Swedish composer Tebogo Monnakgotla speaks to The Strad about how she went about writing her new concerto, which depicts the migration system of dragonflies across the Indian Ocean


Photo: Nicklas Thegerström

Violinist Johan Dalene and composer Tebogo Monnakgotla

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Ahead of the 8 December UK premiere of her violin concerto Globe Skimmer Surfing the Somali Jet, written for Swedish violinist Johan Dalene, Swedish composer Tebogo Monnakgotla talks to The Strad about how she created a work based on the migration of dragonflies. The work follows the journey of one globe skimmer dragonfly in its epic travels from India to Africa and back, encountering monsoons and fierce winds, such as the Somali Jet cross-equatorial wind system, along the way.

What is the inspiration behind the Concerto?

Usually when I write a piece I get a picture in my head, and I had these lines on the violin that I wanted to write. And they reminded me of a dragonfly. So I looked at poetry about dragonflies and did more research on them, and came across a marine biologist’s scientific paper on the migration of dragonflies. He found out they came from the North of India and when it became dry, they follow the clouds cross the Indian Ocean to migrate to Africa. They first stop in the Maldives or Seychelles, where there are the monsoons, and stay for weeks. And when it rains, they breed and the new dragonflies follow the clouds to the next place, and so on. And the fourth generation finally return to India, helped by the Somali Jet. I thought it was fascinating.

How does this all fit into the Concerto?

The solo violin’s part is like you’re zooming in on one dragonfly on this trip and the orchestra is the monsoon, the clouds, the evaporated water – everything that surrounds the dragonfly. There are five parts, firstly the Prologue, where the dragonflies ascend from in India. Then in the first movement, they are surfing the monsoon. When they finally land somewhere on freshwater and have more breathing space, that is the second movement. And the third movement represents the Somali Jet that brings them back to India. Then there is an Epilogue once they have come back home. It is similar to the second movement because they are still, but this time they are back home. It is called ‘Reminiscence of a home’ because although they are home, these specific dragonflies haven’t been there before, as they’re the fourth generation.

How does this imagery translate into music?

I had this picture in my head that I wanted it to be still but moving nevertheless. So at first the music is quite still, but the dragonflies are flying up and down in the same place. And when they start to travel, the music becomes much more flowing and richer, and you can feel the pulse. The first movement you really feel like it’s a journey. And by the time you reach the second movement, it’s all very still, with the clouds and rain. I worked really hard to make this image in my head a reality. Every morning for two weeks I threw everything away and started over. But after two weeks I thought, ‘now I have something to work with,’ and I found the core of that movement.

Tell me about the third movement, which depicts the Somali Jet.

It’s quite fun music and very fast moving. I had this picture in my head of the dragonflies being swept away, almost like a cartoonish picture in my head. So the music also flirts a bit with old Hollywood-style cartoon music, like Tom and Jerry, which was often based on twelve-tone music.

Are the movements quite varied stylistically?

The music varies but the whole piece is in the same universe stylistically. It is very translucent. The violin part flutters a lot, like when you see a dragonfly flying around very quickly. So there’s a lot of trills and it’s very high but lyrical. And in the orchestra, I wanted to create the feeling of a trip, with the monsoons and everything else. It ends up being translucent in an impressionistic way. There’s a lot of shimmering in the strings. I think that’s another reason why I love listening to the music of the Hollywood cartoons – they had all these effects in the instrumentation. They were really skilled composers. I try to create a tool box of what kind of sounds the instruments can make. For example, the strings can have ‘cold’ sounds by playing sul ponticello or harmonics. Or the percussion can have warmer sounds but using a lot of wood. It’s about using all the possibilities that the instruments have.

How has it been working with Johan and how did the world premiere of the piece go in Stockholm?

I was very happy. He performed it all of it (it is 25 minutes) by memory – I’ve never seen anyone do that with a contemporary concerto! I had written a solo piece for him a few years ago and he also played it by memory. He’s really one of a kind. And it’s fantastic to collaborate with him. You don’t have to say anything because he’s so musically intelligent. Everything is so alive, with phrasing and colour. It’s like he breathes music.

The UK premiere will take place on 8 December at the Barbican Centre in London, UK

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