A conversation between composers David DeBoor and Jorge Grundman for Fanfare Magazine
Composer vs. Music Writer: The Vision of Jorge Grundman
BY DAVID DEBOOR CANFIELD
Spanish composer and record producer Jorge Grundman goes his own way in regard to music without paying too much attention to trends, customs and such matters. I tend to resonate with someone with such an outlook, not to mention someone who is an owner of a small record label that issues interesting new works. Catching up with Grundman via the Internet in January of 2012, I engaged him in a discussion of these and other matters.
Q. Right off the bat, the notes of your latest CD, God’s Sketches, contain the provocative comment, “I would like to humbly say I am sorry because there is nothing new in the music I write and, moreover, it was not my intention. This might be the reason I consider myself a writer of music more than a composer.” Please allow me to play the devil’s advocate: Why would eschewing of originality make one more of a “writer of music” than a “composer”? Is “originality” or “novelty” necessarily a bad thing (as you seem to imply)? Cannot one be original simply by being true to one’s own artistic vision and personality?
A. Originality or novelty is not a bad thing but the opposite. My words come from one who sees himself as a musician who is not able to supply these virtues in my music. And precisely because I feel that I do not have this gift, I have found that the best way I can communicate with a listener is by telling a story which can move him. Most of the 20th-century musical works that came from Europe have come from visionary composers who saw (or see) music in a different way from that of classical composers (using the term classical in its traditional sense). These contemporary composers have sought to offer something new, not just in terms of form but also in terms of sound. Most of them follow the ideas of Theodore Adorno when he defended the idea of New Music in opposition to more traditional musical concepts, criticizing anyone flirting with more traditional (e.g. neoclassical) styles. Later came aleatoric music which, as you know, erected further barriers between the composer and his potential listeners. And this barrier became more and more insurmountable for some people.
So how can one someone appear nowadays on the musical scene with some music written with melody as its fundamental concept? For me, music is only music. I believe that I cannot be considered a composer like those to whom I refer above. I do not have their gifts. I only write notes which form melodies that tell a story, because I am convinced music is a universal language. From this point of view, my idea is to try to move the listener with emotion, even if I do not know him or know anything about his culture or the culture of his country, wherever he may reside in the world. Crying or loving are universal emotions, and do not need any explanation. Consequently, these are the sorts of things I try to portray in my music. For me, the subliminal difference between a music writer and a composer is the story you can tell. Nowadays a composer can make music with form, but without melody or rhythm. It's like an architect building a house in which no one would live. It would have walls, doors, windows, and even furniture, but for no human use. Similarly, if he wishes to communicate, a writer must not use letters to form meaningless words. They must make at least minimal sense. So with this view, I’d rather build my “house” and invite the listener to dwell there with the music I write. This was the reason I asked for pardon at the beginning of the notes: It’s like a warning in a pack of cigarettes. Warning: there is nothing new inside, only music!
Q. So, in stating that you want your music to be accessible to listeners and performers, and that you are not writing for composers, is there a place for a composer to stretch the musical horizons of his or her audience? Isn’t this what most of the great composers have done?
A. I am not sure if the great composers had the audience in mind when they were writing music, or they simply wrote the music they wanted to hear. Perhaps both were factors for them, or perhaps they found themselves victims of their own success. But beginning with the era of Adorno, wherein music began to be insulated from the real world, which a listener is anyone with or without musical knowledge, our time has brought to us a lot of works which need to be explained before they can be understood or, even worse, before they can even be listened to. For better or worse, my music does not fall into this category. I don’t mean that there is not significant work involved in producing music of that kind, but simply that I do not understand it, and do not have this sensibility. As far as stretching the musical horizons of the composer’s audience seems to be a goal for many composers, but not for all. In my opinion, those who do not do so are wrong. But if the goal is not to communicate something to one’s audience, why bother writing the music? For that reason, I believe in speaking the same music language as the audience. Doing so brings some light on this subject.
Q. Tell us something about your musical background and development. Is Spain a good place these days to receive a musical education? What led you to begin writing music?
A. I do not believe that one country is better than another in which to receive a musical education if that society has deep cultural roots. The wish to learn is the internal force driving any great music lover. Of course I am not talking about facilities or governmental assistance, but only its intention. If we talk on this level, I believe my country needs to improve. For example, a way to do it is letting music permeate not only basic education but all the way up through even the university level. But although there are many private initiatives, in the age of economic crisis, culture becomes a victim, and as time goes by, society suffers.
