Review by Huntley Dent, Interview by Colin Clarke
PETROVIC Surviving Bridges of Love. Island of Temptations. Crystal Dream. Mystery Dream. Twinkling Dream. River of Dreams. Hidden Letters • Plamena Mangova (pn) • SOLO MUSICA 337 (58:54)
In the most basic sense, a painter is saying, “Look at me,” and a composer, “Listen to me,” with the work of art as the vehicle for looking and listening. But there is another aesthetic path, much less self-centered, which is exemplified by this intriguing collection of piano pieces by the Luxembourgian composer Albena Petrovic (who sometimes adds her last name, Vratchanska). This alternative path in contemporary art has been dubbed “openness,” which shares creative work with the performer and the audience. Elements of chance are incorporated, along with spontaneity and improvisation.
This notion of sharing is most obvious in the percussion instruments—for example, tambourine, Tibetan singing bowl, or a dangling bell—that the pianist plays ad libitum. There are also extraneous percussive sounds such as rapping on the piano case, and for other effects a beaded necklace might be laid over the strings of the piano’s lowest octave. The overall result is to enrich and extend the piano’s capacities. At the same time the pianist works within the scope of well-defined freedom. As arresting as Petrovic’s new sounds are, I think it helps to go a bit deeper into “openness.” The concept originated in a highly influential book on modern aesthetics written in 1962 by the Italian philosopher Umberto Eco, who achieved surprising world fame through his first novel, The Name of the Rose, in 1980.
But it was Eco’s book on aesthetic theory, Opera aperta (Open Works in English translation), that had a decisive effect on Petrovic’s imagination. In music the avant-garde has long experimented with radical concepts like silence and chance, and large swaths of contemporary music are rooted not in harmony and melody but in something more fundamental, sound. We speak regularly of a composer creating a unique sound world, for example. Petrovic does that here very successfully, yet behind her sound world is Eco’s idea of openness, from which Petrovic has developed an idiom of constant activity by the performer, aiming to engage the audience in the creative act taking place in the moment on stage. (It greatly helps to see her piano pieces in motion, as it were, on YouTube. The best link to start with is probably this one, supplied by the composer: youtu.be/YBZKpYiHJAQ.)
Petrovic has been fortunate to find a number of pianists eager to experience the extended role she has envisioned, including on this CD the superb Bulgarian pianist Plamena Mangova. As a silver medalist in the prestigious Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels in 2007, Mangova has a big technique and a flexible imagination, both of which are amply on display. She is required to play music that often exploits the lowest and highest registers of the piano, reaching left and right to employ the percussion effects and inside the piano to rap, strum, and pluck. By any measure Petrovic’s idiom reflects her deep absorption in the avant-garde, but I should underscore that her aim is to immediately reach the listener.
To that end, her pieces quickly tell our ears what to listen for. Motifs are often brief, just four or five notes, which get repeated in quasi-Minimalist fashion while developing so clearly that they are easily followed. Four pieces on the program have “Dream” in the title, indicating the suspended mood and ethereal gestures that are meant to evoke a dreamlike state in the listener. Petrovic has found her own way to solve the perennial conflict between structure and emotion. She tells us in the booklet that she doesn’t compose on the piano but on paper instead, using what she calls a “rational” method that involves deriving melodies and motifs from the letters in the name of the pianist she has in mind, assigning a different note to P-L-A-M-E-N-A, for example, in Island of Temptations.
This method reaches its absolute purity in the five-movement suite Hidden Letters, where each miniature is secretly based on the letters in ROMEO, and are then reduced to single musical notes: The first movement, “R,” is restricted to the note D, “O” to C, “M” to E, and so on. (We don’t learn if Petrovic had in mind Ligeti’s 1951–53 Musica Ricercata, whose 11 movements are built up note by note, starting with two notes, then three, four, and so on.) Hidden Letters stays almost entirely within its one-note limitations, but with minimal additions and the extra variety of effects produced by playing inside the piano. The achieved effect is hypnotic and engaging at the same time.
