Iris Szeghy – Portrait Concert
by Prof. Dr. Christoph Sramek
(Translated from German by Dr. Gerhard Hartmann)
luminous sound effects, most delicately chased individual tones and
breaks full of tension characterise some of the inner wealth of Iris
Szeghy’s music. Not rarely, past epochs of musical history are evoked in
her works. Thus modal melodic phrases are used which are amalgamated
with avantgarde structures in a very original, almost ascetic manner.
Works for traditional genres such as string quartet, concerto,
accompanied solo lied and a cappella chorus are found together with
programmatic solo, ensemble and orchestral compositions prefering a
clear and comprehensible concept of development. All of them show a
charmingly independent expressiveness, often spirituality, revealing
sensitive emotional traits and occasionally deriving intensification
from reducing the musical means.
In her paper ‘Why, what and how – a composer’s reflections and self-reflections’ read at the Bratislava Melos-Ethos Festival, in the concept of which she was involved, the composer, who grew up at the interface between East and West Europe, formulates clear aesthetic principles. Here she confesses: ‘For me music is a longing for monologue and dialogue at the same time, for making myself understood, boosting my confidence and devoting myself to others. Music is a question which is an answer in itself, an answer which is a question. It is a bridge’.
The fact that her sensations range from the simple nature-loving life of her childhood to highly complex philosophic and global problems of mankind is illustrated by the great variety of her vocal works. This tendency is evident in her Psalm written for the Texan singer Beth Griffith (on a Text by Paul Celan) as well as in the four-part Oratio et gratias actio pro sanitate mains meae suggested by the British Milliard Ensemble. Her far-reaching literary interests are, however, also expressed in such works as her early piano lieder Simple and Difficult on verses by the Slovac poet Milan Rufus, in De Profundis for voice, flute or clarinet and violin or viola on poems by Michelangelo Buonarroti as well as in her Three Shakespearean Songs for a cappella chorus.
A direct bridge to her listeners Iris Szeghy also seeks in her instrumental music, for instance in such works as Homewards, an orchestral piece written after her father’s death, or by using traditional formal patterns. In the corner movements of her particularly successful String Quartet (Musica dolorosa) she uses the sonata form or the variation. In her Concerto for violoncello and orchestra, however, which was composed on completion of a postgraduate composition course at the musical college of Bratislava, where she also took her doctor’s degree, the movements are headed passacaglia (i), toccata (2) and aria (3).
To conclude from this that her compositions are imbued with neobaroque or postmodern traits would neither characterise Iris Szeghy’s creative approach nor the sound structure of her works. Although thoroughly studying and experimenting with the most different styles and trends of the past and present while studying piano and composition at the Kosice conservatory and later, during her composition course at the Bratislava musical college, she never felt attracted by too narrowly defined techniques- She was indeed striving for an individual musical language based on a creative synthesis of avantgarde and tradition. Working as a freelance composer since 1990, she extended her creative abilities with the help of scholarships of the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, a stay at the University of California in San Diego sponsored by the Soros Foundation as well as with the support of the STEIM studios in Amsterdam. Her stays as a ‘composer in residence’ at the Hamburg Staatsoper as well as at the artist residences of Worpswede/Lower Saxony and Boswil in Switzerland proved extremely stimulating. In this way she also established contacts with numerous radio companies and interpreters like the British Hilliard Ensemble, the Zurich Cattrall Ensemble (commission for a composition by Pro Helvetia Zurich) and the Ensemble SurPlus Freiburg. Portrait concerts conducted in Stuttgart (1993), San Diego (1994), Hamburg (1996) and Bremen (1999) reflect the particular appreciation of her musical work.
In close cooperation with the renowned South German Ensemble Sur Plus Iris Szeghy created her compositions In Between for oboe and tape as well as Perpe-tuum mobile for prepared piano. By devoting the piece for oboe to Peter Veale and refering in the score to his book The technique of playing the oboe edited together with Klaus-Steffen Mahnkopf, the composer reveals how many impulses she owes to her interpreter. The instrumental solo part begins with inconspicuous noise accents mutating into slap sounds and eventually leading to electrifying multi-phonics in the eruptive climax. Colour nuances, organically emerging from each other, are chracteristic of a form of development aiming at intensification and climax, a concept which the composer also employs in other works. But it is not only polar relationships between energetic quietude and hectic motion, between different colours and impulse densities, but also increasing contrasts between an instrumental sound that often appears unusual and the technically conser vironmental noise. The tape recordings originate as it were from tuning the frequencies between two radio stations on the one hand, and from steps approaching and disappearing again, on the other. All in all these constellations result in a complex set of programmes, which Iris Szeghy attributes to her Stuttgart meeting with the painter Wladimir Mironenko. The Moscow painter deals with a ‘neutral zone’, an imaginary space between life and death, reality and dream, to express , as he puts it himself, the ‘feeling of a definite present in which visible evidence is lacking.’ Iris Szeghy adds : ‘We are constantly living, in between’. In the space in between, in the time in between, in the relationships in between. We want to perceive something pure, a motive, a tone, but as it seems, above all purity there is the ‘in between’.
