Philippe Hersant: “We wanted to put the text by Shalamov in the prologue”

— How did you come about the idea of a composition for choir and chamber orchestra based on the poems of prisoners? 
— The idea came from Anne-Marie Sallé. Several years ago she created the “Shadows and Light Festival” in Clairvaux Abbey, in the French Champagne region. This abbey was founded 900 years ago by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and in the 19th century it became a prison. Today prisoners no longer reside in the monastery, but in a new prison building built nearby 40 years ago.

While developing the festival’s concept, Anne-Marie Sallé considered it important to include the prison part of its history when arranging concerts at the abbey. So she decided to organize a creative laboratory in the prison and invited composers (the first was Thierry Mashuel and then I joined them) to write choral musical to the prisoners' poetry.

The first composition Instants limites was recorded on disc. Teodor Currentzis listened to it and suggested I write a continuation based on the texts by the Russian prisoners. That was how Tristia was created.
— Was this work a challenge for you? And if so, why?
— I personally met with the prisoners of Clairvaux, whose poems formed the basis of the musical pieces. I knew they were all criminal offenders, but when my initial concerns disappeared, I realised that these meetings gave me much more than I had expected. The meetings were very informative, and they helped me to ask myself questions that had never occurred to me before.

Anne-Marie Sallé sums up the idea of this project: “People have to pay for their mistakes, but the penalty must be meaningful, so that after getting out of prison a person understands that atonement was not only physical but spiritual too.”

In prison, all days are the same and they follow as an endless line. I can imagine how significant an event the poetry laboratory was in the life of the prisoners. When a person is deprived of liberty, often the only thing that's left is the ability to write and, through this, express the humanism he or she still has preserved inside. For that reason, no text left me cold. When I wrote the music, my challenge was to find a fair intonation, to try to express, without too much pathos, the intensity of emotions that I felt while reading these poems.

Another challenge was the perspective of working with a long-form piece. Instants limites consists of 13 songs and lasts for just over 15 minutes. For the longer Tristia I had to rework some of the songs, in order to increase the duration of the composition. At the same time I wanted to keep the intimate nature of the music, so I did not use the opportunities of a big orchestra, and left just the choir and 12 musicians. Every instrument in Tristia is like a person with whom we are engaged in a dialogue, face to face.

— How would you define the genre of Tristia? Do you consider the French and the Russian parts as one whole or two independent units?
 — Honestly, Tristia is not like any existing musical form. At first glance, it is a collection of short songs, small-scale compositions, self-absorbed, which can even be played individually. In melody, as well as in rhythm of poems and their content, the songs are very different and somewhat contrasting to each other.

If in the French part there is certain unity (all the authors know each other, as they all lived or live in the same prison), the Russian part is absolutely different. The texts that I have chosen were written at different times by different authors — famous writers, political prisoners and criminals. The difficulty was to determine the logic of the poems' presentation. At one time, I was under a powerful impression from the House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoevsky (and the opera written on the basis of it by Leoš Janáček), and an even stronger impression from Dante’s The Divine Comedy, in particular the Hell section. The Hell also became an obsession for Gulag prisoners, Varlam Shalamov and Osip Mandelstam among them, who admired The Divine Comedy.
I would say that, like Dante's Hell, Tristia also has several cycles or circles. As for the name, I would remind you, that it has a reference to two pieces at the same time: Tristia — a collection by the Roman poet Ovid, written while in exile in Tomis on the Black Sea, and the poetry collection with a similar meaning and name — Tristia by the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, published in 1922.

The first three circles are composed entirely of French texts. The first one consists of short songs by various authors, which give an overview of the major themes of the whole work: melancholy, imprisonment and secret hopes. As if a gallery of the prisoners' portraits is appearing before your eyes.

The central axis of the second circle is the figure of Takezo (all of his poems are performed to the sounds of a bassoon). We met Takezo in Clairvaux. Although he has a Japanese nom de plume, he is French. In prison he became interested in Japan and the history of one samurai of the 17th century, whom he perceived as his Sensei, or teacher. Alone, behind bars, he studied Japanese, calligraphy, composed many haiku and even translated some of them into Japanese. Takezo is a nice man who is very remorseful, but thanks to his passion, he seems to have partly found peace. He felt this way three years ago when we met. After that he was transferred to a different prison and I never saw him again. 

The third circle is dedicated to a dream, or to be more precise — the attempt to escape from prison through a dream. The cutting across this theme is a dream of metamorphosis, the desire to be someone or something else, to be a bird or a butterfly, and to deal with the time to due to be spent in prison.

The last poem of this cycle, Acelluccio, is written in Corsican (a regional dialect, close to Italian). The author of this verse is called Dumè, he is Corsican and he’s very homesick. The leading accompaniment of this cycle is the cello.

The second part of Tristia is Russian. The great writers of the 20th century are represented here (Mandelstam, who was in exile in Voronezh, and Shalamov, who was doing time on Kolyma) and unknown or little-known authors. Some texts, such as The Prisoner and the Nightingale were written almost a hundred years ago.

