Antonin Servière : composition, artistic research and teaching

Antonin Servière is a composer, teacher and a musician. While he completed higher instrumental studies (First Prize of Saxophone in 2004, Master’s-level teaching certification in 2005), he studied orchestration with Alain Louvier from 2001 to 2003 and composition with Philippe Leroux from 2004 to 2006. He pursued his study of composition with Michael Jarrell, Luis Naon and Eric Daubresse (new technologies) from 2007 to 2010 at the Conservatory of Geneva (HEM), Switzerland. Concerned with History and speech about music, Antonin Servière completed a whole curriculum in Musicology (Bachelor, Master, Ph.D), which led to the completion of a doctoral thesis about Jean Sibelius. He is also interested in the narrative and the rhetorical dimension of music.

Antonin Servière’s career is now devoted both to composition, artistic research and teaching. His works have been performed in France (Orchestre National de Lorraine, Ensemble Cairn), Canada (Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, Montréal), Switzerland (Contrechamps, Geneva, Proton Bern), Finland (Uusinta chamber ensemble, Zagros – Helsinki) and in Italy, where he has been finalist of the “Italia 150” competition (Matera), the San Fedele Prize in Milan (2010-2013), or more recently Expo Milano 2015. His catalogue includes about thirty works, among which several pieces for chamber music ensembles, one for large orchestra, another for tape and a chamber opera. Antonin Servière lives in Nice, on the French Riviera, sharing his time between composition and teaching.

What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer?

It was not before the age of 16 that I decided to devote myself to music seriously. I wasn’t born into a musical family, nor a cultured environment, although my mother likes “classical” music. I have been first a saxophone player, for quite many years, before I came to composition, at the age of 25 or so. Meanwhile, I had started a complete curriculum as a musicologist, that occupied my life for approximately 10 years. This background might be the reason why my first real works as a composer were not written before I was 30. It probably reflects my way of thinking music as a whole, too. Back to my student years, I was playing a lot of contemporary music, as a classical saxophonist. And I think the initial impulse for starting composing was the will of understanding the pieces I was then performing, but also some dissatisfaction with them, and what I considered to be… mediocre music. I thought I could maybe one day do better!

Luciano Berio’s Sequenza and some pieces of Giacinto Scelsi might have been, now looking back, significant regarding my will of becoming a composer.

Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work?  Has this changed over time?

I don’t see any important figure among contemporary music composers who would have been definitely influential on me. Neither feel I necessarily closed to the current Zeitgeist, actually.

If the above-mentioned names of Berio and Scelsi have probably been important at first, others came later, of course : Boulez (some pieces, for instance Dérive 2, which I consider to be an absolute masterpiece), Birtwistle (for rhythm), Grisey (for temporality and its formal implications), Michael Jarrell (who was my professor for three years)… but in fact, I see more my work as a perpetual underlying dialogue with the whole history of music, including tonal composers! (like Sibelius, for instance, who I know well, since his music was the topic of my dissertation). Recently, I’m observing more some connections with works that I find interesting for possible future developments (works by Lachenmann, Sciarrino, B. Pauset…).  However, essentially, music is for me first a quest of style.

How do you approach the question of “form” especially for longer works?

To me, music not only has to do with form, but is the very concept of form. However, music is also an experience of form, in which another concept —  duration —  has a central part. This is why the basic tool to achieve it is the development. Of course, I am far from being the first one to state this (Boulez did it better than me), but it is something I always try to come back to, when I have to deal with long works. Secondly, music is for me something essentially narrative — although it doesn’t tell anything, as we all know. Yet, this musical narrativity imposes its requirements to the form, and partly rules what will be my musical material. In the past, I used to be mostly interested in ‘content-based’ forms, and for instance what I called the “processual developing variations” : the form would build itself from a given material, took as a starting point. But rather quickly, this approach did not satisfy me. On the opposite, I felt the need of predicting the length of each section, until a point where I felt totally unable to compose without having a clear idea of the duration of both a given section and the whole piece. In a recent work like Timing [2016-2017, 37’ long, not premiered yet], this obsession led me to write a detailed analysis of the piece at the same time I was composing! In the same way, symmetry became to be more and more important, as to ensure a satisfying musical dramaturgy. Later, I came closer to the concept of gesture, and its possible implications on form. Using gesture-like materials led me to pay even greater attention to contrasts, and the possible risk of either an abundance of contrasts or a lack of contrasts. Now recently, the rhetorical dimension of my music became even more prominent for my future plans. I write pieces in which the form is determined by… a hidden text. A sort of transliterated palimpsest, in short. I might develop this idea in a future operatic work, if I have enough strengh to write it…

Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you find that it inhibits your process?  What other technology, if any, do you use?

Unfortunately, my professional situation does not allow me to compose when I want, nor when I need. Consequently, I don’t have any schedule for writing… even during those holy days when I am free from teaching and I’m able to focus on music. I wish I could organize my life so that I would have a short time to devote myself to composition everyday, like a healthy self-discipline. But even though I would have this time, I’m not sure I would fulfil it, for I wouln’t necessarilly have the mental disposition for it. Instead, I have long periods of vigil, observation, sometimes reflection and suddenly, a burst of creativity. Travels are particularly beneficial for me : planes, trains especially (provided people around me are not too noisy… which is rarely the case, alas), and even stationary positions in wait for a transfer. Actually, all kind of situation involving a journey, a movement around me while I am in a stationary position before I have to move myself is improving my creativity!   

I do not use any computer program for composing (such as Open Music, for instance), but I do use the computer to create pre-composition materials, indeed. Then comes a rather long period during which I’m often switching between paper and screen, including the time I’m doing simulations (on my editing program or even on the piano, like in older times…). I don’t use any other technology. Since I’m a very “classical” composer, I still write rather precise pitches, deal with rhythms, harmony. Although I like (and even admire) all my fellow composers dealing mostly with sounds and timbre, I still think there is still a lot of possible masterpieces written only with pulse, notes, rhythms and articulation… 

Please describe a recent work.

I can say something about the one you told me you like, Kumahdukset, 2013).

The word “kumahdus” (singular form of “kumahdukset”) is a Finnish word for all kind of muffled, and often low, sounds or noises. The piece was commissioned by the Tampere Biennale (Finland). It was first a poem (written by the composer himself), and is partly based on Schubert’s famous second movement of his trio op. 100. It was written in 2013-2014 and scored for a nine musicians ensemble. Each musician is playing an added little percussion instrument.

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