Music For Writers: Agata Zubel ‘On Both Sides’

Image of Agata Zubel by Tomasz Kulak, used by permission of the Polish Cultural Institute
Image of Agata Zubel by Tomasz Kulak, used by permission of the Polish Cultural Institute

‘The Most Beautiful Place Where The Two Professions Meet’

In earlier #MusicForWriters columns here, I’ve mentioned how many of our contemporary composers are also performers. Caleb Burhans, a composer and multi-instrumentalist, is one. His Excelsior is one of the works in our series.

As the notes from Kairos Music on Agata Zubel’s new release, however, point out, the composer-vocalist is even rarer than the composer-musician.

And what the Polish composer-soprano Zubel is doing is rarer still. In an interview facilitated for me by the Polish Culture Institute, Zubel tells me:

It’s a fantastic situation that I can be both composer and performer. My understanding of the music is much better when I can be “on both sides.”

Q2 Music’s Album of the Week presentation of her new Kairos album release Not I included a limmited time in which listeners could hear the entire album on the SoundCloud account of Q2 Music, the 24-hour international contemporary-classical service of New York Public Radio.

While normally I recommend that you listen to an album’s tracks in the order in which they’re presented — the artists know what they want, in terms of your experience — I made a departure and recommended starting with the title track, Not I.

There are a couple of reasons for this.

First, of all the music we’ve encountered so far in #MusicForWriters, this is the  most challenging to those who aren’t accustomed to the more experimental sounds of modern composition. Atonal, at times purposely chaotic-sounding, erratic in rhythm and texture, Zubel’s work is fully “out there.” This is, in fact, its value for a writer. But it’s also the challenge. Put another way, you won’t be humming this work after you hear it.

Image of Agata Zubel by Tomasz Kulak, used by permission of the Polish Cultural Institute
Image of Agata Zubel by Tomasz Kulak, used by permission of the Polish Cultural Institute

Not I is among Zubel’s most acclaimed works. And it’s based on the work of one of our greatest icons of the written word, Samuel Beckett. His short dramatic monologue of the same title — in which you see only the mouth of a female performer — was premiered at Lincoln Center in New York in 1972 and first published in London by Faber and Faber the following year. (It would have its London performance debut that year, as well.)

As Beckett’s directions instruct, the speaking character, called simply MOUTH, appears lit from below on a dark stage, about eight feet above the floorboards.

And as you listen to Zubel’s stunning interpretation of this work you do hear — in a breathy, halting, almost pained spasmodic delivery — those darkly moving opening phrases:

out…into this world…this world…tiny little thing…before tis time…in a godfor-…what?…girl?…yes…tiny little girl…into this…out into this…before her time…godforsaken hole called…called…no matter…parents unknown…unheard of…he having vanished…thin air…no sooner buttoned up his breeches…

With conductor Clement Power and the formidably controlled ensemble Klangforum Wein, Zubel starts her work in a near-silent soundscape that will swiftly become whiplash-busy, piano, woodwinds and percussion climbing and descending fast peaks of musical action.

At the center is Zubel’s remarkable performance. She renders the lyrics a fabulous, breathless tour of chatty despair, a feat of delivery that Jeffrey Zeigler, writing up the work for Q2 Music, is correct to call “nothing short of masterful.” Note that this is exceedingly high praise, coming from one of the most accomplished musicians working today — Zeigler is the gifted former cellist of the Kronos Quartet, an Avery Fisher Prize-winner in his own right.

Zubel took the coveted UNESCO International Composers’ Rostrum Award in May 2013 for her 2010 Not I. In fact, when I ask her which of the works on this album is most important to her personally, she quickly names this one “because it has given me lots of very nice surprises” — not just the UNESCO prize but also this year’s Polonica Nova Prize.

She tells me that her connection to Beckett’s text is just as visceral as it sounds when she works it onstage:

I like Beckett very much. I feel the musical thinking in his texts very strongly, it’s inspiring for me. He’s exploring not only words but also form, structure.

And for writers, what she delivers here is a kind of emotional translation, something far beyond the accented colors of her handling of English. It’s a lesson in itself to hear her glide downward on a beam of vibrato into a vast phrase from the playwright — always winter some strange reason…stare at her uncomprehending… — and then natter away with furious intensity — …dragging up the past…flashes from all over…

You’ll wish Beckett could have heard this. And you’ll be glad you did.

There’s more: Read the full story at Thought Catalog

By Porter Ander­son | @Porter_Anderson

Writing on the Ether: Music for Writers: Agata Zubel ‘On Both Sides’

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