Professor Philip Pavlov, PhD, is one the most successful Bulgarian musicians in the field of contemporary music as a pianist and a composer. He graduated with piano and composition at the National School of Music. Afterwards, he specialized in Composition in Amsterdam. In his nearly 50-years of career experience, he has over 1000 concerts in Bulgaria and Europe, countless studio sessions, solo and ensemble music for BNT, BNR and international labels. He teaches at NMA and at Southwest University in Blagoevgrad. He possesses numerous awards from national and international competitions in Europe, from which the piano competition “Synergia” and composers’ competition “Valentino Bucchi” in Italy and many more. Philip Pavlov is a composer in a vast spectrum of genres for symphonic, ensemble and vocal music. Brass instruments take an important part in his work. Professor Pavlov has written the only two concerts in Bulgaria so far for solo trombone and orchestra, as well as many ensemble pieces for trombone, piano and various brass bands.
Professor Pavlov is our guest in the project “Stories About Brass” in an interview, inspired by a favourite film, beginning with “Once upon a time in a galaxy far far away...” Our conversation turned into a sound impression of a journey in the continuum of Space and Time with free associations, related to trombones and their fascinating sound abilities.
From the sound universe to the brass galaxy - why does this comparison sound so natural and logical to us?
If we look at sound as a universe around us, brass seems to be closest to these galactic dimensions, and I look at it from the perspective of human voices. In fact, the brass is the absolute identification of all possible human voices - from high to low. If you look at the sound emission, it's just as challenging and emotional as a performance with just a human voice. The fact that in the past 3-4 centuries these instruments have transformed and changed so much, shows that they were very necessary for society. That is why they have undergone this rapid rise, this remarkable flourishing in the creation of new instruments.
And if we go back and look at the cornets - these remarkable instruments, so typical for Bach's work and baroque music, we do not appreciate them today, and they are simply incomparable. Also, there are few people who can play them today. So, the brass itself is an impressive phenomenon in both mechanics and sound, because it really has extraordinary dimensions - vocal dimensions. And its aspects, forms and combinations are unimaginably numerous. In history there have been compositions of 6, 7 or even 20 instruments of the same type. Germany is emblematic in this respect. For example, the Czech Republic - the country from which this art of copper instruments comes here.
Our school actually came right from there, right after the Liberation.
In the beginning - yes. But it is good that we have a Bulgarian school. I would say that for years we have had a good school for training in brass instruments. We cannot complain about the inherited good that is presented by quality musicians.
Many of our brass musicians play in prestigious orchestras abroad.
When I listened to the concert of Slokar Quartet in 2019, I thought exactly this: to have a Bulgarian in it, it means that in addition to the personal contribution of each instrumentalist who manages to be a member of such an ensemble, there is undoubtedly a pedagogical contribution behind him. So, we can be happy with the modern pedagogy we have. The concerts that are being held, the interest from abroad for our musicians, the visiting of teachers from abroad - all this shows that you can count on the brass instrumental culture, which in recent years has risen.
In fact, this is our most important goal: the motivation of young talents to continue their education in our country and to realize themselves here.
The problem is complex and, of course, has its social dimensions. I do not know Bulgarian musicians who have not kept in themselves the Bulgarian pedagogy and love for Bulgarian art. I'm talking about quality musicians, because low-quality ones can go where they want. The important thing is that there are less, but many quality musicians here. Especially with the limited jobs we can offer them. Brass is a very great history of culture, a history of civilization. The fact that at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth I there is a brass quintet playing, I do not know how to define it in any other way, except that even back then they saw the development of brass ensembles in Bulgaria! 🙂
The journey in the space - time continuum is becoming more and more interesting!
But, if we are serious, this shows the place that these instruments take place in the public consciousness. The main thing is that their purpose as a representative, as a celebration is very easy to prove. I think that this comes from their own sound emission, from their characteristic to conquer the space with quality, saturated and impactful sound. The very concentration of people who see this brilliant instrumentation creates a special expectation in them. Usually, the entry of this type of orchestras brings a great deal of discipline, representativeness, and through it the society skillfully directs itself to the respective reaction expected from it. And when we add cavalry, shiny uniforms, actually we have been accustomed for centuries to imagine this official celebration this way - as a fanfare world that is about to announce something very valuable and very important.
The performance of each of the musicians in these orchestras is of key importance ...
