Portrait of Elisabeth Chojnacka and Jan Martens_ Photographer Luis Xertu
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About Elisabeth Chojnacka

“I came to music with the sensibility of a woman born in the twentieth century, and I cannot reproduce the sensibility of people living in the sixteenth, seventeenth or eighteenth century without denying my own.” Elisabeth Chojnacka, interview with Rosita Boisseau, Le Monde, 14/05/11 (own translation)

Chojnacka studied music and harpsichord in Warsaw and continued her education in Paris, where she arrived in 1962. At the time of the student protests in 1968 she got introduced to avant-garde composers such as François-Bernard Mâche, and she discovered – and began to play – the very few contemporary works for harpsichord. They were at that time little known and rarely performed. Partly because of her talent and perseverance a lot of contemporary composers started to write works for the harpsichord in the seventies and eighties. The works were often dedicated to Chojnacka; and also performed for the first time by her.

A lot of these contemporary works by for example Ligeti, Xenakis, Ferrari, Berio and Halffter were recorded on albums like CLAVECIN 2000 (1971), Le clavecin d’aujourd’hui (1977), and Le Nouveau Clavecin (1980).

Next to these contemporary works she also recorded music written centuries ago, as on Danses et Musiques de la Pologne Ancienne (1975) and L’avant-garde du passé (1982).

During the nineties she was musical advisor of Lucinda Childs Dance Company for 5 years and toured with the company. She introduced the work of European composers to Lucinda Childs who had until then mostly worked on silence or on the work of American composers.

Throughout the years Chojnacka had been continuously looking for new horizons for the clavichord, drifting sometimes to rock or jazz, and resulting in concept albums such as PLUS QUE TANGO (1995), an album full of tangos on harpsichord, and an album for which she arranged the Ragtime music of Scott Joplin (1994).

Elisabeth Chojnacka toured incessantly from 1968 till 2012, until she couldn’t perform anymore. In the last years of her life she suffered from a degenerative brain disease, which led to her death in 2017.

The originality of her repertoire and her playing of both baroque and contemporary music is recognised by critics world wide, along with her “almost miraculous sense of rhythm”, her sensitivity and her “prodigiously insolent virtuosity”.

Why Elisabeth Chojnacka?

“I like to grasp the necessity of this or that music, the filiation or the fraternity of soul, which links the gesture and the score in a choreographic performance.”
Elisabeth Chojnacka, interview with Rosita Boisseau, Le Monde, 14/05/11 (own translation)

I’ve got to know the work of Chojnacka through the research of my latest group work, to be premiered in the spring of 2021. In this work for 17 performers there is one musical composition which comes back a few times in the work: Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings by the Polish composer Henryk Gorecki. There have been made many recordings of this work, but I chose the one performed by Elisabeth Chojnacka and the London Sinfonietta.

Here is a video from the premiere of the work, it is also the most high quality video footage from Chojnacka playing that I could find up till now:

There are a few things which make me connect to her:
She is considered a master of rhythm and in her hands the harpsichord sometimes sounds more as a percussion instrument than as a keyboard instrument. Me, as a dancer, I love rhythm. I love the complexity of rhythms, the mathematics of it, when dancing I always tend to follow the rhythm, never the melody. Rhythm offers space for repetition, minimalism, trance.

Also she takes her instrument and art very seriously, but doesn’t shy away of coloring outside the lines of what is expected of the instrument and of her as a well respected musician.

In her 2008 book Le Clavecin autrement she writes about the close collaborations she had with her composers. In this book you get a sense of who she was, not only as an artist, but also as a human. She writes in a very straightforward and often cheeky or humorous way, at the same time giving an insight in her work process and what she likes and doesn’t.

“…, when I received the score of the Concerto, I couldn’t believe my eyes. “That’s it?” I thought. Whereas I was used to the complex writing and problems of Xénakis, Ligeti, and others, I was faced with writing that rehabilitates tonality and is simple, simple, simple… I was disconcerted, not to say discomfited, but it was also enjoyable. I rediscovered the pleasure of playing a “simple” score, which did not present any particular difficulty, which did not oblige me, once again, to technically and intellectually solve new playing problems. My disappointment at this proof of abandoning the search for a new language was real, but I had rediscovered the pleasure of simplicity. Görecki, in front of whom I used the word ‘simple’ when describing his Concerto, was furious and cried out, pressing the words: ‘SIMPLE? It’s SIMPLE?!” (own translation)

In her book she also explains how avant-garde music was new to her, she always studied the baroque music, and really had to learn to appreciate the complexity and different musicality of the works that were written in her time.

