Baba Yaga: The Witch Rides Again for Michael Colina
Michael Colina’s latest CD of orchestral works—an unquestionably important release—has provided an apt occasion to engage him in further comments about his musical outlook and career. I refer the reader to my previous interview with the composer in 35: 2 to set the proper context of the composer’s comments below.
Q: Michael, the first and obvious question is: Why your name on the present CD has been expanded to Michael
Colina? Not that I have any room to quibble, given the name that I use on all of my own writing and compositions…!
A: I didn’t recall that I hadn’t done that on the
CD. I have signed my name that way on all my scores since returning to writing serious music in 2000. According to the Spanish tradition, I have appended Dalmau, which is my grandmother’s maiden name.
Q: As much as I love the piece, I have to confess—being well steeped in the famous “Baba-Yaga” from Mussorgsky’s
that this work was not what I was expecting. Did you deliberately avoid any overtones from Mussorgsky in the work? Obviously, the subject is the same one that fascinated the great Russian master through the lens of Victor Hartmann.
A: Well, actually, I don’t even know the Mussorgsky version! This is also an example of a kind of transference. Anastasia (Nastya) asked me to write
after the violin concerto I wrote for her. In her re-telling of the Baba Yaga tale, and how profoundly it affected her and countless Russian children, I think there was some kind of transference going on—the sound world and design of the music was imprinted in me. What came through from Nastya was the fairy tale quality, the childlike fascination with scary stories and magic, and especially a fundamental sense of light triumphing over darkness.
Q: As you’ve written now two major works for Anastasia Khitruk, how would you describe your relationship with her, as composer and performing artist?
A: My relationship with Nastya is not a one-of-a-kind situation, but certainly also not the usual kind of commission request. I encourage her and she encourages me—we have formed our own small but effective mutual admiration society. In fact, we have acknowledged that we have an intellectual and musical love affair. She’s a personal friend and we do care for each other. I am learning so much more about writing for the violin than I could have ever been taught in any orchestration class. By now, it’s almost as if I play the violin myself, which I have done (as I may have mentioned before), but only enough to play scales, and to know what double- and triple-stops are possible, etc. I sound like a tortured cat.
Q: Sounds like a title for a new work, the
How much input did she give you in the solo violin writing in
A: By this point I am beginning to write an entire movement and present it to Anastasia for comments and suggestions. Having learned from our previous collaborations, I can now avoid some of the mistakes in writing I used to make. Ms. Khitruk is a good teacher!
Q: Despite its fundamental tonality, the style in which you have composed
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
strikes me as one of the most original tonal styles I’ve heard in a long time. How did the novel of Milan Kundera, upon which this work is based, inform your approach to the piece? How do opposites, such as light and shade, lightness and weight, and sound and silence, drawn from the philosophy of Parmenides, show up in the Kundera novel, and how do you represent them in your music?
A: David, as you know it’s always difficult to translate what it is in the emotional atmosphere of a novel that actually inspires a composer to respond in kind using a tonal/ sound world. I guess the key word would be
Whether the composer tries to emulate or mirror the world of feelings in a novel, or whether he responds with a bounce in the opposite direction is an interesting question. In the instance of Milan Kundera’s meditation on opposites, allowing “being and non-being” or “life or death” to be the ultimate contrast, I thought a poignant mixture of polytonality and sound and silence would best express what I was feeling while reading this work.
But actually, I never thought about writing music of any kind while reading the novel; the idea came later because the world of thoughts and feelings lingered on, long after I’d finished the novel.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
indeed! Thus, the word combination “unbearable lightness” was a polytonal chord to me, and the concept of silence versus music came from the idea of reality as a juxtaposition of opposites. So, I lingered in the silences in this piece, staring up, as it were, at the tonal walls of sound towering around me.
Q: This CD also contains a second work linking you to Francisco Goya. You must have a particular soft spot in your heart for this painter, and I’m wondering what it is about him and his art that has drawn you so much into his world?
A: It was in the past 10 years that I became fascinated with the wild, fierce, and insightful images that Francisco Goya created depicting the inhumanity of war and oppression. As far as I’m concerned, Goya was the first pictorial war journalist.
His work inspired my orchestra compositions,
, based on 11 images from his prints of the same name—this is included on my
Three Cabinets of Wonder
Quinta del Sordo
, Goya’s final home where he created his “Black Paintings.”
I experienced a frightful moment when I made a connection between these 200-year-old images (“Les Desastres la Guerra” and the “Black Paintings”), with the photos of humiliation and torture from Abu Ghraib. What feelings are invoked upon walking into such a graphic exhibition of human suffering? Susan Sontag suggests there is shame, in addition to shock, in looking at the close-up images of real horror. Perhaps the only people with the right to look at such images of extreme suffering are those who could do something to alleviate it. In this instance, the gruesome invites us to either awaken or be cowards!
