The Story of my Research

My research started out with two simple, interrelated questions. These have been following me around throughout my life and career as a cellist: what can I do with this instrument, and what can I make this instrument do? The first part of this question deals with the topic I originally started with, namely concerning the development of the cello quartet. This question implies a drive to find a new or relatively unknown setting for the instrument and trying to proliferate its success, moving the focus from the instrument itself to the role it is seen to fulfil. However, after a radical change in research topic and focus, I moved to the second part of that question. Here I have chosen a piece that defines the role of the instrument precisely, and that lays out the foundation for music to occur. Now my focus was not to expand the world of the cello, but to expand the world of myself.
As an artist or a musician, the question of what I can do with the cello is very interesting, but as a player of cello, the question that started my new research direction was much more intriguing to me. My research became an in-depth study on a very peculiar composing style, influenced in many unique ways, and the challenge became not how I could have this piece be of service, but how I could be of service to the intended music. This realisation gradually took shape as I was getting deeper into this topic, and as I found out more on this composer and the piece, I found more purpose in continuation of research. This notion steered me onto a road of musical preparation that I had not yet encountered, and focussed much more on gathering inspiration and information rather than working out how to create music from my instrument. This approach called for a different mind-set, and thusly also required a strong self-critical question that would guide my research. This question became: ‘How can I improve the sound-colours in my cello-playing by discovering and implementing the inspirations that formed L’Ange du Tamaris?’
What I was sorely missing during my previous attempt at research, which constituted researching the musical market, was a drive to improve my own playing, and a tangible idea of how to accomplish this. Within a cello quartet, the possibilities of chamber music sound and balance are strenuously tested, as you try to combine not just four similar instruments, but four similar instrumentalists. I concede that it is very possible, but you would need a very diverse group willing to focus their efforts in learning different ensemble roles, and that proved to be too big of a challenge. Within this scope, I found little time to discover how I myself could grow from this process.
After the change, with the focus purely on the instrument, I could tackle the other side to the question, being: what can I make the instrument do? This question steered me (and still does) on a personal level, and became a personalisation of the Research Question mentioned above. After posing this question, there was much more focus on my own growth as a cellist. Though the saying “musician first, instrumentalist second” always rings true, giving nourishment to the instrumentalist side is especially important during one’s studies. I believe music comes from life, in its many facets, and once you have all the tools to make the instrument blossom, then you can live and translate it into your playing. Concerning the piece I have studied and used in this focus, it was a very interesting experience to discover the composer’s life and try to unite this knowledge with my own playing of the piece. The piece in question in a work for Violoncello solo, called L’Ange du Tamaris (the Angel of the Tamarix), and was written by the French composer Jean-Louis Florentz.
Jean-Louis Florentz was a French composer born in the northern parts of France, and who started out with an interest in Ethnomusicology and Arabic literature. After having completed his studies ethnomusicology pushed him towards composition, which he went to study in Paris under Olivier Messiaen and Pierre Schaeffer, along with several classes from Antoine Duhamel. His life then took a radical turn, being quite upset with the state of musicians’ France (Zodiaque Cahiers, 1990). He found himself struggling to find his answers, so he went in search in northern Africa and the Middle-East. Throughout his life he made many field-trips to Kenya, Niger, Egypt, and others, where he sought as many angles as possible to completely understand the cultures he was fascinated by (Cholleton, 1992). These research trips led him to the creation of many heavily-influenced works (Laudes, op.5, Chant de Nyandarua, op.6, Asmâra, op. 9, Le Songe de Lluc Alcari, op.11, to name a few) and eventually led him to the topic of my research: L’Ange du Tamaris, op.12. This is what my research has turned to, after difficulties with my first research topic.
Somewhere half-way my research process, I hit a wall with my first subject. My initial research on the cello quartet was not working out, as I was having trouble uniting the general organisation of the quartet with my personal plans to include them in my research. Now, the quartet unfortunately is no longer together, due to opportunities for every individual member. However, I found a way out with help from my coach, who had suggested a piece for quartet written by a composer I had never heard of. This piece was named Chant de Nyandarua, and immediately sparked my interest because of the unique title. Plans had been suggested to program this piece is some way, and my coach suggested a solo piece by the same composer to fill the programme nicely. This piece was called L’Ange du Tamaris. Now, having hit this wall, I had become interested in this solo piece (which according to my coach would be immensely difficult to prepare), and I moved on to researching this, not really yet knowing where to go from there.
