Xavier Bonfill, photo by Fei Nie
August 7, 2021
Interview w/ Xavier Bonfill
“YES FOR NO” – An interview with Xavier Bonfill

The composer Xavier Bonfill, gave us an insight into his remarkable work “YES FOR NO” for symphony orchestra, 3 soloists, live-electronics and light.

Xavier worked closely with the groundbreaking NEKO3 ensemble, to whom the piece is dedicated, and the work was premiered on the 5th of March 2020, right before Denmark went into lockdown due to the COVID-19 crisis.

One and a half year later, “YES FOR NO” is coming back on stage on August, 9 2021 at the UNM (Young Nordic Music) festival in Aarhus, Denmark.

"There’s no A-side without a B-side, there’s no party without a hangover."
“YES FOR NO”: how can we ‘de-code’ the title of the piece? How does the title reflect on the work or vice versa?

My process actually started with the title. So for me writing the piece was a way to “decode” or find out what it could potentially mean. I like to work with “self-imposed titles sometimes: it gives me a place to start, and it feels like something has been “given” to me and that I need to work from that.

The title itself comes from the lyrics of song by Radiohead called “Bodysnatchers”. The original line is: “blink your eyes: one for yes, two for no”. I just swapped those last words so that they would trigger my imagination in different ways and that led to titles for two completely different pieces: “one for two” (an older piece for two performers) and this one: “YES FOR NO”. I liked the idea of language being reduced to two opposing concepts: yes-no, 1-2. A simple binary principle, that, used in different combinations, can lead to a myriad of results.

As for my process: that idea led, for some reason, into bringing back the ghost of Ludwig Wittgenstein reincarnated in flashy, sport-stadium-like LEDs in order to solve our “post-truth” society problems, as well as thinking of rhythm and harmony as one single process in which one affects the other (after you, Karlheinz, after you…)

How do 2 percussionists, a pianist, a symphonic orchestra, electronics and a board of lights that form 3-letter abstract words come together?

A lot of my music deals with the idea of “translation” between different media, which appeals to me in a synaesthetical way but also in pointing at what is “lost in translation” (or gained, or changed).

I like to think of visuals as a “moving score” of sorts that allows me to share my process with the audience. In “YES FOR NO” I am quoting Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” in a way that’s challenging to read (to say the least), but that it still serves as a libretto or guideline throughout the piece. It also seems to me to be poetically Wittgenstein-like to deconstruct his own language atomically even further and to turn it into bursts of light and sound.

Musically, the relation between rhythm and pitch as a unified “frequency” parameter is represented in NEKO3’s instrumentation (1 pianist, 2 percussionists) since they navigate around the threshold between pitched and unpitched sounds.

The orchestra embodies different materials I started the piece from electronically (from some inside-playing piano samples I took of Fei Nie from NEKO3). Those samples are also, after some chopping and processing, presented in the piece and juxtaposed to their orchestrated counterparts.

Finally, the live-electronics (live processing of the orchestra sound by the soloists) underline the idea of a “concerto” as a feedback loop between the soloists and the orchestra more than an imposition from the former to the latter.

We can recognise multiple genres and exciting artistic sources in the work. What’s the overall artistic language you built for “YES FOR NO”?

Maybe it was because I was given the opportunity to work with this larger format, but I felt that it made sense to try to collect different sides of myself into one single piece. The title “YES FOR NO” suggests contradiction but it also suggests duality, so I wanted to embrace that in the musical material and in the form of the piece. There’s no A-side without a B-side, there’s no party without a hangover.

How was the experience of creating such a project and working closely together with NEKO3 ensemble?

NEKO3 are not only some of my favourite musicians but also some of my favourite people and closest friends. We worked together in many occasions (with them as a group or individually) and sometimes I need to pinch myself to remind me how extremely precious it is to find such talented, open-minded, and overall fun-to-be-around individuals and musicians.

“YES FOR NO” came to be as part of my studies at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, which holds a biannual collaboration with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, allowing composition students in the “Soloist Class” (an advanced postgraduate program) to write a piece for them. Being able to write for such an institution was of course a great opportunity, and a big privilege and honour, but I soon realised that I needed to take some homies with me to crash the party in style. I think I made the right choice.

"Our digital identities became our real identities and the physical world turned into this awkward thing we still need to deal with because we still have arms and legs and we need to breathe and eat and stuff."
The piece was premiered right before COVID-19 virus and restrictions brutally entered our lives, and it will be presented 1,5 year later (on the 9th of August at the UNM - Young Nordic Music festival in Aarhus, Denmark) when ‘normality’ seems to return in our cultural lives and not only. How were you/are you experiencing these changes in relation to your work?

It is of course fantastic news that the cultural life as we knew it seems to be on the way back and that we can do this piece again. The performance on the 9th of August at the UNM festival will be for a new “reduced” version for Large Ensemble (25 musicians) instead of full Symphony Orchestra. I hope that this brings more chances that the piece can be played again in the future. And I’m really looking forward to working with the Aarhus Sinfonietta, the conductor Tom Goff, and of course Kalle, Fei and Lorenzo playing with them. It’s gonna be a blast.

I remember the night of the premiere. It was the 5th of March 2020. COVID-19 was all over the news but everything seemed still pretty vague. We had around 80 people on stage and another 500-600 in the audience. It feels unreal to think about it now. I remember going up on stage hugging the NEKOs, shaking hands with the concertino and doing my first public “elbow shake” with conductor Jessica Cottis. Things were changing fast and everyone was following the news at a different pace and in a different way.

Exactly one week later, Denmark went into full lockdown. Still now I can’t stop thinking how lucky we were to be able to get this done just before it happened. Lockdown felt very strange. I had some kind of “vision” on that very first day. “Today the future starts”, I thought. As in we now were living in the future. That abstract idea had somehow materialised, and it struck me in how disappointingly dull it was. Like, that concept (the future) that had fascinated me all my life meant in fact that everything is basically the same but we have all this relatively amazing technology to do virtual meetings and send cat videos and stuff to each other but we cannot be in the same room because there’s this deadly disease we know so little about. Our digital identities became our real identities and the physical world turned into this awkward thing we still need to deal with because we still have arms and legs and we need to breathe and eat and stuff.

Wait, maybe it is not so boring after all. It is all perhaps a matter of perspective. I guess the future is more interesting as an Orwell or Huxley novel than some reality to actually live in. It seems like, again, the book was better than the film.

NEKO3 @Pulsar 2020 Copenhagen, ‘YES FOR NO’ by Xavier Bonfill, with Conductor Jessica Cottis Danish National Symphony Orchestra. ©Britt Lindemann

Watch “YES FOR NO” by Xavier Bonfill with NEKO3 and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jessica Cottis: https://vimeo.com/402838816

Xavier Bonfill’s Website: http://xavierbonfill.com/index.html