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MAYKE NAS: KEEPING ONE'S PROMISE
|Composer in the Spotlight
by Michel Khalifa, february 2009
‘Mayke Nas poses questions, many, many questions. When she had to write a piece about the future of concert practice, she sent a list with dozens, or possibly hundreds of questions.' (...)
In love with sounds
by Joke Dame, september 2008
‘The moment you are in a hall and you are profoundly moved is often inexplicable. It has to do with high quality or an ingenious invention. On such a moment you feel: this is it, this is why we, all of us, are making music.' (...)
Perhaps I am an occasional composer
by Anthony Fiumara, november 2006
The other day I had to give a talk
about my work, about what I am
doing as a composer. I suddenly
realised: maybe I am an occasio-
nal composer. I do not mean (...)
Keeping one's promise
by Makis Solomos, july 2004
In listening to your music and
talking with you, I have the im-
pression I understand the diffe-
rent facets of your mental and
musical world, yet their (...)
10 reasons to compose
by Thea Derks, july 2003
Only this june she graduated at
the Royal Conservatory of The
Hague. Even so, Mayke Nas al-
ready composed for the tele-
visonprogram 'Reiziger in (...)
The Logbook, Ensemble Aleph, 3rd Inter-national Forum for Young Composers 2004
|By Makis Solomon - Moulin d'Andé, july 2004
In listening to your music and talking with you, I have the impression I understand the different facets of your mental and musical world, yet their point of convergence escapes me completely! I wanted therefore to hold this interview as a kind of charade in which 'my whole' would be left to the appreciation of the reader.
'My first' would be the underlying idea of the piece played by the Ensemble Aleph, Musique qui sent la table et la pantoufle - 'Music redolent of the table and the slipper'. In the first part the score requires the performers to play 'simple simmering', 'double simmering', 'humid and variable simmering' and 'drops'. What are these sounds?
They are all produced by the mouth, without the instruments. 'Simple simmering' should produce a short 'pa' sound, a bit like a fish gulping air. In order to indicate this to the performers I looked for analogies with cooking. I imagined pots simmering on the stove, producing bubbles. When a bubble explodes, you hear this 'pa'. 'Double simmering' is a slightly longer sound, the exploding bubble is followed by a brief wet sound. The overall sounds produced by the pot give 'humid and variable simmering'.
In the second part of the piece, when you start to hear the instruments, what are the elements that recall cooking?
As the 'simmering' progresses, the pressure increases and the lid starts to shake and produce rattling sounds. In the piece, these are played by the piano and percussion, the latter also playing a pepper mill - a real culinary instrument!
You don't indicate these culinary metaphors in the score.
I explained them live to the musicians of the Ensemble Aleph. It's true that if I had had to send the score before meeting them, I would have found it very difficult to find the appropriate words to explain it to them. I should probably have sent a CD of myself producing the sounds.
Where does the title come from - Musique qui sent la table et la pantoufle?
It's a quotation from Debussy, taken from one of the music reviews he published under the pseudonym of Monsieur Croche. The voice sings a longer extract: Music redolent of the table and the slipper. This to be taken in a special sense from mechanics who, when testing a badly assembled machine, say, 'It smells oily'. Debussy is criticising music that is too mathematical. And again, For a long time music experienced what mathematics calls a mania for numbers. He, by contrast, loved the relationship with nature. The article is entitled On taste: Debussy also liked culinary analogies! When I talk with musicians - and in particular with composers, I have always been struck by the number of culinary metaphors they use. I have composed two other pieces with titles of this sort: 'La Belle Chocolatière' [The beautiful chocolate girl] (2002) and 'Pigeonneau en bécasse' [Young pigeon with woodcock] (2001). In fact La Belle Chocolatière already had a link with Debussy. As far as culinary metaphors are concerned, 'Musique qui sent la table et la pantoufle' is the consequence of this. In it I introduce cooking utensils, whereas 'La Belle Chocolatière', despite its title, does not use sounds from cooking.
I notice that you like French titles. Apart from those you have just mentioned, I see there is Entrez!
The title 'Entrez!' is a special case; it's one of those French expressions that have almost become part of the Dutch language, like 'Allez!'. The other two pieces are related to the role of French in Holland. In earlier days, the upper classes spoke French at table. I wrote 'Pigeonneau en bécasse' for my piano exam. I was studying Messiaen's piano music and decided to build a programme around his music, a programme that included Boulez's Notations (a piece he had composed when a pupil of Messiaen), but also 'Lerchentrio' by Theo Loevendie. 'Lerchen' is the German for lark, and as Messiaen constantly refers to birds, I thought I would compose a piece for the programme that also called on winged creatures. I chose pigeons. 'Pigeonneau en bécasse' starts like this: Take six pigeons and remove their eyes. My pigeons are cooked! The text comes from a fantastic recipe of Michel Guérard.
Here, now, is 'my second'. I notice that your music has a clear conceptual aspect: the initial idea is nearly always as important as the music it generates. In an interview you published in English called Ten reasons to compose, you say that the best moment for you is when you are looking for an idea.
Yes, I have to have a good reason for composing, just thinking about a beautiful piece to be written somehow is not enough.
Can you explain the 'concept' of La Belle Chocolatière?
I started with a visual image, what in Dutch is called the 'Droste effect': an image that refers its own image, in a recursive manner. 'Droste' is a brand of cocoa, and the image on the tin consists of a waitress holding a tray, and on the tray is the tin of cocoa with the image of a waitress holding a tray, and so on to infinity. I wanted to do the same thing in music. I started with one of Debussy's Images and I compressed its pitches. The piece starts with only pitchless, percussive sounds,so you start with maximum compression. After that you hear more and more micro-intervals and the pitch space progressively opens out. It's only at the end that you get close to the original, though you only hear the final octaves.
