A rainy day in #coronaquarantine seems like the ideal time to listen to a CD about fire. So I slide Todos los fuegos el fuego by Ukrainian-Dutch composer Maxim Shalygin in the laptop. 'All fires the fire' is named after Julio Cortázar's collection of eight short stories of the same name. The CD also features eight tracks, which together form a suite for the exceptional line-up of saxophone octet. Maxim Shalygin composed these in 2019 for the Amstel Quartet and the Keuris Quartet, who also played the CD.
Shalygin (Kamjanskje 1985) studied composition at the conservatories of St Petersburg, Kiev and The Hague. He has lived in the Netherlands since 2011. Four years later, I got to know him personally. He helped me out when I went to interview his compatriot Valentin Silvestrov for Radio 4. The reclusive composer turned out to speak only Russian and Shalygin gratefully seized the opportunity to speak to his idol. It turned into a particularly animated conversation. Silvestrov turned out to be an unstoppable waterfall of speech and Shalygin was a no less enthusiastic interpreter.
After this, I naturally delved into Shalygin's own music. It is characterised by great intensity and the exploration of boundaries. He challenges musicians to create sounds from their instruments that they never suspected existed. Shalygin's work sometimes has a spiritual slant, making him a kindred spirit of Silvestrov.
In 2017, during the Gaudeamus Music Week, I was captivated by his for seven violins composed Lacrimosa. A year later, he composed the impressive cycle Canti d'inizio e fine for intrepid cellist Maya Fridman. In it, he has her not only flogging her instrument but also singing at the same time.
Also Todos los fuegos el fuego takes us through a range of playing methods. Thus, Shalygin tries to create a musical equivalent of the narrative techniques with which Cortázar shapes his magical-realist world. The Argentine author himself described his prose as incantatoria, which means both 'enchantment' and 'song'. This refers simultaneously to the hypnotic atmosphere and the care with which he built his sentences. His syntax arose partly intuitively, from delays and accelerations that express the underlying emotion or atmosphere rather than the message itself.
This is exactly how Shalygin proceeds in Todos los fuegos el fuego. All eight pieces consist of different layers that slide over, under and through each other in ever-changing formations and tempi. This is usually low, with Shalygin's elongated lines meandering through space without any recognisable metre. Nor is singing along loudly. Shalygin does not write 'earworms', but concentrates on contrasts between slow movements in one register versus faster motives in another. Like a shaman, he thus draws attention to the sound in itself and invites us to listen to our inner self.
This is how International Combustion Engine with sustained notes stacked slowly on top of each other, cautiously decorated with languid trills. A melody built up of small steps in the upper voices is cut through with fierce growls in the lows. The following Death of a Mosasaur is more narrative in nature. A motif of a step up, step down followed by a leap up wanders lonely through the various registers. Against this lamentation, a ponderous pulse develops, as if the mosasaurus is coming to stagger on. A soprano sax fires thin, staccato cries at us, like spill marks. This cry for help is smothered in low droning drone and ends in abrupt silence.
The remaining songs too consist of overlapping, repeating patterns, unexpected interruptions, delays and accelerations. Tones swell ominously out of nowhere, turned on with a lot of breath or smashed into our eardrums with a loud bang. At other times, the saxophonists let their lips vibrate along, like a gently bellowing horse. Spring, Breaking ccreates an intoxicating atmosphere with subtle organ sounds, Endless Mordent is a study in eruptive foregrounds.
Exciting is Ashes in Birth, in which screeching exclamations and rhythmically jumbled lines dissolve into dying valve rattles. But most beautiful is Stairway to Decay, a melancholic lament that is rudely interrupted by 'false' sounds, as if the rot sets in. The sound fabric gradually becomes more dissonant, but from afar looms a mumbled prayer, like an incantation. When the saxophonists start articulating more clearly, we discern the text: 'Todos los fuegos el fuego'. Hypnotic and magical.
The eight saxophonists are clearly familiar with the particular playing methods prescribed by Shalygin. Moreover, they are completely in tune with each other: breathing and making music together, they sound like a majestic organ. - Thanks to Todos los fuegos el fuego the dreary day was over before I knew it.
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