Martin Smolka

My use of microintervals is not based on any theory. My reasons are practical: musicality, expression, experience. Almost all the microintervals that I have used I had heard before, either in some “natural” music, such as ethnic music, or in the environment. I have worked with them in instrumental music and occasionally vocal music, using my own aural experience (no electronic tuning devices), respecting the natural limits of performers and their instruments, and sometimes even taking advantage of those limits. While composing I have relied upon my voice, the guitar (bending the strings as well as retuning them), and occasionally recorders (using incomplete covering of the holes). My idea has been to enrich the music with natural elements (just as a tree never grows geometrically straight), but not to make it more “sophisticated.”An outline of my different approaches, sources and reasons for microtonality:
1 Putting minor and major triads “out of tune,” in chords as well as in melodies
Source
blues, gospel, jazz, authentic European folk music, various kinds of ethnic music
Reason
• expression of pain, bitterness, longing, tears etc.
• tension, reminiscent of the leading tones of classical harmony
Pieces
Remix, Redream, Reflight (2000) for orchestra; Walden, the Distiller of Celestial Dews(2000) for mixed choir; Lieder ohne Worte und Passacaglia (1999) for 5 instruments;Mushroom and Heaven (2000) for 2 string quartets and a singing (sopr.) violinist; Missa(2002) for 4 singers and string quartet
2 Imitations of environmental sounds, such as boat- and railway-horns (brass out-of-tune triads), “chanting” wheels and brakes of a suburban shunting yard (the highest harmonics of strings plus sounds of crotali and finger-cymbals played with a bow are forming a structure of tones and melodic fragments), etc.
Reason
• Musical quality of environmental sounds
• Ability to recall pictures or memories
Pieces
L’orch pour l’orch (1990) for orchestra; Rain, a Window, Roofs, Chimneys, Pigeons and so on… and Railway-Bridges, too (1992) for large ensemble; Rent a Ricercar (1993) for ensemble
3 Fragmentary imitations of various kinds of music such as jazz, early rock ‘n roll or Balkan folk music
Reason
• To take and transpose the raw vitality of recalled genres, that kind of energy which is usually missing in music played from scores
• Ability to recall pictures or memories
Pieces
Euforium (1996) for ensemble; Lieder ohne Worte (1999) for 5 instruments
4 Distortion of musical objects such as chords or ostinati, often attributes of some musical style (brass band, rock guitar and others)
Reason
• The very specific expression of crazy wildness and/or bitter grotesqueness
Pieces
Three Pieces for Retuned Orchestra (1996); Euforium (1996) for ensemble; Three Pastoral Motifs (1993) for tape; Rain, a Window… (1992) for large ensemble
5 Soft melodic microsteps, slight untunings in pp
Reason
Intimate emotional potency, such as soothing (this is my very personal, intuitive feeling)
Pieces
Rubato (1996) for violin and piano; Lullaby (1997) for trombone, guitar and ensemble
6 Generating the interference pulse
Reason
• celestial beauty of certain appearances of the interference pulse
• sound intensity (a certain voice to come out of a silent complex sound)
Pieces
Three Pieces for Retuned Orchestra (1996), 3rd movement
7 Quarter-tone or 1/6-tone fingerings on wind instruments, mainly woodwinds
Reason
to get non-standard instrumental color (e.g. sound of quarter-tone fingerings of reeds, comparing sound of chromatic tones, are usually as if under pressure or damped)
Pieces
Flying Dog (1990) for ensemble, version 1Composer’s comments for Walden, the Distiller of Celestial Dews (2000) for mixed choir:
Walden, the Distiller of Celestial Dews, Part III, ‘Indians,’ exposes the B-minor triad in various quarter-tone alterations, as if various spots of light shone one after another on one single object. These un-tunings of the minor triad cause an expression of pain and tension which correspond to Thoreau’s story: Indians, while tortured by Jesuits, behaved as if they loved their enemies and forgave them all. Close to the end the order of the quarter-tone alterations ascend until the motive of forgiveness finds it’s musical form in reaching B-major.Composer’s comments for Lieder ohne Worte und Passacaglia (1999) for 5 instruments:
Do you know the old desire to bring to the music something that would be so simple and understandable that everyone would feel at home with it, but which would be at the same time entirely strange, unheard of? It is a feeling similar to dreams in which one has gone out of one’s home street, and just behind the corner found oneself immediately far away, for example at the sea. “Now I see! How could I disregard this for so long? I knew it all the time!”I have heard such music. It has been recorded in remote mountain villages, somewhere near the boarder of Poland and Slovakia, just before the disappearance of the tradition of passing music on from father to son. The home-made instruments scraped, the natural voices sounded hoarse. I heard in those voices an experience of ages, and I felt them to be at the same time cogent and resigned.I do not know where and how the inexpressible peculiarity is hidden in those pure songs. But there is one element of them which is definable: tuning. The few simple chords and intervals which the musicians used again and again, were remarkably “out of tune.” It jangled on the ear pressingly. And that is what I start from, using quarter-tones and sixth-tones with the tiny hope of getting at least a reflection of that inexpressible something.

Biography
Born in 1959 in Prague, Martin Smolka entered the world of music in the early 1980s when he and Miroslav Pudlák (joined later by Petr Kofroň) founded Agon, an ensemble that in the late 80s and early 90s was the most significant mediator of the world’s musical avant-garde in the Czech scene, which at the time was dominated by the officially backed domestic pseudo-modernism. From the very outset of his career as a composer, we can discern Smolka’s having been influenced by post-Webernism, Minimalism, American experimental music and the Polish School.

In the early 90s Smolka was interested in bizarre instrumental techniques and sound sources (deeply under-tuned strings, old gramophones, various objects in the role of percussion, etc.). Smolka made use of them with a view to stylising the sounds observed in nature and the city. He refers to some of his compositions dating from this period as “sonic photographs” (e.g. 1990′s L’Orch pour L’Orch is in part a “portrait” of night sounds at a shunting yard). Smolka selected real sounds in terms of their expressive charge, stylising them to attain a certain emotional sonic result (eloquent is, for instance, the title of one of Smolka’s strongest pieces: Rain, a window, roofs, chimneys, pigeons and so… and railway bridges, too).

Martin Smolka’s music has mainly been performed beyond the Czech Republic, the country in which he lives. Those to have commissioned Smolka compositions include the most renowned European ensembles and festivals. In Prague, he is above all known owing to his opera Nagano, for which he received an Alfréd Radok Award. Since 2003 he has taught composition at the Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Brno. He occasionally writes film scores. Martin Smolka studied composition at the Music Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, yet also of crucial significance for him was studying privately with Marek Kopelent.

Petr Bakla, 2011

 

smolkaMartin Smolka website

 

Rain, a window, roofs, chimneys, pigeons and so on… and railway bridges, too