contemporary music, athens
interview-editorial Beata Pincetic
I talked with one of the most renowned and innovative Greek contemporary music composers Minas Borboudakis, after the successful premiere of his new opera “Z”, performed by the Ergon ensemble and conducted by the composer himself. The piece was commissioned by the Alternative Stage of the Greek National Opera.
Congratulations on the successful world premiere of the opera Z. Can you tell us about how it came to life, who’s idea was it, and what motivated you from this event or a book to put it into music?
Well, the first step was that I got a commission from the Alternative Stage of the Greek National Opera which I accepted gladly. Then after a couple of weeks, we started to think about the theme, the subject I would work on and we put on the table a couple of books. The director of the opera, Giorgos Koumedakis, and his co-director Alexandros Euklidis suggested I read Z of Vassilis Vassilikos, which I did and I was fascinated by it from the very first moment. That’s how the whole thing started.
After the first read, I was convinced I had to do this book, although I had some ideas with other subjects, I removed them. I said this is the right one for now. The libretto was made by Vangelis Hadzigiannidis. He is a Greek author. We worked closely on the libretto and the good thing was that we had the same esthetic line so we communicated quickly, we found what we wanted very, very fast. It was good cooperation.
The sound colors that you use in this opera, but also in many of your pieces are very rich and diverse, far from the conventional sound and use of instruments or voice. How do you orchestrate and organize that amount of sound information that you hear in your head and does the result always match the initial acoustic idea?
That’s a good question. I’m not sure that I can answer this one because it’s just happening, you know...
What I mean is, your music is not “chance music”. It’s all there on purpose. So how...
Yes, exactly. The thing is not to think musically, but to try to find the purpose “why I do this”. So this purpose, which can be a text or a picture or just an idea, but not the musical one, leads me and brings me through these kinds of colors of the musical world. So, I’m led, so to speak, from an idea and then the whole thing happens. Of course, there are some organizational occasions that I have to handle, but I try to give the whole thing purpose: why it is the way it is and not in any other way. I don’t know if this is clear because it is a little bit complicated in my mind. In this particular work, I have thought - we have two levels. The first level is the action level where the story is being developed and the second level is the level of the ideas. It was very clear to me that I have to make two different soundscapes for these two different levels. This is the way I work from the very beginning and then slowly I develop the sound for every step on the first level and then I move to the second level. So that’s how I work, the purpose leads me.
And you know immediately which instrument will be used for which event...
No, no it’s not that easy, you have to experiment a lot. You have to have an instrumental library in your head...
That’s what I’m getting at, so you do have it?
Of course, I have my library in my mind and I try in each score different combinations, combinations which are leading me to my results.
We are not talking about the conventional library only, you know the extended techniques of the instruments and voice. Did you study it?
I have worked a lot on this subject. When I was studying, modern music was just squeezed in the small corner of the academy and only the “crazy” students were interested in it, but I’ve worked with a lot of great musicians. I was always curious about everything. When I met someone new I tried to see what’s his or her best and when you do that then you learn from it because everybody has something very special to show you. For a musician, that’s the point. So if you collect all those points from different musicians you’ll have a very rich world with which you can play.
You are a prolific composer. Can you describe your working process? Do you write easily?
I write very slowly because I want to enjoy it. This is something that I found out within the last ten years.
I don’t have to produce a lot but I need to enjoy it. This is a very important step for me. The second thing is, I’m writing slowly because I really have to “dig into” the subject. I need this process. If I would describe the process of my work I would say it’s all about collecting ideas, sketches, taking notes, having a notebook everywhere with me, and trying to write ideas. Then there is a point after a certain period where I feel it’s time to sit at my table and start composing. Then I just do it. I don’t belong to the composers who are every day at nine o’clock in their study trying to produce something because it doesn’t work for me.
There are colleges of mine that are doing this successfully, but I can’t. I need to have my ideas and my information about the subject I’m working on shaped in my mind and my notebook before it’s put into the score.
The themes of your compositions often deal with inner life, the esoteric, with the thought process and your music shows people and circumstances inside out. When did you understand that this is going to be your narrative?
Actually, it was when I decided to become a composer. Composing is a bit of an autobiographical process. What are we all doing as musicians? We are trying to show some things from our perspective, our life and that’s exactly what I’m doing too. I’m discussing the world with you with the musicians, singers, with the audience and I’m in communication with them about how I see some specific subject or the world. This way of thinking puts you in a way to reflect things inside out and the opposite. This is what is happening in me and automatically it’s happening in my music.
How has Greek culture, ancient and new, influenced you and your work, and in particular do you remember when did you hear the ancient Greek scales for the first time and what drew you to them?
Yes, I remember. I was a teenager still in Crete going to school. We were three friends from the music school. One of them brought a CD of Gregorio Paniagua. He is a musicologist and a player of different ancient instruments, Greek, Egyptian, and so on. The CD was about reconstructions of ancient Greek and Egyptian music. Great!! I still have the CD, I found it last summer again after some years. I remember I was totally “kaput” when I heard that music because it’s a completely different world. Of course, this guy brought a lot of his elements into ancient music, but that was OK. At that time I couldn’t understand it, but it inspired me somehow. So afterward when I was studying in Germany I tried to find certain books, I read about Xenakis, Aristoxenus.....other books about ancient scales, and discovered micro-tonality and all that is hidden behind the ancient Greek music. I liked it very much and was into it for years. It was a period in my career, till about 2011. Then I went a different way, developed other things that were on my mind. You know, it’s a process.....But it’s a great CD.
