Ensemble Resiliance’s Gerardo Gozzi and composer Rubens Askenar answer questions from Composers Edition’s Dan goren on collaborating at the cutting edge of new music ahead of their October concert.
Dan Goren: Tell us how you first came to collaborate and what attracted you to working with each other?
Rubens Askenar: We first met at the Royal Academy of Music in London where we both were doctorate students. Since that time we shared core values about composition and were always interested in each other works. Soon after that time we started our collaborations with Resilience Ensemble. We now have started a cycle of pieces for percussion and ensemble, as well as a series of collaborations based on real-time composition, along with pedagogical tours – giving workshops, showing these tools to younger generations of music makers. We will be presenting an innovative project in Muziekgebouw, in March 2022, composing everything in real time between three composers, using a system that I’ve been developing since 2015. I have done a series of concerts, from solo instrument to symphonic orchestra, based on a real-time composition approach that has been a very rewarding experience that I would like to continue exploring as part of my regular output.
Gerardo Gozzi: We share many nice anecdotes from our years at the Academy, but I am personally even more excited to be able to work together as colleagues and artists in the present. As Rubens said, we share many values and now it is time to make them into art – our common experiences and longstanding friendship makes the process really natural and instinctive.
DG: Ensemble Resilience looks to be at the cutting edge of new music developments – tell me about your approach
GG: We aim to be cutting edge on several fronts. First of all, we employ technologies of recent invention. Instead of using traditional keyboard instruments, we adopted the MIDI Polyphonic Expression technology, where all the three-dimensional movements of the musician’s hands are captured by a keyboard-shaped gel pad. Our percussion instrument is also unique, it is a sort of futuristic xylophone developed by members of the ensemble, where plates of different materials are connected to digital audio workstations via contact microphones. The use of such technologies, of course, makes our formation unique and creates the necessity to commission new repertoire. We also feel very inspired by collaborative approaches with composers and the idea that a piece of music can mould to the venue and change in each concert, as jazz improvisers do. For this reason, the real-time composition project developed by Rubens is an ideal marriage with our artistic ethos and we look forward to showcasing it next year.
DG: What do you mean by ‘Improvised Composition’ and how does your approach develop or change what one might think in regard to each term?
RA: I don’t think I’ve used that binomial term before as such, that is more like a translation that others have used referring to what I do. I prefer to think as ‘real-time composition’ although this practice does not absorb the totality of what I do, but a fragment that responds to the need of questioning the way we communicate and create musical knowledge – between player and composer and between composer and other composers as well.
I understand improvisation as a fundamental part of composition though – it’s a raw state of creativity driven by our capacity of orientation. It’s like building a picture based on fragments of multilayered memories that respond – in a non linear way – to the conscious and unconscious stimulus that permeate us by just ‘been present’ in a given moment.
Composition is a temporal gesture of poetic awareness that emanates from the above. Built by habit – the more I observe what I do (or improvise), the more aware I become of what I want to compose. The intents of sharing this moments of awareness create knowledge, ideas… They force us to think strategically.
For this very reason, in my practice, both are deeply connected – there is a fundamental synergy between them that produces a unique way of understanding sound, and by extension, the puzzle of semantic and cryptic narratives that we build in order to communicate it. Perhaps ‘communication’ might sound like a very ambitious desire but, nonetheless, it is always there, ‘present’ – when improvising or composing.
‘Real-time composition’ refers to an active role of listening while composing, not listening only to the materials that I create for the players on the spot, but the materials that can be picked by other composers at the same time and be reconfigured, or given a complete new direction from my listening, or original idea. When that happens, it feels like a moment of grace, and… that humbles you.
DG: Given the type of work that you perform and the mix of skills each member of Ensemble Resilience employs, do you still consider yourselves interpreters in a classical sense?
GG: In a way, yes. I think we should redefine, though, what a classical interpreter is. Somehow, today people think of classical interpreters as performers that read the instructions left by a composer and reproduce their idea faithfully. However, in Baroque, Classical, and even Romantic time, the interpreters were allowed (and even expected) to transform the musical material according to their personal creativity. Also Modernist composers often asked a great degree of improvisation and free interpretation of the score to the musicians. So what are “classical” interpreters? They are not meant to be dissimilar from, or in juxtaposition with jazz musicians; they, too, can adapt to the here-and-now. We want to bring that concept back to the common understanding of contemporary art music (I don’t like the term “contemporary classical,” we should get rid of this confusing oxymoron).
DG: Tell us about the piece that Resilience is premiering in the Canaries as part of ‘Festival Internacional de Música de Canarias – El Contemporáneo’
RA: The piece is the festival’s commission for its first edition. It is the third piece of a cycle that I started last year called ‘Bronze Clinics’. The piece explores what I often refer to hybrid or compound instrumentation – spaces within several instrumental parts that form a singular identifiable sound or technical quality, that can originate personal unexplored paths for material exploration. For this piece I have created a hybrid instrument that I called flexa-tree, which is the assembly of a deconstructed flexatone and a mark-tree. The flexatone’s own mallets are ‘dissected’ – I like to think of it as a surgical operation – and used to play individual chimes from the mark tree, as well as the flexatone itself. The mixture of the two allows me to bend and blend the high microtonal pitches of the chimes creating a very peculiar space for harmonic exploration – within the instrument and with the whole ensemble as well.
The majority of the piece unfolds as a fragile dialogue between the flexa-tree and the piano, merging both – microtonal and chromatic worlds – in a delicate constellation of carefully designed resonances.
DG: What can audiences expect from a concert of your collaboration?
RA: A plethora of unique sounding experiences delivered with extreme care and efficacy, without aesthetic compromises.
GG: As always, I am very much in tune with Rubens’s answer. I would also add that they can expect evident passion and joy. We have the desire to make something unique, that will make the audience’s time worth being spent with us.
DG: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions and to open up a window on your collaboration – I look forward to future developments!