Saturday 7 March 2015

My encounter with Dobrinka Tabakova - featured composer on BBC Radio 3 and at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival

Dobrinka Tabakova - credit Sussie Ahlberg
On Monday 9 March 2015, BBC Radio 3's Composer of the Week programme is devoted to five composers all British, all women, all under 35 - Cheryl Frances Hoad, Dobrinka Tabakova, Anna Klein, Charlotte Bray and Hannah Kendall. The second of these, Dobrinka Tabakova, is also featured composer at this year's Vale of Glamorgan Festival so that between 12 to 23 May 2015 a dozen of Dobrinka Tabakova's works are being performed at the festival with the selection concentrating on works from her recent disc String Paths. I met up to talk to Dobrinka about her work and her forthcoming concerts.

Dobrinka was born in Bulgaria and came to the UK in 1991 when she was 11. She comes from a scientific background, her father working in medicine and her mother in engineering. Her parents weren't professional musicians but they loved music so there was always music in the house. She heard Mussorgsky, Schubert and Beethoven via her parents' records collection. Later, as a teenager she discovered the 20th century.

I was curious to know whether Bulgarian traditional music played any part in her make up. But whilst in Bulgaria she was not a great fan of the folk music as it was everywhere, as the regime promoted it as music of the people. Once in London her parents took her to see Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares and without the political overtones she enjoyed the beauty of the music. Though apart from a fondness for irregular time signatures the music has not really made an impression on her own music.

When I ask her to describe her music for those unfamiliar with it, she laughs and says that I, as a composer, should know the impossibility. But she comes up with 'melodic', 'accessible', 'communicative' and 'engages in three way dialogue with the listener'. She says she has never had an 'Arvo Part serialist moment' and has always written accessible music.

Her thunderbolt moment in terms of listening to other composers was Giya Kancheli's Third Symphony in a BBC composer portrait concert at the South Bank Centre. It is a work which she described as ritualised and bold, with very little development, powerful with extremes of loud and soft. She found it mesmerising, the music just grabbed her. Another important work for her was Andrzej Panufnik's Sinfonia Sacra, which she would listen to, air conducting, in the college library.

Dobrinka feels that her generation of composers has been lucky, benefiting from the relaxation of dogmatic serialism, so that a variety of styles in composing is acceptable. She does not think that she would have thrived so well in the severity of the earlier period when serialist modernism was the norm. To her the freedom of expression is very precious. All composers take something from the past and refract it but she thinks striving for originality is  dangerous activity. And, even for tonal composers, a great deal can be learned from serial music. But Dobrinka sees the biggest need is to learn to communicate with each other.

In May, Dobrinka is featured composer at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival; a festival based in the area of Cardiff, directed by the composer John Metcalf, which concentrates on the music of living composers. Dobrinka has twelve works in the festival, and two or three are being performed twice. She sees this as the benefit of having a composer directing the festival; John Metcalf cares about the repertoire and understands that people can need time to apprehend new things.

St Illtud's Church, Llantwit Major
St Illtud's Church, Llantwit Major, venue at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival
where Dobrinka's Such different paths and Insight will be performed

The Vale of Glamorgan Festival will be closing with the UK premiere of Dobrinka's Concerto for Violoncello and Strings played by Tallinn Chamber Orchestra with soloist Kristina Blaumane, conducted by Kristjan Jarvi along with her Centuries of Meditation which was originally written for the Three Choirs Festival. Much of the music in the festival appears on Dobrinka's disc String Paths on ECM Records, which features music for strings with the addition of percussion and accordion. When I comment on the use of accordion, Dobrinka proudly points out that her work was written in 2002, before the recent classical accordion revival and when the only modern work was one by Sofia Gubaidulina.

Dobrinka will be attending the Vale of Glamorgan Festival for over a week and she comments on the luxury of a composer being able to hear the whole corpus of her work; hindsight gives distance and helps you hear the music as a whole corpus of work. She feels that every composer should be afforded such a luxury, as it helps to give perspective. In fact the Vale of Glamorgan Festival is pretty unique in the way it presents so much contemporary music in quick succession  and few other festivals do so. Dobrinka used to work for the British Music Information Centre and even then, she always noted the festival's interesting programmes.

Another work in the festival, Spinning a Yarn, is notable for the unusual combination of violin and hurdy-gurdy. She wrote this originally, because a violinist friend was given a hurdy-gurdy! For the festival concert the pianist is learning the hurdy-gurdy specially, saying that he has always wanted to. She admits that it is an unusual instrument, but the piece had an entirely practical origin.

Dobrinka's other focus at the moment is her residency with the Orchestra of the Swan (OOTS), which started in September 2014. One of the pieces she is writing for the orchestra will be premiered during the period of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival; she laughs when mentioning this, saying she will have a very busy May. She is writing a work for OOTS based on the High Line in New York, the garden which has been developed on a redundant raised railway line. Dobrinka fell in love with the High Line in New York, and wanted to write a piece for it. Her position at OOTS is sponsored by a New York based foundation, so the confluence of events seemed apt.

The work will be for solo violin, trumpet and orchestra, with the trumpet being played by a jazz trumpeter. And she describes the work as a kind of bridge between RVW's The Lark Ascending and Aaron Copland's Quiet City. When I ask about writing for a jazz trumpeter, Dobrinka says she thinks that the main effect has been to free her own mind when writing and she associates the jazz sound with music with soul.

She does not work quickly, for the High Line piece she had a thinking period of two years followed by actually writing the piece over six months. If needed she can be quicker, but does like a gestation time before the writing. She feels that as there is so much music in the world it is nice to be able to take time and write something that you are happy with. When it comes to the actual writing she prefers not to over-analyse, liking to just let the brain do its thing. One written, she is numb until a few years after.

Highlights of next year include a work for the Shakespeare centenary in 2016. She has no text yet, but she knows what the narrative of the work should be. With Shakespeare there is a chance the text  already have been set, in which case she will need to clear her head.

When I ask about her favourite composers, at first she says that there are so many. She first of all mentions Messiaen, saying every time she hears his music his voice is so recognisable and so personal, that it just gets her. John Adams said that 'Composers always have a tiny little voice saying, you'll never be as good as Bach.' Dobrinka finds Bach bigger than a favourite composer.

We met at the South Bank Centre and chatted over a cup of coffee. In person, Dobrinka is charming and interested, willing to talk about her music but also interested in others so that we spent quite a bit of time on subjects of interest to two composers.

Dobrinka's music at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival:

Fantasy Homage to Schubert (18.3.15, BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff)
Frozen River Flows (14.5.15, Dora Stoutzker Hall, Cardiff)
Rhodopa (14.5.15, Dyffryn House, nr St Nicholas)
Spinning a Yarn (14.5.15, Dyffryn House, nr St Nicholas)
Organum Light (15.5.15, St Augustine’s Church, Penarth)
Such Different Paths (20.5.15, St Illtud’s Church, Llantwit Major)
Insight (as above)
St John of Rila Troparion (21.5.15, All Saints Church, Penarth)
Of the Sun Born (as above)
Organum Light (22.5.15, Norwegian Church, Cardiff)
Such Different Paths (as above)
Centuries of Mediation (23.5.15, St David’s Hall, Cardiff)
Concerto for Violoncello and Strings (as above)
further information from Vale of Glamorgan Festival website.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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