Between shadow and shadow the light falls, spreads, is absorbed or reflected in varying degrees by pigment, metal, earth. Coloured in lavender, blue, gold and black, perceived through half-light or illuminated by mystic fire, this is music by Silvina Milstein, a composer for whom the world is not so much peak and valley, land and ocean, as the nightly cadence of dusk and all the tumultuous daylight possibilities that it gathers in – light, and the spaces between.
Milstein was born and grew up in Buenos Aires, but moved to the UK at twenty in the wake of the Argentinian military coup. She studied in Glasgow with Judith Weir and Lyell Cresswell, then in Cambridge, where the idiosyncratic Schoenbergianism and renascent modal interests of her doctoral supervisor Alexander Goehr, another cosmopolitan exile, seem to have resonated strongly. With Goehr she shared a close and vivid sense of the Schoenbergian heritage (expressed in Milstein’s case in the analytical work that led to her book Schoenberg: notes, sets, forms), an interest in compositional pedagogies, and a certain stubborn distance from both the mainstream and the avant-garde.
A creative engagement with earlier music informs the works of this time and just afterwards: the String Quartet (1989) and Piano Phantasy (1992) – her last pieces to carry genre titles, in both cases Schoenbergian ones – and perhaps also Nova Polska (1992), a sort of neo-Baroque cantata on a text by Caroline Smith. The ideal of study and contemplation as productive of new creation has informed Milstein’s teaching at King’s College London, whose music department she joined in 1990 (being made Professor in 2011), while her own music has found an increasingly personal path between displacement and evocation of its source materials, which range from Monteverdi through Scriabin to fragments of Argentinian popular musics (tango, milonga, bolero …). The quiet assurance, unique poetry and exquisite technical accomplishment of her most recent work are recognised with the nomination of Shan Shui for the Royal Philharmonic Society’s 2018 award for Chamber-Scale Composition.
Nova Polska was a beginning as well as a culmination: the first of five works with text written over the next decade, including one more to words by Smith. Of even more lasting significance, it inaugurated a working relationship with the conductor Odaline de la Martinez, who led two Milstein premieres with BBC forces in 1995 and whose own ensemble Lontano has given eight further first performances between 1996 and 2017. Oliver Knussen has been another champion, under whose baton two works for the London Sinfonietta and one for Birmingham Contemporary Music Group were first heard. The latter, de oro y sombra (2011), heralded a concern with what the composer refers to as ‘blended sonorities’, created by embedding pairs or trios of identical instruments within a mixed ensemble. Thus the flutes, horns and trumpets of de oro y sombra or the three violins and two double basses of the septet ochre, umber and burnt sienna (2012), with the paired double basses and trumpets then recurring in two trios with harp (2012 and 2016 respectively). Thus, too, the now entirely homogeneous textural landscapes of in a bowl of grey-blue leaves (2014), for two pianos, and ushnarasmou / untimely spring (2015), for choir.
What lies beyond shadow? Colour again, might be the first answer – the finest nuances of paint or ink on canvas (the aforementioned septet is a homage to the subtle background shadings of Vermeer’s paintings of women in domestic spaces) or on silk (in the piano duo, which reimagines a poem by Mandelstam through the prism of Chinese calligraphy). But the restored variety of performing forces in the output since 2014 seems matched by a broadening approach to subject matter, as if these finely shaded dream-forms were ready once again to take on all the manifold world.
Perhaps indicative is the way colour has migrated – in fretted sounding-boards, one of two texted pieces composed in 2015 (ushnarasmou is the other), and the composer’s first writing for voice since 2001 – from the work’s title to its internal borders. Each section of John Fuller’s prose-poem is introduced by a vocalise abstracted from the passage of text that follows; the vowels of ‘Josiah-blue’, ‘piano’, ‘green’ and ‘gold’ establish moods that are confirmed by the ‘barometer readings’ which introduce each section proper. Colour as coastal phenomenon: land and ocean.
Or it has disappeared completely. ‘It has been said,’ Milstein writes in the programme note for her most recent mixed ensemble piece, ‘that the shan shui (mountain – water) style of Chinese painting goes against the common definition of what a painting is: it refutes colour, light and shadow and personal brushwork.’ No colour, but stylised geography: peak and valley.
In the opening stanza of Wallace Stevens’ poem The Man with the Blue Guitar, contending voices implore the protagonist to ‘play […] a tune beyond us, yet ourselves, / A tune upon the blue guitar / Of things exactly as they are.’ This is music by Silvina Milstein, a composer for whom the world is itself, illuminated.
© John Fallas