From the meaningful to the elusive – An interview with cellist-composer Wilma Pistorius

Her website sums it up nicely. At the age of three, Wilma Pistorius found herself irrevocably drawn to a cellist playing on the street; a year later she started her cello lessons. She not only learned to play the instrument but also made up her own tunes, and in her teens she started composing seriously. She recently completed Crossroads. The 8 movements of this cycle form the core of the debut CD of ensemble Ugly Pug. I interviewed her for Dutch Composers Now.

As so often with beautiful stories, the truth is a little more mundane. ‘I can’t really remember what I found so irresistible about the cello when I was three’, admits Wilma Pistorius (1991, Belville, South Africa). ‘We still lived in South Africa, but at the time I was in Bath, England with my parents. When I saw the busker playing, I exclaimed “Mamma, I want to do that too!” and she said I could when I was four. I remembered the promise, and just before my fourth birthday, I asked if she’d bought me a cello, yet.’

EXISTENTIAL SIGNIFICANCE

The instrument is inextricably linked to her life and work: ‘For as long as I can remember, playing the cello has been something I have always wanted to do – and have done. It has given me something that is truly mine: the relationship with myself and my creativity through the cello is very valuable. This has inevitably evolved over the years, but is still of existential significance.’

As a child, she also thought up her own tunes and wrote out existing music by ear. In my teens I started composing seriously, creating and developing musical material with attention to overarching concepts and underlying structures. Before that I didn’t really know that composing could be a profession, it seemed more like something that ‘happened’ to you.’

At thirteen, Pistorius moved to the Netherlands with her parents. ‘My father had the opportunity to obtain his doctorate here in antenatal ultrasound imaging. That was very convenient for me, because in the Netherlands there were many more opportunities to develop as an artist than in South Africa!’ She went straight to the Academie Muzikaal Talent in Utrecht, where she received cello lessons from Lenian Benjamins.

‘That was between my 13th and 18th birthday’, says Pistorius. ‘Lenian gave me a whole new perspective, teaching me to play with less tension by employing more natural gestures and making a better use of weight and gravity. She moreover told me about the Alexander Technique, for which I have been a teacher in training myself since 2017. This has not only brought me a great deal of ease and lightness in how I move, and play the cello, but also in my creative process and my entire way of being.’

TWO WORLDS MEET

At nineteen, she went to study with Jeroen den Herder at the Rotterdam Conservatoire. ‘I learned a lot from Jeroen as well. With him I really “grew up” as a cellist. I found my own voice, because he believed in me and treated me as an equal. And, since he is very much at home in the world of new music, I got the chance to immerse myself in that, too and bring two of my worlds together: cello and composition.’

Jeroen den Herder

During the same period, she studied composition at the Conservatory of Amsterdam with Wim Henderickx and Jorrit Tamminga. ‘It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what I learned from my various teachers. Over the years, their lessons and advice have become a whole, in which the individual threads can no longer be clearly distinguished. The most important thing I learned from them was less a matter of specifics than their overall approach. In that respect, all three of them continue to inspire me.’

A few things do stand out, however. ‘The first thing that springs to mind when I think of studying with Jeroen is that he gave me confidence as a cellist. Jorrit taught me that music can also be “cool”, and draw inspiration from other styles. My musical taste is very broad, but for a long time I thought the only thing that really counted was Classical Music (with capital letters), and that anything else ranked as guilty pleasures. Thanks to Jorrit, I dared to integrate my broad taste in my work, which ultimately leads to more inspiration!

‘And Wim… Wim’s attitude is very aesthetic. He understands the way timbre appeals to me, and how I try to capture the intangible. Because he understood these non-verbal aspects of my creative process, I learned to regard them as valuable myself. His own work also confirmed to me that, as a composer, I can and may seek out stillness and beauty.’

SERIOUS WITH A WINK

In her biography, Pistorius writes that her music is ‘serious but with a wink’. How are we to understand this? ‘In essence, my music arises from the interaction between how I experience myself and the world around me. The creative process always starts from something meaningful: something elusive that I cannot put into words. – That is precisely why I write music! In translating these abstract, sensory and inner experiences into notes and sounds, I can only be sincere. Hence “serious”.’

