Thinking Aloud: Thomas Simaku on writing for solo instruments

15th September 2023

Articles NMC Recordings

Since Thomas Simaku began composing his cycle of Soliloquys in 1998, the series has grown to encompass every instrumental family of the orchestra. The objective of these works is to delve into and examine the expressive and technical characteristics of each instrument, producing highly virtuosic, idiosynchratic music. 'SOLO', Simaku's first album release on NMC due out on 29 September, showcases some of the composer's recent Soliloquys, each one reaching a depth of expression beyond what seems possible with a single instrument. Here, Thomas tells the story of this two decade-long project of writing for lone instruments.

Over the last 20 years or so, I have been engaged with a series of highly virtuosic solo pieces for various instruments, which aims at creating different characters within the same protagonist who 'narrates in different languages’, as it were, where each character makes considerable use of its own ‘dialect’.

My new album released by NMC Recordings includes the latest three works of the cycle, namely Soliloquy VII, VIII and IX for clarinet, marimba and trumpet respectively, featuring soloists of Ensemble intercontemporain Jérôme Comte, Aurélien Gignoux and Clément Saunier. The outer works of this triptych incorporate a resonant piano, which acts as an amplifier to the resonating chamber. Included on the release are also two pieces for piano, Catena II and III, performed by Dimitri Vassilakis.

In a nutshell, this new album is what it says on the tin – SOLO.

An image of Thomas Simaku's new album Solo

Having been asked to write a few words about the Soliloquy Cycle, I asked my self, ‘where should I begin?’

I will begin from the beginning – number 1, that is; for it all started with a piece for solo violin! I always wanted to write for violin, but, although I had composed a number of pieces involving the violin in various contexts in my undergraduate years at the Tirana Conservatoire, including a Concerto for Violin & Orchestra and a piece for Violin & String Ensemble, I still felt a bit apprehensive writing just for violin – not being a violinist myself, it all sounded a bit daunting!

I had finished my PhD in Composition at York, and had just returned from the Tanglewood Music Center in USA in 1996, where I worked with some brilliant musicians. That said, the question ‘what can I do with just four strings and four fingers?’ still haunted me!  But one day in the spring of 1998, I ‘jumped’, and wrote Soliloquy I in a couple of months. There was no commission for it, and no one asked me write it, but I composed it for the ‘ideal’ player. When finished, I showed it to a violinist – an MA student at York. She looked at it page after page, and said: ‘I cannot do this, but you shouldn’t change a bit, because there are people who can’. I earnestly obliged!

In the summer of 1998, I went on a composition course at California State University with Brian Ferneyhough, and I showed him my brand new piece, which he looked at in great detail. At the end of the session he encouraged me to send it to the ISCM Festival, and I did. I was so delighted that the international jury, which included none other than Irvine Arditti, selected the piece. The world premiere took place in Luxembourg in 2000 performed by Vania Lecuit, who, to my astonishment, played it from memory – this was never my intention!

Scote image

Extract from the score for Soliloquy I

The premiere at the 2000 ISCM Festival was my first international success, and a breakthrough for me. After some eight years, the piece was released on my debut CD by Naxos, recorded by Peter Sheppard Skaerved, with whom I have worked closely ever since, and for whom I have written a number of pieces.

Having written Soliloquies II, III for cello and viola (both are included in the 2008 Naxos CD recorded by Neil Heyde and Morgan Goff), and Soliloquy IV for bass clarinet (recorded by Sarah Watts), I never thought I would write a piece for recorders! I thought the recorder was an instrument that children play for fun. When Chris Orton approached me asking for a new piece (he had received a BBC Performing Arts Award), I didn’t want to say no, and said, I will write it only if you could teach me, because I know nothing about the instrument. I thought he would take that as a ‘No’, but he took it as a ‘Yes’, and came to York with a bag full of recorders. When he began to play, my jaw dropped! How wrong I was about the recorder; so I wrote the piece, which then won the BASCA Award in 2009. 

Why Soliloquy?

Titles are funny things! You sometimes begin with a title, or the idea comes in the middle of the process; or you finish the piece and still haven’t decided.  Ligeti came up with some thirteen versions of the title for his first piano etude, before deciding on Desordre!

I do care about the titles – they are the first contact the composer makes with the listener, our ‘window shop’, as it were. As Rodin put it to Debussy in one of their walks, ‘a good title is the one which has at least two meanings’.

At first I hesitated on the title Soliloquy; it seemed a bit prosaic to me at the time, but later discovered that there was a lot more in ‘Soliloquy’ that can meet the eye! In fact, it derives from Latin (Solus – alone; loquy – speech), but what appealed to me more than anything else was ‘a speech in which a person expresses his thoughts aloud without addressing any specific person’, as described in the Oxford Dictionary of English. That will do for me – I said!

There is no scope here to write about each individual piece included on this new album – after all, the music itself can say a lot more than I can possibly put into words. But here I will say a few words about the clarinet piece, which was the catalyst for this recording project.

It all began in 2018 when I heard on Jérôme Comte on Youtube performing pieces by Stravinsky and Bruno Mantovani, and contacted him saying ‘how much I enjoyed his fabulous performances’. I also sent him the recording of Soliloquy V – Flauto Acerbo, and offered to write a piece for him. Since then… well, here we are now the piece I wrote is included in this album. But there is another ‘French connection’ here, in that in September 2019 I was awarded a residency at Dora Maar House in Provence, and was working in earnest on this piece, sending sketches to Jérôme, who would look at them and send me back audio files. But then, the lockdowns came! Hence the world premiere took place at the 2022 Huddersfield Contemporary Festival – it was worth the wait!

This is a challenging piece (they all are!), but, as those of us who heard Jérôme at Huddersfield noticed, his effortless performance made it sound rather easy! Jérôme Comte’s fabulous paying and encouragement was an inspiration in writing this piece, and I have wholeheartedly dedicated it to him. As Tom Service put it, ‘…the vertiginous virtuosity of Comte's playing takes in the whole range of the instrument, from whispering murmurations to declamatory violence, turning the clarinet into a percussion instrument…’

The whole cycle has been a very stimulating creative experience for me; and I have discovered quite a bit about a number of instruments, now covering all four sections of the orchestra. A composer cannot play all the instruments (life is too short!), but it doesn’t mean that we cannot understand how they work, what can and cannot be done, how far they can go; and working with these amazing players has been an amazing experience –they’ve all gone the extra mile!

I compose because I believe that I have something personal to say with sounds. In my conversation with Ferneyhough at California State University, I said to him that one should always ­try to speak with one’s voice, however small that might be; and his reply was: ‘I couldn’t agree more’.

This was music to my ears, and I often say to my students: write the music that you want to hear, not the music that I want to hear, because that one I can write it myself!

Score 2

Extract from the score for Concerto for Orchestra

My output is now reaching 100 pieces, and I have composed from 1 to 100 and a few in between! Frustratingly, Concerto for Orchestra, which was awarded the First Prize in Lutoslawski’s 100th Birthday Competition, selected from 160 scores submitted anonymously from 37 countries, and premiered by the Warsaw Philharmonic at the Warsaw Autumn in 2013, is yet to receive its UK premiere.  Apparently, convincing an orchestra manager seems to be much harder. Be that as it may, ‘will I compose more Soliloquies?’ – I hear you say. Well, never say never!


Thomas Simaku's new album SOLO is released by NMC on 29 September 2023. 

Find out more & pre-order SOLO

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