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Martin Smolka: a microsentimental composer.

"Wherever I mention that I use quarter-tones, sooner or later someone brings up the name of Haba. But I came to microintervals as part of the common equipment of post-war New Music and didn't concern myself much with Haba". We would be hard put to it to find any other composer in contemporary Czech music who has focused as systematically, conspicuously and successfully on the use of microtones as Martin Smolka (*1959). The basic idea behind his approach to microtones is in fact relatively simple and in itself not so uncommon. Smolka does not introduce "new tones" into the tempered system, but just "detunes" intervals as a means of emotional expression.


Martin Smolka appeared on the Czech music scene in the Eighties, when together with the composer Miroslav Pudlak he founded the Agon ensemble. Later the composer and conductor Petr Kofron joined the group and Agon soon became the most important ensemble for contemporary music in Czechoslovakia. Not only did long-term co-operation in Agon provide the composers with a platform for performance of their work and for experimentation, but Agon also functioned as (almost the only in Czechoslovakia) mediator of the repertoire of world avant-garde music. Somewhere at the beginning of Smolka's career as a composer we can find, to a greater or lesser extent, the influence of essentially all the important movements and aesthetics of post-war music. In general, the 1980s were a time when the earlier fierce "irreconcilability" of "opposite" movements was a thing of the past, and this was doubly true in communist Czechoslovakia. In the suffocating atmosphere of the hegemony of the officially privileged pseudo-modern music, which fumbled about somewhere between Vitezslav Novak and Shostakovich, practically any kind of music outside this circle was the object of attention and authentic interest, and all the more so because it was not an easy matter to get recordings or printed scores and there was no danger of "saturation". In Smolka's music (as in the music of many of his contemporaries), we have generally little difficulty in identifying the influences of Post-Webernism, Minimalism, American experimental music (above all M. Feldman) and the Polish School. The latter was itself essentially a synthesising and borrowing phenomenon and especially in its later period eclectic. Added to this we find an interest in "across the board" tendencies to experiment with natural tuning and a "flexible" concept of the pitch, especially in the music of Harry Partch and Giacinto Scelsi; for Smolka's development, however, this tuning systems were less fundamental than certain expressive techniques and idioms that are peculiar to the music of this circle. (As he himself says, his use of microtones is not based on any theoretical system).


All these influences never entirely disappeared from the work of Martin Smolka and at different periods they have been more or less evident, but much more often as abstracted principles rather than adopted mannerisms. Smolka's music is original and in no sense plagiaristic or derivative (at the very least from the end of the 1980s). What then makes "Smolka Smolka"?

For Smolka what is characteristic is the typically European strategy of basing musical structure on contrast, i.e. de facto thinking in the "sonata" categories of first subject--second subject: slow--fast, merry--sad, thunderingly--softly and so on. Smolka's pieces are almost regularly built out of internally homogenous form segments, of which there may for example be only two in the whole composition or in which on the contrary many contrasting segments may follow in very quick succession, in extreme cases even in bar after bar. Development techniques are usually suppressed, seams between the form segments acknowledged, and the basic principle is repetition. These attributes make Smolka's music accessible for audiences, since the structure and direction of his compositions is apparent on a first listen and thanks to the high level of redundancy (everything usually comes back several times), the listener can take in the music sufficiently without needing to hear a piece again. Of course, with music of this kind there is always a risk that the music will not bear further listening at all and the composer will be shown up as a mere purveyor of routine, but Smolka generally manages to come up with fresh ideas that balance the rather schematic treatment.

Martin Smolka is a composer of innovation and experiment, whose "discoveries" are mostly related to the exploitation of bizarre sources of sound (very undertuned strings, old gramophones, non-standard percussion instruments and so forth) and (to return to our central theme) the possibilities offered by microtones. It is nonetheless true that all his innovations and experimentation virtually always take place in the framework of the method described above for the "securely" structured form and are essentially systematically subordinated to the goal of finding new ways of projecting expressive contrast. Smolka's music is practically never emotionally neutral, and two basic modes are typical here (the reader will I hope forgive me the cheap metaphors): 1) crackling exuberant merriment, musical box tunes and the sounds of the junk shop, typical noises of civilisation, folk or brass band, if possible playing off key, and 2) wistful memories, painful longing, the echo of the sounds of mode 1, nostalgia. In this context perhaps we could say that Smolka the composer is not very interested in undirected "pure research"; what Smolka is looking for is for yet more ways of getting himself and the listener into the desired mood, to brighten up or to move. This also applies to pieces that involve stylisation of sounds heard in the real world. Especially at the beginning of the 1990s Smolka focused on the timbre aspects of music, and he talks about some pieces as "sound photographs" (for example L'Orch pour l'Orch of 1992 is partly a "portrait" of a shunting yard); despite Smolka's fascination with some real sounds (locomotive brakes, ship sirens and so on), however, they are selected through the prism of expressive charge, and stylised in a particular emotional direction.

