This season’s MusicNOW series closes with the world premiere of In Silence, written by Mead Composer-in Residence Elizabeth Ogonek. Scored for solo violin with six strings, percussion and piano, In Silence is inspired by the Mystery Sonatas, a set of 15 violin works by Baroque composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, known as one of the most forward-thinking composers of his time, using extended techniques for strings that would not become standard until the 20th century.
Ogonek’s piece draws on musical elements found in the Biber sonatas; she also employs Biber’s experiments with tuning as a device in her new work, which explores sonorities and ways of thinking about resonance, chords and adjacent pitches. “The melodic motives are definitely 100 percent Biber, but they sound nothing at all like Biber,” she said.
For the MusicNOW concert May 22, rising American violinist Benjamin Beilman will be the featured soloist for In Silence. With a tone the New York Times has described as “muscular with a glint of violence,” Beilman is the recipient of the prestigious 2014 Borletti-Buitoni Trust Fellowship and a 2012 Avery Fisher Career Grant.
Ahead of the world premiere, Elizabeth Ogonek sat down to discuss the genesis of In Silence:
Tell us about the idea behind your new violin concerto In Silence.
In Silence is a work for solo violin and eight players: six low strings, percussion and piano. The seedling idea behind the piece really came from a recent fascination with the use of existing musical material as a point of creative departure. In this particular piece that “found object” is a work by the Baroque composer Heinrich Biber.
Could you tell us about Biber?
Heinrich Biber was a Bohemian-Austrian Baroque composer who was, in addition to being a composer, a virtuoso violinist. The sonatas are believed to have been written around 1676. However, they weren’t published until 1905. Most often called The Mystery Sonatas, they are also known as The Rosary Sonatas or the Copper-Engraving Sonatas. They have so many different titles for a number of reasons. They are called the Mystery Sonatas because, from a narrative or programmatic point of view, they are based on the mysteries associated with the Rosary devotion in the Catholic Church. Each piece, each prayer and each part of the rosary procession is based on a different mystery from the lives of Jesus and Mary. With this set of sonatas by Biber, there are 15 sonatas all together and then there is a final 16th movement, a passacaglia, for solo violin.
How did Biber organize his work and why were you drawn to it?
Biber organized these sonatas into three cycles: the Joyful Mysteries (or the Joyful Sonatas), the Sorrowful Mysteries (or the Sorrowful Sonatas), and the Glorious Mysteries (or the Glorious Sonatas). The sixteenth movement, for solo violin, is one of the earliest pieces for solo violin and is believed to have greatly influenced Johann Sebastian Bach. The D minor Chaconne would not have existed, for example, without this work.
One of the coolest things about the Biber sonatas is the fact that they do all kinds of 20th- and 21st-century things; in a way, one could think of Biber as the first 20th- or 21st-century composer. A lot of these things he did because he was a virtuoso violinist and because he was obviously playing around on his instrument. But the important aspect of these sonatas is the tuning. Each of the 15 sonatas and the 16th movement has a different tuning, and, further, the tuning serves a narrative purpose. As one progresses through these mysteries to the more sorrowful mysteries, the tuning becomes tenser — the lowest string ascends and the highest string descends — then the tuning returns to its natural state, creating a kind of wedge-like form. When the very first sonata is performed, the violin plays with a standard (GDAE) tuning. In the very final movement the violin plays with a standard tuning as well. This allows Biber all kinds of new sonorities and new ways of thinking about resonance — chords and pitches that would otherwise be unattainable. All of these techniques would be impossible using a standard tuning, which makes this piece oddly and weirdly virtuosic, but also with this programmatic component built in.
How else does your piece draw from Biber?
My piece draws on a lot of the elements that exist in this series of sonatas. The tuning aspect is an important part of it. My piece is in thee movements, which, in a way, correlates to the three different cycles – though not necessarily in that order, or the order in which they appear for Biber. In the second and third movements in my piece, the lowest string of the violin is tuned down from a G to an F, which opens up new chords and new harmonics. A new timbre allows in the third movement for a role reversal in the violin and the lower strings that accompany. So I have all the lower strings playing the harmony above this melodic line that’s happening on this lowest string of the violin.
Do the violins in the ensemble stay with the standard tuning?
There are no violins in the ensemble. The tuning in the solo violin changes in the second two movements. For the second double bass, the low C extension is tuned down to a B flat, which creates a low rumble. It allows the bass to come in and out of the percussion section so you get this sound that sounds a little like a bass drum. Some other ways in which the Biber is influential: I’ve definitely drawn on Biber’s melodic material. One of the interesting things about the published version of the sonatas is that because the violin uses all of these alternative tunings throughout the work, there’s a transcription of the transposed line of music. In the score, the violin has two lines: there’s the line of music the violinist reads based on the way that the strings are tuned and then there’s the music that involves the sounding pitches. If you play the transposed version at pitch, you get these really weird motives because you’re basically reading in a different key or you’re reading based on a different transposition so they sound nothing like Biber. So I‘ve taken some of these motives and transformed them into main motives in various parts of my piece. So they are definitely 100 percent Biber, but they sound nothing at all like Biber, and they spin out throughout my piece to create a movement or section of a movement.
What’s the meaning of the title In Silence?
Until very recently, my mom was a church musician; she always maintained a second job as a church organist. As the only child of a single parent, I always went to church with her on the weekends, which of course meant that I attended five, six or seven masses a weekend. As an 8-year-old, when you hear the same homily on repeat or sing the same hymns on repeat or you say the same prayers over and over again — it goes without saying that I got bored. After awhile, my mind would start to wander. I had some of the most imaginative experiences in my mind sitting in silence as a kid in a choir loft during, say, the ninth mass. I think that as a result, this piece is not about sitting in silence or thinking in silence or being silent or anything like that. Rather, it’s about the flights of the imagination that come from silence. So I like to think that the material that exists in this piece transforms in a way that represents this kind of flight of imagination that has been a part of my life since I was a kid.