Joseph Vella: "Atonal music is a new harmony"
The most prominent Maltese composer speaks to the Maltese Herald’s editor-in-chief about modern music, the place of opera in the Maltese cultural paradigm as well as what it is like to be a Gozitan.
– Mro Vella, you are a Gozitan and it seems that the Gozitans tend to distinguish themselves from the Maltese. What is the reason for it?
– There is a certain pride in being a Gozitan. The sister island is very small – everybody knows everybody there. That gives a certain feeling of living very close to people you consider friends, at least most of them.
– You feel that you belong to a special community…
– That’s right! And the Gozitans differ from the Maltese even in character. The latter tend to be more talkative unlike us who are more quiet, we prefer to listen and make our own judgement. Some people may compare such behaviour to the Sicilian omerta (laughs). But this is not the case, of course. Gozitans are more careful in what they say and, very often, in what they do.
– How did your musical career begin?
– Once I completed my secondary education, I started teaching. At that time you could only pursue a career in the civil service or education, as there were no industries and most of the technical positions were filled by the British.
At an age of sixteen and a half I relocated to Malta and started teaching – first in a primary school, then at St. Michael training college. After that I started teaching music in schools and soon after I was appointed a music inspector. I assisted in opening the first school of music in Malta, named after Johann Strauss, and eventually became a professor of composition at the Malta University.
As time passes, people get to know about you and your music, invite you to conduct, then you go abroad, where, in turn, you meet more people… Now I am known all over Europe and even in the USA. So I am doing well.
I am optimistic by nature and that helped me a lot in life. When I started working with the national orchestra, it was a put-up orchestra comprised of local people, and it was not so good. What is nowadays known as the Malta Philharmonic orchestra, used to be called the Manoel theatre orchestra that consisted of 30 players. Today, it has a truly professional set-up thanks to the presence of Russian, Italian, German, Polish, English, and French musicians… less than a half of the Maltese musicians have remained. Sharing ideas has helped enormously and also the media, of course. Before, if I wanted to listen to a piece of music, it took me three weeks to receive a recording and now it is a matter of seconds.
– Modern music is mostly atonal, including yours…
– I’ve always believed that the role of a composer is to lead and not to simply copy things exactly the way they are. At the same time, the composer has to lead in a way that enables him not to lose sight of his potential audience. He literally has to pull the audience along with him.
I have grown in a rather limited environment, where you have to compose for different occasions and people. When I write, say, for the string quartet I have a freedom of expression, but for a liturgical service I am restricted by the duration (it cannot be too long), the material available (you cannot have an orchestra play in a church all the time), etc. So, writing in all styles, which can actually be called eclecticism, is the way most modern composers write.
Yes, their music may be atonal, but if you compose it the right way, you can feel that a piece of music is saying something worthwhile.
– There is a certain harmony in atonal music…
– Yes, I’d rather say it is a new harmony. What was dissonant in the 17th century, became concordant in the 18th century, because people get used to certain sound combinations and eventually they cease to be discordant.
– You were one of the three Maltese composers-in-residence at the Malta International Music festival in April 2017 and many guests, both Maltese and foreign, were introduced to your music and enjoyed it. What would you say about works by your colleague, composer Alexei Shor, who is of Russian descent?
– I came across Alexei and his music quite recently and I am pleased I got to know him and his works. I find that his music is very intelligible for any discerning audience. Its touch of Russian romanticism further enhances the value of his works. I consider Alexei a new and much appreciated colleague.
– It is a common perception that “the Maltese like opera”. However, when I purchased tickets for an opera in Gozo last year, some Maltese commented that I could come up with a better way of spending my free time and money… Why such a reaction?
– Let’s go a bit back in the history. Before the radio and television era came to Malta, the island was all but virtually a part of Italy, both culturally and musically. You can see it in the baroque influence in the churches. And before World War II “music” in Malta was tantamount to the “Italian opera” – Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti, Bellini… The librettos remained in Italian even when non-Italian operas were produced.
