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Lera Auerbach decries 72 demons: ''We know exactly what the right decision is, but often choose against our intuition''

Guts cannot be denied the Russian-American Lera Auerbach (1973). After all, you have to be "a little crazy and a little genius to write a full-length choral work on a text limited to a list of 72 angel names", as one reviewer noted in 2016 after the world premiere of 72 Angels for the Netherlands Chamber Choir and the Raschèr Saxophone Quartet.

You might have to be even crazier to then dedicate a cycle to as many demons, but Auerbach has an iron perseverance. On 30 January, her also full-length cycle Goetia 72 its Dutch premiere at Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ, as part of the String Quartet Biennale. This time it will be Dutch Chamber Choir accompanied by the renowned Quatuor Danel; conductor is Peter Dijkstra.

No conductor saw bread in it.

'I made the first sketches for 72 Angels over 20 years ago, but there was no conductor willing to perform it,' Auerbach says. 'It already seemed completely unrealistic to realise a piece about 72 demons, but for once there is no light without shadow.' Here, Auerbach is referring to the subtitles of her two compositions. The angels prayed in splendore lucis, 'in bright light', the demons hold forth in umbra lucis, 'in the shadow of light'.

At the time, she picked the names of the angels from the book of the Bible Exodus, this time she consulted the Ars Goetia. This is the first part of Solomon's key, an anonymous book about magical practices from the 17e century. In it, the names of the 72 demons King Solomon is said to have locked up in a sealed vessel are mentioned. 'That book was only the starting point,' Auerbach swears. 'I consulted countless other sources, because each name has several variants, in a variety of esoteric texts.'

Little difference between demon and angel.

Thus, she discovered that many of these had their origins in pagan deities. 'These were not just good or bad, they were passionate, jealous beings not that different from humans. - Or from angels. Initially, the two terms were also used interchangeably. It was only with the rise of Christianity and other monotheistic religions that pagan gods were labelled 'bad'. The word 'angel' was henceforth used for spiritual beings who served the god of Abraham; the designation 'demon' became associated with the other spirits and fallen angels.

How Solomon himself viewed demons Auerbach leaves open: 'No one can know. He dominated them using a magic ring he had received from the archangel Michael. That's how they helped him build the temple of Jerusalem. Personally, I think Solomon regarded angels and demons simply as energies, vibrations, wavelengths that he could connect. - Perhaps the djinns of Islamic folklore are a better analogy with our times, after all, they are not intrinsically good or bad either.'

Light cannot exist without shadow.

At their core, the three monotheistic religions share the same roots, says Auerbach. 'Judaism, Christianity and Islam are linked from within. That is why it is ironic that so much blood has been shed throughout history "in the name of God". And just as light cannot exist without shadow and vice versa, angels and demons are also two sides of the same coin. In essence, they are equal to each other, as in the view of the Ancient Greeks: they are not opposites but messengers, information providers, representatives of energies.'

Yet Auerbach does see a difference: 'Angels are more distant, demons are closer to us. They seduce and lure us, tapping into our idealism, our desires. They play the strings of our human emotions, which is why, in Goetia 72 opted for a string quartet. The four strings act as the choir's partner and guide during this journey through 72 spirits. In modern terms, you could say that demons are a human "creation". They represent and feed our fears, paranoia, lust for power, herd mentality, possessiveness and greed.'

Demons disrupt moral compass.

'They love noise and loudspeakers, because in silence it is easier to hear the quiet inner voice of our moral compass - somewhere in our hearts there is always the voice of an angel. We know exactly what the right decision is, but often choose another one, against our intuition. Demons play on our vanity: they tempt us to desire more possessions, more fame, more power, more beauty, more righteousness.'

They are like us, like a mirror: 'A mirror that reflects and magnifies our passions the moment they take possession of us. And angels? They are the names of God, the army of God, the warriors, the righteous. This is precisely why they can fall, because righteousness leads to arrogance and vanity, hence fallen angels - demons. "Vanity, absolutely my favourite sin!", says the Devil not for nothing in The Devil's Advocate.'

Psalm as talisman.

Unlike in 72 Angels exists Goetia 72 not consisting solely of a list of names, the composition is larded with verses from Psalm 90 (91). 'This psalm used to be used as a talisman; people recited it when working with demons. I made a setting in ancient Greek and place those lines of poetry at three structural points, each time after 24 names. That reinforces their protective intent. Incidentally, that arrangement was not even my intention, the piece itself asked for it, it grew organically that way.'

In 2016, Auerbach described 72 Angels as "a long, intense prayer, full of passion and hope". How does she see Goetia 72? 'It is a kind of ritual, going back to pre-Christian times, before the rise of monotheism. A ritual in which we face ourselves.' In this, she plays with the fatal temptation of demons: 'I give them what they want, not what they need. Then I show them the outcome of their desires. - And then I take it all away again.'

She does not have a favourite demon: 'I wouldn't dare, then the other demons would get jealous.'

This article previously appeared in the magazine of the Nederlands Kamerkoor

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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