PuSh Blog

A conversation with Stefan Smulovitz

September 30, 2009

The Passion of Joan Of Arc

On the evening of September 23rd I attended the first reading session of a brand new work by composer Stefan Smulovitz. This new score for 10 musicians (including strings, brass, pipe organ, percussion and voice) has been commissioned by the PuSh Festival and was written to accompany the 1928 black and white silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc. Stefan is a skilled composer, and I was struck by the way his colourful writing made full use of the range of beautiful timbres these instruments are capable of. His musical gestures seemed, to me at least, to echo simple human gestures: a sigh, an upward glance, a quickening pulse, a steadfast march. I caught up with Stefan after the rehearsal to ask him a few questions:

KG: Can you speak a bit about the creation of your piece? I understand parts of it are composed, and others involve improvisation.
SS: The one thing I have always done when writing for film, is create an outline of which players will be playing in each section. Starting with the timbres and sounds that I hear in each section I decide first on the instrumentation. The choice between improvisation and through composed is more difficult, and in fact often I combine the two. Often there are certain musical ideas that I want to get across that might not be the first response an improviser has to an image. In those cases I composed the music. With such great improvisers in the band I also wanted to make sure they had room to play. Often I give the improviser a few bars of written material to set the tone and then have them work from this material.

KG: I see you are working with text written for you by poet Colin Browne. How did this collaboration come about?
SS: I know Colin from my work up at SFU, and when I first read his poetry it resonated with me. The first few times I worked with his words were as improvised songs with Viviane Houle singing and myself accompanying on laptop. This project was a very obvious fit as Colin is also a filmmaker who is familiar with the movie. For both of us Joan’s story holds a lot of meaning.

KG : Can you talk a bit about Joan’s story? How do you think it relates to contemporary society, and what lessons do you think we can learn from her?
SS: At first glance it looks like a story about a woman who gets tortured and burned at the stake. This misses the heart of the story. There is a reason Joan has been an inspiration for centuries. She chose to die for something she believed in, defying society and the church. One could mistake this as the act of a religious zealot–but she speaks of her love of God and sacrifices only herself. She says it best… “Some men are hanged for telling the truth.” While truth and belief have become loaded concepts and ideals in today’s world, the absence of truth and belief is equally dangerous. Conviction and vision are now avoided like the plague. Joan gave her life for what she believed in, and in an age where people are unwilling to undergo even slight discomfort for what they believe in; it’s an important message.

Stefan’s new work will be premiered on January 28, as part of the 2010 PuSh Festival and Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad.

– Posted by Kara Gibbs: Communications Manager, PuSh International Performing Arts Festival