Entrevista a Ivan Moody / Interview with Ivan Moody
Music really began for me with my father's collection of records. He had all the classics... Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and all those. I acquired things from there, and they gradually moved to my bedroom... So I educated myself. When I went to secondary school, I was already very enthusiastic about music and also languages: in fact, for a long time I thought I was going to go to university to study languages. But no. I became distracted by music. And I remember being aware of the need to think about composition when I heard a radio programme by Anthony Hopkins, about some Debussy songs. He did something really wonderful, which was to explain in detail, on the radio, compositional processes. He made a kind of audio analysis of a song. And I remember that it was the first time that I understood what it was like to compose a piece. I think I was 12 years old at the time... and I tried to compose, I experimented. I wrote a song, naturally, and never stopped. Little by little, I realized that in fact what I wanted to do was to be a composer. Since at that time I had an extraordinary music teacher, he encouraged me and I showed him pieces. At the same time, I was still playing double bass, and I enjoyed singing in choirs and playing in the orchestra.
I remember, for example, taking part in a concert in which de did Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms. It was a work that had a tremendous impact on me. I knew the score inside out, both as a singer and a double bass player. That work was for me something very important, especially the last movement... that ecstasy, that apparent stopping of time. And I can say that this became a kind of ideal for me, a musical ideal.
Later I went to London University to study music. At that time I was convinced that the music one ought to be writing was music like that of Boulez or Stockhausen; that was what I though contemporary music was. When I arrived at the university, the composers who were already there were all minimalists, which was a huge shock for me. I had already heard a piece by Philip Glass on the radio, and hadn't liked it. And I hadn't realized that there was in fact an actual minimalist school. This was interesting because I began to discuss things with these composers. I never wanted to be a minimalist – and I'm not – but it was interesting to get to know this movement.
In my case it wasn't a total reaction, but a discovery. I realized that there two extremes, two completely opposite points of view. And I gradually stopped trying to compose in a post-serialist style, which in any case I never managed to do because I had already understood that I didn't want to write like that. So I went in search of things that were somewhat subversive, such as Ligeti, for example. His music always interested me because he already had at that time subversive ways of using serialism and organizing harmonic functions.
At the same time, I began working with early music, which was just as important. I can say that to hear an unknown Mass by Obrecht was, for me, just as important as discovering a new piece by Berio. Since I also began to transcribe and conduct this polyphonic repertoire from the renaissance, the transparency and clarity of the music became a strong influence. During my last year at Royal Holloway College, I stopped studying composition at the university with Brian Dennis, who was a member of the English experimentalist school, which was very active in the 1960s and 70s. I went to study privately with John Tavener who, at the time, was almost a forgotten figure, and very interesting because he had radically changed his musical language. He showed me scores that were practically white... there was almost nothing there. And this was also the time at which Arvo Pärt's music was beginning to appear and be noticed.
I used to spend a lot of time at the Universal Edition shop in London, seeing what there was on the shelves, because at the time there was almost nothing available... you had to order things, and I asked for (terrible) German radio recordings of Pärt and Górecki... And I realized that there was a third way, so to speak, which indeed corresponded with that I wanted to do. I spent another year studying with Tavener (in a more informal way); we discussed everything, theology, the decadent state of the western world – he was very radical at the time, and is still, though in a different way – but there was a connection between the spiritual search and the need to write music, the way of writing music which for me was fundamental. And with Tavener I developed this.
The meaning of the work: spirituality in musical language
This is a complex phenomenon. In fact, some years ago I would have answered in another way. I'd have said something much more fundamentalist than what I'm going to say now. Because today, I see various spiritual paths in various kinds of music. I don't think there's an aesthetic connection, one single way to write music.