Moreover, at that time Malta was important for the Italian singers who often launched their careers here. Every time a new opera was staged, it would sometimes come to Malta within one year from its debut, even before it premiered in Paris.
Even the music they used to write for village feasts and celebrations in churches was in the Italian opera style! Therefore, everyone, including illiterate people, knew everything about this genre. A carpenter or a plasterer could sing all the tunes.
All this has dramatically changed since the war with the advent of the media. But at a festa they still offer what is called a musical service. They invite opera singers to perform during a festa.
Do not forget that the churches used to be the common people’s theatres during festas. They could not afford to go to the Valletta opera house but used to attend these music services.
– Could it be the reason why the commoners in Malta are not eager to go to the opera in Gozo or Valletta but gladly attend village-square concerts during feasts?
– Yes, and, besides, they just do not like to experience certain “stiff” atmosphere.
– Do a composer’s works reflect his mentality and tell others something about the place he was born and raised in?
– Yes, of course. If I, a composer who lives in the middle of Mediterranean, and, say, a composer from Norway, were asked to write a piece of music within exactly the same parameters, it would still be different in the end. Because my mentality and the environment I live in is different from his. I see this in some of my compositions. One can say, this is sort of Mediterranean but what makes it Mediterranean? I don’t know (smiles).
– What do you mean? Don’t you know what makes music Mediterranean?
– I can’t pinpoint what is Mediterranean and what is not. There is something that differentiates it from what has been created in the North. As a composer working under this sun, I am bound to be different. Moreover, I am a composer for Malta, but it does not necessarily mean that I write “Maltese music”. My music is pan-European, but it is still different from, say, French… In the end, I can’t give an exact definition of “Mediterranean music”.
Interview of Svetlana Vella
Mro Joseph Vella about Malta International Music Festival 2018
I am indeed looking forward to the MIMF-2018. Last year’s edition went completely beyond my expectations, in that, over such a short period of time, the Festival has grown at an impressive rate and to such excellent proportions. After the undoubted success of last year I am more than convinced that this year’s edition is going to provide the local cultural scene with a musical event that has raised local standards to magnificent heights.
My feelings must be of all those that have the local music scene at heart. Going by what seems to be in store for us, the excellent standards we saw and witnessed last year will this time round be even surpassed. And that is saying something! Great interpreters galore, fantastic young musicians, household names in the making. All these are readily available on the menu for MIMF-2018. This is an opportunity not so easily to come by, especially in a small place like Malta. This is what one usually gets in the world’s top music centres.
The fact that in a way I am directly involved in this extravaganza of music making, makes me not only honoured but also proud. This is the third time that I have been kindly asked by the organizers to be a composer-in –residence for the competition. No doubt about it, having your work so expertly interpreted by top notch performers is both gratifying and exciting. Besides, given the fact that competitors are coming to Malta from the four corners of the world, this is also a splendid opportunity to make a composer’s work better known abroad. It is a good fertile ground for dissemination. In this regards, I have already had prospective competitors who intend to play my works writing to me to discuss some fine point for interpretation. All this makes it so interesting to get in contact with fellow musicians from abroad.
Over the last few years the cultural scene in Malta has progressed by leaps and bounds, both in quantity, but what is even more important, in quality. With so many great and famous names visiting the Island as part of the Festival I would not hesitate to say that MIMF is one of the redder cherries on the cake. And this is really so beneficial to Malta which is fast becoming such an important music centre in Europe.
I honestly feel that people in Malta who truly have music culture at heart, should really be gratefully indebted to Kostantin Ishkhanov and the European Foundation for the Support of Culture for giving concert goers in Malta such a rich high standard event that has now established itself as a major annual shining light on the Maltese artistic calendar. As the old Latins used to say, one hopes that MIMF will go “ad altiora et megliora”.