|Published: 2001-09-14 by Stellan Sagvik
By Göran Bergendal (transl. Sven Borei)
(Published in Nutida Musik no. 4, 1991)
Portrait of André Chini
and a discussion of the violin concerto “Mururoa“
Mururoa is an atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. It lies nearly as far away from [Sweden] as you can get and is known around the world for only one thing – for decades it has been used for experimental nuclear detonations by the French military. The tests have continued in spite of protests from the collective world community. Thus Mururoa has become a guilt-ridden symbol for many Frenchmen representing oppression, environmental destruction, criminal actions and humanity’s mad march towards its own destruction.
It is true that André Chini lives in an old, unused school in the Vallentuna woods, around 20 km north of Stockholm, but there is no doubt that he is French to the core. You can hear it in his speech, see it in his gestures and taste it in his cooking.
When then in 1984 he was asked by the music department at TV 2 to compose an orchestral work, the commission arrived just when France had once again challenge world opinion with new nuclear device tests at Mururoa.
“Calling the work Mururoa was perhaps a bit opportunistic. But when we were recording Why? on TV, everyone in Kroumata and Anders Barnö came at me because France had just detonated an atom bomb at Mururoa. It’s one of the greatest crimes you can commit now, one which the French have been committing for decades.”
“What is there to say. How can you explain why a such civilised country as France keeps doing shit like that. It’s indefensible. Just the fact of detonating A-bombs is criminal. And then doing it among peaceful peoples who have no relationship to France and who live by fishing, now poisoned by all that radioactive waste. Add in all the problems several thousand French technicians and workers bring to Polynesia, like prostitution, alcoholism and stuff like that. Incidentally, Bengt Danielsson wrote an excellent book called Poisoned Paradise about just this. It’s all criminal. What pigs!”
“That’s when I thought I’d call the whole piece Mururoa as some sort of protest, even though it doesn’t deal with Mururoa but about the process we’ve been stupid enough to get ourselves into, no all of humanity! Mururoa is a symbol for criminal behaviour, for humanity’s crimes against itself.”
André Chini formulates his protest as a violin concerto, but this isn’t unique to the Mururoa piece. His music is often, though not always, a more emotional than intellectually packed criticism of poor conditions in the human community. Understandably so since his childhood home harboured the tangible realities of both the resistance and the concentration camps.
He was born in 1945 at Roumengoux on the slopes of the Pyrenees, son of an architect and amateur violinist father and a piano playing mother. And since the family boasts Corsican roots, the last name should be pronounced with a ’k’ sound.
The breadth of his knowledge, skills and experiences is astounding. For a few years he studied architecture, working at his father’s office for a while. During his study years in Paris he earned money now and then as a bricklayer and is also quite skilled with tools and machines. In 1968 he fought on the barricades. He studied oboe, first in Toulouse and then at the Paris Conservatory, where he also studied composition under André Jolivet and conducting under the Italian conductor Franco Ferrara. He played oboe in the conservatory orchestra and later with the Lamoureaux Orchestra in Paris.
Then he met the Swedish dancer and choreograph Ann-Cathrine Byström in Paris and move to her country in 1975. Under different periods he played oboe for the Gävle and Malmö symphonies, but after a while gained recognition as conductor and composer. In 1976 he started the Euterpe Chamber Orchestra together with violinist Lars Fresk, leading for about a decade and introducing a number of new Swedish compositions.
André Chini has composed superb, lyrical and expressive instrumental and vocal music for concert use, including the piano trio called Trilude (1982) and Illusion – Allusion for soprano, oboe and string quartet (1989). Another example is Norrsken – Northern Lights, for strings amplified by contact microphones and organ (1978-79; taken up on Euterpe’s Caprice record). This piece sprang from a strong natural experience -– namely the first time this immigrant Frenchman saw the Northern Lights in the Swedish winter night. While it hardly deals with northern lights, its structure can be described in terms taken from scientific theories regarding the phenomenon: solar explosion – lights – bows and bands – draperies – corona – rhythmic movements. With or without scientific terminology, Northern lights is an incandescent, sonorally magnificent and expressive music which spreads intense string sounds in intrusive clusters.
However, the Mururoa violin concerto belongs to another musical category, once in which a political message becomes the vehicle on which the music rides. This music is often spontaneous and strong, sonorally complex and highly demanding, especially for the wind instruments whose voices include copious amounts of micro-tones, multi-phonics and calls for expanded playing styles. He uses a strong palette and does not shy from moving towards visual or dramatic formulations, be they imaginary or real. The last thing André Chini is a speculative or intellectualising composer.
Why? for percussionists (Kroumata) and a dancer dates from 1980 and was produced on TV in 1984. It was a powerful protest against all torture that occurs around the world and is a brutal and painfully concrete eruption in which the percussion section, in part using specially designed instruments, represents the power of evil, while the dancer naturally symbolised the tortured, suffering human.
The ballet Armerad betong – Reinforced concrete – is written for 16 dancers, 16 musicians and a band. He presented it in 1981 together with his wife and 16 dancers and took it on tour around the country. The focus is on human living conditions, with the stated question being: “I don’t believe people were made to live in rabbit cages, as has happened even here in Sweden.”
