Interview: Christopher Costanza on Golijov’s Ashen Bells

by Chris Vitiello on December 1, 2011

Christopher Costanza (second from L) with the St. Lawrence Quartet (photo: Marco Borggreve)

The fiery St. Lawrence String Quartet visits Reynolds Theater on December 10, a new commission by composer Osvaldo Golijov in tow. Yesterday, we spoke with St. Lawrence cellist Christopher Costanza about the delayed premiere of the Golijov quartet and discovered its working title, “Kohelet.”  Today, we follow up with Costanza to delve deeper into the nature of “Kohelet” and the benefits of rehearsing with the composer present.

The Thread: Does Golijov work with you personally in rehearsal?

Christopher Costanza: Yes. Through all the works that we’ve done with him, since 1992, we’ve had direct interaction. In fact, I think that’s another way that he works, and works well—when he can bounce ideas off the performers. I think that’s where he gets a lot of his inspiration.

Every time he sits down to work with us, he has these really clear pictures in his mind about what he wants the music to say and to be. It’s hard to put into the exact words that he uses, because he says things in a unique way.

In another piece we worked on with him, he once said, “This is like a dead accordion making its own sound, with little bits of life still left in it,” for example. He likes the accordion quite a lot. Maybe that’s a connection to various ethnicities of music like the tango, which isn’t an inspiration for this piece but has been an inspiration for a lot of other works. Or bells—he’s fascinated by the sound of bells.

In an earlier work he wrote for us, he spoke of a sequence of the hitting of bells, but the bells make a sort of thuddy sound, so he called then “bells made of ash.” And actually, bells return in this new work. Not ashen bells, but they are bells.

Osvaldo Golijov (photo: Sébastien Chambert)

He creates the effect of bells by using a fast bow speed on our instruments. We kind of attack the beginning of the note as if the knocker is hitting the bell. Then the resonance is created with a faster bow speed after the fact. So he has us incorporate that. And sometimes he does it with two different instruments. So one instrument will play… you know how a bell has a secondary pa-pong sound to it? Maybe that knocker hitting twice?

A double attack?

A double attack. There’s a passage in the second movement where you hear that. It’s only for one measure, but it’s exactly the image that he wanted. He’s like, “These are bells, and one of you plays the first part of the sound effect, and the other plays the residual sound, and the resonance after it.”

Does he tend to speak more figuratively than technically about how the music should be played?

That’s right, that’s essentially how he likes to work. And then it is up to us to figure out the best way to do that on our instruments, which is a challenge to us, but we like it a lot. We’re asking, “Hey, how should we do this? We could do it this way or that way. Which do you like better?” It’s that kind of dialogue that we have with him.

What kind of role does the cello play throughout the new piece?

The first movement is strictly—often in a high register—this soaring violin solo. In the first part of the piece, you’ll hear the cello playing a harmonic and rhythmic role, solely. And in fact, I have syncopated eighth notes almost throughout. So it provides a lot of drive and energy while giving a bass line and filling in the harmony as well, because [Golijov] sometimes gives me two notes to play at once to enrich the harmony. So the first one, cello-wise, I wouldn’t say is strictly supportive but that’s a big part of it—to support the melodic line but also to give that driving energy and rhythmic intensity.

Christopher Costanza (photo: Marco Borggreve)

The second movement begins as, for lack of a better term, a more traditionally structured movement, with the instruments playing their respective roles. But the roles then evolve, so that once you get into the middle section of the movement, the sort of free-form section, you have the first violin starting with this beautiful tune, and then the cello directly, in the same register, taking it over.

So there’s this moment where I play the tune that has been started by the first violin and I take it over on the same note—it’s a high D actually—and then get to play this beautiful soaring line in an upper register. So [Golijov] does shift the roles of the players depending on what kinds of effects he’s looking for.

I’m not a composer, but it must be tricky in a string quartet to figure out how best to do such a thing, because you kind of need the cello to be a supportive bass instrument, and of course that’s the tradition from, you know, Haydn, and going back to the classical literature. So, to make sure that you’re getting that supportive quality, but also to allow the cello from time to time to take on a completely different role. It changes the texture so significantly.

It sounds like a lot of fun to take his writing and play it back for him.

Absolutely. And we do it with other composers too, who also are very descriptive and responsive. I think Osvaldo, in particular, really communicates so much through those sessions. It’s as if you couldn’t really do the piece justice without him. Now, that’s a little bit dangerous to say, I’m sure, because what about all the other groups that play his pieces and don’t get that experience? [laughs] We feel fortunate to be able to have that kind of time with him.

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