DJs join classical musicians in celebration of Bohuslav Martinů

Bohuslav Martinů (Foto: Wikimedia Creative Commons 3.0)

A special event marking 125 years since the birth of Bohuslav Martinů will take place in London this Wednesday, October 21st. Organised by the Czech Centre and Nonclassical label, along with the Bohuslav Martinů Institute, the happening will present the great 20th century Czech composer through London’s contemporary classical and electronic music scene. We have more in this weeks’ edition of In Focus:

Bohuslav Martinů, photo: archive of Bohuslav Martinů Center in Polička, CC BY-SA 3.0
Well-known chamber pieces and songs by Bohuslav Martinů will be on the programme of Wednesday’s concert dedicated to the great Czech composer. But audiences of the Inspired by Martinů event will also hear his music with a much more contemporary touch.

Classical performers will be joined on stage by DJs and people working with contemporary music and sound design, to reimagine some of Martinů’s most influential chamber pieces and create real-time improvised soundtracks, audiovisual installations and once-in-a-lifetime musical reworks.

Tereza Porybná is the head of the Czech Centre in London and one of the authors of this unique project:

“The idea was actually triggered by a project that a colleague of mine in Romania did about four or five years ago, when he asked Romanian DJs to mix Dvořák’s symphony. I thought it was a really nice idea and I wanted to take it forward in London by not including just DJs but also by merging the classical and the electronic scene on stage.”

“So the original idea was to do a Dvořák part number two in London, do it internationally in inviting DJs all over Europe, but also classical musicians, and creating this new platform for communications among these different genres.”

In the end, the organizers eventually decided to start with a composer who is recognised but who does not enjoy such huge popularity as Dvořák does, despite authoring some fantastic pieces of music. Alexandra Střelcová of the Bohuslav Martinů Institute:

“This year marks the 125th birth anniversary of Bohuslav Martinů and despite the composers global acclaim not many events are actually held to commemorate this joyous event here in London this year. So upon conversations with the Czech Centre’s director, Tereza Porybná, we agreed that a serious tribute was needed to be organised.

“And then a few nights before that, I went to Nonclassical anniversary. There are many classical-meets-contemporary projects around the world but I remember that seeing Nonclassical, their vibe was so edgy and at the same time extremely thoughtful about the classical bits, so that when we were later discussing whom we would like to invite for the collaboration for the project, the choice was pretty straightforward.”

Pianist Lada Valešová, who also curated the programme, violinist Tereza Anna Přívratská and Anglo-Czech mezzo soprano Lucie Špičková, will perform some of Martinů’s most beautiful chamber pieces and songs. They will be joined on stage by artists around the acclaimed Nonclassical label, including its founder, DJ and composer Gabriel Prokofiev, who also happens to be the grandson of the famous piano composer Sergei Prokofi ev. When I spoke to him ahead of the concert, he told me more about his role on stage:

“I will be DJing in between most of the live performances presenting the original Martinů chamber music by using recordings of Martinů music and mixing them with other electronic sounds, creating a kind of voyage through the music of Martinů but in a more electronic context which will be a lot of fun.”

A few weeks ahead of the event, the Czech Centre London and Nonclassical launched a public competition, calling on composers and music producers to submit their own compositions or remixes inspired by the life and works of Martinů. The top three compositions, which can be anything from an entirely electronic to a purely classical piece, will be heard on Wednesday at the concert.

As Gabriel Prokofiev told me, for a musician, a remix is a unique way to get to know a certain composer.

Gabriel Prokofiev, photo: archive of Nonclassical
“Nonclassical have done re-mix competitions several times, and each time it has been very exciting. You put something out there on the internet and you are not quite sure who it is going to reach. We have got quite good channels and suddenly people from across the planet start entering, from America, from France, from wherever.

“Combined with the Czech Centre, it seems to have reached much further than just London-based musicians. So it is really exciting to see who is going to come back and enter a competition like this.”

Would you say that Martinů is more suitable for re-mixing than other composers?

“The concept of a remix is that you take some existing composition and you create a new work with that. So it’s a kind of modern day digital version of doing themes and variations.

“In the past Rachmaninov did a theme and variation on Paganini or we have theme and variations on works by Bach. So it’s a long-standing tradition and it is actually continuing but instead we are using the actual recordings.

“In this case the symphony that is being remixed that has a very strong rhythmic drive to it and I think that obviously provides a very immediate approach for remixing.”

Can you tell me a little bit more about the Fourth Symphony? Why did you choose this composition in particular?

“I think it was particularly the rhythmic aspect, the power of the orchestration. It has a strong character and it feels like it stylistically connects to modern music, even dance music. So it felt like a natural choice.”

Inspired by Martinů should be just a first of a series of events dedicated to Czech classical music. In the future, the Czech Centre in London would like to present other Czech composers, particularly Leoš Janáček and Antonín Dvořák. Tereza Porybná again:

“We want to see how everything goes but so far the preparations have been great and we have really good feedback from everybody. What we would like to do next year is to include this programme in one of the London music festivals to get an even bigger audience, possibly.

Tereza Porybná, photo: Vojtěch Brtnický / Czech Centre in London
“We would also like to work with classical music composers throughout Europe and really create new music pieces, which is something we didn’t manage this year. This year we are focusing purely on the remixes and improvising between the classical piano and the DJ on stage.”

After its premiere in London on Wednesday, the Inspired by Martinů project should travel to Prague and possibly other cities in the UK sometimes next year.

The remixes of Martinů’s Symphony Number Four can also be heard at the event’s webpage, that is,