That's right. And this is extremely important and motivating for young musicians. They need to know that these are extremely valuable instruments, and not just because it provides remarkable opportunities for performing skills… And it is the least developed in brass instruments and this is a very big mistake. I have always defended the thesis that brass is completely undeservedly neglected as a solo and as concert instruments. I do not know why. There are two, three, four trombonists in an orchestra - even eight if the orchestra is big enough - and each of them is responsible for what they "produce" and for what is heard. And when colleagues - most often from the strings – they smile and say: "Come on, see what tones you have to play there", at that moment they do not even realize that 14-20 people play in one voice, and on the other side one person plays a voice. And anyone can be wrong. But to disguise yourself as a brass instrumentalist is simply impossible. In fact, we can immediately appreciate the qualities of these performers, they are always fewer in number and must be of the highest quality.
Probably this is the reason for you to turn to brass instruments as solo instruments?
On the one hand, this is my total position. Not that they are not affected as soloists, but that they are unjustifiably pushed into a corner behind a very rich instrumentation of other artists. When these performers come on stage, they must be completely flawless. Brass has a completely different quality. It always has the sound that we - I mean the composers – expect: very powerful at a certain moment. We cannot imagine the development of the dramaturgy of any work - especially a symphonic one - without a brass in the most detailed moments. This means that the impact of this instrument is exceptional. If you don't have significant moments in the orchestral music, dedicated to the brass instruments, you lose ...
Let's talk about the trombone as a solo instrument and your interest in it.
When I write for the trombone, every piece I've written is because I appreciate the exceptional range of sound capabilities. I was not so interested in its technical capabilities such as speed, passage technology, etc., I was interested in this sound emission. The trombone contains all the emissions of the trumpets, the horns, the tuba. He can simply imitate all these tools at the right time. It is very flexible. And this is something unique.
In the creation of contemporary music (for trombone) the most important thing is to establish a balance of spiritual relationships between performers and composers. And usually, it is in the hands of the performers. Because they need a wider repertoire. If you leave the composers alone, they may not write anything, while the performers are always looking for something new and high quality. So, I can say that the Bulgarian school of composition is seriously indebted in some areas to instrumentalists and singers. Because great performers provoke a desire for creativity.
You are the author of the first Bulgarian concert for trombone and orchestra. And the second. But you haven't written a concerto, for example, for horn, tuba or trumpet…
This is a theme that is often exposed in the creative world of the composer. There is an inner attitude. The trombone is much closer as a way of thinking, as sound, as emotion to me. It gives me a little more desire for creativity. I like the horn very much as an instrument. In fact, the first piece of brass I wrote was for 4 horns. After all, 4 horns can replace one trombone! 4 because this kind of chamber music has remained in my mind - an association of the symphony orchestra, of course. Prof. Karafezliev was kind enough to rework this quartet for 4 trombones. I look forward to hearing how it will sound.
Interestingly, I wrote only one brass quintet, although I wanted to write more. But the next thing I wrote was a wind quintet - 4 wooden and a horn. In fact, this is still а non-performed piece of work. I specially named the brass quintet "Male Dance". We are not talking about elementary pictorial means, but about the images that these instruments have created for me. And why men's dance - because brass sounds just like a manifestation of masculinity, maybe because of the look of the instruments themselves, maybe because their performers are usually men. I am not saying that this instrumentation is male or female, I myself have helped women to come to Bulgaria - performers of brass instruments. Some time ago I did a project with the Burgas Philharmonic. As part of it, I had invited two female Waldhorn players from London. To this day, colleagues in Burgas remember how they played.
Let's talk about the two trombone concerts. They are extremely different, as if written by two different composers. I wonder what a third concert would look like?
We will not comment on this third concert, because I do not know what it would look like. However, the difference between the first and the second is quite large. And from there I can no longer say whether as a composer's approach or the composer's growth I cannot say. For me, this has always been one of the most harmful topics in musicology: "In the first period of the composer, and in the second period… and in the third!" And I always start thinking about what will happen in the composer's fourth period if he doesn't lose his mind, because I can't imagine such periods by Mozart, by Schubert. Just one composer thinks and writes in one way, and then in new works he thinks in another, because when he creates multifaceted, diverse creativity, he enters new areas of his own thinking and emotions. Maybe this is the reason for the visible differences between my two concerts. They really have nothing in common.
The first is dedicated to Prof. Momchilov. The second concert is not dedicated to Prof. Karafezliev, but I have entrusted the premiere and recordings of this concert only to him and I do not think there should be another recording, as the quality of the recording is really very high. As part of this relationship, I wrote a lot of other trombone music. I was educated and studied along with his performance at my concert. Because the composer grows with each impression he acquires.
And the third part of the Second Concert?
Yes, the Scherzo Sonata. I had never written such an elaborate piece in an instrumental concert. Because I've written maybe more than 10 great concerts for different artists. But it somehow unfolded, and in this third part there seem to be the most diverse emotions associated with trombone playing - both as nuances, and as a technique, and as a balance orchestra - soloist, etc. And it turned out to be successful.
