Dobrinka Tabakova

When art promises to be revelatory, it may become something to fear. Such is the case of String Paths, the first conspectus of music by Dobrinka Tabakova. Fear, in this sense, is close to awe, for before hearing a single note one knows its details will seep into places to which few others have traveled. Fear, because the trust and intimacy required of such an act is what the composer’s life is all about: she fills staves with glyphs so that anyone with an open heart might encounter their fleeting interpretations and become part of their accretion. Indeed, many factors go into the creation of a single instrumental line, incalculably magnified by its interaction with others. Fear, then, is closer still to love.

Born in 1980, Tabakova moved at age 11 from her Bulgarian hometown of Plovdiv to London, where she went on to study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Her career began in earnest after winning an international competition at 14, since which time she has developed a voice that is refreshingly full and melodious. Such a biographical sketch, despite its prodigious overtones, does little to set Tabakova apart from her contemporaries. Recognition is one thing; experience is another. The coloring of imagination sustained in this timely album’s program, the whole of its corporeal sensibilities, can only come across when its water fills a listener’s cup.

Ukrainian violist-conductor Maxim Rysanov, notable proponent of Kancheli and other composers of our time, has become one of Tabakova’s strongest advocates. It was, in fact, his performance of the Suite in Old Style (written 2006 for solo viola, harpsichord and strings) at the prestigious Lockenhaus Festival that first caught ECM producer Manfred Eicher’s ear and led him to propose the present disc. As the album’s seed, it shelters refugees of the surrounding works. In amending a practice established by such visionaries as Górecki, Schnittke, Eller, and others who have mined elder idioms as a means of looking forward, Tabakova might be placed squarely in an ongoing tradition. She, however, prefers to trace the piece’s genealogy back to Rameau by way of Respighi. Given its descriptive edge, we might link it further to the great Baroque mimeticists—Farina, Biber, Muffat, Schmelzer, and Vivaldi—who were less interested in imitating each other (although some intertextuality was to be expected) than they were in describing nature and circumstance. In this respect, Tabakova’s triptych interfaces a variety of signatures, from which her own stands boldest.

The first movement is a triptych unto itself. Beginning with a Prelude marked “Fanfare from the balconies,” proceeding to “Back from hunting,” and on to “Through mirrored corridors,” already one can note Tabakova’s special affinity for space and place. A rich and delightful piece of prosody, its syncopations feel like ballet, a joyous dance of fit bodies. The viola leaps while the harpsichord adds tactile diacritics to Rysanov’s slippery alphabet. The transcendent centerpiece, entitled “The rose garden by moonlight,” is a shiver down the spine in slow motion, a season at once born and dying. The harpsichord elicits brief exaltations, pushing its wordless song into snowdrift, even as intimations of spring exchange glances with those of autumn. The quasi-Italian filigree of “Riddle of the barrel-organ player” and the Postlude (“Hunting and Finale”) fosters a nostalgic air of antique tracings, bearing yin and yang with plenty of drama to spare.

Insight (2002) for string trio opens the program with exactly that. Played by its dedicatees (Rysanov, Russian violinist Roman Mints, and Latvian-born Kristina Blaumane, principal cellist of the London Philharmonic), it unfolds in dense streams. For Tabakova the trio breathes as one, as might the moving parts of some singing, bellowed engine. The trio thus becomes something else entirely (a phenomenon achieved via the same configuration perhaps only by Górecki in his Genesis I). Moments of shining vibrato add pulse and skin. Glissandi also play an important role in establishing a smooth, coherent fable. The violin’s harmonics are glassine, somehow vulnerable. Indications of dances hold hands with jagged flames. Hints of a free spirit shine through the cracks. A decorated return to the theme looses a bird from an open palm, watching it fly until its song grows too faint to hear.

The 2008 Concerto for Cello and Strings, written for and featuring Blaumane as soloist, moves in three phases, the names of which recall the designations of John Adams. The music, too, may remind one of the American humanist, singing as it does with a likeminded breadth of inflection. The first movement (“Turbulent, tense”) unfolds in pulsing energy. Like a spirit coursing through the sky, it searches the heavens, lantern in hand, for earthly connection. The spirit casts a longing gaze across the oceans, leaping from continent to continent, harming not a single blade of grass by her step. The cello thus takes up the opening theme like a haul from the deep, letting all creatures slip through its fingers to hold the one treasure it seeks by their tips. In that box: a beating heart, one that seeks its own undoing by virtue of its discovery. It is a story revived in countless historical tragedies. The orchestra flowers around the soloist, carrying equilibrium as might a parent cradle a sickly child, laying her down on the altar where the opening motif may reach. The slow movement, marked “Longing,” thus revives that body, spinning from the treasure’s contents a trail she might follow back toward breath. With her resurrection come also the fears that killed her: the conflicts of a warring state, the ideals of a corrupt ruler, the confusion of a hopeless citizenry. The kingdom no longer smiles beneath the sun but weeps by moonlight. Chromatic lilts keep those tears in check, holding them true to form: as vast internal calligraphies whose tails find purchase only on composition paper. Echoes appear and remain. Blaumane’s rich, singing tone conveys all of this and more, never letting go of its full-bodied emotion. The softness of the final stretch turns charcoal into pastel, cloud into dusk, star into supernova. It is therefore tempting to read resolution into the final movement (“Radiant”). From its icy opening harmonics, it seems to beg for the cello’s appearance, which in spite of its jaggedness never bleeds into forceful suggestion. For whenever it verges on puncture, it reconnects to the surrounding orchestral flow, from which it was born and to which it always returns for recharge. Its blasting high sends a message: I am fallen that I might rise again.

