Saturday, 23 May 2020

Clouds, Clocks and Improvisation: I chat to composer & pianist Karol Beffa about the separate but related acts of improvisation & composition

Karol Beffa performing at Rencontres de Cannes in 2019 (Photo Loic Thebaud)
Karol Beffa performing at Rencontres de Cannes in 2019 (Photo Loic Thebaud)
The pianist and composer Karol Beffa was due to be giving a concert in London this month, at the Institut Français' Beyond Words literature festival. In the event, the festival went on-line and Beffa performed remotely [available on YouTube], giving a programme in which he improvised on themes provided in advance by the audience.

Beffa is something of a polymath, a distinguished composer and pianist known for his improvisations, he also has degrees in English, History, Mathematics and Musicology, studying in both Paris and at Cambridge. His doctorate in musicology involved a thesis on György Ligeti's Piano Etudes [in 2016 he published a book on the composer], and he now lectures at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. But intriguingly, from the age of seven to 12 he was a child actor, appearing in more than 15 films. As a composer he was written a piano concerto for Boris Berezovsky and a violin concerto for Renaud Capuçon.

I caught up with Karol, via Zoom, at his studio to talk about playing the piano, the act of composition, and how his improvisation relates to his compositions, and not to forget his work in film.

Karol explained that his improvisation in performances came about by accident. Around 20 years ago he was due to give concert, sharing the platform with another pianist, but at short notice he was informed that the other pianist had had to pull out and that Karol would need to play a full programme. There wasn't time to prepare additional repertoire, so he asked if he could improvise. He took themes from the audience and discovered he rather liked it.

Karol admits that part of the excitement of improvising is that it is like a high-wire act in the circus, you have to go from one point to another with the possibility that you will fall into the pit! But clearly, this is the sort of stimulus he enjoys. So though improvisation came about by accident, Karol took it as a sign and it now plays a significant part of his concert-giving as a pianist.
Improvisation not only plays a significant role in his piano recitals, but Karol also plays for silent films [you can hear him giving a lecture on the subject in 2012, at the College de France website]. With improvisations to accompany silent films, Karol needs to be pragmatic in his stylistic approach, after all a film can last anything from 90 minutes to six hours. He needs to conjure up styles which are different to one another and which are appropriate for the action, whether it is Bach's music with its hints of solemnity and grandeur, or atonal music which suggests tempest, anguish or mystery. Karol has also written music for film. [the most recent, Mehdi Ben Attia's L'amour des hommes in 2017]  In fact, Karol is a great cinema lover and during the last two months of lockdown with no live concerts, whilst he has listened to music, no day has passed without him watching a film.

Karol Beffa
Karol Beffa
Whilst improvisation and composition are, for him, separate activities the two do sometimes intersect and occasionally he decides that something particular worked well in improvisation and would be worth developing in the studio. But this is not frequently the case, though he describes improvising as being like composing with a pencil but without a rubber, so you cannot go back.
He does compose at the piano, and has quite strong words to say about composers who 'pretend they compose at a desk without listening to the music at the piano'. Whilst he might compose at the piano, ideas can come at any time, but he needs the tactile sensation of his fingers on the keys to be able to develop the music.  Karol feels that, when he is writing a piece which is not for piano, his orchestration is more precise when he works at the piano as it allows him to invent counterpoint to enrich the polyphony.

One thing that Karol points out is that change that has come over composition and composers in the 20th century. Prior to the 1920s, virtually all composers were instrumentalists (with the notable exception perhaps of Berlioz). Since the 1940s, with the specialisation of tasks, this has radically changed and composers as instrumentalists had been replaced by composers as conductors (with a few notable exceptions). And Karol feels that this has had a necessary consequence in the style of music that people compose.

He goes on to mention the French school of composer organists (a long tradition which included César Franck and Olivier Messiaen), where improvisation and composition are intertwined. Karol feels that these composers wrote music in a style which was more dissonant, more complex than that in which they improvised. Partly, Karol thinks, this is down to muscle memory, an almost mechanical sense, but a sense of simplicity is not a problem in improvisation whilst it might be when composing. With Karol's own improvisations, sometimes these are deliberate pastiches, but when not, the style is more consonant and simpler than the style in which he composes.

As a performer, one of Karol's strong influences is the Canadian pianist Glen Gould. Not only do the two share a love of the music of J.S. Bach, but Karol likes Gould's ideas on the passing of time and his critique on the notion of progress of modernity in art.