Are you thinking of creating a Third Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra?
Whether there will be a third concert, no one can say, because this is an attitude. So, it was with the second. Nobody "pressured" me to write it. In fact, I had already decided, I wanted to create another kind of work for this instrument. In the same way, for example, I created my first and second violin concertos. The first concerto was for violin and string, the second - for symphony orchestra. I made experiments that are important for me, for my development as an author. Three piano concertos - all three are different. The first concert was my discovery that a sequence of quarts could create music. In fact, you can never fail to use these combinations that have been at the heart of all music for centuries of music. It's not possible not to use them at all just to be a great composer, because that will make you a scattered composer - you won't know exactly what you're doing. For me, this is the music of dodecaphony. Do not repeat anything. Well, if nothing is repeated, nothing will be remembered. This is the situation… These are mathematical calculations in millions of combinations and what? Which of these combinations will present the author? I know that by the beginning of the 20th century, when you play 2-3 bars of a work, people immediately recognize the composer.
Not even 2-3 bars, but 3 seconds - in music this is so much time…
Well, yes. This is the meaning of music: to immediately recognize style, thinking, nationality - everything exists in the musical notation. So, let's be normal composers.
Let's talk about the transcriptions of works for different instruments, made by their own authors or other musicians…
I usually don't let my works be touched – like it or not, that's what I wrote. However, 2-3 times I allowed colleagues to rework my stuff and there are interesting successes. This makes me think about our great composers and especially Vladigerov - they have made so many transcriptions of their works and it is no accident. Thus, the works can be presented by another artist, and one quality music can meet different requirements. As Bach's music changes from vocal to instrumental, so writing for string instruments can be transferred to woodwinds.
Let's talk about the Scherzo sonata for trombone and piano - originally conceived for alto trombone commissioned by Stephen Anderson…
This order was an occasion to listen to more alto trombone music, to see what the technological differences are, because there are different approaches in terms of performance. This is a work I wanted to write specifically for this instrument. I have seldom wanted to write about an instrument unknown to me. The compositional risk is not so terrible here as failing to give the soloist the opportunity to shine. When there are such great celebrities who visit, when there are such ideas, a new kind of creativity is born. The composer grows and enters new knowledge, new stages of knowledge. The good thing is that the stairs can lead in different directions - and left, and right, and up. Because sometimes it happens that you go up very high up the stairs, but you don't have performers. And you must go back. However, this does not happen with wind instruments. Because everyone comes on stage when they are already very big. And that's the good thing.
This is very constructive maximalism.
That's right. You can't hide, there's no way. Every sound, every tone, everything you achieve, must be flawless in order to realize the written notes. There are other instrumentalists who do various other things on stage, sway, move. No such thing. It is no coincidence that there are well-established stage patterns of behavior. I was lucky enough to hear perhaps the (penultimate) performance of Claudio Arau shortly before parting with our world. And I saw a man who just plays and does absolutely everything. And there is no need at all to jump, to throw, to show emotions. In fact, we in the audience even wondered how it was possible not to flinch and move and hear everything. This is the Great art. Sound is what rules Space. Once you achieve it, that's it.
Your description reminds me of the performances of Glenn Gould.
When you mention Glenn Gould, I've also listened to a lot of his recordings. Coincidentally, we can't have listened to him at many concerts. And I think he gave up on time. Why? Because let’s say in Bach's music, which is unattainable as a recording, I hear every single voice and even see his face as an interpreter of how he treats that voice with the appropriate facial expressions, the vision I get just by listening to music is enough to understand his genius. I felt the same way, for example, when I listened to Boris Christoff's recordings. I see him playing on the stage, whether it will be Philip II, Boris Godunov, whether he will be someone else, it doesn't matter, I see him moving on the stage, because his voice depicts that.
Your summary as a composer about your long journey through the musical brass universe?
The greatest happiness for a composer is not to have sound recordings, but when he listens to his work on record to imagine the performer who made it, which means an achievement on both sides: that the performer can inspire this depth of music and that the composer has managed to challenge the artist to look for these dimensions. This is the Great art.
And I would say this: If we want to follow the beauty of the world, let's start with one of the vocal instruments, because what world has lost in music the most in the last century is the linear development, which contains a rich harmonic structure. That is why we can no longer distinguish which work was written by which composer. These are some equilibrists, ways to be perfect and unique, which is impossible… One-voice in an instrument is a great thing. These instruments have great potential to show all sorts of melodic structures. Creating beautiful music with one voice is a great composer's achievement!
The BRASS STORIES Project is supported by the
National Fund of Culture of Republic of Bulgaria
4 December, 2023
3 September, 2023