It was about a year ago that I received a commission from the pianist Michael Tsalka for a new work. Michael’s varied career includes performing on a wide range of keyboard instruments and across all musical periods, and he’d heard my music played by Assi Karttunen at the Nordic Historical Keyboard Festival, of which he’s the joint director.
At the time I was re-reading the poems and prose of Gerard de Nerval, one of my favourite French authors. Nerval’s novella Sylvie was a work that fascinated Proust, who was influenced by its time bending narrative: it has a way of pulling the rug out from underneath one’s sense of novelistic chronology. In the novella, like real life, present time is an almost illusory experience; existence is a construct of memory, recall, and the fictions we unconsciously invent that go with them. As another writer observed (Kundera?) we forget most things, but those memories we consciously retain are continually transformed by our process of remembering.
Nerval’s poetry, and especially the Chimeras, create the same effects. The texts are dense, symbolic, and suggest multiple meanings that were probably never intended to be reconciled. In the poem Delfica autobiographical material is mixed with ancient story and ritual. Ovid is never far away.
This multiple-layering of images and ideas coincides with my own views on creating musical structures. If my music is regarded as tonal (a term that seems very ambiguous to me and that can be interpreted in differing ways) it’s because I use melody and harmony to create musical ‘images’ (passages, motifs, etc.) that are comprehensible and that contain emotion. The structure arises out of the juxtaposition of these sections, but without resolution.
A couple of years earlier I’d written a series of short easy graded piano pieces called Sound Sketches and in the third book there’s a piece called Delphi which was an evocation of the ancient temple, depicted in an innocent and simple manner. I inserted this piece (in a modified form) into Delfica, constructing a ‘piece within a piece’. Despite some small echoes between the two layers of the music the sections are essentially separate and each dreams its own world: the small childlike music contained inside the larger and more complex work.
There was no intended meaning behind this structure, it’s an exploration of the effect produced by the contact of different visions. Two worlds gazing at each other. Which is fiction and which is truth?
This complication of the experience we quaintly call ‘reality’ is something that occupied Nerval, until he took his own life. His poetry and prose stand as a reminder of that strange relationship we have between the present and the past.
Delfica will be premiered by Michael Tsalka in New York on the 16th March.