The Boston Musical Intelligencer
Samuel Kjellberg
January 21, 2015

Kati Agócs, whose The Debrecen Passion comes to Boston Modern Orchestra Project this Saturday night, has been making quite an impression on the global music community. But beyond her extensive curriculum vitae and skill as a composer, Kati is also a warm and compassionate person, extremely self-actualized with a fluid ability to describe her experience.

This past weekend I was able to speak with Kati over the phone shortly after she had arrived from Minneapolis where she worked with Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra. After speaking very highly of the compositional and rehearsal process with BMOP and Lorelei, her Guggenheim Fellowship and the commissioning group The Jebediah Foundation (with the help of Robert Amory), and applauding the incredible musicians involved (BMOP and the Lorelei Ensemble) she answered a few questions about her upcoming premiere.

SK: I have never heard of Szilárd Borbély before. Who is this poet?

KA: Ah yes, most people have not heard of Borbély yet in the West. He is well known in literary circles within Hungary, but his work hasn’t been translated that much yet, so he isn’t as well known here. I am sure he will be soon. Unfortunately, we did lose him in 2014, so he is something of a canonized contemporary within Hungary.

Would you be willing to explain your personal relationship with this poet? How did you discover his work and what effect has it had on your life?

Yes, so I found out about him through friends inside Hungarian literary circles. I was looking for a contemporary poet. I really wanted to work with words from a poet of our time and combine them with timeless religious texts, most of them come from Medieval times; I use a Kabalistic prayer, I use a Stabat Mater, but not the one that most people know where Mary is by the cross, this is a Stabat Mater where she is by the crib of her child and there is a lot of foreshadowing and is much lighter in quality. That is a medieval parody on the more famous Stabat Mater. I also use a Georgian hymn called “Though art a vineyard.” I really wanted a modern voice for this piece; I didn’t want it to be all older things. So I asked friends who are writers in Hungary now and they said that this is person that you need to set. I went to his work and can be very shocking, there is a lot of violence in it. He has a tormented family history and there are of course a lot of tensions in Hungary now, so his work is very multi-faceted. I just found it so hypnotic and so elusive; it just captured my imagination. I lived for months with his words and they suggested this sound world to me and it just hypnotized me both day and night. Of course I was working with it in the Hungarian language so the sound of the language had a lot to do with it. I found that by writing it, by setting it, I could really apprehend the poetry.

You have written poly-textual works before. Could you explain such settings are particularly interesting to you?

The poly-textual motets have a long tradition; they go back to Machaut even and the very earliest motets in the early Renaissance. The reason why they are so interest is that they can combine sacred meanings with secular meanings. For example, they used to take a text that was sanctioned by the church, a Latin text, and they used a text in the vernacular that maybe had more racy meanings or definitely secular meanings. It was okay to combine them because it was in the context of this religious motet. I just find that you can get so many deep resonances that come about from weaving these different strands simultaneously and having them sound together and then interact. It is also interesting musically because each text will suggest its own rhythmic and intervallic palette, so you can have these lines that interact in very unexpected ways. That’s something that I used in my earlier piece Vessel, which BMOP also did (though did not commission), and that has an English poem with a Hebrew poem layered over it and then a Latin poem layered under it. I took that as a model for the trio in my new piece. In the middle I have this trio with two soprano soloists and an alto soloist layered together. A poem by Borbély is in the middle (in Hungarian of course), which is a secular poem, and it layers a lament on top, the oldest Hungarian poem, which goes back to Medieval times and is the lament of Mary looking at her son on the cross. She is asking, “Why don’t you take me instead?” She is trying to say, “Kill me instead,” basically lamenting his death. It is very dramatic, she says, “From my eyes tears are flowing, my heart is tired from torment, and your blood is falling, my heart is languishing,” then she finally says, “Light of the world, flower to flower, take me instead, let him live.” Then I bring in this Kabalistic prayer underneath that sort of roots it and is this call for healing and is this collective chant. I actually have the orchestra chant at that point because there was really nothing more I could do with the chorus; it is a women’s chorus and I needed to have some male voices. There are these three strands and they become more than the sum of their own parts.

From what I understand, this is your first Passion.

Well, it is actually my largest sacred work. In fact it is my largest work to date, coming in around 20 minutes.

