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An interview with Ēriks Ešenvalds

Could you tell us a little about your experience of writing a reflection as opposed to your other compositions?
Whenever in my work I have been using a poem or a folk-song, or another quotation, I have done this with full respect to both, the material and the source – not to ignore them, but to understand their hidden beauty and the story. The same attitude I have when thinking about the performers – I avoid of using particular compositional techniques which definitely would be against the nature of the instrument or voice.
After Suzi Digby’s invitation to write a reflection on William Byrd’s “Infelix ego”, I put myself in a seat in a library where I read several books and articles about Girolamo Savonarola’s life and meditations, his final writings, also about William Byrd and his heart-crying motet “Infelix ego”. Only after this fundamental research I felt I could humbly start to touch their worlds of the text and music, and what was even underneath them.

Are there any composing/musical projects that you’re particularly looking forward to?
Since 2015 I have been working on a large-scale work – my 2nd multi-media symphony which will be about volcanoes and premiered in 2018. The work includes extensive research on volcano legends and myths, that unique cultural heritage of nations living at the feet of those mountains. An expedition is being set for 2017 where we will film indigenous storytellers in Hawaii, New Zealand and other places. Their stories and folksongs will be incorporated into the 40 minute long symphony. My 1st multimedia symphony “Nordic Light” was premiered in 2015 in Riga, Latvia, also in Berlin in 2016, with further performances in Tacoma WA, Toronto and London in 2017-2018. There were 33 video-stories about the Aurora Borealis told or sung by 22 storytellers from the Baltic countries, Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland, Alaska and Yakutia. The Aurora video-clips where provided by Kjetil Skogli, a professional photographer and “Aurora Chaser” from Tromso, Norway who was the expert in the BBC’s documentary with fabulous actress Joanna Lumley “In The Land Of The Northern Lights” in 2008.

I also dream about writing music to a movie about Sara Teasdale, a great American poet whose rhymes have been inspirational worldwide, but her tangled life was rather a struggle. I hope my knocks will be heard and doors will open.

Do you have a particular process that you follow in composing? Are you systematic or sporadic?!
Systematic, definitely! Before composing any second of music I brainstorm – when all cells of my body are set to an awakening or “excite mode”. It includes lot of reading, also expanding my library and using critical thinking. When a story of the new piece has been created, which happens usually one month later, I am ready to sit at the piano and compose music. Why at the piano? – because it helps faster to find the harmony scale of the piece.

Are there any artists you particularly admire?
Number one – Michael Finnissy. As a student some 15 years ago I attended his compositional master-class in Ceskij Krumlov, Czech Republic. And I was amazed by both his musical thinking and musical language; surprisingly also, his very detailed and demanding scores, when performed, turned into live and emotional frontiers-less journeys. His music was and is fascinating! Number two – Māris Sirmais, the Latvian State Choir artistic director, and Stephen Layton, conductor of Polyphony and Trinity College Choir. Both of them are the leading professionals of the cultural heritage of their countries. My dream is to see them conducting their choirs on the same stage the same concert: the British centuries-long choral tradition and the beauty of that unique Baltic choral sound!

Which composer, alive or dead, would you most like to talk to, and why?
The most interesting things happen when un-planned or a sudden meeting is caught, behind the stage, so to speak, when music journalists are absent. Michael Finnissy, for example, recently was giving a concert of his extraordinary piano music in Riga, Latvia and on the day before I invited him to attend “The Immured” performance, my second opera, at the National Opera and Ballet. In a café, his thoughts about “The Immured” were very dear to me. Last year I enjoyed breakfast in a Birmingham hotel restaurant where Andris Nelsons, Boston Symphony conductor, also was staying. Our breakfast lasted for some three hours as we spoke about everything, our families and children, about music and so on! On my flight from the US West Coast to Europe an eighty-year old missionary woman was sitting next to me; she was flying back to Rwanda, Africa where she had been serving for several years. Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, when the inside lights were dimmed, through my window I noticed a great display of the Northern Lights in the North. Since she had never seen Aurora before, we changed the seats and for more than 15 minutes she was watching the Aurora through that window and I was happy to hold the airplane pillows around her head so she could grasp the Aurora’s beauty fully, completely protected from any light disturbance from the plane.

What styles/genres of music do you most enjoy composing for?
I don’t find it interesting to put an artist in a certain box of a style. Or let me say it in a positive manner – I love to escape from that style-box which actually is not mine, but belongs to few narrow-minded reviewers who can translate or understand the world this way. Very early in my professional career a Latvian musicologist called me a “composer-chameleon”, and I think she was right. During my studies and through the many international master-classes I attended, I learned many compositional techniques and styles and since then I have been using them, whether writing an electro-acoustic piece for an underground music event or a chamber instrumental work for an avant-garde music festival, or a tune for a school-children ensemble, or a vocal-symphonic work for a sacred music festival, etc. Recently I was invited to write music for the feature “Mellow Mud” which was awarded the Crystal Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. That was my first film music project, and I am very glad it had worked extremely well. I have also written two operas and many choral works, and now am looking more towards composing the symphonic scores and film music.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I just love solving Sudoku and walking nature trails. We have four children, a busy family. When they will be grown-up and all in their own life, I think I still will love solving Sudoku and walking the paths.