Oscar Bianchi:
«For me Russia is still a big mystery»

Oscar Bianchi:
«For me Russia is still a big mystery»

In his interview with the reMusik.org composer Oscar Bianchi spoke about the music piece Aqba, nel soffio tuo dolce, which will be performed at the festival, the children’s perception of his works, and also why he loves Russia so much (and what problems he sees in the field of Russian contemporary music).

— Oscar, you often visit Russia as a teacher and a curator of various composerscourses. What caused your interest in our country?

My relationship with Russia is something that has been developing since some years already in a natural and spontaneous way. I think I have a great affinity, sympathy towards the country, its culture and its people obviously – it is something I cannot quite pin it down. It would be my outmost achievement if one day I would be able to talk to you in Russian (but you guys always speak way better English than my Russian, so it is at times impossible for me to move on!). Above all, there is this feeling of connection between people, something close to the heart. There are many values that I got to see in Russia and its people, a lot of genuineness and genuine ambitions. For me Russia is a big mystery which I unveil little by little, to feel being part of it. It is like I am a foreign creature that keeps coming back, always intrigued to get to know more. I think my role is to contribute to the Russian country as much as I receive from it. So my relationship with Russia is a dialog made out of esteem and genuine curiosity.

— Which city did you like the most?

Nizhny Novgorod stroke me particularly. I can see here more of the soul of the country, feel its past, some aspects about its people, its culture, the social condition, the wishes and desires to improve such cultural, social and economic conditions. Of course, you do not get to see this in central cities which I also love like Moscow or Saint Petersburg – those are the most affluent part of Russia. Moscow enjoys an architectural and urban “brutality” which I particularly enjoy. Here there is no such a “simplistic form of warmth” which you might find in European-like cities, such as in Krakow or even Saint Petersburg (embracing an idea of comfort and beauty rooted in history). Every single city in Russia has something that peculiarly attracts me.

— You have been collaborating with reMusik.org for years. Tell us about your impressions of the ComposersCourses that took place online this time. What did you lack in this format – direct contact with students, any emotions …?

I am rather happy about the way it went, and pretty pleased with the format of the courses – we did not have any alternatives to be honest. Despite the physical distance I did have to be really there for the young composer during their one-to-one lessons, to dig into their music with the same honesty and lack of ego I would attempt to during any “normal” lesson. On the one hand, of course, you miss the personal feeling of being in front of the other person, but on the other hand, you understand that you can count on only 60 minutes to give the absolute maximum to the other – that you will not get the chance to catch up later (at the cafeteria, or during a concert’s intermission for instance). This format made me focus and be honest as much as possible. For me it was a revelation that the online format was not a replacement, but a good alternative for meetings. It could really help people who are actually not allowed to travel and participate to master class due to economical and / or geopolitical reasons. The online-format will open up chances for being coached by teachers from all over the world. I also think that the experience of the Composers’ Courses will help reMusik.org to develop: while discussing with Mehdi about the future of such implementation within the academy world, it became clear that high-end online events will soon become complementary to live performances, live meetings and coaching young composers.

— You are the artistic director of the International Young Composers Academy Ticino Musica. What is the most important thing for you in the teaching process? What do you want to convey to students first?

Teaching composition is a multi-layer task – there are many elements in it. When you try to teach a young composer, sure you see some technical problems which is something you cannot turn a blind eye to (it is like a grammar mistake). In this case I become like a first grade teacher and say: “This is wrong, you have to change this and that”. Yes, it is boring, sometimes pedantic and tedious, but if one does not take care of the soil, one cannot plant the right seeds and make the plants grow.

While writing a new piece of music a composer should carry both honesty and bravery. The more we dig inwards, the more we seek inside (what is it exactly that we feel? What is it that we absolutely need to say?) the better it is, and there is a chance for us to actually say something unique and uniquely valuable. Music can be an extraordinary and transformative experience, instead of just another form of entertainment. Every major music piece often came out of a great urge. Some composers in history were yes also fantastic businessmen, but their artisanship, their craft, came from a very deep place. I am not saying you should always compose a piece as if you would die tomorrow, but you have to take composing music to a level where you ask yourself: is this really me? Is it something that I really want to say because there is a reason for it? Am I really being the most accurate as possible to convey my ideas at their best? This is a set of questions I always try to put on a table when interacting with students. My aim is to try to understand the student and to make her or him the better version of herself / himself. During the time we spend together I am here at the young students’ service, not at mine’s. My goal is to help young students blossom, and not to become a mirror of myself or a pale mirror of theirselves.

— Tell about your music piece Aqba, nel soffio tuo dolce, which will be performed by the Les Percussions de Strasbourg ensemble at the festival reMusik.org. What are the specific features of its performance?

