The Malta Independent 10 December 2022, Saturday
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Brian Schembri sets the score

Tuesday, 1 March 2022, 11:13 Last update: about 10 months ago

The Maltese Pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale will feature the curatorial project Diplomazija astuta. Emma Borg and Matthew Shirfield speak to one of the artists involved with the project, the renowned Maltese musician, BRIAN SCHEMBRI.

How did you get involved with the project Diplomazija astuta?

I was contacted by my brother (Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci), who was already involved in the project, just to give some advice from a musical point of view. I did not know I was eventually going to be involved as a member of the team for this project curated by Keith Sciberras and Jeffrey Uslip. If they had told me this would have led to me being part of the team I would probably not have accepted. Not because of the project itself or the team members, of course, but because I am quite conservative as far as music goes. I say conservative in the good sense, in that for me the fundamentals of what makes music what it is, should always be conserved, independently of any "progress" desired. I just thought I was to give them some feedback on some musical aspects for this magnificent project and naturally, discussions ensued. Unsurprisingly as a result, ideas kept coming back to me and little by little, I was brought on board to compose a score according to the ideas that were coming out from our discussions.


What has been your relationship with the Venice Biennale in the past?

I was not previously very interested in the Biennale of these recent years. I admit having some profound problems with certain contemporary art thought. Since youth, I have always intuitively felt that rationalising and conceptualising too much about art is wrong and I refrain from doing it as much as possible. I know it is part of an artistic creative process, but I do feel that for many years now it has become the dominant factor which I don't feel comfortable with. However, I recognise this process' importance and that there are greater minds than mine that have been involved in this direction who hopefully know what they are doing. It's just not my natural habitat.


How do you personally manage the roles of composer and conductor?

Probably because I am a musician and probably with a capital M. I have composed before in my life, but I am not a composer by vocation. I am a composer only when somebody has the idea of asking me to compose something and the project excites me. I studied composition and I have composed some works. So yes, I can do it, but it is not the medium that interests me most as a creative person. And although I have been conducting for these last 40 years or so, I do not see myself as a conductor and do not particularly like the actual activity in itself. I conduct because if I am interested in, intrigued, inspired by a particular symphonic work, or if I am embarked on a project involving a symphony orchestra, then I have to conduct. Same with me as a pianist. I play the piano to indulge my intuition and curiosity in a particular work. I am only thirsty for the musical process itself and use the means that I am proficient in to quench this thirst. Hence, I am a musician above all.


It has been explained that you will be adding a percussive score to the project. Can you please explain why this score will be so unique?

When I learnt about the project, it had already been practically conceived. While creating this project, the team had decided to include an audio-visual aspect to the installation created by Arcangelo Sassolino and his technical team. This naturally led to a need to organise this aspect in one way or another. That is where the idea of a percussive score was born. One idea was to choose an iconic existing piece of music which would then be transcribed to eventually be performed by the installation in its own way. One of the works considered was Charles Camilleri's organ work Missa Mundi.  Another idea proposed was to go for a new composition and eventually, through discussions, it was decided that I should create something unique, a project specific score. We are calling it percussive because there will be no definite pitch musical notes heard. There is going to be a particular sound production and there is going to be a visual element which goes with the sound being produced.


Could you allude further into the materiality of the instruments being used for the piece?

In an orchestra there are string, wind and specific percussion instruments. The latter are called percussion instruments because you hit them in order to produce sound. In fact, you can hit on anything around you to make a percussive sound. You can bang on a table or clap and there you have your instrument. In our project, the installation itself will also be the percussion instrument creating the sound to articulate the score.


Percussive sound is described as impactful. Does this have a symbolic connotation that reflects on the atrocities of the 20th and 21st centuries?

I am very sure it has and this is an essential part of the whole project, but my colleagues in the team are much more articulate and learned on this aspect of the project. As far as my part in this adventure goes, what excites me is that there's a unique instrument, the installation, which is going to produce a visual and a sonorous effect which I must musically organise into a score. The sound produced will be both heard and seen.

As discussions developed, I understood that Caravaggio's masterpiece depicting the beheading of St John the Baptist was the central theme intertwined with Giuseppe's "heartbeat" engraving. I was presented with Arcangelo's instrument, which at that time was still an idea and about which I only knew what it was going to try to achieve. From these different pieces of information, I had to come up with some sort of musical connection.

I needed something to grasp at, something which could help me lay a foundation for further development of my musical ideas. I understood that the number seven was an important aspect of this project because there are seven characters in Caravaggio's Beheading of St John and the installation is based on this number as well.


Could you further expand on the relevance of the number seven in relation to the score?

