A few moments with Jose Manuel Serrano

José Manuel Serrano - Foto colorThe Riot Ensemble is gearing up for our upcoming Les Citations project, programmed in memory of Henri Dutilleux, with an array of premieres from around the world.  We’re hugely excited to be hosting Argentinian composer Jose Manuel Serrano for the premiere of his new work Cenizas de un Madrigal Triste (read on for the translation).

I first met Jose in France last summer, and his music immediately struck me as incredibly powerful, concise and passionate.  It’s a pleasure to have been able to commission himand to ask him a few questions about his work in general.  As with all the composers in this project, Jose will be with us at both Les Citations concerts so look for him if you’ve got any further questions on what he says here!

Aaron HN: Jose, thanks so much for travelling so far from Argentina to be with us! We’re hugely excited to give the World Premiere of Cenizas de un madrigal triste (“Ashes of a sad madrigal”). The word Cenizas (“ashes”) appears in a number of your titles, does it have a special meaning to you?

Jose Manuel Serrano: Is a great pleasure for me to be here, for first time in UK also, to attend the concerts and to work with The Riot Ensemble. Thanks a lot for this commission and opportunity.

The word ashes, is a very evocative word for me. First of all, because of the immediate association with something that “remains” but which is “incomplete” or almost dead. In some way, the idea of ‘ashes’ is linked with the concepts of memory and past, because we automatically think back to the original object, which now is only ashes.

Another connection to this word word is through the poet Omar Khayyám.  He worked in Rubaiyat, where he believed that all the things of this world – even all the sand of the deserts or a wine’s glass- were created with the ashes of the dead, and are still a part of life.

Concretely, I’ve used this word in some titles when I wanted to make some reference to other music (like Ars Nova and Ars subtilior). This is the case with this piece, where “Madrigal Triste” (Sad Madrigal) is a small reference to Baudelaire’ Les Fleurs du mal.

AHN: We specifically commissioned this piece to go with Henri Dutilleux’s Les Citations. Did Dutilleux’s music effect you as you were composing this piece?

JMS: Before I began to write this piece I was thinking about the occasion of the concert (an homage, for Dutilleux). I thought about lots of different approaches, such as:

  • “Should I use some materials or ideas from Les Citations by Dutilleux as a reference or evocation?”
  • “Or maybe from other pieces by Dutilleux?”
  • “Maybe I can use some of the same quotations, or from the same composers, that Dutilleux used in this piece (Jehan Alain-Clémet Janequin and Britten)”
Cenizas de un madrigal triste - Ref

The opening page of Cenizas de un Madrigal Triste

I finally landed on two things: one, that the best I could do – to connect Dutilleux’s ideas with my own ideas – would be to write a piece based on quotations from music I like and which are part of me.  A bit like making my own selection of “citations”, sort of repeating something that Dutilleux made at the beginning of the compositional process.  Second, I decided I will use some instrumental ideas from “Les Citations” which I also has used in some of my pieces: Working on instrumental ideas like modal melodies in artificial harmonics in the contrabass, chords in tremolos and ppp (with soft mallets) in the marimba, resonances in tam-tam, dense chords in the harpsichord, and so on.

And with this I should create a continuity between new materials and seven quotations I took from Mozart (Piano Concerto No.23, Mov. II), Josquin des Prez (Mille Regretz), Berlioz (Requiem), Nicola Vicentino (Laura, che ‘l verde lauro), Schubert (Ihr bild) and others.

This piece could be titled as “Les Citations” too, but it’s my personal version, with some references to instrumental ideas that can make us remember the piece of Dutilleux.

AHN: Even though you are a young composer, your music has struck me from the first time I heard it as having a very strong, unique and distinctive voice. Do you think you have a ‘personal style’ of composing? Could you describe your own style to us?

JMS: That is always a hard question for me, and I think for many people too. It’s hard to view our own work from inside, though even from outside there are also some things which can’t be seen completely. I want to be critic with my own work and ideas all the time (I always fear I am doing less of this as I get older) and I find problems all the time during the composition process.  This is one reason I write slowly and review the same bars eternally. I can recognise musical influences in my pieces in different points or concepts many times. That is a normal feeling for me.

Recently, very strangely to me, many people have started saying to me that my music sounds very personal; that it has some individual voice. Maybe! I hope so!  The influences I find are many and when I put them all together their origins vanish, or they work differently enough that they are creating a new thing. I don’t know. But as I said before, it’s still hard, very hard, for me, to find myself in my music. I still find that many sounds that comes from here or there. And if there is something which I recognise as “my”, the fear of “repetition” makes me feel that I work on the same ideas in many of my pieces. I mean, any time that I find something “recognisable” of myself, I don’t feel well using it many times (but it’s also not so easy to find new things).

