The Music in Poetry

For French composer Franck Christoph Yeznikian, there is no doubt that poetry is music – but how can poems be translated into music? In the following interview, Franck talks about his piece Harnischstriemen (Faltenachsen), based on Paul Celan’s poem of the same title, which was part of the group show Around Analogies (January 16, – March 1, 2015) at Solitude, and reveals his way of composing.

Marte Kräher: Franck, would you agree that poetry is music?

Franck Christoph Yeznikian: For several reasons, I would say undoubtedly yes. No poem should be without the acoustic dimension of its verbal substance. The matter of rhythm is central in poetry. Novalis said in a fragment that if we lose rhythm then we shall lose the world. Henri Meschonnic, who was one of the most important connoisseurs of poetry, placed rhythm at the heart of the matter. But to answer your question with more precision, we have to focus on poets to see to what extent their poetry answers to a musical dimension. There are predominantly two poets I have studied for a long time: Paul Celan (1920–1970) and Anne-Marie Albiach (1937–2012), whom I was fortunate to meet in 1994. They both had a way of writing a poem which could be seen as a composition where a polyphony of layers provides the pulse, with a counterpoint sometimes in the line – in the words as well as between the lines, from the white section of the page.

MK: Your composition Harnischstriemen (Faltenachsen) is based on a poem by Paul Celan of the same title. What fascinates you about this poem?

FCY: This poem has a special story and influence on my life as a composer. My fascination with the poetry of Celan started at 18, a time where I started to venture into the field of composition in terms of its written tradition. My first piece, entitled Contrainte de lumière (Lichtzwang) for viola and tape, is a work that I can no longer connect with because I was too young to assess what it means to set Celan’s poetry to music. Regarding the Harnischstriemen poem, I had already wanted to put it to music before this concerto for cimbalom. I arrived one day for a course – which fortuitously introduced me to someone who later became my teacher, Klaus Huber – with sketches for a piece for a trio or quartet based on this poem, whose title was at the time Faltenachsen. During the presentation of my composition, my teacher became angry about my use of the principle of predetermining the measures of my piece in advance. He told me this procedure was like protecting myself by putting on armor against the fear of a blank page. However for me, it was more a proximity with the compositional strategies I could recognize in the work of Brian Ferneyhough. The measures are for me dynamic windows for my imagination, rather than a frame defining the time and perspective. To return to the point of your question, I wrote this concerto for cimbalom following a prize awarded to me by the city of Salzburg on the recommendation of Klaus Huber in 2009. Hence, this piece could be seen as the interweaving of references and reverences, a statement establishing where I was and simultaneously looking back on my journey. For me, this poem carries a dimension which I can appropriate in reference to the original

MK: Can you explain this? Celan’s poems are characterized by quite ambiguous images and phrases …

FCY: The poetry of Celan can be read with several different meanings, and one of them comes from the vocabulary of geology. Here, we find the presence of the Falten (folds). I have been fascinated by folds and textiles for a long time. My parents and my sister are shopkeepers and sell fabric. My Armenian grandmother worked as a weaver. When I was involved in the process of composing Faltenstudie (1998) – a miniature for a large orchestra composed as an homage to Anton Webern – I was reading The Fold by Deleuze. Just like him, I consider the historical consequences more hidden in the folds of a strained (tightened) canvas. Through Deleuze, I discovered the work of the Hungarian painter Simon Hantaï, who developed a technique of folds in his paintings. I remember also having read a text on the folds of Leonardo da Vinci written by Jacques Derrida, who was in correspondence with Simon Hantaï. His paintings are complex and linked to Structuralism and Baroque, and this relation probably comes from a part of Leibniz’s philosophy. I can see several layers in the paintings, which evoke in me a feeling of sympathy.

MK: How would you describe your approach to composition?

FCY: My method doesn’t stem from a purely musical tradition. I began with the oral tradition of making music in a cave, with a band consisting of a drummer. Little by little, I gained other principles of the written tradition of composition by studying a lot of scores in the contemporary repertoire. But music was still never enough for me in my field of creativity. I always need to research texts, images, traces, and references to conclude an investigation, which results in the expression of a piece of music. That’s why I feel very close to Georges Didi-Huberman’s way of working. I recently composed a new piece, called PVLVERE (entre poudre et poussière). It represents a new dialectical dimension in my way of composing, where both traditions are no longer in conflict with each other, but rather in exchange from one side to the other. I represented these trips and movements of ideas and components in sound with my acousmatic piece Transhumance.

