European Youth Orchestra: SignetEuropean Youth Orchestra

Spectra, Spectres: EUYO premieres EUTOPIA by Annelies Van Parys

Annelies Van Parys: EUTOPIA

A highlight of our spring tour ‘24 is the chance to premiere EUTOPIA, by the outstanding Annelies Van Parys. A prize-winning composer from the earliest days of her career, Van Parys particularly made the international music world sit up and take notice with her chamber version of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (2012): the critic Tom Janssens called it “a miracle” in Belgium’s De Standaard. Subsequent commissions include from the Belgian National Orchestra, Staatsoper unter den Linden Berlin, Folkoperan Stockholm, Biennale Musica di Venezia, the Huddersfield Festival, and the Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam. In 2017, she composed Chacun(e) sa Chaconne, the semi-final set piece for cello for the Queen Elisabeth Competition.

Her studies with Luc Brewaeys in Ghent paved the way to becoming a leading spectralist herself, seeking new sonic effects and impact through the intricate, infinite gradations of pitch and timbre that lie beyond the conventional Western harmonic framework. “I like it”, she remarks in an earlier interview, “when people can listen with an open mind and just say what it did to them.”

EUTOPIA begins with an optimistic combination of natural, high orchestral spectra and a nod to dodecaphony, the twelve-tone system that underpinned the serialism that symbolised renewal just after World War II. “European union was a project of renewal to ensure we could live in peace and freedom”, Van Parys explains. “The commission hadn’t required me to write about Europe, but I knew it was for the European Union Youth Orchestra, and there is also the anniversary of the premiere of Beethoven 9 on 7 May, the fourth movement An die Freude – Ode to Joy chorus being the European anthem. So I thought I would compose a message of hope.

While I was gathering my first material in the summer of 2023 however, there were some prominent discussions of hardening European borders in ways I felt were not consistent with European values. There’s a school of thought in the West that is happy to mine the resources of certain countries, but sharing the resulting prosperity is a different story. So my composition became a different story too. I don’t like things that are not fair, and I don’t like exclusion either.”

The optimistic spectra of EUTOPIA’s beginning becomes distorted, interspersed with noises. The darkening atmosphere culminates in the slow and slowing toll of a bell, quoting from the Ode to Joy in major, then minor: alle Menschen werden Brüder, all people become brothers.

It’s disturbing and worrying to listen to, and it is meant to be “Spectralism is a very natural way of hearing things, so our ears don’t perceive the pure spectra as being out-of-tune or strange. But once you start to distort them, you have very dense and very awkward chords, people start shivering…this feeling of uneasiness is what I hope the piece will give people. The feeling that there is something strange going on. And then, the Ode to Joy appears like a kind of structural cantus firmus in a long, slowing stretch of time. Maybe it’s forlorn and hopeful at the same time. The music hasn’t faded away entirely, and so there is still hope, because there is still music. But I do think it’s important to acknowledge that if we don’t hear the existence of distortion, we’ll not achieve the vision of the Ode to Joy.”

Does EUTOPIA shoulder a political message? “Well, I would be a useless politician”, Van Parys says. “That’s not my métier, it’s not music’s métier. Actually, I think music and culture are often over-burdened with social responsibility, charged with achieving things that are in fact the tasks of governance. Music can be perfect simply as music, with no message at all. If you want to write about flowers, that should also be fine.

The only thing is that I cannot do it. The older I get, the more aware of social injustice I become, and then I want to say something. Musicians can’t take transformative political decisions, but they can express things that may – I hope – resonate somehow. Maybe EUTOPIA can make an impression on someone who is – or will be one day – in a position of power. If we can do that, it’s worth it.”