Frederike Berntsen: atlantis ampersand – in conversation with Rozalie Hirs
Commissioned by the Holland Festival, the Dutch composer Rozalie has written a new work which will be performed as part of ein tag und eine stunde in urbo kune. We met up to discuss this new creation of hers: atlantis ampersand.
How did you come up with the title atlantis ampersand?
I used a number of working titles, and it was atlantis ampersand that remained. Just like the Urbo Kune atlantis is conceived as an utopian city. Plato was the first to write about Atlantis, which he presented as the political model of an ideal society. According to the myth Atlantis submerges into the ocean. The ampersand symbol ‘&’ used to be the last letter of the alphabet in Anglo-saxon countries, but, just like atlantis, it has disappeared. To me the sign symbolises an infinite series, a utopian reference. Thus, you can regard atlantis ampersand as a meditation on the disappearance of Atlantis, as well as on the endless possibilities this city evokes. My atlantis ampersand can also be interpreted as an infinity alphabet.
What inspired you?
I hear this music as a parallel underwater world different from the everyday world we live in. Music is an abstract art form, which we imbue with meaning during listening. Music offers us the opportunity to experience life in an idealized concert setting. A perspective that fits rather well with the theme of the utopian city. From my very first compositions, I have explored sound and harmony, and how they inform our experiences. This approach has informed all of my work. atlantis ampersand presents a next stage on this journey.
When we go to listen to your piece, we will hear eighteen musicians from Klangforum Wien and eight singers from the Vocal ensemble NOVA. What exactly will they be doing?
You could regard the work as a sound sculpture, in which everything is connected to everything else. The clear sounds of the flutes and clarinets fit in with this. And, a novelty for me, the contraforte, which sounds more sonorous than the contrabassoon and with its tone colour closer to the clarinets. At one point I have three brass players play a pastoral idyll. The strings create a homogeneous sound; percussion, accordion and piano give the piece its rhythmic drive. The electronic music, with a wealth of glissandi, can be heard below and above the range of the singers and the ensemble. The singers represent the human aspect of the utopia, singing resonant harmonies which are pleasing to the ear. As a whole, the piece reminds of a classical oratorio.
What about the text, how did that come about?
The poem was written alongside the music. In the score, the sung text is notated with help of the phonetic alphabet. Another utopian reference, as the phonetic alphabet can be pronounced by each one of us, irrespective of our particular mother tongue. The libretto is an epic multilingual poem, containing Spanish, French, German, English, and Dutch. The performers only sing the vowels of the words, communicating the meaning of the text purely through the sounds and the emotions of their voices. In the score, the original words are written above the phonetic lines, so the singers know how to interpret their parts. The poem is like a journey. As you enter atlantis, there’s thunder and lightning, it’s pouring down with rain. In the middle part, you dream your way through the city. At the end, you fly away, and the city disappears from view. The various languages connect with each other through music, sound, and affect. In this ideal society, the singers are trying to speak each other’s language. This is what music can do; music can communicate across language barriers.
“The highlight of the music is reached immediately in the afternoon: the world premiere of atlantis ampersand by Rozalie Hirs. The sound of the orchestra dynamically transforms from soft to loud (crescendo), further expanded by an eight-piece choir. After this culmination the storm slowly subsides, becoming quiet again (diminuendo). The silence is kept intact for a moment and then the sound, again, starts to swell with different harmonies, on different fundamentals, and then diminishes and fades away, again and again. The resulting successions of sound waves sing like white crests, or white horses, with a calming, almost hypnotic effect. In the next movement of the composition, the different waves keep on rolling over each other into, preserving that soothing swell, still without breaking.” Manifestatie voor iedereen met een dosis durfkapitaal. Pieter Rings. Theaterkrant, The Netherlands, 8 June 2015.
2SATB choir (minimum: 2 soprano, 2 alt , 2 tenor, 2 bass)
QLAB sampler with Rozalie Hirs’ custom-made sounds, to be obtained from the publisher
QLAB player installed on a computer
Rozalie Hirs’s music scores are published by Deuss Music. Score and parts of atlantis ampersand (2015) can be purchased through this link (click here).
6 June 2015, 14:25 CET, Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Urbo Kune, Holland Festival, Amsterdam. Klangforum Wien, Vokalensemble NOVA, Enno Poppe (conductor), Peter Böhm (sound projection).