G Silvestrini: Dream Visions

The Six Études by French composer Gilles Silvestrini are probably the most frequently played pieces for oboe that were written in the last thirty years – this is no surprise as they were pushing the boundaries, putting new demands both in instrumental technique and musical expression. I met the composer in Paris to better understand his approach to composing and to talk about his music, in particular the Études Pittoresques composed in 2013.

I chose Alii mundi for my album since it summarises my concept about the tension between home and the foreign. The music, like the title itself, serves as a metaphor: Alii mundi (“other worlds”) refers to medieval European world maps mappae mundi like the 1375 Atlas Catalan by Abraham Cresques. This atlas was the first to include Marco Polo’s travel reports to depict the edge of the known world of the time – the far east. It is no coincidence that a detail of this map was chosen for the cover of the Études Pittoresques: A caravan travelling to the east on the silk road.

A caravan travelling to the east on the silk road. Abraham Cresques: Atlas Catalan (1375, excerpt). source: wikimedia commons

The music describes a captivating scene in the distant orient, an “orient of dreams”, as the composer told me. Portraying an improvisation on an exotic wind instrument, the piece creates the ambience of the vast, lonely steppe. The contrast between static fermatas and very fluent, agitating passages creates the piece’s tension, which leads to a danse infernale. This fire dance quickly dissolves into nothingness and finally returns to the initial atmosphere. Silvestrini almost always uses special fingerings to let the oboe sound like a traditional far-eastern wind instrument. The written dynamics and microtones are the result of these fingerings and not vice versa; they will certainly sound different on every brand and even single instrument, which is no problem if they are still comfortable to play and fit into the general colour and idea of the piece. Nevertheless, the tempi, rubati and length of the fermatas are chosen and placed very deliberately to give every phrase a unique character and create an arc of tension over the entire piece.
Gilles Silvestrini – Alii Mundi (excerpt)

Indeed, the well-known Six Études deserve their popularity for both their fresh approach to the instrument and the playful virtuosity – they are worth the effort for any oboist willing to take a step forward. Nonetheless, there is still plenty to discover. Silvestrini wrote a variety of new pieces for oboe, still mostly unknown to the community, even though their musical language is much more interesting and the style more personal. Amongst his more recent works are two additional volumes of concert etudes, which are the Études russes (2012) and Études pittoresques (2013), the twelve-minutes fantasy piece Horae volubiles (2006) and Les Lusiades (2014), incorporating elements of the symphonic form into a solo piece.
Particularly the Études pittoresques caught my attention since they dispose of an exciting mixture of inspirational sources: Silvestrini uses diverse musical styles and other art forms as well as instrumental experiments to give every piece its very own timbre. The first two etudes are inspired by fictional scenes from an exotic, dream-like vision of northeast asia: N° 1 Gengis Khan, which is depicting the ferocity and mercilessness of the warrior tribes, followed by the contrasting N° 2 Alii mundi, a pastoral, quasi-improvised idyll. The middle pieces are inspired by literature: Two tales by Hans-Christian Andersen. N° 3 … mais une sirène n’a pas de larmes … (… but marmaids cannot weep …) uses motives from The Little Mermaid, beginning with harmonious, water-like figurations and followed by a complex as well as restless passage describing hard decisions that finally lead to a tragic end. N° 4 … elle savait aussi chanter d’une voix douce et gentille … (… she could also sing in a sweet and gentle voice …), after Thumbelina, which again contrasts the previous piece, imitates the infantile, almost naive chant of a miniature girl drifting on a lily pad in a pond with, from her perspective, ocean-like dimensions. The last two pieces, N° 5 Hommage à Sir Elgar and N° 6 Hommage à Britten, are tributes to two great English composers in a freely associative way without any direct quotes, which also creates a link to dedicatee Melane Ragge, who is oboist and teacher at the Royal Academy of Music in London.