9 Apr 2018

Music of Today: Vito Žuraj


9 Apr


This April, the Philharmonia Orchestra presents the first major UK showcase of Slovenian composer Vito Žuraj. Watch the free performance on Sunday 15 April at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, conducted by Joana Mallwitz. In this post, Tim Rutherford-Johnson introduces the music and the composer's love of tennis.

It’s not often we know much about a composer’s hobbies. But in the case of the Slovenian Vito Žuraj, it is well known that he is a keen tennis player. Keen enough, in fact, for aspects of the game to have made their way into many of his titles. From these he extracts images of force and tension that either relate to the physics of the game itself (Crosscourt, 2008; Top Spin, 2011) or moments in its gameplay (Deuce, 2008; Changeover, 2011), which he then explores in his music.

By its title, Aftertouch might at first seem to belong to this group. Except of course that once you have struck a tennis ball it is no longer under your control: there is no ‘aftertouch’ here. Rather, the term derives from electronic music and a different application of physical action and control. It refers to the act of depressing the keys on a MIDI keyboard a little further after they have been initially struck. This sends a second electronic signal that can be used to alter the initial sound in some way. Often this is just an addition of vibrato or similar expressive effect, but in practice any alteration, from a change in pitch to a complete transformation of timbre, can be programmed.

Joana Mallwitz, conductor

There are no electronics in Žuraj’s piece, but nevertheless a striking attention to sonic detail. His ensemble is geared towards extremes of high and low registers, with many swift exchanges from one to the other. The piano’s strings are muffled with cloth and rubber to produce a sound that ranges from small gongs to dull pizzicatos, and the marimba is likewise played with ‘dead’ (that is, non-resonating) strokes. It is at first, then, an ensemble with few sustained sounds. This evolves progressively, however, as though an ‘aftertouch’ effect were being applied to the whole group, and the dry flurries of the start morph into a queasily wobbling chorale.

In Ubuquity, Žuraj's serious figure of fun is King Ubu, the central character of Alfred Jarry’s proto-modernist, proto-surrealist drama Ubu Roi of 1896. A parody of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, King Ubu is a murderous, gluttonous grotesque who begins the play by killing the King of Poland, followed by many of his subjects. Žuraj’s ‘farces’ for soprano and instrumental groups take the perspective of his scheming and treacherous wife as she describes and then kills four figures (an Italian lady on a sinking ship, a Russian womanizer, a Spanish Humpty Dumpty, and Ubu himself) who are between them guilty of five sins: self-pity, egomania, carnality, and cowardice and brutality. Žuraj’s expressionistic score follows Madame Ubu’s madcap tour of human baseness with an appropriate level of distaste and ironic detachment, incorporating subtle musical quotations along the way – this last a nod to Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s collage piece Musique pour les soupers du Ubu Roi; its composer is one of three artists executed by Ubu in the work’s final scene for their ‘impertinent’ poverty and lack of fame.

© Tim Rutherford-Johnson

Tim Rutherford-Johnson is author of Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 (University of California Press) and editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Music, 6th edition. He blogs about contemporary music at: