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Interview with Dobrinka Tabakova

img  Tobias Fischer

The headquarters of Universal Music in Berlin. Dobrinka Tabakova is enjoying a glass of water on the building's famous terrace next to the river Spree. The sun is shining, but wind is giving its best to blow away my interview notes and a few hundred meters away, on top of the Oberbaumbridge, a rock band is playing at an excruciating volume, making it all but impossible to understand what we're saying. And yet, there's too much to tell to be distracted. Seven years have passed since I first got in touch with Dobrinka about an email interview and since then, she has gone on to turn from a student into a fully-fledged professional artist, living her dream of a life as a composer and seeing her works performed from the Netherlands to Hong Kong and from Georgia to Italy. It's been hard to catch up with her remarkable progress, even though we've been in intermittent contact all the way. Now, String Paths, the first full-length album comprised exclusively of her own work, is presenting an overview of these "years of blossoming", as she will later refer to them. From the multifarious opener "Insight“ and the riveting, emotionally contrasting Concerto for cello and Strings to the quasi-pastiche of the "Suite in Old Style", it is a fulminant fast-forward through her oeuvre, aesthetics and approaches and it has been performed by close friends like Maxim Rysanov, Janine Jansen and Kristina Blaumane, who also happen to be among the leading soloists of their trade. String Paths has been released on ECM, which, with her quoting Keith Jarrett and Giya Kancheli as personal favourites, holds another personal relevance. Tabakova dotes on Manfred Eicher's presence during the sessions in Vilnius and her own presence during the album's mastering, which she describes as an intriguing and fascinating experience. And yet, I can't help but wonder how she managed to muster up this patience: All these years before holding String Paths in her hands, all these years during which her work was only accessible to those visiting her concerts. As it turns out, everything came together at just the right time.

How hard was it to wait this long for the album to be released?
It's been a long process, definitely. But it didn't feel as though I was taking a big step and then there was a gap and then there was the next step. Everything has unfolded very naturally, which is what makes me so calm about where I am right now. It's not as though these people are approaching you over night. There has been a constant  development as a composer; in conversations between the musicians and me and then meeting Manfred Eicher. It all seems like a cohesive journey.

So you weren't pushing for it?
No, not at all. Maybe if I had, I wouldn't be here. Sometimes, I feel as though, when you're pushing for something, you actually don't exactly know what you want. It means you're going against a natural rhythm.

You grew up with records. Wasn't there a desire to become a part of that tradition?
It was never a goal for me. It was always more about the live performance. I did grow up with records, but I would listen to them and then go to the concerts. In a way, records have always been part of a context of music for me, which first exists live and then gets documented. They were like frozen concerts. They represent a particular moment and I've always been intrigued by that. Maybe I'm lucky that I'm in the classical world. In popular music, you make a record, so people hear what you're doing. But in classical music, which is obsessed with commissions and premieres, releasing a record feels more like taking a step away and evaluating a large period of your life – perhaps evaluating yourself a bit. Which is a very privileged position to be in. And String Paths has almost become a journey in itself. From the first piece to the last, there's a whole different level of structure. And in a way, taken together, all tracks are turning into one extended composition. To be able to think that's something you had inside of you so many years ago is a very nice feeling. It helps you to go on to a new level of creativity and self-awareness. That's significant not only because it's with such a prestigious label like ECM, but also because working with the people to whom these works are dedicated, finding a great orchestra - the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra - working here in Berlin with Spectrum Concerts and bringing all of these people together is an important aspect for me.

What were some of the important moments for you as a composer over this period?
(thinking) That's a good question. I was going to masterclasses around Europe and was sometimes questioned about the kind of style I had. I know that I felt very passionately about my pieces and I knew that they were saying what I wanted them to say, that my language had been shaped. "In Focus" was the first time that I was working with this concept of cinematography and camera work and able to express these ideas compositionally. That was in 1999 and that gave a new dimension to the way I thought about composition. But there were pieces before that, too, which I value as part of my journey.

What did you have to defend those pieces against?
Defend is a strong word, perhaps. But as a teenager, I was awarded a scholarship to go to the Centre Acanthes. I was fifteen and the other participants were students and undergraduates, so naturally, the pieces I was writing were very different from theirs. First of all, because of my age, but also because most of them were from a certain French school and I had my own rhythms and harmonies. Although I wasn't strongly tested, in the context of these other composers, you feel that you stand out. And the question is: Are you going to apologise for standing out - or are you're going to say: This is me. I'm going to absorb feedback, but I'm going to follow my intuition.

I think it's interesting you said you didn't want to become a pianist, because you thought such a career was too difficult. Isn't the job of a composer far harder?
My experience of the people around me who are musicians is that they have a tough life. What I also feel is that because of their constant travelling life can become hectic. I am fortunate that I don't have to travel that much and can just shut the world off if I want to and  be by myself and do what I need to do. Whereas as a performer, you have to be much more open. It's a question of personality.

To you, being a performer is a very integrative activity, isn't it?
Absolutely. Playing the piano, singing, writing music, they all inform layers of the creative process. Of course, just to have that as your information pool is not enough. You need to attend concerts, study scores as well.

Tell me a bit about the compositional challenges during the phase the pieces on String Paths were written in, please. It seems like a very important period in your career.
Yes, it's a blossoming. The pieces contained on the CD were not written for a portfolio, they are completely independent from my studies at the time. "Insight", the string trio, is the earliest piece. When writing it, I was really beginning to appreciate this concept of what happens when we listen. I'm still not entirely sure if I'm able to verbalise it entirely, but the question to me is about the interaction between music and us. The deep way in which we are affected by music when we listen in stillness, the glow of music in a context of calm and quiet. And I don't like the idea of finding a formula, but this quest was indeed a driving force in my work. And then there's a bit more of the visualising music – a piece like "Frozen River Flows", which is probably the most visual of the pieces. I could probably talk about the character of each individual composition. But then I could also step away and say that I think all the woks flow into each other quite organically.