You mention some conflict and social and political unrest going on in Hungary. The press release also suggests that some of the Hungarian conflict may have been an impetus for Borbély’s own personal conflict. Does your piece speak both personally on behalf of the poet as well as you? Do these parallel experiences also bespeak a larger social narrative such as the issues of free speech with the French satire periodical Charlie Hebdo?

So, of course we don’t have the Jihadist issues in Hungary yet, thank goodness. But what we have had in the last ten years or so is a big sea change politically. There has been a lot of xenophobic behavior; a lot more anti-Semitism in Hungary, there is censorship now, oddly enough. There is this national identity that is propagated there, you know, like, “this is the real Hungary, you are really Hungarian and okay.” But if you are a gypsy or part of a minority group, of which there are many, you get less opportunities and you get disparaged. Because of the political changes there has been a lot of restrictions in the arts. In 1989 we saw this big change towards artistic freedom and there was a free market and everybody had to adjust to that. Now we have this shift back to where people are afraid of the government again and where artists have restrictions on them again like they had in the past. I think that Borbély was very sensitive and for someone who was writing at the time, who was aware of all these political, religious, and social tensions there was great influence on his work. By being immersed in his text I am reacting to these larger ideas. Also, the fact that he is a voice of our time and he has lived through these changes it’s very urgent for us now in terms of reflecting on what artists do face in Hungary. And of course because Borbély did take his own life last year, and I know that he was very influenced by what was going on; of course, you can never know what someone is thinking under those circumstances. But I know that the changes and difficulty of life there had some bearing on that. That and the fact that I was writing in the wake of his passing made a great emotional impact on me. So in a way this piece is a tribute to him.

Knowing that you were writing for these two ensembles, can you describe what it was like to create the perfect piece for them? Did you ever think of what you felt these ensembles “needed” to play?

Yes. Lorelei Ensemble is really a collection of soloists; I wrote for 12 women from Lorelei Ensemble. I was influenced by a Györgi Ligeti piece called Clocks and Clouds, which is a piece for women’s chorus and an orchestra with an unusual instrumentation. That was originally supposed to be on the program but didn’t quite work out programmatically. I ended up writing this complex polyphony where each woman has her own line and I ended up featuring people and different vocal colors from the chorus. In fact, I think I feature about six or seven of them as soloists throughout the piece and that is because I knew their certain expressive colors. And there is a great timbre range with Lorelei. I have worked with BMOP before and they are simply fantastic, the players and everything. And the sound of the orchestra influenced how I heard the piece. It is incredible to have an ongoing relationship with an orchestra where they have done the pieces before and they know you well and you know them. It’s just really an ideal situation because it encourages you to follow your vision as a composer.

Your press release says that the piece will explore both the secular and sacred meaning of the word “passion.” I am wondering if you would be willing to expound on that a bit more?

What I do is take the religious poetry, which describes Christ’s passion, his death on the cross, and I do that from the mother’s perspective, something that is special and specific to this piece. I do it from the perspective of a mother watching the death of her son, watching that horrible scene. She is the emotional life within the narrative, a narrative that we have heard over and over in the bible and such. Then I frame this religious narrative with a secular reflection, which is more about the fragility of love and the difficulty of expressing love; love in general, or romantic love, love between people that isn’t of a religious nature. So I frame the religious with the secular, the secular being poems by Borbély (very rich and multi-layered, and difficult to translate I have to say). He speaks about the difficulty of expressing what we do and how we feel or even knowing what we feel. So I have his voice, a voice that is sort of “every person,” and I try to position that text so you have the two, the religious and non-religious, resonating together and that gives more richness to the two of them. I find that the juxtaposition of them allows a richness that wouldn’t be possible had I separated them.

Boston Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players, Minnesota Orchestra, Metropolis Ensemble, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Eighth Blackbird, and many others leading ensembles and musicians from all over the world have performed Kati Agócs’s works. Her list of awards, honors, and fellowships is quite staggering: a Fulbright Fellowship, New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, Jacob K. Javits Fellowship, honors from the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards, as well as a recent Guggenheim Fellowship. A composer of Canadian-Hungarian-American heritage, she has been greatly influenced by her Hungarian connection; her father emigrated from Hungary during the 1956 uprising and eventually found his way to Canada where Kati was raised. Her recent commission for BMOP, The Debrecen Passion, is the latest in a series of BMOP performances that will eventually lead to a release of an all-Agócs recording by BMOP. It was written for BMOP and the Lorelei Ensemble, a woman’s vocal ensemble that specializes in early and contemporary music.