09/02/2012, SO des Bayerischen Rundfunks, dir. Mariss Jansons
Interview (extract) with the composer by Sibylle Kayser
(…)The name Maniai is Greek; it refers to the three Furies. What prompted you to choose that title?
The title came to me more or less in the middle of my work on the piece. In Old Greek, the Furies are actually called the Erinnyes together, individually Alecto, Megaera and Tisiphone. Their origin is in a pre-Christian time when it was the Furies’ task to avenge unpunished murders and capital crimes – that is, to persecute the criminals incessantly, to drive them mad and ultimately to induce their suicide. For instance, Alecto scourges a criminal’s thought, mercilessly wearing down his psyche, before handing him over to her two “colleagues.” But the most striking thing is this; in Greek mythology, the Furies occasionally transform into the three Graces – sometimes dressed in black, sometimes in white. But we are never entirely sure whether they are actually identical – and it was that ambiguity which fascinated me; avenging goddesses can also be goddesses of forgiveness – which was the case with Orestes, for example.
I was looking for a title to match the character of my composition. It was already certain that it would last about 10 minutes. I had already written several works for orchestra, but I’d never held the tempo pedal down for so long – almost seven minutes, about 2/3 of the piece. The music never allows you any calm – it pursues you relentlessly, like the Erinnyes.
Besides, "Maniai" sounds so mysterious and archaic; “mania” and “manic” stem from it. Italian “furioso” is therefore the agogic marking for the first part. I gave “grazioso” to the second half; the Furies have apparently transformed into the Graces – but we don’t know for sure …
To return to the musical construction: you mentioned that you work with scales. But it is worthwhile to describe them in more detail; you also use microtones – in what form?
There is a microtonal web over the entire piece; that is, I am working with the “normal” stock of pitches, but I detune 12 of them a quarter-tone lower over the entire gamut. Gérard Grisey did much the same thing in his Vortex Temporum, tuning four pitches a quarter-tone down. What intrigued me was how the harmonic colour changes when constantly shifting the scale entries and their modulation, yielding up continuously new, microtonally shaded mixtures. I also confronted anew the idea of harmonic rhythm, of which Beethoven was an unsurpassable master. Because I juxtapose the scales closely and polyphonically – it is not for nothing that all the strings are subdivided into at least two voices, and sometimes even three or four – an iridescent sonic shimmer results – and I find that enormously exciting combined with heavy concentrations of sound. The more voices I have, the tighter I can weave my sonic web.
Subdividing the strings (16 of them), tripling the winds and quadrupling the horns gives you over 30 voices. Do you consider all of them equal?
Indubitably. They allow me more options for combination – and not only harmonically; I am also talking about Klangfarbe. For instance, I can have the first trumpet accompany the clarinets and let the second trumpet play together with the bassoons, all at the same time. Besides, I need a lot of parts because the melodic voices countering the frenzied scales keep entering in mixtures of three to six voices, sometimes even with antiphonal additions.
Maniai is in two parts – the first, somewhat longer part, is very fast, while the second part is slow. Yet short slow passages keep interrupting the rapid initial part. Can you tell us something about those musical hiatuses?
Everything in the piece intermingles and interweaves; everything is interrelated. The calm moments in the first part anticipate the second one, while also integrally comprising an extremely rigorous proportioning of time. The first section starts with about 60 seconds of rapidity; then come 15 seconds of slow music, followed by 45 seconds fast, then 30 seconds of calm, which then devolves to the initial impulse, again anticipating the two large, weighty tutti hammering at the end of the first part – it is all worked out, even the minutest details. In addition, rhythmic and melodic material often switch places from background to foreground in the course of the piece – again, Beethoven was my model, with his extremely economical use of motivic-thematic material.
Regarding the orchestration as well? Near the end of the piece an oboe line comes to the fore, played by the oboe, cor anglais and musette. Could that be a musical personification of the three Furies/Graces?
I have always felt that one of the most beautiful moments in Beethoven’s First is in the second theme-group of the first movement, where the high oboe hovers over the low, descending strings – its melody is at once incisive and plaintive. It has something mysterious, incredibly moving about it. I use three members of the oboe family in Maniai – oboe, cor anglais and high musette – also known as “piccolo oboe.” Of course these three instruments – which have prominent solos especially in the final section – could be considered as something like personifications of the three Furies. The emphasis is on “could” since, thank goodness, composing is too abstract to carry such analogies too far.
Your love and knowledge of Beethoven’s works is evident. But I would still be interested in how you reacted when you got the commission, including stipulations, for [Maniai] – very free, because you were merely supposed to deal with Beethoven’s First Symphony – yet that was a stipulation.
If the stipulation had been to continue working with Beethoven’s given material, to quote him in my piece, I could not have accepted the commission. But “take Beethoven 1” was a wonderful stimulus for me. That did not curtail my artistic freedom at all – quite the contrary. Often it is just such an impulse which gives rise to a certain work – for instance, I wrote a cello concerto for the Salzburg Festival based on a sketch Mozart made for a cello-piano sonata. Now, for my latest work, I have taken Beethoven as a model to the extent that I have always been fascinated by his ability to have absolute gentleness co-exist with absolute savagery, to retain abruptness undisguised – indeed, to bring it into chiselled prominence – without disturbing the formal coherence.
Did the performance situation influence your work?
There are two kinds of commissions – those involving contemporary music and the so-called “sandwich concerts,” where new pieces are placed between familiar orchestral works of the Classical and Romantic periods. The old and the new are much more separated in the fine arts. In music, we are confronted with history, much more often, due to programming alone. For me, the work on Maniai also meant looking very closely again at an old, very familiar masterpiece – Beethoven 1, in this case – and tapping into its qualities. For the audience, it’s also a chance to have a morsel of contemporary music served up to them within a familiar framework. And of course there are always people –many more than one thinks – who are caught up by the new music at such a concert.