Herz Cycle (Q&A)
Q&A with violinist Jellantsje de Vries and composer Kate Moore
JdV: How do you start writing a piece?
KM: Beginning a new piece is a mysterious process. It is a ritual that combines a feeling for everything that is going on in one’s life and the one’s connection to the environment in which the piece is to be written. The body and mind soaks up surrounding information, it watches, observes, feels and thinks. Being charged with the energy of that place and time, a fresh, new, empty manuscript book is placed on the piano and the process of sketching and improvising begins. I start every piece at the piano, cello or guitar. Primarily, the piano is my instrument of trade, the cello is my instrument of the heart. The concept of playing the piano as a composer is a very different type of piano playing for a concert pianist, yet equally as time consuming and detailed. Describing the Composer piano studio would be to describe an isolated room, preferably where no one in the world can hear you, where for hours and hours you play, sketch, bang, repeat noise and sound and melodies and rhythms and harmonies until they start to gel, like kneading clay from crumbly earth until it becomes soft and pliable. The sounds start to take shape and begin to relate to each other, forming lines and networks with each other as though communicating. They begin to take on a shape and start to come to life. I start to write a piece through feeling the connection between the movement of muscles with the keys of the piano, as my ears are searching for resonance. The flow of the muscles into music is a conduit for sonic energy, a process understood by both composer and performer. The difference between composer and performer is that the composer’s journey is worked out far from the eyes and ears of an audience, days, months and years before it reaches the eyes of a performer. It is a very private act.
JdV: Where do you get most of your inspiration, both from the musical/artistic world and from the daily world around us?
KM: Inspiration is an elusive term. Sometimes inspiration for the piece emerges after the piece is written. Other times it is a completely engrossing obsession with an idea that you pursue until you have pinned it down. Nearly always, getting to know the performers and their language is a large part of the inspiration behind a piece. With every project, working closely with performers, it is as though the composer is a portrait artist, tailoring music especially for that unique group of people. The process of writing music is like embarking upon a journey, placing one foot in front of the other foot until the destination has been reached. Along the way, you happen to chance upon a beautiful landscape, a valley, an escarpment, a cliff face, a rainforest. Stringing these together in the memory, “valleyescarpmentclifffacerainforest…”, forms a thread by which the piece is translated into a sound image of the shape, depth and breadth of that journey. The music then begins to make sense and tells the story of remembered places. Inspiration is both sensory and cerebral, touching upon how it feels to be in a place, how it smells, how does it sounds, how can it be measured. Many of my pieces are inspired by a physical journey, be it hiking, climbing a mountain or simply moving through space. Movement by walking to remote places or travel to unknown cities by bus or train, allows time to think and absorb, where, being out of the comfort zone of a house, or familiar surroundings, the senses become heightened. In relation to Herz, I had been hiking the Inner and Outer Hebrides and became fascinated with ancient historical remnants engraved in the rugged landscape including pre-Roman Christian walls, Celtic crosses, foundations and buildings where communities lived and thrived on these remote islands thousands of years ago, long before the Roman Invasion of the British Isles.
JdV: Since you also make ceramics and other robotica combined with your music; in what way do they connect with each other?
KM: The use of handmade ceramics in this piece refers to the sensitive nature of stone, uncovering ancient artefacts from earth and the relationship between the ancient world and the way in which it remains in a modern one like a time capsule. These ancient societies and their wisdom have gone, yet their intricately carved and decorated stoneware remains. I am fascinated by the way in which every piece of porcelain, whether beautifully shaped and sculpted or simply shattered and broken into a million pieces, has a specific pitch, as though each broken piece has a song to sing. With each pitch, the hard material comes to life, like hundreds of tiny living, singing beings. There is something mythic about a complete whole being shattered into millions of smaller complete wholes. The parallel between stone and the heart has is a universal metaphor, especially in relation to religious iconography. A stone placed at the centre of a place of worship is considered the heart of the temple. The imagery of a bleeding stone, or a pierced rock, represents a broken heart or a heart filled with sorrow. A heart as cold as stone could become so warm that it melts represents the notion of empathy and compassion or lack thereof. A stone crying for the sadness and suffering of people and mortification of the body has strong resonance with holy Mary and the Pieta. So much of ancient religious and spiritual fervour was represented and immortalised through stonework, rock engravings and carvings of those people long gone yet still the ancient past is engraved into our own memory as we visit these ruins, remains alive and thriving in a new and modern context. One of the most moving artefacts I found on my travels on The Hebrides was a grinding stone placed next to a holy well where a rock was turned upon another rock until it became perfectly round and the rock beneath became hollow. The two rocks together were said to contain the prayers and confessions of those who meditated whilst grinding the stone and if the grinding stone was lifted from the hollow stone, all the prayers, chants and spells would escape and dissipate.
