Agata Zubel: Searching for a text for musical adaptation is a bit different to searching for a text for everyday reading. The text that I am looking for has to inspire me to combine it with music. Sometimes the same poem speaks differently at distinct moments in life. And at a given instant, it is this poetic work that finds its resonance. It seems completely normal to me.
It's true that it so happened that the authors of texts that I employ are Nobel laureates. I have written a few pieces to the poems of each of them. Beckett is especially close to my heart.
When I do decide to make a chosen piece of literature into music, I try to analyse it as deeply as possible on all kinds of levels. In each composition of words and music, we are dealing with the juxtaposition of two genres of art. Thus, if I am using a text, I need to go into a personal dialogue with it. I have to answer the questions: what is the idea behind this poem? What is its message? And what does it mean to me?
In your pieces, you concentrate on rhythm and colour. I can imagine the way in which words can influence toying with rhythm, but what about colour?
Apart from the semantic meaning of words, I am also curious about the way in which they sound, and even more so about the way they could resonate in the mouth of an aware performer. The voice has such a huge palette of possibilities that it would be wrong for music to perceive it only within the catalogue of a dozen colours.
Do you find traits that are particular to an author when you work on a series of their texts? Are there any distinct things that repeat themselves in various pieces? Or, perhaps each time, one has to build a musical language anew ?
Each piece is a separate and fascinating journey of its own. The repetition of ideas is of no interest to me. It is only when standing in front of a great unknown that we can touch a great mystery. Otherwise, it would not be so fascinating.
Whenever I am dealing with a text, somehow, it carries me. But there are moments when the concept of composition comes first, and then I look for the right text. For example, in Aforyzmy Miłosza, I only employ short fragments, both poetry and prose, which are derived from different periods in the writer's life. I composed a work made of multiple pieces, it is a structure which is a closed whole, but the dramatic axis of the whole story comes from the juxtaposition of these various texts.
When we read a poem, we have a piece of paper with words on it, and around them is some free space. We can read from beginning to end, or we can quickly glance only at the last verses, and read the whole thing afterwards, we can also repeat single words as we please. At the philharmonic, we cannot ask a cello player to play a few more notes, and we can't skip to the part that the pianist is going to play at the very end. Is the dynamic of written poetry translatable into a way of writing music?
Perhaps a poem written on a piece of paper is not yet a poem, just like the notes in a musical score are not yet music? We need the enactment, the performance in order for the notes to resonate and make up a piece, just like the poem on a piece of paper has to come into being in the mind of the reader. From this point of view, the two genres will have a lot in common – they both need time to unfold. It is not like sculpture, or painting, where I can take a glance at the whole work in one instant. Music and poetry operate on time in ways that are certainly different, but it seems to me that composers and poets are both occupied with how to manage the time of their audience.
Do you read poetry out loud? Is it possible to say that your pieces inspired by poetry are a result of your triple role - that of a composer, a performer, and a reader?
When I read for myself, and I do read a lot of poetry, I don't read out loud. A poem "sounds" better when it is not spoken – there is more room for various sounds in the imagination. The work on a piece, on its macro scale, takes place in the head, and only then the micro events are spoken and sung by me, as I think about what a given word could sound like. But before that, I need to know where exactly this word falls within the composition, and what effect I want from it in relation to the whole of the piece.
What do the pieces on your newest album have in common?
The performers of the Klangforum Wien ensemble, under the direction of Clement Power, are certainly a common element. These are pieces which have been performed at the Sacrum Profanum festival in Kraków over the past two years. Aforyzmy na Miłosza was performed in 2011 as part of Miłosz's Year, and the other ones were performed at my monographic concert in 2012. The three of them have text, and thus also vocals, one is purely instrumental with electronic elements which were created from recordings I made on Icelandic glaciers.
When composing, do you choose recordings because of their sound, or also because of the meaning they carry?
Illustrative music doesn't really interest me as such. Although Odcienie lodu (Shades of Ice) is the most "illustrative" piece that I have written, but that is because I am completely fascinated with Iceland. I have been there a couple of times and everything I encounter there is incredibly inspiring for me.
What is it for a composer to collaborate with an ensemble like the Klangforum Wien?
It is absolutely a dream situation, and working with them is musical heaven. The musicians are so exceptional that there are practically no limits on a technical level. On top of that, they have a very democratic way of working. If there are different interpretative ideas, then even the conductor does not say what the final take is supposed to be, but each version is verified and commented on, and the best solution is chosen by everybody. I remember situations that absolutely fascinated me from the very first rehearsals. The clarinet player was supposed to perform a slap in the piece, and he noticed that it corresponded with beats played by the percussionist on the block. For a dozen minutes they kept on repeating the beat just to ensure a perfect match of the colour of the two. So, if one detail is worked on with such meticulous care, it's not surprising that the final effect is of such a high standard.
Translated by Paulina Schlosser, 30/05/2014