The Strange Familiar

The Strange Familiar

This interview was conducted by Danish musicologist Søren Møller Sørensen, and first published in Danish in the journal AUTograf under the title ‘Partituret lyver’.

SMS: Sometimes it’s easier to talk about something else, when the thing you want to talk about is really close to your heart. When it comes to compositional principles, Juliana Hodkinson prefers talking about language than music - about all the aspects of spoken language that aren’t represented in writing. Pauses, interruptions, hesitations. And the complex relationship between writing, sound and meaning in Japanese, which she has been studying.

JH: It’s fascinating that the Japanese got their writing system - as so many other cultural things at that time - from the Chinese via Koreans. Seen as spoken languages, Japanese and Chinese have nothing to do with each other, so writing Japanese with Chinese symbols makes about as much sense as writing English with Chinese symbols. But over the centuries the Japanese have been trying to adapt and modify these Chinese signs to be able to do all that you can say in Japanese. And that development has of course affected the spoken language too. But there are still enormous areas where spoken Japanese has specific complexities that don’t fit with the structures of Chinese writing. Sounds in Japanese are often multivalent; that’s not only the reason why so much Japanese literature is very nuanced and full of complicated references, but it’s also the source of many problems in daily communication. Japanese exemplifies for me that no aural tradition escapes having an array of random mishaps when it’s translated into writing. Is ‘writing music’ a less strange ambition than wanting to write Japanese with Chinese script learnt from Koreans?

SMS: The interest for the incongruence between different aspects of modern Japanese – writing, sound and meaning, sensitivity towards the basic strangeness of language’s different faces, and the acceptance of the sources of mistakes and their inevitability are all reflected in Juliana Hodkinson’s experimental approach to the score. From work to work she finds new ways of developing the zone of interpretation without crossing over into improvisation. In ‘In slow movement’ (1994), the tempo is determined by the musicians’ breathing pulse and there is no intended vertical coordination of the 7 parts. In ‘Water like a stone’ (1996) and ‘Machine à eau’ (1998) it’s a major point that the relatively large ensembles necessarily play without conductor, that a performance therefore requires the highest degree of listening and communication between the musicians, and that there is no definitive compositional control over the vertical coordination.

This practice deflects interest from music’s ideal representation in the score to music as an event and unique experiential opportunity.

JH: In a way, scores build on untruthful premises. They make everything that happens in rehearsals and on the stage less perfect than the ideal that one’s pursuing. For me, the wrong moments where it’s all wobbling and not quite right have the same status as the work as you imagine it when you see the score and as you hear it in your head - without mistakes and without reality.

SMS: Behind this weakening of the score’s grasp on the performance situation, is there a desire to weaken the score’s authority?

JH: I would like to try to remove some of music’s possibilities for being predictable, and to remove some possibilities for being able to imagine at all what this music will be like except in the situation where you have an instrument in your hand and try to play the music. Many of my scores can’t even be read with any meaningful gain. They only make sense when they are played.

SMS: In her own unique way, Hodkinson is extending the 1960s’ and ‘70s’ very ideological wrestle with the musical work-concept. The ideal is so obviously not an ‘opus perfectum et absolutem’, a closed and self-contained work, which once it is immortalized in writing lives its life independently of its author. The work has surrendered its demand on identity and substance, and writing has given up its demands on universality. How do musicians react to that, and what happens to the composer’s role?

JH: I can see that if I continue with these interests, then the number of musicians whom I can show my music to will diminish. Maybe my music will get more specific, maybe I’ll write more performance-specific works, and I’ll be more interested in unique collaborations with particular musicians or with a particular place or a particular audience. The universal score doesn’t work for me, I can’t just send my scores around in the world, where they might be played in a large or small space by musicians who maybe don’t engage with the music’s background. It seems more risky and less rewarding for me and the musicians to approach things in that way. So in a way I undermine my own scores’ authority. Maybe I’ll become a kind of curator for musical performances that include my works but maybe not only my works.

SMS: Every music creates its own listener. Juliana Hodkinson’s music creates a listener who dares to concentrate on listening without being afraid of missing or misunderstanding deep, hidden meanings.
Maybe it’s because she poses such large demands for concentration and intimacy on herself and her musicians, maybe it’s because the music doesn’t rest on systems; it’s often structurally uncomplicated, but still minutely worked out in sound and articulation.
Her music is full of strange sounds, but that strangeness has the odd habit of quickly becoming familiar. The microtonal deviations and the untraditional use of instruments are a kind of sensitivity to sound, rather than a negation of it.

But at the same time one senses a sharp intellect’s wakefulness and responsibility, a knowledge of musical means and a sure understanding of music’s ability to define the space in which it unfolds, and of the fact that music must work to soften the mental and institutional structures that surround it.

On communicating through rehearsals, scores and musical works
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