interview Engels

The organ as flute orchestra

interview by Charlie Crooijmans

From and to Infinity is a unique music project created in 2019 by composer and guitarist Niels Brouwer for the 70-strong Molucca Bamboowind Orchestra from Ambon City. Niels wrote a new version for the Orgelpark in Amsterdam, in which two controlled organs take on the role of the flute orchestra. He will play the premiere on January 29, together with singer and partner Monica Akihary, Hungarian recorder player Dodó Kis, Guinean kora player Sekou Dioubate and pianist and improviser Nora Mulder. In conversation with New Music NOW, Niels and Monica talk about the creation of the piece and the new arrangement.

Everything from bamboo

Monica Akihary (singer and lyricist) and Niels Brouwer (composer, guitarist and instrument maker) have been working together as duo Boi Akih since 1997. They devise their own projects, but also collaborate with other musicians. In 2017, after a joint workshop in Ambon, Maynard R. Alfons, the conductor and musical director of the Molucca Bamboowind Orchestra (MBO), asked if Niels would like to write music for his orchestra. They had known each other for some time. “We were doing duo concerts and some pieces in preparation for the Holland Festival with poet Rudi Fofid, and we invited flutists from the MBO for that.”
Niels hesitated to accept the assignment. Together with Monica he had attended an MBO concert in Ambon’s busy city centre, and saw that the setting didn’t match the mood of the music. “It was very fragile music among all those mopeds,” he said. He eventually accepted the commission on condition that his new piece would be performed in a beautiful, quiet place. This came about in 2019 in the mountain village of Tuni, where Monica and Niels worked with the orchestra for six weeks. A bamboo amphitheatre was built especially for the occasion on the conductor’s land, which is situated on a slope. Conveniently, all the members of the orchestra came from nearby villages. When Monica and Niels went back to the site in 2022, the amphitheatre had been affected by the rainy season but was quickly restored.

Teeming fish in clear water

The orchestra consists of about 70 musicians, but the number can vary. The orchestra is divided into five groups, from piccolo flute to bass flute, which is equipped with a slide mechanism. Each group plays in a particular key (D, F or G) and thus cannot play every chromatic note. This limitation generated a complicated puzzle for Niels, and also for the orchestra. The result, with the keys crossing over each other, was totally new to the flutists. “At every rehearsal they wondered if what they were playing was really correct,” says Niels. He liked the result. Because the flutes are European tuned, it reminded him of early polyphony, multiple voices with long notes.
The title From and to Infinity inspired Niels to think: “We come from far away and go to another place, to an island, to make music.” The piece is also a work in progress, constantly evolving. The aim was to challenge the orchestra to play modern music, which was sometimes confronting. The orchestra members pride themselves on being able to read notes, but became very confused when a free assignment – “just do something” – was written down. Letting go didn’t work right away, but over time the flutists began to enjoy it more and more. Now they come up with these kinds of free elements themselves.
It is important to Niels to give the musicians an autonomous role. He does this in all of Boi Akih’s projects. In From and to Infinity he provides melodies and themes, but prefers to give global directions or inspire the musicians’ creativity with metaphors. For the flute orchestra, for instance, he came up with five small motifs, which he compares to fish teeming in clear water. On his cue, a big fish comes along, causing the little fish to shoot away as one. The musicians themselves can decide how that sounds. “It’s much more fun to think about music that way.”

Vanished languages

From and to Infinity consists of four sections: The Sea, Dryland, The City and Joy. Within these sections, the music ranges from abstract to accessible music with a clear melodic line and rhythm – songs. The orchestra members love singing, so these songs in particular went down well. “Within five minutes you had a super choir”.
Initially, the singing was textual. The second time in 2022 there was more improvisation in Monica’s vocals. She sings mostly in her ancestral language Haruku, a language that was initially unknown to the younger generation. That has changed. The islanders are now researching it themselves and using that language in new poems. When Monica and Niels were on Ambon in 2019, they gave an interview to the Indonesian press to highlight the importance of the vanished languages of the different islands. Besides Haruku, Monica mainly sings in English, as Boi Akih aims for an international image. This also accords with the musicians with whom they work in the Netherlands, such as Hungarian recorder player Dodó Kis and kora player Sekou Dioubate from Guinea, who both play in the premiere of the new version of From and to Infinity at the Orgelpark.

Controlled instruments

For his new version, Niels was able to take advantage of the advanced control systems of the Sauer and Utopa Baroque organs in the Orgelpark. “You can control the organs with your laptop, they replace as it were the flute orchestra,” he says. Also new is the addition of the gender (gamelan instrument). “It’s included because of the different (non-European) scale. Balinese gamelan master I Made Subandi, with whom we have worked before, played along during the second performance on Ambon” says Niels. According to Subandi, the beauty lies in the dissonance of the released vibrations when playing together with the bamboo flutes. Niels has edited the gender so that the instrument can be played automatically with mallets via the laptop.
At the Orgelpark, he will play guitar with the gender: “No note on the guitar sounds the same next to the gender”. Is the research process now finished? “No, I keep searching, but I am getting a better grip on it. The important thing for me is that I no longer attach so much value to our chromatic 12-tone scale, which is man-made and not a law of nature. It’s always good to be open to other ways of thinking.” The Digital Hyper Organ console, which was specially developed for the Orgelpark and controls the Utopa Baroque and the Sauer organs, is interspersed with Nora Mulder’s organ playing. The final montage is still a surprise. “We have four days before the performance for that. Some things have to be tried out on the spot.”
Niels also wants to keep this stage as free as possible, only setting conditions and with minimal direction. “If I really don’t like it, I intervene. I have a lot of ideas, a lot of them will fall by the wayside, and what remains becomes the form.” The musicians determine the compositional decisions Niels makes. “This is the way I also work with Monica. I have an idea how she wants to sing and sometimes let her hear some examples.” For Monica, the poems and texts are a playing field where she can try things out, stretching words, for example, or repeating them, or singing with a different intent.
Niels stresses that each piece is a work in progress, each subsequent concert will sound different. “I don’t want to do the same thing twice anyway. The only thing is that we now increasingly understand why we do things the way we do, but I like to let the process determine the outcome.”