Words can’t adequately convey how music sounds, but the burden on a reviewer is lifted in this case, because Petrovic’s piano pieces manage to merge a contemporary aesthetic with audience pleasure. These are three-dimensional performance pieces whose full impact—and entertainment value—depends on seeing as much as listening. But to the extent that a CD can unfold Petrovic’s unique sound world, Mangova has done an ideal job. Huntley Dent
Bridges of Love: The Unique Music of Albena Petrovic
By Colin Clarke
The music of Albena Petrovic is at once arresting, modern, and yet very approachable. Talking with her reveals a searching intellect coupled with a fine ability to project a sure emotional response. As she puts it herself, what is important in Petrovic’s music is “the message, the content you find inside. Some special meaning, some special feeling or mood which speaks to my heart, to your heart. It is not easy to find how to do this. And not every heart is open to hear every type of music, not every type of music is appreciated by everybody. That’s the big deal for all composers, to find out how to say something (and only if you have something to say) and how to make the audience know it, feel it, and like it.”
Here, we concentrate on her disc of piano music performed by the superb Plamena Mangova, referencing various other recordings of her music in the process.
You’re a pianist as well as a composer, but you don’t compose at the piano; was that a decision from the start? What advantages do you find this approach gives?
When I was 10 or 11 years old and started to compose immediately after my first piano lessons, I was only following my fingers and the musical “experience” I had. This approach was for me the only possibility, until I started to compose for other instruments and to study orchestration. The abstract approach of composing on paper avoids following formulas and the copying of finger patterns. Really, composing is an abstract and rational process, and also food for the brain. This new abstract approach helped me to avoid simple imitation and make the music not to sound like “déjà vu.” It’s the only way I feel free to let my fantasy work and not to do simple piano improvisation.
Can you give the reader some idea of your musical background, perhaps? You’re Sofia-born but you chose to settle in Luxembourg—why was that?
I attained a Master of Composition degree from National Music Academy in Sofia, Bulgaria; later, I even started a Ph.D.; one day I hope I’ll have a time to finish it. In Luxembourg, I studied contemporary music with Claude Lenners, a Henri Dutilleux Competition winning composer. During this period, I composed a lot of experimental music, an experience which today enriches my works and my sound research.
I’m in the third generation of musicians in my family. My grandfather Andrey Vratchansky was a composer of folklore-based music for wind orchestra at the beginning of the 20th century. My father was a conductor and a well-known arranger who specialized in orchestration, so I suppose my first works where a kind of way to follow the family. As I say, I started to compose at the age of 10 or 11, and at 14 I started composition lessons. The logical result was higher education, and also to study composition and conducting.
When I finished my studies, like almost all musicians from my generation I left Bulgaria to work outside. We are called “the generation of the Berlin Wall”—when the communist regime felt, all of us needed jobs because of the big crisis in post-Communist times. There is almost no big orchestra in the West which does not have Bulgarian musicians; all of my generation left Bulgaria. Me, too—that’s the reason why, after a few years, I ended up in Luxembourg—a Grand Duchy with very friendly and nice climate, where I found my second home and the security to survive and create. Here, I have written all the facts; but a life in exile gives very different kinds of feelings, doubts and frustrations, and the duty to work hard every second, night and day. Also, in Luxembourg my need to learn four new languages was scary, but today I do speak seven or eight languages, so that’s now behind me.
You have a Bulgarian pianist here in the excellent Plamena Mangova. She seems to have a real resonance with your music; she seems to understand it completely. How closely have you two worked in the past? And how closely did you work together on this disc?
I met Plamena for the first time in 2007, when she was invited by the Luxembourg Philharmonic immediately after winning second prize in the Queen Elisabeth Piano Competition, one of the most important piano competitions in the world. I had a ticket in the first row and could not stop my tears when she played. I was proud for her success, and somehow her performance gave me a big energy kick. The way she plays comes from the same school where I learned and studied. There is even a direct relationship—my first piano teacher was the teacher of her first piano teacher.
In terms of “Augenmusik,” you like to take the names of dedicatees and translate them into music (as in PLAMENA for “Island of Temptation”). Can you say why this technique appeals? Is there part of you that enjoys the “puzzle” aspect of it? (I’m reminded of the complexities of Bach and yet how that music speaks to the heart, for example.)
The reason to work sometimes with this technique is to catch the invisible side of the notes, “soggetto cavato” and “Augenmusik,” attracted me from the moment I discovered them. The same occurred with writing canon and fugue in large quantities, through curiosity and a liking for this puzzle-like side of the creation. It’s clear that simply technique is not enough to make musical content; one needs to give meaning to all of these rational processes.
