Date: Wednesday 25th May, 11.00pm
Venue: Iglesia de los Jesuitas de Segura, En Segura (Spain)
This Saturday we make our Oxford Debut, with a programme stretching from J.S. Bach’s Second Cello Suite, through to the UK premiere of Djuro Zivkovic’s I Shall Contemplate…. (The programme also includes the magical Vox Balaenae and two preludes of Claude Debussy).
We were incredibly lucky to have Djuro with us for rehearsals of I Shall Contemplate… this week, and it was my pleasure to sit down with him and ask some questions about this piece and his other work.
AHN: Djuro, In your introductory note to I Shall Contemplate…, you talk about ‘composing this piece through improvisation’, could you tell us more about how you work when you’re writing?
Djuro Zivkovic: Each piece has its own working path, but there is a routine in my working environment that I feel very comfortable.
I think of two approaches in composing: analytic and synthetic. In my improvisational composing, I confront the synthetic aspects of composing against the analytic ones. When working analytically, I’m determining processes/techniques. It’s all about a knowledge of HOW to compose. On the contrary, the synthetic approach is focused on an understanding of the wholeness and the question of WHAT you compose. I’m normally more focused on “What” I compose, because the knowing of “What” is the very thing that ultimately determines how I write it.
For me, the improvisation is a way of getting to know WHAT to compose. I spend a long time – many hours – improvising, and eventually the final idea crystallises in my mind. The improvisation gives me total and unlimited freedom in expression. Then, later in the process, I use the more analytical techniques to help me shape the score in the desired way.
AHN: There’s a vocal part in I Shall Contemplate…, how does it relate to the instrumental ones?
DZ: I have attempted to create a vocal part that is as simple as possible. It is not an opera, but a very solitary voice that descends deep in its heart. It is like being naked and alone in a desert asking God for forgiveness and help. It’s drama comes from how simple it is.
AHN: Where does the text of I Shall Contemplate… come from?
DZ: The texts are partly from the Divine Liturgy and also from Dionysius the Areopagite – a very mystical figure of the early church. I am always looking for unusual texts, because they inspire me and make me want to compose music for them.
These texts are very, very far away of daily worries and activities in our lives, that’s why I love them. Although they’re Christian texts, in these sentences there is no name of the God, and so they can serve as a cantata for any human believer, or at least musically – for anyone.
AHN: It’s lovely how you refer to it as a ‘cantata for anyone’. You do mention Bach in your note about the piece (and, in fact) we’ve programming your piece alongside movements from Bach’s Second Cello Suite). Could you tell us a bit about how Bach’s music relates to I Shall Contemplate…?
DZ: Bach played a huge roll in my youth. When I was little I decided to be a baroque violinist and composer after listening to Bach’s organ prelude E-flat major!
In the German cultural centre Göte-Institut in Belgrade I had chance to borrow famous Archive editions of recordings of Bach’s cantatas, with small scores that follow along the LPs. It was a great experience in my childhood, and I always wished I could compose cantatas. This piece is far away from that period, but I hope still very close in the spirit of Bach’s works.
AHN: There are a number of beautiful extended techniques in your piece. Microtonality, multiphonics, and singing by the flute and piano player. Composers today are surrounded – both in everyday life and more and more in the repertoire – by extra-musical sounds. Do these sounds influence you or play any role in your work as a composer?
DZ: They do play role, but I always try to filter these sounds. Some sounds can be dangerous for my composing and some are fruitful.
AHN: Thanks so much for being with us Djuro. We’re really looking forward to giving the UK premiere of I Shall Contemplate… this Sunday!
DZ: Thanks for having me, and good luck!
We’re extremely excited to present the UK premiere of Djuro Zivkovic’s I Shall Contemplate for soprano, flute, piano, violin and cello. This evening concert at Brasenose College, Oxford, will also feature works by J.S. Bach, Vox Balaenae by George Crumb, and Claude Debussy’s piano prelude Brouillards.
I’m very excited about our upcoming season which reflects The Riot Ensemble’s dedication to introducing British audiences to contemporary music by composers from around the world. In our first concert of 2013, ‘The Magic Bass Flute,’ we have programmed a piece entitled Two Monologues by American composer Amy Beth Kirsten.
