domingo, 7 de enero de 2007

Composer - interpreter : Friends forever ?

I found out today among the heap of letters received during my absence that my article is published in the December edition of "El Rapto de Europa" magazine who commissioned it. I wrote the article last October 2006. This is the translation in English :

We made history, and I didn't realize it at that time. That evening on the 9th of May 2006 in Auditorio Nacional, Jose Ramon Encinar and his Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid with me as the soloist premiered a masterpiece. It was David del Puerto's Symphony no. 2 "Nusantara", for piano and orchestra.

It has been a few decades since a Spanish composer wrote an important symphony or other big orchestral work that was accepted and became part of the repertory of Spanish symphony orchestras. Luis Suñen, the critic of "EL PAIS" hit the right note when he said that "Nusantara" should be programmed by all the Spanish orchestras : I personally consider "Nusantara" is for Spain equal to Copland's "Third" for America or Shostakovich's "Fifth" for Russia. Orchestras love to perform them, and these musical masterpieces "speak" to public and humanity in general. "Nusantara" is a very contemporary piece of music, dealing with contemporary issues and expressions (it was dedicated to the victims of the big tsunami 2004), groundbreaking a new sonic world and musical form but at the same time owing its existence to Scarlatti, Beethoven, Delacroix, Lord Byron, Cervantes and the popular culture of Indonesia.

One thing I noticed during the rehearsals was the attitude of the members of the orchestra. I have premiered many new concertos before, and many times I felt a kind of resistance from them, having to play passages (or even just noise effects) which are not well written their instrument, or simply that the music does not sound well due to sloppy orchestration or simply ignorance of the instrument from the part of the composer. That was not the case this time : the orchestral players were really happy -- and even proud -- to play this new work.

Although the separation between composer - musician is even more present today than, say, the 19th century, I strongly believe that a composer should still be able to master at least one instrument. Not necessarily performing in front of public, but being able to play pieces such as a Brahms intermezzo . It gives them the idea of "feeling well" playing music : the music turns into real sounds, and not just written as silent notes on paper. My experiences have proved this : Del Puerto or Santiago Lanchares who play the guitar, Polo Vallejo or Jesus Rueda who graduated from the conservatory as a pianist write the most effective, communicative and "musician friendly" music from Spain. They managed to take the thread which was cut by the avant-gardists after the death of Shostakovich, Britten or Stravinsky, and to continue the musical tradition. In fact it is expected, and fulfilled, from Jesus Rueda to become the foremost composer for piano in Spain, although it came totally as a surprise that Lanchares also has produced quite an amount of very high quality, virtuosic and musically as well as pianistically brilliant music for the piano and no guitar pieces at all until now except a 2-minute easy piece ! That only proves that no matter what instrument one can play, the act of interpreting (or using Stravinsky's term : executing) influences the way one creates.

I can't see the point of "complex" music just for the sake of being visually complex or even with the excuse of pushing the boundaries of the musician's ability. First of all, if the music is not good, there is no point of playing it, whether it's simple or complex ! And the excuse of "writing it for future musicians", well, don't the commissioning body give the composer a deadline and the date of the premiere ? OK, there were some cases in the past such as Britten's Violin Concerto that was pronounced by Heifetz as unplayable, but Britten certainly had no intentions to make it unplayable ; it just turned to be more difficult than the existing works. In fact, it was premiered just a few months after it was finished by Antonio Brosa, and in less than 10 years has become one of the key pieces in the repertory of the instrument .

A collaboration between a composer and a performer is the best thing that can happen in the creation of a new piece . It is not limited only in what could (not) be played in the instrument. The instrumentalist can introduce some works in the repertory to the composer which, again in Stravinsky's words, the composer can steal from. Therefore, Britten who couldn't play the cello wrote his masterworks for the instrument with a bit of help from Rostropovich, and one could say the same with Benny Goodman and his inspirational collaboration in creating the clarinet concertos by Stravinsky or Copland which inevitably turned out to be quite jazzy. It is amazing and satisfying to hear how Rueda's works are pianistically modelled from Chopin, Liszt or Ravel (his 1st Sonata is even titled "Juegos de agua", the Spanish translation of Ravel's title "Jeux d'eau"), and Lanchares from Bartok or Stravinsky. Yet, their music sounds very fresh and original. One thing I can contribute to them is my knowledge of Javanese and Balinese music. Therefore Rueda based his Second Sonata on the rhythms and contrasts between dense polyphony against unison sections of Ketjak Dance of Bali, as well as the pentatonic material of Polo Vallejo's "It's Snowin' in Bali !", brilliantly harmonized in a curiously original soundworld, or the pentatonic sections in Del Puerto's "Nusantara" Symphony intermingled with a mixolydian theme. No kitsch, no pastiche. Influences from other musical culture are assimilated impeccably into their strong musical language.

Another important issue is about repeated performances. Avantgarde music of the 50s-70s were usually so conceptual, that one can "get it" at the first performance . One does not receive anything new from the repeated performances. Playing string instruments behind the bridge, pizzicati on the piano, knocking on the body of the instrument ... they will always sound the same in any performances. It does not excite, nor give any depth, while a good old harmonized melody always changes if played by different musicians, or even the same musician in different concerts. There is, as Freddie Mercury said in his song, "a kind of magic" in good music, but not in good concepts. Concepts are just raw material which should still be developed into music.

I will have to close my essay with something personal and nostalgic. My father used to tell me that we are born to give and contribute to make the world a better place. Generosity is something which benefits us all ; by giving we don't lose, we gain . Avant garde composers have done exactly the opposite : they write (I should have used a past tense, but unfortunately lots of them are still around) for themselves, they don't care about the public (and even proud to be egocentric), and if they care, it's only to "épater les bourgeoise" . They give nothing to public, nor to society or humanity. And now, the result is becoming obvious. Concert halls are empty. Governmental subsidies for contemporary music, which were so generous in countries like Holland and Germany 10 years ago, have been severely cut. The message is clear : you don't give, we don't give. Maybe we should start believing in Piet Mondriaan : Art should be forgotten, beauty must be realized .