30 January 2017

Interview - Jachin Pousson

It is time for another interview, the second in my collection. Jachin Pousson is a composer who has fascinated since I met him in 2014. I had the priviledge of being his 'teacher' in the Palendriai composer course, I also had the joy of conducting his work which was premiered in the course. Beyond the sheer joy I found within his music, I am particular curious about Jachin because of the fact that, like myself, he is someone who came to the Baltic looking for a musical alternative and has resided in his cosy dwelling in the Latvian captial of Riga.

The work his I premiered was a curious piece indeed, for accordions and two string instruments. Cirqitri (2014) had this wonderful rolling harmonies which pulsated and shimmered, there was a glorious pull in the work; especially as it was quite so hypnotising. Cirqitri can be heard here. 

When I mentioned this process to Jachin, I asked for him to recommend a particular work to portray his output. Mostly from my point of view, every piece of his is full of curious nuances and details which gives each of them a certain glorious necessity to them; so I simply could not choose for myself. Jachin pointed me towards his Tides and Shadows for chamber orchestra as it is a good example of where his music is now, regardless of whether it is his strongest work or not. Tides and Shadows is full of that same richness and rolling harmonies that could be heard in Cirqitri but, due to the expanse of the orchestral pallete, it has a much larger array of colours and gestures. The flowing melodic line is coloured beautiful and always manages to avoid turning into something rather sacarin or self indulgent. A really wonderful work indeed. 

So here is the interview I had with the composer regarding his work and his life in Riga:

Hello Jachin, thank you for agreeing to let me interview you for the blog. Firstly, as a fellow foreigner in the Baltic, could you describe what lead you to Riga?
Hello Ben, and thank you for having me. The simple answer is the music. I began formal music education in Copenhagen under Hans Abrahamsen, who introduced me to composers from the Baltics. He gave me a few references to listen to with scores from the library and I began to discover treasure after treasure from this part of the world. The music was intriguing, boldly designed, and resonated on a deeper spiritual level to me. It contained to me a particular, novel combination of modern ideas, but with a solid foundation. At the time I was looking for a way out from what I perceived as fluffy, self-indulged, overtly intellectual or downright slapstick reactional output in the contemporary academic sphere. I began to explore the possibility of moving to the Baltics in my 2nd year of a Bachelors degree in composition, and managed to find a place as an exchange student at Jāzep Vītols Latvian Music Academy in late 2012. When the year was up, I realised I’d only scratched the surface and decided to continue my education as a Masters student in Riga. I’m still discovering great music here in Latvia, as well as music from Lithuania and Estonia.

And for those unfamiliar with your work, could you describe your concerns and obsessions as a composer?
I could say that early on I was obsessed with the schools of sacred minimalism, impressionism and spectralism. Much of my output has attempted to manifest at the intersection of these over the years. I’m thoroughly obsessed with the sculpting of texture, and places where individual melodies reach a speed or rhythm where they begin to be perceived as texture. The line where the threads becomes fabric, which can then be treated and transformed on a different material level. I’m also obsessed with large scale patterns and behaviours observable in nature. I like making musical analogies from these,  for example, music that describes the morphing shapes in starling murmurations, or the refraction of light through amber, or looking further outward, the chaotic orbit of Pluto and its phase-locked moon Charon. As a student I was motivated to find my own way of abstracting these in a perceivable, enjoyable way. There was poetry in the math that described the phenomena that captivated me, but it wasn’t easy to turn the math into music that produced a vivid impression of the source. However as I began to find my own way, I became more motivated to be honest with my output. It wasn’t enough to write a successful abstraction of a natural phenomenon. Today I want to communicate something more personal, and this calls for honesty.
I am concerned with objectivity. Hans Abrahamsen used to say to me that as a composer it is very important to be objective. Over time I think I’ve come to understand what he meant. Music is a subjective and emotional experience, no matter what role you play. To be objective is to be able to see a thing for what it really is and grasp the value of the elements important to it, whether or not it appeals to you personally. In retrospect, the academic composition exercises that were the most painful to the ear and mind initially, truly unlocked the doors of perception that allowed for deep appreciation of music I’d never have naturally selected for myself. There’s no two composers exactly alike, and for an environment to be supportive of explorers, contemplators, and those more aligned with tradition, I think objectivity is key.

Within your work, I often see attempts to connect to the ancient as well as connecting to the very new. How do you juggle this conundrum of ancient and modern? Where do you think, you achieved this balance best?