A world in between, man in between, me in between, you ‘in between.’ Comparable to a bell-shaped curve the tension process unfolds in Perpetuum mobile, also written in 1993. Here, however, resonance effects in the pedal, differently prepared pitch areas of the piano as well as hand and arm clusters with almost incessantly swinging rhythms determine the musical events.
The other two soloist works, Preludio e Danzafor bass clarinet (1992) as well as the Ciaconna for solo viola (1991) are using similar avantgarde techniques and appeal through their excellent colorfulness and virtuosity. The dance miniature, orginalty intended for basset horn, is also characterised by quick changes of the registers within this extremely flexible instrument. In this way, the increasingly vital repititions on the lowest tone of the instrument interlace with modal melodic phrases culminating in the orgiastic gestures of Free jazz.The spiritual starting point for the Ciaconna goes back to johann Sebastian Bach’s opulent finale of the Partita No 2 in d-Minor BW 1004 for violin solo. Designated as Chaconne, this movement is the only succession of variations repeated over a steady bass and a fixed chord sequence ever to have been composed by the famous Leipzig Thomaskantor in his chamber music. Iris Szhegy does not quote the work directly, but by stylistically approaching this form of baroque music makes the listener feel that she wants to enter into dialogue with Bach. And indeed, she starts with g-Minor, its lower fifth, using an eight-bar periodocism over large passages. Moreover the terms Lento – Andante – Largo and Tempo I (in the second repitition used for denoting some kind of Coda) remind us of the ternary character of the sonata form. For dynamic reasons, she once more uses modern modes of articulation, such as the combination of tremolo and glissando, improvised passages between fixed frame tones as well as a system of microintervals distinctly changing the colours. According to the composer, as a result of this ‘dialogue’ with Bach there emerges ‘a nostalgic reminescence of the past, of beauty and simplicity, which are irretrievably lost.’
In contrast to this, invincible elemental forces out of sound, rhythm and quietude are conjured up in Midsummer Night’s Mystery for two percussionists. Written in 1992, in its corner parts ‘Fire’ and ‘Dawn’ the work moves on the brink of dying away, producing most tender nuances of tomtoms, marimbaphone, cymbals and later also of a tube bell. In the middle part Dance, which is included without gaps, the cluster beats provide for impulsive break-ups of the rhythm. As Iris Szeghy herself states, this music goes ‘back to ancient savage rituals accompanying the summer solstice. The magic character of this evening, night and morning has adopted different forms in different cultures, but the symbol of the fire accompanied by songs and dances is to be found almost everywhere. The piece is to express the following: After the fire has gradually started from a tiny flame, it explodes in a barbaric dance, which after reaching its climax gives way to the dawn. The simple final motive symbolises everything that is still new, emerging, and shy, but which is invincible in its purifying power.’
In a similar way archetypic and contemporary elements combine into an original whole in her Musicafolclorica for clarinet, d piano composed in 1996, , denotes as an ‘Horn-Bartok’ in the subtitle. Intonations from Balkan, Slawonic and Hungarian folk music intertwine with consistently pro-gresssing composition techniques and unusual manners of performance into a sequence of seven musical pictures whose principal motives are expressed in the movements ‘Poetico’, ‘Baladico’ and ‘Rit-mico’. The contrast between dominantly melodic, sound and rhythmic elements is en priority, while the background is led by a pre- and post-ludium as well as two interludes, repeated with ever increasing velocity. What the composer earlier tested in solo works, is here condensed into a music for chamber ensemble. The folk melodies and rhythms in the piece, she comments, ‘are sometimes obvious and sometimes hidden, sometimes they are not present at all, but a certain kind of ‘folklore espressivo’ is almost constantly to be heard.’
The general attitude of a dialectic relationship between sound and structure determines her cycle Afforismi II for flute, oboe/English horn and bass clarinet of 1992 to an even larger extent. Almost in the way of a leitmotif spheric sounds consisting of seconds are permeating the seven short movements, which however, show surprising effects by their pointed counterpositions. In the corner parts this thematic counterpoint is formed by slap sounds, while in the axis-like middle part this is achieved by reminiscences of the cadenza harmonics. In the second movement the antithesis is derived from the overlapping of pentatonic scales transported by thirds, while in the third movement this is achieved by using imitations on a chromatic basis which are gradually condensing into larger complexes. The subtle humour and ambivalent attitude concealed behind this dualistic play becomes most evident in the fifth and sixth movements. On the one hand, the composer employs onomatopoeian means to characterise the tuning of an orchestra, while on the other hand she uses conventional chorale intonations, which are very soon disturbed by aggressive sounds. As, however, text quotations of famous writers and philosophers are attached to the individual movements, a wide range of associations is opened up, reaching from the individual to the social sphere.
Prof. Dr. Christoph Sramek is musicologist, critic and publicist, teacher at the Academy of Music and Theater “Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy” in Leipzig.