An Albanian composer in UK

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times February 23, 2019 15:41

An Albanian composer in UK

Story Highlights

  • Thomas Simaku moved to England when he was 33 years old, starting all over again. Today, his compositions have reached international audiences.

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TIRANA, Feb. 20- Young Thomas Simaku would take his utensils and use them as drumsticks at the dinner table. His mother thought it was his signal of hunger, but his uncle noticed a musical talent in him. Simaku was born in Kavaje in 1958 and grew up surrounded by music. He would dance at the week-long weddings, to which orchestra his uncle was a clarinet player.

He was sent to the music school of Durres when he was 14 years old to study oboe, accordion, harmony & counterpoint. But until then he was faced with multiple influences from all his surroundings, as from his uncle and his musician colleagues, but also from the local cinema. He would watch the films he liked multiple times and learn the dialogues by heart. What has stuck him most was a portrait of renowned Albanian actor’s portrait Aleksander Moisiu, at the hall of the cinema.

“Looking at Moisiu’s portrait and seeing his captivating pictures in various roles (he played, among others, Hamlet, Oedipus, and Faust) was very inspiring, as if he was saying to me ‘you cannot imagine how beautiful the world of art is!’,” recalls Simaku.

After the music school in Durrà«s, Simaku enrolled in the State Conservatory of Music in the capital Tirana, studying composition. It was very tough to get a place in the conservatoire during the communist regime, and: the year he got in, there were only four places in composition. He studied under Tonin Harapi there who himself had studied at the Moscow Conservatoire. Simaku recall Harapi as a wonderful human being with a sharp sense of humour.

Simaku said that Harapi didn’t want his students to write the music that he wrote, so he ‘let them free’ to pursue their own interests. That was a bit difficult in a Stalinist regime where Stravinsky, among others were banned. But Debussy, Prokofiev and some Bartok were allowed, so Simaku would listen to them, and managed to hear the ‘Firebird’ secretly.

“It was a strange feeling of awe and apprehension, created by the raw quality of the music of Firebird, and the fact that it was banned! I also liked the music of Feim Ibrahimi, who I felt was at the sharp end of the Albanian music of the time. I seem to have had an appetite for ‘spicy’ sounds in those days,” recalls Simaku in delight.

He moved to England in 1991, when he was 33 years old. He didn’t know any English, so he used French, but people around him weren’t very fond of that. Because he couldn’t afford any language courses, he autodidactically learnt it within six months using an English-Italian vocabulary, since many words from the two languages shared the same root.

Yet, he had to start all over again. As postgraduate studies he enrolled at York University for a PhD in composition, where he studied with David Blake. Blake introduced him to the Second Viennese School, where Simaku immersed himself into the music banned in Albania. Bartok, Stravinsky, Berio, Boulez, Birtwistle, Xenakis, Lutoslawski et al., have all had their input during his study years at York. But it was with the music of Ligeti and Kurtag that Simaku felt he discovered something very special, which was more than an inspiration to him.

From the many challenges Simaku faced, he mentioned a case when he applied to settle in England as a creative artist. However, in order to get this status he had to wait for nearly three years. During that time his father died, and he didn’t attend the funeral because none of his relatives told him. His mother decided not to tell him, because she knew that if he would leave the country whilst his application was under consideration by the Home Office, he wouldn’t be able to return.

“She knew how much it meant to me studying at a western university,” said Simaku.

Now Simaku was the Leonard Bernstein Fellow in Composition at Tanglewood Music Centre, USA studying with Bernard Rands, and a fellow at the Composers’ Workshop, California State University with Brian Ferneyhough. Thomas Simaku’s music has been reaching audiences across Europe, the USA and further afield for more than two decades, and it has been awarded a host of accolades for its expressive qualities and its unique blend of intensity and modernism.

He latest piece was written for six musicians of Klangforum Wien. His latest String Quartet (No 5), commissioned by the HCMF and first performed in 2015, was written specifically for Quatuor Diotima, will be recorded later in 2019 for a new CD with the Swedish label BIS Records to be released in 2020. He has also composed The Scream for String orchestra based on the iconic painting by Edvard Munch, which received its world premiere in 2017 performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra.

“I can see the picture here,” recalls Simaku having been told by the BBC producer.

Other works include, ENgREnage for Violin & Piano written for Peter Sheppard-Skaerved and Roderick Chadwick; Klang Inventions written for and dedicated to Klangforum Wien; L’image oublià©e d’aprà¨s Debussy, written for James Willshire in response to a commission by the Late Music Series in York to commemorate the centenary of Debussy’s death, and La Leggiadra Luna for mixed choir a cappella, which received its world premiere by the 24 vocal ensemble at the University of York.

La Leggiadra Luna will be premiering at the 2019 ISCM Festival in May, where it will be performed by the Grammy Award-winning ensemble the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. This is a setting of a poem by Sappho, translated from ancient Greek into modern Italian by the Nobel Prize-winning Sicilian poet Salvatore Quasimodo.

“I could say that an important characteristic of my musical language is putting together elements from disparate musical cultures. Often, complex chordal structures or multi-layered textural formats are reduced to just one single note which becomes a kind of ‘atomistic compression’ with a magnetic quality, as it were, around which various colouristic elements orbit freely,” said Simaku regarding his musical language.


Tirana Times
By Tirana Times February 23, 2019 15:41