I am experiencing a similar process myself right now. In my work I have always stayed far away from classical music, not to mention contemporary or avant-garde music, but through diving into her world and studying the scores I really start to appreciate the music.  In that sense I hope that this performance can also open up a lot of my audience towards music that is often considered “difficult”.

2021 is also the 50th anniversary of her first album being released: Clavecin 2000, the first album of contemporary music for harpsichord ever. It was a record that set Chojnacka’s name as the greatest living contemporary harpsichord palyer, and which had ground breaking recordings of Ligeti’s Continuum (1968) and Berio’s Rounds (1965) on it. It was published in the prestigious Prospective 21ième Siècle at Philips, a series started in 1967 for electroacoustic and avant-garde music. A note on the album said: PLAY LOUD AND IN TOTAL DARKNESS.

Last but not least I find the notion of “muse” very interesting. It has been since 2014 I have been creating work for myself on my own, and big group creations have nourished my thinking about the relationship between creator and interpreter.

Chojnacka calls the composers that have written for her often “my composers” which I find in itself a statement. It is the opposite of me thinking of “my dancers”. Even though she can be considered as a muse for the composers, I have the feeling she thinks of it differently: her composers inspire her to make her own art better. She makes of the act of interpreting a creating action: the composers are a tool that inspire her to develop new techniques, new ways of solving problems.

The piece

This piece will be a danced portrait of Elisabeth Chojnacka.

I made a very diverse selection of the music that she has recorded during the 50 years of her career. During these music pieces I want to relate 1 on 1 as much as possible. The complexity of some of the compositions is insane, but it is my ambition to stay close to the scores, to play my body as she played the harpsichord.
I find it comforting to go back to dancing ON the music in these times where a lot of us are reminiscing about “how things were” before this health and social crisis.

I want to travel through different movement styles, as she changed music styles effortless, spanning centuries of music history.

There are yet 4 pieces of music I decided to use in the performance:

  • Tango For Tim. Michael Nyman. 1994.
  • Phrygian Tucket. Stephen Montague. 1995.
  • Continuum. György Ligeti. 1968.
  • Uppon La Mi Ré. Anonymous. 16th century.

My last creations were often paired with a booklet that contextualized the performance, but for this particular performance I want the contextualization to be in the performance itself. All the music pieces will be inserted into an audio documentary, which explains more about the works and about Chojancka’s live and has excerpts of interviews that we will have with people that were close to her.

For this audio documentary part of the performance I will be collaborating with Yanna Soentjens, a sound engineer for film and documentary, with who I have collaborated before during the creation of THE COMMON PEOPLE (2016).

For this audio documentary side of the performance, I still need to do a lot of work. I’ve been able to listen to all of her 13 records, but a lot of the pieces that have been written for her, don’t have an official recording. In february 2021 I want to visit the Centre de Documentation de la Musique Contemporaine in the Parc de La Villette, and also the IRCAM (Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music) at Pompidou, both in Paris, who both have a lot of other recordings in their possession.

Also I want to interview people who were close to her. I have started with Régis Mitonneau, he was the sound engineer that toured with her from 2000 till her last concerts in 2012. He directed me to composers who are still alive, wrote music for Chojnacka and were close to her, such as François-Bernard Mâche and Graciane Finzi.


Score of Continuum. 1968. Ligeti.

Ligeti on the recording of Elisabeth Chojnacka of his Continuum:

“I love the tiny fragments of ash in Elisabeth’s playing. This seemingly mechanical piece does not call for the studio’s maniacal precision but rather the fire of life.” (own translation)

Elisabeth Chojnacka asked about baroque esthetics in 2011 by Wojciech Sitarz for Musica Electronica Nova:

“I assume they are masterpieces, but I do not feel them. And you should play only that which you really feel and like. The audience will immediately notice that the performer does not feel really good in a certain repertoire. I do not play Couperin very often, because I feel this music is not for me. Once, when I told someone about it, he was shocked: what sort of a harpsichordist are you?! So I replied that I would not call myself a harpsichordist at all. At the beginning of the 20th century there was a revolution in every aspect of art. Machines created a new pace of life. I am a product of the 20th century, not the 17th or the 18th. I was born in the 20th century; I smoke, drive a car and travel by plane. I can’t live as in baroque times, where the pace of life was different. I admire those who can play early music. However, when many people talk about authenticity of the performance, I ask: What kind of authenticity? I am authentic. After all they do not know the composer. They cannot call him and ask him how to play – but they can ask me.”

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