JdV: Is there a text/poem in literature that you identify with as a composer?
KM: In 2008, I wrote a song cycle called The Open Road after Song of the Open Road by Walt Whitman. This poem resonated with me, drawing the parallel between a journey as a metaphor for the path each person takes from birth to death and the interrelationship of all living things through the universal soul. It is transcendental and radiates with sublime positivity where every creature can find strength within themselves, forming giant well-meaning jigsaw puzzle. I think of the Herz Cycle to be a comment on this, thinking back to that poem and concluding a darker side to the beaming positivity portrayed by Whitman. The darker side of Herz cycle explores elements of struggle, of hidden torment and unseen mystery. Hints of forbidden witchcraft, blood, an ominous stormy sky and monolithic stones against a darkened horizon can be seen only in the reflections on the surfaces of ponds and puddles. Herz Cycle is about engravings of Holy Mary and her depiction through religious iconography from ancient times to the present day. As the dance piece evolved and the trio emerged as main characters in the narrative of this piece, I began to obsess about the image of the trio and its relationship to the triple Goddess Hekate, who was worshipped and revered in Scotland. Many stone carvings of her are strewn across the ancient countryside. She features prominently in “the Scottish Play”. I began to ponder the concept of the all-powerful female deity steeped in the mysteries of the divine feminine, witchcraft, sorcery, ritual, divination, premonition, hidden wisdom and healing. The cycle takes on a ritualistic quality were each piece could perhaps be a spell.
JdV: You play the cello and know the instrument very well, and because it’s a string instrument it is also perhaps easier to know how to write for a violin and viola as well; do you try out things on the instrument during the writing process? And is it different from writing for oboe?
KM: Playing the cello is a vital part of the composition process for me because it maintains the connection between the mind and the physical act of making music. Without playing, the process of composition becomes a cerebral exercise alone. Growing up playing music is the reason why I write music. It is that link to the ongoing personal history I have with the instrument that brings about my drive to know musical instruments better and have the skill to create touching soundscapes that surround and engross the listener and captivate the player’s imagination. The discipline of improving one’s techniques on an instrument is a quest to understand the instrument better and therefore to write more eloquent music that is more defined and ultimately more beautiful. It is an ongoing and ever present challenge that is important for sharpening one’s focus, concentration and deep listening. I agree that I have a fluency in writing for stringed instruments that I don’t have with wind and brass instruments. That indicates to me that I need to work harder and learn more about wind and brass instruments. Understanding how sound is produced and shaped on all musical instruments is to get to know sound on an ever deeper, more subtle level.
JdV: You wrote most of these pieces with the knowledge that it’s going to be performed with dance. How did it affect your approach when working on it?
KM: In the past I have worked on dance pieces with the aim to explore the collaborative process and the act of creating music especially for dancers where the two disciplines are inextricably connected. These processes are built upon elements of improvisation and spontaneous composition and this process involves many hours working together building the piece together from scratch, a method like choreography. With this piece, I decided to write the music separately from the dance, creating a cycle of pieces inspired by the character of the musicians and delving into my own imagination as a source of inspiration rather than follow a prescribed theme. I kept the musical vignettes short and each one with a completely different colour to give the dance punctuation and variety, curious to see where the small pieces of the puzzle would take me when placing them side by side. Primarily the music was written, rehearsed and memorised outside the hours spent working with dancers. Within the context of dance, I have stylistic freedom to explore genres that normally I do not, extending my primarily classical contemporary vocabulary to the world of folk music, jazz and song writing.