A rainy day in #corona quarantine seems the ideal moment to listen to a CD about fire. So I slide Todos los fuegos el fuego by the Ukrainian-Dutch composer Maxim Shalygin into my laptop.
‘All fires the fire’ is named after the collection of eight short stories by Julio Cortázar. The CD also contains eight pieces, which together form a suite for the exceptional line-up of saxophone octet.
Maxim Shalygin composed it in 2019 for the Amstel Quartet and the Keuris Quartet, who also recorded it.
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Shalygin (Kamianske 1985) studied composition at the conservatories of St. Petersburg, Kiev and The Hague. Since 2011 he has lived in the Netherlands, and four years later I met him personally. He helped me out when I went to interview his compatriot Valentin Silvestrov for Radio 4 and learnt that the reclusive composer only speaks Russian. Shalygin gratefully seized the opportunity to meet his idol. We had a very animated conversation, in which Silvestrov’s loquaciousness was matched by Shalygin’s enthusiastic interpretation.
As a matter of course I hereafter immersed myself in Shalygin’s own music. This is characterized by a great intensity and a zest for exploring boundaries. He challenges musicians to conjure sounds from their instruments that they never suspected existed. Shalygin’s work often has a spiritual slant, making him a kindred spirit of Silvestrov.
In 2017, during the Gaudeamus Music Week, I was captivated by his Lacrimosa, composed for seven violins. A year later he composed the impressive cycle Canti d’inizio e fine for the intrepid cellist Maya Fridman. In this cycle he not only asks her to fiercely flog her instrument, but to simultaneously sing.
Todos los fuegos el fuego also presents a wide range of playing techniques. Thus Shalygin tries to create a musical equivalent of the storytelling techniques with which Cortázar shapes his magical-realistic world. The Argentine author himself described his prose as incantatoria, that has the double meaning of ‘enchantment’ (in the sense of a magic spell) and ‘chant’ (as in song, singing). This concept refers both to the hypnotic atmosphere in Cortázar’s work, and to the care he dedicated to constructing his sentences. His syntax arose partly intuitively, from delays and accelerations that express the underlying emotion or atmosphere rather than the message itself.
This is exactly how Shalygin goes about in Todos los fuegos el fuego. All eight pieces consist of different layers that slide over, under and through each other in ever changing formations and tempi. The pace is usually low, with elongated lines meandering through the space without any recognisable metre – there is no such thing as thumping along with the beat. Nor loudly singing along for that matter. Shalygin does not write Ohrwurms, but concentrates on contrasts between slow movements in one register versus faster motifs in the other. Like a shaman he draws attention to the sound itself and invites us to listen to our inner self.
International Combustion Engine opens with sustained tones that are slowly layered on top of each other, cautiously ornamented with languid trills. A melody built from small steps in the upper voices is interspersed with fierce growls in the lower registers. Death of a Mosasaur has a more narrative nature. A wistful motif of one step up, one step down followed by a jump up wanders desolately through the various registers. Gradually an unwieldy pulse develops, as if a waddling Mosasaur is approaching. A soprano sax blasts out piercing, staccato cries like morse-signs. This apparent cry for help is smothered in low roars and ends in abrupt silence.
The other movements also abound in overlapping and repetitive patterns, sudden interruptions, decelerations and accelerations. Tones mysteriously swell up out of nowhere, are played with audible breath or with tongue-slaps that create ear-splitting attacks. At other times, the saxophonists make their lips vibrate while playing, like a softly snorting horse. Spring, Breaking creates an intoxicating atmosphere with subtly pulsating sounds, Endless Mordent is a study in eruptive grace notes.
In Ashes in Birth screeching and rhythmically teeming lines gradually advance towards rattling valves that die away into nothingness. But the most beautiful movement is Stairway to Decay, a melancholic lament that is roughly disturbed by ‘out of tune’ sounds, as if decay sets in. The texture gradually becomes more dissonant, while from afar a mumbled prayer develops, like an incantation. When the saxophonists start articulating more clearly, we finally discern the text: ‘Todos los fuegos el fuego’. – Mesmerizing and haunting.
The eight saxophonists effortlessly master the extended techniques in Shalygin’s score. Moreover they are completely attuned to each other: breathing and playing as one living entity they sound like a majestic organ.
– Thanks to Todos los fuegos el fuego the drizzly day was over before I knew it.