New music from Aztec fire

Fri, May 25, 2012, 01:00

When writing her new piano concerto, Deirdre Gribbin went back to the time of the Aztecs, and what she learned about their fire ceremony sparked her imagination – and gave her the title of the piece, writes MICHAEL DERVAN

FOR DEIRDRE GRIBBIN, the title and the inspiration of a piece are always very important. That’s true of the Belfast composer’s new piano concerto, The Binding of the Years, commissioned by RTÉ for Finghin Collins.

The title reveals “very much the substance of the piece”, says Gribbin. “I went into the British Museum a couple of years ago. There was an Aztecs exhibition, and I went during late opening on a Thursday – I live very close to the museum. There was this exquisite little stone box which had carved reeds on the side of it, and the lid was open.

“I read about it and it said it was part of a new fire ceremony, where they bound the reeds every 52 years, and they would extinguish all the fires in the town, and then go to a mountain-top, have a pyre, and light a torch. And everybody watched from the rooftops . . . and waited. Once the fire came down the mountain on the torch they would light all the fires from it. There’s something very simple, very present about it.

“It also made me think about light renewal, lighting the Olympic torch. And I thought of the Arab Spring, and people on their roofs with their candles, not saying anything. And I began to hear music. I began to hear this oboe line. The reed instruments just came into my head, and I suddenly heard the beginning of a piece, and I thought, this is my piano concerto.”

She had been commissioned to write the concerto, but hadn’t yet started it. “I knew that the piano was going to creep in slowly, and then take over. So I knew the shape of the opening of the piece, but I hadn’t heard it. And that was the beginning of it. It was one of those really nice moments, everything in life tying in to what you’re doing.”

What she heard in her mind’s ear in the museum was “very much the nature of the opening piano line, which is very delicate filigree, very fine. I described it to Finghin as a filigree of silver, not lace. It’s brittle, metallic. I was thinking very much of that filigree you get in Russian design of silver.”

She read a lot about the Aztecs and how music was a strong feature of their culture. “But of course we don’t know what it sounded like. They describe flutes playing and people singing in chants, almost like a wailing sound. So I had this image of what the music might be like.

“A sense of ritual is very important. I studied archaeology as part of my degree, and referenced pre-history and how other cultures understand time. It’s very important. I spent a long time in Ladakh in the Himalayas. It’s a very Buddhist culture, but they have this dance where the women are dressed in heavy jade stone costumes, and the dance they do is not for other people – it’s for themselves. So they do a gesture where they take a flower and they show it and turn. It’s almost like t’ai chi.

“That kind of understanding of other time spans is something I find intriguing, living in the centre of London, a big, fast city, and very noisy. I love the idea of connecting my contemporary world to other possibilities. My sister lives in the Outer Hebrides, and we go there every summer. You can sit outside at night and see the sky and complete darkness. It’s so dark sometimes, you can’t see your hand in front of your face. It reminds you of your mortality, that you’re a little cog in the wheel.

“I read about the Aztecs’ new fire ceremony and its cycles, and it turns out that if they were to be celebrating them now, there’s a stone called the Xochicalco stone, and the numerical reckonings on it mean that one of the culminations of the bindings comes at the end of this year. That was just pure coincidence, and there I was in the middle of this piece.”

The length of the commission, at 20 minutes, was “difficult”. It’s rather short for a concerto.

“I think that was a big question for me, what is the nature of the music if it’s 20 minutes, and how much I want to say within 20 minutes. I knew it was fast. Writing for piano is like writing for two orchestras. It’s much more challenging than writing a linear line, and much more exciting, because you’ve got all the chordal, harmonic potential of having 10 fingers. It took a lot of preparation. And I also needed to listen to Finghin play. This is going to be really for him – idiomatic. I want the piece to reflect what he can do really well.”

Finghin Collins and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under Alan Buribayev give the premiere of The Binding of the Years at the NCH in Dublin tonight. There’s a pre-concert conversation between composer and soloist at 7pm. The concert includes Janacek’s Sinfonietta and works by Tchaikovsky, the 1812 Overture and excerpts from Swan Lake.