Riho Maimets & "Sanctus"
The moment we heard the opening notes of Sanctus by Riho Maimets, we were immediately taken to a world filled with mysticism and meditation. According to Riho, his quartet is "an exploration of mysticism and spirituality in its different forms." With this theme at the heart of his quartet, we came to know Riho's music. We found the mood of Sanctus to be quite fitting, especially as we were recording in a church in central London.
Sanctus is a quartet in five movements, and takes musical influences from a wide range of religious and ethnic musics, including Eastern Orthodox chant, Renaissance motets, and Yiddish song. Over the course of the competition, we received many compositions which used musical influences other than the "western classical music idiom" as their source of inspiration, particularly folk or ethnic influences. From such a wide field of international composers, it was fantastic to receive string quartets written in the style of Egyptian music, Irish donegal fiddling, Mexican music, American bluegrass, and Chinese music, for instance. Sanctus particularly struck us, not only for the way Riho successfully transferred folk and ethnic music into the genre of string quartet, but also for the overall mood of mysticism and spirituality he created.
For the recording, we chose to perform the second movement of Sanctus, which actually seems to be the least "mystical" of the movements in the quartet, instead reminding us of a spirited klezmer scratch band. After a mesmerising cello solo in the first movement (written in the style of Ashkenazim liturgical singing), the cello then leads into the second movement, starting with its 3/4 dance meter. Throughout the dance, short solo melodies pass between instruments, and we all get a chance to have our klezmer moment!
A composer of Estonian and Canadian background, Riho attended both the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre, and the University of Toronto Faculty of Music, where he currently studies under Christos Hatzis. Having taken lessons and masterclasses from Arvo Pärt, Krzysztof Penderecki, and R. Murray Schafer, he continues the exploration of mysticism in his music. He is the winner of the 2011 Karen Kieser Prize in Canadian Music.
Riho Maimets Q&A
Where are you from?
I was born in Toronto, Canada into an Estonian family. The Estonian language and culture were always dominant in our home, so I feel that answering your question with a simple "Toronto" would be giving only half the story.
What got you hooked on composition?
I grew up playing piano and violin. When I played the pieces then I was always more interested in what lay underneath the music - the composer, their historical time period, where they came from; the music and how it was created. I began composing music when I was around 15.
Who have been your biggest musical influences?
I suppose deep down inside I have always loved early music most of all - that's music that predates the Baroque. I love Renaissance polyphony, Gregorian Chant, the early polyphony of the Notre Dame School - Pérotin. I am now also getting more and more fascinated with monophonic melody. As is perhaps evident in Sanctus, I am also very partial to folk music traditions, including both my own Estonian roots as well as those from all over. Sanctus is one of the first pieces of mine that explores folk music through a spiritual/religious lens.
What are some of the advantages or challenges in writing for string quartet?
One of the biggest disadvantages in writing for string quartet is that the genre is so overwhelmingly saturated with repertoire. I suppose a composer who really wants to be original in this genre will find it challenging, although not impossible. There are definitely many advantages to composing for the string quartet. It is, for example, extremely practical. String quartets can be found all over the world and many of these are really quite amazing. If one is fortunate enough to write an outstanding piece, then I think it is possible for the work to spread like wildfire throughout the string quartet world. Compositionally speaking, the string quartet is very well balanced. There are slight timbral differendes in each instrument, but they also share a lot in common. I also like the ability to write polyphonically for each instrument. Double, triple and quadruple stops, string crossings and the use of harmonics are some of my favourites.
Anything else you wish to say about your piece "Sanctus"?
Sanctus is an exploration of the meaning of the word "holy." This is a very special word, which, I fear, has become obsolete for a great many people. I believe that one can find great happiness in worship and humility. This piece is not exactly liturgical, as what one might at first expect. It is just an exploration of the concept through different prisms.