Saturday 25 April 2020

Clean, crystalline emotions: composer Joan Valent on moving away from films & creating his Poetic Logbooks on his return home to Mallorca after 30 years

Joan Valent
Joan Valent
The Spanish composer Joan Valent is perhaps best known for his work on films including Álex de la Iglesia's Las brujas de Zugarramurdi (Witching and Bitching), Alejandro G. Iñárritu's Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and Álex de la Iglesia's El bar (The Bar). But he has decided to take a break from films, return to his native Mallorca and concentrate on concert music. His disc Poetic Logbook was issued on Deutsche Grammophon last year and has recently acquired a companion with two tracks from Poetic Logbook II being released. I recently chatted to Joan (in Mallorca) via Skype to find out more.

Joan has been away from Mallorca for 30 years, and he and his wife spent the last seven living in Mexico (Joan's wife is Mexican), but two years ago they decided to return to Mallorca partly for the sake of their children, wanting to bring them up in a less dangerous environment. Joan had been writing film music mainly for economic reasons and found that he was missing the stage and wanted to return to a sense of creating a composition. Working in films, he was starting to feel more like a sausage maker than a composer, with a bad sense of what he was doing with the music and what it was doing to him as a composer.

Joan Valent and his wife at home in Mallorca (Photo abcMallorca - Sara Savage)
Joan Valent and his wife at home in Mallorca (Photo abcMallorca - Sara Savage)
So when he returned to Mallorca, he turned his back on films and decided to use the time to find his essence, to research what his musical language should be. He describes this as not an easy process, and sometime painful. At first, he found it difficult to get over his existing production system. But after two years he started Poetic Logbook, which contains 'the essence of what he wants to communicate in music'. For Joan this means simplicity, he finds the essence of life in direct communication, in 'clean, crystalline emotions'. 

For his first Poetic Logbook disc, he looked to poems and poets that he had read, including works such as Dylan Thomas' Do not go gentle into that good night, and each pair of poems connected to a port where he had been and where he has an important connection (hence the logbook element). So that Poetic Logbook contains seven songs linked to five ports. Poetic Logbook is released on the Deutsche Grammophon label and Joan is the only living Spanish composer to have his work on the label. And Joan sees Poetic Logbook II as a way to continue this trip of his life through music, and describes it as very intimate and honest.

Joan Valent
Joan Valent
It was only after Joan had completed his studies at university that he started to find his freedom in music. This involved going out of his comfort zone, 'finding his point of mediocrity and pushing himself beyond that' as he describes it. All the music he had written so far he found mediocre and following the musical styles of others, for example Luigi Nono. Joan came to realise that for him, the emotional part of a piece of music should be greater than the intellectual.

Joan began his studies in Barcelona, but then he moved to Los Angeles, where he studied classical composition, film scoring and orchestral conducting at UCLA and film scoring. However, he describes working in the film industry as being part of a factory, where the director's wish is paramount so that the music for a film is the projection of the director's ideas and the composer is only the conduit. Joan found that he knew what the music would have to do in film on the first day, when the director told him the story of the film. The way the director related the story directly governed the music Joan would write, giving him the rhythms and the intensity; everything that followed was merely technical.

When I ask Joan about the position of Mallorcan culture in his music, he comments that being as he was born in Mallorca he should have been a shepherd not a composer! Compositionally he feels that his music has stronger links to contemporary American composers such as John Adams, as well as the music of Toru Takemitsu and Constantin Silvestri, as well as Alfred Schnittke with whom Joan spent two years in Moscow. But if a composer digs deep into their senses, then their primal education comes out so that somehow Mallorca is always present in Joan's music. Whilst Joan knows Mallorcan folk music, he does try to avoid the security of simply setting or quoting it.

Joan has not turned his back entirely on films. After all, he has many friends in the film industry and if they called him with a good project he would say yes.

Performing is also important to Joan, and he points out that it is not really possible to live on the income from two or three commissions per year. Since 2000 he has performed with his own ensemble and has mainly written for this group, based around ten strings, piano, percussion and voice. And this is something other contemporaries composers have done, such as Steve Reich and Max Richter. Joan loves to perform live, and it is important to him how audiences receive his music, creating a strong almost mystical link to the music. That said, he is also interested in working on a larger scale and would love to do a work for chorus and orchestra.

Joan Valent: Poetic Logbook IIWhen I ask about influences, he comments that all the music he hears influences him but that the availability of music has changed considerably in recent years. When he was 18, he had to go to Barcelona to study, and he was curious about contemporary music but it was difficult to find even a score of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in Mallorca. He made a visit to Paris with a friend, and Joan's main interest was in acquiring scores by composers such as Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. It was an adventure to find a Witold Lutoslawski score and to see how he wrote all the note clusters in his music. Even at UCLA in the early 1990s,  it was not easy to find contemporary scores whereas nowadays he can find all sorts on line.

The plan was to record more of Poetic Logbook II in August 2020 for release in October, when the Symphonic Choir of Madrid will be presenting Poetic Logbook II, but with the present crisis Joan is not sure. Instead, he has been recording and performing in his studio in Mallorca, working with a young Mallorcan guy on music for piano and electronics which they plan to release as a new album.

In Mallorca, Joan and his family live in the countryside, so that they can go out and are surrounded by their own planting, vine-yard and olive grove (producing their own olive oil). So he shares his time between the land and the piano, but it is hard emotionally. And the world is changing, he feels that for people our age nothing with be the same again. This both scares him and gives him hope, as a lot of the world that he had before the crisis was bad.

Other plans include an invitation to write an opera for the Liceu in Barcelona in 2022, as well ideas for his own music festival in the countryside around him in Mallorca in 2021, where there will be contemporary music, talk, wellness, meditation and more.

Joan Valent on disc
Elsewhere on this blog
  • A new chamber version of Holst's The Cloud Messenger, from Kings College, London, gives us a leaner, more transparent version of the rarely performed choral ode  - CD review
  • Baroque Violin Sonatas: 17th century virtuoso violin playing on a new disc from Berlin - CD review
  • Powerful remembrances: Ian Venables's song cycles Remember This and Through these pale cold days on Signum Classics  - CD review
  • Le Banquet Céleste's new recording of Alessandro Stradella's late 17th century oratorio San Giovanni Battista reveals a form in transition, looking back to Cavalli & forward to High Baroque  - CD review
  • I need a subject that is grandiose, impassioned & original: the influence of Meyerbeer & French Grand Opera on the operas of Verdi  - my feature article
  • Completely magical: music by Arvo Pärt, Peteris Vasks, James MacMillan on this new disc from Graham Ross and the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge  - CD review
  • Handel: works for viola da gamba - Ibrahim Azizi & Masumi Yamamoto give us a flavour of the sort of programme that an 18th century viola da gamba player might have assembled  - CD review
  • I can think of no finer way to enjoy the music than to listen to this lovely disc: Purcell's The Fairy Queen from Paul McCreesh & the Gabrieli Consort & Players  - CD review
  • A profound sense of imagination: music for unusual combinations of instruments by Howard Skempton on The man hurdy-gurdy and me  - CD review
  • The merest smell is sufficient to turn my stomach: the complex relationship between Richard Wagner and Giacomo Meyerbeer  - feature article
  • Everything comes from the words: composer Ian Venables talks about his approach to song writing - interview
  • Home

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