I started at age of twelve to study music at the conservatoire and I have continued studying to this day. I feel the need to continue learning about music to enjoy it more and more. Although when I was young, and I couldn’t predict my future, all my academic paths merged in music. In fact, I obtained a degree in Sound and Image Engineering, and now I find myself recording and producing recordings. I also have a degree in Computer Technologies which benefits me as I compose using the computer. My degree in the Science and History of Music helped me to get a panoramic view of the history of music, and to realize why I never understood some kinds of music. A master’s degree in Musical Creation and Interpretation gave me insight on how music needs to be performed, and how to do research in art. Last but not least, I have taken master classes from conductors like Jesús López Cobos or José Luis Temes, and I am even now learning how to conduct—not for conducting per se, but to understand how to make my scores easier to conduct by others. Starting in the seventies to flirt with music, I received exposure to many kinds of music, including rock, symphonic, pop, New Age, film and TV and “Classical.” What I missed in this background was folk music. Exploring all these paths in turns a music writer into a pathfinder, allowing him to enjoy all—or almost all—kinds of music. What perhaps led me into writing my own music was a rather unhappy childhood—I found composing to be a way to isolate myself, and the means to portray an imaginary life in which real emotions were substituted for the emotional content that all music has.
Q. What gave you the idea for your string quartet, which is subtitled, “Surviving a Son’s Suicide”? It seems not to have been based on any actual experience from your life…
A. There are moments in life in which everyone has to face death. It is a difficult moment in which suddenly one realizes that after your loved one is gone, there is nothing. The natural state is that sons survive their parents. So going beyond this norm can produce an emotional tour de force. On the other hand, writing a string quartet is a daunting task for anyone who writes music. In the case of my quartet, when I was given an opportunity to write a string quartet to be premiered at Brasilia’s National Theater, I had only two months to complete the task. This pressure caused me to try to imagine an extreme situation in a person’s life that would provide an impetus to begin writing immediately—to “force” inspiration, if you will. So I imagined a marriage that was broken years after the suicide of the couple’s son. In this scenario, I have not revealed the reasons that drove the son to commit suicide. The important thing here is that the wife and husband meet again years later, and it is natural they reminisce about their lost son in this meeting. Their reminiscence focuses on three different moments: Their browsing through childhood photographs of their son, their remembrance of his awkward age, where his erratic moments transform into lovely ones, and finally when they take a look at his room as he left it. This is about sadness, but it also deals with hope and how one can overcome all the difficulties life brings. If after the storm, comes the calm, then after sadness, comes beauty of hope. It’s as if the roses recover their colors. If we just look around us, we will discover the beauty that exists after tragedy.
Q. Your moving work, God’s Sketches, deals with the subject of Down Syndrome, and is born from your conviction that all human beings, even those we consider disabled, are made in God’s image, and that despite any disability these people have purpose in life. As a Christian, this is also my firm belief. Has this work precipitated any awakening in those who have heard it about the value of human life that is devalued by some?
A. Actually, this work has yet to be premiered, and in fact will be on June 9th at the National Auditorium of Madrid, so I cannot give a direct answer. But this was my intention when I wrote the work. My desire is to remember that life is gift, and one of the reasons we are here is to help others to live, most of all if they require our help. In our humanity, we are all alike. But society gives some disadvantaged people an over-protection that hinders their independence. Surely we need to change our mind about them. If we see a person with Down Syndrome who has been given the chance to work, we will observe every day his desire to do better at his task, and his wish to bring happiness to those around him. This is priceless—something about which we have much to learn. Who can put a value on it? I hope my work will cause us to think about such matters, so that we can integrate such people much better into society.
Q. I was most intrigued that you have written a work—your third string trio—that has been used for dancers both with and without Down Syndrome. What is the story behind that?
A. Originally, when I wrote this work, I didn’t imagine that someone would be inspired to do something marvelous in conjunction with the music, but that is exactly what happened. The PsicoBallet from the Fundación Maite León uses dance to integrate and develop people with disabilities. So, they asked me if they could use my music for this purpose, and of course my answer was affirmative. When I had a chance to see the show, a shiver of emotion ran inside me. It was very beautiful to see dancers both with and without Down syndrome transforming the music in a visual experience. This experience fostered my thinking about writing God’s Sketches.
Q. How did you meet the superb singer, Susana Cordón?
A. I was working on music for soprano, piano and string orchestra as a tribute to the memory of a friend of mine who had suddenly passed away, and at the same time was preparing a project with violinist Ara Malikian about the seasons. We studied several scores for the project but we needed one more to complement the Astor Piazzolla and Joan Valent works that we were including. So Ara suggested that I write something on the subject of seasons and I told him about the work I was trying to write, and this was the genesis of my Four Sad Seasons Over Madrid. But we needed a soprano for the work, and Ara suggested Susana Cordón, with whom he had worked. At the premiere, Susana reached the height of emotion, and virtually the entire audience of the National Auditorium of Madrid was reduced to tears. It was a magical experience for me, and after the premiere, she asked me to write a work for her.
