Friday 20 June 2014

An Encounter with Jorge Grundman

Jorge Grundman - A Mortuis Resurgere
This month the Spanish composer Jorge Grundman releases his first disc on Chandos, a recording of Grundmans's A Mortuis Resurgere (The Resurrection of Christ) with soprano Susana Cordón, and the Brodsky String Quartet, the artists for whom the piece was written. The work is conceived as a companion piece so Haydn's Seven Last Words. Grundman is based in Spain, so I had a email conversation with him about his work.

Grundman has a long-standing relationship with the Brodsky String Quartet and wrote On Blondes and Detectives (Cliche Music for String Quartet) for them in 2012, and this work was awarded first place in the instrumental category of the International Song Writing Competition.

In Mortuis Resurgere is composed in a single movement, but the work was imagined in three parts: the Gospel, the Creed and the celebration or Hosanna. Grundman begins the piece where Haydn finishes off, with the earthquake, imagining a cloud of dust shrouding the sunlight.

What made you choose Haydn's Seven Last Words as the starting point for your new piece?

"There is at present no tradition in Spain of attending concerts of sacred music in churches, so I wanted to do my bit by helping to create a string quartet to play in such places. We were however allowed only to programme religious compositions. Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross is one work with Spanish roots, of which maestro José Peris Lacasa made a version with soprano, with the idea of offering a concert on two successive days, so I thought it might be right to continue where Haydn left off - but of course in my style."

Are you religious, are you interested in the religious dimension to Haydn's work and does your new piece have a religious dimension?

"I am Catholic and so a believer. I believe in the God who created us and who accompanies us always, at every moment we breathe, in any action we take or do not take. That does not mean that He governs us. Just that He accompanies us. He is joyful when we are happy. Or sad when solitude seizes us. He gave us life. But so that we would use it the best way possible. And the best way possible is not for us but for others. That religious dimension does not coincide exactly with Haydn’s vision, but it is the one I have tried to make present in each of the emotions I try to describe with music in the oratorio."

"In fact, the Gospels are absolutely impersonal, the verses merely relating the facts in very short phrases, devoid of the soul and feeling those involved might have felt. It could not be any other way if the desire was to present a historical and truthful fact. However, when Christians read the Gospels, they do imagine the suffering and the mystery of religion. It is to me odd that, in musical terms, Christ’s Resurrection has not been the subject of such wide-ranging musical inspiration as the Passion. Yet it is the base of the Catholic religion. Not the fact of the death but of the return to life from among the dead: A Mortuis Resurgere. Thus I used those three words, taken directly from the Gospels in Latin, as the work’s title."

"This aspect was of vital importance throughout the composition process. I wanted the message to reach non-believers as much as believers. It might in principle seem easier to transmit emotionalism to a non-believer, because he or she has no reference or prejudice concerning the Gospels. But for those who do believe, I had to seek a balance between the words of the Gospels and the emotive music describing the events related there."

Did it worry you, attempting to follow on from on of the greatest of all composers for the string quartet, writing in the same medium?

"Of course it did. But I had an additional edge: the human voice. Were I to make some point about Haydn’s immortal work, it would be how faithful it is to the neutral spirit of the Gospels. It was not after all a work for performance in independent movements following the introduction of each of the last words by the Bishop. As Haydn himself indicated in the preface to the 1801 choral version, his score had to submit to those conditions and he feared tiring the audience. It was in other words music to fill in the pauses in the discourse."

"My work on the other hand is structured in a single movement, albeit in an uninterrupted three-part structure: the Gospels, the Credo and the Hosanna. And, if it may be said, the concern you raise in your question was two-fold. Two-fold in attempting to continue Haydn’s work, and because an hour of music in Latin, without a break, might tire an audience. Thus, and given that I had just a string quartet and a voice at my disposal, they would have to alternate and form a whole as the work developed."

What sort of reaction would you like the new piece to have on your audience?

"On the one hand, I would be pleased if, after hearing the work, the audience has a feeling of hope. That would mean that the Gospel message got through. On the other if, after a first hearing, they wished to hear the piece again, this would mean that I was able to avoid the sensation of fatigue, but that at the same time a work based on a question all of us humans ask (Where do we go after death?) is able to reach the listener’s heart."

The piece is described as being written for churches, with a long acoustical reverberation. How did this affect the way that you wrote the piece and how will listeners experience this?

"It is easy for a Catholic to discover how, without the necessary amplification, church acoustics are not kind to a text. The intelligibility of the word is something still to be dealt with. On the other hand, it proves very good for music if the tempo is very slow and dynamics are properly controlled. In general terms, if you know how the reverberation works, it can be incorporated into the musical writing."