The way I see it, there are many powerful and ancient archetypes we carry in our collective human consciousness. The image that came to mind was that opening chapter in 2001 A Space Odyssey where prehistoric primates gathered curiously around the black rectangular alien monolith to the soundtrack of Ligeti’s Requiem. The combination so spellbindingly captivates and spurs the imagination! Of course, composers embed symbols within music all the time. I suppose in my own work I’ve simply decided to reach further back and further forward, attempting to embody the ancient within the forward-looking, or vice-versa. I don’t know where the balance or rather the contrast was achieved best, but my most recent attempt was in a work called Rituals for mixed choir, piano and percussion last Spring. I incorporated singing techniques from Inuit and Mongolian throat singing with melismatic material culminating in spectral clusters with evolving forments. This was accompanied by timpani, tom-toms, sleigh bells, and a piano playing mostly rhythmically within the body of the instrument. I chose to write the text in Japanese, as I felt it to be a suitable language to capture the ancient past and the distant future poetically. I was happy with what emerged from this combination, and must credit the conductor Krišs Pozomkovskis for his outstanding interpretation.

As you have been living in Riga for quite some time now, how connected do you feel to the contemporary music scene? Do you feel like an outsider looking in or are you completely adopted into the scene?
Good question. How do you measure a feeling of connection? I’ve been an outsider all my life, having lived rootless and restless in many places. Riga was perhaps the first and only place I’ve sensed what home must feel like in terms of a physical location. I’m a local in the sense that this is where I’ve made music and bought my bread for the last 4 years, but I recognise there are many things I will simply never understand. The contemporary scene in Riga is wonderfully active and inclusive, and it’s been an enormous privilege to be able to grow and contribute within it. But it has its inner workings which are still mysterious to me. Sometimes I’ve felt passed over in favour of a local colleague. But other times I’ve been given opportunities I would say I scarcely deserved. In short I have somewhat stopped pondering this issue of how connected I feel to the scene and rather focused on how can I best contribute to it and build it up together with my esteemed colleagues in our time.

How do you think your studies have affected this?
Well, studies were essentially the platform for entering the scene. As a student, most opportunities to have your work realised came from within the academy. Post graduation, most opportunities come from people you’ve developed personal relationships with during studies. I suppose it’s the natural order of things. It’s all about who you know. It’s great to be able to revisit say, an ensemble or a solo musician and collaborate outside the walls of the academy. I believe this continuity is meaningful and propels the scene forward.

From your point of observation, who would you say are the most notable and interesting composers working in Riga today?
There are several generations of composers working in Riga, and there are notable and interesting ones within each. Though it may be obvious, I must mention Pēteris Vasks, since his music called to me the most when I was first drawn to Baltic music. He, Pēteris Plakidis and Selga Mence perhaps represent the most notable from the older generation from the point of view of my experience so far. From the middle generation, I must mention Rolands Kronlaks, Jānis Petraškevičs and Ēriks Ešenvalds. Each pushed the envelope of modern ideas and techniques along vectors of their individual interests, and all are in positions to influence and inspire the younger generation. The younger generation is harder to pinpoint as it is less consistent - that is, it is the most spontaneous and adventurous. But from my point of observation, I could mention that I keep an ear tuned carefully to Madara Pētersone, Evija Skuķe, Linda Leimane and Platons Buravickis.

And finally, like I did in my last interview, let’s do the desert island discs and which 5 pieces would you want with you if you were stranded on a desert island?
Perhaps a mix of things that have always managed to move and intrigue me - and have important memories attached. Tomorrow I’ll likely have changed my mind on one or two of these, but if I were leaving today, I’d take Arvo Part’s ‘Tabula Rasa’, Peteris Vasks’ symphony for strings ‘Voices’, Georg Friedrich Haas’s ‘In Vain’, Toru Takemitsu’s ‘In An Autumn Garden’, and… Miles Davis’s ‘Flamenco Sketches’.

So to close here is a wonderful rendition of Voices by Peteris Vasks.

27 January 2017

Distant Light - Tolimos Sviesos

Last night bared witness to my first all Baltic concert of 2017. The St. Christopher's Chamber Orchestra, alongside the soloist Giedre Zarenaite, performed a rather wonderful collection of pieces by some of the most original figures within the Baltic. I was extremely excited about this concert for a very long time for multiple reasons, firstly the combination of composers was just brilliant, and I was extremely curious to see how Giedre Zarenaite would approach such a significant work for violin and strings.

