Listening to contemporary classical music: Todos Los Fuegos El Fuego by Maxim Shalygin

Art serves as a way out of reality into alternative universes; it helps to ask and answer your questions. Art can be a moral guide or can inspire action and thoughts. But what happens when art inspires another art? What happens when ideas and images of work by one author intertwine with the conscious, unconscious, and subconscious of another artist, and result in a new opus, a new quality? It turns out to be a labyrinth of meanings, exploring the paths of which is a terribly exciting task and a challenge that is hardly possible due to Sherlock’s rational deduction.

Last summer, in 2019, two artistic realities by Argentine writer Julio Cortázar and Ukrainian-Dutch composer Maxim Shalygin were woven in а new work. The eight-part book of short stories by Cortázar named Todos Los Fuegos El Fuego (“All Fires the Fire”) (1966) got a musical rethinking in the self-titled eight-part cycle for the saxophone octet by Shalygin.

Maxim Shalygin: I bought this book in Kyiv on Petrivka a long time ago. I just needed a small book for the plane. Even then, it very impressed me. And later, when I decided to write for eight saxophones, somehow, everything came together. I didn’t even remember that there were also eight stories. Basically, I didn’t believe that a book could be a source of inspiration for instrumental music. And I walked into a trap. There are very complicated connections here because only the first story clearly corresponds to the first number of the cycle. Images from different stories are combined in different parts.

After writing TLFEF, the composer called it an “interesting journey” because “at some point, the work had begun to write itself”. Therefore, together with the author of the musical cycle, we have an opportunity to go deeper into the process of reflection, to travel Cortázar’s philosophical world of literature and metaphors and Shalygin’s picturesque world of music and senses.

The photo below shows TLFEF artists from “Amstel Quartet” and “Keuris Quartet” surrounded by visual symbols from the Cortásar book painted by Anna Lee.

Photos by Michal Grycko, Design by Anna Lee

“I.C.E. (Internal Combustion Engine)”

Cortázar’s first story, “The Southern Thruway” (La Autopista Del Sur), is one of the longest in the book and not by chance. It clearly shows the duration and speed of time. On the way to the city, a massive convoy of cars stopped in a traffic jam. The story opens with an epigraph that “as a reality a traffic jam is impressive, but it doesn’t say much”. And with each next page, this quote becomes meaningless because, in the example of this case, Cortásar shows how social hierarchy and functions are organized. All life is in this traffic jam – caring for children and cold-blooded dumping a corpse on the roadside, love intrigues, and struggling for livelihood. Probably, this is the life from the time of the dawn of humanity, if, of course, something has changed.

In this part, I was interested in working with time. Because (in the Cortázar short story – L. S.) at first, we feel current time, and then it gradually freezes, time seems to stop. Later, when cars start moving, time accelerates, but at the same time, we feel both time streams meet. Time is the main instrument for a composer.

How can a composer control time? In the harmony of four saxophones, resembling a car signal, the instruments firstly repeat the same sounds. Then the sounds change their pitch (the further away, the more often), other saxophones join gradually, trills appear – the movement accelerates. However, when the trills sound is already in all saxophones, the time seems to stop. An unmoving melody appears against the background of which saxophones enter again one by one with an ostinato rhythm (again, as if a rhythmical car signals). With the entering of each new instrument, the rhythm becomes more frequent, and the melody disappears almost immediately, the effect of acceleration reappears. Will you feel yourself in the movement of the musical time?

“Death of Mosasaurus”

Mosasaurus is a real animal, something like a whale, but with legs. His skeleton was recently found here (in the Netherlands, where the composer lives – L. S.), in Limburg. In this part, I wanted to connect music with the movement of the sea or ocean. Something had to be watery, but for me, this part is linked with “Nurse Cora”.