In his use of microtones, we see the same basic pragmatism and subordination of technique to goal that we noted in relation to his preferred mode of structuring pieces and choice of musical elements (and the direction of his "research" as a composer) on the basis of emotional potential. The main feature of Smolka's approach to micro-intervals is its economy--deviations from standard tuning (and so deviations from established performance practice) are justified only when they are prominent and immediately recognisable to the ear, and this happens if they carry some expressive, emotional charge. On his sources of inspiration, Smolka explains that: "My most important starting point was concrete sound experience, and I started with experiments aiming to mimic the sounds of nature and civilisation. And then I found out that many of my early musical fascinations were caused by microtonal mis-tunings, often unwanted and unregistered. For example I was charmed by the interference of some piano chord and didn't know that it was caused by the poor tuning of a neglected instrument, or I was spellbound by the emotional power of a blues singer and didn't realise that he was actually tugging at my ears (and soul) with notes just under pitch. In jazz orchestra recordings of the 1920s pretty well all the wind instruments have a sliding wail--the longer notes start under pitch and are then gradually tuned up to it. Or the singers of blues, spirituals and gospels--they sing mainly the notes of the accompanying harmony with its thirds, fifths and sevenths pitched just under the tone and then tuned up, or sometimes not tuned right up as the note is held. Chords that are rendered slightly out of tine in a similar way, whether exposed harmonically or in melody, can be found in recordings of Central European folk music where this music has been handed down from generation to generation uncontaminated by music from the media (does this perhaps count as at least one attitude in common with Alois Haba's folklore inspirations? Author's note). This kind of gural music could sometimes accompany a whole song with a tonic in which the major third was hopelessly flat and was flat for the whole piece! I believe that there is a wonderful expressive power in these natural microtonal situations. In these out-of-key thirds I feel pain, bitterness, weeping and unfulfilled longing." The key principle behind Smolka's treatment of microtones is therefore the out of tune and "detuning" of this kind always retains its link to the "in tune". It is only possible if the reference point of the properly tuned is immediately present. For Smolka, therefore, it is not "new notes" that are important (i.e. tones as independent steps expanding the number of tones in standard tuning), but out-of-tune intervals, and this is the direction that Smolka takes in his actual strategies as a composer. (Here we might point out a distant analogy with J.M. Hauer's approach to twelve-tone music: for Hauer the starting point was not the 12 chromatic tones, but the 12 intervals.)

Detuned thirds (or sixths) and octaves (or unison) appear to be by far the most effective elements in terms of expressive possibilities and immediate recognition by the ear. The great majority of Smolka's microtones fall precisely into this category. When he alters other intervals (for example fifths) microtonally, he usually does so in the framework of common chords and a reference tone creating a third (sixth) with the altered tone or a prime (octave) is usually close by. Especially Smolka's more recent pieces (ca from 1998) strikingly draw on the expressive possibilities of traditional melodic phrases and harmonic progressions, but microtonally deformed: "In the choral piece Walden, the Distiller of Celestial Dews, in the 3rd part called Indians I exposed a B Minor triad in several. quarter-tone alterations. It was like illuminating one object with various different spotlights. Here detuning the common chord served as an expression of pain in line with the text, the passage in Thoreau where he describes how the Jesuits tortured the Indians who didn't want to give up their faith, but the Indians still expressed unparalleled love for their enemy and forgiveness. The melody that appears between the detuned common chords and interacts with them towards the end as they tend to rise, finally opens out into tempered B Major, which has a radiance that represents the Indian forgiveness.

From the point of view of classical harmony we have a remarkable paradox here. Throughout the piece there is a triad, but we are liberated from its quarter-tone tension by chords of four or more notes--the special radiance of the quiet B Major is enhanced by an added second, sixth, seventh and even a fourth. (Just for the sake of completeness--as even higher purging comes at the end with a two-note motif from the soprano, which turns into E through the ordinary cadence progression V-VIII." "Our ears are so accustomed to tempered tuning that they react to detuned intervals with a desire to put them right, to get to proper tuning--the detuned tones then function like the leading notes in classical-romantic harmony. In the orchestral composition Remix, Redream, Reflight a pathetic string unisono dominates. Here quarter-tones play the role of the leading notes, and in an exemplary, direct way. The ascending modal melody has a simple, predictable structure and so every inserted quarter-tone massively gravitates towards the neighbouring step of the given mode." (see example)


(Another typical Smolka's technique is the stepped filling of a narrow interval such as a second with microtones ascending or descending, which creates the impression of a hesitant glissando trying to hold itself back.) While his alterations are usually quarter-tonal, Smolka also quite often uses sixth-tone alterations (for example in the Three Pieces for Retuned Orchestra the instrumental sections of the orchestra are divided into sub groups that are detuned by a sixth in relation to each other), but much less often eighth-tones or even tenth-tones (on ordinary instruments these can only be played very approximately). Obviously the intonation of quarter- and sixth-tones is not usually entirely precise, which normally adds to the interest of the sound result (one of the reasons why Alois Haba was not entirely successful in his microtonal efforts was evidently the unnaturalness of "tempered" quarter-tones and so on.). For example, in places where a unison is prescribed, the imprecision can lead to slight deviations from pitch and so a characteristic roughening of the timbre; quarter- and sixth-tone fingerings in woodwinds have the same timbre effect.

