The Inaugural Lecture will be followed by a reception (19.00-19.30) and a concert of chamber music (including two premieres) by the Lontano ensemble (19.30-20.30).
Musings and reminiscences on the mysteries of composing music: forewords and postscripts
Two gates the silent house of Sleep adorn;
Of polish'd ivory this, that of transparent horn:
True visions thro' transparent horn arise;
Thro' polish'd ivory pass deluding lies.
(Aeneid, trans. J. Dryden)
As I search for a way to describe my compositional approach over the past decade, the word ‘reverie’ leaps to my mind, not in the sense of daydreaming, but of stumbling upon musical gestures or sonorities that by force of their evocative power seem like inviting windows. While peering through such windows they often turn into ‘gates’ that eventually vanish as I find myself inhabiting a world of very precise yet unfathomable musical characteristics, a world with its own sort of ‘modality’. So what distinguishes this from daydreaming? For Jorge Luis Borges 'literature is naught but guided dreaming, anyway'. The crucial difference is that there is a ‘work’ aspect, an investment of labour, involved both in the shaping of a composition and in the listener’s engagement with a piece of music. It is an energy exchange comparable to being in love, in the sense that it places a demand on the totality of our being. Composing obeys the ebb and flow of desire; it involves pain, pleasure, bliss, ecstasy, plenitude, aggression, passion, fire, vertigo ...
All human work is transitory, small, in itself contemptible; only the worker thereof and the spirit that dwelt in him is significant.
(Thomas Carlyle, Reminiscences)
Brahms is reported to have said that that every time he faced difficult problems he would consult a work of Bach and one of Beethoven to explore how they had handled a similar problem. Schoenberg remarked – a propos of his modelling of the First String Quartet on Beethoven's Eroica Symphony – that 'of course the model was not copied mechanically, but its mental essence was applied accordingly'.
My talk will explore the personal leap of faith involved in such acts of 'metamorphosis' in the context of a classical musical language in a state of crisis and dissolution.
Silvina Milstein was born in Buenos Aires in 1956 and emigrated to Britain after the Argentinian military coup of 1976. At Glasgow University her composition teachers were Judith Weir and Lyell Cresswell, and at Cambridge University she worked with Alexander Goehr. In the late eighties she held fellowships at Jesus College and King's College (Cambridge), and is currently a professor of music at King's College London.
Over the past ten years she has explored musical forms arising from heightened states of awareness, borrowing from a wealth of artistic media and spiritual traditions. These preoccupations are evident in her recent works for the London Sinfonietta, Tigres azules being an investigation of the compositional potential of treating the ‘present moment as an infinite dream’, and surrounded by distance… an exploration of the indefinable, yet seemingly precise manner in which musical shapes and configurations arise spontaneously as evocative appearances and illusory continuities as described in the Lankatavara Sutra.
Silvina Milstein’s music is many-layered and complex, but alluring – its colours multifarious, its ideas built from rich melodic and harmonic palettes.
(Stephen Pettitt, The Sunday Times)
Milstein loves fantastical poetic imagery and the music is saturated with them: blue tigers, Hindu temples, the ‘lavender light’ in Van Gogh’s paintings. … turbulent, hesitantly ecstatic pieces.
(Ivan Hewett, BBC Music Magazine)
An important strand in Silvina Milstein’s music is the use of evocative gestures that draw from the vernacular of Buenos Aires, which she evolved in music of the city (1995) and a media luz (2000), as a means of furnishing a composition with a sense of modality. These pieces are like kaleidoscopic collages made out of evocative fragments of characteristic rhythms, turns-of-phrases’, and sonorities from Argentinean popular music (tango, milonga, bolero), embodied in textures inspired by the music of the Second Viennese School.
Her music has been played by some of the world’s leading orchestras, ensembles and performers in Britain and abroad, such as the Ensemble Modern (Frankfurt), the London Sinfonietta, Lontano, the BBC Singers, the Endellion String Quartet, and Jane Manning. Her compositions have been championed by the conductors Oliver Knussen and Odaline de la Martinez, who have been instrumental in the commissioning of many of her compositions.
Although the main focus of her work for the last two decades has been in composition, there is much overlap between Silvina Milstein's analytical work and compositional thinking. Her main area of expertise is the music of Arnold Schoenberg. Inn Arnold Schoenberg: notes, sets, forms (Cambridge University Press), she proposes a hypothetical reconstruction of Schoenberg's conception of compositional process in his twelve-tone music. More recently she has been exploring the notions of time and form that emerged in the music of Schoenberg between 1909 and 1930, focusing on the concurrence of Schoenberg's radical experiments in these areas with ideas favoured in psychoanalytical and mystical circles at the turn-of-the century.
Image: Wen Boren, Spring Dawn at the Elixir Terrace - (C) National Palace Museum, Taipei and Réunion de musées nationaux, Paris 2010
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