Maxim Shalygin is one of the Netherlands' most inspired composers. His ever-expanding SIMILAR cycle gives wings to the musical imagination.
Four keyboards in spiritual unison. The pianists bend over their instruments with passion. For an hour, the quartet takes the audience on an exhilarating rollercoaster ride along emotional peaks and poetic panoramas. The premiere of Delirium, by Dutch-Ukrainian composer Maxim Shalygin, caused a sensation last spring. At Amsterdam's Muziekgebouw, this ambitious composition for four pianos was the spectacular coda to the Minimal Music Festival 2023. Pianists and audience alike lose themselves in the hallucinatory sonorities.
At first, a faint sound of bells rises from the keys. The tension mounts, and soon one climax follows another. Gentle, melodious passages give way to a breathtakingly rhythmic middle section, where the pianists' playing is unleashed like a hurricane. Ecstatic moments you wish would never end. Maxim Shalygin's work touches and blends extremes. While war continues to rage in his homeland, Ukraine, this soothing music seems to put a smile on the face. A composer of daring and bravery who has carved out a special place for himself on the Dutch musical scene.
Maxim Shalygin's musical vision is rooted in his hometown of Kamjanske, where he reveals himself early on as a virtuoso accordionist. However, his music teachers discovered his gift for original compositions. Young Maxim's creative horizons lie even further afield.
In 2010, he finds inspiration in the Netherlands. At the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, he studied with composers Diderik Wagenaar and Cornelis de Bondt. Today, Shalygin still lives and works in The Hague, where he energetically develops his work, assisted by his wife. In a short space of time, he has built up a loyal fan base.
Central to this work is the SIMILAR cycle of compositions, which is continually expanding. Delirium, a piece written for four grand pianos, is the fourth chapter in this cycle, which began in 2017 with Lacrimosa or 13 Magic Songs for seven violinists.
In each chapter of SIMILAR, Shalygin takes up the challenge of composing a work for a group of identical instruments.
In the past, other contemporary composers have ventured to write large-scale works for the same group of instruments. They include Steve Reich, Lois V. Vierk and Michael Gordon. Dutch composer Simeon ten Holt also made a name for himself with eccentric works for several keyboard instruments. In most cases, these structurally conceived compositions are strongly influenced by the repetitive techniques of minimalist and post-minimalist music.
Shalygin's approach can best be described as maximalist, in that he pushes expressive possibilities, timbres and virtuosity to the limit, giving his music an open, independent character.
SIMILAR's compositions never degenerate into tedious conceptual exercises. Shalygin embraces the rich tradition of classical music, and the ear detects influences ranging from early polyphonic music to Romanticism and from Mahlerian symphonic grandeur to the soothing of Impressionism. The hallucinatory rhythm of minimalist music also crops up from time to time in SIMILAR's works, notably Delirium. " SIMILAR is my world. When I compose, I don't deny myself anything, and I want to explore as many emotions and compositional options as possible. If, in the end, the result works for me, it will also work for others," says the composer.
In SIMILAR, Shalygin deliberately opts for a broad canvas of an hour or more, allowing the listener to immerse himself in this new sonic universe. " My music has to offer time and space for exploration. It's like scuba diving," compares Shalygin. The instrumental limitation of his SIMILAR cycle acts as a trigger for his musical imagination. Writing each chapter takes him between a year and a half and two years. It's a macrocycle to which he intends to devote his entire career.
Lacrimosa or 13 Magic Songs for seven violinists marked the ambitious start of the SIMILAR cycle. The composer founded the Shapeshift violin ensemble especially for this piece. Shalygin had fallen under the spell of the sound of a single violin when he composed his Letters to Anna, an intense work for solo violin, in 2010. In the back of his mind ripened the idea of one day writing a large-scale composition for several violins. At the same time, he discovered the work of American writer Mark Danielewski, who achieved worldwide fame with his book House of Leaves and his long cycle The Familiar. Of the twenty-seven volumes originally planned, the author finally managed to complete five. The bold idea of such a creative cycle over a lifetime took root in Shalygin's mind, and led to the birth of SIMILAR.
An emotional odyssey
The SIMILAR cycle can be seen as an emotional odyssey in which the composer seeks to channel his tumultuous feelings into ever more inventive musical structures. " I aspire to experience beauty through all the senses. Including, if need be, ugly emotions, as long as you're frank and sincere as a composer ", Shalygin sums up.
His Lacrimosa is an episodic soundscape that takes us from one raw, condensed emotion to the next. "Lacrimosa is full of pain, and there's no distance between the music and the audience," Shalygin analyzes today. In the suite, Todos los fuegos el fuego (2018-2019), written for the Amstel and Keuris quartets, eight saxophones come into their own. Their rich, sensitive palette of sound, moving ingeniously from one nuance to another, leaves the listener delighted and amazed.
SIMILAR's third part, Severade (2021), for nine cellos, is more theatrical in conception. Soloist Maya Fridman plays the leading role, accompanied live by the Cello Octet Amsterdam. The nine cellos are joined by the rhythmic string sounds of Rob Van den Broek's sound installations. The performance of the composition reveals itself as a trance-like ritual of sound. A touching melody played by the cellos triggers a cascade of emotions. " The work is structured almost like a sonata, with themes. The emotions it evokes are constantly changing," notes Shalygin. Each new chapter of SIMILAR marks a major step forward for Shalygin as a composer. " In the fourth chapter, Delirium, I managed to structure the composition in such a way as to create the perfect distance between the audience and the music. The listener is not forced to listen, but gently invited and encouraged to enter this unique new sonic space. It's not every day that one succeeds in realizing one's intentions in this way."
SIMILAR represents an ongoing learning process for composer Shalygin. Thanks to the creative impetus of this cycle, inspiration is continually flowing, and he can't wait to take on new challenges. Shalygin is currently hard at work on his first opera, based on Plato's The Banquet. He is also behind the camera directing a film based on his violin composition Letters to Anna. "As with my music," he says, "my shots allow us to catch a glimpse of a secret, something magical and unknown."
For the future, a few new SIMILAR chapters are already in the pipeline. September 2024 should see the premiere of Brick (working title), a composition for sixteen brass instruments, namely trumpets, horns, trombones and tubas. " It's going to be very powerful," he promises. He is also thinking of adding to SIMILAR a composition for six percussionists to be performed by Slagwerk Den Haag, as well as a piece for five recorders for the specialist ensemble Seldom Sene. Nor has Shalygin abandoned his dream of a composition for symphony orchestra. " I intend to produce orchestral versions of Lacrimosa and Severade. All that remains is to find the orchestra," he smiles.
Mark van de Voort, Den Bosch
With the support of Performing Arts Fund (NL)
Photos © Anna-Reshetniak
Photos © Eduardus Lee