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6 Questions RE: “Kafka Fragments” with soprano Tony Arnold

December 23, 2013

What do you call someone who stuns you with performances of the most complex vocal music written as well as with amazing generosity of spirit? Why, Tony Arnold, of course. I have been living with the recording of György Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments op. 24 featuring Ms. Arnold and Movses Pogossian for quite some time. So when I started writing about the process that Martha Morrison Muehleisen, Karen Yasinsky, and I have been on since we envisioned this project, I knew that I had to talk to her. I told Ms. Arnold that I had two objectives with this interview. First, I wanted to share her thoughts in an effort to give potential audience members more ‘entry points’ into the work. When faced with something new to me having some insight from excellent performers and other background knowledge always supports my ‘active listening’. Also, I wanted to share some of the discovery process that happens when we squirrel ourselves away in practice rooms working on big projects like “Kafka Fragments”.

Jeremy Eichler wrote in a performance review for the Boston Globe in 2009,

“…But of course it was the performance itself that mounted the strongest case for this music. Arnold made the soprano line’s giant leaps and wild pivots feel like a natural expression of the texts at hand. Her halting delivery of the 38th fragment, about an artist’s struggle for authentic self-expression, was particularly riveting. Pogossian, moving between two violins with different tunings, deftly conjured the music’s surreal post-Bartokian nightscape: by turns dreamy, frenetic, and ultimately in the final fragment, sublime.”

Luckily for me (and for the Sybaritic Faithful), she agreed to talk “all things Kafka Fragments” with me and generously provide her insights into her devotion and passion for this wonderful work.

Photo Credit: Claudia Hansen

Photo Credit: Claudia Hansen

The Chicago Tribune writes, “anything sung by soprano Tony Arnold is worth hearing.” Hailed by the New York Times as “a bold and powerful interpreter,” she is recognized internationally as a leading proponent of new music in concert and recording, praised for her sparkling and insightful performances of the most daunting contemporary scores. Since becoming the first-prize laureate of the both the 2001 Gaudeamus International Competition (NL) and the 2001 Louise D. McMahon Competition (USA), Ms. Arnold has collaborated with the most cutting-edge composers and instrumentalists on the world stage, receiving consistent critical accolades for a voice of beauty and warmth, an uncanny technical facility, sterling musicianship, and riveting stage presence. “Simply put, she is a rock-star in this genre” (Sequenza 21).

Tony Arnold is the soprano of the intrepid International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), and with them has premiered over 25 new works written expressly for her voice. In 2013-14, Ms. Arnold will make her début performances with Ensemble Modern in a new work by Beat Furrer. She has received critical acclaim for her performances with Ensemble Modern, Chicago Symphony Orchestra MusicNOW, L.A. Philharmonic New Music Group, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, New York New Music Ensemble, eighth blackbird, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, and many others.

Tony Arnold is one of the most recorded singers of contemporary music, with more than two-dozen discs to her credit on labels including Bridge, Naxos, New Focus, and Mode. Her recording of George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children (Bridge) was nominated for a 2006 Grammy Award. Other notable releases include a CD/DVD set of Kafka Fragments (Bridge); Messiaen’s epic song cycle Harawi (New Focus) with pianist and long-time collaborator Jacob Greenberg; Jason Eckardt’s Undersong (Mode) with ICE; and Berio’s Sequenza III and the complete chamber songs of Webern (both on Naxos). Upcoming releases will include works of Xenakis, Josh Levine, and the complete songs with piano of Webern.

Growing up in suburban Baltimore, Tony Arnold composed, sang, and played every instrument she could persuade her parents to let her bring home, but never intended to become a professional vocalist. Instead, she applied her broad musical background to the study of orchestral conducting. Following graduate school, she was thrice a fellow the Aspen Music Festival (twice as a conductor, then again later as a singer), and she enjoyed success as the music director of several orchestras in the Chicago area. When she was in her early thirties, Ms. Arnold reconnected with her love of singing, and discovered a special ability for making the most complex music accessible to every audience. Having been inspired by many mentors, she is especially indebted to the teaching of sopranos Carmen Mehta and Carol Webber, conductors Robert Spano and Victor Yampolsky, and composer György Kurtág.

To read Tony Arnold’s full biography and learn more, please visit

I simply cannot wait to share her answers with you, so on with the interview!

Ms. Arnold, You and Movses Pogossian have performed György Kurtág’s “Kafka Fragments in over 30 venues, including major international festivals, university concert series and in educational masterclasses. Furthering your commitment, you have coached the work with Kurtág and recorded a CD/DVD for Bridge. You have an extensive history with “Kafka Fragments.” Are you able to remember what you thought when you first started working on the score? Furthermore, did you realize from the outset that it would be enduring project?

