A few moments with Judit Varga

On Wednesday 31 October at the Warehouse in London we will be playing Jonathan Harvey’s masterful Song Offerings, the world premiere of Benjamin Graves’ Four Facades, and new pieces from two of our 2018 Call for Scores winners, Caterina di Cecca and Judit Varga. Judit, a Hungarian-born resident of Vienna, spoke to us between house moves about beauty, sound colour, and her recent opera for the Hungarian State Opera.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Hi Judit! The piece you have written for us is called Broken Beauty. Could you start by telling us something about the background to the piece – what were its inspirations?

Judit Varga: For quite some time now I have been interested in certain movements – audible energies that are triggered by movements of all kinds – in my music. Kinetic sculptures inspire me a lot, a kind of dark and bright variation within a certain sound. They are actually a quite visual source of inspiration, yet nevertheless very well reproducible within an audible language. Broken Beauty includes a second question, which has also been bothering me for a long time: what is beautiful and what is not beautiful? Is the common musical language of contemporary modernism able to describe beauty? This is a very trivial questions but in my opinion an enormously important one.

TR-J: We play a lot of music that concentrates on timbre, and perhaps considers pitch as a background musical element. But in your music pitch, even harmony, seems to be very important. Would you say this is correct? And what role do pitch, melody, and harmony play in Broken Beauty?

JV: Timbre as the most important parameter of music is a common phenomenon nowadays because it is a newly discovered parameter of music, which has been researched very little in the previous centuries. It is almost like a blank page, which of course is better suited to saying something new. I am also interested in timbre, and I like to compose for large ensembles and orchestras where I can enjoy the rich possibilities on the level of sound colour.

However, I have increasingly noticed that my own music loses its richness when I do not pay enough attention to the other essential parameters of music, such as pitch, harmony and rhythm (such as a groove). It is not easy to dive into these traditionally explored parameters: there is a great danger that you cannot say anything new. You probably have to put in more work, plus know the whole history of music in order to develop this a little bit further. There is no easy way around it.

TR-J: You have written a lot of music for film and theatre. How does this relate to your concert music? Do your works have a particularly dramatic or theatrical character, for example?

JV: I am certainly often told that my music is talkative, ‘like a movie’, or that it describes very strong characters, dramaturgy, or moods. In my opinion it’s the other way around: this is less the influence of film and theatre on my work, but rather that I am happy and successful in the applied music genre because my music has always been that way. I want to tell stories and share my thoughts, and I have deliberately selected music because of all of of the arts it is the most subtle. I do not want to work with definite words or pictures, I like this unspokenness in music. But behind my music there is usually a very specific story. Which you might feel.

TR-J: One of the most substantial works in your catalogue is an opera, Szerelem (Love). Could you tell us something about that, please? I understand it was commissioned for the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, is that right?

JV: Yes, that is right. The Hungarian State Opera commissioned the opera and the performance took place in a very festive environment. The story was predefined; the novel which the opera is based on fits very well with the theme – the revolution in 1956. I found the basic idea and the text great, and have written libretto and opera within 5 months. The opera is for a large orchestra, choir, nine soloists … These were the hardest months of my life so far, it was like a continuous fever dream. The opera was a great success, splendidly staged by Vilppu Kiljunen and broadcast on TV. I’m working on an English version right now.

TR-J: And what else have you been doing? I saw that you were recently featured in a concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra …

JV: Oh yes, that was excellent, the recording will be aired on the BBC at the end of October. The orchestra played really well and the silence of the audience during and after the piece was tangible.

I have been very lucky to receive commissions that perfectly fit my musical interests. I have recently composed a lot for choir and string orchestra, and scored two films, which will travel to festivals in 2019. After that they will run in the cinema. Another very important project for me is STUDIO5, an association of five composers, including me. We are trying to attract a new and broader audience for contemporary music. We love to develop daring concepts and play our works in unusual situations. We seek new ways to arouse interest. Our third season has just started. It is growing.

TR-J: One final question: if you could choose anything, what would be your dream line-up of instruments and/or voices to write for? And where would you like the premiere of this fantasy piece to take place?

JV: If a smaller line-up, then I prefer homogenous orchestration, like a choir or string orchestra. But most of all, I would like to compose for a large symphonic orchestra, possibly with video projection. The Last Night of the Proms would be a really nice event for the world premiere. 🙂