Ivan Moody in interview with Andrea Ratuski, CBC,
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, October 1999
The following is a very slightly amended transcript of an interview given at the CBC Studios, Winnipeg, in October 1999.
[Recording Excerpt: Opening of Passion & Resurrection: Red Byrd, Cappella Amsterdam/Daniel Reuss, Hyperion CDA66999]
Andrea Ratuski: Composer Ivan Moody has been profoundly influenced by the spirituality of the Orthodox Church and Eastern liturgical chant. His deeply rooted faith inspires everything he does, as an artist and as a person. His music has an emotional quality that seems to touch listeners to the core. People often remark that they feel transported after hearing one of his pieces. The Hilliard Ensemble, of England, has championed his work, and now his music is performed all over the world, but weíve only just discovered his music here in Canada. Ivan Moody was born and educated in England, and now makes his home in Portugal. His most important teacher was John Tavener, whose music is also based on Eastern Orthodoxy. Moody is part of a younger generation of composer writing music which is spiritually based and is rooted in our contemporary musical world. Weíve just heard the first section, or ikon, Incarnation, from Ivan Moodyís oratorio Passion & Resurrection. Weíll also be hearing part of the Crucifixion section from the work. Moody feels that the Passion is the most difficult and yet the most important subject with which an artist may engage. Composers like Heinrich Schutz or J.S.Bach might agree, but Moodyís setting is far from the western European tradition of Bach. It uses Russian Orthodox chant as its basis. Ivan Moody came to Winnipeg last Fall, to hear the Canadian premiere of his work for Ďcello and chamber orchestra called Epitaphios. It was played by soloist Paul Maleyn and the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra under Simon Streatfeild. Thatís when I had the chance to speak with him. I began our conversation by asking him how he became interested in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Ivan Moody: That was a very long process. I suppose it started with a schoolteacher who was constantly disappearing to Greece, and gave me some flavour of both the country and the culture, and the religion. And then later on I came into contact with a lot of Russian people, partly through an interest in Russian music; and thatís really it Ė it was a long process of cultural learning in combination with a spiritual search that was already there.
AR: What was your own upbringing?
IM: Well, I was brought up in a non-practising Anglican family. We were nominally Anglican, but nobody did anything much about it.
AR: How is your faith manifested in your music?
IM: Everything I write I hope is written to praise the Creator. I feel that Iíve been given something in that Iím able to write music, and in actually writing it, I hope that Iím giving it back. So whether Iím writing a sacred piece or a secular piece, that awareness is always there. I donít think that itís necessary for a listener to believe the same things that I do, or even to understand them necessarily, even intellectually, to enjoy my music. I hope very much that thatís the case; and my experience tells me that this is so. I have had very positive comments from people who have completely different beliefs from my own and I find that to be very important.
[Recording Excerpt:Passion & Resurrection: Crucifixion: Simeron krematai: Red Byrd, Cappella Amsterdam/Daniel Reuss, Hyperion]
AR: How important is Eastern Orthodox chant in your music?
IM: Itís very important. Even when I donít quote it directly Iím often using the same musical systems, the same modes: Greek Byzantine music has a very complex system of modes, with microtones and non-Western tunings - that plays its part. What very often happens is that a piece will spring from a phrase of chant Ė a fragment, it can be, it doesnít have to be a whole chant Ė and that will give rise to the musical material for the whole piece. So Iím not quoting chant all the time, but the piece can spring from just a tiny fragment. Having said which, that fragment is not necessarily just even a musical fragment: it can be a text, it can be an association through something else, through a person, or some event thatís happened, and then the material will be derived from chant in that sense.
AR: Can you comment on the role of chant as it appears in Passion & Resurrection?
