Steve Crowther: Can you tell us something of your background?
Thomas Simaku: I began my composition studies at the Albanian State Conservatoire in Tirana (now the University of Arts), and when I graduated in 1982, I was sent to work as Music Director in Përmet – a remote little town in Southern Albania right at the border with Greece. There wasn’t much of a classical music scene there, to put it mildly; so this came as a ‘bombshell’ to me, for it felt like a ‘dead-end’ at the beginning of my career. But there was no point in arguing about it (!), so I took with me some cassettes and off I went where my fatherland needed me. I had Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and his Divertimento for Strings, and Prokofiev’s Sonata for violin & piano in F-minor, and his Symphony No 5 with me. Both were in the so-called ‘approved list’ of 20th century composers; well, Prokofiev, just about – he died the same day as Stalin, on 5th March 1953. Anyone else who survived Stalin was not acceptable! A ‘campaign’ by senior musicians in the capital, who argued that I belonged to the ‘national team’, as they put it (officials were particularly fond of football), was successful, and I was allowed to return to Tirana after three years.
In Përmet I met some wonderful people, and the folk music there is unique and beautiful, and there was plenty of it! The first-hand experience I had working with some amazing folk musicians was to have an effect in my compositions to this day, and aspects of that idiom, especially the heterophonic singing and instrumental virtuosity, was to become part of my own music.
SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
TS: Yes, I like to feel the sounds and play them on the piano before I write the notes down, but for me the most important aspect of composition is finding the right idea for the right piece! So the moment you chose a chord or a succession of notes, a process of ‘elimination’ has already happened at a subconscious level.
I do indeed do some planning, especially at macro-structural level – the architectural aspect of composition is important to me. But I consider this pre-compositional work as a ‘musical map’, as it were, which allows me to freely navigate! To put it differently, I cherish the fact of ‘discovering’ the new piece by composing it!
SC: Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
TS: I have written pieces for the so-called ‘ideal’ performer, such as Soliloquy I for Violin - a challenging piece, at that. I submitted it to the international jury of the ISCM festival in 2000, which that year took place in Luxembourg. The piece was premiered by Vania Lecuit who, to my astonishment, performed it from memory! This was a stimulating experience, and I went on to compose more solo works for various instruments within the Soliloquy Cycle. There are six of them now, and there is more to come!
But I’ve also been lucky to have had the opportunity to write for, and work with, some amazing musicians, such as Diotima Quartet (for whom I wrote my 4th and 5th quartets, which they premiered at Huddersfield Festival in 2011 and 2015 respectively), Peter Sheppard Skaerved, Rohan de Saram, Neil Hyde, and some wonderful artists of the younger generation, such as Joseph Houston, Sarah Whatts Roderick Chadwick and Chris Orton.
I can tell you that without Chris Orton’s encouragement, I would not have written the piece Soliloquy V – Flauto Acerbo, which went on to receive the BASCA Award in 2009. When Chris asked me compose a piece for him, I said ‘I will do it only if you can teach me about the recorder’; and I thought he would take that as a ‘No’! But he took it as a ‘Yes’, and came to York with a bag full of recorders and showed me what he could do – I was amazed by what I heard; hence I wrote the piece for him – how couldn’t I.
SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
TS: This is a difficult one! I certainly don’t like my music to be pigeon-holed (and it would be difficult to find a box for it), but I’ve always tried to say something personal with my sounds expressed in a language that is in tune with our time.
SC: What motivates you to compose?
TS: I compose because I can’t do without.
SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
TS: This is a good question: we all try to write the music that we want to hear; I certainly do, and write what I hear, but there are certain ‘affinities’ and ‘propensities’, sonic or otherwise, that cannot be ‘ignored’. Kurtag, for example, is a composer who has been an inspiration to me. And I’ve met Kurtag, twice, in Essen at the 1995 ISCM Festival, where his magnificent orchestral piece Stelle was performed, and at Huddersfield festival. So gentle and you could even say, a bit ‘shy’, but these are not the words you would use when describing his music! I also greatly admire Birtwistle’s music; when I first heard his orchestral piece Earth Dances I nearly fell off my chair.
SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
TS: There are a number of composers from the past, remote and recent, that I would like to say cheers to; but if it had to be just one, then Ligeti would be the one! There is something special and moving about his music, which I feel I understand, for it speaks to me!
SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
TS: In alphabetical order, they would look like this:
Bartok: Music for Strings Percussion and Celesta,
Beethoven: Symphony No 7 and String Quartet Op 131 in C-sharp minor
Berg: Lyric Suite
Mahler: Symphony No 2
Mozart Clarinet Quintet
If I had to choose just one, it’s Beethoven’s String Quartet Op 131 in C-sharp minor.
SC: …and a film?
TS: it will have to be a comedy that will make me laugh!
SC: …and a book?
TS: I grew up with Ismail Kadare’s books, the Albanian writer now living in Paris, and I would go for his novel The Palace of Dreams – his cool expression is indeed powerful.
SC: … and a luxury item?
TS: Can I be a bit ‘nostalgic’? A cup of tea from the Albanian mountains would do for me; it’s called ‘Mountain Tea’.