Or to take the idea further, for example, tracks 7–11 on the disc constitute the piece Hidden Letters, each movement composed on one note. This epitomizes your interest in working with codes behind the music. I wonder if generally you see these codes working almost as a palimpsest; something that exists behind the music itself but something we shouldn’t be able to hear? Or do you see them more as a more aurally detectable structuring principle?
Your supposition is not far from the truth—I compose with this technique only sometimes, or when I like to build a clear construction over limited material (less is more) or to hide some message or names (employing my versions of soggetto cavato). I did this in My Name is Taurus and Gebet Zum Nichterscheinen, two pieces for wind ensembles entirely built on this principal, even so far as the main ideas are secret code which reflects on a story or on a book (the second title is based on an expression from Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut).
Was the first piece, Surviving Bridges of Love, composed for a multidisciplinary project by the Bulgarian artist Orlin Atanasov (b. 1959)? I see you were artistic director of that project as well as one of the composers for the experience. Could you tell us more about that project, please?
The piece was composed eight months before this project was born, so there is no direct relation. It was only part of it, bringing it to Luxembourg to my festival, New Classic Stage.
The artist states that his work is about reconciling differences between seemingly irreconcilable objects, and a search for beauty as well. Could you explain your title in some more detail?
Orlin has a very special approach to material coming from nature, or objects from normal life, as I do when sometimes I take non-musical objects and introduce them into my scores together with the musical instruments. However, this is only technical—the message from both of us is very human and completely independent of the material used.
In Bridges of Love, who plays the percussion?
The recording was made in Philharmonie Luxembourg. The pianist plays small percussion by himself. That’s also one special innovation of mine: Many times I put into the score small percussion instruments or even non-musical objects to be played entirely by the pianist, seeking to find new sounds. I don’t work with a “prepared piano,” but rather with a prepared pianist. Incidentally, on YouTube one can find a performance by Ines Simeonova, who gave the premiere, and there one can see how it works in performance.
Although Plamena didn’t premiere Surviving Bridges of Love, the next piece, Island of Temptation (2019) was written for her. It’s playful, especially rhythmically, but virtuosic at times, too—and yet you describe the music as “sentimental.” And I note you use that word to describe Hidden Letters too. Is that aspect important to you? And would you differentiate sentimentality from, say, emotionality or nostalgia?
The term “emotional” contains a kind of action or acting, an active relation with the origin of the emotion. The term “nostalgic” is passive, having no action but supporting this feeling of loss or sadness, missing and suffering but not acting. The term “sentimental” is not passive; it supports feelings of a different range not only of sadness and loss, but also of pleasure, hope, and temptation. So, in Island of Temptations the feelings encompass a different range of sentiments: sometimes there is a great deal of contrast and sudden changes, capricious and full of contradictions.
The beautiful Crystal Dream (I’m not surprised you call it your favorite piece!) is so delicate. You take the four notes of the dedicatee’s name (ZALA Kravos—the piece was commissioned by her father)—am I right in thinking these four notes determine the entire harmonic and melodic universe of this piece? And why the title, “Crystal Dream”? It seems to work as a pair with Mystery Dream of two years later—are these two pieces designed to be played as a pair? Or perhaps even as a trio, with Twinkling Dream of 2019?
Those three pieces are dedicated to the young pianist Zala Kravos and were commissioned by her father, the last-namd piece in 2019 had the support of the Ministry of Culture and was premiered in Washington DC. The “Dream” titles are related to the prelude genre and provide a possibility to build a work in progress, a cycle of pieces for following the artistic development of this young pianist; it is always possible I will compose a new Dream for her.
The titles remind me of Takemitsu; River of Dreams seems Impressionistic, but also with a Takemitsu-like tinge!
River of Dreams was composed for Kotaro Fukuma, a Europe-based Japanese pianist; that’s why this Japanese-like subconscious element is found in it. Also, it is an open work; the different panels are free to be played in any order, or to be played two or three times, extending the piece for as long as the player needs to create the flowing atmosphere of a river.
You say Mystery Dream “opened the door” of your “real imagination and the symbiosis between the very rational way of composing and the opposite.” Can you expand on that statement a little more? Do you mean how your inspirations interact with how you work with them to produce a final score?