This is the piece I composed at a relatively young age, back in 2005. The word Aqba is an abstract reference to the Maghreb region in northern Africa,  and in general terms to its peculiar relationship between language and sound: very dry and articulated phonemes gave birth to very dry and articulated instruments (such as the darbuka) and their music practice as well. Aqba makes a tribute to the work of ”x”, the percussion world, in its mostly ritualistic and idiomatic way: makes use of skin, wood and metal in plain, bold (in German on could say plakativ), and sometimes unrefined way, unleashing the power of music making under earthy, guttural and ritualistic ways. Overcome the “contemporary music” framework has been crucial while composing this piece. As teenager I have been bathed in pop, jazz and improvised music; percussions were highly present in my music practice as I used to play with Western African musicians from Senegal for instance. My first hommage to percussions had to therefore be a vivid and deeply felt experience. The depth of skins, which one might feel throughout the piece, then rapid, volcanic rhythmic waves – reference to Senegalese, sometimes Mozambique music practice and the traditions of ritualising music making through rhythmical accumulations.

— Before the quarantine, you managed to take part in the Yuri Bashmet Festival in Sochi as a teacher at composerscourses, where the All-Russian Youth Orchestra performed your music piece Étoile. There is an opinion that children are much more comfortable with modern music, as they lack the established habit of classical romantic music that adults have. Do you agree with this?

Absolutely! The young musicians of the YSOR were embracing complex harmonies, demanding glissandos, abrupt gestural movements as they would have played a Brahms’ symphony – with the same nonchalance, the same sense of fun and enjoyment, with the same sense of  “mission’’. It was a fantastic team, including the maestro and all the tutors. This was an enlightening experience: of course, not everything was easy and smooth, but the time we spent together music making has been of capital importance. After the concert there were many videos and clips on Instagram taken by the musicians – few percussion players took them from their angle, and I said: “Look at this! Actually this is a cool perspective to listen to my piece from!!” I think such young generation of musicians engaging in new music is really the future of music making. Don’t get me wrong: I do like senior musicians as well, but sometime it is a bit more difficult to gather the same enthusiasm, the same traction – as it may require more negotiation and diplomacy. Young musician might become the best guardians of the new music because they simply embrace it with fun, motivation and belief.

— You are half Italian, half Swiss, you lived in Paris, New York, Berlin, Warsaw. Whom do you consider yourself? Do you feel any roots or inclination to one of the countries?

My migration process is actually something that occurs to a lot of people. It is a mix of coincidences and fate, but in my case it has been coincidentally a very important and a necessary path that helped me prevent and avoid some early identity issues, that is, to identify myself with one specific aesthetic and ideological context. Now music is getting to the level where it breaks barriers, gets less ideological and turn sometime more honest, inner and personal. The struggle now is not anymore about Me vs You, French style vs German style, – it’s rather about honesty and authenticity. So authenticity turn to be the real prize goal. This is what we can share and somehow achieve no matter what kind of language we use. My mom is Swiss, my father is Italian. It helped me to understand that identity is in fact just a superficial element in our essence. Of course, it is very important: in this very moment I express myself in English, which is not my mother tongue, but rather a lingua franca that helps us interact. I have been raised speaking Italian, I cook a lot in Italian style, and still all these are not exactly defining features of myself as an artist.

— Does your music reflects any specific features peculiar only to Italian or characteristic exclusively for Swiss music?

The music language I have been using in the last ten years is somehow an amphibious language. If sometimes the language turn more abstract, it is because I am trying to express ideas, feelings, longings that are deeper, hence less definable. If the language becomes more bold, evident, it is because I wish to provide no possible confusion about what has to be expressed. My ideal experience as an art ‘’receiver’’ or art ‘’minter’’ is the one which combines both clarity and a great deal of mystery.

— Now the whole world is going through a rather difficult time – the coronavirus pandemic. Did this situation make you rethink something?

The pandemic has been a revolution for so many people, including me. In my fortunate position of not being affected health-wise, I have never felt bad about it – actually I realised I have been longing for such a ‘’break’’ since long time. It was therefore a very good and inspiring period for me. At the same time there was a travelling break: there was less frenzy, less worries about having things sorted out for the next trip, etc. I knew that for a couple of months I was not getting to be anywhere else except here where I was, and understood once again that there is no other time and place in life – only a series of ‘’heres and nows’’. We as composers, conductors and performers are constantly in three time dimensions: the present, the future and the past. A conductor is always there in the present to carry the music discourse, anticipating what has to happened afterwards, and at the same time he has to register what happened before in order to remember what went possibly wrong and what didn’t. This existence in three dimensions sometimes becomes a challenge. I therefore think that if there has been a good thing about the lockdown, is the perception of the mere fact that you are, in this very moment, simply at home, and that’s that. You do not know what is going to happen afterwards. I think everything might come back to normal (as we are now experiencing it slowly), but perhaps not – so you need to be strong about it and ask yourself a couple of questions.

— Yuri Bashmet is one of the few musicians who has established a fund to support musicians who have been unemployed due to the coronavirus. And what, in your opinion, does the musical community in Russia lack in the field of modern academic music? What problems do you personally observe in comparison with the situation that you see in Europe?

