Interview: On November 1st Eivind Buene’s “Garland (for Matthew Locke)” premiered in Birmingham. The work had been commissioned by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG) and in this interview the composer elaborates on the collaboration and talks about the new piece. –There must be a sort of friction in place over against the commercial music industry, and there has to be a space for the act of listening; as a mode of being, says Buene.
By Ida Habbestad
Translated by Christian Lysvåg
The origin of the collaboration was BCMG’s performance of Buene’s “Intermezzo” during the Nordic Music Days in 2004. BCMG liked the piece and approached Buene to commission a new work for the ensemble’s own concert-series in Birmingham.
Both pieces were performed in Birmingham last Thursday. Regarding the title of the new piece, “Garland (for Matthew Locke)”, Buene relates that “like a garland this music is circular; it always returns to its point of departure.
And the point of departure is, as indicated by the title, the 17th-century composer Matthew Locke, who wrote music in the English Consort tradition. In an interview on the ensemble’s web-site, Buene relates that he was particularly taken by this music when he first heard it.
What is it that you find especially captivating by this music?
-The most striking aspect is the mixture of melancholy and expressivity. It is as if though the music is aware of its position as the closure of a tradition –at the same time as it unfolds with worriless vitality and energy, says Buene.
-It is about the music itself, but also about the way this old music is performed today. Certain of the ensembles that play so-called early music embody a timbre and technique that is appealing to composers seeking a sonorous expression that is outside of the familiar paradigm of classical-romantic music. This pertains to the way the tone is produced on string instruments, and how the musicians interplay in terms of phrasing and thus achieve to make something very old come across as hugely vital.
Tranquil passage of time
Buene started out with three tranquil introductions form Locke’s “Consort for Four Parts”. There are few direct quotes included, but Locke’s harmonies and his drawing of lines still permeate the composition.
In what way have you let the old music be voiced?
-I have tried to stage the material in a tranquil time-passage in which the perspective is continuously warped, like music heard in dreams, which one vaguely recognizes without being able to pin it down. Certain times one can hear Locke’s string music at the perimeter of modern textures, other times the string timbres are sovereign, yet with a warped content. Or I let the energy in the polyphonic linear interplay condense into eruptions that dominate the whole soundscape, says Buene.
-In this way there is no material own mine in the piece: Locke’s linear play and harmonic transpirations are consistently filtered through my bent perspectives. This trait questions the inherited idea that the material and the creative process are two different things. In this piece I venture to claim that the operations I perform on Locke’s score is the substance.
It is evident that Buene’s inspiration is the dialogue with the history of music. A look at the list of works reveals titles such as “Conversation with J.S.” and “Three improvisations for Wolfgang”. “Garland (for Matthew Lock)” fits nicely into this file.
Whence this interest?
-I think my interest in historical works has to do with me not coming form a “traditional classical background”. I grew up with popular music and was not exposed to classical music until the age of 16. When I discovered contemporary music the following year, I “walked backwards” into the history of music. I started out with contemporary masters such as Ligeti and Xenakis, and worked my way backwards via Stockhausen, Webern and Schönberg, to Mahler, Brahms and Beethoven. It was only at around thirty that I felt that I understood Mozart. So perhaps I have a need to devour this music, knead it and make it my own, explains Buene.
But there are also other inspirations, and Buene makes use of a kind of tripartite subdivision of his activities. I addition to the historical works, it is important for him to engage in improvisation –and he has several works in which improvisation is blended with the composed material; written for musicians hailing from both traditions.
Friction, process and repetition
The starting point may also be more abstract, as the case often is when he writes chamber music for bigger ensembles. An example is the work “Possible cities/Essential landscapes”, a cycle he is writing for Cikada, a Norwegian chamber music ensemble. Buene describes this work in terms of key words such as friction, process and repetition.
- Repeated structures have been a concern of mine for a long time. I have laboured to let the material go through developments and transformations in disparate directions. These are repetitions one needs to go far into the music to recognize, but lately I have started working also on more immediately recognizable repetitions, entailing that rhythmical figures are repeated and transformed on a more unequivocal level than before. ‘Process’ is a fundamental musical parameter for me; gradual temporal motions, and seeing in what different directions one may stretch a musical thought.
-And then there is friction, I love friction! It can be something as plain as pressing a bow so forcibly against a string that the tone cracks, so that one can hear the friction of horse’s hair against steel string. But it may also be friction between musical worlds, between old and new. I enjoy juxtaposing music form disparate musical horizons and let them rub against each other.
Music as a mode of being
The decisive level of friction, relates Buene, is that between contemporary music and the streamlined constitution of almost all other music today.
-Simply listening to a piece of musical “reasoning” that lasts mote than four minutes is difficult for many. There has to be some sort of friction against the commercial music industry, and there has to be spaces in which listening is a deliberate action; as cognizance, as a mode of being.
-The concert hall is such a space, and this is the reason I make the effort to produce scores to be played by musicians at all: The possibility of the encounter between a living, interpreting musician and an open, hearkening ear.
-New contemporary music is fragile, because it is expensive to produce and not exactly “of the people.” But exactly because it is not interesting to commercial forces, it is a well-suited tool for combating cultural uniformity.
-This depends on political will of course, which I find exists in Norway, even if both left and right-wing populists are pushing for a state financed culture that caters only to the big masses. -A notion that is incompatible with experimental and fragile projects and artistic processes, says Buene.
An alternative financial model
However, state financing is not always decisive. BCMG did something out of the ordinary to make “Garlands (for Matthew Locke)” possible.
-BCMG have devised a unique financial model they call “Sound investment”, through which ordinary people are invited to help finance new works. Those who take part in the program are then able to follow the progression of the work and attend rehearsals underway.
In addition to being a new way of financing art it is also a way of establishing links between the ensemble and the audience.
You have already been present at a couple of rehearsals –what is your impression?
-English musicians are renowned for their ability to read complicated music and for working very hard –it is almost frightening how fast they learn the material. The flip side of this coin is that they require little session time; which limits the composer’s opportunity to experiment and make alterations underway.
-But the musicians are extremely good; they combine a stringent way of playing with subtle intuition for timbres and nuances. And it is exciting to work with the French conductor Diego Masson. He is a legend of new-music, who started playing with Pierre Boulez’s first ensemble in 1958. He has worked with all the greats, yet, at well over 70, he still has the energy of a 30-year-old.
Buene has several more projects coming up this fall: The release of the live recording Asymmetrical Music (with Ingar Zach, Ivar Grydeland and ensemble), the completion of the chamber cycle for Cikada, and also a piece written for POING and the Norwegian Horn ensemble.