Interview with Miguel Roig-Francoli

9 January 2014: This past October, Paula Bonet, a visiting scholar at the Foundation for Iberian Music, conducted an interview with the composer Miguel Roig-Francolí about his music. This was done as a part of Bonet’s dissertation, which is on the composer’s work. Roig-Francolí, who completed the 2010 composer’s commission of the Foundation, recently celebrated his birthday with a concert in Carnegie Hall, showcasing his music.

Below is a transcription of Bonet’s interview, translated into English, with an added introduction. A Catalan and a Spanish version of the interview is also available.

Keeping the Link with Tradition Alive: The Expressive Power of Roig-Francolí’s Music

Months after finishing my masters in 2011, I suggested to Dr. Germán Gan the possibility of writing a doctoral dissertation on the choral pieces that Miguel A. Roig-Francolí composed between 2005 and 2007. Not only was my proposal accepted, but as a result I spent three months in the United States as a visiting scholar at CUNY, through the Foundation for Iberian Music.

During this stay I collaborated with the homage to Roig-Francolí in celebration of his 60th birthday, centered around a concert in Carnegie Hall on November 17th, 2013.  Even though I did my research mainly from New York, I spent two weeks in Cincinnati in October, where Roig-Francolí lives and teaches at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

Miguel Ángel Roig-Francolí Costa was born in Ibiza in 1953. He studied with Miguel Ángel Coria in Madrid and with Juan Orrego-Salas in Indiana, and he is characterized by his postmodernist and neotonal style. His works during the eighties were praised by critics for their “rich, luminous, poetic, energetic expression,” for their “great power of conviction and outstanding craft,” and for a “communicative will, a coherence, and a formal balance both brilliant and full of beauty” (Enrique Franco). Arturo Reverter noted that Roig-Francolí is “gifted especially for the perfect finish of his works, always balanced and elegant, transparent in lines and in form.” Under the influence of Coria, Roig-Francolí became one of the earliest pioneers of postmodernism in Spain, focusing on the recovery of melody and harmony, and on orchestral detail in his works. A concern throughout his production has been the search for an alternative to both nineteenth-century romantic tonality and early twentieth-century modernism.

Post-1945 modernism advocated a break with the past. Postmodernist composers such as Roig-Francolí, on the other hand, searched for an alternative that would allow them to keep the link with the past alive: the objective was not to make a literal copy of what had already been done, but to reinterpret the questions that had been formulated during centuries from the point of view of contemporary sensibilities and assumptions. That way, the recovery of that link with the past meant a sense of continuity. Furthermore, this renewed interest for the past did not necessarily invalidate the innovations derived from modernism. On the contrary, many composers looked for an equilibrium in which tradition and experimentation could coexist. The point was, then, that experimentation was subordinated to the music itself.

Between 1987 and 2004 Roig-Francolí did not compose; instead, his work focused on teaching and scholarship. His return to composition resulted from his reaction to the historical circumstances of the time, a fact reflected in the character of his pieces from the first decade of the twenty-first century. In a redefinition of his personal language and style, in this period Roig-Francolí used and incorporated elements from medieval and renaissance music into his pieces. That is how a musical cycle made up of Dona eis requiem (In memory of the innocent victims of war and terror), Antiphon and Psalms for the Victims of Genocide, Canticles for a Sacred Earth, and Missa pro pace was created. These pieces incorporated Gregorian melodies in combination with scales and rhythm, creating a modern, expressive neotonal language within the context of a great economy of resources. These elements function in Roig-Francolí’s works as distinctive traits of his style at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Moreover, the quotation of melodies from a different historical context adds the necessity of a reinterpretation and reconsideration of their meaning when using them in pieces which are clearly modern. The references to the musical past are what unite the work of Roig-Francolí. He is a composer who achieves originality without giving up his roots in tradition.

I transcribe below the interview I did with Miguel Ángel Roig-Francolí on October 28th 2013 in Newport, Kentucky. The composer was kind enough to dedicate some of his time to me between lessons and he answered my questions in a sincere and direct way.

