Sylke Zimpel on the powerful, personal nature of song

Jun 13, 2018

As the Choral Artists presents a rich concert of American music, you might wonder what our Dresden-based Composer-Not-in-Residence has been up to. What does it mean to compose across the boundaries of language and culture? How is music changed by the identities of the people writing or performing it?  Below, Sylke Zimpel shares her thoughts on the powerful, personal nature of song.

In general, what do you hope people hear or feel when they hear your music?

It’s hard to say. I always hope that the sound and the interpretation of the pieces make the listener’s soul vibrate, that they can experience the music not only rationally but also emotionally. As for the singers, I hope that in rehearsing each piece they come to understand its  lyrics and inform the music with their own life experiences — I want them to give each piece an authentic sound, with a deeper understanding. And of course, I want my songs to be rewarding for them to learn.

In addition to being a composer, you’re also the founder and director of two choirs in Dresden, TRITONUS and femmes vocales. How does being a conductor affect how you compose music?

As a conductor I’m not only performing music, but I also see how the singers react to the pieces in each rehearsal. I can tell what is easy for them and what is more difficult, when they get engaged, what makes their eyes light up. And all that has an effect on my composing.

You’ve had two works performed by the Choral Artists this year as Composer-Not-in-Residence. In December, we had Es träumet einer Frauen, a hopeful yet haunting foreshadowing of the Crucifixion, then in March we had Der Regn Singt, a set of four evocative miniatures. In each song, you use unusual harmonies to bring out nuances in the poetry.

When you compose, do you usually start with a text, or with a purely musical idea? In other words, how does the text influence your composing process?

Poetry has always played a big role in my life, and I’ve always regarded good poems with deep respect. Sometimes when I feel deeply touched or agitated by a poem, I just start singing the first verses. From that beginning, everything else develops. With that I especially try to bring to sound what’s behind the words in my opinion. Basically, the music is how I’m reading the poem.

For this upcoming concert, you’ve set the familiar American folksong “All the Pretty Little Horses” in a unique new arrangement. Why did you choose this particular piece?

At the beginning of this year I looked through some song books with American folk songs and listened to a lot of recordings on the internet, sometimes very old ones. However, I realized: it’s a strange world for me, one that I can’t access easily.

I’ve explored unfamiliar worlds before — when I discovered the beautiful folksongs of the Czech Republic, Lithuania and Slovenia, I started to learn the languages and I started backpacking through the countries and camping in their villages. There, I not only got to know the people, but also their way of singing their own music. That experience taught me to “read” the song books correctly, to understand the songs from the inside out.

Unfortunately, I was not able to hike through America. Thus I intuitively made use of the one genre that I know the best: cradle songs, because with them the there is no problem of “foreignness.” They’re universal.

Is there anything else you’d like the audience to know before they hear “Pretty Little Horses”?

Cradle songs [lullabies] are originally women’s songs, but since more and more fathers are singing today, I thought it would be wonderful if the men didn’t “only” get to sing the bass, but also the melody – one verse and in unison, a cradle song! And suddenly the melody “opened up, and “appealing notes revealed themselves for the women’s parts that shine a new light on the old melody. At first, I was surprised by the result myself, but then I thought: exactly – that’s it!

You have a wealth of experience setting folk tunes in new settings, especially Eastern European folk tunes. How is interpreting an American folksong different? How is it the same?

That’s right, I’ve arranged folk songs of many different nationalities, but I don’t think I approach music differently except for a certain knowledge of the specific country. Also, “All the Pretty Little Horses” is a cradle song, and those follow unique “rules” that are the same all over the world. While arranging, I didn’t even think about a possible difference between “typically German” or “typically American” harmonization, if I maybe should adjust my style. I tried to seek out what the song wanted from its inside out, how much the melody would be willing to open up for today’s sound language without losing anything of its tenderness and intimacy.

The harmonies you’ve written for “Pretty Little Horses” are beautiful, very spare and wistful. Did you have a particular story or character in mind for this rendition of the song? Who is singing, who are they singing to, and why?

Yes, somehow the “men’s verse” is very present for me. I constantly try to imagine what it will sound like when all men of the San Francisco Choral Artists sing the melody for a whole verse.  Last night, I thought how beautiful it would be if all men, all fathers sang more cradle songs. Maybe our world would blossom in new, more peaceful colors…

Sylke Zimpel studied composition at Dresden Academy of Music and choral conducting in Weimar and Lyon. Since 1986 she has worked as a freelance composer and conductor. The focus of her compositional work is setting modern poetry to music for all kinds of choirs and making arrangements of folksongs, with a special interest in Eastern European and Yiddish folksongs. Zimpel has won several composition awards and scholarships in her own country and abroad, the most recent in Casa Baldi in Olevano Romano, Italy. In Dresden, she founded and has lead the women’s choir femmes vocales since 1994, and chorbühne TRITONUS dresden since 1984. Both ensembles perform contemporary choral music as well as international folksongs in new settings.

This interview was translated from its original German by Emily Bertheau.