The ancient music and instruments are absolutely fascinating. I know about kithara, that they discovered after a long time that the parts of the instrument they thought were just decorative were there to produce microtones and vibrato.
Oh yes, and I remember when I was writing my percussion concerto for Peter Sadlo, I wrote some passages which are trying to imitate the sound of the kithara, which is difficult because it’s a kind of “punktuelle” harmony so it’s difficult to play. The orchestra, the musicians were anxious, trying to do their best but it was complicated...But then when I heard it for the first time it was so great because I was fascinated because I did it. It sounded like a kithara and it was a nice feeling.
You are also inspired by Greek literature, by Nikos Kazantzakis for example, you wrote pieces based on his text...
For sure, for sure. It has to do with the language, you know. I speak fluent German, not bad English, but I feel with Greek “at home”. So that’s why. Another point is not so much the language but also the subjects which fascinate me. This could be Dante or Kazantzakis or anyone else. I don’t know why but I realize more and more that I like the two poles between paradise and hell. I really have no idea why this fascinates me but I have to think about it, it’s on my mind.
You studied composition with Georg Crumb and Luciano Berio among others. How did they inspire you as an artist and how as a human being?
I had some Masterclasses with them. They are great personalities. If I have to speak about George Crumb ... I loved him and his music as a student and I met him 2-3 times at the Masterclasses in Europe. For me, it was great to see such a major personality in the musical world as a very simple, nice person. I admire this and I love it. He is a lovely guy, he was treating us like his own children or grandchildren. With his simplicity, he was taking our music very seriously. That’s so important. Of course, he gave me some technical advice that was very useful for me, but one thing is the teaching, the other is the inspiration and the inspiration came from a very simple person.
On the other hand, I had Masterclasses with Wolfgang Rihm. And he has a very great personality, which is also inspiring to work with and to take advice from somebody who is very rich in his ideas from that kind of era of “big composers”, meaning when he enters the room everything changes. Exactly the opposite of George Crumb. But each has his value for the moment you meet them. I was very lucky to meet these people at the right time in my life. I met W.Rihm when I was 25-26 years old and he gave me pieces of advice that were excellent for that age. If he talked to me like that when I was eighteen I would have been “kaput”, totally confused. I think life brings things the way they should come.
Your publisher is well known, Peters. When your collaboration started and how did it begin?
It started something like eleven, twelve years ago. A publisher is always looking for some new composers and this is not something that happens within a day or a week. We started talking around fourteen years ago and I think they were watching what I was doing. I was in communication with them, they advised me on a lot of things in this period before the contract, and then at one point they said: “OK, let’s start now.” And we did. It came naturally, without thinking about it too much. But they heard a lot of my work before, we discussed it a lot and then they started publishing my works.
I would like your observations on the situation in contemporary classical music, particularly in the sense that it doesn’t match in popularity with modern visual arts. Why do you think that is and what could be done about it?
This is a good question. Firstly I think that in the last ten years it starts to change. It starts to change. A lot of composers of the younger generation bring together a lot of arts like video, visuals, electronic music, acoustic music, acting, dancing, and so on. That means multimedia and inter-media compositions which attract audiences very much. The good thing for the visual arts was that the market started a lot earlier than in music. The history of modern music was a lonely way. If you think about what happened in Darmstadt and Donaueschingen in the fifties, sixties, and the seventies .....it was a very closed world and it took time afterward to open up. Even Pierre Boulez said some years ago in an article: “Darmstadt and Donaueschingen were a very small tunnel we were going through and we have to open it now.” So I think this was the reason why modern music didn’t have the chance to be closer to the people. Now as I said in the last ten-fifteen years the managers are trying to bring modern music into a usual symphonic concert and the opera houses are bringing productions with modern stuff. It’s getting more and more into the programs of the orchestras and opera houses.
For me, it’s fascinating to see how modern visual art penetrated everyday life and people are comfortable with it but if they would hear the equivalent in music it would not have the same effect.
Yes, I think there were two trains, let’s say, one of the modern music which was literally in the tunnel and the other one of the pop music which was going through the cities. The first one simply has to go out of the tunnel to the people.
Do you think it has to do also with education, that the music academies are still conservative?
Aaaah, this is a big question. In the last fifteen years, they are trying to push forward contemporary music in the academies. But even now, I don’t want to exaggerate, but there are about 60-70 % of the professors who believe you have to focus on the classical-romantic repertoire because that’s the “real” music and then there is maybe 30-40% of those who are saying: ”Come on, this is an adventure, you have to learn the new repertoire”. So it’s still trying to get out there. This is what I see in Germany and Europe.
How did you find working with the Ergon ensemble and the cast of the Greek national opera?
That was great. Working with Ergon was a pleasure. I’m not just saying this. It was fantastic. After the first four bars in the first rehearsal, I knew it was going to be great. There was this kind of human communication between the musicians which was very nice and it was there from the beginning. It’s still going on during the performances. When I was conducting I realized that I don’t have to say much. I just have to give a general frame of what I want and the musicians knew exactly how to do this, what I was asking for. They supported me in this great way so I’m very grateful for that. Now talking about the singers, for them it was a new experience because they are not so much into modern music and they don’t know my musical language at all so they had to learn it. However, it was amazing to see the development and how after several rehearsals that took strength out of me, it turned to exactly what I wanted. After a certain moment, the singers understood exactly what I had in my mind. So now the whole ensemble is at a very good level for this piece. I also have the impression that the musicians and the singers are giving their best. And that’s the best that can happen to me and my piece.