The third example of societal critical music is the frequently presented, scenically conceived Omniphobie (1984) for double wind quintet, contra-bass and mezzo-soprano. It deals with the racism and growing hate of foreigners that André Chini so dreads in current society. Omniphobie is thought of as a scene in a French café with the instruments being the habitus and old men who sit there aiming their fear and their hatred at the foreign, instrument-less girl who steps into the café. Only after a while when she begins to sing and communicate, does their hatred of foreigners recede and she is accepted.
Children and Youth
At several different times, André Chini has worked with children and youth, both as a composer and as an animator. During a few months in 1980-81 he was composer-in-residence for a few lower middle school classes in his own municipality of Vallentuna.
Much of the work came to revolve around developing new instruments, ones which freed the children from the traditional demands on precision inherent in the usual instruments. Working with the shop teacher, they created huge, robust, colourful sound instruments in wood and metal which were then used in collective and imaginative compositions. The instrumentarium has been displayed internationally on several occasions.
Within the framework of the Kultur-i-Skola program of the National Education Agency, André put together a large musical theatre project called The Magic Stone, working with around one hundred upper middle school students in Ljusne, Hälsingland Province.
You can listen to Mururoa in several different ways, including simply declining to associate with the thoughts André Chini had while composing and viewing the work as a completely ordinary violin concerto. But if you want some clues, he suggests the following.
As was stated above, Mururoa is not about Mururoa. Here the name or the atoll serves as a signal or symbol. Instead André Chini wants to remember Robert Oppenheimer, the man who was responsible for the US atom bomb program during the Second World War, a scientist and a humanist.
“… so he began to understand that this was pure madness and didn’t want to continue building the hydrogen bomb they’d asked him to complete. He was accused of collaboration with the Russians and for having sold the damned stuff, the technology that is, to the Russians, of being a spy … and for the rest of his life he worked for peace conferences and disarmament. And he died a rather unhappy man …”
“It is he who is responsible for the atom bomb, but along with me and you and all of us. It is humanity who has created this thing. The dilemma is that right now the whole things seems less important, as if they’re beginning to understand that it was a bit dumb, like, but when I began to compose the piece, there was still a cold war raging between the east and the west.”
The violin concerto can be described as a music depiction of Robert Oppenheimer’s life. At least that is the program that Chini uses for himself, without being embarrassed in the least for using naive imagery as he describes the process and form of the concerto using pictures from the birth and life of a single man. But he emphasises as well that we could just as well be talking about the advent, maturation and march towards destruction of the whole collective humanity.
The concerto is constructed in one continuous flow in which four sections can discerned: a large orchestral introduction, a slower section dominated by the soloist and a group of wind instrumentalists, a counterpoint style scherzo section and a final section which begins with an increasingly dense string music and concludes with a rapid, powerful finale which in part refers to the material in the introduction.
The large orchestral introduction comprises the first third of the piece and is conceived as a birthing, before the appearance of the soloist. The music can be described as some sort of highly suspenseful spiral movement that grows in intensity. It uses falling, gliding motions, massive chords and staccato movements to represent the woman’s breathing, birth pains and restless anxiety. In the midst of all this is a small part dominated by the strings and with increasingly disruptive percussion instruments, the whole serving as a sort of ‘Siegfried idyll’ – the woman’s vision of the family bliss once the torments of giving birth are over. There is an immense and relentless power in this introduction, one which quite naturally leads to the birth of the small child.
Only now do we hear the solo violin take up the role of the new-born child, initially with a few weak whimpers, but in time with more extensive statements. Woodwinds in the form of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons are soon placed against the solo violin, representing the three good fairies from the fairy-tales come to express good wishes.
And then the evil fairy enters to brass and percussion. The mood changes abruptly as her wicked wish is that the little one will create the Bomb. The solo violin becomes scared and nervous. A closing, delicate section with strings in a high register represents the parents’ arrival to comfort the babe.
Rabelais and Gargantua
There follows a relatively long movement whose character could be equated with the scherzo in a traditional solo concerto. It is an unusually stretched out, repetitive and strutting counterpoint between the soloist and the other parts of the orchestra using a theme which could have been taken from a Bach prelude. The sections represents the school years of the small boy, a period that begins with his imitating his teachers and ends with his surpassing them. “I was thinking of Rabelais and Gargantua.”
The concerto’s last movement begins with tentative, lingering movements, as if the scientist hesitates in fulfilling the fate the evil fairy has staked out for him. The sound picture grows more dense and the tempo increases until he finally accepts his duty via four short, quick, confirmative entries.
The final section represents the initial work with the Bomb. More and more people are involved and the catastrophe approaches inexorably. The music refers back to material in the introduction, now supplemented with micro-tones and the solo violin. The concerto closes abruptly, leaving the question of how it all finished open ended. “I finish without a big bang.”
“It’s like painting”
“I finished the score at Christmas in 1989, the one I had started four years earlier. It took a long time. I began the compositional work by hand, but then did the whole piece in the computer. I wanted the computer to stimulate my imagination, but not replace it. It worked rather well, but it’s taken a hell of a long time. I have listened to the piece before it was performed by feeding it into the sequencer.”
“It’s something I’ve always tried to do. You might say that it’s the same as with painting techniques: I start out by having a clear picture of what I want to do, but then you can be influenced. It’s just like when a painter is painting something and then before the painting is ready, he looks at it and asks himself: what should I do now? What is it that’s influencing him, the painting or himself. It becomes some sort of interaction.”
The interviewer: “Have you let the computer suggest certain structures?”
Chini: “Hell no! I can take care of the structures myself …”