In the final installment of our composer profiles leading up to The New Music Show on Sunday, we chat to Gregory Emfietzis about his new piece.
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Your piece is titled The Black Art of Obscurantism. Could you explain a bit about the background to this title and the concept behind the piece?
I have always been very much concerned about the socio-political conditions we (human beings) – and the rest of the world – live in; even more in cases where these conditions are changing rapidly and societies that I feel related to are seriously affected. That is of course without saying that I completely perceive and apprehend all the philosophical ideas and/or social/economical values/systems existing behind these concerns, but they have very often generated (at least) the conceptual background of my works (if not the works themselves).
In this particular piece (which connects with my earlier work DIY 1: the pianist & the lamp, and an upcoming work for the LSO), I am dealing with what I perceive as a collateral (and somehow shadowed) damage of the severe economical problems developing around the world.
It feels to me that we all experience a modern age of obscurantism; a period with far too much information available to us, while at the same time the “real” knowledge (what is happening now, what is the connection with the past, what are the real consequences for the future, what can we really do, what do we actually do and why, etc.) is only available to very few people, who seem to control everything. And of course people drowning in financial and all sorts of life threatening problems is not going to help in realizing or solving the problem.
You have chosen to write for solo cello. What made you decide to write for this instrument in particular?
I am thinking of the cello (and that’s probably a completely subjective consideration) as one of the most human-like instruments – not only in terms of its range, but also because of the way it is shaped and being held (or shall I say hugged?), which I find much more natural (than… say the violin/viola/etc). And since most of my works are very much based on the inherent theatricality of music performance (the playing gestures etc), I find writing for the cello gives me a natural freedom and some extra “space” to move a few steps away from the conventional cello performance.
You have employed a lot of extended techniques in your piece. How did you decide which techniques to employ?
To connect with the first question, I should mention that the piece is conceptually based on the following quote by Nietzsche (and that is where the title is taken from too):
“The essential element in the black art of obscurantism is not that it wants to darken individual understanding, but that it wants to blacken our picture of the world, and darken our idea of existence.”
What I tried to do in this work, was to somehow depict the above: the process of blackening the picture of the world and darkening the idea of existence. I’ve tried to transform these ideas into different playing techniques, that are gradually leading the initially calm and relaxed performer (/human being) to a (possibly violent?) reaction. The end finds a completely exploited and abused performer. (That is of course half of the performer e.g his right hand that seems abused, as it is often clear during the piece, that it is actually the other half of the same body (e.g left hand) that is causing the desperation…)
I have to say, it is not very often that you work with people —> musicians —> performers that (no matter their playing skills) can open and dedicate themselves to a newly written work. I couldn’t ask for more in this case as Oliver Coates has all the skills and personality needed! Since I was familiar with the particular instrument, I mainly worked with Olly on explaining and developing specific performing ideas (often including non-musical actions, their meaning, connection, etc), the balance between sound, theatre and silence, and the adaptation of my conceptual/musical/theatrical ideas to his preferences, skills and needs. To my understanding these are necessary steps for the piece to go through the development period and then to evolve in the hands of the performer. An amazing experience overall!
Students from Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design are curating an art installation to house your piece as part of Hidden at the New Music Show. Could you explain a bit about the collaborative process here?
It all started from an open discussion of the piece (including a performance by Olly), which seemed to generate a lot of effective ideas to the group of students I’m working with. Since then, several ideas has been discussed as well as feedback from all sides (composing – performing – designing) have been shared, leading to a hopefully very well amalgamated result!