06 December 2010

Interview with Ivan Moody

This is the thirty-seventh interview in the “Where are we now?” series. Please take a moment to peruse the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series. Although this series is focusing specifically on the arts in North America, I couldn’t resist the chance to interview the amazing European composer Ivan Moody. He does comment somewhat on his view of North American arts throughout his answers, and provides a good comparison to what others have said in this series so far. Enjoy.

Interview with Ivan Moody, composer
Via email
29 September and 19 October 2010

IA: Please tell us about yourself. In what media do you create or perform? Do you also teach? Are you also a student? Please talk about yourself as an “artist,” student of the arts, and teacher of the arts.

IM: I am a composer, a conductor and a priest of the Orthodox Church. Of these three activities, I have been a composer the longest – I knew when I was 13 years old that I was to be a composer, and so resolved to study music at university instead of languages, which had been my intention until then. I write music for “conventional” means, that is to say, voices and instruments, rather than electronics, but that is partly happenstance. If I were asked to write a piece involving electronics I would jump at the opportunity.

One of the things that fascinated me when I was studying for my first degree (at Royal Holloway College, University of London) was early music. Like all the other composers, I was eagerly attentive to what was going on in contemporary music, but early music, specifically renaissance music, was just as interesting to me – I was quite as excited at discovering a new recording of an Ockeghem Mass as I was at hearing a new work by Ligeti. Interestingly, nearly all the composers already at RHC were minimalists, or “alternative” composers of some kind: I had been an adept of Boulezian orthodoxy up till that point, and the only minimalist piece I had heard (thanks to the extraordinary broad-mindedness of BBC Radio 3 at that time) was Philip Glass's North Star. So all these people immersed in minimalism were rather a shock to me, though I must also point out that the music I was writing at the time was only trying (and failing) to be like Boulez – I was much more interested in Benjamin Britten, as my many songs from that period show unequivocally!

I came to a still point as a result of this, and my study of early music fed directly into my creative work. In part this was because I wanted to write music of spiritual import (not what is today often described as “spiritual music”!), and had not found a way to do that within the compositional framework to which I had been used until that point; but it was also technical. I began conducting vocal ensembles in concerts of Tallis, Sheppard and so on (in fact, the first professional choir I directed arose from a student group at RHC), but there was also the enormous stimulus of David Hiley, currently professor at the University of Regensburg. In the same year, I took the “Music since 1945” course and “Music before 1300”! The latter was taught by Dr Hiley, and I was the only pupil... Such a thing is unimaginable these days, but I had a whole year to benefit exclusively from his vast knowledge of the entire repertoire of western chant and early polyphony.

At the same time, I began private composition lessons with John Tavener. I had done the first year of composition with Brian Dennis at RHC, and while I admired him very much as a composer – his chamber opera Matsukaze is extraordinary, and his work deserves to be much better known – it was quite clear that our interests were so divergent that there was no point in doing the second year. So I wrote to John Tavener, whose music had impressed me greatly, and sent him some scores. He agreed to take me as a private pupil, and so began a series of informal “lessons” which were more frequently discussions of religious belief, the decadent state of the West, or which were the best dishes to order in a Cretan village! The thing about this period was that Tavener showed me how to make my music much slimmer, not to use so much “impasto”, to throw notes out. I found that I could say more with less. And of course, he was one of the few composers in England at the time seriously interested in writing sacred music.

Everything came together, and I also began conducting his music with my choir – he was not that much performed at the time; nothing like the success of recent years – as well as other Orthodox repertoire, and that was as much a learning experience for me as composition lessons. Then when I left university I worked as much with early as with contemporary music. My doctorate is in composition, however – I did that at York University, which I chose specifically because the American composer William Brooks was teaching there. I'd admired his work since hearing his Madrigals at the BBC Proms while I was still at school, and I realized that he had, amongst other things, an enormous understanding of the human voice, as well as a stylistic vocabulary totally different from my own. This coincided with a period of change in my music – a “re-enrichment” if you like – and I felt that this kind of objective, outside approach was just what I needed.

But the thing that really influenced me more than anything else was performing, once as a double bass player at school and once as a singer at RHC, Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms. That work brought together everything that fascinated me, and was an expression of glory to God. The transcendent final movement, that stasis-in-motion, a kind of inverted musical geometry, like an icon, is something I have tried to attain in practically every piece I have written.

I also took a diploma in Orthodox theology at the University of Joensuu in Finland, with which I have many links, and in 2007 was ordained priest. I'd been singing in Orthodox choirs, and chanting in the Greek parish in Lisbon, for years and years beforehand. Again, the threads seemed to come together.

I teach on an irregular basis; over the years I have head many private composition pupils, and I much enjoy teaching composition; but I have also given seminars in various universities and colleges around the world, not only on composition but on various of my musicological interests. I am also currently a Research Fellow of the CESEM research team at the Universidade Nova in Lisbon.

IA: What topics tend to recur in your work?

IM: I have said elsewhere that the most important thing in history, and therefore what I deal with in my music, is the Resurrection of Christ. This statement tends to shock people at first, especially if they are not themselves believers, but the truth is that my entire philosophy of life is founded on that one fact. How could it not be reflected in my music? Of course, not every work is specifically about that theme, but in apparently “abstract” instrumental works, I aim at a sense of transcendence, of transformation, that is absolutely linked to that idea, to the divine manifesting itself in mankind. Of course, listeners do not need to know this information – the music must stand absolutely by itself.

So there are sub-topics: transfiguration, regeneration, transcendence. There are celebrations, notably recently of birds – my piano concerto Linnunlaulu, which arose from hearing an antiphonal dawn chorus during a white night in Finland, Zefiro con Uccelli, The Bird of Dawning – or references more generally to both Southern and Northern cultures (Pipistrello, Serbian Doves, Arktos, Moons and Suns). But in all of them a sense of transcendence, of being transformed.