Frozen River Flows (2005) is scored for violin, accordion and double bass. Intended to evoke water beneath ice, it expresses two states of the same substance yet so much more. It encompasses the snowy banks, the laden trees, the footprints left beneath them. It imparts glimpses of those who wandered through here not long ago, whose warmth still lingers like a puff of exhaled breath. The violin takes on a vocal lilt, the accordion a windy rasp, the double bass a gestural vocabulary—all of which ends as if beginning.

Such different paths (2008) for string septet ends the program. Dedicated to Dutch violinist Janine Jansen, it ushers in a fulsome, chromatic sound. There is a feeling of constant movement here that is duly organic: in one sense as flow, in another as melodic variety. There is, again, a rocking quality, as if the music always rests on some sort of fulcrum. A quiet passage that deals with the barbs lifted to our eyes. It ends in transcendent wash, a bleed of dye in cloth.

The performances on this finely produced disc are as gorgeous as they come, even more so under the purview of such attentive engineering. This is not music we simply listen to, but music that also listens to us.

It is in precisely this spirit of mutual listening that I participated in an e-mail interview with Ms. Tabakova, who kindly answered the following questions from this enamored soul…

String Paths

Tyran Grillo: In the String Paths CD booklet, your mention of a powerful first encounter with Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert makes me recall my own. I felt as if that music had always existed beyond time, but that somehow Jarrett’s performance gave us the means to hear it at mortal speed. Because improvisation is, of course, vital to the compositional act, do you feel this way about your own music (i.e., that you funnel it from the ether), or do you see it emerging entirely from within, by your own design?

Dobrinka Tabakova: Longfellow said that “music is the universal language of mankind,” and I think this is what happens when you “meet” a work of music for the first time and it speaks in a way that you understand and/or it resonates with you. The time-old abstract dilemma of where music comes from, in this case, could be discussed under the larger topic of “how do we communicate.” Of course there is inspiration, and I hope the process of how that sparks the beginning of a new work will remain the wonderful mystery that it is. But that spark gets refracted through the artist’s own prism, made up of the experiences around, exposure to different musics, aesthetic preference… With composition we have the added layer of not working in real time and being able to work at the form and structure of a piece of music far longer than it will take to listen to it. Mendeleev imagined the periodic table in a dream, and the same is sometimes said of compositions, but that dream can only be the beginning, I think. It is a responsibility to capture it in the best possible way, and make it speak.

TG: As a listener who has been moved by your music, I see it as a gift. What has your music given you?

DT: The ability to express something through music has been the main focus of my life, and to have connected with someone is a privilege. That feeling is beyond words.

TG: I’ve always felt that music and literature are much alike: both are “written,” both “tell stories,” one has “movements” instead of “chapters,” etc. How do you envisage the relationship between the two?

DT: I am engrossed by literature, well-told stories, captivating multi-layered characters and, like you say, there are similarities with music in terms of form. But, at least for me, words and music occupy two very different worlds, and I am distracted to think too “literally” when composing. I don’t mean writing music to words—there is a relationship there, and this is when words become music.

TG: There is a seesawing quality to the opening and closing pieces of the program (Insight and Such different paths), as if they rest atop an unvoiced fulcrum and spin a melodic and chromatic equilibrium throughout. How do you visualize the structural nature of those two compositions?

DT: I am glad that you felt it this way and asked about this, because the structure of the album was an important part of the concept of the whole project. Although each of the pieces has its own structure, the feeling of an overarching symmetry to the structure of the album was important. The opening to Insight is almost deliberately aiming to make your ear search. The gradual development of the sounds from there, I feel, leads quite naturally and logically to the effect of the closing of Such different paths: having walked aurally through the album, reaching a kind of settled, calm sonic space.

TG: It’s easy to see your Suite in Old Style as continuing a trend among composers such as Górecki, Schnittke, Eller, and others who have leaned toward the past as a means of looking forward. Yet I wonder if what you have done in this marvelous piece is not more like the great Baroque mimetic composers—Farina, Biber, Muffat, Schmelzer, and Vivaldi—who seemed more interested in describing nature and action than in imitating each other.

DT: I think ultimately, I didn’t wish to try and sound like a composer from a certain time. The Suite is a bow to the music which inspired me and that I grew up hearing. Trying to capture that inspiration and present it through modern eyes/ears was at the heart of the concept of this work.