Yes. Here I introduce a Chinese bell hanging from the piano cover, a risky decision for a piece that is not experimental, but aspires to be a repertory piece. This was the first time I introduced an object to take part in my score in the service of the main idea.
I get my inspiration from somewhere—from feelings, from books, poems, paintings, or films—then I find a title, which absolutely goes together with the idea. The title is the guideline for the development and dramaturgy of the piece. If I don’t have the title, I cannot even compose. Then I need to translate all this into sounds, to put the exact notes on the paper—in this moment, I have to find the right ones and to develop the piece; it’s possible to choose all the notes and all the sounds, I don’t let anything be haphazard. Why I choose the name of the pianist sometimes is a question of an artistic decision in the moment. In any case, I like every piece to be recognizable—with its own sound and color—and I do this in a rational way. Also, these “heartbreaking” titles need rational music to compensate for the danger of being treated melodramatically.
Speaking of which, where does your inspiration to compose a piece mainly come from? Is it via a collaboration with a particular performer, or from a particular idea?
I get my inspiration independently of the artist, but always knowing to whom I dedicate a piece and why. It’s clear that I will not compose for a “virtual” tenor; I have in my head some specific sound of a particular character. For the piano pieces, the specific style of the performer also is important —many pianists don’t like to use small percussion instruments or their voices, so I have to put restrictions on my fantasy.
The piece Twinkling Dream seems to find you using a selection of vocabularies. It’s a more overtly “modern” piece.
I have used the voices of instrumentalists for a long time; I have pieces for solo flute, clarinet, viola, and solo tuba with the voice and dancing effects. All of the pieces are very modern. The fact that they are not too dissonant is very deliberate—working with the sound material I choose, I control the consonance and the dissonance according to my idea. Also, dissonance is not so modern—it’s more than 100 years old—so what is more modern and unique is the combinations of how I use consonance and dissonance, rhythm and timbre, the sound and atmospheric research, and the final result for the performance and the listener.
I love the idea behind your competition, “Artistes en Herbe” (Budding Artists)—young children in the Junior category, and a Senior category in which adult composers aim their scores at enriching the teaching repertoire for children.
It is the only project in my professional life I’m really happy with— I do something for the ideal of the composition and to help the visibility of this profession, which is not very lucrative and not commercial. I’m the artistic director and conductor; I have many activities in organizing festivals, competitions. I never stay anywhere without doing something.
Can we talk a little about your previous discs? I reviewed the disc of vocal music performed by Véronique and Romain Nosbaum, and was taken by the range of musics you can refer to: Persian, French Impressionism, the Modernists (specifically, Stockhausen, to whom Le retour des papillons is dedicated). How important is that ability for you? And how do you maintain the individuality of your own voice?
The worlds of Persian poetry and Impressionistic poetry are very related to my aesthetics—I am attracted by all kinds of ways to express feelings—and I translate all of that approach into my own language with a lot of rational work. I avoid using chords or characteristics or tonal relations specific to other composers. The individuality of my writing or my voice is, you might say, rationally decided. I composed in all styles and techniques during my studies, so it’s easy to avoid using them now. It’s because I hate the syndrome of “composing like Prokofiev,” “like Schoenberg,” and so on, taking on the style of someone else. Nowadays many compositions are composing in a Gershwin-like style, or a Piazzolla-like style. For me, the individual voice is very important. I have always wanted to have a language that is easily recognizable as mine by listening to the piece or analyzing the score. One of the reasons to study is to know how not to repeat others, and at the same time to know and respect the traditions when you try to discover yourself.
I loved the idea of your opera The Dark, an excerpt of which includes a contemporary Eurydice in the Kingdom of the Shades.
It was an “autobiographical” opera I composed to be performed in an underground situation in the dark, to ensure 100 percent the suggestion of the main idea. The performance related precisely to the libretto—it was a perfect symbiosis.
What are you working on at the moment? Which directions do you see your music going in?
I’m on my sixth opera now: my radio-opera THE PIANO BLUE, with a libretto by Matthias Theodor Vogt, The premiere was postponed because of the Covid quarantine; it should have been on April 5 at the ppIANISSIMO Festival in Sofia, but now will be in November, I hope. It’s dedicated to two female pianists who were in the concentration camps of Hitler and Stalin.