IA: What specific techniques do you use?

IM: Long melodic structures, micro-variation, heterophony, chordal superimposition, drones or pedal points, elaborate melodic decoration.

IA: Do you think these topics, techniques, and theories are typical of those working in your genre?

IM: Yes and no. I am not sure what my “genre” is. But I feel many points in common with the so-called “holy minimalists” Tavener, Pärt and Górecki, also with James MacMillan, Sofia Gubaidulina, John Adams, Peter Sculthorpe and others. I am absolutely sure that these topics are common to the first four of these.

IA: Do you think of yourself as belonging to any particular ‘school’ or ‘movement’?

IM: No, though I am sure I must have been labelled by somebody somewhere.

IA: What do you know about the current state of the arts? Please talk specifically about individual musicians/painters/writers/etc. whom you know (or whose work you know), their topics/techniques/theories, and in general about your sense of North American arts right now.

IM: I follow what is happening in the arts (particularly music and painting) with a great deal of interest. I am particularly interested at present in what is happening in the Balkans, in Russia and in Finland and Estonia. This has to do with my interest in what has happened in countries with an Orthodox heritage, and how various manifestations of modernism(s), as well as their distance from what have traditionally been perceived to be the “centres” have defined their cultural discourses.

But on a more personally creative level, I tend to seek out the latest music by composers such as Rautavaara, Lindberg, Pärt, Tüür, Gubaidulina or Adams, whose trajectories have been to one side of that “centre” (and by this I do not just mean the European centre, but any centre – though he is in many senses an establishment figure now, the music of John Adams has come to be what it is very much apart from any conventional route), as well as composers in countries such as Greece and Serbia. In many of the composers who interest me there is a concern with the spiritual element, though that is inevitably expressed in different ways: Gubaidulina's work is absolutely extraordinary from that point of view. But on a technical and sonic level, I find Lindberg, for example, to be really exciting.

I can't comment in very much detail on the arts in North America, though I can certainly tell you the names of the composers who interest me, and they are Adams, Reich and Crumb; however, I do have a sense of an enormous openness, which is both refreshing, because there is an unwillingness to label things too readily, and slightly alarming, because it can be uncritical. But of course, without risks there are no gains...

IA: You have had works performed, and even premiered, in the United States. How have your works been received? Did you get the feeling that you were presenting American audiences with something totally different from the musical vocabularies they usually hear?

IM: Reactions to my music in the United States have been extraordinarily positive, I am delighted to say. I had extremely deeply-felt and moving responses to the two large works I had premiered here, the Akathistos Hymn, a 90-minute work for a capella choir, and the piano quintet Nocturne of Light. I think that I felt in some way a more spontaneous reaction to the spiritual message of both pieces, which is something that doesn't generally happen so readily in Europe (though it does happen – I think that it's just that Americans express their feelings after an artistic event more openly and readily).

I'm not sure that I am presenting them with something totally new, though that of course would depend on the kind of audience we are talking about. Certainly audiences for the kinds of programmes presented by Cappella Romana (based in the Pacific Northwest), one of whose regular guest conductors I am, have come to expect at least one work written by me if I am conducting a programme – the last three times I worked with them I conducted the world premiere of my Te Apostolit, as part of a Finnish programme (I should perhaps explain that the text of my work is in Finnish!), and the North American premieres of Canon for Theophany and Seven Hymns to St Sava. So there's a sense of preparation, of expectation there, not least because Cappella Romana has established an enviable reputation for the excellent performance of very rarefied and very diverse repertories.

With the premiere of Nocturne of Light in New York, I had literally no idea how the audience would react. The piece had been commissioned by the extraordinary pianist Paul Barnes, and he and the amazing Chiara Quartet gave an absolutely outstanding performance. I was hugely moved, and doubly so when I saw the audience's reaction. It's something you can't fake – there's an electricity in the atmosphere that no amount of polite applause can simulate. But in the end, it's always the same: I write the music I have to write. I can't believe that any composer actually thinks of the possible reactions of an audience when he's writing: if you have to write, you have to write. Then you cast the music on the waters, as it were. I'm very gratified to find that for me those waters have, in the United States, been very welcoming.

IA: Can you comment on the differences between sacred and secular arts?

IM: Ideally they should all be one. When I write secular music, it is very frequently quite overtly related to sacred matters (an example being the theology of the Cross which informs my concerto for double bass, The Morning Star). But as I noted before, the audience does not need to know that: this information would only come before them if a programme note is requested, as it so often is. When I write secular music I don't really think that I am writing in a different way; there is a definite continuity. I think there has to be, or my world view would be Manichaean, dualistic. Of course, there are things I would not do in strictly liturgical music, because of the propriety of its use in a ceremony, that I would in secular music, but that's a technical question, not an essential difference.

IA: How do you think the arts (your own or others’) are responding to present and potential world-movements, such as postmodernism, the looming “post-human” phase, and the possible artistic effects of the Eastward orientation of economics and Christianity?

IM: I am not sure; I suppose that all such responses are in the end subconscious, even if one is aware of these movements. I mean, I am aware that I am a Christian composer, but I don't set out consciously to make that a political position, as it were. As for postmodernism, that's the kind of label that others may like to apply to me – while I'm writing I don't think of labels or styles at all. And it is not clear to me that modernism is dead, or that such a thing as postmodernism is not another facet of modernism...

“Posthuman”? There is no posthuman music, or posthuman art of any kind.

IA: How do you think we got to the phase where we are now?

IM: By a series of blunders, intelligent guesses and a deeply inquisitive nature.

IA: Where are we going?

IM: Towards God.

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