Dmitri Arnauts is a self-taught composer who ploughs his own furrow, unbothered by what academia might have to say about him. His encounter with Bach set the course for his vocation, and Bach’s influence is visible not only in his compositional language, which is resolutely tonal, but also in the spiritual dimension that he brings to his creative activity.

Ahead of the world première of Humble Memories, a nostalgic suite, to take place at Bozar in Brussels on May 7th, Arnauts answered our questions about his aesthetic choices, musical heritage and the place of the composer in today’s Catholic Church.

Bachtrack: Tell us about Humble Memories, a nostalgic suite...

Dimitri Arnauts
Dimitri Arnauts

DA: Humble Memories consists of 19 miniatures for piano four-hands. It’s a somewhat varied assembly of poetic evocations, of snatches of memories, be they happy or dark, or of particular atmospheres that have stayed with me from childhood. I’ve tried to maintain a certain ironic detachment, when those memories involve me, but also to respect the tragic aspect of what was happening to others in front of my eyes when I was a child: violent harrassment, maltreatment and ostracism of people who were red-headed, short, ugly, fat, gentle, etc… in short, against anyone whose type you wouldn’t see in an advertisement.

Other movements speak of what, in spite of everything, is at the basis of love of life: friendship, first love, the call of the evangelist, a benevolent God, music, the bright morning that I met Johann Sebastian Bach – I just hope that I was more or less up to the poetic task!

The music of Humble Memories is fairly polyphonic, with a lot of music that crosses the registers of the keyboard. It’s therefore important that each note retains its clarity and its ability to transmit harmonic meaning within the chord progressions. The majority of this suite had already been composed when I first heard about Chris Maene’s new straight strung piano, on which the piece will be premièred. This instrument and its sound character immediately struck me as ideal and suited to play, amongst others, this type of music. Besides, I love and admire the approach of this artisan, who dares to reset everything, renew a forgotten tradition and patiently create a masterpiece.

Your works are resolutely tonal and display a type of stylistic eclecticism that’s most notably found in Bach. Is the “nostalgia” in your work’s title a musical one?

Undoubtedly, the work has a nostalgic dimension, given the immensity of the Western musical tradition and its great masters, of which we are the heirs.

Tonality is not the restrictive system that his been painted by academia. On the contrary, it’s the freedom to move intuitively between sonic interferences “on a human scale”, perceived by us as consonant harmony, and areas with groupings of complex frequency, in other words dissonances. Tonality and consonant harmony are flour and water; salt provides dissonance. To make a good loaf of bread, one has to stick to certain proportions.

For me, tonality is one of the positive influences towards beauty and emotion, a beauty that understands how to give space for the listener as an independent being, to whom one is giving the time and context necessary to understand a piece of music. The listener isn’t constantly being subjected to, astonished by, overwhelmed by a constant flow of stridencies, which are invasive as much by their number as they are by their somewhat random juxtaposition. For me, the overuse of dissonance is a rather perverse tendency, which is ultimately similar to the overuse of the volume control in rock concerts.

I recognise gratefully that in music, I owe almost everything to Johann Sebastian Bach, from my first great rush of aesthetic emotion to my subsequent musical education, focused on singing. If I hadn’t met the Mass in B minor, I would undoubtedly not have felt this calling and directed myself towards composition.

What’s your view of the legacy of the post-war avant-garde?

Clearly, this avant-garde explored new sonic landscapes meticulously and diligently, and it developed new playing methods, or at the very least, it considerably widened the field of what is audible and acceptable.

To my mind, this music betrays a sense of almost systematic management of despair: a victory of the absurd, an expression of happy conclusions lost forever.

Perhaps that corresponds to a fatalism and a disenchantment with the world which followed the vacuum left as the question of God departed from public consciousness, as well as following the horrors – then recent – of the Second World War. For sure, those were inexpressible by means of pretty melodies, so a music was needed that could reflect the nature of that hell.

Much as I love it when I succeed in using a musical language to evoke non-musical things like nature, feelings, people, etc, I’m not ready to go as far as the reliance on noise of musique concrète. I accept that the sounds of life and objects have obvious musical potential, but I feel one should try to transcend those in order to be able to consider them as music.

What about the current contemporary scene? Within it, how can one make a unique voice heard?

I sense a paradox. Never have people cried “Freedom, freedom!” so much, and yet it is demanded that one pay giant attention to what one says, judges, thinks, admires, loves or hates. Or to what one composes…

Recently, thank goodness, everyone can see that there’s been a wind of freedom which has arrived once more to whistle through the battlements: stylistic variety has become enriched and individualised, tonality has made a modest return, albeit that consonant harmony still struggles to find its place on the contemporary scene.

