hcmf// 2011: Oscar Bianchi: Restless Exhaustion

Oscar Bianchi

"I believe that sound, as any other art form, has a way that it exists, defines itself and is being consumed."

Having premiered his first chamber opera, Thanks to My Eyes, at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in July, Oscar Bianchi will be unveiling the string quartet Adesso – again, his first work in the form – at hcmf// on Saturday 26 November. An hcmf// co-commission performed by Quatuor Diotima, Adesso promises more of the dense, taut textures that have characterised the 36-year old composer’s works to date.

Awarded first prize at the Gaudeamus international composition competition in 2005 and with an impressive list of international ensembles having performed his music, Bianchi started composing around the age of seven. Working his way through composition for bands, film and television as a teenager, after exploring jazz and improvisation he began studying composition in Bologna and Milan, followed by further degrees from IRCAM in Paris and Columbia University, New York. His future projects include a solo work for prepared piano, an accordion concerto, an orchestral piece for Gewandhaus Leipzig and a new work for six-piece vocal ensemble.

hcmf//: Tell us about your string quartet, Adesso, which will be premiered at hcmf//...

Oscar Bianchi: I had been wanting to explore how I could conjugate the notion of texture and thickness, and at the same time a linear way of proposing degrees of intensity. How to make music out of a very highly articulated element, that I organise texturally, and to propose a third dynamic: a very articulated, very intense experience, but at the same time to keep working on the idea that I call exhaustion.

Exhaustion, meaning that I believe that sound, as any other art form, has a way that it exists, defines itself and is being consumed. I always believed that the most perfect musical constructions are those that make a proposal, that deal with the musical material in a way, they explore it to the point of consumption. And when I think about consumption, I think about almost a natural way of existing and, I would say ‘dying’, but that’s not the correct word, existing and being completed. So I wanted to approach this composition with the same idea of going through a hectic, deep, articulated motion, trying to reach profound intensity, texture-wise, and formally trying to achieve this idea of consumption.

hcmf//: Does it present any particular challenges for the performers?

OB: If there is one challenging element, it might be how to conjugate quarter-tonal writing to clarity of articulation. There are a lot of parts where the gestures, let’s say the objects, are relatively clear rhythmically, but the pitches are quarter-tones, so the challenges are how to preserve the micro-intonation and the articulation, both the rhythmical structure and the harmonic aspects.

hcmf//: Can you remember a piece which had a great influence upon you as a developing composer?

OB: Ligeti is an absolute reference in a global way, but also especially in relation to texture and form. His Lontano had a profound effect upon me.  It combined both an extremely sophisticated way of looking for a sound texture that was not fully explored before, so there were avant-garde aspects within it. But at the same time there was a tremendously powerful proposal in terms of poetry, of extra-avant-garde references. He was able to present both the longing for a new sound, for a new depth, for a new acoustical space, and on the other side was capable of paying tribute to orchestral writing from Beethoven on. I really enjoyed this non-scholastic, non-academic way of considering a work of art: a work of art that can be surprising in its innovation and, on the other side, extremely eclectic and vibrant.

I think that the masterworks, no matter whether they belong to two centuries ago, or to 50 years ago, they have an impact on you that you will always carry. It’s like a memory that works in your present imagination. I also keep finding more and more that the orchestral works of Xenakis are having a tremendous impact upon me, because this guy was, like Ligeti, capable of introducing other elements, meaning highly articulated and planned research in its own writing, but at the same time conveying messages that couldn’t be separated.

hcmf//: What do you consider to be your own breakthrough in artistic terms?

OB: It’s possibly my piece for soprano and ensemble called Primordia Rerum that I wrote in 2003. I believe that through this piece, I put down some fundaments of the area I would become interested in concerning sound. At the same time, another piece of mine, Mezzogiorno, also defines other aspects that I started developing in 2004, aspects of the orchestration and colours, integrating instruments that are slightly uncommon in the classical or contemporary classical world, such as electric guitar and electric bass and later on recorders and low saxophones. They’re not extremely rare, but you don’t hear them in an average contemporary music programme.

Obviously the difficult thing for a composer is how to integrate those instruments within a language that is organic, consistent and dealing with each other in a way that doesn’t keep having extra-classical references. For example, the electric guitar is so heavily connotated that as soon as you hear one sound with an overdrive, your ears cannot help but think about any sort of rock aesthetic. So the responsibility of a composer is to take those sounds, those instruments, and to model a new language, or to articulate the language in a way that fits into the instrumentation.

hcmf//: This year also saw the premiere of your debut opera, Thanks to My Eyes. Do you deliberately seek out new challenges, or is it just how things turn out?

OB:  I have to admit that I have a little bit of a hard time getting into a pattern of composing. I don’t think any of my compositions have exactly the same instrumentation. I need to renew the experience of composing through a new project, and it’s the instrumentation that allows you to think about a space in which to start dealing with organised sound.

However, I also have the opposite effect, which is that sometimes when I have been working for a long time in a specific environment, I believe that I’ve achieved a knowledge of this environment – let’s say for twelve instruments – and I wish that I could go on and make good use of my experience to go in on a deeper level and take advantage of the fact that I’ve been exploring this space for a long time. I understand that it can be good to keep exploring a space on a deeper level; on the other hand, because I haven’t written so many things it’s important for me to challenge myself and see what I can do.

hcmf//: You’ve enjoyed a fairly nomadic existence over the course of your career. How much does location affect the music you write?

OB: I would tend to say that it doesn’t affect it at all, because my assumption is that the process of making music, which goes through inspiration, concentration, analytical processes and intellectual outputs, is obviously nourished by a graphical element, but not in a very linear way. So I tend to say that this is not closely related. But on the other hand, I know that it’s very important to me to keep challenging myself intellectually and also humanly. So my nomadic life of the last 10 years is for a mix of study reasons and curiosity. I always believed that, the more places you have the chance to explore, the more experience, the information you can collect. Maybe on an unconscious level there is a link between that and the music, but, if asked, I have a hard time finding the connection, because I do believe in inspiration, but not because it’s raining now or that there might be a beautiful lake in front of me, not in such a direct way.

Click here to buy tickets for Quator Diotima’s concert, including the premiere of Oscar Bianchi’s Adesso, on Saturday 26 November