Interview with the last year’s winners of the 5-Minute competition

Last year’s winners of the 5-Minute Piano Concerto competition – composers Daniele Gasparini (1st prize) and Bruno Vlahek (3rd prize) – luckily found some time in their busy schedules to share some thoughts on the previous Biennale, as well as their expectations and wishes for the upcoming one. Both of them will be presenting (new) pieces, so they gave us some hints on what to expect and look forward to.

This year, both of you are returning to Zagreb, to the Music Biennale. What are you most excited about?

Daniele Gasparini: The greatest emotions always accompany the first performance of a new work. In this case, the excitement is even bigger as I care a lot about this work and have spent a lot of time and energy on composing it. I am also excited about meeting Filip Fak again, cooperating with him and with Ari Rasilainen, as well as with an important orchestra as the Croatian Radiotelevision Symphony Orchestra is.

Bruno Vlahek: Each performance is a new and different experience, which is already something to be excited about – especially if it takes place at an event of such long and influential history, alongside some amazing performers! A festival such as the Music Biennale Zagreb provides one with opportunities to exchange ideas, but it also serves as a platform for hearing unfamiliar music, making new acquaintances and keeping pace with the latest developments in contemporary music.

How do you view your Biennale experience of two years ago? In what way did the participation in that competition affect you?

DG: The Biennale experience of two years ago definitely turned out to be very positive. The production of new works should be the main purpose of every excellent contemporary music festival. In addition, I really appreciated the idea of commissioning a new piano concerto through a competition as opportunities of this kind are very rare. For the 2017 Music Biennale, composers from all over the world were given an opportunity to test and demonstrate their skills and to propose their own ideas of a piano concerto, without any prior conditioning. This mirrored my long-time desire to write a large orchestral piece inspired by Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities. Without having the backing of a large publisher or an organization, it is very difficult nowadays to carry out a project involving a large orchestral staff and other resources. So, without the support of the MBZ, this concerto would not have been created yet.

BV: The work I presented at the competition had an important impact on my composing style in general, mostly because I implemented some extended techniques in my writing for the first time, such as the prepared piano for example. The research I did in that field opened a new door for me and I included this element in some of my upcoming works as well. Other aspect was the research on Chinese folklore and philosophy, which helped me find new colors and expressive possibilities in my music. I have been thinking hard on what I could do with only five minutes available and came out with a very original piece. I am deeply touched by the fact that both the jury and the audience have recognized it as such.

Have you ever done anything similar in your careers, in terms of 'twisting' the musical genre in the way the 5-Minute Piano Concerto, in fact, did?

DG: No, I have never done anything similar in my opus before, and I have to admit that it was a big challenge. It is definitely a complex test of a composer’s skills as we need to consolidate a single idea in no more than 5 minutes, give it a musical form, a coherent development and bring it to a natural conclusion.

BV: What I find most important about the 5-Minute Piano Concerto is that it brings out the pure essence of a musical idea in a compressed form. Either it works or it doesn't. There is no space or time for long explanations or filling the gaps. In a sense, it is similar to haute cuisine where the quantity of food does not matter, only the quality of the raw material, its refining and taste, which must not fail. I took part in a similar project in 2010, at the ISCM's World New Music Days held in Sydney. The idea was to compose a work within a day and the result was brilliant.

Tell us something about your pieces for this year's festival.

DG: As I’ve mentioned, my concerto is inspired by Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Two things always strike me when reading and rereading this piece: the surreal dimension, the dimension of a dream where imagination is playing, starting from an actual impression that is analyzed, split and dismantled, and then recomposed and projected onto the dream itself, which is the place where the imagination re-builds. Then there is the metallic and transparent, shiny and rigorous writing through which this re-construction takes place.

The same happens to the music of this work – which is the result of rigorous and crystalline composite processes, and in which the dreamlike and visionary component is so strong yet contains nothing descriptive or expressionistic – as it aims to take the listener to a mental theatre full of events, suggestions and inner landscapes.

Beyond the poetic and aesthetic suggestions that I have taken from Calvino’s Cities, the musical structure is also profoundly influenced by their fantastic architectural shapes. For example, in Smeraldina (the city of water), the intricate polyphonic piano section and a complex contrapuntal pattern allude to a tangle of ways that crisscross the city and to the idea that by combining the segments of various routes, be they solid or liquid, elevated or on the ground level, you can always reach the same place even when using a different path. That is to say that the original musical itinerary is fulfilled by following different paths and that the original musical material is looked at and studied from different angles in its kaleidoscopic involvements: timbral, harmonic, contrapuntal, without losing its original peculiar features and always reaching the same destination.

And so in Ottavia (the spider-web city) the musical structure is built like a spider web, following constructive principles and geometric proportions of real spider webs. In Valdrada (the mirror city) the principle of speculation tends to influence not only the musical form but every figure, every rhythm, every gesture, every timbre in the musical space and time. The last movement (Olinda, the growing city) comes from a point, from a minimal figure – a single note (piano) or a semitone interval (orchestra) – which gradually widens and expands, tending to saturate the available texture and sound space. And new minimal figures always arise and grow within the preceding expanding ones, in the same way as all of Calvino’s Olindas.

BV: For this occasion, the Biennale’s organizing committee has chosen my String Quartet, which is one of my earliest compositions. It was written back in 2005 while I was still a student at the Zagreb Music Academy, just before I left for Switzerland to continue my education and career abroad. It was premiered and recorded by the Zagreb String Quartet. It has since been successfully performed in many countries and I am happy that it will be performed in Zagreb again. It is a youthful piece full of energy, yet with very personal introspective thoughts – especially in the Intermezzo and the closing Passacaglia. It leans on the rich tradition of the string quartet literature, especially Bartók and Shostakovich, whose influence can be traced in it. It is a compact piece that requires a high level of performers' mutual understanding and sensibility.


Interviewer: Martina Bratić