HAMU student Jan Dobiáš’s composition commemorates the 100th anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia

AMU’s Music and Dance Faculty and AuraMusica have prepared a festive concert to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia. On 17 October 2018, Kateřina Javůrková, Leoš Čepický and student orchestra Academic Chamber Soloists appeared at Břevnov Monastery in a performance conducted by Leoš Svárovský. Alongside works by Leoš Janáček and Josef Suk, there was one premiere – a work by the young composer Jan Dobiáš, who is a doctoral student at HAMU. In an interview with Lucie Maloveská, Dobiáš reveals more about his composition and inspirations, thoughts on celebrations of the founding of Czechoslovakia and what Czech music actually is.

Your composition is called Variations on the Rhythm of Czech History. What does this title mean?

Variations on the Rhythm of Czech History is a ten-minute composition in which I follow two symbolic lines. The first is the fact that the composition’s ten minutes represent a timeline onto which 1400 years of recorded Czech history are projected, including thirteen watershed events. It can thus be said that one minute of the composition corresponds to 140 years. The composition groups individual events into thirteen different parts – variations – each of which corresponds to one historical period. The individual variations are always separated from one another by an audibly different element, which relates to the second symbolic line – the names of prehistoric Czech princes as recorded by Cosmas of Prague in his Chronica Boemorum.

The first milestone that you recognise in the composition comes from the earliest historical sources in 618, and the last milestone is 2018. How did you decide which events to include in the composition?

In the case of the year 618, this is not a specific date; rather, it refers to the approximate period when one can first identify some kind of Czech history. I selected the dates mostly according to which events I consider to have been most important – whether by virtue of their historic weight or their symbolic significance. I also consulted with historian Zdeněk Doskočil – I would need to study for years to understand these events perfectly myself. But we nevertheless agreed on the vast majority of them. I think simply selecting the important moments of our history lends the composition a certain degree of objectivity; it’s not just about how I alone view our history.

Do you consider your composition to be programme music in a certain sense?

To be honest, I’m not a great fan of the distinction between programme music and absolute music. Even absolute music provides an experience into which the listener can project a story. Conversely, programme music has – or rather should have – its own value, even if we don’t know the author. It certainly was not my intent for my composition to be as closely linked to a specific programme as Má vlast, for example. In my opinion, the detailed non-musical descriptions of individual symphonic poems often prevent us from perceiving the deeper levels of Smetana’s music. I conceive of the individual variations in my composition as temporal windows of a sort, into which everyone – performers and listeners alike – can insert their own meaning. Of course, I too project my own personal associations there, but I don’t want the composition to be about them.

The second symbolic line refers to the names of prehistoric princes, from which you derive the composition’s harmonic material with the help of a tonal transcription of formants. Could you explain this process?

Just as in music a tone is never heard in isolation but with its aliquot tones, speech sounds are heard with their formants. In both cases, there is a certain tonal spectrum which is specific to each tone or speech sound. Logically, the formant spectrum of speech also differs by language. The Czech sound “e” sounds different and will thus have slightly different formants from, for example, its counterpart in English. I transcribed the formants of the sounds in the names of these princes into tones, and these names are thus truly present in the Variations. Each variation begins with the tonal transcription of one of the names and from these tones I build the harmony in each variation. The reason for working with these names was not just to create the composition’s harmonic component; there is a symbolic level as well, which is based on a theory advanced by historian Vladimír Karbusický. According to Karbusický, the names are actually a garbled sentence which originally could have been an offer of peace to other nations as well as an expression of intransigence if the offer was not accepted. For example, the names Nezamysl, Mnata, Vojen, Vnislav could have been the remains of the words “nezmýšlíme na tě vojny ni zla” [“let us not contemplate these wars or evils”].

What led you to create the composition? How do you view the fact that you as a composer have connected yourself with the commemoration of such a monumental event?

I was pleased to learn that the Department of Composition had announced a contest to create a composition for this occasion. Normally, I don’t connect my music with political issues, but despite this I’m glad that in order to celebrate such an important anniversary I can express myself through my own specific medium – music. An artist cannot usually compete with a historian or a political scientist with respect to specific knowledge, but the artist’s message nevertheless has value, perhaps in the associations that it “feels”. It’s not too important to me whether my work elicits reactions, such as discussion. I just wanted to say something and I really appreciate the fact that this can happen in a year when we are commemorating more than one important anniversary. The unsuccessful political movement of 1968 is much remembered, and in this context I am very pleased that we have not forgotten the successful one which culminated in 1918.

At the concert, the works of prominent Czech and Slovak composers will be heard. How do you perceive yourself in the context of Czech music and how do you perceive Czech music itself?

I don’t really perceive myself as part of the tradition of Czech composers. What exactly should this Czech tradition actually be today? I draw inspiration from all music – Czech and foreign, new and old. Today, artists no longer set the programme as was the case previously; they do not ordain in advance that they will emerge from the national folklore. I also believe that what we perceive today as “national” often arose by someone taking what they considered at the time to be the most worldly and topical thing, and elaborating it in a distinctive manner. Here I could again mention Bedřich Smetana.

Do you believe, then, that in Czech music or in the music of any other nation it is no longer possible to identify any distinctive features that most composers in a given country would share?

Certain specifics can be traced. We talk about “American” or a different “East European” minimalism, about the “Polish” avant-garde of the 1960s, about the spectralism which emerged in France and later expanded among composers in many other countries. In Lithuania, for example, composers often incline towards various forms of minimalism. But they likely did not all agree on such a programme, and they certainly do not require it of one another. It is simply their natural direction. I don’t see any such common denominator in Czech and Slovak music; they seem quite variegated to me, but perhaps I just lack sufficient distance. We are certainly not in a situation akin to that of the 19th century, when even the best composers were accused of “betraying the national programme”. Today’s composers focus on other issues. Despite the current – hopefully non-authoritative – atmosphere, I’m convinced that there is something special in each individual culture – a certain energy. And, although this energy is intangible and constantly changing, we should definitely not stop trying to perceive it. For then there would be no more diversity; the world would become much more uniform – a sort of union without uniqueness. But returning to the composition, I did not intend for it to address questions like what Czech music is, who we – Czechs and Slovaks, respectively – are, where we came from or where we’re going. But I would like to point out that even in today’s world these questions still make sense.

29. October 2018