Amy was previously a singer-songwriter based in Chicago and, as with all of her music, Two Monologues reflects her deep connection with ideas such as memory, voice, theatre and breath. Each movement is a monologue for a solo instrument (Pirouette on a Moon Silver for solo flute and (speak to me) for solo piano). Both are highly virtuosic, with the soloist vocalising alongside colourful, detailed and intricate music performed on their instrument. I’ve been inspired by Amy’s music from the moment I first heard it. I was particularly pleased to have the opportunity to ask her a few further questions about her music:
Hi Amy, and thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions for us! Your music is very unique in its drama and use of the human voice. I wanted to begin by asking if you have had an experience similar to Witold Lutoslawski’s: When he heard John Cage’s 2nd Piano Concerto on the radio, the encounter changed his musical thinking and ushered in a new creative period, the first result of which was his Jeux vénitiens (1960-61)?
Thanks for having me. And yes, something like that did happen to me. I came to composing somewhat late, having had my first composition lesson at the age of thirty. Prior to this, I was trained as a pianist and vocalist with a specialty in vocal jazz improvisation, but spent much of my time writing and performing songs that had nothing to do with my training. When I returned to school to study composition, it was with the goal of learning to orchestrate those pop songs. As fate would have it, I had the opportunity, within the first weeks of school, to hear the International Contemporary Ensemble play a concert that included Vox Balaenae by George Crumb and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies. I had never heard music like this before!
The performances were arresting and the sound worlds these two composers created…well, let’s just say it was a real awakening for me. I’ve always loved music that feels free and inevitable, that makes use of theatrical elements, and that have had a long-time fascination with timbre. All of these things were represented that night. It was music that I really identified with. So I guess you could say that this concert was the beginning for me, not to learn how to emulate those sounds, but to discover a musical path for myself that had the ring of truth.
That’s wonderful. I don’t doubt your music will have a similar effect on young musicians who hear it. With your vocal background in mind, could you tell us a bit about how you compose?
I sing, improvise, record myself, videotape myself playing improvisations at the piano and transcribe small pieces of those improvisations to discover the characteristics and possibilities of the material. Then I take what I’ve transcribed and improvise with that material and record myself. Then I transcribe some more. This process goes on for a while. Once I have an arsenal of material and its possibilities, I begin to put the pieces together into a larger framework that makes sense to me.
One thing I come back to again and again when listening to your work is how theatrical it is. Do you conceive your pieces this way? And do you think about specific dramatic (large scale structures) when writing?
I’ve had the experience recently of being asked to compose a piece that is music first and theatre second. It really seemed like a strange request because, to me, there is no difference. I can’t listen to a live performance without thinking about how the musicians bodies are moving, or without taking in their facial expressions or unintended vocalizations like breaths and grunts. As soon as you put music, movement, and attainment together, you have a kind of dance – a kind of drama.
Each piece I write has its own starting point, sometimes it’s a word or an image, sometimes it’s a musical sound that requires a very specific physical gesture (or vice versa), and sometimes it’s simply a musical motive. I have never intended to write a “theatrical” piece – I just let come out whatever wants to come out and try not to get in the way.
To answer the second part of your question, I’m not sure you can have drama without structure – and so I am very conscious of pacing and tension while I’m composing.
That’s really interesting to me because, as both a composer and conductor, I’m someone who demands a lot of control of the music. I love this idea, then, of trying ‘not to get in the way’ of the composition. You obviously, though, work very closely with specific performers when composing your work. What is it like to have pieces scheduled by performers you’ve never met?
It’s about the coolest thing ever. I feel incredibly fortunate when someone I don’t know programs a piece. Often I’ll get to hear a recording of the performance and its endlessly fascinating to hear how different performers interpret music. One of the things I most love about music is that it can be felt so incredibly differently from person to person. Two Monologues, being performed on The Magic Bass Flute concert, is a piece that has a freer quality about it, even though the entire work is carefully notated. It’s made up of two movements that are driven most especially by the individual’s connection to the theatricality of the characters the musicians are playing. The flute player is a diabolical Harlequin flutist and the pianist plays two different characters at once – Echo and Juno of the Narcissus myth. I’m really excited to hear how these extraordinary players bring these characters to life.
 This question mirrors the first of Bálint András Varga’s three questions asked to 65 composers in Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers. I’m planning to centre each of our interviews this year around these questions which often draw out unusual and insightful thoughts from the composers throughout the book.
 Those interested/nearby can hear the ICE Ensemble perform this work again this season on 19 February (2013) in Denver Colorado.