Agata Zubel & Elzbieta SikoraThe heroines of Polish music

Interviews 13.04.2021

Four Polish women composers are featured on the latest Anaklasis CD, initiated by Marianne Rivière of the Orchestre Pasdeloup, conducted by Marzena Diakun, a young Polish conductor, and put on sound by Alix Ewald.

Elzbieta Sikora and Agata Zubel answer our questions.

Agata ZubelAgata Zubel, born in 1978 in Wroclaw, is a composer, singer, vocalist and performer.
In the shade of an unshed Tear" is a work that immediately grabs us by the magnitude of its contrasts and the masterly way it is performed.

Let's go back to the choice of the title, "In the Shadow of a Spilled Tear".
Agata Zubel : The title only concerns the general atmosphere of the piece. There is a lot of "space" in this work, especially at the beginning, and I was looking for a title that also gives space to the imagination. But you shouldn't look for a "program" behind it; everyone can find their own story in it.

What role do the timpani play in your score, apart from the energy they exude?
Agata Zubel : The timpani part has to create a strong contrast between its short and noisy interventions and the very static and soft string sound in the introduction. The percussion remains active afterwards, like a kind of primary energy that manifests itself, while the colours of the orchestra flow in. 

What do you think of the interpretation given by the Pasdeloup Orchestra?
Agata Zubel: I like the recording very much. The whole structure is very well mastered and I would say that my piece appears to me as a "sculpture" in the temporal dimension in which it is set.

Polish Heroines of Music - The works and the composers - Pasdeloup (2/6 ) from Orchestre Pasdeloup on Vimeo

Have you worked with conductor Marzena Diakun before?
Agata Zubel: We know each other well because we teach at the same music academy in Wrocław; but this is our first joint artistic project and I really appreciated her collaboration. 

How are you getting through this pandemic? What reflection does it inspire in you and on what activity do you concentrate?
Agata Zubel: Of course, I have a lot fewer commitments than usual. I have a few streaming concerts, sometimes recordings. As a singer, the musical life is completely different now. As a composer, however, it doesn't change much. I sit in front of my table the same way, with or without a pandemic. So I try to write the pieces I've been commissioned to write, having much more time for that now. Unfortunately, I can't always get to the creations, it's very frustrating not to be able to hear what you've written. I really regret not being there for the premiere of Triptych performed by theEnsemble Intercontemporain during the Présences festival at Radio France. But I am happy that the concert took place.

Elzbieta Sikora is a distinguished composer who has lived in France for over forty years, Elzbieta Sikora has kept strong ties with her country of origin with which she still collaborates very actively. 

Elzbieta Sikora, we know your commitment to the world of contemporary music. You have a catalogue of about a hundred works to date, you have directed the Musica electronica nova festival in Wroclaw for ten years and you teach electroacoustic composition at the Conservatoire d'Angoulême. How do you react to the title "Polish Heroines" chosen by the label?
Elzbieta Sikora: That's a rather delicate question! Let's just say that the term is catchy and doesn't seem wrong to me, even if I don't necessarily like the idea of being "confined" in a strictly female environment. This does not detract from the relevance of the project which is in itself magnificent. I am, moreover, very honoured to share the bill with Grażyna Bacewicz and representatives of the younger generation of female composers; I do not know Hanna Kulenty personally but I have of course heard her music before; I feel aesthetically speaking closer to Agata Zubel although two generations separate us; I remember the presentation she gave of her solo violin piece at the CRR de Paris. It seemed to me that there were similarities with my own violin piece.

Is there a Polish thread that links the four plays?
Elzbieta Sikora: It is difficult for me to say; you are certainly better equipped than I am to answer that question! It is quite possible that something brings us together, if only because we come from the same culture; but each of us has had singular experiences that have oriented their work differently: Hanna Kulenty divides her life between Poland and Holland, where she completed her musical training; Grażyna Bacewicz has travelled extensively as a violinist, on the other hand, her career as a composer does not go beyond the borders of Poland. As for Agata Zubel, she is an international star, known as a composer and vocalist, who nevertheless did all her musical studies in Poland. I have long been attached to France, which has become a second home for me.

Can you tell us about the genesis of the recording project?
Elzbieta Sikora: It is linked to my meeting with Marianne Rivière, the president of thePasdeloup Orchestra . Marianne Rivière took responsibility for it and that is how the Pasdeloup Orchestra performed my piece in its world premiere at the Philharmonie de Paris. The CD project then came about thanks to the talents of Marianne Rivière, assisted by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute and the Anaklasis label launched a few years ago by my Polish publisher PWM. I am happy that this CD could be released in January, despite the difficult conditions we know.

