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maybe no maybe yes
The music of Mike Svoboda

“I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)

Mike Svoboda chose this quote to underline the melancholy mood of his harp duo echo yes no (2019). In a way, this reflects his position as a musician: His rejection to limiting himself to simply one musical genre, profession, or musical stance. He began with jazz, quickly rose to the heights of the new music scene, works with children and loves entertainment. The significant contrast with Silvia Plath is that, for him, choosing one means choosing all the rest!

This is shown by his expansive oeuvre – a word often used in grandiloquent biographies of composers – which spans an extremely broad range of styles, forms, etc.: alongside solo works, chamber music and orchestral music, he has also written sacred music, music theater, operas, remixes, etc. However, it is hardly probable that Svoboda ploughed through each of these categories one after the other; it is more likely that the plurality is the result of him playing in an expansive global network for decades, and these specific ways of working and communicating are manifested in his compositions. As a result, the “genres” of his works are rarely treated conventionally, and thus to date he has not yet composed a series of string quartets or suchlike.

Mike Svoboda readily reacts to specific, at best unusual, situations. An example is the case of his above-mentioned harp duo echo yes no: he was asked to write a new composition for a young duo of harpists (Alice Belugou and Estelle Costanzo) to be performed in a church alongside Stockhausen’s work Freude. As Svoboda has little interest in glorifying his past – he worked very successfully with Stockhausen for 11 years – he chose not to answer with an affirmative echo. On the contrary, echo yes no is clearly more inclined towards the realm of “worry, don’t be happy”. However, what is very clearly affirmed in the work are skill and readiness to experiment of the two performers. So, No? Yes! After the richness of the harps gradually evaporates in the first part of the composition – with the harpists sporadically emitting sharp, voiceless vowel sounds – a visionary, almost psychedelic world opens up, enriched by live electronics, which also serves as a reminder that Svoboda is a sort of musical grandchild of the microtonal composer Harry Partch through his teacher Ben Johnston.

Stockhausen might also have enjoyed this sound world (not least due to the prominent use of ring modulation); in echo yes no, however, the relationship of the work to tradition can be considered to be rather fractured. In other works, hedonistic, playful, at times even satirical modes of communication with regard to bygone music dominate, whether in the almost frivolous revues Love Hurts – Carmen Remix (2003/2010) and 14 attempts to love Richard Wagner (2002) or the avant-garde orgy of the Studies to “Adorno (sex, drugs and new music)” from 2007. A foundational principle of Svoboda’s work is to bring seemingly irreconcilable sound worlds into a single context. This corresponds to an early formative musical experience that Mike Svoboda had: to the teenager, the music of Pierre Boulez and Ornette Coleman sounded surprising similar, both fascinating and electrifying. Only later did he learn to discern between the genres. In the saxophone concerto Wittgenstein & Twombly (2017), the idea of dissolving opposing ideologies, or at least playfully bringing them into conflict with one another, is an important factor; as a result, the grand concertante gesture never fully established itself, and pre-musical moments of stasis appear repeatedly in which one reorients, searching for the right language or the right tone (an orchestral tuning ritual repeatedly serving as a sort of refrain). This situation enables something that is often extremely difficult to create in the repetition of musical routines: amazement.

In this way, Svoboda offers Marcus Weiss, an internationally renowned saxophonist and enthusiast for philosophy, a unique role on the stage. Does the world-famous trombone virtuoso also play a role in his own music? The answer is: Yes, and not too rarely. It is therefore interesting to observe how Svoboda composes Svoboda, the performer, to an extent. In the large-scale Music for Trombone and Orchestra, he allows himself to take center stage; however, more important than the grandiose moments are the diverse and changing relationships that he enters into with musicians of the orchestra. The mirroring scene with the contrabass clarinet is fit for a Marx Brothers film. In between, he submerges into a kind of shadow-world, where small, thoroughly unsymphonic sound sources (mp3 players, megaphones) are heard. No: In Music for Trombone and Orchestra, the appearance of the soloist can’t exist without his disappearance, while he mediates between both. In Die Bücher der Zeiten (2016), based on an imaginary apocalypse myth by the young Hölderlin, the trombone would of course fit the theme of doom on its own; however, in this cantata, it also takes on the role as a node of communication between the singers and the percussionist, with the threat of the abyss particularly effectively portrayed in the unpathetic, almost empty moments of the work.

Regardless of how much Svoboda’s music is certainly permeated by the desire to make music, there is at the same time a tangible tendency towards “yes, but…”. Alongside the many energetic, action-pact soundscapes, moments of contemplation arise in a quiet counter-world in which the activity and weighty gestures can be questioned, dismantled and reflected upon. A repeating motif is that of a percussionist walking in place on a bed of gravel; they walk on, indifferent to the apocalyptic prophecies in Die Bücher der Zeiten or the ever-changing course of Wittgenstein & Twombly. In the almost conceptual piece Cartesian Rainbow (2017), the percussionist contemplates the sensations of color while on their gravel bed without arriving at a real result. He probably know that there are many figs left to pluck.

Michael Kunkel © 2021 (translation: Jon Roskilly)

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