For more information on Roig-Francolí and his work, his website and Wikipedia can be consulted. Furthermore, recordings and videos of Roig-Francolí´s compositions are available in his YouTube channel.

(The original interview was conducted in Catalan, here translated into English.)

Speaking in general terms, how do you understand the concepts “postmodernity” and “postmodernism”?

In general, “postmodernism” is a word with many meanings. I understand it, firstly, as a series of artistic movements that are not concerned with leaving the past behind. That break with the past is the basic principle of modernism, but it is not a postmodern issue. On the contrary, the past is present and some kind of relationship is established with it. If neoclassicism absorbed the past in a very specific way, postmodernism is much more open. There are no clear frontiers between past and present. Thus, tonality and atonality are not separated. Similarly, there are no clear limits stylistically speaking: the beginning of a composition can be written in an atonal language and then change so it references the style of nineteenth-century music.

Are you talking about neo-romantic style?

Yes, exactly. All of these are characteristics of postmodernism. There are others that are sometimes mentioned, but that I don’t think are essential. Irony, for example. Certain postmodern composers—or artists, in general—use irony in their works. However, I don’t believe that is a defining characteristic. For me, what distinguishes postmodernism is the lack of clear limits between the past and the present, and a mindset that doesn’t want to break up with the past.

Continuing with the same concept, how do you apply it concretely to the music you’ve composed and the music you’re composing?

My real postmodernist works are from the beginning of the 1980s. The Five Pieces for Orchestra and the Suite Apócrifa, for example, are clearly postmodern. When I composed the Suite I was not aware of this but, a posteriori, this piece is a textbook example of postmodernism. Within it there are lyric, tonal and romantic moments; atonal moments; and even sections that are written in a more aleatory, free way. For me, that’s a postmodern work.

The Five Pieces for Orchestra are also postmodern, because they incorporate many different styles. In a section, a part written in a style inspired by Ligeti is superposed to a part in Ravel’s style. Somewhere else, there’s a dodecaphonic row upon which chords are constructed in thirds. Working with very disparate styles, mixing modern elements with others that are not, that is pure postmodernism.

What about your more recent pieces?

I consider them postmodern in the sense that they are not modernist. They are pieces that have left modernism behind. When I compose, modernism as a movement that tries to separate itself from the past does not interest me. After the Five Pieces for Orchestra in 1980 and the Suite Apócrifa in 1978 I put myself beyond the modernist aesthetic and I’ve kept working in this way without looking back.

Anyway, stylistically speaking, would you say that what you are doing right now is different from what you were doing in the eighties?

My choral works are postminimalist and, thus, they also belong to a postmodernist aesthetic. However, these works are very different from what I had done previously. What happened was that little by little my style got more complex. At some point there was a moment where I very consciously decided to connect with what I had done in the eighties. This connection can be seen very clearly in my trio, Songs of Light and Darkness. In fact, that piece also has a postminimalist movement, in the same style of the pieces you are studying for your dissertation.

The “Lux perpetua” movement.

Exactly. But in the other movements I use many elements that I was already using in the eighties. The piece that somehow connects more clearly with that eighties style is Orion.

On July 19, 2012, the Orquestra Simfònica de les Illes Balears “Ciutat de Palma” premiered Orion in Bellver castle. After the concert, I remember that Salvador Brotons, the conductor, mentioned that this piece reminded him of the Five Pieces for Orchestra.

Yes, definitely, because I decided very deliberately that the stylistic world of the Five Pieces for Orchestra still interested me and that I wanted to go back to it. With Orion I did that.

We have already said that we have to keep in touch with the past.

Yes, and I have to keep in touch with mine too.

Of course, the pieces that I have called postminimalist, the ones you are studying, are twenty-first century works without a doubt. For me, music like that cannot be considered as a part of the twentieth century. Without minimalism before them, they would have never existed. On the other hand, they allude to the past through the borrowing of Gregorian chant.