The second part begins with the fourth circle, the scale of the music is already much larger than that of the previous ones: here I used fanfare, percussion and an accordion. Four texts have been taken from folk culture: In jail again — a song by an unknown author, from which I took the text and the melody, The Prisoner and the Nightingale repeats the form of a military march, A toast to the river Ayan-Uryah resembles a peasant folk song, and A dear convict is a sad waltz.

The fifth circle is the most dramatic. Its culmination is the poem by Nina, who was arrested in the 1920s — To the anniversary of arrest, the cry of the rebel, and the powerful The Tool by Shalamov, directly pointing to the Dante's Hell.

Finally, the sixth circle, the last one, represents redemption. Mandelstam in his I got lost in the sky, recalls the flight of a goldfinch, Florence and the Paradise by Dante ...The cycle ends with the lines by Takezo, who writes about a world in which there is no sadness, no hatred, no prison bars or steppe land.

Despite the differences, the French and the Russian sections are united. They are linked to each other on a subtle level, they are united by the common musical themes. Mandelstam's Goldfinch is linked to the Birdie by Dumè, and the Russian Transfer — to the French Dead end. These last poems almost repeat each other, the Russian and the French realities are mixed. I also try to emphasize their similarities in music.
Music in general serves in Tristia as an important unifying element. In the prologue, the actor reads a text by Shalamov to the tune of the accordion: a simple theme unfolds with a repeated sound, it can go on forever, and the words seem to dissolve into the music, gently dying away in silence. This theme, explicitly or implicitly, is present in many other songs. It appears with the lowest bassoon sound in The Tool and in the highest pitch of the violin in the poem Amidst the century... The discreet presence of this general motive allows us to view all the songs of Tristia as links in the same chain.

— You are French, and you have worked with Japanese and Russian texts. I would assume that you studied the texts on the basis of word-for-word translation, and not their poetic qualities. Therefore, you were guided not by the rhymes but images. Is it true? Can you define a gallery of these images?
— Yes, of course I worked with the literal translation of the Russian poems, but I was interested in their poetic qualities as well. Maybe it will sound surprising, but the rhythm of the Russian texts was a source of inspiration even more than that of the French ones. The Russian texts were much more similar to poetry and the French texts gravitated more to the prose. For example, A dear convict is similar to a waltz not only in the spirit (it is a very touching sentimental story) but in its rhythm, too. The musicality of your language inspired me — a Frenchman, not speaking Russian!

I deliberately sought to demonstrate a variety of forms in Tristia. I have already mentioned a military march and a waltz. Besides, Personal Message reminds us of a Corsican song, Ball Prisoner — a lullaby, Metamorphosis is written in the style of an Irish song, Goldfinch was inspired by the Florentine ballads of the 14th century and the tarantella, Peace of mind is based on the motive of an ancient Japanese song, Birdie is similar to an Italian madrigal, My dream sounds like an eastern melody. All these forms and styles are very different. 
— Why did you choose a choir to perform the songs? Do you view prison as erasing individuality? Or are the reasons for that rooted in the history of oratorical genre?
— If Tristia was a chain of aria solos, it would have been tiresome. A choir of thirty-six singers allows more possibilities. Although not all songs in Tristia are performed by the choir. Goldfinch is a solo, Certain words — a duet, Personal Message — a male trio, etc... Solo fragments are very often in the composition, tutti — significantly less frequently. Tristia is not an oratorio, on the contrary, I was aspiring for the pluralism of vocal and instrumental forms, to demonstrate their peculiarities and characters.
For the prisoners poetry is a way to fight against attempts to deprive them of their freedom and individuality, against the pressure of the prison environment on a person. That’s why we wanted to put one of the strongest texts written by Shalamov in the prologue. The writer says that on Kolyma he made a trail in the forest — when he went along it, his poetry flowed. The trail was his personal space. One day he found somebody else's footprints on it. Someone else was there, and from that moment the trail lost all its magic, all its importance for Shalamov. “The trail was irreparably spoiled.”

— One of the most famous works about imprisonment and its consequences, and also about human passions — The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas — ends with the words: “Wait and hope.” What are you expecting from this project and what are your hopes?
— This is one of the most beautiful projects in which I have had the good fortune to participate in. I am delighted that we have managed to make a single whole out of the words of the Clairvaux prisoners and the Russian prisoners, and this common voice will be heard by all sorts of people.

I think that for all of these men and women poetry became the saving force, the mysterious power keeping them from extinction. Because, as the Russian writer Nina Hagen-Thorn — twice arrested on political charges and imprisoned for more than ten years said — “time in jail, is like water leaking through the fingers, because there you do not notice space and spatial experiences.” “You can either get out the way you were, or go mad, not being able to sustain it… if you don’t learn to move in space bringing the thought-image almost to reality. And if you do it without the rhythm — you go mad, too. Rhythm is the helper and the driver in it.” 

I hope that I have managed to put all these words, images and rhythms into music and do justice to the terrific sense of humanity that these texts contain.

Interviewed by Natalia Ovchinnikova in 2016