‘But “serious” needn’t necessarily be “heavy”. For me, lightness, humour and playfulness are essential: they are integral to how I experience the world. They contribute for instance to the meaning of a theme or a piece of music; they make it human. If something is only serious, it loses some of its meaning. By counterbalancing it with lightness, I find an opening to make it my own. Hence the “wink”.’

MYSTERIOUS FEMINITY

On her website Pistorius writes that her music has a ‘mysterious feminine ambiance’. In these (post) feminist times, this comes across as a dire form of political incorrectness. What does she mean by this? ‘As I said before, my music originates from my personal reaction to the world around me. For example, the feeling of softness and promise that a beautiful sunset evokes in me. An important part of the “interaction” comes from who I am, and the inner perception of myself.’

‘There are many different aspects of the self: “Man is an onion made up of a hundred integuments, a texture made up of many threads”, writes Herman Hesse in Steppenwolf. You experience these different aspects largely subconsciously, outside your field of vision. It is more about the way you look than what you see: a kind of lenses that colour your experience of the world around you.’

‘The way you are is different when you are gardening from when you’re playing music by yourself, or cooking for friends. Often we experience different facets simultaneously, and mostly we don’t even give it a thought. Some parts of myself are more closely connected to my creativity than others, and my femininity is inseparable from my creative process. It’s always there and it colours the way I create and think, react and feel. Sometimes it’s a conscious choice or a “tool”, sometimes it’s unconscious and I only recognise it afterwards.’

‘And “mysterious”… When I’m composing, something else comes into play, something that defies language. A feeling of profound significance, something magical that is on the verge of being clearly seen and understood; something unfamiliar and exciting that lies around the next corner, just out of reach… People have told that they sometimes experience something like that when they hear my music. So I know I’m on the right track. But it’s hard to explain, it remains elusive.’

NEW MUSIC ON EARLY INSTRUMENTS

In 2018, Ugly Pug asked her to write them a piece. The ensemble boasts an unusual combination of instruments. Juho Myllylä plays recorder and electric guitar and operates live electronics; Miron Andres plays fiddles, viola da gamba and vihuela, and Wesley Shen plays the harpsichord. ‘When they commissioned me, I at once thought of contrasts and layering,’ says Pistorius.

‘Historical instruments have something pure and direct, many timbral nuances and a certain subtlety of expression. That suits my music well. The gamba/vihuela, harpsichord, recorders, and electric guitar complement each other wonderfully: they can contrast with one another, but also blend beautifully. I can emphasise contrasts but also make the sounds blend, so that it is not always clear who is playing what. This lends itself perfectly to my layered way of writing and of playing with different timbres.’

‘The titles of the eight movements relate to the different images or ideas that form their starting point. I work with the friction between them: the field of tension itself, and what can emerge from it. Sometimes they amplify one another, at other times they overlap, or something new springs up. For example, between day and night there is dusk. It may be orange, pink, purple, yellow, while day is blue/white and night is black/grey.’

CONTRASTING OR BLENDING

‘Some contrasts inevitably presented themselves because new music is being played on historical instruments. I used hints of Baroque gestures and cadences now and then, as a respectful “flirtation” with the early style. In Crossroads, I also took inspiration from more popular music, such as by David Bowie and rock. But there are also references to Indian Ragas. Crossroads was the first piece in which I had the chance to employ the whole spectrum of my musical taste.’

On the CD, the eight movements are interspersed with compositions by others. What motivated this choice? ‘The trio asked me for a piece with a flexible duration, something that could be adapted to different concert programmes and also be used as an “umbrella” to tie a programme together. I decided to go a step further and give the players permission to play the movements in a different order, creating different contrasts each time. The only requirement is that section IV. Playful/Comfortably Dark must always play a central role, for this is the centrepiece.’

How would she describe her composition to an uninitiated audience in only one sentence? ‘Crossroads is a journey through a really dark sound landscape, where different characters, moods and colours overlap, blend and contrast with one another.’

This article was written for, and first published by Dutch Composers Now on the website Newmusicnow.nl

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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