Maxim Shalygin during the recording of Todos Los Fuegos El Fuego. Photo by Brendon Heinst

“Nurse Cora” is a story by Cortázar (La Señorita Cora), in which, as in most of his works, the author creates a unique form. “Nurse Cora” tells the story of a relationship between a sick boy, Pablo, and a nurse named Cora. However, the lines of each character can be distinguished only by their content because the author does not differentiate them in the text as well as the personal thoughts from dialogues. The outline of this story begins with Pablo’s youthful love for too “adult” for him, but a young and impregnable senorita. At the end of the story, the poles change like an hourglass. A seriously ill boy is offended by Cora’s light attitude towards him, and the nurse finally warms up to Pablo, but not it is too late… In this story, Cortázar continues the idea of the life routine from the “The Southern Thruway”, in which more important things can happen, but still have not happened.

I wanted to create a continuous material flow, which leads to a qualitative change; in the end, it turns downside up. Starting with something beautiful and attractive, it all ends quite scary, ugly.

Returning to the idea of “the movement of the sea or ocean”, in the first part of “Death of Mosasaurus,” one can imagine a blissful sea with measured tides of waves when the sun at its zenith dazzling gleams in the water; the second part gradually destroys this feeling. In terms of mood, such associations bring “Death of Mosasaurus” closer to Cortásar’s “The Island at Noon” where the hero only dreams of his rest.

“Spring, Breaking”

The composer connects “Spring, Breaking” with the story titled “The Health of the Sick”. It is about how family members hide from the sick and vulnerable mother the news about her son’s Alejandro death. They even write letters on his behalf. The paradox of the “The Health of the Sick” title is in the fact that the dying mother made it clear that she had known about everything, but everyone had been playing in vain. And so, when it seemed unnecessary to create a fairy tale, her daughter thought about how they would write Alejandro about the mother’s death.

The music material consists of all these whispers, noises that surround mother. It turns out the image of information that comes as if in its pure form, but everyone understands that it is wrong. Therefore, it is smoothly being “distorted” (musical sounds overgrown with dissonant undertones, hence the “Breaking” L. S.).

Maxim Shalygin during the recording of Todos Los Fuegos El Fuego. Photo by Brendon Heinst

However, there is another version of literary and musical connections in “Spring, Breaking”. From all the Cortázar TLFEF stories, “Meeting” (Reunión) stands out as the “musical” story. There is a hero with a progressive fever, who tries to reunite with his living (only for his sick imagination) friend Luis during the Cuban revolution. “Me with an asthma that didn’t even let me walk and the back of my neck more bloody than a pig with his head chopped off, but also sure that we would escape that day, I don’t know why, but it was as evident as a theorem that that very night we would meet up with Luis”. The story goes from the hero’s mention of Mozart’s theme from the first part of “The Hunt Quartet” to the “passing into the adagio”; with organ, passacaglia, and death “perfectly orchestrated by the parts in play”.

In the story, by the way, there is a form of a passacaglia (in music form called passacaglia from pasar – “to walk” and calle – “street” there is only one piece of music that changes with each repetition, variation as well as the whole story is only a forest walk).

Music of “Spring, Breaking” also features a development from the sound of saxophone flaps, reminiscent of helicopter blades (consistent with the time of hostilities), to the gradual displacement of the “real-world” noise by musical sounds associated with the hero’s “unreal world” of thoughts in fever. “The mountaineer brought us news of Luis’ death; we didn’t stop eating for that, but it was a lot of salt for so little meat”, so Cortásar continues the line of a (non)absurd everyday human life as well as in “The Southern Thruway” and “Nurse Cora”.

What will you hear? Distortion of information by whispering, erosion of consciousness by fever or mechanical spring compression and uncompression, later spring breaking?


“Ashes in Birth”

“Ashes in Birth” seems to be a continuation of the images from “Meeting”, and this is not the last influence of this story on the cycle.

“Meeting” is related to the fourth part of the cycle, but only because there are the sounds of shots and the sound of rain.

The quiet, monotonous sound of saxophones gradually grows and reaches to the aggressive squeak sound, against the background of which there are sounds of “beats” (“slaps”), namely, resembling the shots. This development abruptly stops, the next episode begins with fantastic saxophones passages that remind of the hero’s delusions in a fever. “Ashes in Birth” ends with performers’ knocking on the saxophone keys. This sound imitates rain, which is associated with the forest nature from “Meeting”.

