5th International Forum for Young Composers – Interview

“Dreaming and Innerness”

Interview of Mariana Ungureanu by Makis Solomos. Logbook of the 5th International Forum for Young Composers – 2008

> Would you sum up your itinerary?

>> I studied music in specialist schools in Moldavia, then at the Chisinau Higher Conservatory.

At the time of the opening up of the borders – during the fall of the Soviet empire, we had a slight possibility of going abroad, and I grasped it. I went to Bucharest, where I studied composition at the Higher Conservatory. After that I obtained a bursary from the Flemish Ministry of Culture for studying in Belgium, which enabled me to take advanced studies and, especially, to become acquainted with more contemporary languages. It was through this that I came to Paris. The cultural wealth of the city impressed me and so I decided to stay.

> In Romania you studied with Anatol Vieru, Octavian Nemescu and Aurèle Stroë. The latter was invited, during the second Aleph forum in 2002, to give a talk as part of the residence (a talk that can be found in the second Logbook, under the title “On morphogenesis in music”). Do you feel close to him?

>> I .reatly appreciate his theoretical approach as well as the influences he draws from different domains such as physics or thermodynamics, or ancient sources such as Greek mythology. But, from the point of view of style, I am not a follower of his, nor indeed of Anatol Vieru. Since I have been in France I have changed a lot. Whereas, on arriving, I composed in a modal manner – a manner inherited from Anatol Vieru, here I very quickly started composing atonal music. I was delighted to discover the musical language of the second half of the twentieth century, of which I had known very little until then.

> You come from the former Soviet Republic of Moldavia, you have Russian and Romanian origins, you have studied in Romania and Belgium and you currently live in France… There is therefore an intercultural aspect to your itinerary. Moreover, you have a master’s degree in musicology on the notion of “inter-textuality”.

>> Yes. I think that inter-textuality is to some extent an existential question. I come from a country that has no identity: a false country, which was invented and supported by artificial political means, with a pseudo-real language, with a completely fake culture. So it is normal, natural, that I have started by questioning my identity. I have tried to find the ancient sources of my civilization – for the Soviet “civilization” was not one. I therefore drew from the Russian tradition and the Romanian tradition – the Moldavians are a mix of the two. On arriving in the West, I wanted to enrich myself with untold numbers of new things I had not known before. From the artistic point of view this was not obvious either, as these multiple influences do not necessarily give a solution. I think the solution comes with time, with maturity. As for the musicological work I have undertaken, the subject dealt with the inter-textuality in the music of the twentieth century, in relation to my itinerary, since I felt very varied influences within me, but I could not understand their interaction. I don’t know if I can already draw some conclusions…

> Among the composers of the past, which ones interest you the most?

>> I find it hard to make any claims on the past, I care more about contemporary trends. At the time I started to compose – I was a teenager, about fourteen years old, in order to be able to do it I had to start by forgetting all the music of the past, all the music I had played. It was not by constructing, in a rational manner, building up from what I already knew that I managed to compose, but by clearing the decks: this is how I gave myself the courage and the freedom to express myself. This is no doubt an atypical itinerary, but it was my way of doing things… It also comes from the fact that, until then, my musical teaching had been extremely traditional, and I did not find any openings in the works of Rachmaninov or Mozart that I was playing at the time: I found the solution quite elsewhere.

> And among contemporary composers, which ones interest you? I think you feel close to Matthias Pintscher.

>> From the point of view of musical sensibility, composers like Pintscher, Enno Poppe, Klaus Huber, Nicolaus A. Huber or other great composers of the twentieth century such as Berio for the lyrical vein, Boulez, of course, for musical construction have greatly influenced me. But I don’t know if, from the point of view of language, my music has affinities with theirs.

> Your music is, however, close to that of Pintscher.

>> I confess I don’t know his music very well! I think I have only heard two of his pieces. But it is true that, judging from these two pieces, I feel close.

> To what do you feel close in his music ?

>> It has a beautiful sound, but this is not that aural “hedonism” in which you lose yourself. There is pleasure in sound but it is blended with a very consequential approach. It is music that has no rigid construction; it creates a feeling alongside a controlled structure and a very sensitive aural perceptiveness.

> What is the nature of this feeling? What do you mean by “feeling”?

>> For me the feeling has to do with spontaneity: it can enter into the construction of the form. We all have an idea of form, that you decide on before starting a piece, you know where you want to go and how to do it. Sometimes, however, this form is adhered to too rigidly; in listening to it, you can feel that. With Pintscher, form is highly elaborate, but it possesses a natural quality, its musical discourse is very fluid. So the musical feeling is perfectly fulfilled. This very natural form, which is not absolutely rigid, should constitute the finalized work of art, which thus manages to combine an intellectual aspect with an individual sensitivity.

> Trying to grasp your music from what I have been able to discover in the course of the
residency at La Tourette, I shall suggest a few characteristics, and then tell me if they seem to you adequate. First, on the level of construction, I would call it melodico-timbral, a mix of sophisticated use of tone-colour and melodic figures, in which the attention can move constantly from tone-colour to melody.

>> Yes, tone-colour is a complex concept, being not only colour but also an element that has its own, inherent life – each sound has its own attack and fall; but I also try to construct this timbrel envelope by supporting it and modifying it through melodic interventions: I work on the tone-colour from within thanks to these interventions, which are in general fairly short. Melody interests me greatly in itself, I put great store by it…

> … it comes from your modal past?

