Interview on "Sol" by Blai Soler
Have you worked with Paul Daniel before?
I have never met Paul Daniel or the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine but I hugely look forward to working with them on the premiere of Sol. Let me say, though, that Paul Daniel is one of the first people whom I saw conduct when I arrived in London in the late 90s. I vividly remember his striking performance of Rhinegold with the English National Opera, where he was principal conductor.
What is the motivation behind this astral title?
The title does have some astral resonances though the main reason for it is a bit more prosaic: it chiefly refers to the note G (sol) in the musical scale (specifically G3) which is present throughout the piece and is of capital importance to the composition’s structure. That said, in Catalan (my mother tongue) the word sol has three other meanings in addition to the musical note: ‘sun’ (here is the astral aspect, yes!), ‘ground’ and also ‘lonesome’. All three definitions relate one way or another to that all-important note, G3.
Could you talk about the genesis of this project, the composition's background?
It may seem paradoxical, but after completing my orchestral piece Divinacions (2013) I felt hungry for further symphonic writing. It was an intuitive thing – I felt there was still a lot to discover… loose ends which needed further exploration. I spent quite some time just focusing on developing a wide variety of aspects left untouched in Divinacions – formal aspects, polyphony, harmonic rhythm etc. It turned out to be important preparatory work for this orchestral piece. As sketches piled up I received a commission to write a string quartet – Imaginings – which I composed (by necessity!) quite quickly. This was a very interesting and useful project as I applied some newly found compositional processes while allowing the orchestral ideas to mature and settle. With the quartet completed, a long period of stagnation followed… Only gradually bits and pieces started to fall into place and the work’s formal design became clearer. It took me many, many months to complete the piece.
In Sol one can hear four linked episodes followed, after a break, by a fifth episode marked ‘very slow’: what is the synopsis of the work?
The piece is in two parts that are of similar length (c. 10 minutes each) yet radically and deliberately asymmetrical in their form and content. The first part has drama at its core as it is based on friction and conflict between contrasting characters. It indeed comprises four linked episodes, the first of which is calm yet foreboding, the second more fluid and tense after which comes the climactic third: rough, risky and volatile. The fourth brings the first part to a conclusion by suddenly cutting off the high level of intensity of the third and leading the music into a mood similar to the first episode. The second part is made up of just one episode (the fifth) which is very transparent, comprising only a few – though sharply defined – elements. It is also extremely slow: the music moves at an exceptionally dilated pace, with note-lengths of over 10 seconds on average.
How does one approach symphonic writing today? Taking a close look at your instrumentation one can rarely spot tutti passages – it suggests a rather pointillistic touch…
I am not sure I would call it pointillistic, since my writing is really about lines and horizontality. However I do have an obsession with textural clarity and definition when writing for orchestra. The orchestra is a very large animal and the composer needs to be able to choose precisely the instrumentation that is necessary to a particular musical material, passage etc. This means, in my personal experience, that tutti writing – ie using the whole orchestral mass at once for the sake of volume – is really only seldom needed – and then not in the manner of the late romantic orchestra! That doesn’t in any way mean that a composer should abstain from writing extremely powerful passages such as only an orchestra is capable of producing – and such as we see in the music of Mahler, Strauss, Stravinsky... On the contrary, I think modern composers need not be afraid to give the orchestra the kind of muscle and directional power with which some influential figures post-1945 have felt uncomfortable, owing to their aesthetic stance.
Could you expand on your orchestral style since Divinacions?
My orchestral writing has developed enormously through the composition of Sol. If one thing perhaps stands out, it is that I have become increasingly preoccupied with musical ideas where timbre is intrinsic and at the end of Sol this is apparent. Take the fifth episode, which is 10 minutes long but only made up of very few materials, all crafted to be as individual as possible. What makes these materials idiosyncratic is in great part to do with their timbral make-up (which is most of the time non-transferrable) and not just with their purely musical syntax. We see, for example, an extremely slow duo of three unison flutes and three unison clarinets. It is precisely the “choral” effect that such a writing produces that gives uniqueness to this duo. Another element is in the 1st and 2nd violins: they play, antiphonally, a mutating six-note chord, in the guise of an organ. There is also a rather eccentric idea on the oboes; like the flutes and the clarinets, they play in unison but, whereas the clarinets and flutes do so melodically, the three oboes only produce one note in the whole ten minutes: a risky A flat 6, in the highest register. Another example of the idiosyncrasy provided by marrying syntax and timbre is the main brass material. Horns, trumpets, trombones and tuba (aided by double basses) are in charge of blasting away three very long, fortississimo notes throughout the piece: a G, a B flat and a C, all played low in the bass clef and doubled two octaves higher. The notes are so long that all the brass instruments need to take a breath numerous times. The resultant effect, though, is that of an uninterrupted wall of sound.
George Benjamin was your teacher and has followed closely your composing career: has he seen the score of Sol?
He is an extremely generous and supportive mentor and friend and I owe him profound gratitude. I haven’t yet shown him the score but I will certainly do so at the earliest opportunity.
What are your next projects?
I am now writing a piece for violinist Jagdish Mistry and the Ensemble Modern, a violin concerto of sorts. This is an interesting project and I want to put my own spin on the genre… I played violin a lot in my teens and early twenties and I have a deep knowledge of the repertoire. I must say I actually have misgivings about many concertos for the instrument, not because of the music per se, which in many instances is really moving and even arresting, but because in so many of those pieces, from Beethoven onwards, the violin really struggles to cut through the rich texture of the orchestra; it feels in fact quite ridiculous to see and hear such a small instrument playing with (or sometimes against!) over 80 musicians. I think baroque concertos are just right in terms of instrumentation and balance and even regarding the role of the soloist: for example, in Bach’s E major concerto, where the solo violin is so well embedded in the orchestral texture. Mozart is also extremely sensitive in this respect… After the excesses and masterpieces of the 19th century – and notwithstanding Berg, Stravinsky and a small handful of other pieces – the 20th century is a bit of a desert for the genre. Only with Ligeti’s concerto does it make a tangible comeback – a piece that treats the balance between soloist and orchestra with much sensitivity. Happily the 21st century is seeing a real renaissance for the medium.
François Dru (February 2017)
Have a look at the score