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Composer Portraits: Iancu Dumitrescu

Iancu Dumitrescu was born in 1944 in Sibiu, in central Romania, where his father was a philosophy professor and his mother a teacher of mathematics. These two disciplines have strongly informed his thinking, but from an early age he was drawn to music. From 1964 to 1969 he studied composition at the music academy in Bucharest. It was a good time to be a student there. Alfred Mendelsohn was teaching the music of the Second Viennese School, and other senior composers on the faculty, such as Ştefan Niculescu, Tiberiu Olah, Aurel Stroe, and Anatol Vieru, were responding to new music from the west: Ligeti, Boulez, Stockhausen. The same currents ran through the first compositions Dumitrescu published, dating from 1967-68.

In 1969-70, however, something musically new happened in the Romanian capital, and Dumitrescu and his contemporary Horatiu Radulescu were at the head of it. Where almost all earlier western music had concerned relationships between sounds, unfolding through a time of progressive change, there came now a concentration on single sound masses, altering perhaps in color or intonation, but essentially static, or slowly rotating.

My music utilizes harmonics and resonance in a natural way, alive and intuitive. Sonorous and refined, I believe. It is abstract, symbolic and in search of archetypes, and its complex acoustic origins come from archaic sources.

To perform this new music, Dumitrescu founded the Hyperion Ensemble in 1976.

I attempt in a natural way, using classical instruments, to rediscover the incantatory, Orphic spirit. Not only with the help of these instruments but also with the souls of artists who accompany me in my sound adventures. As with the classical instruments, I often use electroacoustics to fulfil the sonic metaphor, the search for the new lease on life, the unexpected.

Two years later he was greatly stimulated by contact with the formidable Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache, from whom he appears to have developed his concept of music as the pursuit of the ineffable.

Philosophy already was one of my deep interests, but Celibidache made me understand the value of the phenomenological conception of music, an abstract art without any natural models or matter, where everything is becoming. I might be the only one of his disciples to apply the consequences of his teachings in my creation. How does one approach the creative act? How does music ‘become’? What is the validity and authenticity of one’s work?

Romania, he has pointed out, was a suitable proving ground for this quest. Situated on the Black Sea, the country looks across to the Caucasus and Central Asia as much as to the centers of European culture. It is a place with rich, varied, and thriving folk traditions, which have stimulated other composers, including Béla Bartók, György Ligeti, György Kurtág, and Iannis Xenakis, all of them born within what is present-day Romania. In former times, this was border territory between the world of the ancient Greeks and that of the peoples they regarded as barbarian; for Dumitrescu, it was the home of Orpheus.

What is Orphism for me? There is, of course, the cultural link, that Orpheus was a hero of the Thracian people who lived in my country. But what is my personal reading of Orphism? First, all or any part of reality can be sacralized. But this domain of the sacred is unknown, uncertain. You need a special courage to go towards it. Secondly, this Orphic domain is the domain of metaphor, linked to art. It’s not the world of reality; in music you are making something which is behind reality. Sometimes I even try to show that to the audience in the way I conduct the group, to make people’s minds look further than what is physically in front of them. Music is not sound, it’s behind, beyond sound, revealed by sound. The third aspect is that the Orphic gesture is unique, unrepeatable. Orpheus did things in a new space, entirely new things. You arrive in this space, you have this experience, and it dies immediately after.

Since 1988, Dumitrescu has been working in this direction together with his wife, Ana-Maria Avram, herself a composer. In December 1989, days before the revolution that overthrew Nicolae Ceauşescu, they and the Hyperion Ensemble gave their first concerts outside Romania, in Paris. Shortly afterwards, Dumitrescu began releasing recordings on his own label, Edition Modern. He has also continued giving concerts in Romania and abroad, visiting the United States for a festival in Minneapolis in 2009 and a residence at Harvard in 2010.

Regarding music as unrepeatable, Dumitrescu revises and adapts scores for each new performance and each new set of performers. The particularities of what we hear this evening will have been settled only in rehearsal. There can, therefore, be no question of detailed program notes.

Black Holes’ Collision (2016)

The first two pieces belong to the family of Meteors and Pulsars, first performed in 1998. Black Holes’ Collision will feature mostly electronic and percussion sounds, the latter from three musicians all moving from one kind of instrument to another (metal, wood, skin) in keeping with the electronic component, while the strings project clouds of varied sonorities.

Hyperspectres (IV) (2015)

This short piece, which inverts the situation of its predecessor, here foregrounding the strings, was first presented in Paris in 2011 and is now being heard in its fourth version. By its title, it indicates Dumitrescu’s concern with sound spectra, more in line with Giacinto Scelsi than with the Parisian spectralists. Two double basses use various techniques to sound and color notes in the extreme bass, to whose spectra further contributions come from two cellos and two violins, while the sound is given added substance by two percussionists on heavyweight instruments (bass drums, timpani, tam tams, etc). At the end come twittering high harmonics from the strings.

Galaxy (V) (2016)

Dedicated to David Shively, who has done much to put tonight’s concert together, this is a percussion duo for metal instruments—tam tams, gongs, cymbals—responding to electronic sounds. The first version dates back to 1993.

Pierres sacrées (II) (2016)

Pierres sacrées (Sacred Stones) is a Dumitrescu classic, playing for seventeen minutes in its original form from 1991. “I have been haunted,” the composer has said, “by an intuitive penchant, an interior, urgent necessity, and perfidious at the same time, to connect the instrumental timbre to an envelope of noise. The noise field is—I’ve had a presentiment of it for a long time—necessary to music, but in a more subtle way. Because hyper-consonance, hyper-spectrality also requires duller shades—more stringent, hard—which counterbalance them. You cannot build only with glass. You must also employ steel.” Sounds of no definite pitch have continued to be vital in his music, as we have already heard, and as the second part of his program will reaffirm.

“There was a brief but intense period of experimentation,” he has also said, “out of which came this new sound—I wondered from what part of myself it had come. But I also knew that I needed it. You could say that this distortion in the sound comes from the attempt to release or unveil the god that is living in every piece of base matter.”

Dumitrescu has further noted that being confined to relatively modest technology—in this case, a German eight-track tape recorder he acquired in 1989—compelled him to be inventive.

Cosmic Pulse (II) (2016)

Scored for a larger ensemble, this is a version of what began in 2006 as the twelve-minute Le Silence d’Or (The Golden Silence), now with a new title expressing the composer’s fascination with astronomical phenomena, and especially with the colossally powerful and rhythmically precise pulsars. Through phases of expectation and Dumitrescan explosion, the instrumentalists in groups—percussion, low strings, low woodwinds, and brass—move in synchrony with the electronic sounds. Moments of impetus are succeeded by a long dissolve.

Unstable Molecules (2016)

This is a live version of an electroacoustic composition, Ultrasonic Sublime (2009-14). Bunches of irregular impulses are cast against a strong but wavering line “full of harmonics,”  often well separated in time. The ending is in complete contrast with that of the previous piece.

Program Notes by Paul Griffiths