Saturday 17 February 2024

Mythical Creatures: I chat to Polish-born, Australian composer Paul Kopetz about the recent disc of his music

Paul Kopetz: Mythical Creatures - Navona Records

Composer Paul Kopetz's album, Mythical Creatures, was released on Navona Records in October 2023. Based around Paul's song cycle of the same name, the disc features settings of poems by Svyetlana Hadgraft set for voice, piano, wind quintet and percussion. 

Born in Poland and now living in Australia, Paul is a multi-instrumentalist and composer. He received his early musical education in Poland before studying at The University of Melbourne, Victorian College of the Arts, Rotterdam Conservatorium, and Monash University. He initially had a career as a freelance clarinettist, performing with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Queensland Symphony Orchestra, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and Queensland's Camerata.

When we spoke Paul was in tropically humid Brisbane, quite a contrast to cold and windy London. The album, Mythical Creatures came about because a few years ago Paul was having coffee with his friend, the poet Svyetlana Hadgraft. Paul wanted to write on a larger scale and asked her for a sequence of poems. He was interested in mythology at the time, and she produced poems about various mythological creatures. They made a list of possible creatures and she wrote poetry, and then he set a selection of poems. The resulting movements are Jaguar, Mermaid, Bunyip (a creature from the aboriginal mythology of South-Eastern Australia), Yeti, Unicorn, Coyote, Aziza (a type of beneficent supernatural race in West African mythology), Sphinx, Phoenix and Leprechaun.

Of the ten movements, around half pay homage in some way to Paul's musical heroes, some homages more obvious than others. So, growing up in Poland there were pop artists that influenced him though they are not known outside the country, but he also makes bows to Arvo Pärt, referencing his sacred music in Sphinx, whilst Ligeti's wind quintet influences Unicorn, and Coyote brings on Messiaen.

Paul Kopetz
Paul Kopetz
Whilst writing Mythical Creatures, Paul was working on a wind quintet for a group that his wife plays in and somehow it all gelled, so the song cycle combined, voice, wind quintet, piano (for a more symphonic sound) and percussion. Whilst at first sight, the idea might appear somewhat whimsical, in fact, the cycle is darker, partly because Paul's music is responding to Svyetlana Hadgraft's poetry, which did not allow much room for comedy. But he points out that the final song, Leprechaun, is more light-hearted, whilst the Unicorn might seem light but it is not happy.

The idea for the disc only came after the song cycle was written and the disc also includes three more pieces for wind quintet which already existed and happened to fit the idea of the disc, Armadillo, Yakini (about a gorilla born in a zoo) and Viracocha (the great creator god in the pre-Inca and Inca mythology.).

As Paul gets older he has thought more about his musical heritage, and how much part Poland and Australia play in the musical mix, he has days when he feels he writes like Chopin and others when he feels Australian. He likes constructing pieces that tell a story, which he feels is Slavic, whilst the background setting can often feel Australian, and some people have remarked that his melodic writing does not feel Australian, but more European.

He also studied in the Netherlands, though he was there as an instrumentalist rather than a composer, but he listened to music and was both a listener and a participant in the Gaudeamus Competition. Whilst he took no conscious influence from the experiences, he feels that it infiltrated his subconscious. His early career was as an instrumentalist, with composition only developing later. However, he feels that one does influence the other, as an instrumentalist he thinks about lines, he thinks about how to play the music. His music can be difficult and complex, but he feels that it is playable and this comes from the instrumental part of his brain. And thanks to playing with ensembles in Poland, the Netherlands and Australia, he has plenty of musician contacts whom he can recruit to try out his music.

Paul describes his music as polystylistic, the latest piece he is working on is in 12 or 13 movements, each in a different style. He mops up influences and references them, whether Tchaikovsky, Early Music, minimalism, Heavy Metal or what. In his earlier days, whilst being trained, he was very conscious of the rules and certain constraints around writing music, but since spreading his wings he does what feels right rather than what people feel should happen. And polystylism just felt right, the music felt that way.

He always wanted to be a musician, whatever the path, and initially developed a portfolio career as a player, teacher, organiser, promoter and collaborator, and now he has simply added composer to this as well.

His main focus of attention at the moment is Towards a Shining Light, a global project whereby he and 49 other composers all wrote one-minute self-portrait pieces. This came about because a few years ago he was at the Museum of Humanity in Zaandam in the Netherlands which contains nothing but photos of humanity. He found it an overwhelming experience and wondered whether it might be possible to portray musicians through their music.

A year after creating the project, the music has been performed on three continents (Europe, USA and Australia), with 50 pieces all written for piano, viola and clarinet. And he is still running with it, arranging the publishing and looking after off-shoots.

Looking ahead, he has two more song cycles planned for recording. The first is Monster Clerihews where the texts poke fun at various monsters such as Frankenstein, the Mummy, Kraken and so on. Each movement is just two minutes long (a clerihew is a whimsical, four-line biographical poem of a type invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley). The second, Oz Clerihews, also cleaves to the clerihew for its texts, but this time poking fun at Australians from politicians to sportsman Shane Warne.

After he wrote Mythical Creatures, his first opera was performed in Brisbane. Tales of Scheherazade set text in English and Farsi, the language of the original Persian story. [You can hear excerpts on YouTube]. The work was well received, and he would like to follow it up with another opera . He admits that with that first opera, he was still learning his craft, and he wants a second opera to be more sophisticated, but first, he needs a topic and a collaborator. And he points out that any work would have to be small scale (Tales of Scheherazade is for two sopranos, tenor and baritone with violin, cello, clarinet, piano, and percussion) because there is not much money about, he talks about the need to miniaturise your instrumentation.

Paul Kopetz
Paul Kopetz

Paul Kopetz: Mythical Creatures - Leanne Kenneally, soprano; Leon Warnock, baritone; Michal Rosiak, flute, piccolo; Vivienne Brooke, oboe; Rianne Wilschut, clarinet; Paul Kopetz, bass clarinet; Peter Luff, French horn; Katharine Willison, bassoon; Mitchell Leigh, piano; David Quinn, percussion; Lunaire Collective (Patrick Nolan, flute; Eve Newsome, oboe; Rianne Wilschut, clarinet; Ysolt Clark, French horn; Nicole Tait, bassoon) - Navona Records

Mythical Creatures 

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