Soon, I found an entry that matched my own uncertainties in playing. From a technical point of view, I had already learned so much from my teacher Jeroen den Herder, that I found no reason to dedicate my research to the pure technical practice of this piece (yet that would have also been a good subject). Since I already approach most pieces from a technical standpoint first, and then find my own music in it, I thought it would be an uninteresting journey for me to take the same approach here. Instead, I focussed myself on an aspect that I do not delve so deeply into as I have done with this piece. A remark following my mid-Masters’ examination involved a lack of visualisation and imagination in my presentation of my pieces. I had not found an outlet to improve this yet, so I wanted to dedicate my studies on L’Ange du Tamaris to this specific search. I decided to concentrate on making the piece as colourful and suggestive as I could, trying to find images or stories behind the piece that would support my view. This is the process I decided to follow up along the lines of my research question (‘How can I improve the sound-colours in my cello-playing by discovering and implementing the inspirations that formed L’Ange du Tamaris?’), as I found that the best way to uncover the colours the composer had intended was to take all the images he had laid out as his sources as my guidelines. Any colour expressed from an image can suffice for a performance, but in the interest of informed performing, I took up Florentz’ imagery to guide me.
When doing research, scientific use of stories and images can be a risky practice, since every artist can provide his own and the interpretation would be regarded as equally valid. However, in the first piece I discovered by Florentz I found quite a lot of very literal imagery being suggested in the piece, mainly images and sounds from Kenya. After acquiring a certain book wherein Florentz lists and to an extent explains his inspirations, I found that all of the pieces he regards as works significant enough to be included in his oeuvre have a very extensive range of different inspirations, stemming from different channels in his world. All of his works tie in to his religion, his interest in nature, and his development as a composer through the teachings of Olivier Messiaen (following his interest in rhythms, numerics, and modes).
In L’Ange du Tamaris, the different entry points are evidenced a lot less in this particular book than other works of Florentz, but through study of a lot of his unpublished material that I found in the Archives in Caen, I have been able to gradually piece together several of these important factors that drove Florentz’ music. In the unpublished material found in the archives, Florentz presents enormous amounts of material that each in some way ought to explain a small facet of a work. A similar process goes on when discovering L’Ange du Tamaris. Florentz has also provided a unique analysis of the piece purely from a music theoretical standpoint, very clearly summarising the structure of each section of the work, and relating certain moments in the piece to direct influences. When I discovered this manuscript document in the Archives, I could gladly conclude that this was the document I had been looking for.
Another frankly fantastic experience I had researching this piece came from the cellist I had contacted for tuition on my performance, the cellist being called Dominique de Williencourt. Apart from being a fantastic cellist and musician, and being a composer on the side, he had also personally worked with Florentz to create an edition that would make performance realisable, and such was their working relationship that Florentz dedicated this piece to de Williencourt. This lesson proved incredibly useful, not only helpful in general cello technique and sound aesthetics, but also incredibly informative for learning the piece. Many of the ideas I have implemented into my final product stem from what I learned from this lesson, as most of what Dominique de Williencourt told me during this lesson I have found proven by my research in the libraries and Archives.
What I have now ended up with is a performance of L’Ange du Tamaris that very closely ought to follow the original inspirations that have created it. My intention has been to enrich my own sound-world by discovering and immersing myself in the unique sound-world of Florentz, connected heavily to nature and Africa. Through studies of Florentz’ own words, and his own writings and sources regarding his inspirations, I have been able to understand the mind of the composer. His commentary leans heavily towards impressionism, and Dominique de Williencourt was correct in describing him as a continuation of Messiaen and even Debussy. What I have hoped to eventually achieve is an informed performance, which does justice to Florentz’ legacy of many years of creating sound-worlds and leaving us his clues.