Q: Well, I trust your music will inspire the former reaction! Is the title,
Quinta Del Sordo,
the name of Goya’s last residence, depicted in any overt musical ways? Goya became deaf, for instance, but did you attempt to depict that in your music? Or do you attempt to portray any particular one of his “Black Paintings”?
A: In this instance I was primarily thinking of Goya’s heart, and his compassion and warmth. The man with this great ability for empathy would be naturally horrified as a witness of torture and suffering. After spending time in an idiomatic Spanish soundscape, there is a long buildup to a sonic cataclysm at one of the most celebratory, life-affirming moments in the music. But I stress that this is not program music; rather, there is a fundamental theme, i.e., when life is going great, with visions of glory and fame in sight, and then the world throws you a gigantic curve:
Q: As the notes state, your
Isles of Shoals
depicts the site of the first-ever artists’ colony in the New World. Given that this colony no longer exists, what drew you to setting it in music?
A: I encountered in a small day-book the
Isles of Shoals
text by Caleb Mason. It contained drawings, quotes, poems, and reminiscences by many of the artists who visited there. Two things really stood out to me about this story: First, this was the very first artists’ colony in the U.S., being founded quite naturally at a time when culture was truly appreciated. Needless to say, culture today is an endangered species. Secondly, Isle of Shoals ended in a fire that left nothing behind but ashes and memories. So, I am asking in this work what it means to be a human being if we have no memory.
Q: Where did the idea of basing the second movement of this flute concerto on Bach’s
Sheep May Safely Graze
come from? It seems a curious thing, especially, to juxtapose with the work’s final movement, titled “Danze Macabre.”
A: You are the only one who has ever noticed that placing “Danze Macabre” after the safely-grazing sheep couldn’t be both more justified and horrific. I am, as must be obvious by now, deeply concerned with the demise of musical culture here in the U.S. Our educational system has ceased to function on so many levels, and music programs seem to be the first to get cut when funds are tight. Thus, the story of the Isle of Shoals is an example in miniature of a nurturing, flourishing culture meeting its end. Or is it evolutionary change…?
Q: Did you have any particular flutist in mind as you were composing this work?
A: Ransom Wilson, with whom I attended the North Carolina School of the Arts. He ended up conducting, and we cast Łukasz Długosz, one of his brilliant students, in the solo part.
Q: What future compositional projects do you have planned?
A: I’m working on a piece,
Chaconne for Violin & Piano,
“On the salvation of mankind with musical gestures from the lexicon of J. G. Walther,” which will be a 24-minute work that will be premiered January 28, 2013, at Carnegie Recital Hall. Nastya Khitruk will be the violinist and Elena Bakst the pianist. The program will also include Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor. Essentially, the evening’s program will be a review, or time travel, through the history of the chaconne, looking at its origins in the New World, i.e., Havana (as a naughty little dance), to its return to the old world, where Bach created his masterpiece. And all of us composers have tried one! My subtitle refers to the internal structure and intervallic gestures that Bach used in his music, which, as you know, are deeply associated with Biblical references, i.e., rising notes meaning ascension and/or redemption, while descending notes referring to the Fall, temptation, or grief, and so on.
Q: I’ll certainly look forward to hearing yet another collaboration between you and Khitruk! Will we see more CDs of your music coming out in the near future? I ask this selfishly, so that I can request here and now that editor Joel send them my way for review.
A: Yes, I am planning a CD of my chamber music next year, and after that I plan to record
Requinauts (Journey of the Spirit
) for orchestra, chorus, and soloists.
Q: Well, you can be sure that I will be anticipating those CDs as much as I was
Baba Yaga, Fantasia for Violin and Orchestra.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Quinta Del Sordo.
Isles of Shoals
Ira Levin, cond;
Ransom Wilson, cond;
Anastasia Khitruk (vn);
Łukasz Długosz (fl); London SO
FLEUR DE SON 58018 (69:56)
I can honestly state that no CD I’ve received from
Central this year have I been anticipating and looking forward to as much as this one. First of all, Michael Colina is one of my top 10 favorite living composers. (No, I’m not at all sure that I could easily come up with a list of the other nine!) So I invariably await with bated breath any new release containing his music. Add to that the fact that the title piece,
treats the same subject as did Mussorgsky in one of the movements from
well the combination was enough to make me drool like a teething infant. And, rest assured, my anticipation was richly rewarded when I actually received and listened to the CD. Every work herein is a winner and serves to keep Colina firmly ensconced in the lofty ranking that I’ve accorded him in the pantheon of contemporary composers. In short, I can firmly state that this CD will be on my next Want List even ten months before I have to submit it, and not only for the quality of the music. Every parameter of this CD, including performances and sonics, which come about as close to audiophile status as a compact disc can get, sets this issue apart from the mass of CDs still flooding the marketplace.