But it's likely that ten years ago I'd have answered differently, because I was so involved in the purification of my own language in order to reach this objective, until about 1992, when I wrote Passion and Resurrection, that I saw those two things as one. Today, I don't think that's true. What I can say is that, to begin a journey of this kind, you need to be aware of the necessary elements for the journey. In my case it's the connection to the Orthodox Church and with the huge wealth of traditions of the Church in its iconographical, musical and ritual expressions. All this gives me a basis, one can say, a repertory of images, of gestures, a way of thinking, of conceiving of time... perhaps a liturgical conception, of being outside normal time, daily time. This for me is very important, and I always endeavour to construct an almost liturgical time in my music, because though it is not always liturgical, there is always this connection.
Other composers who have other beliefs, or even have no belief at all, may also be spiritual. Because "spirituality" is beyond any religion... and ergo, there are various ways of expressing spirituality. I cannot say, for example, that there is nothing spiritual in Webern, quite the opposite!
At this time, it was curious to discover, not only through the work I did with Tavener, but also to discover that Pärt and Górecki were working along more or less the same lines. This was interesting to me and was a discovery for Tavener too. He knew Pärt at the time, and spoke about him to me, and I'd show him scores by Górecki and he would say "It looks as though I wrote this!" So there was a series of things that confirmed me in this choice – because it was really a conscious choice that I made.
The word "mediator"... it's something like that that I feel. When a work arrives, that I know I'm going to write, even if it sounds pretentious, I feel as though I'm a channel. And the work appears under my hands, under the pencil or whatever... and it's really that that I feel, that it's not me creating the work from nothing... the work is given to me. I'm transcribing it, so to speak. Now, it's obvious that this raises an interesting question: "If that's the way it is, then why does a work of mine sound like a work of mine?" I think that this is highly complicated, and I don't have a definite answer, but in a way, it's this feeling of being a vehicle. Now, when a work is done, when it's finished, it has its own life, and it's very rare for me to revise a piece. It's interesting that in a book called The madness of the love of God, the theologian Pavel Evdokimov speaks about the existence of works of art, and specifically Mozart's Requiem. He says that these works will have their own existence in the world to come. When the physical world as we know it comes to an end, these works will have their own existence. This idea had a great effect on me, because it corresponds to what I feel: a work of art if something that exists in itself, and is disconnected from its creator.
I have never tried to convince or convert anyone through music. Obviously, it's inspired by my own beliefs, but what the work means to me can be something completely different for somebody else.
The search for a personal language
The first work that's still in my catalogue illustrates very well this first phase, when I was still searching: Passacaglia. It was written for clavichord, but can also be played on the harpsichord. It makes use of a 12-note basso ostinato, and has a sense of humour somewhat derived from Ligeti: it was at this time that I came to know his harpsichord works, and this was part of an attempt to escape from the seriousness of the serialists of the time. The piece is not at all typical, and has nothing to do with what I wrote afterwards, but it was important because I discovered a number of things in writing the work, I took out things; I can say that I took out things from my language... I took out notes because I was searching for a more stripped, more transparent texture. I also continued to be influenced by composer such as Britten, for example, as one may see in the Three Poems of Anna Akhmatova, which I wrote when I was still a student, in 1985... it was a reaffirmation of a tonal language; I was no longer interested in using 12 notes, or, at least, not in a serial way. It was precisely at this time that I was studying with Tavener, this process was going on... when I began to realize that it wasn't tonality that I was searching for, but modality. From that point on, I have always thought of myself as a modal composer, though they may not be modes that already exist... they can be modes invented by me. But this kind of thinking (in which I must say that studying scores of serial works was very useful, precisely because they were not organized in a tonal way and organized objects in another fashion) had, for me, a link with modality. So I wrote a series of pieces more or less liturgical in character, and performed them with my choir (I conducted a chamber choir in London at the time) and, when I arrived in Portugal in 1990, my basic language was established, I think. The great affirmation of this modality and the connection with the world of Orthodox symbology came with Passion & Resurrection, a commission from the Tampere in Finland, and was the largest work I had written until then. I had to find a way of organizing it, because since it is a Passion, it would obviously be of relatively long duration. So I organized it in terms of alternation of textures, organization of text and also alternation of styles, because I took things from Byzantine chant, Russian chant and elsewhere... I think that you can see that a lot came from me, because you can hear (for example) a lot of the English choir tradition there... I can hear renaissance polyphony... And all this began to form a single language but with various aspects. You could say that I have a Greek aspect and a Russian aspect, which are still there...
