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Walking in Birkenau

for violin solo and electronics

Composition details

Instrumentation

Violin and electronics

Duration

c. 12 minutes

Year of composition

2023

Programme notes

This composition was composed after I had an immersive encounter at the Birkenau concentration camp in Oświęcim, Poland. I embarked upon a sonic documentation of this visit. Striding alongside the gravel-embedded pathways paralleling the railway, I captured the sounds of my own footsteps, preserving a sonic imprint of the solemn gravity of the site. This field recording assumed a pivotal role as the foundational electronic backtrack for this composition. Beyond its conceptual framework, Walking in Birkenau serves as a dual testament—both a solemn homage to the Holocaust's historical cataclysm and a deeply personal narrative, enshrining the reverberations of a transformative encounter. Through an evocative fusion of sonic and thematic motifs, the composition channels the visceral resonance of my lived experience, inviting audiences into an immersive dialogue with the enduring echoes of history.

Composer's statement

In the summer of 2022, an immersive encounter at the Birkenau concentration camp in Oświęcim, Poland, precipitated a profound artistic exploration. Building upon the thematic foundation established in my previous composition, Lament en route to Auschwitz (2018), which featured solo flute and electronics, my attention was captivated by the pervasive presence of trains and their attendant tracks within and surrounding the camp's architectural expanse. The traversal of these railway arteries, extending from the camp's ingress to a terminus directly interfacing with the gas chambers, marked a visceral ingress into the historical narrative. With an evocative impulse, I embarked upon a sonic documentation of this visit. Striding alongside the gravel-embedded pathways paralleling the railway, I captured the sounds of my own footsteps, preserving a sonic imprint of the solemn gravity of the site. This field recording assumed a pivotal role as the foundational electronic backtrack in the ensuing composition, Walking in Birkenau.

 

Conceived for violin, the compositional process was enriched by collaborative dialogue with the violinist, Waldo Alexander, who also gave the first performance of this work. A spectrum of unconventional performance techniques, curated to elicit expressive resonance, was assimilated here. Commencing with a sombre and slightly sinister introduction, the composition unfolds with a haunting resonance, achieved through the eerie invocation of a bamboo stick, wedged between the violin strings, generating a spectral buzz. At its thematic core, the composition is underpinned by a tone series Eb-Bb-B-G-Ab-D-E-Eb (derived from the scale Eb-Fb-Gbb-Ab-Bb-Cb-D-Eb). This tone series is explored and prominently articulated through nuanced quarter-tone portamenti that move away and back towards its main tone, emphasising the gravitational and magnetic tendencies to resolve back to the starting tone. The tone series is interwoven with several alternative performance techniques, ranging from col legno to tremolo, sul ponticello to quarter-tone oscillations. These performance techniques forge a sonic landscape imbued with poignancy for the listener, taking them on both a sonic and emotional pathway of exploration.

 

Although the structure of this composition becomes denser as it unfolds, the tones and motifs deteriorate gradually through the quarter-tone process of dissolution, mirroring the inexorable descent into dissonance and discord. The climactic Agitato section, characterised by tumultuous quarter-tone dyads, evokes the harrowing tumult preceding the fateful juncture of sorting prisoners of war (mostly Jewish prisoners) who were bifurcated between internment into the concentration camps under the watch of Nazi officers and extermination in the gas chambers (now destroyed). This crescendo of agitation culminates into four-note chords that descend to a final unravelling at the end, a poignant denouement that is punctuated by scordatura—an emblematic gesture of desolation and destruction. Despite the conceptual coherence of the tones and the use of tone series, the main focus of this composition was to conjure an emotional unfolding in a programmatic way. Beyond its conceptual framework, Walking in Birkenau serves as a dual testament—both a solemn homage to the Holocaust's historical cataclysm and a deeply personal narrative, enshrining the reverberations of a transformative encounter. Through an evocative fusion of sonic and thematic motifs, the composition channels the visceral resonance of my lived experience, inviting audiences into an immersive dialogue with the enduring echoes of history.

Recordings
Performances

2 August 2023. Barbara Pretorius Hall of Laerskool Jan Celliers, Parktown, Johannesburg. Waldo Alexander (violin).

Music score

The music score of this composition can be ordered from the composer through the contact page. Please ensure that you provide the correct title and version/instrumentation of the composition that you would like to order.

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