You have written many beautiful transcriptions for the accordion too, many of which are also heard on the competition circuit like Paganini’s La Campanella, J.S. Bach’s Chaconne, Messiaen’s Dieu Parmi Nous. What do you look for in a piece that you believe deserves to be transcribed for accordion?
Firstly, I think will the timbre of my instrument be good for this music? All other things I can make. I wouldn’t transcribe something for trumpet or tuba for example. You have to make the right choices. If you take my CD Semionov plays his transcriptions everything that I have done from an artistic point of view and from the point of view of sonority I try for the result to be on the level or even better than the original. In this case you can then make a transcription. But just writing all the notes for one’s instrument is not enough. It should be a re-composition. One should recompose all your most important ideas and transmit the soul of the composition. Of course all little bit of dressing can be added but one should try to find the main grain of the composition. When I transcribed Bach’s Chaconne, of course Ferruccio Busoni did lots of good things but I didn’t want to be a shadow of a shadow. Originally it was Paganini. Our articulation is much richer than the piano’s so in my version you can see the development of the articulation from the first variation to the finale so all the possibilities of our instrument serve the music. I used a lot of Busoni’s ideas but not generally. My conducting teacher made a fantastic transcription for orchestra. I used these principles as a basis for my instrument. There are many things which I wouldn’t agree with Busoni. Bach wrote it originally for Violin and sometimes used many voices but sometimes single voice too but to this Busoni added a melody… what for? If he’d wanted it Bach would have done it. Bach knew this better than Busoni. Sometimes the music has to be like tutti and other times like a soloist, sometimes like glass, sometimes like steel. A transcriber should try to be as near to the level of the composer as is possible… of course you will never be equal to Bach but be as close as possible. So it should be a new composition with general material which you can then use.
Today there are many new composers who are discovering the accordion’s potential enjoying writing new pieces for it. How important is it for these composers, who are not themselves accordionists, to continue to write for the accordion and what do they bring to the instrument that is different from composers who are also accordionists like yourself?
Firstly when I first collaborated with Anatoly Kusjakov who had composed a violin concerto and other orchestral music and whose ears and way of thinking was very orchestral, and the bayan is very orchestral, he asked me about how should he write for the accordion because he was not an accordionist and didn’t really know the instrument, but I knew he was a very talented person and I asked him just to write the music as if he was writing for an orchestra and that we would find a way to manage it. Then he wrote it like a score and I played it but then it was not possible to play everything so it could be heard on our instrument so we made a transcription. Then he went on to compose more for the instrument and became more aware of its possibilities but a composer doesn’t have to be restricted by the limitations of the instrument. Often, if he is, then the composition may end up being very narrow. Young composers especially sometimes just try to utilise and speculate on the sonoric effects of the instrument but what should come first is the music. Like a person, first you need a body and brains then you can find a nice dress. Sometimes I listen to new music and I can’t hear that its good music and I joke that this piece will be played twice… first and last! [He laughs] As a musician I am also a performer and I can feel if there is something in this music. Sometimes some music is not very popular but if I feel that there is music in it then it is I who have to find a way to communicate it but if it is empty…
Sometimes when I play some contemporary music I put my own feelings and what I feel into this music. This can also be funny and even interesting and then the composer would gasp and say that they never thought that this music was in their notes.
Most important though is not worrying to much about limitations. When I wrote my new Sonata No.3 Reminiscence of the future, for bayan but it’s really a symphonic composition and maybe one hundred players will play this sonata and it will be always different. In music there is much more than you can express on only one instrument and in one performance, it will never be enough to express all that exists in this sonata. When you look at history is so very complicated. Its reflecting on how many times civilisation has started and then has been destroyed and then had to start from zero again. We have the sky and the stars and nobody knows how many other civilisations exist. Even in music with its different epochs, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Surrealist etc. My sonata has some neo-Romanticism and a little surrealism. We can write many contemporary pieces but we are human and the music should touch your heart and your brains. In this sonata I have no form or rhythm, not just the typical sonata form, I used even the Morse Code idea further like I used in my Caprice S.O.S. It was difficult to write this sonata because in literature writers can manipulate the future and the past like Bulgakov does in The Master and Margarita so the reader sometimes doesn’t know whether what is being read is in the future or the past. This is what I tried to do in the music too.
It’s a fantastic device but quite difficult to achieve in music. Sometimes the material of one part can come before it appears in reality then in the development section then the materials can have a conversation with each other or then sound together. It’s really interesting I think. Of course maybe one cannot understand everything after listening to it just once but recently I let a circle of Russian Composers from the Composers Society I am a member of, listen to and audio file of it and they said that although they could not understand it all first time they could not take their attention away from what they were listening to, like in some American movies sometimes when something that is maybe not as important is being shown but one cannot take their eyes off the screen. I think and hope both performers and audiences will take to this sonata because I think I have something to say in it which I believe is very important. I have made a version for piano-accordion but the original version is not playable on a piano. It’s what you have to say though which is important.
You take a keen interest in the development of the accordion as an instrument. We have already spoken a lot about this. What technological advances would you like to see happening to the instrument in the future?
I think weight is still a problem so finding new materials. All reeds should have the quality of mine. Italian reeds are very good in some of the range but Russian reeds are more sensitive and are easier to play needing less power but they in turn break easily. For me, it’s better to have this and risk a breakage and to expend less physical energy playing. Now, all Italian factories use continuous plate reeds in the left-hand as this is where Russian instruments have always been better. Pigini use this method and now Scandalli, Bugari and others. It’s all about diffusion. Some time ago the best ideas from Italy came to Russia and now the best ideas from Russia come to Italy. Now Italian instruments too have good basses. It’s a process which is not yet completely finished because economics come into it. Obviously these things cost more but the factories want to spend less and produce more. So whilst the lightest instruments of this type weigh in at 12.5 kg it would be better if they were 10.5kg.This is where I would like to see the development going. Progress will come. This is why many people play electronic instruments because of weight. Also instruments become more fragile and whilst it’s good to lose weight we don’t want to lose quality of sound. I love very much the sound and colour of Italian instruments.
Finally, what is next for Semionov? Teaching for sure but any recording, concerts or maybe more composing?
I will be playing as long as I can of course depending health permitting. A year ago Motion Trio have asked me to write a work for them for trio and Chamber Orchestra. They like my music and I will find time to do this. This is very exciting and it will be big work… again! I’m exhausted after this last 3rd Sonata of mine which I dedicated to Yuri Shishkin who will play it in November at the Moscow Autumn Festival. It took nearly one year to write, not every day, I did the first and second movements in three months in the Autumn and then in January till March I finished the Finale. It’s not something you can leave for long periods of time because I don’t want to write something which will just be an exercise for children, I don’t want to ruin my name but want to maintain my reputation. Often I get invited to play and do master classes which I enjoy because I can demonstrate how I think something should be played. I don’t practise as much as when I was young but in spite of age I try to maintain my level. When I feel I can no longer maintain it I will stop. I don’t want to be like an old master of martial arts who then gets beaten by a young student. I will continue until I feel able to.
Also, I hope that the new generation of accordionists will want to be not only brilliant accordionists but good musicians and great artists too. This way we can guarantee the future development of the accordion.
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