In so many ways, being a Romanian-American composer of chamber and symphonic music at the beginning of the 21st century is one of the most liberating experiences a contemporary musician could imagine. While the satisfactions coming from writing and performing “new music” are tremendous, there are also some risks. Many critics and music historians, especially in the United States, believe that recent generations of composers have taken their freedom a bit too far, eventually losing touch with their audiences. At the other end of the spectrum, a few others have kept supporting the European avant-garde, with the belief that every new era and opus should attempt to conquer new territories and push the boundaries of sonic exploration beyond the expectations already set by our societies. In essence, the latter theory embodies the very foundation of the Western world, based on the concept of progress at every level. These extreme points of view are obvious these days when traveling across the Atlantic, an ocean that seems to have created a bigger rift than ever. As with most conflicting statements of this kind, I suspect “the truth” when it comes to the future of music lies somewhere… in the middle.
Within the wide family of Eastern European cultures, Romania has a unique identity. While the Latin roots of our language connect us with the West, in particular with France and Italy, the Eastern Orthodox Church has been defining our core spirituality and religious traditions for centuries. Additionally, the stunningly beautiful landscape painted by the Carpathian Mountains, which cross the middle part of the territory, has led to an unusual cultural division: on the one hand, Transylvania hosts Saxon settlements going back to the 12 century, on the other hand, the southern province of Wallachia has strong Balkan influences of Greek and Turkish origins. In field of contemporary music, to complicate matters even more, some of the most visionary 20th century composers who were born in what is today Romania, were not Romanian: Béla Bartók, György Ligeti, György Kurtág and Peter Eötvös are Hungarian, and Iannis Xenakis was Greek.
The very beginnings of Romanian modern music cannot be detached from the life and works of George Enescu (1881-1955). Pablo Casals once remarked that Enescu was “the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart”, while Yehudi Menuhin, his most prominent violin student, noted that he was “a man with an encyclopedic mind, who never forgot anything he heard, read, or saw in the course of his lifetime, and could recall instantaneously and play in the most incandescent way any work from Bach, Wagner, to Bartók”. Despite his prolific life as a composer, violinist, conductor, pedagogue, and pianist, Enescu is most often remembered through his Romanian Rhapsody No. 1, a short orchestral piece composed at 20 years of age that has become a favorite a pops concerts for more than a hundred years now.
Born in 1881 in Romania, Enescu was admitted at the Vienna Conservatory at the age of seven, a school that he graduated with distinction by the time he was eleven. Soon after, he continued his studies at the Paris Conservatory, where he studied violin and composition with Massenet and Fauré. Although his composing and performing activities were centered on Paris, he often returned to Romania, where lived intermittently until passing away at the age of 74. Throughout his complex life as a performer, conductor and composer, he completed three symphonies, orchestral suites, string quartets, violin sonatas, piano sonatas and suites, and many other smaller works for various chamber ensembles. His stunning but rarely performed opera, Oedipe, took more than a decade to complete before its Parisian premiere in 1936. Enescu’s musical language combines influences from late German romanticism, French Impressionism and Eastern European folk songs, and is heavily contrapuntal, full of extremely ductile rhythms and particularly innovative in the fields of modality and heterophonic writing.
Despite the tragedies experienced during the war in the ‘40s and the brutal Soviet oppression of the ‘50s, composers like Mihail Jora (1891-1971), Paul Constantinescu (1909-1963) or Constantin Silvestri (1913-1969), continued the development of Romanian music after Enescu, often writing in difficult cultural and political circumstances. Following World War II, a new generation of avant-garde composers centered around the Bucharest Conservatory quickly emerged and rose to international prominence starting with the ‘60s. Among them, Stefan Niculescu (1927-2008), Tiberiu Olah (1928-2002), Anatol Vieru (1926-1998), and Aurel Stroe (born in 1932) established a forward-looking and open-minded musical environment, in tune with many of the visionary ideas and compositional techniques developed at the same time on the other side of the Iron Curtain. New generations of very creative and original musicians continued to appear, with important figures and leaders, such as Liviu Danceanu, Octavian Nemescu, and the younger Dan Dediu. Some composers emigrated to France, Germany, or the United States, where they continued teaching in prestigious universities and writing acoustic and electronic music. This concise overview of the most important Romanian composers in the 20th century brings us to our present-day society, and the beginning of an exciting new era.