After a wonderful introduction from Donatas Katkus, Giedre approached the stage to perform Bronius Kutavicius's Andata e Ritorno for solo violin. The work itself is very typical of the composer, with its pulsating opening figure and slowly building form. Despite the highly technical demands of the work, Giedre always managed to bring out the lyrical qualities and pulsations without sounding like a performing robot. The connection with the piece showed Giedre's wonderful understanding of the work managing to deliver her own interpretation. So from a rather modest example of Bronius Kutavicius, Giedre managed to always hint at the brilliance within the grand composer as well as within her own artistic vision.

Then, after the charming work, came one of my favourite works for violin and orchestra Tala Gaisma by Peteris Vasks. The work, originally written for Gideon Kremer, stands as one of the most seminal works by Peteris Vasks, and has gone on to define his musical utterances to this day. Having enjoyed massive international interest, the virtuosic work has a vast array of performances and interpretations. I was particularly curious to witness how Giedre would approach such a mainstay of the contemporary violin repertoire. The work is ultimately defined by five key regions, which are separated by multiple cadenzas. In some of the lesser performances, soloists are often drawn into milking or dragging the slower melodic passages, and filling the performance with huge dramatic pauses. Giedre and Modestas Barkauskas did not fall into this trap. The sheer control and projection of message by Giedre was inspired. Throughout, every single gesture felt purposeful and necessary. She never became self indulgent or sentimental, but rather focused on the architecture and significance of the musical gesture within the larger narrative. This combined with the focused control of Modestas Barkauskas led to a rather intriguing and original interpretation of the work. The quality of the performance bought out the almost baroque quality of the structure and demonstrated this ornate design which very few performers bring out. It was definitely a memorable performance, and without question probably my favourite rendition of the work. If Giedre Zarenaite approaches all pieces with the same focus, control, and understanding of the music she will make herself quite a vital performer delivering highly focused and well informed performances.

Following this came a rather underperformed work by Arvo Part, Trisagion for string orchestra. The piece is one of the earliest examples of his famous tintinnabuli but in comparison to the likes of Tabula Rasa or Passio the dramatic focus seems to be more obvious and direct. The musical dialogue is presented in a raw but powerful manner and the result is one of my favourites of his entire output. Modestas Barkauskas was particularly intune with this piece, always bringing out the strongest and most potent qualitities of the gestures. The fragile elements were crystalline and the powerful gestures roared like the largest organ. A rather elegant rendition indeed.

The finale came in the form of Antanas Rekasius's Muzika styginiams. Rekasius has been witnessing a revival in Lithuania, thanks in part to the interest of Apartment House in London, as well as local musicology. The composer is extremely hard to define, but in a rather reductionist manner he is a kind of Ives-ian figure; namely he stands as such a singular renegade that noone else in the region could sound quite like him. This is particularly true of Muzika styginiams. The open heavy handed passacaglia figure which is interrupted with violent textural gestures makes for a rather mind-bending dialogue of the blatantly familiar and the terrifying unknown. Modestas Barkauskas seemed in his element with this work. The rendition was strong and forceful, hammering the musical material into our ears, forcing us to consume this magnificent insanity. 

The whole concert was a real treat for my ears, not just because of my love of the composers. The interpration and focus of the St. Christopher Orchestra under Modestas Barkauskas was extremely solid and very well controlled. The contour of the concert as a whole was also intriguing as well, there was a sensation of grander narrative within the concert as a whole, as well as within the composers's singular pieces. I am beyond glad I went and I sincerely hope I get to witness more concerts of this calibre over the course of 2017.

23 January 2017

Veljo Tormis (1930-2017)

Veljo Tormis (1930-2017) photo by Tonu Tormis
The death of a composer is always a poignantly sad moment, as a person who gave life to such a creative expanse will no longer produce again. The passing is made all the more significant when the composer in question was such a vital figure for their nation and for music internationally. 

This is definitively true of Veljo Tormis. Throughout his life, Veljo Tormis's music has been distinctive, unique, and Estonian to its core. A pupil of Visarion Sheblain in the Moscow Conservatoire, Tormis's early works were preoccupied with neoclassicism, his Overture No. 2, which was performed in the Warsaw Autumn Festival 1961, is a perfect example of this. 

Tormis's music gained its unique twist after he began to drawn on the Estonian folk tradition of regilaul which shaped the composer into building a musical language which drew upon ancient constructive ideals and fusing them with modern techniques. The result, is simply powerful. His large works like Eesti Ballaardid (1980) is like a kaleidoscope of rituals and reflections, blurring together producing a hypnotic and beautiful musical display. Other works like Raua Needmine (1985) is raw, and intensive (Stravinsky would have killed to make a choir sound this ritualistic and potent). The work is simply for two male soloists, choir, and drum, which feels like we have excavated a lost tribe enacting a ritual. 