About if I can describe my music…I can say that in the last years I was very interested in worlds which can be found between textures like chorals, paraphonies, monodies and heterophony, working with the ambiguity, duality and clear meanings in between of them. Let’s say: all the possibilities of meaning between the vertical and horizontal dimensions. With some slow and far melodical/textural/timbrical ideas which can have some references to music from the past. I like to expose the materials with some fragility, almost naked, to produce some tension, but that don’t means that the materials don’t have different natures and that they will be very restricted, or that there will be not big changes and strong contrast during the piece. I want to work with something synthetic, but not simple, which includes all the character I want or need without a forced and stylised elaboration, or a superficial refinement. A material that is exactly the one I need. (But that is really hard to find any time and needs lot of time), And if the material is apparently complex or apparently simple, I will just let it be.

AHN: Well we’re hugely excited to be giving this premiere of your work, Jose.  It’s wonderful to bring in composers from around the world, and to hear what you are doing.  We live in such a globalized society, yet contemporary music is often a very local phenomenon. Could you tell us a little bit about the contemporary music scene where you live (Argentina) and what you’re looking forward to in working in England?

Until this year, none of my pieces was performed in UK. And fortunately last year I had this great news of this commission and concerts in May, and last month I knew that an Italian Dúo, for cello and piano, also performed a piece in London last February. I am very happy for these performances.

The musical world in Argentina is very diverse and has changed a lot in the last years. Around 10 years ago there was almost no stable ensembles of contemporary music, a few concerts per year, and only one annual big International Festival in Buenos Aires each November.  Now, speaking only about Buenos Aires, there are maybe 10 stable ensembles, with around 7 annual concert series of contemporary music, when sometimes in strange days in November you can have like 5 concerts in a day of contemporary music.  Things have changed a lot. The most strange thing: there is a good public, many times full, in any concert, especially young people, who are very enthusiastic.

I can say that there is a big phenomenon of contemporary music now in Argentina. Many young players create new ensembles each year or play as freelance for these annual concert series. And there are many young composers too. But the other face of this is the instrumental level. There are many great players from Argentina, many of them who are playing in Europe in famous ensembles and orchestras, and many of them living in Argentina too, but I still feel the absence of a real high level or professional instrumental ensemble or orchestra for contemporary music. Normally, making a generalisation of course, the instrumental level in the concerts of contemporary music is medium or not good. If you want, one can attend good concerts for solo instruments, duos or trios of marvellous musicians but I still hope that in the next years some good large ensembles will be created calling the best players.

I feel like it’s mandatory for me to travel to Europe and outside of Argentina, for infinite reasons. To see and experiment different cultures, sound, flavourings, food, etc, and to feel that the time and history are “real” in any corner, and that the same things can happen again and again in abstract with different forms crossing the centuries. I can say millions of things why I love to travel, like all the people, but of course one of the main reason is that for me, as a musician, Europe represents a great level of performance for my music.  There is more possibility to attend good concerts from early to contemporary music, and the possibility of meeting new good friends and future colleagues which have the same musical needs. And more important, that even when I love Argentina, it’s nice to take some good air from the quotidian life from time to time!

These are the things I am looking forward to do and find in UK too, and I am sure I will! I am very excited to work with the Riot Ensemble in the rehearsals, and to meet all your players and to attend the concerts. And of course to know more about UK’s culture during this days in, as you said, my first trip here, where many things are new for me.

AHN: Fantastic Jose.  Just before we finish, what other projects dos you have coming up in 2014?

JMS: From the beginning of 2014 until now I had some performances in Italy with a cello piece, in Germany with a string trio which was performed two times by the Ensemble Aventure (Freiburg), and the same string trio – which was selected at the ECCE Ensemble Call for Scores 2014 – was performed twice in USA. After the concerts in London and Cambridge of the next week, I will have a performance in Lulea (Sweeden) at the “New Directions Festival”, where I am very happy to can go too during this trip. After this I will return to Buenos Aires, to come back at my job in the University of La Plata, and am preparing a Festival of contemporary, classical and early music in the town where I grew up: Choele Choel. I need to finish a new piece for soprano, piano, contrabass, percussion and prerecorded instruments too, which will be premiere in Buenos Aires around August, and I also need to finish two pieces before end of the year. I have a lot of work to do, fortunately.

AHN: We can’t wait to hear all the music Jose!