Interpretation and composition, improvisation and notation, popular music and classical music: the apparently uncompromising differences of all these pairings are based on the same opposition between matter and spirit, the ephemeral and the eternal, a dichotomy which has left such a strong mark on our culture, past and present. Tropos Ensemble is born out of the ambition to question those categories. The only border that fascinates us is that which separates before from after. Before – where music inherited from the past originates, and an intricate After – generated by musicians and audiences when interacting with that legacy.
Playing music of the past, whatever form it might take, is playing music of our time. Music naturally shows us that the search for an open, dynamic and diverse present time is constrained only by our submission to acquired codes. It would seem that today we have the means to understand Luis Buñuel’s powerful prophecy better than ever. The enigmatic lock-in of a group of people in his movie, The Exterminating Angel, mirrors a real collective confinement that will remain incomprehensible until we cease to erect walls in passageways where we could otherwise walk freely. In order to open the furrows so that the seeds of new worlds and new ways of thinking may sprout, these acquired codes must be acknowledged and freely transgressed.
This is what we endeavour to do with Tropos Ensemble. Two pianos, two sensibilities, two different artistic profiles with a shared fascination for the unpredictable occurrences that unfold from classical repertoire when it is combined with creative processes belonging to other musical genres. Two pianos behaving as a mixing desk, equalizing, filtering, editing and developing the legacy of tradition. As layers add up, musical material of our creation interferes with the original pieces, sometimes engaging in a dialogue, adding a commentary, or just confronting them. And just as in electronic music, where sound quality prevails on any other parameter, a certain flexibility of structures and textures is combined with dynamic precision and carefully set filters.
Instead of conceiving the score as an enclosed and sacred object, eternal in its state of ideal perfection, we like to think of it as an open piece, able to lend itself to a variety of formulations. This idea has often been favored by contemporary musicologists, not only in reference to modern-day creations but also in the examination of the practical relationships our ancestors would have had with the music they were creating.
Medieval polyphony, Lutheran choir and nineteenth-century paraphrases all arose from similar processes. The long journey of the Greek word tropos (τρόπος) through Western culture is marked by the ideas of “multiplicity” and “change”. In classical rhetoric, tropes would highlight the double meaning of specific turns of phrases. In medieval monody, the trope was a melisma or a commentary added to pre-existing material. Even modern philosophy has redeemed the word trope for its link with “diversity” and “impermanence” of meanings, in the frame of the nominalist reaction to the problem of universals.
Diversity, impermanence, and interaction between contrasting materials able to shed new light on our musical heritage: that is what we intend to achieve in our public performances. A radically new path to rethinking the separation between composition and performance. And this is the spirit of our first album, A noise of creation, released in September 2014.
The first work of the program of the 2015-2016 season is based on the enigmatic Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 45, by Chopin. Its fluctuating structure is the starting point of a reflection on the intersections between the Romantic “rubato” and the electronic effects of “delay”. The piece is a prelude to the following Tropes on the Sonata in B-flat minor and presents, simultaneously, several versions of the same arpeggio at different speeds, combined with new materials and contrasting sound layers.
The tropes that we have composed together on the Sonata op. 35 are intimately bound to the memory of Diego Ghymers, our mutual best friend. The tragic death of this unique artist, improviser and sound painter, marked the final phase of a creative process in which we tried to highlight the striking modernity of Chopin’s writing. “This is not music,” wrote Robert Schumann about the last movement of this work. We try to transmit to our audience the same sense of breaking codes, crossing borders between beauty and bewilderment, complexity and incomprehensibility, through several references to 20th- and 21st-century music. The four movements are linked together with loops extracted directly from Chopin’s original score.
With Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, the task of proposing new readings is inextricably intertwined with a strong tradition in performance. It is Ravel´s orchestration that brought worldwide fame to the piece, and the original piano version has been the object of often contradictory readings. We have chosen to explicitly allude to some of these interpretations that made history.
Again, the superimposition of layers of sound from heterogeneous origins is what delineates the axis of our proposal. While one piano predominantly sticks to Mussorgsky’s score, the second piano introduces new material, often in stylistic opposition. This synthesis of languages sails in the wake of Mussorgsky's own work, as the original piece irrefutably blends prophetic glances at the future with notably archaic modal effects. This masterpiece is also a brilliant metaphor for the whole perceptual process: the visitor of an “exhibition” walks from one picture to the next accompanied by the changeable sounds of the Promenade, until being consumed by the last painting, to become part of a final scene where the limits between the artwork and the spectator vanish.
Luca Chiantore & David Ortolà (Tropos Ensemble), 2015