God’s Sketches was the work that I composed, and we worked closely together at home, reviewing the score, modifying some of the lyrics and music to produce the final result. Susana is without any doubt the best soprano we currently have in Spain, and she is able to bring the same simplicity to either opera or zarzuela. In fact she was recently sharing the stage with Plácido Domingo and Susan Graham in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, and shortly after, Moreno Torroba’s Luisa Fernanda. Her versatility in her approach to different styles, and her solid work as a singing actress is absolutely amazing. She has the magical touch that turns mere notes into musical art. In God’s Sketches, her ability in this respect is particularly important because the voice is completely naked—there is no orchestra to support her, but only a string quartet. If I am not mistaken, in sixty CDs recorded by the Brodsky Quartet, the only previous soprano to record with them was Anne Sofie von Otter.
Q. Speaking of the Brodsky Quartet, how did you get them to participate in this project?
A. Ara Malikian, to whom I am completely grateful for always believing in the music I write, told me once that I can convince anyone with the music I have made. So I wrote the manager of the Brodsky Quartet with the idea of joining efforts in recording God’s Sketches. This was at a time that I had not written even a single note of it. I sent him some recordings and videos of my music, including Surviving a Son’s Suicide together with my curriculum. The quartet liked my music and decided to participate even without hearing any of the music of the planned work for string quartet, soprano and mallets. When we ended the recording sessions they were so excited with the music that they decided to advance date of the premiere. The date was originally planned for 2013 due the celebration of their 40th anniversary in 2012, when they will be engaged in many concerts and a new CD for Chandos. But they found a date in June of this year for the premiere, and I am completely grateful to them for giving me a chance like this. Knowing that they have included me to be part of the short list of living composers they’ve recorded, my opportunity to work with them has been a complete dream. So I am now writing a new work for string quartet dedicated to them, to all four members of the quartet. But this is another story…
Q. How did you become interested in forming your own record label?
A. My experience with major labels like Virgin or Warner was not satisfactory, so in talking with Ara Malikian about how to release our third project, we decided to start our own adventure alone. Music is not about sales figures, but art, and the major labels do not understand very well this concept. Having your own label, you can bet on what you like, and we bet on the works of Nikolai Kapustin, Marjan Mozetich, Elena Kats-Chernin, and others who write consonant music. We think this is the way to recover the audience for classical music at this juncture.
Q. What have been some of the challenges you’ve found in managing a record company?
A. Finding unknown repertoire, convincing the composers, convincing the musicians, collecting funds to finance the rehearsal, recording or premiere sessions. And you know…too much busy-ness does not let you write all the music you wish, but I think this is a marvelous experience.
Q. Convincing the composers? Really? You have to talk them into allowing you to record their music!?
A. I know it sounds odd, but I usually ask the composer first, showing him the albums we have released. We strive to preserve his work with maximum quality, but when your company isn’t well-known, not everyone will take you seriously. There is also a problem sometimes in contacting the composer or getting him to respond to an email. Contacting his publisher also usually results in…silence. The music business really needs some fine tuning. The important thing is not merely to record a work, but to record it giving it our best presentation in every detail. Last but not least, I believe that composers must know how their works mature and take on a life of their own. I think we owe this as a minimum to those who have written music that produces such good feelings within us.
Q. The name of the company (Non Profit Music) is surely one of the more honest appellations that could be given to such a venture. What would happen, though, if one of your releases sold well enough to make a profit?
A. We reinvest all the money collected in making new records or new premieres. That’s our goal. There are no salaries to pay, because everyone is a volunteer, and the whole company is run on an altruistic basis.
Q. Given the hard-cover and lavishly illustrated booklets of your issues, your production values seem opulent to me (I could only imagine what you might have done in the LP era!) Is this part of the effort to make sure your label lives up to its name?
A. When I start a project I always talk with all the people involved as if it were our only or our final project, so that it will stand out in our memories as a beautiful production. So if we put our soul and being into a project, why would we not create the most beautiful package possible? That’s something the major labels do not understand.
Q. What are some upcoming projects planned for Non Profit Music?
A. We are now working on a world premiere recording of the piano trios by the Ukrainian composer Nikolai Kapustin with the Trío Arbós.