I wanted to talk about your return to tonality or, at least, to tonal languages and to traditional genres and forms. In your works you use formal structures and instrumental formations that could be considered “classical”. For example, Songs of Light and Darkness is written for a classical piano trio: piano, violin and cello.

Yes, absolutely.

Within your style, do you see this fact as one more facet of the postmodernism you mentioned at the beginning?

Well, Songs of Light and Darkness was commissioned by a trio, so I did not really choose the instrumental formation myself.  However, I think it is very obvious that through all my works, especially from the Suite Apócrifa and the Five Pieces for Orchestra, I have never left the past behind. In fact, there are many neoclassical elements in my music as I have always been interested in classical form. I have also written many rondos, which is one of my favorite forms. And Orion has a huge orchestral fugue: a Grosse Fuge, a great fugue. All of these are connections with the past.

The hunter’s piece has to have a hunt.

Exactly. They are connections with history, with the historic past.

Then, within this style, what is the specific importance of quoting Gregorian melodies? What is their value? You have made clear that as a composer you want to keep in touch with the past, and that your music has many elements that can be considered classical. Quoting music from the past, then, is it simply one more side of this connection that you want to keep?

No, in the case of these pieces that you are mentioning the quotes have a great value. In fact, when I went back to composing in 2003-2004 I made a point of restricting myself to a very economic language. Thus, I set up limits for myself, which is always very interesting and very productive for a composer. It is like saying: “I could do many more things, but I am going to do only this,” and it usually creates very interesting results. A similar case would be a painter who only uses two different colors for his paintings.

In my case I set up three restrictions: I had to work using scales, Gregorian melody, and rhythm. These were my three work paradigms. About using Gregorian, at that time my return to music was very emotional; it was also a reaction to certain circumstances of the historical period. That is why I wanted my music to have a spiritual dimension too.

Alright. What are your thoughts on spirituality, then?

I understand spirituality in a very broad way, and I have always been very interested in Asian and Oriental spirituality. My interest in Asian spirituality could easily have led to some hybrid music bringing together Asian and Western traditions. Hybrid music mixes two or more different kinds of musics; I did that with the Partita in the eighties, where I incorporated musical styles from several Asian traditions. The piece worked and it was an interesting experiment, but not enough so for me to keep working in the same style. However, I have realized and I have kept doing it, because there are many elements in the Songs of the Infinite and the Songs of Light and Darkness that are influenced by what I learnt while studying the music from Bali.

Yes, I have heard that especially in relation of how rhythm is used. The sonority may be influenced too, but the accentuation of the pieces and the texture created by the different parts playing together caught my attention.

Exactly. These are techniques that now appear in my pieces, but in a more indirect way. The first movement of the Songs of the Infinite begins very slowly and enigmatically; then comes the middle section in faster tempo, an example of music inspired by my knowledge of Balinese music.

Your knowledge of gamelan?

Yes. The theme is also very pentatonic. Another example is the third movement of that same piece.

Going back to direct hybrids, it is difficult for me to work with the spiritual music of India, for example. That is because it is not part of my culture or of my direct heritage. Gregorian chant is part of them. Moreover, I am a Renaissance scholar, and I also teach history of medieval music theory. The Renaissance and the Middle Ages are a stylistic unit with a lot of internal connections. The relation I have with the music of these periods is so obvious that it made more sense to use Gregorian chant and not Indian music, to keep with my earlier example, when I wanted to introduce a spiritual element in my music.

Speaking of spirituality, did the lyrics of the texts that you use determine that you chose them? Because, for example, in the Antiphon and Psalms for the Victims of Genocide you only use a few verses of two of the psalms.

Yes, of course. There is always a symbolism in the texts I use.

Then, the choice of texts was done very consciously in order to transmit a message.

