Proms 2018: pre-première questions with Nina Šenk

by 5:4

Tomorrow afternoon’s Prom concert from Cadogan Hall is being given by soloists from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and it promises to be quite a lustrous affair, featuring music by Debussy, Ravel and the great Lili Boulanger. It also includes the world première of Baca, a new chamber work by Slovenian composer Nina Šenk, so in preparation for that, here are her answers to my pre-première questions, together with the programme note for the piece. Many thanks to Nina for her responses.

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

In Slovenia we had very strong education system, based on music theory – we learned in detail about harmony, counterpoint and musical forms till the 20th century. This has remained as a pillar in my aesthetic: I like to take an ‘old formula’, maybe a musical form, or a line, and enjoy transforming it into modern language – my language. I am always looking for a freshness in sound, but not necessarily new sounds. The same applies for musical form. One of the main characteristics in my music is virtuosity.

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

It was a natural transition from music theory to composition. In between, I also wanted to be an architect but drawing was not my strength. From the age of six I knew I wanted to have music in my life but never had a wish to be a soloist or a conductor. Playing the piano was a way to discover music. Those were still the days without internet and at home we didn’t have many classical music CDs.

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

I studied in Ljubljana at the Academy of Music, later at the Musikhochschule in Dresden and in Munich. Every city, school or professor was an important influence in that period of time for my development but the main influence was certainly Matthias Pintscher, with whom I studied in Munich.

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?

It always starts with a white piece of paper – some sketches slowly transition to the first written notes on the paper. I always start by looking for something fresh or new, it could be something small like a different way of working with the material. Of course you always put in the piece the knowledge and at least a permutation of an existing method or material. For me it is also important to take risks with every piece – I place some new methods or a specific orchestration into a piece just to see if it works – to learn something new.

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

It is more personal then my previous pieces – probably because I had do send the programme notes to the BBC long before I have started to write the piece – so it became a reflection of my life in that time, maybe as a page in one’s diary.

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

From my ensemble pieces Dreamcatcher is maybe a bit similar if one is looking for a similarity. Otherwise I would recommend the pieces on my 4-CD box set.

7. What’s next?

Right now I am composing a larger ensemble piece for joint ensembles Klangforum Wien and Slowind Wind Quintet, for performances in Ljubljana and Vienna in the winter. After that, two shorter orchestral pieces and two chamber pieces; next summer I start with my biggest orchestral piece so far.

Baca – programme note

With everything that’s currently going on about women breaking through the glass ceiling, and other related movements, I found that glass itself had become the inspiration for my new piece. Glass has a duality – it’s very strong, but it’s also very fragile. I wouldn’t say the piece is going to be overtly political, but those are also qualities I have to have as a mother and an artist – you have to be soft and fragile with your children, but I also have to be hard when I need to work. I’m aiming to convey the cycle of glass’s physical states that go from sand to hot, molten glass, then cold, solid glass, and then to the recycling of glass.

Baca is Latin, and it refers to small glass beads, originally made more than 3,000 years ago and still made now. They’re fragile but also strong and beautiful; each one is a tiny piece of art. It’s also a small, fragile piece of art that I’m creating – it won’t change the world, but it will be done with love, and a lot of hard work.

—Nina Šenk

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[…] too – at least, not in a negative sense. Šenk refers to glass beads in her programme note (see her responses to my pre-première questions), and it’s easy to hear an implication of these in the opening minutes of Baca, where the […]

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