On April 21, 2022, I will have the pleasure of conducting the US Première of Oscar Strasnoy’s Piano Concerto Kuleshov with Ryan McCullough as our soloist, together with the phenomenal UC Davis Symphony Orchestra at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts in Davis, California. Below is a brief interview with Oscar talking about his music:
Christian Baldini: Dear Oscar, it will be so wonderful to conduct the US Premiere of your Piano Concerto Kuleshov with the excellent pianist Ryan McCullough as our soloist. Tell me, how did the genesis of this piece start? And how did you come up with the concept of Kuleshov as a source of inspiration?
Oscar Strasnoy: As is almost always the case, the piece was born out of a soloist’s desire to receive a piece by a specific composer. In this case, Alexandre Tharaud was the generator of the project. Mauricio Kagel had promised him a piano concerto, but he died before finishing it. So Alexandre asked me. I am a sort of post-mortem-ghost-writer for Kagel, a position I enjoy very much assuming.
The idea of relating the work to the first film editing techniques of the Soviet cinema of the 1920s-1930s comes from further back, it is something that has always interested me. The name Lev Kuleshov came up at the end of the composition, when it occurred to me to close a very heterogeneous form, made mostly of fragments, using his concept of alternating still and moving images, a kind of big rondo around a more abstract central movement.
CB: Your music is surprising, refreshing, it probably cannot be easily labeled or contained. What is your goal with each new piece? What do you try to “communicate”, and/or what are some priorities to you in your music?
OS: For years, my activity as a composer was principally around opera and musical theater. And the fact of frequently working with texts created in me a quasi Pavlovian reflex for generating musical images, something like ideograms that could be associated to concepts. A kind of program music without a program. I feel very close, not necessarily in style, but in the way of approaching the heterogeneous formal assembly of the works, to the thought of Eisenstein or to Liszt, Wagner, Pierre Schaeffer and Messiaen. My interest is not focused on the so called “musical material” (new sounds) but on how acoustic ideas are associated with each other and form a kind of story board or, perhaps better, a Japanese kind of emakimono scrolls. That Japanese art is the one that fascinates me the most among all types of art. A kind of cinematography avant la lettre, still cinema, frozen time.
CB: You have worked with many of the world’s greatest artists. You’ve written concertos for Isabelle Faust and Alexander Tharaud. Does this make your life easier when writing a concerto with a performer in mind? How do you approach the process, is it very collaborative or do you deliver the piece once it’s done?
OS: I like working with friends, first of all, spending time with them exchanging food, jokes and ideas. That’s how I learned the most. I send them my ideas in sketch form, sometimes I tell them over the phone, and I complete them with their technical advice.
CB: What would you recommend to someone who has never heard your music before? What should they listen for?
OS: I would recommend looking at emakimonos in a museum or on the internet. I would also recommend to look at a wonderful eighty-meters long work that David Hockney painted with an iPad during the pandemic, “A Year in Normandy” is its title. And I would recommend watching Soviet cinema from the 1920s.
CB: Kuleshov seems to make some references to piano music of the past. I hear a lot of (even possible quotations) Rachmaninov, Debussy and Ravel. How did you approach these connections or recollections? How do you manage to make all these voices fit into your own language?
OS: My main source for this work was silent film accompaniment music from the 1920s. Surely those musics were influenced by certain features of those composers, so my references are surely second hand.
CB: Do you have any advice for young composers?
OS: Forget about the so called “musical material”. Music is immaterial, it consists of heterogeneous sounds disposed on a given time. Any sonorous thing can fill that time with whatever you can think of. I would recommend them also to forget the obligation of artistic homogeneity that we inherited from the Enlightenment. The world we live in is heterogeneous and the art of our time has to reflect the world we live in. I would also recommend them to avoid as much as possible emulating the contemporary musical currents taught in universities, which turn almost all students into epigones. Being an artist means being free to do whatever you want with whatever ideas, material or media you want. If you don’t achieve that degree of independence, you will not be an artist, you will be a craftsman, which is not bad in itself but was probably not your initial plan. But one has to be patient, it’s a process that can take some time, probably the whole life.
CB: Thank you very much for your time, I very much look forward to once more conducting your beautiful music.
OS: Thank you, dear Christian. It’s a big pleasure and an honor for me to be here in Davis.
Oscar Strasnoy was born in Buenos Aires and studied piano, conducting and composition there at the Conservatorio Nacional Superior de Música (with Aldo Antognazzi and Guillermo Scarabino), at the Conservatoire de Paris (with Guy Reibel, Michaël Levinas and Gérard Grisey), where he won in 1996 a Premier Prix à l’Unanimité (first prize) and the Hochschule für Musik, Frankfurt (with Hans Zender). He was the Music Director of the Orchestre du Crous de Paris (1996–1998). He was one of the founding recipients of the Grüneisen Foundation (Mozarteum Argentino) conducting scholarship, and of the French Government Scholarship. In 1999 he was invited by Peter Eötvös to Herrenhaus-Edenkoben in Germany.
Luciano Berio awarded him the 2000 Orpheus Prize for his chamber opera Midea produced at the Teatro Caio Melisso in Spoleto in 2000 and at the Rome Opera in 2001.He was also artist in residence at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, in 2003 at the Villa Kujoyama in Kyoto (Institut français), and in 2006 at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Umbria, Italy. In 2007 he received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship for Music Composition. Radio France, in association with the Parisian Théâtre du Châtelet, featured Strasnoy as the main composer of the Festival Présences 2012, a retrospective of most of his works in 14 concerts in January 2012.
Oscar Strasnoy has composed twelve stage works, including operas performed at Spoleto, Rome, Paris (Opéra Comique, Théâtre du Châtelet), Hamburg, Bordeaux, Aix-en-Provence Festival, Teatro Colón of Buenos Aires), Berlin State Opera; a live-accompanied silent film score for Anthony Asquith’s Underground which premiered at the Louvre in 2004 and was subsequently played at the Cine Doré in Madrid, the Mozarteum Argentino, Kyoto, and Tokyo) and a secular cantata, Hochzeitsvorbereitungen (mit B und K). He also composed several pieces of chamber, vocal and orchestral music, including his song cycle Six Songs for the Unquiet Traveller which premiered in 2004 performed by the Nash Ensemble and Ann Murray in a concert to inaugurate the newly refurbished Wigmore Hall in London.
In January 2012 a retrospective of his work in 14 concerts has been presented at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris as part of the Festival Présences of Radio France. Strasnoy’s works are primarily published by Universal Edition (Vienna) Chant du Monde (Paris) and Billaudot (Paris). His opera Midea is published by Ricordi (Milan).