His works, were not solely defined by Estonian traditions, he often drew upon other cultures or on other musical traditions from pre-Christian eras; including Livonian, Setus, Finns, Ingrians, and Bulgarians, to name a few. The approach and result, never turned into mere exoticism or fetishism, but through principled composing and an elegant sincerity led to the production of truly original works. 

A composer who will be sorely missed, both for his wonderful music and for his impact on the Baltic as a whole. As I never had the priviledge to meet him, all I can do is rave about how wonderful his music is, so here are some more wonderful examples of works by the great and dearly departed Veljo Tormis.

20 January 2017

Helena Tulve - L'ombre derriere toi

After an unexpected hiatus, I am back. After a few days of soul searching, it suddenly came to me. I realised I have not written about probably one of my favourite Estonians to grace this earth. Helena Tulve.

Helena Tulve (1972*) is an Estonian composer from Tartu whose music is a glorious music and rich flowing melodies and sumptuous palettes of colour. In her student days she studied with Alo Poldmae before going to the Estonian Academy of Music where she studied with the equally brilliant Erkki-Sven Tuur. After her studies in Tallinn, she studied in Paris under the guidance of Jacques Charpentier, and it was in France where her music was able to get that extra zest that sets her apart from her contemporaries. Being in Paris in the very early 1990s would have meant she was able to consume the vast collections of delights from composers like Kaija Saariaho, Gerard Grisey, and Marco Stroppa to name a few. This combined with the recently reinstated independance of Estonia would have left in the a brand new world that she could craft to her design.

Her music is quite far reaching having written for a vast array of settings including a rather hypnotising opera. All of her works have a particular zing of Helena Tulve, now this is by no ways suggesting the works sound identical, but more that you are always aware of when you are listening to a piece by Helena Tulve. Just like in the way Schoenberg is always Schoenberg or Brahms is always sounding like Brahms, Helena is Helena; and in a century where composers are sounding increasingly similar, composers like Helena give us a wonderful jolt of interest.

Often her works build on her understanding of spectral music as well as her knowledge of gregorian chant. The resulting 'mash-up' is just magical, a right up my street, as the music gives the sensation of being extremely familiar as well as out of this world. Almost like the spiritual powers of the chant are starting to jump out of the musicians and into our ears.

Now admittedly it was almost impossible to choose just one work of Helena's to demonstrate, as I simply love everything she writes, and pretty much everything is in itself its own masterpiece. I decided to focus on L'ombre derrier toi (2011), mostly because of its use of instruments. It is a work for three viol da gambes and sting orchestra, heavy handedly showing the clash of old and new. The result is this magnificently rolling melody which grows into a glorious sculpture of sound. What makes it all the more magnificent, is the gesture in the viols. The fleeting ornamentations are almost perfectly in tune with the ornamentation that viol players would use when playing consort music, so intuitively, and almost literally, it has dragged ancient music to today and made it into a exquisite piece for the ears. The gradual built of colour, is not rushed, nor is it slow, pacing almost seems perfect and the momentum that is built is just elegant. The sculptured mass of sound never builds into something noisy, merely it gains the sensation of trying to transcend itself, by becoming so rich and full it endeavoured to transcend the page.

I could spend days talking about how wonderful the music of Helena Tulve is, so I will stop taking up everyone's time and simply end with a wonderful quote from her:
'Of utmost importance to me is the extending of musical boundaries. By this I mean the extension of timbral, formal and stylistic borders as well as the opening-up of music’s geographical boundaries. The latter has greatly advanced the former.'

Its always nice when a composer sums up their music in a neat practical manner, instead of leaving 'critics' like myself to spout paragraphs about how great they are. Anyway, until next time.

1 January 2017

Interview - Andrius Maslekovas

So here we are, 2017, who knows what on earth is in store for the following year. To add more to this blog I thought it was about time to start interviewing composers to introduce them in a more direct manner. So here is our first composer; Andrius Maslekovas. Throughout my years of dealing with the Baltic Andrius has been a composer of the periphery of my work. His work has been an interesting development to observe for multiple reasons, most significantly because he seems to epitomise native Lithuanian concerns, but also because he work seems to be leading him to quite an original path indeed. 