See also


Born 1959 in Prague, Czech Republic. Studied composition at the Prague Academy of Performing Arts (with J. Pauer, C. Kohoutek), but found private studies with Marek Kopelent more important.


His work ahs won him recognition both at home and abroad. He has written commissioned piecezmble, ensemble 2e2m, Arditti Quartet, Neue Vokalsolisten Stuttgart and others) and his works have been chosen for performance at other important festivals (ISCM World Music Days, Hoergaenge, Tage Neue Musik Stuttgart, Klang-Aktionen Munich etc.). Very successful was his opera Nagano, staged in the National Theatre in Prague in 2004.

In 1983 he co-founded Agon, a group specializing in contemporary unconventional music in which he worked as artistic director and pianist until 1998. In the course of Agon projects he has also carried out research (quarter-tone music by the pupils of Alois Haba, the 1960s music in Prague etc.), and the realization of graphic scores and conceptual music (the works by John Cage, Cornelius Cardew, Daniel Goode and Milan Grygar).

He co-authored the book Graphic Scores and Concepts.

Recently he has been teaching composition at Janacek Academy of Performing Arts in Brno. Since 2000 his new works have been published by Breitkopf & Hartel.

Selection of works:

Music Sweet Music (1985/88) for ensemble and soprano

Music for Retuned Instruments (1988) for ensemble

Ringing (1989) for percussion solo

The Flying Dog (1990/92) for ensemble

L'Orch pour l'orch (1990) for orchestra

Rain, a Window, Roofs, Chimneys, Pigeons and so ... and Railway-Bridges, too (1992) for large ensemble

Rent a Ricercar (1993/95) for ensemble

Trzy motywy pastoralne (Three pastoral motifs) (1993) for tape

Euforium (1996) for 4 instruments or ensemble

Three pieces for retuned orchestra (1996)

Lullaby (1996-7) for trombone, guitar and ensemble

8 pieces for guitar quartet (1998)

Autumn Thoughts (1998) for ensemble

Lieder ohne Worte und Passacaglia (1999) for ensemble

Blue Note (2000) for percussion duo

Walden, the Distiller of Celestial Dews (2000), text H. D. Thoreau, for mixed choir and percussion

Remix, Redream, Reflight (2000) for orchestra

Houby a nebe (Mushrooms and Heaven) (2000), Czech text P.P. Fiala, for non-opera alto and one or two string quartets

Geigenlieder (2001), German texts Chr. Morgenstern, B. Brecht for violinist-narrator and ensemble

Nagano (2001-3), opera in 3 acts, libretto J. Dusek, M. Smolka

Observing the Clouds (2001/3) for (youth) orchestra and 3 conductors

Missa (2002) for vocal quartet and string quartet

Tesknice (Nostalgia) (2003/4) for chamber orchestra


Music Sweet Music -- CD AGON, Arta Records, Prague 1991

Music for Retuned Instruments, 2 CD Wittener Tage fur neue Kammermusik 1991, WDR Koln, 1991

Rain, a Window, Roofs, Chimneys, Pigeons and so ... and Railway-Bridges, too -- 3CD Donaueschinger Musiktage 1992, col legno/SWF Baden-Baden, Munich, 1993

A v sadech koralu, jez slabe zruzovely for solo voice, 1987 -- CD Na prahu svetla, Happy Music, Prague 1996

Rent a Ricercar, Flying Dog, For Woody Allen, Nocturne -- 2 CD AGON ORCHESTRA--The Red and Black, audio ego/Society for New Music, Prague, 1998

Euforium, Music for Retuned Instruments, Ringing, Rain, a Window, Roofs, Chimneys, Pigeons and so ... and Railway-Bridges, too audio ego/ Society for New Music, Prague, 1999

Walden, the Distiller of Celestial Dews -- 4 CD Donaueschinger Musiktage 2000, col legno/SWF Baden-Baden, Munich, 2001





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Author:Bakla, Petr
Publication:Czech Music
Geographic Code:4EXCZ
Date:Jul 1, 2005
Previous Article:The Haba "school".
Next Article:Alois Haba (21st June 1893-18th November 1973): between tradition and innovation.

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