I can explain this better looking further forward, to the Akáthistos Hymn, which is my most extensive work to date. It's 90 minutes long, and is scored for a cappella choir. As it's a very organized text, with clearly differentiated sections, it demands, also because it's a liturgical text, a corresponding musical organization. So in terms of organization, not much thinking was required.
On the other hand, how was I to create contrast within such a large work? 90 minutes is no joke, especially for unaccompanied choir. There had to be a good deal of variety, and so some of the sections are built using Byzantine chant, with microtones... in other sections and this follows a plan - the language is derived from mediaeval Russian polyphony; then there are other sections in which there's no chant, it comes purely from me... though there may be references within the melodic lines that are quite extensive. I think that in these three facets you can see that it's me who has written it... I myself hear and see this; though it's not just my opinion – other people have told me this, so I think it must be true! I think it's rather like when a composer wrote... when he had a particular way of writing when he was in D major and another when he was in E minor; it's more or less the same thing, though not tonalities in this case. It has to do with styles, but they are variations on one single style... It's the only way to explain this.
As it happens, the Akáthistos Hymn is a good reference point because it's another large work... with this second challenge of a large-scale work, I discovered that I was working towards a much richer language. Harmonically, this work has a richness which was certainly not present in Passion and Resurrection. In Passion & Resurrection, I had not yet arrived at the point of using these materials, with which I still work, in a freer way. But I think that I arrived at that point wit the Akáthistos Hymn, because it began to flow in the most extraordinary way, which was a surprise to me. It's a harmonic richness that I wasn't expecting, which marked a turning point in my musical language, or, in other words, a starting point.
The compositional process
Before writing a single note, I have to have an idea of the piece, but it can be an idea... of a colour, of a tonality, a sound... it doesn't have to be the whole work. But I must know what the work's about, because for me, every work has to have a metaphysical reason to exist, or else it there is no reason for it to exist. This idea of the work may not make any sense to anybody else, but it has to make sense to me. I spend a lot of time thinking about a work before writing, and I know when this idea of the work arrives, I know when it's present and I can begin to write the notes. But this does not limit the piece; I can begin to write it with this group of notes or with this melodic line or what ever, because the material is not always identical, and can take various forms... and during the course of the work (I remember that António Pinho Vargas also says that when he composes, he's "in a process"), I feel that I'm "in a process". And this process has variables, and is almost in control of me; I am not controlling it, which I find very interesting. It's the challenge of composing, of being in dialogue with the material. So, suddenly something may happen during the piece that changes its direction, the orientation of the work. It can finish in an unexpected tonality, or modality.
In structural terms, I may decide beforehand that I'm going to alternate, for example, three large sections with three pillars, but this can also change. Epitaphios, for example, for 'cello and strings, is constructed in this way... it has a section that reappears throughout the work. Above all after the Akáthistos Hymn, my way of doing this changed unconsciously; and only later did I realize. For one thing, something strange has happened: my music has speeded up; I don't write such large works as I used to. Though this is of course after the largest of all my pieces, the Atkáthistos Hymn. So the two recent concertos for piano and for double bass are no more than twelve minutes each, while Epitaphios is twenty. The music has an economy of expression which comes in part from the fusion of those "columns" with the other sections.
One way of making use of this is by employing other techniques that I find interesting, such as heterophony, which interests me greatly and which I have used in recent works. Obviously, heterophony rather obliterates melodic clarity. As I came across this in my music, I made use of it, because it gives rise to very interesting things that I had not explored before. And it's a challenge! For one thing, it's a technical challenge for the performers. I recall, for example, in a heterophonic passage in my string quartet, Lamentations of the Myrrhbearer, they had to use full scores... they didn't manage to play just from the parts, because they couldn't see the organization. It was most interesting, because usually people look at my scores and say "It's all white, there's nothing there!" then, when they come to perform them, "Ah, there's something here after all!" in that way they have a much greater responsibility... not everything is written in the score. It's really like early music. In fact, I can say that the actual appearance of a renaissance mass, say, influenced my way of writing. The use of heterophony is facilitated by having a "white" base, upon which I can place further layers.