>> I don’t know. It comes rather from the language. I truly feel the need to write at length, melodically, just as I like to talk at length. Melody is for me a musical expression very close to the spoken word. The Russian language – which is in part my mother tongue – is even more a language of length, it is melodic. Hence, in my music, the presence of melodic lines as well as vocal works, often with Russian texts. But I have also written a piece in French…

> … the Histoire de poèmes…

>> … yes, re-baptised Plus ombre que l’ombre, with texts from surrealist authors. In composing it, I was very wary, as I did not find the lyrical aspect I was used to in the French language. I ended up by discovering another approach: music theater. The playful side of the libretto by Emmanuel Reibel gave me the key for a different kind of vocal writing which now fascinates me to the point of wanting to turn it into an opera.

> Another characteristic to describe your music: I have the impression that it consists of small, isolated elements, though in the end they come together.

>> I have written very dense pieces, for example a String Trio, in which there is no silence. I love extremes: in this context I found pleasure in dealing with very dense matter. Then, I discovered the power of silence. I remember that one composer fascinated me when I listened to his music for the first time…

> … Sciarrino…

>> It’s true, you find it in Sciarrino, but it was not he: I was thinking of Toshio Hosokawa. The first time I listened to one of his pieces, I was holding a chronometer and counting the number of seconds between two attacks. I was totally fascinated! I had the impression he was drawing out time to a considerable degree and that, in consequence, I could no longer control the flow of seconds at all. It was then I discovered that, when you accord enough place to silence, it acquires a force much more powerful than sound itself. This is why the piece for the Aleph Ensemble, Intermedio e Coda, makes so much room for silence that it intervenes in the sound itself: it diminishes it, it removes its consistency; it is often sound on the frontier of silence. Sometimes you have the impression it’s a combat and you don’t know which one will be the victor: sound or silence. The title, Intermedio e Coda, with the addition of “e Coda”, reveals the victor: the coda is important, it makes room for sound.

> Third characteristic, about which I hesitate: sometimes it seems to me you are looking for mystery and sometimes I think of a quest for innerness – the great Slavonic soul and all the clichés that go with it! It would therefore be a hybrid characteristic.

>> It is true that I perceive music as a very intimate process. The moment when a work is performed constitutes a moment of stripping bare, a moment of highly charged emotion, for the listeners – through this mirror that is our music – penetrate our innermost being, our soul. The soul is very difficult to define… So there is indeed a quest for innerness, for meditation in the sense of time spent with oneself. And the other aspect?

> … I was saying I hesitated between innerness and mystery. Innerness constitutes for me a characteristic that is on the “heavy” side; by contrast, I take “mystery” in a very light sense: indeed, “poetic” would perhaps be more suitable.

>> … Certainly the poetic, the mystery in this sense, has to do with dreaming: it’s an aspect I like very much. That is why I use many colours and figures that appear then fade away, and which are not necessarily highly constructed, but fleeting. The dreaming is a part of me. As for the innerness, if you qualify it rather as “heavy”, there is that also perhaps in my music – indeed, that would come from my Slavonic origins! You could talk of a quest for “depth”, but that would no doubt be pretentious: revealing something that has existed within us since the dawn of time, and transpose it into music. There is unquestionably something of that in my music, and you can perhaps hear it thanks to expressive states that are under tension, are a bit painful.

> Your piece for Aleph, Intermedio e Coda, will ultimately be part of a diptych, v.h. harmony (“voici haunted harmony”), but you have not yet composed the second piece. In reality, there is already a piece you had composed in 2006, Intermedio. By going back to it for the Aleph Ensemble – hence the new title, Intermedio e Coda – you have given thought to a second piece. This has forced you to make a four-page insert in the piece already composed.

>> Indeed, in the perspective of the diptych, I felt the need to assert the harmony more forcefully, for the other piece I am currently writing – called Cantus – is constructed from this harmony: it will be a melodic palimpsest on the chords of Intermedio e Coda.

> Doesn’t the fact of adding four pages to a piece change it completely? Doesn’t it become another work?

>> Yes, and that is why I added “e Coda” to the original title. By adding the insert, the confrontation sound/silence becomes more troubling for our mind and in this way the coda occurs as a ending we have more than ever been waiting for. The four new pages are inserted at the end of the Intermedio before the coda, and they create a heightened desire to have a resolution, which comes with the coda.

> I was struck, when listening to the rehearsals of Intermedio e Coda, by a remarkable contrast between the fortissimo attacks and the pianissimo held notes – a contrast you point out yourself in your notice by referring to “an unpredictable dramaturgy that allies aural softness and violent outburst”. Why and how can these two elements be allied.

>> No doubt it stems again from this esthetic of the extreme that, with time, I soften a bit… It is true that I very much like chopping gestures, that are very incisive, very frustrating in a sense. The fact of alternating them with moments of aural beauty, made of held harmonies, unquestionably constitutes a palliative for this frustration. You might also mention the following through of a clearly perceptible feeling, which goes hand in hand with a very rigorously ordered plan for the attacks in time as well as the growth and the decrease of the filters (the silences).