Polish Heroines of Music - The Project - Orchestre Pasdeloup (1/6 ) from Orchestre Pasdeloup on Vimeo.

Why this dedication to the great Polish harpsichordist Wanda Landowska (1879-1959) for Sonosphere V?
Elzbieta Sikora: The Adam-Mickiewicz Institute wanted to make a series of commissions related to the great figures (heroes and heroines) of Polish history. So I took note of the long list of personalities selected and my choice was immediately fixed on Wanda Landowska: an adventurous and heroic woman who was at the origin of the rebirth of the harpsichord in France; I lived for some time in Saint-Leu-la-Forêt, where she had made her place of work; but I never met her; logic would have wanted me to choose the harpsichord as a solo instrument, but I preferred to play the electric guitar, which is closer to our time; a choice, I believe, that she herself would have approved. At least that's what I like to think.

To what extent does her personality come into play in the writing of the piece?
Elzbieta Sikora: Once I had chosen the electric guitar, thanks to Wanda Landowska if I may say so, I wanted to distance myself from her. It is the electric guitar that becomes the red thread of the piece and determines its form, as in my Sonospheres I and II, which respectively call upon the oboe and the clarinet as soloists. For me, it was a matter of extracting the guitar from the orchestral mass like a "black diamond" emerging from the earth. The influence of jazz and rock on the instrument is more apparent.

Can you quickly go back over the history of Sonospheres?
Elzbieta Sikora: I started the series in 2013 with two pieces of chamber music: Sonosphere I, Twilling Sonosphere, combines string quartet, double bass and solo oboe processed electronically through the Karlax1. It was commissioned by the ensemble Court-Circuit, as was Sonosphère II, My Kaddisch, which features the solo clarinet in the same device, though without the use of electronics. In Sonosphères III and IV, summoning the forces of IRCAM and the "real time" technique, it is the orchestra that takes possession of the space. The twin pieces were conceived for the sumptuous space of the National Forum of Music (NFM) in Wroclaw and premiered during the 2017 Electronica Nova festival.

I have selected three terms to describe the music of Sonosphere V. Wanda Landowska: hedonistic, jubilant and adventurous. What comments do they inspire in you?
Elzbieta Sikora: I agree! I do try to make my music enjoyable, letting it express itself fully and, with age and time, perhaps more freely. I try to get the sound that belongs to me, defines me. I also wanted the guitar to be sovereign and express itself in a great solo.

How much improvisation is involved in this great median cadence of the guitarist?
Elzbieta Sikora: None; everything is written down, but the guitarist retains a certain amount of freedom in the gesture, a controlled freedom. I wanted a jazz musician, like Misja Fitzgerald Michel who premiered the work at the Philharmonic, who is both a reader and a performer. And I had in mind the fabulous sound of Jimmy Hendrix, who fascinated me at the time.

Is this the first time you've used the electric guitar?
Elzbieta Sikora: It was already present in my opera Madame Curie - which, by the way, has an electroacoustic part - where I used it mainly for its colour, without highlighting it as I did in Sonosphere V. Wanda Landowska 

At the end of this interview, I would like to ask you how you have lived and are living this troubled period that we have been going through for a year?
Elzbieta Sikora: Quite unexpectedly, last March, I received a lot of orders at the same time, which was a godsend because it helped me a lot to overcome the long time of confinement and I didn't see the days passing by; but of course I miss concert music and I would like to see the concert halls reopen. As Poland has just done, for a fortnight and on a trial basis. I think it's an excellent initiative. 

Tell us a little about these works in progress...
Elzbieta Sikora: First of all, I had to write a cadenza for my organ concerto, which did not have one and which will be recorded in Poland. A second organ concerto is planned for 2023. At the moment, I am urgently composing - the commission is for the Autumn in Warsaw festival next September - an orchestral piece that I have called Liquid Air and that I must finish soon. This will be followed by a magnificent project, also in Poland, with the ensemble Les Métaboles and Léo Warynsky, about the memory and testimonies of writers on the deportation camps in Poland. My piece, Remember, for four women's voices, flute and cello, will be combined in the concert with Luigi Nono's Quando stanno morendo, Diaro polacco n2, dating from 1982: quite a challenge to take up, and one that promises long and beautiful days of work!

Interview by Michèle Tosi

1/The Karlax, a kind of midi interface, is a new digital instrument invented in 2010 by Rémi Dury who wanted to reintroduce the instrumental gesture in the computer performance.
*Photo Grazyna Bacewicz ©CAF/PAP
**Photos Agata Zubel ©ŁukaszRajchert



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