Notes from Janàcek's Diary

Music Drama created at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1990

By Mike Steer

Notes from Janàcek's Diary is based on 7 extracts from the Czech composer's idiosyncratic jottings. These are often very terse and, like his music, reveal a genius for evoking vivid situations with the utmost economy.

Mike Steer wrote /composed /realised his experimental 'electronic audio production' for Radio 3 in 1989 based on these fragments, combining original electro-acoustic music with Janàcek's to highlight the dramatic situations.

  1. In The Inn at Harabis Janàcek evokes a memorable evening of gipsy music that inspired his celebrated Lachian Dances. For this Steer has transcribed of one Janàcek's pieces from On An Overgrown Path.
  2. In Smetana's Daughter he visits the composer's elderly daughter and, captivated by the musicality of her speech, notates it. Steer has used this as the starting point for a movement where the sounds are all made from sampled wine glasses.
  3. Birds reflects Janàcek's love of birdsong. Steer creates a movement for brass out of the opening bars of an unfinished piano piece. In the centre he plays a complete but previously unrecorded work of Janàcek's titled I'm Still Waiting.
  4. A Walk in Prague is noted in Janàcek's diary as the early morning of 5th January 1927, complete with the pitches of the street noises. They have been reproduced as nearly as possible - tho an authemtic 1927 Czech ambulance klaxon proved impossible to trace! At the begining and end come two melodies Janàcek heard in the street, and in the cathedral a snatch of the organ solo from his Glagolitic Mass.
  5. In For an apple? Janàcek gives vent to his outrage at the imprisonment of some Gipsy Children for stealing a single apple, and nostalgically remembers how as a chorister he had scrumped apples himself in the Monastery at Brno. The music springs from the girl's notated speech, and the pitch of the sounds that accompany her are created by a digitising the pitch contours of the Farmer's speech. The children's round, with Janàcek's own violin accompaniment completed by Steer, says 'we shall never be fortune's slaves'. During the episode in the Monastery Garden Steer plays a piano piece he wrote based on two three-bar fragments of Janàcek's.
  6. The Beginning of a Novel is an overheard fragment of conversation between 2 girls where the music derives again from the notated speech of one of them.
  7. A magical evocative soundworld in Forest Twilight. Here an unfinished melody for violin with piano accompaniment is extended by Steer. The melody forms the basis for the whole composition and is heard in a number of ways, including backwards, during the piece.

In realising these fragments as short scenes of 2-8 minutes duration, Mike Steer creates a series of images which extend the use of electronic audio production to subject matter not normally associated with this type of soundworld. Notes from Janàcek's Diary is an aural kaleidoscope of music, drama and pure sound in which Janàcek's musical phrases are used as figurative /representational elements in an otherwise abstract tapestry of original electro-music sounds, within which the spoken word is woven like a golden thread.

Janàcek as an old man is played by John Moffatt; as a young man by Stephen Garlick. Mezzo soprano Der Shin Hwang is Zophie Smetana and all other female parts. The gipsy children are Laura-Jane Rich, and Suzi & Serafina Steer, the violinist Wilfred Gibson. All keyboards are played by Mike Steer.

The production used 24 track post-production facilities specially assembled in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop on 41 days in August /September 1989. It extended existing techniques in music production to drama by linking the multi-track recorder via time-code to a computer-based MIDI sequencer controlling a variety of tone generators. This facet of the production was written up in a feature article in the Guardian by Claire Neasham at the time of transmission in 1991.

Thanks to producer John Theocharis and the cooperation of Brian Hodgson, Director of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, this was the first and only time an external writer /composer was able to undertake the technical realisation of a complete project.

Listen to clips buy the CD

Janacek has always featured strongly among my influences. In 1969 I produced a recording of his Zapisnik Zmizheleho – The Diary of One who Disappeared.

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