‘Blood, Forgotten’: Composer Mark Nowakowski and the Voxare String Quartet

With their new CD, "Blood, Forgotten," Polish-America composer Mark Nowakowski and the Voxare String Quartet offer tribute to a strong people's spirit of survival.

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WASHINGTON, June 7, 2017 ⏤ CommDigiNews writer and composer Mark Nowakowski, Eric Peterson, violist with the Voxare String Quartet, and Voxare violinist Emily Ondracek-Peterson are releasing a new CD, Blood, Forgotten, (available June 9 at Amazon.com). The disc is a musical tribute to the people of Poland, who have lived through often impossible conditions over the last three centuries.

Polish-American composer Nowakowski offers this release as a tribute to this strong nation’s spirit of survival. Included on the CD are Songs of Forgiveness a “meditation on anger and grief and a lamentation on the stark realities of a society riven by tragedy.”

Blood, Forgotten is a multimedia memorial for the victims of Nazi and Soviet aggression during World War II. The electronic soundtrack uses sounds from an instrument that survived one of the concentration camps.

Partly written and recorded as a memorial to the late, great Polish composer Henryk Górecki, Grandfather Songs includes the surreal element of a recording of Nowakowski’s family singing the war song “Hej Ulani.”


With considerable pride in our colleague, CommDigiNews sat down with Nowakowski and Voxare to discuss the collaboration and the result.

Q: Our first question goes to the composer. I think that most people know that classical music is still happening, but the idea of there still classical composers working outside of film doesn’t occur to them. How did you start down this path, and how do you keep going?

Nowakowski: First of all, thanks for the great opportunity of this interview. As to your question, I get that a lot. There are a lot of great living composers, and a lot of wonderful music to explore. As to myself, I grew up in a classical Midwestern music education program, concert band centered, and slowly came to adore classical music through that experience. I began to write music towards the end of high school, and in that experience, I discovered what felt like a vocation.

Q: So the musical ideas just started coming to you?

Nowakowski: Strangely, yes. It was like there were echoes of music in my mind, ideas that I couldn’t quite capture but was nevertheless driven to write down. A visual comparison might be a person standing at one end of a foggy field, and seeing figures or shapes moving through the tree line at the other end of the field. You have to make a decision: do you dare to get a clearer look at what moves there, or go elsewhere?

For me, it was something that couldn’t be escaped. I had to discover a clearer vision of what was in the distance. Much of my education ended up being dedicated to refining composition as a craft and being able to express the sounds and ideas coming to me as accurately as possible. What was once almost impossible to capture is now much clearer.

Q: Is there a reason that composers fell out of the general public consciousness? Why don’t we hear more about them?

Nowakowski: This is complicated, and I’m going to have to give what may be an unpopular answer in my field. Classical music has never been popular and never will be popular because it is generally lengthy while making demands of time and attention on a person. Often it is the opposite of entertainment, and closer to a contemplative experience. It requires that people spend time alone, even when in a crowded concert hall. And when people sit for a long time with themselves, they can either listen with intent or go within and encounter themselves. Both of these things are demanding, and in a sense, people are often as unwilling to do this as they are unwilling to encounter contemplation in silence. But we need it. Our society needs it desperately.

I think that up through the 1950’s there was a strong “middle brow” culture in the United States, a notion that our composers and orchestras and artists deserved the attention and support of a culture with aspirations to greatness. People sat around listening to, for instance, the NBC Radio Orchestra premiering a new work of Copland’s, and at least on some level understood the deep value of such a pursuit. Yet during the great experimental age which was 20th-century music, most composers went into the area of high academic modernism. The music would strike even many educated listeners as unrelentingly dissonant and often unreasonably complex and abstract, so predictably the larger populace lost interest.

Meanwhile, composers of more accessible and “traditional” music were ridiculed, while many modernists openly derided the seeming inability of audiences to come to grips with the modern music of their time. Ultimately popular music filled more and more social need, and “high art” composers almost went the way of the tenure-tracked historical dustbin.

Q: Has the situation has changed?

Nowakowski: Yes, thankfully. It seems that now it is the modernists who are being relegated to the category of a historical oddity. Don’t get me wrong: We can be grateful to the modernists for their seeking and they’re increasing the scope of our aesthetic palette. There are so much more possibilities in our time; I’m quite sure composers like Mozart would be envious. But we are free now to take the sounds they created and bring them into a more generally “legible” form to larger audiences. They are freer to really be themselves, to avoid being part of aesthetic “movements”, and just pursue the beautiful.

There are many composers now like me, once again pursuing the creation of beautiful art, once again extending a guiding hand when our materials become difficult, and desperately trying to rebuild the bridges to potential performers and audiences that our recent ancestors burned.

Q: Tell us more about this album.

Nowakowski: The album takes its title from the piece “Blood, Forgotten”, a multimedia memorial for the victims of World War 2 in Poland. The wonderful Voxare Quartet used this as a foundation to put together a number of my string works with Polish themes to create this album.

There is a lot of personal stuff in these works: nostalgia, deep longing, coming to grips with betrayal, and in general what I hope is the sound of struggle unto redemption. Voxare’s performance of these often complex works is beyond stunning, and I’m hopeful that our combined efforts can lead people into a deeply moving and cathartic listening experience.

