texts. I researched all that I found available.’

Pagan deities neither ‘evil’ nor ‘good’

She discovered that many names originated from pagan deities. ‘They weren’t just good or bad, they were passionate, jealous creatures not much different from humans. – Or angels. Initially, the two concepts were used interchangeably. It was only with the rise of Christianity and other monotheistic religions that the pagan gods were labelled ‘evil’. From then on, the word ‘angel’ was used for spiritual beings who served the god of Abraham; the name ‘demon’ became associated with the other spirits and the fallen angels.’

Auerbach leaves it open how Solomon himself viewed the demons: ‘No one can know that. He dominated them with the help of a magic ring he had received from the archangel Michael; thus they helped him to build the temple of Jerusalem. Personally, I think that Solomon considered angels and demons simply as energies, vibrations, wavelengths that he could connect. – Perhaps the djinns from Islamic folklore are a better analogy with our time, because they are not intrinsically good or bad either.’

In essence, the three monotheistic religions have the same roots, says Auerbach. ‘Judaism, Christianity and Islam are connected from within. That is why it is ironic that in the course of history so much blood has been shed “in the name of God”. And just as light cannot do without shadow and vice versa, angels and demons are two sides of the same coin. In essence, they are the same, just as in the Ancient Greeks’ view: they are not opposites but messengers, communicators, representations of energies.’

Demons disturb our moral compass

Nevertheless Auerbach does discern a difference: ‘Angels are more distant, demons are closer to us, tempting and seducing us. They toy with our idealism, our desires. They play on the strings of our human emotions, which is why I chose a string quartet in Goetia 72. The four strings act as a partner to the choir and as guide in this journey through 72 spirits. In modern terms you could say that demons are a human “creation”. They represent and nourish our fears, paranoia, lust for power, phobias, herd-mentality, possessiveness and greed.’

‘They love noise and loudspeakers, because in silence it is easier to hear the quiet inner voice of our moral compass – somewhere in our hearts the voice of an angel always sounds. We know exactly what the right decision is, but we often choose a different one, against our intuition. Demons play on our vanity and desires: they seduce us to long for more possessions, more fame, more power, more beauty, more righteousness.’

‘They are us, like a mirror: ‘A mirror that reflects and amplifies our passions the very moment they take possession of us. And angels? They are the names of God, the army of God, the warriors, the righteous ones. Precisely for this reason they may fall, for righteousness leads to arrogance and vanity, hence fallen angels – demons. “Vanity, absolutely my favourite sin”, says the Devil in The Devil’s Advocate.

Psalm as talisman

Unlike in 72 Angels, Goetia 72 does not consist exclusively of an enumeration of names, the composition is larded with verses from Psalm 90 (91). ‘This psalm has a history of being used as a talisman, it was traditionally recited when working with demons. I made a setting in ancient Greek and place those verses at three structural points, each after 24 names. This reinforces their protective intention. By the way, this arrangement was not even my intention, the piece itself asked for it, it has grown organically this way.’

In 2016 the composer described 72 Angels as ‘a long, intense prayer, full of passion and hope’. How does she see Goetia 72? ‘It is a kind of ritual, going back to pre-Christian times, before the rise of monotheism. A ritual in which we face ourselves.’ She plays with the fatal temptation that emanates from demons: ‘I give them what they want, not what they need. Then I show them the outcome of their desires. – And then I take everything away from them.’

Auerbach is not only a composer, conductor, pianist and writer, but also a visual artist and sculptor. Do these capacities help her shape her music? ‘Yes. For instance, I have an audio-visual installation called Trapped Angel that could be presented together with 72 Angels and Goetia.’

‘There is also a large immersive installation I would like to create with 72 Angels, and I am in the process of developing various visual art works related to both cycles. Being a conductor allows me to shape performances as close as possible to my vision for interpreting this diptych. Conducting also helps me to gain deeper understanding of the performers and audience perspectives.’

She doesn’t have a favourite demon: ‘I wouldn’t dare. Otherwise the other demons would get jealous.’

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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1 Response to ‘We know exactly what the right decision is, but often choose against our intuition’ – Lera Auerbach sets 72 demons to music

  1. Pingback: Lera Auerbach: Lost Paradise Regained | Contemporary Classical – Thea Derks

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