Interview with Joan Arnau Pàmies

Soprano Nina Dante interviews composer Joan Arnau Pàmies on several intriguing developments and characteristics in his newest work for Fonema, PALIMPSESTUS, which the ensemble will perform in Drawing Music on May 14th.

Nina Dante: Let's start with the title of this piece. When you first sent me the score of PALIMPSESTUS, you told me that it was your first non-parametrical title for years. I find this intriguing, and reflected deeply in the music. Why the return to direct symbolism? Does this represent a parallel shift in your writing? Why palimpsestus?

Joan Arnau Pàmies: My interest in parameterization started quite early with my first piece for double bass [d(k_s)b], although it wasn’t until my duo for bass trombone and double bass [5(bt)_6(db)] that I started to concretize what “parameterization” meant to me. Quite frankly, I would say I have been writing the same piece since early 2012: what used to be a rudimentary practice became a more sophisticated compositional approach, but in essence, the nature of those pieces is very consistent throughout. After finishing [V(fl.ob.vln/c)IIIkl] for ensemble recherche, I felt I got to a point where I could have become a manneristic composer and kept perfecting the same piece for years. Fortunately, I decided to pack my bags with everything I had learned at the time and took my work to another direction, thus forcing myself to reevaluate certain aspects that I used to follow dogmatically (i.e., cohesiveness, unity, consistency of notation, etc). PALIMPSESTUS was my first attempt to explore composition beyond the intricacies of my earlier works and as such, the piece needed a title that represented that shift.

ND: Your treatment of the voice in this piece is absolutely unique. I've told you that when first performing the piece, I felt very primal, and thought of fire and mud and magic. Can you tell me what you were searching to create in the voice, and if you were consciously trying to find a more primal way of singing?

JAP: I don’t think I was trying to create something in particular at first. I do remember, however, that I wanted to write something primitive—the word “primitiu” (Catalan for primitive) appeared repeatedly in my sketches. That urge probably emerged after having written a long essay on my work and several structurally intricate pieces for months without a break—I was mentally exhausted but the need to write music was still very present. Somehow, such primitiveness became an underlying influence that led to a strong impact on the overall process of composition. Consequentially, the voice quickly moved under the umbrella of this idea.

ND: In the last movement of the piece, the voice drops away, and the bass begins what I can only describe as a song, reminiscent of jazz (which I also hear in the percussion throughout much of the piece!). How was this movement born in your mind, and what does it represent in the larger context of the piece?

JAP: PALIMPSESTUS was originally meant to explore a latent linearity, from the simplest possible form of parametrical organization (unison) to the interaction between a diversity of techniques. After having written two thirds of the piece, I felt utterly bored and I loathed both the predictability of my compositional process (that’s the price you pay when you’re trying to deliberately write something primal!) and the mashup of previously developed sounds that I had planned for the conclusion of the piece. So I ended up throwing away all the sketches that I was supposed to use at the ending, I picked the bass, and I recorded myself improvising on some ideas I had developed throughout the writing of the piece. I finally transcribed one of those recordings and used it as the last section in its entirety. I was quite fascinated by how natural the conclusion felt in relation to the rest of the piece, so I barely had to tweak what I had already written.