I’ve made my own life choice and taken the artistic paths which seemed to me to be the most fertile, delicious, truthful and beneficial, while understanding my talents and their limits. Quite simply, I haven’t the desire to write obscure, ultra-academic music: rather, I dream of being loved for and by my music, to know that once in a while, it brought tears to someone’s eyes. I also want to express (somewhat belatedly, I admit) my gratitude to God: for everything!

That includes my musical first love, to which I return as often as I can: the Psalms. I’ve hardly ever approached them as dirges or as unidimensional linear chants. On the contrary, I’ve always wanted to express the meaning of each verse by a well-defined musical movement with its own character, which results in compositions in the style of an oratorio, ranging from 20 minutes to over two hours of music for each Psalm.

Behind its proclaimed diversity, the contemporary mainstream retains a totalitarian tendency, into which is woven incestuous relationships and sometimes a sense of caste… Sometimes, I hear myself saying below my breath that “your music is very beautiful, but for my artistic profile – it’s out of the question”.

I’ve always felt personally free and artistically, thematically and aesthetically independent, and I protect and cherish that aspect of my journey. I also maintain, as best I can, my “editorial integrity”, and try to avoid esprit-de-corps, self-censorship and the dictatorship of “what will people say?”.

Let’s discuss the detail of your compositional technique: architecture, timbre, melody, harmony… What aspects matter most to you?

If you ignore any of those aspects or, worse still, you declare that henceforth, one should (for example) no longer talk about melody or harmony, you are stripping the music of a great deal of its power, richness, attraction, balance, originality and intelligibility of its sound. Quite simply, you have to pay attention to everything; then, if one wants to concentrate on some particular aspect, or add some extra complexity or character to it, of course it’s fine to do so.

For me personally, a new composition often starts with the melodic idea. I then determine what kind of underlying rhythmic scheme will succeed in making the line dynamic, and choose the time signature accordingly. I then add a harmonic substrate that might be consonant, dissonant or both. From then, I start choosing registers and timbres, and those choices determine the character of that melody’s first appearance.

All this gives me a seed, which may lie fallow for some while but which demands to be allowed to grow. Generally (though not always), that development into a complete movement requires thought about structure, follow-up ideas, dramatic and narrative progression. That growth needs free and inspired verve, full or emotion and creative energy.

As regards structure, I’ve always felt free, partly as a result of a certain deliberate ignorance of the usual academic forms: I certainly don’t restrict myself to sonata or fugal form, so I’m happy to create mixtures, collisions and assemblies of any form that seems appropriate. That is, a form whose internal structure offers more coherence and force than mere chaos - because then, these internal elements, these bricks, join together to elevate the music to a higher dimension. By the way, I’m broadly suspicious of structural absolutism, and I like to create surprises, escapes, contrasts, ruptures that create new perspectives.

Timbre also determines the colour and character of a composition in a clear and immediate way. But in a certain sense, timbre is more an envelope than an essence – at least, that is, in my musical universe. For example, you can savour a Bach prelude just as well on an ancient harpsichord as on the latest piano or even in Balinese gamelan. Sadly, a great deal of contemporary music is ultra timbral and would crumble completely with this treatment.

You’ve composed many works of religious music. What do you think are the role of the composer in today’s Church?

I think that music can fully express the sacred, or at least give a sight of it, a discernible presence and infusion of emotion. Thought and emotion create the world, so bringing into being beautiful and elevated thoughts and emotions can gradually direct humanity towards a path of light.

The opposite choice is to leave the evolution of our species, which is sold to us as inexorable, to itself, leading to its own destruction, replaced by mindless and enslaved technological golems – transhumanist and posthumanist robotisation.

Is the Church still a benevolent, inspiring and welcoming presence for the composers who wish to defend this ideal of life and art? Love needs to come from both sides… As for me, I hope and believe that it’s still the case, that the relationship between art and faith, without falling into the vice of propaganda, will be reestablished in a free and productive way, to honour and keep alive the immense heritage of Christian art and to bear witness to its evangelical message.

Clearly, for example, Pope Benedict XVI had an affection for an a particular interest in the quality and elevation of liturgical music – following on, by the way, from predecessors who were sometimes discreetly worried by what was being sung in Mass.

My opinion here is that the tree of paradise can welcome a lot of birds with different plumages. There’s a space and a need for pretty religious music which is homely and warmth for the communities of the faithful, and also the need to raise spirits with high and developed sacred music, with polyphony and Gregorian chant at its head.

Any composer who wants to contribute musically to this Christian life should at least tread a path of personal questioning or of faith, asking honestly if his approach is one of service or of mundanity. I also feel that such revealing self-questioning  and this insistence on sincerity can be crushing and oppressive. Then, I open the Bible at the Psalms, the creative spirit invades me, and I am enveloped in His consolation...


Visit Dimitri Arnauts’ website for more information about his projects and a recording of the world première of Humble Memories.

Translated from French by David Karlin
This article was sponsored by Dimitri Arnauts.