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3.3.07

The Melancholy Pascal Dusapin

Pascal Dusapin, composerPascal Dusapin's new opera Faustus, the Last Night will receive its American premiere at the Spoleto Festival. In January, Dusapin oversaw a new production of his earlier opera Médée (Brussels, 1991). New works have been commissioned from him by the Berlin Philharmonic, planned for this summer, and the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence in 2008. Since February 1, he has been lecturing at the Collège de France, the first composer to be invited to do so since Pierre Boulez (in 1976, when the young Dusapin heard him lecture). Christian Merlin published an interview with Dusapin (Pascal Dusapin : "Le danger, c'est la virtuosité", February 1) in Le Figaro (my translation):

Does this new activity require you to analyze your music?

I am not a theorist, I do not have a conceptual approach. What interests me is "doing." During the first lecture, I am going to take a piece apart to show how it was made, in a very concrete way. If I had been audacious, instead of holding a lecture, I would have shown the audience how I work. But in the course of the meetings, there will be performers to illustrate what I mean: a lectureship of creation. Boulez used to explain, in his lessons, musical ideas like form, motive, etc. For my part, I have no musicological opinion on such ideas. When I am composing, I have no preconceived plan, although I still know where I am going. What interests me is the accident, the detour, the deformation: when the idea you had at the start is transformed. From that point of view, my way of composing is more influenced by morphogenesis or photography than by musicological considerations.

What about photography is key for your music?

I take a lot of photographs, and I am even going to have an exhibit in Moscow! One time, in Rome, I devoted an entire composition seminar to one photograph. When I write for orchestra, for example, I ask myself questions about perspective or field depth: where does one put the focus, what instruments are sharp or blurry? These questions are an obsession for me. The form of the piece that I composed for Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, Reverso, was inspired by a Bill Brandt photograph, a pair of legs that form a pattern of lines, one of which is the « reverso » of the other. [...]

Is it easy for you?

No, I'm slow, I work like a fanatic. At the same time, I can only go three days without writing, it's a physical need. I have colleagues who can stop for six months, then compose a 30-minute piece in two months, which would take me two years! Even my notation is slow: I draw my stems with a ruler and I don't trust pens because they move too fast. The danger is virtuosity. If my music seems stretched thin, it's because it is like water going through a pipe that is too narrow. I am interested less and less in expansion, in prattling, and more and more in rarefaction. This will be the case with the opera I am composing for the Aix Festival. But rarefaction does not mean thinness: it vexes me when critics like you write that my music lacks harmonic richness. It is true that my music does not modulate much and that harmony is not the most important element. But I can assure you that I am experimenting with harmony a lot!

What is more and more striking about your music is its melancholy, isn't it?

That quality is not immediately apparent: I'm 6'3" and moderately social. But I am fundamentally melancholy. If I have a happy life, it was not given to me, it is the fruit of a lot of work. It must be said that I have a weighty medical history. A brain illness at 7 years old, for which I was treated for nine years and spent most of my childhood in a hospital. All the children hospitalized with me died. I lived through comas, epilepsy. So, when I say that my music does not come from music, I can give you some very specific examples: the gasping of the angel in my opera Faustus is the sound that you make during an electroencephalogram. I passed my graduation exam by correspondence because I could no longer stand to be around anyone. Then, my father threw me out: he said later, when we had reconciled, that it was so that I could write my music. It is true that this feeling I have of being on borrowed time has given me a real sense of urgency.
I think this may be the Bill Brandt photograph to which Dusapin is referring. No information yet about the subject of the new opera. For an article in the New York Times last year, Dusapin told Alan Riding that "opera directors today want the press attention they get from a new piece. They don't want to present a work if it's not their idea."

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