Qasim Naqvi’s Fjoloy, which will receive its U.S. premiere in a MusicNOW concert June 6, began as a set-specific, interdisciplinary work. Scored for a mixed-voice chorus, Fjoloy was inspired by the Norwegian region of Stavanger. The MusicNOW performance, conducted by Donald Nally, director of Northwestern University’s Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble, also will mark the first time that Fjoloy has been presented in a concert setting. In this interview, Sam Adams, CSO Mead-co-composer-in-residence, talks with composer Qasim Naqvi about the work and its evolution:
SA: First, tell us about your musical background, about what’s brought you here.
QN: Sure. I am a drummer and a composer. I spent a good number of years of my life as a student of improvised music, and slowly transitioned from that to what you would call new music or classical music. I play drums in the group Dawn of Midi. A lot of the work that I do is often interdisciplinary, so I make music for projects involving film or dance or theater, or installation work, things like that.
SA: You mentioned that a lot of your work is interdisciplinary, and Fjoloy, which we’re presenting on June 6, came out of an interdisciplinary collaboration. Can you talk a little bit about the inception of this work, and how it came to life? And how it has changed from its genesis to now?
QN: The piece was originally commissioned by Mariam Ghani — who is a visual and video installation artist — and the choreographer Erin Ellen Kelly. The three of us have a sort of collective; we’ve been creating work together for the past couple of years. This piece that’s being performed [at MusicNOW] is a work that deals with a particular region in Norway called Stavanger. These pieces we make are set-specific works. So they use either raw landscape or architecture as a backdrop or theme. With this piece, Mariam and Erin mapped, in a very abstract and stream-of-consciousness way, the timeline of this particular region in Norway, starting from the time of the Vikings to present day. The area today is very much an oil town. Those are the two bookends of the piece. Movement is used as a narrative form to tell a story of some kind. The score is a choral work, and it’s an omnipresent cloud that hangs over the entire film from start to finish.
SA: So this is the first time that this piece has ever been presented in a concert setting?
SA: Can you talk about the process of turning this piece from an interdisciplinary project into something that exists as a concert presentation, and how it’s changed, and the things you’ve done to the work?
QN: Sure. Originally, I wanted to make a work that was complex, but that could also be performed by a singer at any level of their development. So the original version of the piece has no written music. All of the parts were written on a synthesizer, and then I exported each vocal line. Rather than giving the singers parts, I gave them mp3s of their digital reflection, their synthesized tones. For the recording, all of the singers had headphones on, live, with the group, and I just went “1, 2, 3,” and on “3,” everyone pressed play on their smartphone, and they followed their tones through listening — without written music. So that was kind of an interesting approach, and it also enabled me to do a lot of things with tuning and with the synth parts — microtonal tuning and interesting unison glissandos and things like that.
When you have a sonic reference, something to sing along to, you can almost do the impossible. You could give this piece to a group of 80-year-old amateur singers, and they could perform it and make something interesting out of it. That was the original version of the piece.
To go back for a second: The conductor has an interesting role in the shaping of the music. When we first recorded the piece, I was basically conducting the ensemble, and I came up with rudimentary hand gestures that give shape to the spoken tones, so things like controlling the shape of the mouth: fully open to fully closed; doing things with dynamics and rate of speech, like how fast or how slowly the singers are singing. These basic things that can be written into a part, but instead, because there’s no part, the conductor is using cues to give the piece a flow and dynamism.
SA: You are the drummer in a really incredible group, Dawn of Midi. Can you talk a little bit about your life as a performer and improviser, and if that affects your composing, or if these things are two completely compartmentalized processes?
QN: The music we play in Dawn of Midi is very exact and crystalline. There can be no margin of error — otherwise the music will fall apart. The music I create outside of that is in many ways the exact opposite. I’ve always been a fan of unpredictable and dynamic changes in music, and lately a lot of the music I write has the idea that the music is a little bit different from performance to performance. There’s an aspect of homemade graphic notation that is weaved into conventionally notated material to create those moments where the music is at times clear, and then goes out of phase, and then back into its “normal” state.
SA: If there’s one thing in this piece that you suggest that someone listen for, what would that be? Or do you not want to get in the way of the listening process?
QN: I would ask anyone to go into it with little to no expectation whatsoever — to have a transportive but personal experience outside of any kind of context or pre-discussion.
SA: The last question I have is about the text of the piece, which is unintelligible for the most part. The first thing that comes to mind when I hear this music is vocal works by, like, Lux Aeterna. Can you talk about the text that you used, how it drives the piece, and how you decided to set it?
QN: Sure. With the titles of the pieces and the text, I was sort of lost. I didn’t know what to draw from or what to use. Mariam actually — I just found this out a few months ago — the text of Fjoloy is a poem that she made herself. And for some reason I thought it was from a poet laureate in Norway, but it was something she cobbled together based on her time in Norway, which she spent learning the language.
The meaning of the text and the intelligible nature of it is less important with the work. With all of [the pieces], the singers basically read from this one poem. They can do whatever they want with the text; they can read half a word, they can read fragments of sentences, they can read things backward or in whichever way that feels right to them, based on this format of having no written music and listening to it on headphones.
SA: So do you have to be able to read Norwegian?
QN: You can do whatever you want, but pay attention to the conductor, because that’s the main thing. I welcome people’s different pronunciations of the text. I’m not a stickler about authenticity. Pronounce it however you want. I had a conversation with [conductor] Donald Nally a few weeks ago, and he said, “Have you every thought about translating it into English, so that it would make more sense to the audience?” and I said no. Because when you read a language that you’re unfamiliar with and go for it phonetically, it creates interesting sonic artifacts. Especially when you have 20 to 26 singers who are all attempting to do that — you get an interesting buzz of consonants and vowels.
SA: The requirement of not being a native speaker has real importance.
QN: Yes, it has an advantage. I’m interested to see how they pronounce it and how they do. It’s very exciting.
TOP: A photo snapped by Qasim Naqvi during the recording sessions for Fjoloy in 2014 and posted on social media.