IM: Passion & Resurrection I could describe as paraliturgical. Thatís to say, it couldnít be used liturgically in the Orthodox Church, but everything in it is derived from liturgical material. So itís a retelling of the story of the Passion and the Resurrection, using the Gospel texts, which are sung by a narrator, an Evangelist, and the piece is divided up into a series of what Iíve called Ikons, because Iíve not chosen to see this dramatically, but as a stylized narration, in the sense that an ikon is a stylized painting. You donít see the figures depicted naturalistically; what you see is stylized, with the intention of revealing their inner reality and not their outer aspect. So thatís my reason for using the word ikon. The Gospel narrations are separated by liturgical texts from the services of Holy Thursday, Holy Friday and the Resurrection, on Easter Day. And when Iíve used those texts Iíve used chant, both Greek and Russian. Iíve also deliberately not used chant: in fact, this hymn, which is sung by the bass soloist in Greek and quotes the chant directly, is followed by the same text in English sung by the full choir, not quoting any chant at all Ė itís just me Ėand then the soprano soloist comes in. So there is, I hope, a fusion between the traditions Iíve chosen to work in and my own creation within that spirit.
[Recording Excerpt:Passion & Resurrection: Today is hung upon the tree: Red Byrd, Cappella Amsterdam/Daniel Reuss, Hyperion CDA66999]
AR: The Crucifixion, Ikon V, from Passion & Resurrection by Ivan Moody. That Crucifixion hymn, which we heard earlier sung by the bass soloist, holds a special significance for Ivan Moody, because he used it again in his work for Ďcello and orchestra called Epitaphios.
[Recording Excerpt from Epitaphios: Paul Marleyn, MCO/Simon Streatfeild, CBC live recording]
IM: Epitaphios is a meditation on the burial of Christ. Thereís a ceremony which takes place in the Greek Orthodox Church on Holy Friday, which is called the Burial Ė Epitaphios; the word taphos in Greek means tomb. Itís a very beautiful ceremony, in which the icon of the Crucified Christ is brought out in procession round the church. The priest comes out with the icon and goes back into the middle, and places it on the epitaphios, the symbolic representation of the tomb, covered in flowers. This is a very dramatic moment liturgically, and this piece is really a meditation on that ceremony. Itís based on a piece of Byzantine chant, the crucifixion hymn Simeron krematai.
AR: Did you have the text in mind when you wrote the music?
IM: Very much so. In this piece I had very much in mind the idea of the Ďcello soloist as the voice of Christ. The hymn has very beautiful words. It says "Today is hung upon the tree He who suspended the earth above the waters", and it insists on this contrast: He Who created the entire world being humbled, being treated in this way by mankind, being tortured and hung upon the Cross. Thereís this contrast between the greatness and the humility, which is very impressive. Having said that, in Orthodoxy, during Holy Week you never lose sight of the Resurrection. Thereís this feeling that everything is black but you always see the light at the end of the tunnel; all through Holy Week you sing "Alleluia". So in this piece, apart from the fact that at the end of the text is says "We worship Thy Passion, O Christ; show us also Thy glorious Resurrection", in addition to that, Iíve quoted the Resurrection hymn "Christ is risen from the dead". This is played near the end of the piece, so just at the moment of greatest despair you see the light.
[Recording Excerpt from Epitaphios: Christos anesti: Paul Marleyn, MCO/Simon Streatfeild, CBC live recording]
AR: Why did you want to study with John Tavener?
IM: Iíd known his work since I was at school; I had recordings of the Requiem for Father Malachy and Canciones EspaŮolas, which I liked very much. So I wrote to Tavener, sent him some of my pieces, asked if he would take me as a pupil, and he said yes.
AR: What was it about his music that attracted you?
IM: Well, one important thing was his preoccupation with religious themes and how to deal with that as a contemporary composer; the other thing was the transparency of his music. Most of the music that Iíd been listening to up to that point was very dense. Iíd been very much exposed to serial and post-serial music, and my slightly older contemporaries at university were writing minimal music. I didnít want to do either of those things, and so the themes that I gravitated towards made me naturally interested in Tavenerís work.
AR: How did he influence you? What did he teach you?
IM: The one great thing I remember that he taught me was to throw out notesÖ
AR: What do you mean?
IM: Well, I found that up to that point Iíd been working too hard at a piece, and that there would very often be a piece hidden underneath all the notes Iíd put into it. Thereís a very good analogy: if you paint an oil painting, you can spoil it completely by just putting too much paint on itÖ you try and improve things to such an extent that the whole thing is covered up with paint, and you canít see the outlines of the drawing any more. Thatís very much what I felt, and I discovered how to be economical with notes Ė which is something Iíd actually also learnt from looking at serial composers, except that I didnít want to work in that way. I admired their economy, but I wanted to work in a more spontaneous and melodic wayÖ so I think thatís really what I learnt from him.
