#composer: Moritz Gagern zu ‚Nigunim‘

#composer: Moritz Gagern on 'Nigunim'

On April 26, 2023, the work will be Nigunim , which the composer Moritz Gagern wrote for the JCOM in 2018, will be performed again, this time in conjunction with a new video artwork created by the video artist Christoph Brech on behalf of the Goetz Collection. Further information and tickets for the concert here .

Moritz Gagern to Nigunim :

'A certain kind of soulfulness and lightness connects the various pieces that have been handed down to us as wedding music of the Eastern European Jews. If, as a composer, you want to engage with this music, not simply depict its broad spectrum, but create something new from it from today's perspective, it makes sense to examine the playing style of influential instrumentalists. My investigation therefore began with an archaeological experience. I listened to various noisy recordings from the early days of sound recording again and again, sometimes in extreme slow motion, to find out what was actually happening. Some things happen that, according to the Orthodox understanding of music, should not happen at all. Physical boundaries are shifted. The cantorial singing of the synagogue continues in these techniques. The characteristic playing techniques are instrumental approximations of the human voice.

"Klezmer" never existed until a unique branch of American folk music was given the name nearly forty years ago. The new folk movement interpreted the lost music of Jewish immigrants as it had been played to American audiences in the 1920s: an echo from Eastern Europe that contains valuable information because it is better documented than the original, but which quickly acclimatized. Two generations later, in Klezmer, the echo had of course become a phenomenon of its own. The music that the composition Nigunim deals with is the barely documented ancestor of the folk revival.

What has existed for centuries in Ukraine, Bessarabia, Poland, Romania and Moldova is para-liturgical wedding music played by professional musicians, whose instrumentation varied between a single dulcimer virtuoso and a large mixed orchestra, into which a highly improbable bundle of musical influences had been incorporated. It was not religious in the narrow sense, but also not profane. The European influence lies in some rhythms and melodic forms, in the tendential chordal accompaniment. The oriental influence lies in the melodic finesse, which in its virtuoso performance of micro-complexity seems to exceed the limits of notability.

Traditional European music is unthinkable without its written form, because it is vertically complex, that is, in the polyphonic layering and elaboration and in the harmonious interplay between melody and accompaniment. Oriental music is horizontally complex, its special characteristic being the finely worked ornaments between the notable outlines of the melody, which does not extend into the contrapuntal tonal space. A notation of the traditional melodies without the ornamentation does not capture the actual content of the melody that the performer gives it. Notating the ornamentation, on the other hand, would be very uneconomical, because it is a practical aspect of this musical culture, differs from teacher to teacher, a characteristic of virtuoso performers and not part of the composition or playing template.

This touches on a core theme of Nigunim for Orchestra , namely the question of how an orchestral composition written down in detail for classical musicians can do justice to a musical culture in the 21st century that has been passed down orally and is dependent on the practical knowledge of its performers. This is particularly true since this tradition ended about a hundred years ago without leaving behind anything more than a few written melodies and scattered gramophone recordings from Warsaw, Odessa, Istanbul, Kiev or New York City.

When Daniel Grossmann and Andrea Schönhofer approached me in the spring of 2015, they had a vision: this silent wedding music could only be done justice with an orchestra, as it was originally music for the largest possible ensembles - the bigger the wedding, the bigger the orchestra. The nice catch to the vision was that of course neither original sheet music was (or could be) available, nor was there any freer attempt to make the original tangible with a contemporary compositional position; be it directly, by approximating the original, or indirectly, by taking an artistic-compositional stance on the whole complex: the lost world of Ashkenazi wedding music and its great-grandchild, Klezmer. When they approached me, my first question was: do you want me to write a "Klezmer" concert? Or a concert "about" Klezmer. The answer was, of course, both. And my answer to that was, of course, that could be interesting.

The squaring of the circle, which the composition Nigunim for orchestra is based on, consists in uniting compositional reflection and dancing, in writing autonomous concert music about ritual music, and in notating interpretative complexity. In other words: the productive impossibility consists in making a lost ritual music, which at the time was supposed to "function" as music, and was supposed to inspire crying, laughing, dancing, eating and processing (you can't offer a constant stream of experimental scraping and scratching at a wedding if you're making a living from being hired again), in making this music tangible and reviving it, and in combining it with contemporary musical reflection.

One key for me was the sound of the playback of these old recordings on shellac records, the noise of the gramophone. Another was the meticulous analysis of certain performers, or rather their ornamentation, for which only a few recordings were suitable. The sophisticated ornamentation gives this music its essence. If you take a closer look at these barely audible figures and typical playing styles, a world of its own emerges, implausible in terms of playing technique and free in every respect. They form part of the basic material of Nigunim .

My compositions often follow narrative structures - if you like, Nigunim is a composed wedding. The composition wanders through the hot spots of an archaic wedding, carried by its timeless subject, the mystery of marriage. What particularly impresses me about this rite is the thoughtful integration of transgression and suffering, the reference to the fate of generations long past and to the astonishing cornerstones of human life, so that the party can really rock at the end.'

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