Also, “Ashes in Birth” causes parallels with the ashes birth from fire (one of the TLFEF elements) programmed by the title. Gradual flame increasing, “shots” of sparks, flying ash up, and fire “cracking” under the action of water (another cycle element), which is directly related to the next two parts.


“Raising Waves”

Probably Raising Waves can be called the central part of the cycle because it differs from others by its stability, some static because its musical basis is only one intonation. It either sounds like a tide of waves of different heights or resembles the phone ringing from Cortásar’s seventh story, “All Fires the Fire”, or a carefree, gentle sniffling that could wait for a hero from “The Island at Noon”.

Cortásar’s fifth story, “The Island at Noon” (La Isla Al Mediodía), is central to the composer personally through the theme of the work. The hero of “The Island at Noon” Steward Marini flies over the island three times a week and at noon looks at it in the porthole with dreams of giving it all and being there. Skipping the phrase “nothing was difficult once decided”, the reader becomes immersed in the realization of the hero’s dream. On the island beach, “closing his eyes, he told himself he wouldn’t look at the plane; he wouldn’t let himself be contaminated by the worst of him”. However, unable to counter past, he opens his eyes and sees the plane crash. Marini throws himself into the sea and rescues the man, pulling his ashore. But the only islanders there were surprised how he bleeding had managed to swim, and they closed Marini’s eyes.

Despite that “once”, “Raising Waves” exists in the reality where the hero had decided to change his life before he missed this chance.


“Crabcade (Waterfall in Cancrizans)”  

Almost every title contains a wordplay. In the first part, there are an ice and a motor, in the third part there is spring as a season and a spiral spring, in the fifth part there is a reference to Trier (“Breaking the Waves”), so “crabcade” is also a play on words. I wanted to call this part as waterfall backward. Since the waterfall is a cascade, and back is a crab, “crabcade” is a waterfall in retrograde movement (subtitle “Waterfall in Cancrizans” explains the main title because “cancrizans” is a musical term denoting the backward movement – L. S.).

By the water element, “Crabcade” continues the “The Island at Noon” theme, but the music corresponds to the compositional idea of ​​embodying a waterfall. According to the reverse of the movement, the development of music is built from the sound of a full-fledged melody/flow, into which the waterfall falls, to two small melodies/flows, from which the waterfall begins. Between them, there are cascade levels of trills and saxophone passages that simulate the water flows at different waterfall levels. At the end of this part, the motif of the “Stairway to Decay” that comes in the next part is layered with the music of “Crabcade”.


“Stairway to Decay”

“Stairway to Decay” has a connection with “Meeting” because it is written in the passacaglia form mentioned in the story. The central musical theme is an allusion to the second part of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” piano sonata (№8), which gradually “decays” throughout the part. The theme music of two saxophones is being distorted by overlapping dissonant microtones.

Cortásar has the work Rayuela that translates in Ukrainian as “Gra v Klasyky” (“Game in Classics/Hopscotch” because in Ukrainian the word “klasyka” means classic and hopscotch both). Thus, I wanted to call the part “Decay of Classics”. But the problem is that the original story title has nothing to do with a classic in English or Spanish. But I somehow fixated with “decay”, so it translates as “Stairway to decay”.

Maxim Shalygin during the recording of Todos Los Fuegos El Fuego. Photo by Brendon Heinst

It is not necessary to think about which story is connected with “Stairway to Decay” because, at the end of the part, saxophonists speak in the instrument “todos los fuegos el fuego” (the title of the cycle and Cortázar’s seventh story). “All Fires the Fire” as well as “Nurse Cora” has a very unusual form. Two stories are told in conjunction. One story happens in Ancient Rome during a gladiatorial battle; the other story happens in Paris of Cortázar’s time with the number chanting on a parallel line of a faulty telephone (the phone ringing was heard in “Raising Waves”). Wherever events occur in both situations, the stories are united by the theme of love betrayal and end in the same way — fire, which has a destructive force no matter when and where.

When I was writing, I didn’t think it would be so connected to this story. It came to me later. I realized that microtones are destroying everything as the fire in slow motion. If you shoot a fire when something is burning gradually collapsing, you can sound it with this music.