AR: And to what extent would you say your style is linked to his?
IM: There are certain pieces, particularly those I wrote when I was actually studying with him, which have a lot of Tavener in them, and Iíd be the last person to deny this. Now my music sounds, I think, quite different from his; itís gone in a different direction harmonically and rhythmically. I have an interest in rhythmic activity which I think he doesnít have. You canít necessarily detect that from listening to Epitaphios, which is a very static piece, but even so Ė and itís difficult to illustrate this - if he had written a work on the same theme, it wouldnít sound the same as this. I can "hear" my own fingerprints in this work. Of course, if youíre working with similar materials, if youíre working with Byzantine chant, for example, there are bound to be similarities. You can hear Eastern-sounding scales and say "Oh, that sounds like Tavener"; it doesnít sound like Tavener, it sounds like Byzantine chant. We happen to be working in similar areas, so thereís that correspondence as well.
AR: Weíve talked about John Tavener and the Church; what other influences have you had?
IM: I learnt a lot from looking at all sorts of music, even when I didnít like itÖ I think you can learn as much negatively as you can positively. However, if I were to think of positive influences rather than negative, Iíd have to say that, as much as any contemporary music that I heard when I was studying, early music had a huge influence on me. It was just as exciting to me to hear a new recording of an Obrecht Mass or a Josquin Mass as it was to hear the latest piece by Berio, for example. I certainly learnt a lot about choral writing from this kind of music, and even more so when I began to conduct it. So I augmented my knowledge in both directions: I learnt more and more about contemporary music and more and more about early music, and I found when I began to investigate other contemporary composers that they werenít known, and then they suddenly became known when Iíd already discovered them, which was bizarreÖ I can think of two examples of this: Pšrt and Gůrecki. When I first became interested in these two composers, nobody knew anything about them. I remember going to the Universal Edition showrooms in London, scrabbling around in these piles of dusty scores and asking for tapes to be made of terrible performances of both these composers. And then they caught on, and now everythingís in print and recorded and I wonder what my effort was for! Perhaps it was part of the spirit of the time and everyone was working towards this, and they were just waiting to be discoveredÖ
AR: That makes me ask you what youíre interested in nowÖ perhaps thatíll be the latest trend a few years from now!
IM: Well perhaps I darenít say what Iím interested in now! Actually, what interest me now more than any contemporary classical music are various kinds of world musicÖ Iím very interested in Flamenco, though I donít quite know how that might effect my own music! Folk music from various countries Ė Greece, Turkey, for example, and Arab music: North African, Moroccan musicÖ I find this very fascinating.
AR: The Hilliard Ensemble is an early music group from England. They sing contemporary music as well. In 1987, they performed Canticum Canticorum by Ivan Moody. It was enormously successful, and they have since performed it around the world and they have commissioned more works. Ivan Moody subsequently became composer-in-residence at their Summer Festival in Cambridge, England. The Hilliard Ensemble has a certain empathy with his music. Ivan Moody says this special relationship is a gift to a composer. Here is the first motet from Canticum Canticorum I, performed by the Hilliard Ensemble.
[Recording: Surge propera from Canticum Canticorum I: Hilliard Ensemble, ECM New Series 1614/15]
AR: Ivan Moody spoke about the influence of early music in his own compositions. I wondered where early music and new music meet in his work.
IM: If you look at my scores, they look very white. I tend to write in a minim pulseÖ
IM: Meaning, er, ahÖhalf notesÖ
AR: Oh, OK [laughter].
IM: Öyes, as opposed toÖ quarter notes. Got itÖ So instead of very black pages full of small note values, you tend to see very white pages full of larger note values. Epitaphios, for example, starts in 4/2, so the whole page is white: thereís nothing smaller than a quarter note.
AR: Itís almost all whole notes, actually.
IM: Yes, exactly. Itís just a matter of moving up the scale a bit; I donít see the need to use extremely small note values when you can think on one level higher up and use larger notes. So thatís one thing thatís immediately obvious on looking at the score. There are other elements, of vocal phrasing and articulation, for example, which I tend to think of in early music terms rather than contemporary music terms. Again, thatís to do with how you mark up a score. Some things I wouldnít think to indicate because I would expect them to be performed in the way a group like the Hilliards would perform them, or a viol group like Fretwork, for example. And then thereís the question of accentuation, particularly the case in vocal music. In vocal music I tend to write as few barlines as possible, and not write a time signature, and just divide the piece at the end of a phrase, or the end of a section.
