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Interview: Nicolas Tzortzis

nicolas_portraitRecently I spoke with Nicolas Tzortzis, one of the winners of Wild Rumpus’ Commissioning Project. We will be performing the world premiere of his work Incompatible(s) VI for harp, bass clarinet, violin, and cello on September 27, 2013 at Old First Church in San Francisco. The work is a thrilling piece of avant-garde musical theater in which the musicians are called upon to portray a dramatic text in multiple languages, while simultaneously executing richly textured and intricate instrumental parts. I spoke with Nicolas about his background, his ideas of musical theater, as well as some specifics about this new piece.

Samples of his work can be found on Soundcloud or his website.

Dan VanHassel: You have a very cosmopolitan background. You’re Greek, but you’ve done a lot of your education in France and Canada.

Nicolas Tzortzis: I’ve studied in more places than I have lived, that’s the interesting part! I moved to France in 2002, and officially I am still living there, even though right now I am in Germany as a composer in residence in a small village near Mannheim. I studied musical theater with Georges Aperghis in Switzerland, but I never actually lived in Switzerland. I just went back and forth; of all the people in the course, practically nobody actually lived in Switzerland. We had classes every couple of weeks for two or three days, so we took the train and then everybody went back where they came from. In Canada I also managed to do it more or less like this because when I started my Ph.D I was also doing the IRCAM Cursus, and the University of Montreal allowed me to not be in Montreal in order to attend the Cursus. I went to Montreal two or three times a year, took the exams, and I got my Ph.D last April without actually living there. So I’ve lived in Paris for the last 12 years, but I’ve studied in more places!

D: Do you find that you identify in particular with French culture? You’ve lived there a long time at this point.

N: I like the French language. It’s very interesting how it’s structured and how it sounds and how different the French mentality is portrayed when you learn the language, because each language is actually a way of thinking, a way of understanding the world, a way of expressing it. That’s what’s very interesting to me about different languages, and that’s why I use different languages in all of my pieces when there’s a voice or a text. Not once have I used just one language! Some things may sound better in French, in German, or Italian, so why not use that instead of just staying with one and using it to the end?

D: How many languages do you speak?

N: With Greek, six.

D: Wow! As an American that’s very impressive!

N: (laughs)

I’ve also used languages I don’t speak with help from friends. I have used Dutch because the player who was going to talk was from Belgium and I wanted to use the fact that she could speak perfect French and Dutch. I’ve also used Japanese, because there was a Japanese player involved and I wanted everybody to speak their own languages. It creates a collage of languages and sounds.

D: Is your primary interest in using different languages to have a different way of filtering things or viewing things through that language?

N: It has to do with, first of all what sounds better to me in what language. When you translate something into a different language, it changes a little bit either the meaning or the connotation, or the way it is perceived. It also changes the relationship between the different elements of the music. For instance, in the piece for Wild Rumpus, normally most of your audience would not understand the German part, but all of them will understand the English part, and some may understand the French part that Sophie* is saying. So the English part is actually addressed to the audience, while in the other parts the players are talking more to themselves or to the other abstract characters of the piece. When I want the audience to understand, I put it in English. Of course, all of this would change if it was performed in another country where English is not the primary language.

*Wild Rumpus clarinetist Sophie Huet

D: So would you change the text if it were performed in another country?

N: No! But it would change what people understand. The same piece is perceived differently based on who you are. When we listen to music we don’t understand the piece for what the composer or what the performer wants to say. We just understand what we can. Somebody who’s not sensitive to quarter-tones doesn’t hear the quarter-tones. Somebody who doesn’t speak German doesn’t understand the German, so he’s just going to zap it away in his mind; it’s just gibberish for him. But for the one who understands, there’s a different level of understanding. If you speak German you will understand the piece better. If you speak French you will understand it even more. But there are also some parts where the harpist speaks German in reverse. That’s not a language, so you’re not supposed to understand anything there, it’s just the feeling that she’s projecting as a character with no text. There are different ways of using language in order to achieve understanding or not, and to play with the character. In this piece when she speaks German normally she is a little kid, when she speaks German in reverse she is a teacher, when she speaks English she is some different things that could talk to the audience. So it makes the separation of roles more clear.

D: Is there a story behind the piece? I understand that there are the characters of a teacher and student. Could you talk a little bit about the story or the inspiration for these characters? It seems quite dramatic!

N: One of my ideas before I even started the piece was to write for your players. Not to write for any clarinet player, or any harp player, but to try to customize it. Because especially when it has to do with musical theater I enjoy writing off the players, even though I hadn’t met the Wild Rumpus people before I wrote it. I asked for everybody to send some things about themselves, to tell me what languages they speak, and so on. The clarinet player speaks French [in the piece], because she actually does! If Sophie had told me she was of Mexican heritage and she spoke Spanish, then her text would probably have been in Spanish. Naomi* told me she spoke German, and when I visited her website it said that she gave cooking classes in addition to harp lessons, which I found very interesting! I asked her to send me a recipe that she enjoys cooking. She sent me a chocolate cake recipe, which is most of the text of the piece. I had it translated into German. So the text itself is something very neutral. The recipe and the way you say it could be the most boring thing in the world. What I wanted to do was to take this non-expressive text, and think of what I could bring out of the text. The idea is that the text has strictly nothing to do with what is happening. This for me is very interesting, and this also relates to the idea of “incompatibility”. You can take a text and kind of impose theatrics on it that would be more relevant to a different text, then you can focus on how you play it out.

What we understand when we go to the theater, it’s not only the text, but it’s mostly the acting. You could act out the warranty from your fridge, and it could be Hamlet if you’re a good actor! And this abstract kind of musical theater is much more interesting to me than playing Hamlet himself. When the barrier of language is too high, we focus just on what we can get. There are things that surpass the language barrier and we focus on the theatrics. The expression, the movement, the dynamics, all of that stuff!

*Previous Wild Rumpus harpist Naomi Hoffmeyer.

D: It sounds like the theatrical elements are coming closer to a musical type of expression. Is that what’s interesting about it to you?

N: Yes, exactly!

D: It does sound like we’re talking about music in some sense; you can’t understand literal words or phrases, but you’re getting the expressive content.

N: It’s the same thing. You can use language or words as notes, as techniques, as modes of playing. All of that is blended together. For instance, when she is angry, do I make the music angry also? Or do I create a gap between them? In this piece mostly they go together.

D: Is there actually a story though behind the emotions that are being presented?

N: It’s the evolution of the two characters. The student starts out as a nice kid, and by the end she becomes more of a brat. The teacher is supposed to remain calm, despite the fact that she’s getting more and more annoyed, and then she reaches a certain point when she loses it and she’s very angry and the kid is scared of her. It’s a change of roles. After I wrote the piece I realized this is the same idea from The Lesson by Ionesco, only there the change is more gradual. It’s this classical idea of a change of power; the weak becomes the strong and the strong becomes the weak. Only in this piece it is not linear; you can’t tell exactly because there’s not a clear text. And there are the parentheses of the other texts that blur the thing and also communicate with the audience. It’s not supposed to be understood from A to B. You could think of it as if the story of the teacher and the kid is happening on one channel while you zap for awhile to another channel, and when you come back the story has already evolved to the next step. The idea is to understand the theater in it, not the story in itself.

D: Anything else you’d like to add about the piece?

N: I really enjoyed writing this piece! I’m sure it would have been different if I had met the performers before writing it, but I hope that every player can find a little bit about themselves in the piece.

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