As can be seen in the interview above, the composer’s philosophy permeates all of his music, and these themes resonate throughout the works contained on this disc. In
the CD’s opening work, Colina explores the rich world of Russian folktale and fantasy and proves that the subject matter can be amply examined from a perspective quite different from the way that Mussorgsky, Liadov, and others have done. The first of the work’s two movements is devoted to Vasalisa, a beautiful young girl who is impoverished and oppressed by a Cinderella-like stepmother and stepsisters. Perhaps surprisingly, it is the witch Baba-Yaga who comes to the rescue of this hapless girl by presenting her with a skull whose eye sockets shine with light (another tie-in to Mussorgsky in his “Con mortuis” movement of
) and eventually consume Vasalisa’s oppressors. All of this is brilliantly portrayed in the music, from the sentimental and endearing portrait of the young girl, to the untimely, but well-deserved fate of her antagonists. Colina’s musical language throughout this work is ingratiatingly modernistic and overflowing with colorful orchestration befitting its subject matter. Over all of this, the violinist sweetly weaves her charms, perfectly capturing every mood portrayed by the composer. This work is every bit the equal of the composer’s concerto for the instrument that I reviewed on his previous CD, as is Anastasia Khitruk’s rendition of it.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being,
the imaginative title of a novel by Czech author Milan Kundera, was adopted by Colina for an equally imaginative work for string orchestra, intended to capture the philosophical opposites of light/darkness, warmth/cold and, especially, being/non-being. The composer attempts to capture these pairs through use of light versus dense scoring, consonant versus dissonant harmonic sonorities, and sound versus non-sound, i.e., silence. Several block chords that emerge from nothingness at the work’s opening are adapted and varied throughout the work, permeating its every fiber. The piece doesn’t end but rather disappears into nothingness, obviously the conscious intention of the composer. Along the way, Colina distills a unique tonal language from his materials, impossible to describe in words, but a delight to savor.
Quinta Del Sordo
is a tone poem for full orchestra, and again reflects its composer’s concerns—in this case, those he has expressed against oppression and conflict, about which he speaks in the above interview. The Spanish painter Goya was selected as the subject of this tone poem, given that artist’s concern with such topics in his art, especially in his late “Black Paintings.” The name of this work refers to that of the last residence of the painter located on the Manzanares River near Madrid, and may be translated as “House of the Deaf Man.” The style of
reflects the Spanish-Cuban heritage of its composer, drawing from the rhythms and figuration typical of those countries. These are imbued with Colina’s own artistic voice to create a unique musical canvas of his own. Despite the philosophical underpinnings of this work, its mood remains cheerful and optimistic to my ears, and only on occasion verges into angst and turmoil. Hearing this, the listener might be forgiven for describing Colina as “the American Ravel”; the work would never be mistaken for any of those by the French master, but such is the color and inventiveness of
The CD closes with a flute concerto,
Isles of Shoals,
which, as Colina describes above, is a memorial to the first artists’ colony in the U.S. He also explains the significance of the second and third movements, the first bearing the same name as the title of the entire work. The work begins with a plaintive melody in the flute with accompaniment primarily in the strings. Its nostalgic feel looks back somehow to the era—the late 19th and early 20th centuries—in which Isles of Shoals was in existence. Before very long, the lines become more agitated, and the harmonies more dissonant, but tonality always lurks behind in the shadows, never too far away. In fact, one thing that attracts me to Colina’s music in general is his ability to shift between a more tonal and a less tonal palette in utterly convincing and fluent fashion.
The calm second movement generously quotes Bach’s “Sheep may safely graze,” at first gently, but building up to agitated climactic points over which the solo flute rhapsodizes. If I understand Colina correctly, the idea in this movement is that while musical “sheep” may have safely grazed during Bach’s time, there is no such security for them in our own era, when musical culture is sinking like the Titanic. Of course, “sheep” to Bach were the members of a flock under the protection of the Church and her Shepherd. Nevertheless, things of value—whatever they might be—have to be cherished, nurtured, and guarded if they are to endure. Incidentally, that’s a large part of why I (and likely most of my colleagues) write for
The work closes with the frenetic “Danze Macabre.” Again in this movement, Colina’s Latin roots come to the fore, and the work closes with a breathtaking flourish. At around a half-hour in duration, this concerto has to be one of the most significant additions to the flute and orchestra repertory in several decades. Kudos in this performance must go to flutist Łukasz Długosz, whose pure tone and impeccable intonation and technique are most memorable.
Conductors Ira Levin and Ransom Wilson (yes, the renowned flutist) and the London Symphony all contribute to make this production an indispensable one. No one who makes any pretense of enjoying tonal contemporary music can afford to pass up this disc—and while you’re at it, pick up Colina’s previous,
Three Cabinets of Wonders
, if you didn’t heed the exhortation to do so in my review of that CD.
David DeBoor Canfield