(In relation to the change in "speed" in the music) Many people say that it's difficult to write fast music... But what does "fast music" mean? Music with a very rapid harmonic change is one thing... but there can be music that is essentially very static but with a great deal of activity, which makes it seem fast. I think that in my music there have been no big alterations in the speed of harmonic change. What changed was the surface, or the surface activity is faster. There are other differences, but they don't have to do with the speed of change... I think it became more active both harmonically and rhythmically.
Microtones and Modality
Actually, I have not used microtones very much, because in the West we aren't accustomed to use them much. I used them a lot in the Akáthistos Hymn because I knew it would be Cappella Romana, a choir from the United States that specializes in this repertoire, performing it, and I made a point of specifying the microtones, which in many cases I don't do, because I know that the choir won't and can't do them. This organization with microtones is used in Byzantine chant, but not in Russian, for example. So, only if I write a work that in that sense sets out to be very Byzantine, do I use them. Normally I don't risk it, but there are works in which I make reference to the technique. In the string Quartet Lamentations of the Myrrhbearer, for example, there are passages in which I use glissandi precisely in order to explore microtones. I also do this in a very recent work, Ossetian Requiem, for choir and eight 'cellos; the 'cellos have constant glissandi... But it's not a structural microtonality... you can say that it's accidental.
The question of modality, however, is essential. But I can only talk about my own idea of modality, how I make it work for me... It's a group of notes, perhaps 5, 8, 12 notes, it depends... Normally it's a small group, that serves as a nucleus for a work; this can straight away define the work hugely, even though for me, everything can change in a work. What I must have at the beginning is an idea, shall we say an aural image of the work, but these notes, this mode, define the basic harmonic and melodic lines. This doesn't mean that it can't move away from this mode, that it can't modulate or do something else. But it's a nucleus, and for me that's really it. It's quite a simple procedure, but one that provides a certain coherence. Because when you leave tonality behind, when you leave serial organization behind, music has to be organized in some way. As I always look for a certain structural clarity in my works, another way of doing this (and not only by means of repetition, using what I call pillars, or columns, as in an architectonic structure) is by means of this organizing a group of notes. But it may be a mode that I've taken from somewhere, it may be a Byzantine mode... including microtones or not, or it may be a mode I've invented, it depends.
Text and structure
For me, the text usually conditions the form of the work. But it conditions it in a particular way. At the end of the 1980s, beginning of the 1990s, I was very interested in mediaeval poetry, Spanish and Portuguese, and wrote a number of works using these texts. What attracts me in these texts is the repetition, the verse and refrain structure. And I wanted to get away from the literal expression of a text... I didn't want any madrigalisms, and so there is a certain formality, a certain conscious mediaeval quality in the works of that period. With liturgical works... it's more complicated! There's a similarity in that I don't look for a literal expression of a text when it's liturgical. On the other hand, there is already normally a drama inherent in the text that I can explore in another way, not emphasizing the words, underlining emotion, but by other means, increasing the tension structurally, for example.
In the case of the Akáthistos Hymn, the text conditioned the work's structure absolutely, precisely because it is a liturgical work and because the text is already highly structured; there was no way round this... and I did nothing to try and subvert this. In other recent things... I wrote, for example, some songs on texts by Pessanha (from Clépsidra), for the Casa da Música in Oporto; there the poems have clear divisions on the page, but you don't need to follow them. I don't try to reproduce the literary division of the work in music, though I can do that too! This is a constant discussion I have with myself.
(Regarding the predominance of vocal music) This is clearly the case... because the thing I most value in music is melody. And melody for me is something vocal, intimately and profoundly vocal. It's very simple.