Composer Hanna Kulenty: ‘I assemble emotions’

The Polish-Dutch Hanna Kulenty (Białystok, 1961) writes music that gets under your skin. Whether it concerns early works such as Fourth Circle for violin and piano (1994), the opera Mother of Black-Winged Dreams on the multiple personality syndrome (1995), or more recent compositions such as the Viola Concerto (2015) and her Flute Concerto No.3 (2018), you are irrevocably carried along on an exciting journey with inescapable emotional power. For the upcoming Bass clarinet festival of Fie Schouten she composed Tap-Blow-Dance4, for two bass clarinets, cello and vibraphone. It will be premiered on 3 November in Grand Theatre Groningen.

I got to know Hanna Kulenty and her work in the 90’s, when I studied musicology at the University of Amsterdam. Because female composers were totally ignored at the institute, I went looking for them myself. That proved to be no sinecure, but thanks to the few CD’s and concerts that were available I discovered an incredible amount of beautiful music. Since then I have championed women composers through all channels that were available.


A first opportunity arose when I started as a reporter and presenter of the Concertzender’s Radio-Dinner in 1994. For this programme on current music affairs I interviewed many female musicians and composers, whether or not live in the studio. Among them was also Kulenty who I spoke on 4 December 1996 about her opera The Mother of Black-Winged Dreams. The world premiere took place in Munich four days after. – Only twenty years later (!) it was performed in the Netherlands for the first time. (I wrote about this for a Dutch blog.) Since then Kulenty has become a fixture in Dutch and international musical life.

However, she is not the type to rest on her laurels, and she continues to look for new ways. But whatever methods of composition Kulenty employs, a constant remains the crushing intensity, which grips you by the throat. The premiere of Tap-Blow-Dance4 on November 3rd at the Grand Theatre in Groningen is something to look forward to. At this concert her overwhelming Arcus for three percussionists will also be performed. I interviewed Kulenty about her new piece for the magazine De Klarinet.

Handwritten score

‘The ink is still wet.’ It’s a common cliché when a world premiere is announced, even though today most compositions are supplied as computer files. In the case of Hanna Kulenty, however, we must take the statement literally: unlike many of her colleagues, she still writes her music by hand. At the time of our interview (towards the end of August) she has just put the last notes of Tap-Blow-Dance4 to paper. It is up to a copyist to translate her resolute but fiddly handwriting into a printed score that is legible for musicians.

Enthusiastically she tells me that she composed the piece according to her technique of ‘musique surréalistique’, developed in recent years. – Which is also the title of a composition for soprano, clarinet and piano from 2018. She used to compose in arches of recurring, ever more intense patterns, but nowadays she concentrates on the relation between time and space. ‘This has always played a role, of course’, she say, ‘but now I strive for a more perfect form.’

Musique surréalistique

Exactly how we are to understand the term ‘musique surréalistique’ is not easily put into words, as it turns out. ‘For me it is always about emotion, in that sense every new piece is a regrouping of emotions. A collage if you like. I feel intuitively what I want to say but nowadays intuition plays a less important role when composing. I’m still averse to preconceived compositional techniques, but I no longer mind rubbing up against conventions. I make use of traditional elements, but use them as I see fit.’

‘Of course the musical form is partly determined by musical parameters like proportion, balance and the like, but musique surréalistique goes further than that. It is a way of juxtaposing sound and time structures in such a way that the whole work gets a new atmosphere.’ As before, she strives to create a trance, but now the emphasis is more on the spiritual aspect. ‘I write from the realization that we are hurt beings, who nevertheless can rise above ourselves, because there is something greater than human strength.’

Unity in diversity

Can music liberate us through trance? ‘Yes, it can make us aware of something we actually know deep inside, namely that despite all the differences there is unity in diversity.’ She compares it with reading a book: ‘While reading you develop an expectation pattern. You think you know what is going to come, but are suddenly confronted with a twist that places the whole thing in a different perspective. The expected emotion can take a different form each time: it can stop, turn around, transform or remain the same. That constant tension brings you into a trance. It also occurs in Tap-Blow-Dance4.’

‘The piece will last about 10 to 12 minutes. It is written in an almost impossible tempo and consists of endless cascades of mainly descending – sometimes also ascending – figurations of the two bass clarinets and the vibraphone. The cello acts as a driving motor in the underground. The music is fast as lightning and forms one big sequence of seemingly aggressive emotions.’

Colliding worlds

‘Because of the structured build-up, you expect this motoric rhythm to continue. But then suddenly a sad melody sounds and two musical worlds collide. From that moment on, a delay sets in. The music even seems to come to a standstill, but that doesn’t happen, it “freezes”, time is stopped for a moment. The tragic motif never sounds in full, so that your expectation is partly, but never one hundred percent, honoured. You simply don’t know when which emotion will return and in what form. So the piece is always different and unexpected in its emotional “expectedness”.’

Initially the title was Underwater. ‘When in 2019 Fie Schouten asked me to write a piece for two bass clarinets, vibraphone and cello, I wondered how I could realize my ideas of musique surréalistique in this line-up. I immediately thought of water. Water offers a space that can flood us, but in which we can also immerse ourselves. Colours become brighter under water, movements slow down and sounds are muffled. At the same time contours and details are enlarged until they take on almost inhuman shapes.’ – The latter is in line with the murderous tempo: both bass clarinet players have to play motifs so fast that you get substitute cramps in your lips.

Playing while tap-dancing

The definite title refers to Tap-Blow-Dance, a solo piece she previously composed for her son, who is a trumpeter. ‘I wanted to create the same climate, with a great emphasis on rhythm.’ Kulenty asks a lot of her performers. Not only must they play their challenging, quickly repeating notes, but they are also required to tap their feet, in a strictly prescribed rhythm. Sometimes all four musicians tap simultaneously without playing, then the music consists purely of the clicking of heels.’

The clarinettists are instructed to play staccato ‘if possible’. Regularly they must produce a percussive sound with a strongly blown tone. The vibraphone usually teams up with the wind instruments, only occasionally with the cello. The cellist is instructed to play the many double stops on two strings, ‘as good as possible’. About halfway through, the second bass clarinet introduces the lamento motif, which keeps returning at irregular intervals and in slightly changing forms. At the end the first bass clarinettist plays it in an ever slower tempo, in a random number of repetitions of their own choice.

Kulenty concludes: ‘Together the four musicians form one swirling organism.’

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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