A chat with Adelaide composer Jakub Jankowski

His music will be performed at the Musica Viva Festival


We would like to welcome Chloe in her first story as a CutCommon contributor.


Meet Jakub Jankowski, a young Adelaide composer. He is one of the contributing artists to the Musica Viva Festival, which kicks off in Sydney on 20 April. Jakub has written a String Octet to be presented by Sydney’s Goldner String Quartet and Britain’s Elias Quartet.

So far, his music has been performed across an impressive range of global events – the Adelaide International Cello Festival, the Sacrarium International Composers’ Forum in Lviv, Ukraine, and the London International Mime Festival, to name a few.

In light of Jakub’s rehearsals with the octet musicians, we had the opportunity to ask a few questions about the work and his experiences and perspectives as a composer.


How did this commission for Musica Viva come about? 

Carl Vine AO accidentally discovered some of my music at a time when he was looking for an Australian composer to write a new string octet as part of the 2017 Musica Viva Festival. After finding out that I was a cellist and after hearing my previous musical works written for strings, he invited me to write a new octet to replace Mendelssohn’s Octet in E flat Op. 20 to close the festival. I am very grateful to Carl and to the Musica Viva team for their incredible support, and to the Australian Executor Trustees Community Program for generously commissioning the work.

What inspired your octet? Talks us through your compositional process.

My String Octet is in five movements and was inspired by a variety of musical and non-musical ideas. Because my challenge was to replace the Mendelssohn octet, I wanted to pay homage to the work without referencing it explicitly. I eventually found a connection through Goethe’s Faust. Allegedly, the scherzo movement from Mendelssohn’s octet was inspired by the closing couplets from a section of Goethe’s play titled Walpurgis Night’s Dream. Naturally, I wanted to write my own Faustian scherzo movement as a response – however, unlike Mendelssohn, I drew my inspiration from the previous scene in the story: Walpurgis Night.

The scene features a wild, fantastical, infernal party, so to speak, in the Harz mountains of central Germany. I wanted to depict the scene programmatically, but without resorting to a tone-poem treatment of the material. I achieved this by getting the players to speak excerpts from the text aloud in performance – starring Dene Olding as Faust and Julian Smiles as Mephistopheles. As a result, the music enhances the text and vice-versa.

My inspiration for the remaining movements wasn’t as specific. I happened to read many of Carl Jung’s writings about the individuation process as I worked on the octet, which influenced in part the structural ideas behind the first movement Syzygy. The rest of the piece revealed itself as I continued to work on it.

There are two interludes: a dance – of a seemingly Balkan origin, and a chorale – which features an exploration of different string harmonics. Given the nocturnal and demonic character of the central Walpurgis Night movement, the music naturally gravitated towards the incredibly bright final Daybreak movement.

How much has your own experience in ensemble playing informed your work?

In many ways, my background as a cellist and my experience in playing chamber music in string ensembles (quartets, quintets, octets) allows me to write chamber music for strings from an insider’s perspective. Getting to know the masterworks of the string repertoire not from the score, but by playing them, is a great privilege. When I write music for chamber ensembles, I’m able to imagine the music as the players would. This, in turn, shapes the musical gestures I use and ensemble effects I employ.

I’ve been very fortunate to be able to play in a student quartet – the Maple String Quartet – which three of my friends and I founded while we were studying at the Elder Conservatorium. I’ve come to view my varied musical experiences with the quartet as incredibly important in shaping the composer I am today. 

Tell us about the artists involved – the Elias Quartet and the Goldner String Quartet.

It is a dream come true for any composer to write for musicians of such a calibre as the Elias Quartet and the Goldner String Quartet. The Elias Quartet is one of Britain’s leading string quartets and was founded in Manchester. The players have a very diverse background and interests ranging from historical performance practice to folk music and jazz improvisation, which makes for their very rich and dynamic sound. The Goldner String Quartet [players] are truly Australian musical legends. The quartet is made up of some of Australia’s leading string players and it is a great honour to be able to join the ranks of the many Australian composers who have written music for the group. I’m incredibly privileged to have my music performed by these two stellar quartets. 

What excites you most about new music?

I believe we are fortunate to authentically engage with a new work that emerges from our own era, and listen to it within the context of the spirit of our times. For instance, our understanding of Beethoven’s musical techniques and innovations is taken for granted, but we will never be able to hear his music as truly new, or identify with it to the same degree as Beethoven’s audience.

Are there any concerns you have for the future of new music, particularly in Australia?

I can’t say I have any specific concerns for the future of new music either globally or in Australia, as I believe every individual composer is responsible for keeping new music alive – so to speak. It is of great importance, however, to keep nurturing young composers and carry on supporting music organisations such as Musica Viva, which continue to provide Australian music to large audiences around the country. I like to believe that as long as there is music, trained musicians, and composers writing with artistic integrity, there will always be listeners and a need for new music.

Tell us about what you’re currently working on.

I’m currently working on a cello sonata for the German/French cellist Nicolas Altstaedt and Serbian pianist Aleksandar Madžar. It will be performed as part of their International Concert Season tour for Musica Viva in September this year. I’m incredibly excited to write for and work with these world-renowned musicians. 

What advice can you give other young composers beginning to showcase their work? 

Keep writing and take any opportunity you can to get your music performed. An attitude of openness and curiosity is indispensable. Always be prepared to learn – I’ve found that a lot of my best advice was from digressions, side notes and offhand remarks by players, teachers and fellow students.


The world premiere of Jakub’s String Octet will be performed for the Musica Viva Festival at Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium, 4.30pm April 23. You can find tickets to the concert here, and more information about the festival here.


Image supplied, courtesy Musica Viva.

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