I met Movses in 2002 at June in Buffalo, and his incredible musicianship and generous spirit won me over immediately.  In our conversations we learned that each of us had acquired a score for “Kafka Fragments” a couple of years before, scores that had a vaunted position on our bookshelves and in our hearts and imaginations, but not yet in practice. It was a pie-in-the-sky kind of piece for both of us — we thought “maybe someday…if only I can find a collaborator willing to put in the months of work it would take to learn the piece.”  We were delighted to have found that person in each other!

From the beginning of rehearsal in September 2003 for a March 2004 first performance, we knew that we were not going to be rehearsing this for one performance only.  It’s one of the few pieces that when you start peeling back the layers, you realize that it has infinite subtleties, complexities, and covers multiple strata of existence.  Somehow, Movses got the crazy idea that he would contact Kurtág to see if we could get a coaching with him, and got a colleague to give us Kurtág’s fax number.  We faxed in December, but we didn’t hear anything for several months.  Then in March, out of the blue came an invitation to attend a week-long public masterclass with Kurtág in Budapest in June 2004.  I have to say, that really ramped up our efforts, even beyond what they already had been for the first performance.  (more on the masterclass below)

Kurtág’s “Kafka Fragments” is made up of 40 individual settings of short thoughts taken from Kafka’s letters, diaries, and notebooks which are concise, witty, and can often be paradoxical. Did you have a connection to Kafka’s writing before turning to the musical work? How has your relationship to the text changed over the time you have been studying and performing the composition?

I really knew very little of Kafka’s writing before I encountered Kurtág’s work, so one of the first things I did was to get a copy of the diaries and get a sense of his writing more broadly.   It served as good background, but really I found the most important thing was to ponder why Kurtág had chosen the verses that he did.  What were the unifying themes that recur throughout “Kafka Fragments” that made it whole, that provide dramatic shape or focal points in a seemingly sprawling work?   Did Kurtág himself identify with these texts as a character, philosopher, or literary hero?  The piece is adorned with myriad musical quotations, dedications, messages and homages to people living and dead— friends, composers, creators of all kinds.  Why these people?  Musically and dramatically speaking, why order the fragments the way he did?  Why choose certain moods, harmonic worlds, or motives through which to express these texts?

These questions are never definitively answered, of course, and even asking some of them directly to Kurtág himself provided only partial clarity (composer’s prerogative, I think)   What seems true is that the continual asking and refining of these questions is what the piece itself is about.  One image that comes up with great frequency in “Kafka Fragments” is that of “path”— obscured path, a path that is designed to trip you rather than lead you, multiple yet invisible paths to one destination. In “Kafka Fragments”, not-knowing seems to be the inescapable crux of the inevitable progress of life, itself the path.   That’s a rich place for artistic exploration, and has kept me coming back for more, year after year.

Each vignette offers opportunities to show off extreme vocalization. For example, many fragments require soaring leaps, screeches, and guttural expressions. Will you please give us your insight into how you approached the singing of the text to still achieve a sense of sincerity and naturalness? And, whether or not that helped you sustain those extreme moments for the length of the entire work?

I absolutely love that the score itself has nothing notated that would be classified as an “extended vocal technique”, yet what Kurtág has implied through the gestural setting of the text, when executed with singular purpose according to soundworld that the text evokes, results in extremities of vocal timbre that sound like they might be somehow “extra-musical”.  In reality, these moments arise quite organically.  Not that they are easy…. but that there is such an internal logic to the composition that the sounds are inevitable, provided the singer has digested Kurtág’s harmonic and rhythmic language.  The harmony gives birth to the rhythm, which in turn spawns the gesture. All of this is working through the text, not on top of it.  The text is where timbral aspects of music are amplified, via the phonetic structure that arises from meaning itself (n.b.– it is this phenomenon that defines craft of diction, not phonetics alone).

All of this is to say that Kurtág operates with such an economy and elegance of means, that every sound uttered in the “Kafka Fragments” is absolutely necessary— no more and certainly no less will do.  From a practical point of view, to focus on the text  as a text is the first order of business.  In working with Kurtág, it was apparent that the delivery of the text as speech was the most basic, and therefore the most important, objective. Kurtág is fluent in seven languages, he is captivated by language, and he sets language meticulously according to rhetorical principles.  Think si parla, si canta on steroids (I’m serious!)  🙂  I had never realized the depth and importance of this paradigm until I worked with Kurtág in person. Experiencing his devotion to the nuance of language and its musical implications profoundly changed my approach to music-making from that moment forward.

As a veteran répétiteur, Kurtág has had a long history of working with and coaching singers. He is also known for his extremely high standards and critical style. Given that there are such taxing vocal demands in the piece, what was it like to work with the meticulous composer?

It was exhilarating, exhausting, and transformative.  Not that I could employ even 10% of what he asked of me in those days that Movses and I (and later pianist Jacob Greenberg on “The Sayings of Peter Bornemisza”) were coaching with him.  But I did feel, especially that first time working with him, that I got a window into what would be possible for me 5 years down the road.