AR: Are you intending a freer kind of expression?
IM: Yes, and also accentuation according to the text, rather than according to any preordained scheme of division into bars. Iíve seen that this disturbs some conductors whoíve never conducted a piece of Palestrina or something, and they have to make a rhythmic scheme with little diagrams for conducting the beats.
IM: So in that sense I create problems. On the other hand, they are not insuperable, and Iíve found this to be an advantage, because it creates the kind of rhythmic flow that I want.
[Recording: No pueden dormir mis ojos from Endechas y Canciones: Hilliard Ensemble, ECM New Series 1614/15]
AR: How important is melody to you in your music?
IM: Melody is absolutely fundamental. This was one reason why I had such problems trying to write serial music. I wanted to find a way of being similarly economical and rigorous, but to be able to write melodies. The melodic strand for me is the most fundamental thing, because in melody you have all the other parameters. You have rhythm, you have pitch, obviously, and without some kind of melodic arch I find music is usually dead, and itís certainly the most important element for me when Iím actually writing a piece. It has to have a melodic logic, a melodic cohesion.
AR: Can you comment on melody in terms of tonality or modality as opposed to more abstract forms of expression?
IM: YesÖ it is possible to write melody in all three of those ways. My own approach is, I would say, modal. That doesnít mean that I stick to pre-ordained modes; I often invent modes, but I feel that Iím working modally rather than tonally. Writing a lot of choral music has had an influence here, because when I was trying to write a very complicated kind of music, I realized that it simply wouldnít work for choirs and vocal groups, that they couldnít sing certain kinds of things and that anyway they didnít work. So I came to a kind of tonality/modality as a result of that, but Iíd say that my basic thinking is modal rather than anything else.
AR: How important is text to you as a composer?
IM: Itís very important. Most of the music Iíve written has been for voice or voices, so text of course assumes a huge importance just because of that. I find that most of my pieces, whether or not they have a text, are structured according to a text.
AR: And this goes for instrumental music as well?
IM: Yes. Epitaphios is a case in point, because it was structured around a piece that was originally vocal, of course. The kind of text that would appeal to me structurally would be the kind of poem you find in 16th century Spain Ė Iíve set some of these poems in Endechas y Canciones - you have a highly structured poem with a refrain; Iíve done this with early Portuguese poetry as well, and the musical form can exactly follow the textural structure. That might sound like a cop-out, but itís not really because youíre under considerable pressure, by limiting yourself to that structure, to create musical sense and variety within that framework.
AR: Would you say that the text is more important for you as a composer than for the listener? Does the listener need to know what text inspired your piece?
IM: No, I donít think so. I hope the music works on its own. I donít even think you need to know the title of a piece. I think itís far more important for me to know that, and that goes for the title as well: I need to have a title in order to compose a piece, because I need to know for myself what the piece is about. That doesnít go for the listener, who can hear the piece completely abstractly. If it doesnít work simply as a piece of music, then itís failed.
AR: Weíve just heard the first of your Endechas y Canciones, and weíre going to close with another. Can you tell us more about the set?
IM: Thatís a cycle of renaissance Spanish texts. Theyíre basically love poems. Iíd already set some earlier texts in a cycle called Cantos MozŠrabes, which were poems written in a mixture of Spanish and Arabic, 10th century texts. I wanted to continue working in that direction, and I wrote the first of those songs, which is No pueden dormis mis ojos (My eyes cannot sleep) as an encore for a Hilliard Ensemble concert. I then expanded it into a cycle. So theyíre basically love poems Ė the canciones Ė and endechas: an endecha is a kind of lament; structurally the poem gave me the form, and the images gave me the music.
AR: Ivan, thank you very much for talking with me today.
IM: Thank you. Itís been a pleasure.
[Recording: Ojos de la mi Senora: Hilliard Ensemble, ECM New Series 1614/15]
© 1999, 2002 Ivan Moody
Return to Homepage