"So, if a reverberation time is known to last about six seconds, the sound of a crotchet lasting one second (crotchet = 60 in 4/4) will extend until the seventh second. By matching it harmonically with what happens at that point with the first crotchet, it is possible to build chords which will provide the desired sonority. Moreover, the use of repeating quaver designs at middle pitches in the strings also creates a texture where harmonics can be highlighted on certain high notes in the violin."

"At the same time, if the voice dynamics are controlled, with crescendos regulated from several bars earlier, the effect created eventually envelopes the audience, which does not just hear the fortissimo but continues to hear that crescendo."

Does the piece relate to any of your other works, or is it a new direction?

"The work was a challenge for me as I tend to write compositions in a single movement, and did not know if an audience would endure a whole hour sung in Latin without tiring. Had the score been orchestral, with more writing and sonorous resources, I would have been to do more with a string quartet and voice. However, I am ultimately highly satisfied with the result, which I think will offer me much for the new works I will confront. But I felt great fear in trying to inject emotion into the Gospels rather than into a tale of my own invention. I hope that such emotion will be understood in the context of the friendship, admiration and devotion shown in the Apostles, and the way Mary Magdalene felt for Jesus Christ."

What other new pieces do you have planned?

"I am currently engaged in an adaptation for an opera on the masterpiece of the Spanish writer Miguel Delibes: “Cinco Horas con Mario” (Five Hours with Mario) led precisely by Susana Cordón, with stage direction by Emilio Sagi. I am also working on some elegies for solo violin and have been asked by an Australian duo for a violin and piano work before the end of this summer."

You write relatively tonal, consonant music. Is your present style affected at all by your background in popular music?

"I am not sure. I rather think it is influenced by the music I have heard throughout my life. Every day I listen to an hour of music I have never heard before - or at least I try to. That way I discover new composers, and revel in the discovery. I have done that virtually since I was 30 and am now nearly 53. Many are unknown to the Spanish and I have managed to get their works programmed. For example, it seemed to me incomprehensible that Gerald Finzi’s Romance for Violin and String Orchestra should never have been performed in Spain. Not to mention Michael Hurd’s Sinfonia Concertante or works by Howard Blake or James Whitbourn. Whenever I discover a work, I want to share it with all music-lovers. I have done that until now, by premiering them. And I hope to continue to have the energy and financial resources to do so."

If you had to describe you style, how would you do so?

Consonant music, I think. However, not just given its harmonic sense, but because it attunes the composer – me in this case – to the performer and the audience. Nothing needs explaining. I do however in addition try to make it moving. I think this aspect of music is greatly neglected at present.

You were classically trained at the Madrid Royal Conservatory and then went into popular music. How did your present style of writing come about?

I believe from life itself, an evolution in they way I am, until finding how to express myself and share my emotions with those wishing to hear the works I write. At any point in our lives, our personality is forged by our experiences until that time. And the question always arises, what if I hadn’t? …will I continue to be the same today? The question could be about whether one always remains the same until the moment of death. I do not believe so. And it may also be because I have lost my entire family: my parents and my brother. I am the only one left in that family branch. That is a traumatic experience and must surely be reflected in my attempt to move people. However, I also suffer the lack of solidarity. And whenever I can help, I do all I can.

Often the music I compose has provided a vehicle to explain a humanitarian problem which Doctors Without Borders or Medicus Mundi, with whom I have long collaborated, offering concerts to collect funds, have sought to resolve.

Which living composers do you admire?

This question makes me a little uncomfortable. I do not wish to appear either erudite or odd, and it may be that the names I mention are unfamiliar to many readers. At least in my country, I seem to speak in strange words … The fact is that given the amount of music I hear, there are many. But some are friends, with whom I correspond regularly. I will mention some names, with links so that people may understand and appreciate that admiration, not in order of preference, but rather as I remember them: Vahktang Kakhidze (Piano Concerto; Georgs Pelecis (Flowering Jasmine; Valentin Silvestrov (Farewell; Giya Kancheli (Styx; Marjan Mozetich (Affairs from the Heart; Michael Torke (Mojave or the marvellous Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin (Village Idiot I think these links will provide enjoyment to many. At least they make me envious that I did not write the music myself.

What are your greatest influences when writing a new piece of music?

I have always admired Richard Strauss, perhaps the composer of whom the greatest number of works impress me. But also Sergei Rachmaninov or Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky. Yet I cannot be sure whether my notes come close to even the most modest of their crotchet silences. I would hope that their influence is significantly present in everything I write.

What is your favourite piece of music?

I do not, in fact, have just one particular favourite, but rather four. I fell in love with the music which flowed from the violin of Yehudi Menuhin, explaining Mendelssohn's E Minor Violin Concerto to kids. And I grew up listening to Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. However, for me, two works of similar flavour yet completely different, are of incalculable value: Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen and Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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