Massive support of the new music could bring great changes. It should be a systematic foundation in Russia which would not only support commission Russian composers, but also help ensembles all over the world perform Russian contemporary music. Let’s say I want to perform with a french ensemble a piece by Mehdi Hosseini – a Russian-Iranian composer – this foundation would say: “Okay, if you have somehow half of your concert program composed by living Russian composers, we will help you out”.  In terms of human resources, talents, and the fresh vision and desire to innovate and develop its own voice though, Russia has nothing to envy any other country.

— Many composers also make a living by teaching.

Yes, but they are not many, and they are not super-well paid as well. Life is very expensive, and I know what it is like in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. It is difficult to live as a professor or a teacher. A composer should have other ways to make a living outside of teaching, and first of all, this should be through music commissions. Only then the job of a composer will be taken seriously. A strong commissioning program for young composers or composers of any age living in Russia would hence be crucial. In Switzerland there is a foundation which supports both Swiss composers and foreign composers living in Switzerland, hence enriching the panorama of music making in this country. So this could happen in Russian as well: if people are in love with the country, if they came to study and they want to contribute, they do not need to go back to say Korea, Italy or any other country they came from – they can stay, thrive and contribute to the country’s development in the cultural space through the system which rewards, helps and supports them.

— During the quarantine, you offered the audience a music piece called Antilope. When was this recorded? It sounds like animalsgrowl.

This is one of two music pieces I presented during my seminar at the reMusik.org Composers’ Courses. The title Antilope refers to the animal, and in general term to the elegance of its movements which the pianist, similarly, has to employ to produce eerie, impalpable sounds on the piano strings. Such an almost ”aura of the sound” is the silent protagonist of Antilope: we have an opportunity to create ”auras”, even less tangible elements of music, sonorous feelings that are mysterious yet very palpable and evocative.

— There are unusual remarks in your music pieces: for example, in Fluente there is a Monteverdi trill, and then italiano. Have you come up with them yourself? What do they mean?

Sometimes those are technical compromises. Monteverdi trill is a trill which does not affect the pitch of a note, only requires to ”inject” air between the repetitions, the rapid reiterations of the same sound. As per my colleagues, I do come up / invent techniques myself, while some others are freely borrowed from baroque or contemporary music traditions.

— You use bagpipes in Fluente. Surprisingly, very few modern composers use this instrument in the score. What do you think – why?

That’s a good question (laughs)! It happened that the bagpipes performer asked me to compose a piece for them, being a really unusual request, an unusual project, I could not say no! The main challenge was to ”get rid” of this sense of ”gravity” which bagpipes always have, due to the pedal notes they are mostly tied to. So I did everything in my power to take that off – I explored possibilities in the bagpipes as a potentially more transcendent instrument. Sometimes you listen to it and say to yourself: ok, bagpipes; ok, bagpipes. There is no evolving; it rotates around its own clichés. My goal was to try to give a little push in order to emancipate this instrument, to make the performer leave his ”comfort zone” and get rid of its historical idiomatic definitions.

— Speaking of instruments, I recall another music piece of yours – Reinforced Sympathy for two ouds. Both bagpipes and Oud are vibrant national instruments. What motivates you to use such colourful timbres?

There are two elements that are formidable about an Oud: it is a large guitar without frets, you really feel the vibration of nylon or sometimes gut strings. It gives the opportunity to create long, mysteriously complex glissandi (because a second string always attached to the main one, hence vibrating in empathy and enriching / reinforcing its resonances). At the same time it is clearly part of the lute and guitar family. With an Oud you can create mysterious, beautiful and enigmatic movements between high and low frequencies.

— What other instruments would you want to try?

Well, speaking of Russia, I would think in the future about featuring Russian folk instruments – balalaika and Domra. And of course I am very curious about Senegalese folk instruments that I try to use from time to time in my pieces, but, with few exceptions, they have rarely been played properly – for example the talking drum.

— Which ensemble of modern music would you like to compose a piece for?

Not modern ensemble, but would definitely love to write for the Berlin Philharmonic, also musicAeterna which I enjoyed very much hearing. Brilliant Russian musicians such as Gergiev, Currentzis of course, and hope to work again with Yury Bashmet.

— Name your favorite composers that influenced you, whom you admire.

I have pretty many, artists that have influenced me since my early stage. Among them touching figures like Claude Vivier – Iannis Xenakis and to a certain extent Franco Donatoni and Luciano Berio; Karlheinz Stockhausen – all these giants in the history of music have left a remarkable contribution, which we can embrace and make our own. Among the living ones Helmut Lachenmann, Rebecca Saunders and Salvatore Sciarrino – undeniably the crucial composer of our time. Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail (Murail was my teacher at the Columbia University in New York). And Beat Furrer, one of the few who, besides its own outputs, is capable of embracing and synthesising some of the achievements of Sciarrino, Lachenmann and Nono under the same roof.

— What are you composing now, what performances do you plan?

I am currently working on a new piece for four ensembles coming from Germany, Russia, Japan and China, and this music piece will be premiered in Leipzig coming November. And I am working on a piece for six double basses and orchestra – it will be premiered by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in September 2021.

— I wish you good luck in your work and thank you for the conversation!

Thank you!

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