“Endless Mordent”

Mordent is a little swaying from one sound to another with returning to the first; the whole “Endless Mordent” consists of its constant repetition. The endless mordent, as well as the timeless questions raised by the TLFEF literary and musical meanings, foresaw, on the one hand, “dot dot dot” at the end of the cycle; on the other hand, a return to the harmony from which “I.C.E.” began. Cycling and impossibility to get out of life routine are at the center of Cortásar’s story named “Instructions for John Howell” (Instrucciones para John Howell).

The protagonist, a casual theater visitor, is engaged by the actors to take part in the play. At first, there is a refusal, then consent to participate in the play as Howell, later a desire to change the play because one actress is in danger. However, actions contrary to the play force the actors to return the hero to the auditorium, and the real actor of Howell is returned to the stage. The latter, playing by the rules of the play, does not save the actress, so both runaway and meet among the street labyrinths. The actor concludes that it’s so typical for amateurs. They imagine they can do better than others, and nothing happens as a result. After both heard that they are being chased, the actor decides, “Each go his own way, maybe one of us can escape”.

At some point, he gets a feeling that he can change something. And this is the worst moment. Because always when we get this feeling, and we can’t change anything, it makes us depressed. Because we seem to understand that there was a chance to save someone or something, but we didn’t. And where to run from it?

Maxim Shalygin during the recording of Todos Los Fuegos El Fuego. Photo by Brendon Heinst

“Thinking about it afterwards – on the street, in the train, crossing fields – all that would have seemed absurd, but what is theatre but a compromise with the absurd and its most efficient, lavish practice?”

This is an essential story in this book because it has an aggregated image. The person in the theatre is surrounded by people, but at the same time, he is with himself, alone with his problems. As in all other stories, Cortázar speaks about human loneliness.

Summarising the TLFEF messages by Maxim Shalygin and Julio Cortásar, we can identify three main themes of the works: the loneliness of the characters and their autonomy in life, the duality of personality, desires, existence, and the absurdity of everyday life. Cortásar’s literature provokes to agree with theses about the immutability of the life cycle, the inability to save yourself from a routine series of events, Shalygin’s music raises questions and gives hope.


Epigraph “These eyes are not yours… where did you get them?”

The composer borrowed an epigraph to TLFEF from the story that is not related to any part of the cycle directly, “Another Sky” (El Otro Cielo). The idea here as well as in the “The Island at Noon” is that the hero seeks a different life (as well as in “The Island” hero does not reach it). However, the form of “Another Sky” is similar to “All Fires the Fire” because the hero is simultaneously in two realities. At the same time, he is a family member in Buenos Aires in the early twentieth century and as a free man in love with a prostitute in Paris in the mid-nineteenth century. In the first part of the story, the hero only chooses between the desirable poetic life and the trivial every day; in the second part, he regrets the choice against his desires accepting domestic life.

The hero finds himself in a situation where he realizes that he has missed something meaningful in his life; he needs to find a way to move on, even with this “baggage”. He constantly fusses, and I am very familiar with this feeling. It is as if we are torn between feelings, which are lost and not gained yet, somewhere in the middle. But sometimes you find absolute happiness or absolute harmony, but it happens only for a while.

Maxim Shalygin during the recording of Todos Los Fuegos El Fuego. Photo by Brendon Heinst

The epigraph (“Ces yeux ne t’appartiennent pas… où les as-tu pris?”) to the first part of “Another Sky” Cortázar chose from “The Songs of Maldoror” by Lautréamont. Based on the source context, the phrase “These eyes are not yours… where did you get them?” denotes the view of a person (song character) on himself as if in a mirror or from the inside. The story is told from the part of the identity which the person wants to be, and the critical speech is appealed to the real and worse version of himself.

It seemed to me that this work had changed me very much, and I decided to mark it with such a sign (epigraph — L. S.). We face art as an object that can change us, and basically, I try to consider each of my works as such an object. When I was writing this work, it was giving me such strange things that as a person I am unable to do in my life. That is, I understand that this music is much better than I am, as if it’s not mine”.

Maxim Shalygin after the recording of Todos Los Fuegos El Fuego with one of the latest cigarettes in his life. Photo by Brendon Heinst

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