How did your desire to compose begin and how does your inspiration emerge?
I began to compose seriously back in 1999. Prior to that I always liked making song arrangements or fauxbourdons, or writing pieces ‘in the style’ of, for instance, 14th or 15th century songs. Very often in the medieval field, of course, we need to add some voices or to complete some defective parts. I had no real desire to compose – I didn’t think that it was my field. I was a singer, after all, and music from the past is so good, whether it was from composers of the 17th century or Ligeti. Then, one day, in Sheffield in England, I was asked by Peter Cropper of The Lindsays whether there were any chants in existence that could accompany Haydn’s Seven Last Words. On not finding any interesting pieces in the repertory and whilst being at home, I started writing three-part pieces – for my wife, my daughter and myself. I was I bit surprised to see that it was working and on finishing the compositions I found that they had some sense!
Currently composition for me is a bit like when I sing or conduct in that religious music is very important because the texts are so strong – even if I perform a lot of love or courtly songs and also make arrangements of popular folk music from around the world. I feel that I am writing in the church music tradition, although with my compositions I do not have much contact with the Catholic Church here in France; the traditions of writing and performing here are now quite scarce, certainly compared to those in Northern Europe. The sonority that I am looking for is more for ensemble or professional singers than for choirs and this is less common in France, given the very strong power held by the Boulez school and the avant garde especially from the 1940s to 1960s. In France we had a very difficult time during the Boulez time. Even if he is a very great composer I think that he has been very bad for creation in France. Now we have two schools, a bit of neo-modern and a bit of neo-tonal. I don’t feel very comfortable with that. I do not feel myself to be part of any school. My knowledge comes from areas such as folk music or Indian music and from my experience of early music (although it is only recently that I have been studying the mechanics of renaissance and medieval counterpoint in earnest!). In the beginning I did it just for pleasure, with friends and my family, but I decided to publish it because I finally realized that it had some originality. If I do feel a certain connection with a type of music or sonority from the middle ages, it is only with that, not with individual techniques or composers. At the same time, despite all the awareness of medieval music that I have gained I want to avoid writing pastiche. What I compose comes from my own inspiration. Sometimes when I begin, I can use an Indian mode or a colour but the moment that I begin to compose it is only the beginning of the composition itself that gives the continuation or a style or a colour or a form.
With the five pieces on the Vox Nostra Resonet recording, the texts that you have selected are all profound ones. Did you choose these texts specifically to reflect your compositional thoughts?
Yes, I think so. For me music must connect to a deep feeling. For me it is never light. Even if Offenbach is a good composer, his music does not mean anything to me. Nor for me do humour and music fit. Music is a possibility for me to go inside and to understand myself and what I do. If I write music I am sure that it will be with love texts or spiritual texts. I do find inspiration in deep and important texts. For example, when I compose mélodies I use texts with which I have deep connections. In the religious sphere, I have written some music on the Song of Songs and the Psalms could also act as starting points. I remember singing the Allegri Miserere once with the ensemble and then wanting to write my own Miserere because I was so touched by the music and by the text. And the same is true with The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross, because I loved the Haydn work. For my Mass composition I added tropes (texts which give another light to the Ordinary of the Mass – the Kyrie, Gloria, etc). I did this partly in order to include and play between monophonic and polyphonic music but to also give a special colour to the texts that one knows very well. Before the Sanctus you have the Laudes Deo text, which gives the Sanctus another resonance. I wanted to make this contrast and I chose texts that were easy to understand. Similarly, with the Stabat mater, even if the listener does not understand Latin, a lot of the words (‘dolorosa’, ‘lacrimosa’, ‘desolatum’) have very strong resonances for people who understand many languages. I write music in order to touch the people with the sonority and with the text. I don’t write just to show that I can write music!
In recent years your performances and recordings have reflected a strong interest in music from outside the Western tradition. What attracts you to these other traditions?
Mostly it is for the monody. I think our own tradition developed so strongly towards polyphony, counterpoint and harmony that we left this monophonic style aside. Some composers have written monophony, such as Debussy, but with many the melodic aspect can sometimes be a bit poor in terms of the possibilities for ornamentation, to allow for an interpreter who can provide a lot of power. This is very different in traditions such as in Indian or in Arabic countries where monophony is the strongest point of the culture. For me it has been a challenge to try and understand this music and attempt to integrate this very high conception of monody into my own style and my own inspiration. I am very fascinated by some polyphonic compositions from the oral traditions – from Lithuania and Georgia, for example. With very small aspects of composition they can create very strong atmospheres of music. As a composer, I am almost scared to write ‘easy’ music, but I would like to write strong music with very simple elements. I am fascinated by the Bartók Duos for two violins which were written for students, but it is incredible what can be done with just two voices. Personally, I am more interested in writing three- and four-part music than composing for a full symphony orchestra! These traditions often provide me with much inspiration on a spiritual level, not directly as a form of inspiration. What I know and what I listen to more often serves to act as a kind of revelation of what I am myself and what sound I want.
Although you are composing now do you continue to perform early music?
Yes, although around ten years ago I made some changes to the balance of the different kinds of music in the ensemble’s concert schedule. If we are now performing a little less medieval music than before, we will continue to do programmes of strong musical interest (with or without known music) such as when we sang English music from the 11th and 12th centuries in a concert in Westminster Abbey in London a few years back. Now the schedule is balanced between medieval, renaissance and early baroque music but I am also trying to include some of my own music in concerts. As a musician I need to sing polyphony (like I need to eat!) and I am fanatical about music by the likes of Monteverdi or Veracini. Of course, we are also continuing to do Latin Renaissance polyphonic repertoire – mainly Spanish, Italian and French – but also including composers such as Ockeghem, Binchois and Dufay. I need to perform soloistic music as well and I am entranced by airs de cour from the start of the 17th century with composers like Pierre Guédron and also with musique mesurée à l’antique. For me the relationship between text and music is very good here. Likewise I am fascinated by the transition from renaissance polyphony to the early baroque, not just because of the Italian style but also for composers who reach the same level of quality with their monody as in their polyphony. Perhaps there is a connection here with my own compositions! Of course, I am thinking principally of Claudio Monteverdi but also of Guillaume Nivers who was a great – if still unknown – composer. He only wrote music for the church but his chant was incredibly good, likewise his motets and organ music. As I get older I feel that if we are doing early music, we should do it at the highest level possible. It is not like if you do contemporary music where you have to look at all the repertory to understand what is good. With early music because we have the possibility to read and hear everything I think that it is important to give life only to the better pieces.
by Mark Wiggins© 2007 Glossa Music / MusiContact