It is often the case that a composer has either a particular voice or a certain sound in mind when working with a singer — how could they not?  Even though “Kafka Fragments” was written with Adrienne Csengery‘s voice in mind, what was remarkable about working with Kurtág was the extent to which he was sensitive to my particular instrument— when it was resonating freely, when it was impeded or held in some way that was limiting my ability to respond freely to the music.  Kurtág and his wife Márta, a wonderful musician and his constant companion and collaborator in masterclasses, are both students of the Alexander Technique, and use it constantly in coaching.  They have skilled eyes as well as ears, and a kinesthetic intuition that seeks to find freedom and balance in all resonant bodies (instrumentalists, too!).  I found that the goal in Kurtág’s coaching was to find the way my body could inhabit the music: body, gesture, and phrase as one entity.  It was not about how his music “should sound”, but about how the music “could sound through a specific body”, in this case, mine.

If anybody would like a peek into the intensity of Kurtág’s coaching, there is a short documentary on the CD/DVD recording that Movses and I did for Bridge Records a few years ago.  It has footage from the masterclasses from 2004.    There is also a free Vimeo clip from a British documentary called “Knots and Fields” that was made about the Darmstadt Festival, which also shows us working with Kurtág in 2008.

Please tell us more what it was like to collaborate on “Kafka Fragments” with Movses Pogossian. The violin and voice are both treble instruments that act and interact throughout the 40 fragments. You are both able to bring out poignant moments in each line without obstructing the other. It also seems like there is a lot of communication necessary to perform this with the conviction and unity you exude.

Well, first of all, Movses is not only a virtuoso violinist, but a musician of the first order, with an incredible ear for timbral variety, and a deep connection through gesture and metaphor to each phrase he plays.  So to work with such a musician really pushed me to explore new colors and dynamic strata, among other things.  You hit on something with the registral parallels of soprano and violin. We were constantly finding ways in which we could inhabit each others’ sound– to become one sound and then diverge and converge again, almost making a third instrument in the process.  Working with string players is especially illuminating in the realm of intonation. Much attention is devoted to making sure intervals ring true, and more importantly vibrate and settle throughout the entire body— for string players the higher order of intonation is how an interval feels, before how it sounds.  That process confirmed time and again for me that intonation is about resonance and timbre, not about pitch.  (I learned this first from Rex Martin, the tuba professor at Northwestern, in observing him working with brass ensembles. Rex never once fixed intonation by asking somebody to raise or lower the pitch. He instead focused the players attention on sound, timbre and balance.  But I digress!)

I love that Movses comes to everything with “beginners mind”, even now when we meet to rehearse after having performed the piece so many times.  So we are free to create and adjust and breathe the piece anew each time we do it, and can respond to each other spontaneously in a way that is only possible in a long-term collaboration.  I have had many rewarding collaborations over the years, but somehow this one is particularly special, in no small part because of the synergy inspired by the unique musical and conceptual demands of “Kafka Fragments.”

Moving slightly away from solely “Kafka Fragments”, you spend a lot of time working with young and emerging new music singers. What advice do you usually give to singers who are working on scores, like “Kafka Fragments” that perhaps challenge them beyond their traditional vocal training?

My best advice is: if you can work with a composer from the very inception of the compositional process, do so.  Have pieces written for you, with you, so you can get a piece that both challenges you and shows your voice at its best.  This is also an exercise in self-knowledge.  Singers must know what their voice is capable of, ALL that it is capable of, and be able to communicate that effectively to a composer in a creative dialogue that can result in a new perspective on your individual voice.  Limitations (which we all have!) must be viewed as creative opportunities rather than road blocks.

For all music you learn, you must practice while moving your body.  One of the pitfalls of a traditional bel canto training is that the quiet body is highly valued, but too often “quiet” or even “neutral” can really mean stiff and held.  When phrases are challenging, when “extended techniques” are employed, a singer must find how the gestures live in the entire body, not just from the navel to the neck.  After all, what is an “extended technique” but an intentional utterance of all the spontaneous sounds of life — coughing, laughing, sneezing, gasping, or imitating a cast of characters in a cartoon or Coen Brothers’ movie?  We make these sounds all the time every day, freely and without complication, because our bodies and breath are free. When you bring these sounds into music, you must think of it as planned spontaneity.  Our practice of these sounds, and quite frankly of ALL singing sounds in music, must be playful with the body, observant with the mind, and in touch with the emotions.


Once again, I am extremely grateful that Ms. Arnold shared her insights with us. Please do read more about Tony Arnold at and follow her on Twitter @tonyscreecher.

As always, please share your thoughts with us! Leave us a comment below or connect on twitter (@mezzoihnen – #KafkaFrag) or on our Sybaritic Singer Facebook page. You can also RSVP to our performance György Kurtág’s “Kafka Fragments” at the Atlas Performing Arts Center or buy your tickets right now via the Atlas Box Office.


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