Absolutely. In fact, in the Antiphon and Psalms the beginning and the end are based in the “Salve Regina”. Traditionally, the “Salve Regina” (and the Virgin Mary herself) is considered a symbol of mercy. In this piece, it means mercy for the victims of genocide.

As an anecdote, I remember when I was little I was told that when someone really needed something they had to pray to the Virgin.

Yes, this symbolism is very clear. Also, if you have read the psalms I use carefully, all of them are about the punishments and torments that the wicked will suffer. It is a very explicit symbolism and thus I looked for texts that reflected that.

I imagine then that you used the “Dies irae” in Dona eis requiem (In Memory of the Innocent Victims of War and Terror) in a similar way.

Yes, the meaning of the “Dies irae” is obvious, the wrath of God. We have to take into account the symbolism of the “Agnus Dei”, though. In this movement the concept of mercy appears again and there is also a reference to Josquin des Prez’s Miserere mei Deus. At the beginning, the theme of this piece is a repeated note with a single inflection upward to a different note a minor second away.  It is written in the Phrygian mode and it is a very economical theme. The beginning of my “Agnus Dei” is based on it.

I remember I read that the “Agnus Dei”, which has three repetitions, changes slightly when it is part of a requiem mass. I saw that you were taking this into account too.

The “Agnus Dei” is a chant to ask for mercy. Traditionally, in music you did not ask for mercy in a florid manner, but with a lot of humility. Even before Josquin, this humility was expressed using very few different notes or, in fact, simply repeating the same note. This is a characteristic that I incorporated in my “Agnus Dei”, especially in the first two repetitions of the text. In the third, the text changes: Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi dona eis requiem sempiternam requiem; “give them eternal peace.” That’s where the memory of the victims is expressed and, thus, it’s much more lyrical.

Because it is asking mercy for others?

Yes, that is translated into a much more lyrical music. This symbolism is very present in my choral pieces of the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Changing subjects now: within postmodern music there are many composers that mix different styles of music. Some scholars define this as the disappearance of the frontier between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” culture.

Hybrids, hybrid music.

In your case, you have not used resources of other genres like jazz, pop or rock. Why is this?

These musics have not interested me enough.  I’m not close enough to them to have used them in my own music.

It is just because you are not interested, then?

Yes, at least not interested enough.  There are many kinds of hybrids, but mostly there are two: the one that is made using popular music (rock, jazz…), and the one that’s made with world music. I have not done much hybrid music, but what I have done enters in the second category. There is the Partita and other works from the same period, but also, as I have already said, there are echoes of it in passages of my more recent pieces. That means that the music of other cultures is more present in mine than rock and pop. However, at the time I wrote Five Pieces for Orchestra I was very much into the music of Pink Floyd, so in quite a few spots of this piece I can hear Pink-Floyd-like harmonies.

I have read other interviews where you talk about extramusical issues, especially about subjects related to ecology and pacifism. Would you say that these subjects are fundamental preoccupations for you?

Yes, absolutely. In fact, the Canticles for a Sacred Earth resulted from these preoccupations. At that time there were protests in Ibiza against both the construction of highways and the situation in Cala d’Hort. Even though the Canticles did not just refer to what was happening in Ibiza, that was a very clear case that inspired the piece. Maybe the influence is not very explicit or obvious, but I used it as a concept when I was composing.

And one final question: what are the composers whose music you particularly enjoy?

The great masters of the twentieth century are a constant reference for me, specially Stravinsky, Bartók, Ravel, and Messiaen.  J. S. Bach is always present one way or another when I compose, even if only in the distant background.  Among contemporary composers, I particularly admire the music of Aaron Jay Kernis, Thomas Adès, and of my dear friend Augusta Read Thomas.  All three bring together great depth and great craft. Furthermore, I have always liked Arvo Pärt, and have always admired György Ligeti.  And although I have not been specially drawn to the music of American minimalists, I enjoy the rhythmic power and drive of some British postminimalist composers, particularly Michael Nyman and the late Steve Martland.