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Martin Smolka

Interview with Martin Smolka, a composer on the program of the contemporary evening of the Bridging Europe Festival.

In his official biography online, the characterisation of his musical language mentions, amongst other things, his preference for eccentric, dynamic, optimistic ideas, and that his music conveys the typical noises and sounds of civilisation, folk and brass-band notes – where possible, mistuned. Blue memories, painful longing, nostalgic moods are mixed in this medley. His music is characterised by sharp contrasts, film-like cuts, mood swings and repetitions. The description offers even more detail, but based on the portrayal I imagine that his piece performed in Budapestis a very typical one in his oeuvre. How was this piece actually created?

The piece indeed has many of the tools and moods mentioned: cuts, unexpected dynamic contrasts, distortions created using micro-intervals, repetitions – all this serving an expression which is grotesque and sad at the same time.
In a rural house in the middle of nowhere, there was a piano nobody had tuned in the past 30 years. Its sound was peculiarly round and velvety, and if the foot-keys get stuck, a magical universe of echoes and reverberations starts to speak. We can say that this piano can create a complex poetic event from a simple chord. I noted about 12 such chords, and analysed them in detail. Then I wrote the score for the orchestra what I filtered out from this. The ideas necessary for the continuation came naturally during the work, as John Cage said: “The way to get ideas is to do something boring. For instance, if the composing process is boring, it induces ideas. They fly into one’s head like birds.” In this composition, I elaborated fairly thoroughly my favourite solution in which music goes silent slowly, in a prolonged manner. We systematically take away certain sounds from the dense system of sound points, and replace them with silence. The gradual conquest of silence over the sound leads the (patient) listener to listen tensely to complete silence, which is broken only by a weak, barely audible sound here and there. That’s where I got the idea of a feather floating in a space rapidly becoming desolated, and I used it to unfurl the imaginary story of angels in angelic vehicles. This is where the title of the composition comes from too.

Starting from the eighties, you and your ensemble, Agon, have played a key part promoting new music in Czechoslovakia, then in the Czech Republic. The beginnings go back to the times of harsh dictatorship. What do you remember from then? How difficult was it to promote contemporary music before 1989? Were you allowed to work?

There was collective work in Agon, and as time went by, a few hundred people knew about us. The dictatorship was harsh only occasionally, and the sanctions targeted the 1968 generation and those putting up radical resistance. At that time, the control and suppression mechanisms were already floppy, like everything else in that absurd regime.  So we managed to organise concerts in the grey zone between the official and the underground cultures, in modest proportions, with few musicians, but essentially freely. We were young and enthusiastic – we dedicated a lot of effort and we made naïve mistakes. After 1989, we were the only ones in Prague who were specialised in non-conformist contemporary music, who had some innovative ideas, or even a vision – and this opened our path to the west, where people were curious about what was going on with us. This period peaked in our unforgettable performance at the Bang-On-A-Can festival organised in New York’s Lincoln Centre. I could speak about aesthetics and style, but perhaps it is more revealing if I tell you that we took 3 mass bells, a bent tenor saxophone and a few rusty tubes from a stonemason’s ladder on the plane to New York for the performance of my Rent a Ricercar composition.