At the Moulin d'Andé, during Jean-Pierre Drouet's concert, we heard Ombre by Vinko Globokar. It's a very strong piece, but it works only if you know the (dramatic) idea, the 'concept'. I have the impression it's the same with your pieces: I had first listened to La Belle Chocolatière without knowing the idea, but I had a better appreciation of it when I heard it a second time, after you had explained it.
It's not a problem for me. You can listen to the piece whether you know the idea or not. It can work without it. They are two aspects of one process; for the one, the explanation is important, for the other it's superfluous. Many pieces of music work without preliminary explanations. It's true that if you listen to 'La Belle Chocolatière' without knowing the underlying idea, you will miss something. However, if the music is coherent it should hold up on its own. Both approaches suit me.
I think the 'conceptualist' attitude held by some composers of your generation is not unconnected with the world as it is today, in which the 'image' has become important. There is also perhaps the influence of the visual arts.
Yes and No, the intellectual approach of starting with a concept as a point of departure is in my case certainly influenced by the visual arts, but I think composers have always been interested in images and theatrics. Satie for example wrote Pieces in the form of a pear. Haydn wrote his Abschiedssymhony etc. As for the visual aspect, musicians, because of the notation, have always been fascinated by graphics. Think of those medieval scores in which you find symbols in the form of spirals/compositions in the form of a heart, etc. As composers we think in terms of sound, yet we have to find visual forms to annotate it. When I compose it sometimes happens that the manuscript paper runs out before I have written the final notes. Question: what should I do? Write a double bar, or take another piece of paper for the remaining few notes? You might call them graphic decisions. The fact that you are writing, notating, sometimes determines the way in which you compose.
You have often composed works for the stage and for video. What's more, several of your pieces are related to a visible action.
Yes, I am interested in concrete actions that take place on stage. Once you have decided to write for a concert and not for a CD, the music will automatically have a visual aspect: the musicians are seen and not merely heard. So, when I can, I like to take charge of these aspects. For example, with the piece for the Ensemble Aleph, I cannot determine the concert programme and consequently the way in which it will unfold as a whole. I couldn't ask for my piece to be played by a swimming pool! In other circumstances I can specify many visual aspects: the lighting, the layout of the performers, etc. Moreover, I sometimes choose visual elements that have a link with the concept and not just with the sounds. The visual aspects then become just as important to the whole work as the sound part. This is the case with 'One Way Bedroom' (2003), which constitutes a kind of soap opera for harpsichord solo. Since the harpsichord has a mechanical aspect, I chose to treat it like a typewriter. Every time it plays, words appear on a screen. I sit behind the audience and type them out in real time. The story deals with people who are glued to their computer. It's the case with me: I turn my computer on first thing in the morning and in the evening I continue to read my email! I get very edgy if I can't consult my email for a week So 'One Way Bedroom' concerns keyboard 'addicts' who can't do without the communication with others that it gives them. Throughout the whole piece, the harpsichordist is glued to the keyboard and obsessively repeats one note as a symbol for the addictiveness of these ubiquitous ways of modern communication.
Is this music theatre?
Do you like Aperghis?
Yes, a lot.
'My third' consists of several little things that can be read in the interview I mentioned earlier, Ten reasons to compose. You say that you like numeric proportions. Are you a number fetishist?
Absolutely. It sometimes gets to the point that I set my alarm clock for 7H01 or 7H02 rather than 7H00. If I wake up at 7H10, I go to sleep for an extra minute. It's thoroughly irrational. It's the same thing with repetitions: I choose the number of rehearsals in accordance with the numbers I like. I have a preference for odd numbers, but I like to change.
You also say you like to dilate time.
Yes, dilating time constitutes for me a definition of music. Composing signifies 'drawing' time, determining a certain speed. We have highly varied experiences of time: when you are concentrated it passes very quickly; when you are waiting for a bus, three minutes seems like an hour. In musical composition, you as it were manipulate the listener's sense of time. Dilating time also means I tend to prolong it. If you give me two months for a commission I'll take two and a half!
You also say you like to compose at night.
During the day there are always other things to do: there are the emails to check, phonecalls to make, shopping and cooking to be done, bills to be payed etc. At night, offices and banks are closed. All excuses for not composing disappear. I admire composers who compose every day as soon as they receive a commission. If I want to compose, I must first get rid of all those existential matters: who am I?, why do I compose?, what does it mean? etc. I imagine many composers go through these states of mind I am constantly putting off the moment when I have to start composing I first need to be sure of my idea, to check all the paths that could result from it, to reassure myself that everything is going well But I've lost the thread
You were talking about the night.
Ah, yes! At night, it's better.
Here is 'my last': I think you like to compose for someone, that the idea of a promise interests you.
Part of my motivation, when I'm composing, stems not from the idea, but from the fact that I must realise it: I think of the people who have asked me to write for them. I am honoured, but it's also a challenge. That is perhaps the main reason for my going to all this effort when I compose: I must keep my promise. I think that if I did not had promises to keep I would be a very lazy composer.
With Aleph, you almost did not keep your promise.
Yes. Because I made too many other promises in the same time.
What strikes me when you talk of promise, is that you speak of yourself: you say that it pushes you to compose. In the idea of promise are there not other people, that can be made happy if the promise is kept?
Absolutely! It's in order to make other people happy that I want to keep my promises. It's a way of establishing a contact, friendship with them.