A pupil of Raminta Serksnyte, Andrius's work has had a massive fascination with sonoristic music and the possible avenues available to it. The most significant obsession has been within aritculating and gesturing in a sonoristic landscape, an endeavour which he pursued for his doctoral studies. As he is still a rather 'young' composer I don't wish to pigeonhole him too soon, but I am more than keen to see how he continues to develop as a composer. Without any further ado here is the interview:

As the newest doctor to flower in the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre, I thought that gave me a great excuse to turn to you as my first interviewee. I have been very familiar with your work for multiple years now, but for those less familiar can you describe your musical output?

I am very pleased to be the very first interviewee in what seems to be a start of a big great series. It is an honour.
You are starting this interview with a very difficult question (j). If it was possible for me to thoroughly describe my musical output in a verbal form, I don’t think I would be composing music. In my music I usually try to grasp some impressions with my other four senses (taste, sight, touch, smell) and transform it to some kind of aural depiction. It is evident in the titles of my compositions, e.g. The Moments of White Transparency, for violin and piano, Incantation of the Freezing Haze for flute solo, Dissipating Fragrances for violin and accordion etc. In order to achieve that I usually rely on what I call an “articulation of sound quality” which encompasses a heavy and strategic use of timbres, extreme dynamics, precise articulations, specific rhythmical figures that enhance the perception of sound quality, etc. I really liked how my artistic supervisor Raminta Šerkšnytė described my music, she called it a Calligraphical Sonorism. In fact,  sometimes I even employ principles of painting and calligraphy in particular. These principles are evident in such compositions as Calligraphies of the Last Rays for clarinet viola and piano, Winter Calligraphies  for symphony orchestra, Sand Paintings for symphony orchestra, Three Canvasses of Anthracite Coloured Water for 16 strings, etc.

Could you tell us which composers you draw upon within your own work?
There are quite a few composers whose music I find very interesting and who admittedly made a significant influence on my musical style and way of thinking. To mention a few: Toru Takemitsu (especially his music for GAGAKU orchestra, and symphonic pieces), Toshio Hosokawa, Johannes - Maria Staud, Matthias Pintscher, Kaija Saariaho, George Crumb, Martinş Viļums. And here I also have to mention my former professor Marius Baranauskas, whose ouvre was a big inspiration for me even before I started my composition studies. I think I was really lucky to have him as my composition teacher.

As your doctoral thesis was dedicated towards sonorism, what were the discoveries you made during your research?

The thesis is called "Structural and Prestructural Compositional Aspects of Sonoristic Music". It is based upon a hypothesis that structural processes of this music are dependent on certain prestructural aspects, such as particularities our perceptual mechanism, mental sound processing, manifestations of Gestalt principles within different sound parameters, as well as personality type and a unique compositional paradigm. In this thesis I discuss all of these aspects, develop a new analytical approach based on articulation of sound quality and uncover the compositional principles of operating this unique dimension.
I found within your music an interesting clarity and modesty about it, what elements of your compositional process do you believe produces this clarity?

Clarity and modesty... I never heard anyone to describe my music like that. But when I think of it... I guess you're right.  I don't think there is a special technique to add these qualities to your music. I guess they are naturally there, as any kind of music is a reflection of the composers personality. I don't claim to be the most modest person in the world, but maybe that is hidden somewhere deep in my subconsciousness (j).

What are you working on at the minute? And what works are you hoping to create in the future?
At the moment I'm taking a much needed vacation from any creative activities and I don'thave any particular upcoming compositions on my mind. I am open to any commisions and suggestions though... Anyone?

And to round off, let’s do a good ol’ Desert Island Discs which 5 pieces could you not live without?

I'm not a type of person who's always listening to the music, but if I could take 5 pieces to a desert island, I think it would be Rain Tree by Toru Takemitsu, Vertical Song I by Toshio Hosokawa, Apeiron by Johannes Maria Staud and  the last two spots would be for two pieces of my own, can’t pick my favourites just yet (j)… 

For me personally, what has been most curious with Andrius's development is the juxtaposition that has sprouted. In his work Winter Calligraphies the piece has a fascination to and fro between the choir and the orchestra, as well as a fascinating juxtaposition between rich textural gestures and almost modal harmonies. For me this most recent work stands as a testament of where Andrius could evolve as a composer. The rich rolling tectonics of the orchestra crossed with almost 'traditional' choral writing makes for a hypnotic world. His understanding of harmony really compliments and embellishes his fine ear for orchestral colour. His earlier works have always been very direct in their intentions but arguably have been a bit thin, when compared to this work for large orchestra you can see just how aware Andrius is of musical architecture and how it is going to further him in the future. His other works are available on soundcloud, and I do recommend people giving it a listen.

Firstly congratulations again to the now Dr. Andrius Maslekovas, and lets see where his music will take us in the coming years.