Proms 2017: pre-première questions with Anders Hillborg

Despite being composed and first performed nearly six years ago, and also being released on CD in 2015, Swedish composer Anders Hillborg‘s Sirens, a large-scale work for two sopranos, chorus and orchestra, hasn’t yet been performed in the UK. Until, that is, this evening, when it finally receives its UK première at the Proms by Hannah Holgersson and Ida Falk Winland with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. In preparation, here are Hillborg’s answers to my pre-première questions. Many thanks to Anders for his responses and to Sam Wigglesworth at Faber for his kind assistance.

1. For anyone not yet familiar with it, could you give a brief summary of your music, i.e. characteristics, outlook, aesthetic, etc.?

I imagine you could do that better than me :-) – hard to see oneself from the outside… But I could say that my primary interest is music as an autonomous language – the sound. My way into composing is always through sound, even if structure, counterpoint, etc. of course are equally important.

2. What led to you becoming a composer? Did/does it feel like a choice?

I started with pop music, playing piano in a band, then singing in choir became an important schooling. I discovered it wasn’t enough with the framework in pop music, hence I started composing notated music.

3. Where did you study? Who/what have been the most important influences on your work?

I studied at the Royal Academy in Stockholm – the most important subjects were counterpoint and electronic music. Counterpoint because I believe that is the core of composition technique and electronic music because it made me realise that any sound can be music. Brian Ferneyhough who was a regular guest teacher was a crucial influence.

4. How do you go about writing a new piece? To what extent do you start with a ‘blank slate’ and/or use existing methods/materials?

I always start with something existing, either from my own works or from someone else’s.

5. How does the piece sit in relation to your previous work? Why did you particularly compose this piece at this time?

Every new piece is to some extent related to previous pieces – in Sirens there are echoes from Piano Concerto, Eleven Gates, Cold Heat, Lontana in sonno, King Tide and my most performed piece, Mouyaoum for 16-part mixed choir. The commission from the L.A. Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony Orchestra was for a large-scale piece covering half a concert.

6. If people really like your piece, what other music of yours would you recommend they check out?

Can’t say – I’ve done so different pieces – but I personally like very much The Peacock Moment for clarinet and piano. It’s only 1’20¨ but I consider it one of my most important pieces – it sums up very much of my musical language and technique. [score / Spotify]

7. What’s next?

Aeterna – a one hour and thirty-five minute piece for orchestra and choir to accompany a film, premièring in Stockholm on 23 August.

Sirens – programme note

Feel the breathing of the world.

“Their song, though irresistibly sweet, was no less sad than sweet, and lapped both body and soul in a fatal lethargy, the forerunner of death and corruption.”

One of the most captivating passages in Homer’s The Odyssey is surely Ulysses’ encounter with the Sirens. In Greek mythology, the Sirens were dangerous bird-women, portrayed as seductresses who lured sailors with their enchanting music and voices to come to the rocky coast of their island, where they would kill them. In Homer’s tale, Ulysses – curious as to what the Sirens sound like – orders his crew to plug their ears with beeswax and tie
him to the mast, not to release him no matter how much he begs, while their boat is passing the island of the Sirens. In this way he will be able to hear their deadly singing, which no man has heard and survived.

The calm sea starts stirring, ghostlike whispers seem to emerge from the depths, strange fragmented voices agitate the surface – then again, the sea lies locked in deep repose and all nature pause with attentive ear as the scene suddenly clears and the Sirens appear.

The sirens try to lure Ulysses to come to them in numerous ways – they flatter his ego:

“Great Ulysses, Achaia’s glory, Pride of Greece,
hear our voices sing thy praise”

They appeal to his mind and soul, by promising him they’ll let him know all the secrets of the world:

“All we know,
All the lore that time can tell.
All the mystic founts of joy.
No life on earth can be hid from our dreaming.”
“Ulysses,
descend with us,
and feel the breathing of the world.”

They sing seductively, arousing him:

“Our melody,
so wondrous, so tender.
Clouds of sweet fragrance
swelling and roaring around you.
Breathe them, hear them, plunge into them,
drown in their sweetness,
we’d love to turn you on.”

“Come fly with us!”

At this point, the Sirens’ true monstrous identity is revealed, as their powerful singing gradually transforms into horrendous screaming, the mirage/hallucination dissolves and all reverts back to calm sea, as Ulysses’ vessel sails out of danger.

The text in Sirens is derived from different English translations of The Siren Song from The Odyssey by Homer, with additional text written by the composer.

—Anders Hillborg

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