It's interesting to see so much focus on the visual aspect of your work. I find your music, conversely, to be very 'musical music' rather than just timbre and space. You do seem to value the narrative aspects much more than many other contemporary composers.
Thank you for saying that, I feel the same. I do value timbre and color a lot, because it is so rewarding to use them well compositionally. Perhaps the visual comes in as it is difficult to speak directly about music, and the visual world is that little bit more tangible. But like a painting, I would like to get behind the form, to find out what it's telling me, not just seeing it as a yellow going into an orange. It may be a nice transition, but there needs to be something that guides you through this very abstract process of listening to music, a structure at least, even if it's not a story per se. Ultimately, I like to write musical music indeed. With "Such Different Paths", I immediately knew that I wanted something like a diminuendo in terms of energy. So you'd have a burst of energy at the beginning, which then grows to a stillness. I knew from the very beginning that this was the shape I wanted the piece to have and the goal was to then create that flow in the music.

What does it feel like to know exactly what you want the piece to be like but to still have to commit it to paper? Is it frustrating or satisfying?
It is certainly an intense process, because you know what you want to say and how you want to say it. And then it takes weeks and months to chisel it out. I'm lucky that it's part of my character that I'm able to sustain that excitement. For a performer, it's a lot more about giving that spark when you're on stage and then sustaining that concert after concert. But with composition, you have to make that spark a glow over many months. It's a personality question to pace yourself over that time, just like you're pacing the music. The Concerto for Cello and Strings, I think, took almost a year to finish. It was a tiring process. But it would have been a lot less gratifying had I not known I would have the performers to play it in the end. So I'm immensely grateful for the fact that there's a performance to look forward to. If that's the case, you're not just structuring the music, but your life as well, because you instinctively make a structure within yourself – and then you make a structure about the actual composition.

So is the pleasure in writing it or in having it performed?
I think by the time I've put the last note on the paper, I'm already catching up with myself. Towards the end, there's almost always a spot when you feel as though it's like walking downhill, when it's all coming together. I certainly look forward to that moment when you have perfect clarity and it all makes sense. It makes sense that you wrote that first note … that you made that choice at the beginning. It's like all of the answers were there before and suddenly you see the picture. I think it's a very precious moment. And maybe every composition is about finding that moment again and again.

What sparks this process?
I have a sketch book with many ideas and many of them will never get used. They're just little bursts of ideas, but I feel very strongly about them regardless. That sketch book holds some key phrases which express your musical personality and then you draw all those phrases together in the process of composing. They turn into a trigger for something new. You write down those ideas and perhaps you won't even use them, but they remind you of something you felt when you wrote them down. That idea may now be with a little sparrow and these sketches are a way of re-capturing that feeling.

How hard is it to stick to the original idea? Each idea could potentially lead to myriads of others …
Every piece is a new beginning. If you have an underlying purpose to all pieces, then you always know what the point is. It's more of a technical question whether you stick to the initial idea. If you fundamentally know why you're writing music in the first place, that smooths out all the other questions you might have.

You told me previously that we have to learn to swim in the metaphorical ocean that Cage once described. How hard is it for you to work with the 21st century's seemingly infinite tool box, in which every idea seems to reference something already expressed in the past?
If you don't know how to swim and if you don't know where to swim to, the ocean can engulf you and you become its victim. But if you're absolutely convinced that there's land out there, you will continue swimming through the ocean. I am seriously curious about how someone can say that they're not referencing any old music. How is that possible? When you're consciously deciding not to reference old music, you're already making a statement about it. And to me, that is on exactly the same level as working with existing forms or scales. You'd have to be a complete alien to this earth to never have heard any music. Maybe it's born from the mentality of our time, from our perceived superiority to previous times, from the belief that we're more developed than people in the 17th century. These gadgets around us are making us arrogant. While, one of the joys of listening to classical music is that it can make you sense that someone had the exact same questions at a time when they didn't have airplanes or the Internet.

It's the same sensation when reading Shakespeare …
… and feeling all this relevance, yes. And I feel so proud to have that connection, to be a part of this family of people, that, on the one hand, we are continuing to develop, but that, on the other, there were people in the past who helped create this inspiring path. Bach, Schubert, Brahms, they're the reason why I chose this life. The strength of their music, the beauty, the human nature expressed in it. So how could I ever say: Thanks for opening that door for me, now go away.

It does seem as though the notion of progress is becoming less important these days.
Perhaps things are changing. It's very interesting … They're running a series at the South Bank Center based on Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise. I recently went to a concert from the series called "Music from Dark Times". In the programme there were Webern's Variations for Orchestra, Berg's "Lulu Suite", then Bartók's "Music for Strings, Percussion & Celeste" and the Double concerto by Martinů. It was intentionally programmed backwards chronologically, going from the most recent piece, the Webern, back to Martinů. But what I found was that actually the program became increasingly intriguing as it progressed, less conceptual and somehow freer.

How do you explain that?
We're increasingly obsessed with categorising things. Maybe it's best to block them from your mind as much as you can. It's not easy, though. There's a lot of noise.

By Tobias Fischer

Photos by Sussie Ahlburg.

Dobrinka Tabakova Discography:
String Paths (ECM) 2013

Recommended Dobrinka Tabakova interviews & articles on the web:
2006 interview with Dobrinka Tabakova about her life in Bulgaria and writing music in England (PDF).
Dobrinka Tabakova speaks about String Paths on the ECM podcast.
Round Table discussion about the state of contemporary composition, featuring Dobrinka Tabakova among others.

Dobrinka Tabakova