Music For Writers: Agata Zubel ‘On Both Sides’

Images of Agata Zubel by Tomasz Kulak, used by permission of the Polish Cultural Institute
Images of Agata Zubel by Tomasz Kulak, used by permission of the Polish Cultural Institute

Update, December 18, 2014: Agata Zubel has been named one of ten “Imagination-Grabbing, Trailblazing Artists of 2014” by Q2 Music’s editors. More here.

‘The Most Beautiful Place Where The Two Professions Meet’

In earlier #MusicForWriters columns here, I’ve mentioned how many of our contemporary composers are also performers. Caleb Burhans, a composer and multi-instrumentalist, is one. His Excelsior is one of the works in our series.

As the notes from Kairos Music on Agata Zubel’s new release, however, point out, the composer-vocalist is even rarer than the composer-musician.

And what the Polish composer-soprano Zubel is doing is rarer still. In an interview facilitated for me by the Polish Culture Institute, Zubel tells me:

It’s a fantastic situation that I can be both composer and performer. My understanding of the music is much better when I can be “on both sides.”

To hear what happens when Zubel gets herself “on both sides,” as she puts it — as creator and interpretor — listeners of Q2 Music’s Album of the Week presentation of her new Kairos album release Not I heard the CD free for a week.

While normally I recommend that you listen to an album’s tracks in the order in which they’re presented — the artists know what they want, in terms of your experience — I’ll make a departure in this instance: I’d take the title track, Not I, first.

There are a couple of reasons for this.

First, of all the music we’ve encountered so far in #MusicForWriters, this is the  most challenging to those who aren’t accustomed to the more experimental sounds of modern composition. Atonal, at times purposely chaotic-sounding, erratic in rhythm and texture, Zubel’s work is fully “out there.” This is, in fact, its value for a writer. But it’s also the challenge. Put another way, you won’t be humming this work after you hear it.

Not I is among Zubel’s most acclaimed works. And it’s based on the work of one of our greatest icons of the written word, Samuel Beckett. His short dramatic monologue of the same title — in which you see only the mouth of a female performer — was premiered at Lincoln Center in New York in 1972 and first published in London by Faber and Faber the following year. (It would have its London performance debut that year, as well.)

As Beckett’s directions instruct, the speaking character, called simply MOUTH, appears lit from below on a dark stage, about eight feet above the floorboards.

And as you listen to Zubel’s stunning interpretation of this work you do hear — in a breathy, halting, almost pained spasmodic delivery — those darkly moving opening phrases:

out…into this world…this world…tiny little thing…before tis time…in a godfor-…what?…girl?…yes…tiny little girl…into this…out into this…before her time…godforsaken hole called…called…no matter…parents unknown…unheard of…he having vanished…thin air…no sooner buttoned up his breeches…

With conductor Clement Power and the formidably controlled ensemble Klangforum Wein, Zubel starts her work in a near-silent soundscape that will swiftly become whiplash-busy, piano, woodwinds and percussion climbing and descending fast peaks of musical action.

At the center is Zubel’s remarkable performance. She renders the lyrics a fabulous, breathless tour of chatty despair, a feat of delivery that Jeffrey Zeigler, writing up the work for Q2 Music, is correct to call “nothing short of masterful.” Note that this is exceedingly high praise, coming from one of the most accomplished musicians working today — Zeigler is the gifted former cellist of the Kronos Quartet, an Avery Fisher Prize-winner in his own right.

Zubel took the coveted UNESCO International Composers’ Rostrum Award in May 2013 for her 2010 Not I. In fact, when I ask her which of the works on this album is most important to her personally, she quickly names this one “because it has given me lots of very nice surprises” — not just the UNESCO prize but also this year’s Polonica Nova Prize.

She tells me that her connection to Beckett’s text is just as visceral as it sounds when she works it onstage:

I like Beckett very much. I feel the musical thinking in his texts very strongly, it’s inspiring for me. He’s exploring not only words but also form, structure.