When I ask him to describe his own music, he says that he was initially tempted by a universe made of contemplative music, eerie, aetherial and impressionistic with the music of Maurice Ravel, Olivier Messiaen and Henri Dutilleux as references. But this impulse to calm, contemplative music eventually moved to a new path characterised by noise and fury, where influences include pop music and techno.  Karol cites his work as a musicologist on Ligeti's Clocks and Clouds (which was written in 1973, the year Karol was born), and feels that his own music has the two distinct characterisations:

clouds: Debussy, impressionist, harmony
clocks: Bartok, hectic, rhythm.

But Karol has also been influenced by the hyper-consonant music of composers such as Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt. In some of Karol's pieces, the way the music shifts from one influence to the other, from clouds to clocks, is very important, something he likens to a state transformation in physics as an element moves from liquid to solid to gas. Interestingly, almost all Karol's music for orchestra comes after 2006 when his style was transitioning from clouds to clocks.

He is also influenced by ideas from Steve Reich and John Adams, the notion of the physical, corporeal sense of music rather than it embodying sentiment. And for his inventive, imaginative writing for voice, Karol admires the music of Benjamin Britten.

An interest in text is something that characterises many of Karol's pieces, not just setting texts but having been inspired by them from Yukio Mishima and Franz Kafka, to Jorge Luis Borges and Kazuo Ishiguro. For Karol, text often triggers the imagination. There are of course, times when a commission is explicitly linked to a text such as writing for choir or writing vocal music, but on occasions when this is not the case Karol  is interested in trying to put into music a text in a language which he knows but which is not his mother tongue.

He comments that he has written very few settings of English texts, he feels that you need to be a native speaker to set English well. One exception is his work, Fragments of China where he was commissioned to set a cycle of poems by a 12th century female Chinese poet, Li Qingzhao. Karol did not feel ready to set Mandarin, and as the singer was Chinese but living in London, the idea came to set the texts in English translations. He enjoys setting Latin and Spanish, both languages with lots of vowels, but though he enjoys German as a language he finds it not so easy to set and is intimated by all the great settings of German words from previous centuries.



He does perform his own music, but not all of it. For instance with his Etudes for piano (of which there are 12) there are only two or three that Karol performs in concert. And of his four piano concertos, there are two he could perform and one, that written in 2009 for Boris Berezovsky, which he would never attempt. His recitals usually start with some Bach, as he finds this is a good way to start your fingers on the keyboard and adapt yourself to the performance. As he often gets asked to perform French music, he will usually include some such as Debussy's preludes or La plus que lente, or some Ravel, followed by one or two of his own Etudes. And the second half would usually be devoted to improvisation.

Karol Beffa on disc:
  • Karol Beffa - De l'autre cote du miroir (improvisations) - INDE119 Indesens
  • Karol Beffa - En blanc et noir (improvisations) - INDE115 Indesens
  • Karol Beffa - Douze Études - Tristan Pfaff (piano) - AV180915 Ad Vitam
  • Into the Dark - Karol Beffa: works for orchestra - Karin Deshayes, Karol Beffa, Ensemble Contrastes - AP108 Aparte
  • Blow up - Karol Beffa: Musique de chambre avec vents (Chamber music with winds) - INDE082 Indesens

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Essential listening for anyone interested in Estonian music: Vox Clamantis' profoundly beautiful account of the music of Cyrillus Kreek, The suspended harp of Babel - CD review
  • Music for concentrated and serious listening: Piers Hellawell's Up by the Roots on Delphian - CD review
  • Going out of their comfort zone: David Nebel and Kristjan Järvi in violin concertos by Philip Glass and Igor Stravinsky - cd review
  • In search of Bach and Handel, and Mendelssohn too: Baroque music aficionado, Tony Cooper, travels to Leipzig and Halle - feature article
  • From the Pillars of Creation to Ely Cathedral: I chat to composer Chris Warner about his Wonders of the Cosmos - interview
  • Care pupille: The London Concert 1746 - Samuel Mariño in soprano arias by Handel and Gluck - CD review
  • Sandbox Percussion: And That one Too on Coviello Classics - CD review
  • A disc full of discoveries: the first group of Goethe settings from Stone Records' complete Hugo Wolf songs - CD review
  • Late delights: a group of Vivaldi violin concertos from his final decade show the composer responding with imagination to musical change - CD review
  • 'I have my habits, my fixations if you like ... without them I can't get any of my effects right': the first Carmen, exploring the performance of Célestine Galli-Marié - feature article
  • Music aiming to deliberately provoke shock and terror: Ian Page talks about his new Sturm und Drang recording project with The Mozartists on Signum Classics - interview
  • Home

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