The name of Sylvie Bodorová has been closely connected with modern classical music in the Czech Republic for about the last 30 years, in which time her compositions have been performed on every continent, including Antarctica. She is one of few female composers whose work is a staple of classical musical festivals the world over and is featured on more than two dozen albums. The first in that long list of compositions was a piano piece written when she was seven years old - she performed it in her public debut a year later. When we met in the studio recently, I couldn’t help but wonder how she sees that piece today, with so many decades of success behind her.
“It is quite interesting, that is the only piece I remember; I’m still able to play it. Of course, I’ve finished many, many pieces that I don’t remember so well, but maybe it’s because it was such hard work for me to write that first piece, because for a child it is very difficult to find the right note, and length and all the rhythmic values and everything. So it was hard work, I remember that it took me a long, long time to write it.”
How do you view your own progress as a composer when you look back at your older scores?
“I have to say, I had to throw away many of my first compositions, because I’m quite critical. I try to keep only the things that I really feel were written the way they should be. Of course, each composition is a system, and if it is built well then I can take that. Then there are some pieces that are not built well, and I had to throw them away. I’m trying to progress as a composer, but I always hold on to one idea: that each piece of music should have a message, it should say something. And that is something that I already knew when I started composing – that I’d like to give something through my music. Music, and composing, is not just a game for me, but sending a message to the listener and the musicians.”
Can you give me some examples? From your very prolific career, what have been some of the pieces that have carried the most important messages for you, or that have carried them the most successfully?
“For example, my string quartet, the Terezín Ghetto Requiem. The message is very clear. The piece is inspired by the performance of a requiem by Verdi in [the WWII concentration camp] Terezín. And I visited Terezín and I saw all the circumstances, and it was so powerful that I decided to write a piece inspired by this event. The message is very clear: that we should remember what happened and we should do everything so that it could not happen in the future. And I’m very glad that this piece is played all over the world, not only because it is my music, but because this message is clear and many people understand what I meant by it.”
The Terezín Ghetto Requiem is a tremendously poignant piece, and - I’m a little shy to suggest it but - it seems like a perfect piece for film as well. Would you be opposed to it being interpreted in that way, or used in that way?
“It has been used in film as well. But, you know, it’s quite an interesting question, because I think that we are a generation that is so connected with film that even listeners expect something like that, it is helpful to them. I don’t know how to explain it, but I feel no difference between film music and good music. I think it is a new point for composers to consider, a new phenomenon.”
Can you tell me about how you became a musician and a composer?
“I was born a composer [laughs]. Unfortunately. It is not an easy life, but beautiful. As a really little baby, my favourite activity was playing the piano and improvising. But I am from a medical family, and my while family took it as a disaster – why had I decided on such a terrible profession? But it happened.”
Were there many women studying composition at conservatory when you were there?
“No, even at the Academy of Arts I was the only woman who was a composer at that time. It was much more rare than today.”
And was that difficult for you at all, being the only woman studying composition?
“I didn’t take it that way, no. I didn’t feel that it was a problem. I’ll tell you, my strategy from the beginning was this: when you start composing as a young girl you don’t think of yourself as male or female, you just compose. And that is my approach to composition: I’d like to be a good composer, not to be a good female composer, that’s how I feel about it.”
Is it just as easy for a woman composer to become established and accepted when her work is good?
“I would say that we have some advantages. For example, when I started I was better seen than others, because I was a rarity, you know? So if you want to see being a female composer as a positive value you can. If you want to see the negative values you can find many of them as well.”
The inspiration that seems to be behind a lot of your work seems to come from a wide variety of sources, like Gypsy music and Jewish music, even Chinese music I believe. Are these things that you intentionally look for as sources of inspiration, or do they come naturally through your travels and through your own self-education?
“My main inspiration is Jewish and Gypsy music. And why? Because it naturally belongs to this country. In fact, I met many Gypsies in my life, I have heard natural Gypsy music, and Jewish music is part of our society as well. We have it somewhere in our roots. And if I’d like to make my music more interesting or find new musical values, I always go to these two sources, because I think it is natural. I am against artificial inspiration, because I think that if you don’t understand the culture and are just taking some inspiration, it is hard to put it into your music, because there is a sort of misunderstanding. So that’s why I always try to keep these two main streams in my inspiration, because I really understand that it is my background as well. It is something that part of my culture as well.”
Several of your compositions deal with religious themes. Are you religious? Or is it particularly the Jewish tradition that you are interested in?
“I see it philosophically. I am not really religious, but I am not against it of course; if I were, I wouldn’t be able to write these pieces. I am sort of pantheistic in orientation. I think religion brings some values that we lack in our society, and that is the reason that I use religion for my message.”
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