MK: The exhibited cartography showed all the references you mentioned as names, numbers, letters, notes, quotes, and intervals. How did you finally incorporate them into your composition?

FCY: As a composer, I feel closer to the notion of intervals than notes. This means that I’m working in the space of references. I’m exploring connections and also trying to create certain new ones. Harnischstriemen is probably the piece where this network is best accomplished. The principle is to find a formula of seminal numbers which I get either from the title of the work or from references associated with the main subject of the piece. Then, I use them to build my harmony, by considering the numbers as intervals as well as building blocks for the proportions of the sections and subsections, for instance. Certain notes and the letters (i.e. A B C D E F G H S) also influence the composition, especially in this concerto where, beside the homages I make to Klaus Huber and Holliger – who are still extremely important in my way of thinking about music and for me like a planting pole used to support the plant’s stalk – the date of Simon Hantaï’s death is encrypted in the tombeau. The letters of his first and second name give the note H (si). Since I wrote my first piece for cimbalom, the lowest note C is retuned to H as a reference to the birth place of the painter: Hungary.

MK: Klaus Huber and Heinz Hollinger would have been honored by your homage… How would you imagine Paul Celan’s reaction?

FCY: How could I answer that? I can only imagine that he would perhaps be not so disappointed with my approach of leaving out the lyrical use of the voice in his poetry. Most of the time, composers do not think about the responsibility they have when handling a poem by Celan. Music is an art of time. Mnemosyne was the muse of memory. Music could not exist without the infinite breath which comes from the first sound heard and produced and transmitted from one generation to the next. Music contains the memory of our history. That’s why I found a lot of musical use of his poetry deeply problematic. The poetry of Celan is dialogic; it awaits from the reader (interlocutor) – essentially the composer in the situation – a responsibility which does not fall into a kind of academism or tonal language. The avant-garde is also no guarantee. Celan proved that a poem is still possible after Auschwitz. A musician should take the extent of this matter into account with the highest care and be aware of the difficulties, particularly in a society where »everything goes«. We touch there on ethics.

MK: The pieces were already written when you came to Solitude. What projects did you work on during your stay at Solitude?

FCY: The time (ce temps privilégié) spent in the castle for me was invaluable. Not so much in terms of creativity, but for reflection. A retreat in a certain sense. Stuttgart is still for me a center for contemporary music in Germany as I watch what’s happening in the field of creation. Somewhere, a full loop was made by virtue of the fact that I had returned to an important region, where I had lived sometimes while studying with Klaus Huber during his residence at the Strasbourg Conservatory. I was actually living between Lyon and Stuttgart, and it was there, in 1991, that I had the chance to meet people like Hans-Peter Jahn and Helmut Lachenmann. How could I forget, for instance, the edition of Tage für Neue Musik Stuttgart in 1992 featuring Luigi Nono! I’m not the kind of composer who writes one piece after another without a lapse of time to think about the central question which is still for me »wozu Dichter?« (»why poets?«). I believe in the necessity of history as well as in my own history: are we not trying to answer signs here and there? Our life could also be seen as a kind of book. It is of course a question of perspective. In that sense, I could consider this point of view as a kind of remnant of romanticism in my own behavior. Something is turning; is it a page or a chapter? Should I say it is more than an evolution of our civilization, so to speak? I’m afraid that there is this continuity which no longer raises the questions as to the longevity and the shape of responsibility in the sense of obsolescence, as Günther Anders managed to do, spurring on the criteria of our civilization. Every day, we are subject to decisions – ranging from small scale to large political ones – in social and cultural subjects as to how we are to face the question of the pollutions in our life and in the future. I feel I belong more to the previous world in the current situation of today’s music as virtuosity and the métier are no longer sufficient seeds for a work to take root. In terms of the values of the previous world, I mean those artists who crossed the boundaries of different styles while remaining relevant. I’m afraid of seeing that the signs and the forms used here and there are less and less linked with their etymologies. But to answer your question more directly: I took the time to finish a piece for students and began to think about a piece for piano, a work which is to take place within the framework of a concert evoking the sad remembrance of the hundred year anniversary of the Armenian genocide through the figure of Komitas, a central composer for the Armenians. He spent the 20 last years of his life in a hospital in France between silence and delusions, following the insurmountable trauma of deportation from which he was partially saved.