Annelies Van Parys: my “illness” is that I am always trying different things

On 27 (Ghent) and 28 May (Antwerp), the world premiere of Annelies Van Parys’ piano concerto will take place. She has developed an impressive portfolio of chamber music, orchestral works, vocal and music theatre in which timbre is central. A conversation about the creation of this concerto, the challenges of contemporary classical music and about her teacher Luc Brewaeys. A composer who also appears to think architecturally.

Annelies Van Parys: “The commission from the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra (ASO) was entirely free. I had wanted to write a piano concerto for a while. In addition, a long time ago pianist Jan Michiels asked me to compose a concerto. The ASO said: yes, great idea, let’s do it. I was allowed to choose the size of the orchestra and, for practical reasons, I opted for a modest orchestra. I had just had to postpone a work with the Concertgebouw Orchestra from Amsterdam due to the Covid restrictions i.e. the setting was too large. Moreover, a smaller instrumentation has the advantage that smaller orchestras can also programme the work.”

Classical structure

“I have actually kept to the three classical parts in a very traditional way. Perhaps the reason is that I am a pianist myself, so I have listened to all those concertos ad infinitum. That is something that sticks in your mind. It starts with a first movement that is almost a toccata. All in all, a very solid, lively piece. The second movement is a slow movement, rather lyrical. There, the orchestra is particularly important. And then the last movement is a fairly traditional rondo. So the major forms are in place. But then comes the organisation. After all, my music is not organised tonally but spectrally, so according to timbre. I am researching how you can create the tension between consonance and dissonance with non-tonal music. A technical complication is that a piano only has whole or semitone distances, but spectral music has smaller ones. This means that the orchestra takes the lead in the spectral part of this concerto. Sometimes I have to move the orchestra a quarter of a tone to make the piano fit in. Because a piano has no quarter tones. This occurs particularly in the middle section, in which a consonant becomes increasingly dissonant. In this way I allow the spectrum to become disruptive and I use it to spoof all kinds of things.”

“Gradually at the end there is a reduction again, a return to relaxation. I find that very exciting because I’ve never tried it that way and I’m not entirely sure it will work. Very thrilling. That is a bit of a disease of mine: that I always want to try different things. And then at the moment of creation, I often think: ‘Why didn’t I just play it safe for once? Have I done something yet again that I’m not sure will work?

Teacher

“Luc Brewaeys has been an important teacher to me, both technically-compositional and aesthetically and organisationally. How did I notice that it clicked with him? I felt a great mutual respect, a great understanding. His guidance came from what I was trying to say. And not from what he thought I should say. That’s the big difference. And I learned that from him too. I now teach composition myself and always try to convey that to my students: what do you want to say?”

“The ball really started rolling when I won the Flandres/Quebec prize in 2001 with my chamber music piece Phrases V, completely unexpectedly. From then on, commissions started pouring in. And then I knew: OK, this could be something. In my case, it happened quite organically. On the one hand, I slowed it down or gathered the right people around me. And so I built up my career step by step. Not aiming too high right away. On the other hand: I am a West-Fleming. That means staying with both feet on the ground.

Programming more often

“This concerto does not tell a story. But the classical form does provide a kind of footing. There is a kind of built-in knowledge of how a “classical” concerto should sound. But with new music, there is no starting point. You cannot expect listeners to be with you from the first time. That is a utopia. But there is a way to introduce new music. By explaining it or just programming it more. So that people learn to hear it more.

I take my parents as an example. They were both interested in music and could appreciate various kinds of music, but new music was rather unknown to them until I started writing it. In the beginning, they often thought: What is that all about? What a racket! What are you writing? But nowadays, when they hear a concert with one of my works next to old music, they are genuinely fascinated by what I have written. Not because I am their daughter. But because they know the rest and find what I write cool and exciting. Just because it’s new. So that’s trickled in after they’ve heard a lot of new music.”

Versatile

“When I think of Jan Michiels, who is soloing in my concerto, I think of a very versatile pianist who can make beautiful colours. He can make his instrument sing incredibly beautifully, but can also be sparkling and virtuoso. I also appreciate his transparency. You can hear that he completely understands the piece and allows each voice to have its own value. Many pianists get a bit crowded as soon as they play something polyphonic. But with him it remains open. It remains clear. “

Graphic

“I have sketched out the structure of the form completely graphically, like an architect, and indeed on millimetre paper, in order to get the proportions right. In doing so, I applied the golden section. That means that the proportions within the parts correspond to the proportions within the whole. It is a good way to check your timing and to give the listener an intuitive grip. 

Another advantage of these sketches is that you know better where you end up. It is a bit like building a bridge. That you know where the anchor points are. That’s where I want to end up. So I don’t want the bridge to be too short, because then you get wet feet.”

Lyrical

“Nevertheless, I do go about things in a very lyrical way. I always like it when the individual melody lines of the musicians are lyrical. And almost have their own score. That it could stand on its own. But it’s just a part of a whole. My compositions are usually very technical but I always try to make it interesting. If I see that a certain part has a rest of 60 bars, I think: that’s impossible, they’re going to be bored. I don’t want musicians to have to count that long. Then I try to find something with a reorchestration here or there so that they remain part of the whole.

Language of the heart

“On the one hand, I want to touch people, to move them. But that sounds strange for contemporary music because very few people have an affinity with it. Yet for me, music is a language of the heart, however corny that may sound. I am always working on a musical expression that you hope will be heard. But it is also a language that many people feel you have to be erudite to understand. I don’t really agree with that. Because very often you find that people who have little previous knowledge, let alone are into classical music, and then come into contact with contemporary music for the first time, are not that detached from it at all. And are immediately touched by it. That it enters directly. They think: oh, but that is actually more exciting than Mozart or Beethoven.

When I see that, I think: indeed, just listen for once. I like it when people can listen with an open mind and just say what it did to them. Some of them come up with whole stories, for instance: at first I saw a bird and then a forest and then…

Then I think: Oh, wow! Top!

WHAT: Piano Concerto, world creation by Annelies Van Parys

– WHO: Antwerp Symphony Orchestra with Jan Michiels (piano) and Martyn Brabbins (conductor)

– WHERE: De Bijloke (Ghent) and Queen Elizabeth Hall (Antwerp)

– WHEN: Friday, May 27 (Ghent) and Saturday, May 28 (Antwerp), 20h00

– TICKETS: debijloke.be and tickets@antwerpso.be

  • PHOTOS: Wynold Verweij
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