Q: Your website speaks about the influence of your cultural background and your religious beliefs on your music. Can you briefly tell us more?

Nowakowski: My parents were Polish immigrants, so I grew up in the Polish diaspora in Chicago. I had one foot in American culture and language, and another foot planted somewhere quite different. And there were fascinating overlaps. I owe a great deal to this experience, and am thrilled to be able to provide such depth to my children now as well.

As to religion, my Catholic beliefs have long been central to how I view the world and approach my art. The cultural aspects enrich the art, while the religious perspective allows me to at least search for deeper roots in my work. The former gives what I do greater meaning, and without the latter, I don’t think there would be any sense to do what I do.

Q: Now to Eric and Emily: Releasing a record is a complex and expensive process. What compelled you to take a chance on Mark’s music along with the theme for this new album?

Peterson: I lived with Mark for two years in Cleveland while we were in school, and during that time I became intimately familiar with Mark’s compositional language, his creative process, and his aesthetic preferences. At this same time, Emily and I were starting a quartet in New York. Mark’s first quartet, written for Voxare, was one of the first works that we learned, and since that time he’s remained a close friend of the quartet.

Mark has a powerful and unique voice, and he understands how to write for Voxare; he makes full use of the quartet’s trademark performance style that features powerful and virtuosic playing, high-strung energy, and rich sound. The match between the composer’s compositional language and performer’s voice is astoundingly aligned. This album is Voxare’s first solo album, and we thought that Mark’s music was the perfect vehicle to display the quartet’s strengths while also presenting Mark’s music to a wide audience.

The music is utterly unique, and I think it will stand the test of time as important work. Furthermore, the subject matter of the album will be of interest to many listeners, and we anticipate that the album is going to be tremendously successful.

Q: How does string quartet playing differ from larger music, like that written for the orchestra? And what do you think sets the playing of the Voxare Quartet apart?

Peterson: String quartet playing is the most sublime activity in which one can participate. In an orchestra, string players (with brief exceptions of the principal players) are individually anonymous; the pleasure is derived from the mass of musicians moving as one. String quartets offer that same pleasure, but also a chance to shine individually; each voice matters. Playing in a string quartet makes me a better musician; I’ve learned to listen more intently, anticipate my colleagues’ movements, exude rhythm, and even breathe more musically.

Additionally, the string quartet has long inspired composers to write their best music. For example, in my opinion, the greatest music ever written are Beethoven’s late string quartets. His last compositions were personal utterances in which the quartet gave him voice. Playing in a quartet offers access to this incredibly rich body of repertoire.

Voxare plays with a unique energy that most classical musicians won’t approach; you can hear this energy at the end of Mark’s first quartet, and in the middle section of the second. I haven’t heard a string quartet that can produce the same sheer volume and richness of sound. Voxare isn’t, however, just a one-note ensemble; we pride ourselves on the intimately delicate and beautiful sound with which we can play. For example, listen to the second movement of the first quartet, or the final section of the second quartet.

Q: Tell us a little more about the history between you and Mark.

Peterson: As I said earlier, Mark and I were roommates while we were in school in Cleveland. It was a fortuitous pairing and during that time we became close friends. I was immediately drawn to Mark’s music, its unique rawness and its ability to unfold patiently over time. He was present at the birth of the quartet (and even helped with the naming).

If I had to compare Mark’s music to that of another composer, I would say that it is a more romantic and more savage (aren’t these contradictions?) version of Shostakovich; it possesses the relentless energy so particular to Shostakovich, and yet it is voiced in a way that a late-Romantic richness emerges. This dichotomy is all informed by Eastern-European Minimalism / Mysticism⏤Part, Tavener, Gorecki.

Q: Emily, you and Eric do a lot of work with music entrepreneurship. Can you tell us more about your current efforts?

Emily: Even before leaving Juilliard, I was very aware of the concept of entrepreneurship in music and while working on my doctorate at Columbia and living through the challenge of creating a career in the classical music industry, my interest deepened into a 500 page dissertation focused on the topic of careers for the twenty-first century musician.

One of the main differences for musicians in the twenty-first century is the fact that their careers will be comprised of a multitude of “jobs” and they will most likely not have just one position and possibly never a salaried position. These circumstances require musicians to be able to do a multitude of things⏤teach, administrate, write, perform, run a business, plan events, etc.⏤not just play their instruments.

I myself work within several different areas of the classical music world: as Co-Artistic Director of the Crested Butte Music Festival, a 7-week, multi-genre festival; first violinist of a string quartet; and a professor at a university.

A favorite project of mine that directly addresses the issue of music entrepreneurship is Noted Endeavors, a video archive that is comprised of interviews with successful artists, administrators, publicists, and others connected to the arts. I co-founded Noted Endeavors with renowned flutist and author, Eugenia Zukerman, to discover the nitty-gritty details that have led to their success.

Q: In two sentences or less, why do you think that people should purchase this album?

Peterson: This album, because of its presentation and treatment of the important subject matter, has the potential to be one that is long remembered. And, although I’m biased, I believe that the playing, the music, and the recorded sound quality are among the very best one will ever encounter.

Learn more about Mark Nowakowski and his music at his website, and more about the Voxare string quartet at theirs.

Purchase their CD at Naxos.

Our review of this release is forthcoming, right here at CDN.

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