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It is still rare for women to conduct major orchestras; Susanna Mälkki is one of these women. In an exciting programme combining Images, Rondes de printemps, Jeux and La boîte à joujoux by Claude Debussy, as well as Contes cruels by contemporary composer Tristan Murail, the young Finnish artist makes her debut at La Monnaie as part of the Ars Musica Festival.
For your first concert with La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra, you will present works by Claude Debussy and Tristan Murail. Is this a logical choice?
I think so. The piece by Tristan Murail was chosen because I am devoted to contemporary music. Or let’s say that I rummage around willingly in the contemporary repertoire, thus leading people to think that I do nothing but that, which is not true in my case. I also like to perform the classical repertoire as well as later works, such as Debussy, for example. Debussy is a composer who interests me enormously, in particular because his work is situated at the crossroads of different periods. His music is very beautiful, and may still be qualified as romantic, although it already pointed towards the future. Debussy was a revolutionary in his own way. I prefer not to mention my favourites, but I find that he was a very important composer. I am crazy about his music.
What appeals to you in particular about Debussy’s music?
First of all, the French palette fascinates me. This palette is found much later in the music of Messiaen and Boulez, for example, with the same atmosphere and an orchestration which is just as refined. Of course, this typical palette is also determined by harmony. Harmony is a very important aspect with Debussy. One may rightly say that this composer freed harmony of its functionality, whereby the hierarchy between the degrees of the tonal scale such as tonic, dominant, etc. becomes much more flexible. In its place is a musical logic of its own, which is very different: the chords are widened and the harmony even sounds jazzy at times. Under the surface, Debussy is very modern, which is why I find his music so fascinating.
The three works by Debussy all have a link with dance – with ballet.
Yes, all three of them are linked to dance, yet they are very different. Images is the biggest symphonic score of the three, whereas La boite à joujoux may be qualified as chamber music and is very visual, like sign language. Jeux is somewhere between the two, with a large orchestra, huge musical arches and then suddenly a very fragmented score. Our most important task will be to find the movement and to allow the character of each piece to be expressed individually.
It is a big challenge to perform Debussy.
Yes, indeed. The fragility resides in all of the spontaneous changes, which only have an effect if they are fully integrated into the piece as a whole. It is quite different from the typical German progression which keeps moving on its own once it has begun. We are not presenting an easy programme.
And how do you feel about the jump from Debussy to Murail?
There is a link between them, but since the road is one hundred years long from one to the other, the link is perhaps not obvious. It is of course impossible to explain in detail all of the intermediate steps from Debussy to Murail, but we must certainly consider Messiaen and Boulez. Murail’s musical conception is related to that of Debussy insofar as harmony and colour are one. In his music, colour emanates from harmony and the sound spectrum. I do not think that Murail views music in the same way as Debussy, but the French tone and – to some extent – orchestration are found in his music, with the same clear colours which produce a lighter and brighter effect. Debussy’s music can be very powerful, without ever being aggressive; Murail’s music is not aggressive either, but the angles are more pronounced.
You say that the colour in Murail’s music comes from the ‘sound spectrum’. What do you mean by that?
Murail’s score falls within the scope of spectral music, which means that the composer uses acoustic aspects of sound – or sound spectra – as basic material in his or her work. In Murail’s work, the chords are much more developed than they were in Debussy’s time. These chords are based on sound ‘harmonics’. Murail’s music contains this spectralism. It also goes well beyond the ninth, eleventh and thirteenth chords used in jazz harmony.
Is this the sound universe of Murail’s Contes cruels?
Contes cruels is a work for two electric guitars and small ensemble. This work is remarkable above all due to its use of micro-intervals [musical intervals of less than a semitone] – another element of the spectral aspect which I just mentioned. Without a doubt, this is what will produce the strangest effect in this piece. But generally speaking, Murail’s language is full of imagery, with huge arches and a clear construction which is not unusual. My work with the orchestra shall consist in bringing out the beauty of the chords. This type of music is confronted with many prejudices, which result from the fact that we are not looking for true colours. This is of course not the composer’s fault. Like all French music, this music is also extremely aesthetic, which is what I shall try to emphasise.
Interview by Reinder Pols