And for writers, what she delivers here is a kind of emotional translation, something far beyond the accented colors of her handling of English. It’s a lesson in itself to hear her glide downward on a beam of vibrato into a vast phrase from the playwright — always winter some strange reason…stare at her uncomprehending… — and then natter away with furious intensity — …dragging up the past…flashes from all over…

You’ll wish Beckett could have heard this. And you’ll be glad you did.

‘Only What I Need In The Particular Moment’

Not I by Agata Zubel from Kairos RecordsA startlingly beautiful woman, Zubel may remind you of a younger Diamanda Galás in the intensity and frequent sense that you’re hearing a sort of sonic outrage, barely contained by breath and voice. Less bombastic than Galas, Zubel is sharper, more precise, intensely demanding of her surprising vocal range. Her post-doctorate studies in music and voice have led to her position today as a lecturer on the faculty of the Academy of Music in her native Wroclaw.

My question to her is whether creating music for herself might not lead her to overtax her voice? When you hear what she’s doing in these live performances captured for the Kairos release, you’ll know why I ask her this.

But Zubel is sanguine about what it takes from her:

I’m of course very demanding of myself, but when I’m writing I don’t think of whether the part — vocal or instrumental — is difficult or not. I’m thinking of only what I need in the particular moment in the piece.

And then you get the fun humor that underlies so much of her drive:

Later I have to learn it and then I’m of course angry with myself: “This is so difficult!”

As it happens, Zubel makes sure she’s not the only singer who can deliver her work. “My scores,” she tells me, “are very precisely written so every singer can perform the pieces as well.” She’s being generous there. I know some strong sopranos who would think twice before tackling this work.

Zubel goes on, in answer to a question from me about what might be the drawbacks of creating these works for herself:

I don’t know if there are any pitfalls to singing my music by myself. When I prepare such a piece as a performer, it’s a little bit easier for me because I know the idea of the piece already. I know how the piece should sound.

The album offers two more works in which you hear Zubel sing Zubel.

The opening track, Labyrinth, plunges you straight into a brass-and-woodwind maze (which is one reason I’d like you to get the quieter start of Not I, if you’re not accustomed to this strain of music). To the uninitiated, this will feel like a sonic trapdoor has opened under your feet. As Zeigler writes, the piece is a treatment in English of the work of Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska. As the title implies, there’s a theme here of being caught — no way out.

Aphorisms on Milosz takes its seven texts from writings of Czeslaw Milosz and features some of Zubel’s most sustained vocal work on the album. At times, you may find yourself reminded of Lisa Gerrard’s mezzo-deep strength. In other passages, Zubel’s voice flies with the high-swept colors of Dawn Upshaw’s trademark sonority.

Shades of Ice, also by Zubel but without a vocal part, is Klangform Wien’s chance to array its own remarkable range of mood and acoustic sound effect.

‘First Of All, A Composer’s Idea Behind The Notes’

Agata Zubel 2 by Tomasz Kulak BWEvery bar of music on Not I glistens with a peculiar assurance, almost an audacity, surely a result of this being both the idea and the delivery of this music’s maker.

Zubel says to me:

As a composer I can write more consciously for musicians. And as a singer, knowing so much work from having written it, I can perform even another composer’s piece with [insight] — I try to find a composer’s entry into any music.

This is not about perfection, she cautions:

Composers try to write perfect scores, trying to find the best way to the performer. But we need to remember that music is not only what we see on paper but, first of all, a composer’s idea behind the notes. And here is the most beautiful place where the two professions meet.

I ask her whether the rise of the Internet hasn’t created a global community of composers who — unprecedented in history — can know each other’s work intimately and immediately on its release. This, after all, enables Q2 Music to bring her music to us and allows Poland’s audiences to listen to the work of our own artists.

Zubel is more concerned, it turns out, with the individual vision and voice. “I am trying — as probably each composer does — to find my own place in the world.”

Like writers, composers, in the end, still return, Agata Zubel tells me, to their own cores for the foundation of what they’re doing and creating:

Of course it’s great that we have the Internet. We can know music from all over the world. But I think that for the composer, it’s very important to write his or her her own music. Only then the work is sincere. TC mark

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Image Credit: Images of Agata Zubel by Tomasz Kulak, used by permission of the Polish Cultural Institute

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