From the heroic to the super-heroic

From the heroic to the super-heroic

Interview between Juliana Hodkinson and horn player Mercé Bosch Sanfélix:

MBS: All my friends really are superheroes for solo horn and electronics was commissioned by Samuel Stoll, How did this collaboration begin? Did you work together in order to find the “right” sounds and effects?

JH: I met Samuel Stoll through Ensemble KNM and Zinc & Copper Works, and he asked me for a piece for his solo programme. It was obvious to me that I must draw on his individual artistic approach to performance – in the past, he has expanded his horn practice to include all kinds of pipes, the use of his voice, costume and staging his body, and I was very inspired by some videos of his earlier solo and duo performances. Lots of growling and primitivistic overtly manly gestures, within an absurdist satirical aesthethic. At the same time, my new piece for him should be short and should function with a diverse programme of short pieces, so it should not demand any radical changes of scene, space or costume. I decided, then, that I would extend the horn just sonically – so, with foot-pedal triggers for samples and pitch-shift, and the use of a lot of energetic air-noises. I thought about the cultural history of the horn as being not only a hunting and signalling instrument but also having heroic connotations, and it seemed that the modern playful update on this would be something to do with superheroes; my son was just at the age when he often imitated all those special film-sound effects of superheroes flying around and doing imposible things while he was playing with Lego minifigures or Bionicles. This all seemed like a good pretext for a super-heroic horn solo. We had an improv session, Samuel played sounds that we recorded, and 4 or 5 of them (high, squealing noises) became the samples for the piece; the rest of the samples I made from other sources. When I had sketched the piece, we had another session; I hadn’t fixed the title, and I asked Samuel if he had any suggestions. He gave me a book from his shelf: Andrew Kaufman’s short, brisk and funny novella All my friends are superheroes. As I was writing my piece, I imagined that this is really Samuel’s piece, made for him specially, but later, when I heard another horn-player perform it, I realised that each person brings their own aspects to the interpretation and expression of these air-sounds. When Joke Wijma, from Esbjerg Ensemble, played the piece, it became a kind of power-Frau piece, she brought a different voice to both the low growls and the higher squealing sounds, making them sing and flow more, as opposed to Samuel’s exploration of the non-sequiturs and discontinuities, and Joke Wijma’s interpretation also worked great, as a total contrast to Samuel Stoll’s.

MBS: Was it your first piece for solo horn? Are there any effects or sounds that turned out to be more interesting (or unexpectedly interesting) played on the horn? (for example, slap tongue, bell percussion…)

JH: Yes, it was the first time I really wrote for horn (apart from in orchestral or larger ensemble contexts). During the same period, I developed a trio for horn, trombone and tuba (for Zinc & Copper Works, where Samuel was playing at the time), so the two pieces were in a way part of the same exploration of brass instruments. I was captured by the high squealing sounds that the horn could make, under high lip pressure, and also the power of the air-sounds possible, and the extent to which these air-sounds could be compressed, released, pitched and modulated.

MBS: If we compare the horn and electronics repertoire list to the ones of other instruments, ours is, with difference, little. In your opinion, is there not enough interest to develope this field? In this case, could be that many composers are not enough aware of horn possibilities on this field, or could it also be that not many horn player are interested on learning and playing this music?

JH: I don’t know whose fault it is, but as a composer I can just say that I was guilty of seeing the horn as a limited instrument. Its role in orchestral or film music is often to signal heroic modes, without actually being a hero; the horn doesn’t often get sustained solos - just an occasional short melody with heroic leaps that disappears after a few phrases. Played conventionally, the horn looks so staid and ‘inactive’, compared with other more eye-catching instruments like trombone and trumpet, where there is more motoric action to see. But now there are quite a few great soloists who perform in a more physical or dramatic way on the horn, so that an audience can see gesturally what is going on – I guess it’s all about dramatizing the position and use of the bell and lips.

MBS: Do you think that scenography plays a role in the understanding of the piece and how the audience enjoys music? Could we speak nowadays of music as a multidisciplinary art?

JH: For me, the concrete situation in which performers and audiences create live performances together is the whole point of making music. So, yes, the position of the player and the way she or he is lit, also the bodily posture and expression, costume, hair, facial composure, all these things communicate powerful signals concerning ‘the music’, whether one intends it or not. The most common costume in contemporary music, for example, is washed-out once-black jeans – many performers think this is ‘neutral’, but I find it tells just as much of a story as a ballet tutu. Many of the musicians I work closely with, like Samuel Stoll, are drawn to working in visual-arts contexts. I’m a big fan of taking musical performance out of the concert space – but also in that case, the placing of performance and its presentation at all levels has to be regarded as a professional scenographic decision. Every street-busker knows that it’s important to choose where and how you stand. Is music a multidisciplinary art? I am not very good at thinking of any art as a single discipline, so it would follow if I say that more or less all art is by nature interdisciplinary – when we listen, we do not lose our other sensory-motoric faculties. I don’t think along the lines of autonomous music, absolute music, I’m not a fan of genre divisions.

Interview with Mercé Bosch Sanfëlix
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