With the risk of oversimplifying, among the wide range of aesthetic orientations one could find today in Europe and the United States, a few valid directions have emerged over the past decades. These ideas and artistic directions have led to composers being labeled as post-modern, neo-romantic, minimalist, spectral, or simply anything in-between conservative and avant-garde. It has always been like this. Many of these composers, often teaching in various universities, have created groups or schools of thought, which in turn have provoked other groups to either sympathize or take action. Today, the neo-romantics (most of them American) have decided to return to 19th century practices such as tonality and motivic development in order to reclaim their confused audiences, while post-modernists from both continents have adopted an all-embracing attitude towards music, in which all musical elements are now valid regardless of their origins. In fact, post-modernism is not even a period or a style, but rather, an attitude towards musical sources and practices that might seem incompatible at first sight. In the U.S. minimalists have been “big news” for a while now. Finally, the “spectral school,” generally associated with composers like Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail in France or the Romanians Horatiu Radulescu and Iancu Dumitrescu, has attempted to capture the essence of sound and its spectra by pursuing research in electronic music, or adopting a more organic, almost archetypal view towards music. To a certain extent the music of Giacinto Scelsi in Italy exhibits similar features. And then, there is the music of the first post-war generation of sonic adventurers including composers like Pierre Boulez or Elliott Carter, which hasn’t changed in any fundamental way over time.
While this brief introduction on the state of affairs in today’s European and American chamber and symphonic music composition world might seem a bit superficial, its purpose here is to create a more sensible background for the discussion on my own compositional searches and discoveries. As many composers in my generation, I have been greatly influenced by the music of Ives, Ligeti, Lutoslawski, Messiaen, or Xenakis, first through my teachers in Romania and the U.S., and more recently through my ever growing experience as a avid concertgoer and audiophile. These influences go back to the late ‘80s, when I was studying composition in Bucharest, and trying to develop a personal language. More recently I discovered the music of Franco Donatoni and Thomas Ades, among others. And then, there is the future.
Most of my recent works try to tackle some of these issues, in search of a contemporary language that is neither in denial of our musical past, nor embracing it endlessly. For a few years now I have been trying to bridge the gap between composers and audiences, while writing music that can stimulate our minds and speak to our hearts. Perhaps this language is a reflection of our contemporary culture, in which no more restrictions on our musical vocabulary can be imposed by academics or audiences with specific needs and expectations. Quite frankly, ever since recordings and other such media have been allowed to “travel” across the globe in a matter of seconds, the concept of a composer completely connected to his or her local public has disappeared. This sort of confusion has been troubling me for quite a while, especially as an emigrant in a country of emigrants. Where are my roots as a composer these days? On which sort of ground am I standing aesthetically?
Ever since leaving Romania for the United States in 1994, these questions have been returning at key moments in my life. Searching for answers has not been an easy task, especially as I kept moving to new cities and universities every few years, studied with new teachers or taught in new environments, and ultimately experienced new cultural and geographical climates. Today, I believe I know better than ever why my music continues to sound Romanian, even after living abroad for so long. There are at least three reasons:
1. My compositions have preserved in subtle ways the artistic and musical spirituality of Eastern Europe in general, and the folk traditions of popular songs and dances inherited from the centuries-old oral culture of the Romanian village. Obviously, I was never interested in approaching this world in a superficial manner, by writing sad songs and happy dances. The essence of this tradition can be found at a much deeper level, in the quiet reflection and contemplation often found in my compositions and the vitality of the rhythms I use in works like the Chamber Concerto (1993) or the Quodlibet Sonata (1996).
2. Most of my works have been based on a musical language defined by the use of archetypes. Whether this strategy was centered on a particular interval, a group of pitches with a clear axis, or the use of the overtone series, this archetypal approach can be found in works written as early as my String Quartet No. 1 from 1990, or as recent as the three orchestral pieces I have just completed in April of this year: Instant, Morphing and Focus. The connection between archetypes and modern art has been widely explored by the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), as well.
3. Another feature having Romanian origins is my interest in searching for and preserving the ambiguous and abstract nature of music. I have always preferred suggestion to clarity, by avoiding predictable statements and standard forms. I suppose that such a dimension comes as a result of growing up in a culture placed at the borders of Europe, where the pragmatic West gets a quick glimpse of the reflective and exotic world of the Middle East.
One could easily analyze my works in search of the above-listed features and procedures, should a conclusion or compositional recipe be needed. Am I a true Romanian composer living in the Unites States, or an American composer with strong Romanian roots? I believe I know the answer, but after all, I am not the one who could provide it objectively. My goal as a composer has been to write honestly and without fear. I believe I have succeeded, most of the times.
Beyond this brief analysis of my musical language and any debates it may lead to one day, the essence of my recent compositional endeavors has been the preservation of a strong spiritual dimension, organically connected with the Romanian culture. In many ways, I have become a pragmatic composer. This is a lesson I learned while living in the United States, in an era in which the contemporary composer cannot survive without understanding and using technology. On the other hand, I have always wanted my music to suggest and not explain, and to question without providing answers. I hope I have succeeded in preserving my roots, despite the rather wide geographical and cultural space that separates Los Angeles from my home in Bucharest, Romania.
Prof. PhD Liviu Marinescu / USA /
A Romanian Composer in the United States