For anybody with the slightest musical notions, the number 7 surely evokes the basic musical scale built on seven notes. Guido D'Arezzo, the famous Italian music theorist and pedagogue of the 11th century, is credited with having established the names for these notes. These names were in fact taken from the first syllable of each strophe of a particular Gregorian chant hymn and eventually developed into the note names we have today - Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Si. What made this even more exciting for me and for the project is that the hymn in case, Ut queant laxis is a hymn composed in honour of none other than St John the Baptist! And there was my fundamental idea on which to build the score. Due to the percussive nature of the instrument we have, I had to solve one essential problem. Rhythm in Gregorian chant has been the subject of erudite discussion and dispute since time immemorial, each particular period favouring one or other musicological and historical conclusion. For this project, I opted for the rhythmic pattern of a medieval interpretation of the sapphic stanza as edited by Gregorian chant specialist, Jan van Biezen.

At the same time, I still did not wish to abandon the team's idea of using Charles Camilleri's Missa Mundi, which is why I extracted and used three short rhythmical motifs from this work and particularly from the movements called Fire over the Earth, Fire in the Earth and Communion, which all link to the idea of the project.


You have already mentioned the importance of Charles Camilleri's piece, 'Missa Mundi' on the score, but in previous articles you also mentioned the impact of Carlo Diacono. Could you kindly explain on how Diacono helped influence the work?

Among the persons I contacted when I was trying to solve this rhythmical Gregorian chant issue was the Music director of the Cappella Diacono, Raymond Sciberras, who informed me that Diacono had composed two hymns based on the same Latin text as the Gregorian chant in question. I therefore extracted two rhythmical motifs from these two Diacono hymns and integrated them as well into the percussive score.

In this way, I have tried to create a journey in time, starting with an original 8th century chant, which in the 11th century was an essential part of the origin of western music notation, articulated in a classical 18-19th century rhythmical mode as it interacts and dialogues with two totally opposite 20th century aesthetics. All this, of course with a 21st century outlook.


How can one continue to promote Maltese composers and challenge the local perspective of insular inferiority that seems to plague the arts within Malta?

I think that Maltese composers have been promoted much more these last years. We must admit there have been great improvements and more opportunities and mind you, I am not just referencing my own efforts. Is this enough? Probably not. Are there ways of doing better? I think so and I hope that more research and performances will be done of better quality and in a more fundamental and profound manner, since there has always been a tendency to reduce this essential exercise to a sort of patriotic revenge limited to a chronology of works, often chosen with little artistic discernment. Hopefully one day, quantity will give place to quality.

As to the inferiority insular problem you mention, I am not a fan of such thoughts. Professional, artistic quality is nobody's monopoly. Yes, there are not many great composers, historically speaking, coming out of Malta. Now I am not saying that we have not had any good composers, but how many Bachs (Johann Sebastians!) or Beethovens or Verdis can we expect to have in this one small world? Malta has had its number of important talented composers and there is now an excellent new generation of younger composers who are doing exceptionally well. Malta was never in the centre of musical eruptions in history. It has always been in the periphery, but occasionally something or someone interesting does emerge. And I am not linking this to the actual public success and fame of such talented people. One can and should always do more and better, but this has nothing to do with inferiority. Keep in mind that even Schubert, who was a contemporary of Beethoven, once said "who can do anything after Beethoven?" So, any insular inferiority is irrelevant for authentic talent, whether recognised or not. One must do everything to the best ability as one can, to reach the fullest possible fulfilment of one's capabilities, gifts and talents and never stop aspiring to do better, artistically speaking. I am absolutely not interested in the competition aspect of life in general and especially in music. If there is competition, it has to be only with oneself, with one's own limitations, fears, doubts, complacencies. Béla Bartók once very accurately said that competitions are for horses, not men, while Mahler's "my time will come" teaches us that time will eventually tell who was valid and who was not.


During the 20th century developments of art and music, several artists proposed noise and silence towards the end of their careers. Is there a defining line within our contemporary context between noise and music?

Noise and silence are not just 20th century concepts. As soon as somebody wanted to organise noise in time there was inevitably going to be a moment of silence which is important as it creates a temporal relationship between one sound and another. In fact, noise becomes sound also due to this temporal relationship. These elements have always somehow been part of music of all nations. In the 20th century John Cage wrote 4' 33, a very important work which has a very profound significance in my opinion - one of the best lessons that one can have about the essence of music. Cage is telling us that one can eliminate practically all musical elements from music, but never the time factor, which in a way brings us back to the percussive score for Diplomazija astuta.


The curatorial team for the Malta Pavilion comprises curators Keith Sciberras and Jeffrey Uslip, kinetic artist Arcangelo Sassolino, theoretic artist Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci, musician and composer Brian Schembri and project managers Nikki Petroni and Esther Flury.

The curatorial project Diplomazija astuta will represent Malta at the 2022's Biennale di Venezia international art exhibition. The Venice Biennale will be open to the public from 23 April to 27 November. The Malta Pavilion is commissioned by Arts Council Malta, under the auspices of the Ministry of National Heritage, The Arts and Local Government


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