TG: Speaking of the same piece, your subsection titles have a very dramaturgical sheen to them.

DT: Yes, it helped me imagine being in this other time and also to emphasize the daily distance between then and now, but fundamentally hoping that the music would bridge the time gap.

TG: Insight is an appropriate way to open the program of String Paths. I particularly enjoy its horizontal energies, its balance of density and openness. Compared to the pieces that follow, it feels like a stream of consciousness that has undergone relatively little revision. Can you talk about its inception and unfolding throughout the process of composing it?

DT: I am glad you had that reaction—that it sounds like a stream of consciousness. I think at the start of most pieces, I have a general shape which I would like to achieve with a composition, so I am happy if it is perceived as a flowing unfolding. There are always edits and re-thinks, but I try to stick to the original shape. Also, having challenging parts for each voice makes the work dramatic which propels the motion of the piece.

TG: I am so fond of the little chromatic descending motifs in the second movement of your Concerto for Cello and Strings. They catch my attention every time like the teeth of a zipper locking together. How did this detail come to be in the piece?

DT:  The almost glissando motif came together with the melody—the two have always been inseparable. As I was imagining this to be the “human” section of the concerto (see my next answer), there is a desire to be particularly expressive and almost transform the cello to a singer.

TG: In relation to my earlier question regarding literature, I find the concerto to be especially vivid in its storytelling. What kinds of images does it bring to your mind?

DT: The overall shape of the concerto is an upward one—an ascent. As a student, my main thesis was about Music and Science, and while researching that I discovered the writing of Boethius, a 4th-century Roman philosopher who categorized music in three levels: musica instrumentalis, musica humana, and musica mundana. The first movement can be seen as an expression of musica instrumentalis—the “taming” of the instrument, challenging and stretching the performer and the instrument. Musica humana—believed to be the music of the soul, and everything that affects us as humans—is expressed in the second movement, while musica mundane—also known as music of the spheres—is our impression and hope for what may lie beyond our planet, which finds an expression in the final movement. I didn’t have a particular story in mind, more a shape, perhaps.

TG: Frozen River Flows, more than by virtue of its title, is a remarkably organic piece. The combination of instruments is intriguing. Did your decisions in this regard arise out of wanting to write for particular musicians or was there something about their admixture that spoke to you?

DT: Frozen River Flows was originally written for two conservatoire colleagues of mine, who formed an oboe-and-percussion duo called newnoise. Soon after I completed it, Roman Mints, who I also studied with at Guildhall, asked me if I could contribute a piece to a concert he was programming with violin, accordion, and double bass. This is how the unusual instrumentation came about.

TG: Such different paths is a piece of many layers. Where do you situate yourself among them?

DT: Perhaps, being the composer, I might situate myself at the foundation. But, in all seriousness, it is true, the septet is very layered and polyphonic/contrapuntal. This for me is the great pleasure in writing chamber music: one can have all these lines and give equal weight to each. The inter-relationships between parts can be very complex. Setting myself to this challenge—to have complexity within a clear structure and sound—was one of the first steps in the compositional process.

TG: Such different paths feels like an emblematic piece. What personal importance does it hold for you?

DT: I feel that way about all the pieces on the CD, to be honest. In each there are elements which build from previous ideas or thoughts, and since both the Cello Concerto and Such different paths are the latest compositions on the disk, I guess I’ve had more time to accumulate further thoughts when writing.

TG: Much of your music seems cyclical. Is this conscious?

DT: It really depends on the piece, I wouldn’t say that, for example, Such different paths is cyclical. But sometimes there is a satisfaction in hearing material in two contexts—without having a reference and after a certain development.

TG: Manfred Eicher has been a blessing to so many composers since beginning his New Series in the mid-80s. What does it mean for you to have worked with him and to see your music represented by an influential and prestigious venue?

DT: Manfred Eicher is inspirational, and it has been an unparalleled privilege to work with him and his team! It’s more than a dream to be part of such a catalogue of creativity. As a composer, it is a really great feeling to be able to feel that your music is understood and that those responsible for its delivery on record are concerned, above all, with the integrity and true nature of the music.

TG: On a related note, can you describe your involvement in the recording/mixing process and any insights Mr. Eicher imparted along the way?

DT: Well, my ability to navigate around a mixing desk would perhaps equal my ability to ice-skate, so I couldn’t have a detailed and technical conversation, as much as I may have liked. The process was very natural and dependent on what we were hearing, and at least my main point of reference was the feeling of being in the hall and experiencing the music as if it were played live.

TG: What currently excites you about being a composer? What currently excites you as a listener?

DT: I have a ton of research to get through for some upcoming projects, including one for the Shakespeare anniversary in 2016, and this is providing me with a well of inspiration and excitement. Being a Londoner excites me as a listener—with access to so many fantastic concerts and events as well as sounds.

TG: Generally speaking, how do you compose? Do you have a preferred space, environment, or atmosphere in which to do so?

DT: As long as I can have some quiet, a piano, and my notepad, I’m happy.