The interesting thing about talking to composers, is discussing their attitude to their music. Writing music can be a highly non-verbal art, and not everyone can explain how they write. But Nimrod Borenstein is highly articulate on the subject, so in my interview with him (see the first part of the interview), we discussed his writing at some length.
Borenstein says that his music is not text based and feels that it is entirely abstract. When writing a new work, the most important decisions to be made are about length and instrumentation. One these are agreed, then contrast becomes important, where is this to come from, will the work be in several contrasting movements or a single one with contrast built in. He has a clear idea of the feelings that he wants to create and quotes Stravinsky who suggested that composing is like sculpture, finding the piece’s true form.
He is very interested in form , but this is not something which is imposed from outside. For him each piece is its own world and he needs to find the right form.
Next year Borenstein is lecturing at the Royal Institution, on Music and Science. For him there are analogies between the way he writes music and the empirical scientific method. A composer might get to a point where they feel that a work is not right and needs to find out why. They propose a hypothesis and test it by changing things; something that is common to science and music. For both a composer and a scientist, it is important to ask the right question and to isolate the question from other factors. He points out that if a composer is not asking the right question then they can get very stuck.
As an example he talks about his new piece for the Philharmonia. As a concert opener he decided that it could be either contemplative or spectacular and full of energy. Because he finds it easier to write beautiful slow things, he decided to challenge himself and write something which is full of energy but with more than one mood, so that there would be slower passages too. The piece uses all the instruments, but tends to tread the three different groups (woodwind, strings and brass) as entities.
He wrote the first 30 seconds quite quickly (though he points out that not every piece is like this). Over the following two months he completed around eight minutes of music, but came to feel that the work was not right. He struggled for a month to understand why the piece felt boring. He finally understood that at the 1’ 45 mark, things went wrong. Though the second part worked on its own, the second theme was too similar to the first, so he jettisoned that section and went back to the original opening and started again. Contrast is an essential for Borenstein in his music, whether it comes by chance or deliberately, arising out of the structure of the work.
In standard works, Borenstein find that the composer’s use of structure can be rather more innovative than is realised. Lecturing on Beethoven's Eroica Symphony he found that Beethoven’s use of themes far transcended the conventional sonata form analysis. In fact, in the lecture Borenstein gave the themes names and created a narrative involving a man, his wife and his mistress. Though he also goes on to point out that not everyone needs to know all the structural detail of a work when listening to it. He likens it to going to a restaurant and not needing to see in the kitchen.
Borenstein’s lecturing seems to feed into his work as a composer; he says that lecturing forces him to think. During a lecture on the concerto he noted that of all the possibilities for starting a concerto, no-one seemed to have done it with the soloist beginning the work playing very fast. He decided that this was a challenge and wanted to try to do that with his new violin concerto. Usually he does not work in such a defined manner, for instance with the new concerto he knew that he wanted a big work but at the outset did not know whether it would be in three or four movements. Concertos that he mentions as influences include the Brahms and the Prokofiev, though he feels that the latter is a bit short.
For Borenstein composing is about studying the possibilities and trying to find just the right notes, and he gives a quote from Amadeus to that effect as being an inspiration. There is only one solution. Borenstein’s description of his composition methods are not so much creating the new, but discovery, finding something which almost existed already. That it has a perfect form. He feels that in the modern age we try to do too much, to accept things that are not perfect.
He feels that in many ways the life of the composer can be difficult. It is difficult to write music and that it is harder than being a performer. He has come to appreciate working in Eastern Europe because there musicians still feel that it is important to help composers, with new music forming part of a continuum of all music. He finds a similar attitude in the USA , something he attributes to the way people in the USA are excited by the idea of the new.
He finds the UK a dynamic place. When he first came here, he found attitudes to the performance of new music different to those in France. In the UK he was able to persuade fiends to play for free and give a concert of his music at St. John’s Smith Square, simply because they were willing to do what they believed in. Something that would not have been possible at that time in France.
He feels that there is a flexibility to UK musicians, with many doing more than one thing in order to make a living. But for Borenstein this also makes them more interesting people. Certainly making a living as a musician is not easy but there can be a positive atmosphere, and in the UK there is less of a feeling of people doing things for the sake of it.
You can hear more of Nimrod Borenstein's music on his webpages.Elsewhere on this blog:
See part 1 of my interview with Nimrod Borenstein.
See part 1 of my interview with Nimrod Borenstein.