Composer Dan Dediu, Ștefan Niculescu’s student
Does the house at 4 Sublocotenent Stăniloiu Street still belong to the Niculescu family?
No, it was sold, as far as I know, and I don’t know who bought it. One Sunday during the lockdown we went for a walk around our block of flats, and I just thought, why don’t we go to maestro Niculescu’s house and see how it does. We were in the neighbourhood, so we walked, and I was very happy, especially as I had known that house for so long, to see that somebody had bought it and that it looks just fine. Maestro Niculescu and Coca Niculescu had no children, and the house was taken care of, after they died, by composer Nicolae Teodoreanu and his wife Ioana, who are also childless. Nicolae Teodoreanu died suddenly a couple of years ago, and I had no idea what became of the house since. So, while I don’t know who bought it, they sure do take very good care of it.
How do you remember the ambiance there?
There was a living room, not very large, just as you walked in, with a bookcase with books on art. It was where we chatted when I just dropped by, so not on an “official visit” to show him my work or to play it for him on the piano. The living room was divided into two parts, the second one fitted with a table. It could accommodate around six people, so it wasn’t very large. Then there was a back kitchen, and a spiral marble staircase leading to the first floor with a small kitchen, property of Mrs Coca Niculescu’s three cats. Also, two tiny bedrooms and maestro Niculescu’s study, where he received us when we came to show him some work or to listen to some music.
In the 1980s we the maestro’s students would meet there about once every two weeks, on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, around 5 o’clock: George Balint, Nicolae Teodoreanu, Adrian Nichiteanu, who emigrated to Switzerland, myself, and one or two composition students. Éditions Salabert sent maestro Niculescu scores, tapes and CDs, which was something completely new, we would listen to the latest works of [Iannis] Xenakis, [Georges] Aperghis, [Karlheinz] Stockhausen, and we would talk for hours until late at night, until eleven o’clock or midnight. There was nothing on TV, there was no Internet… his house was an extraordinary oasis of culture. Maestro Niculescu’s study was rather large, about 7×2, with a huge bookcase, the wall was entirely covered in books. He had second bookcase, a sort of closet, where he kept his books in French – he was a great Francophile. He also had an upright piano, and devices which at that time seemed to us the latest in technology – a Korg synthesiser on which he generated certain timbres, as for instance in his Echos for violin and synthesiser, and on which he would show us how to create, using six electronic generators, a more interesting timbre, instrumental or human. It was quite the intellectual ambiance, and there were always scores, the scores he worked on, on his desk.
Maestro Niculescu also had a chess clock, the one composed of two adjacent clocks and buttons on which each player presses to keep track of time after making a move. I asked him why he kept it there, and he told me this extraordinary thing: “When the phone rings or when I interrupt my work, I press this button, the clock stops, and so I know for how long I worked that day. I want to work at least three hours each day on my scores”. The clock thus helped him stick to his program no matter the interruptions, it was a real time tracking machine. Each day he wrote for three hours, and I took this habit myself – without that special clock. But, as luck would have it, it followed me! I have it from Nucu [Nicolae] Teodoreanu. After Coca Niculescu’s death they gave away all their books. Part of them went to the Library of the Romanian Academy, part of them, to the library of the National University of Music in Bucharest. Nucu Teodoreanu called me and said I could help myself to whatever I wanted, whatever I found useful. I didn’t take too much, I’d rather he donated it, but I did want the chess clock, as a sort of relic.
I understand that this was maestro Niculescu’s working routine: to write for three hours, not necessarily consecutive, every day.
Yes. It could be composing, copying parts, transcribing some score or arranging another, simply making some calculations, playing with various modes, transpositions… An assortment of notebooks survived with drafts of different motifs, rhythmic series even. So he would work on all this, it was a laboratory in which he generated compositional material on a daily basis. He had probably learned this from his maestro, from [composer Mihail] Andricu, but there is this tradition among composers, going back to Stravinsky, Schoenberg, who had this extraordinary discipline too, to write, to maintain contact with the sound matter every day. In my turn I took this habit from maestro Niculescu, I still have this routine, and I teach my students to do the same.
Do you know who his other guests were, musicians or otherwise?
In the 1970s many composers met at maestro Niculescu’s. Being childless, he had a fatherly attitude not only towards his students, but towards his colleagues too. I recall him inviting former students, and there were extraordinary talks with [composers] Anatol Vieru, Nicolae Coman, Cornel Țăranu, [Tiberiu] Olah, Adrian Iorgulescu, Călin Ioachimescu… in addition to our group. At one point Valentina Sandu joined us, and one or two other musicologists. That was now towards the end of the 1980s. Maestro Niculescu’s reception room was like a musical salon, but all sorts of matters were discussed – for instance, he first lent us a volume of the Philokalia, and then we read them all, we borrowed them, took notes, they weren’t available at that time, but maestro Niculescu had them. And it wasn’t just this – my first book on yoga, my first book on the Jesus prayer… He read everything from philosophy to theology, from semiotics to mathematics, he was also a construction engineer, he went to the Polytechnic University.
So, I do believe that there was an incredible intellectual effervescence there. It was good for us, because it raised our standards, and maestro Niculescu was our role model, a worthy role model because of his clarity of thought, of the way he expressed himself, and of his superior mind.
About the topics discussed and the books read – would you say that there was an anti-regime feel to those meetings? Many of those subjects were forbidden at the time…
Of course it was. It was an oasis of normalcy – those talks about theology, yoga, North-Indian ragas… it was from maestro Niculescu that I first read Alain Daniélou’s Sémantique musicale, then his book on ragas. But to understand ragas you need to know about the Upanishads, the Vedas, which maestro Niculescu delivered in French – and this is how I improved my French. Indeed, we talked about things absent or forbidden in the public discourse. But we didn’t do it as dissidents, but just out of thirst for knowledge. Nowadays, thirty years after the Revolution of 1989, this is hard to understand, and in today’s ocean of information, where everything is within reach, sometimes you don’t even feel like reading or looking for anything at all, you drown in all the information out there. But thirty-five years ago, there was no information to be had, there was nowhere you could get it. If you went, as I did, to the Central State Library, and asked for a book by René Guénon, you were told it wasn’t available. There were certain books they wouldn’t lend. I once asked, at the music branch in Amzei Square, for the full score of Wozzeck. Well, they brought me the reduction, and some two weeks later, the tape and a tape recorder. The tape was torn here and there, it was quite an adventure, but I didn’t give up. That’s how you could get your hands of some information back then – now, you want Wozzeck, you go on YouTube, you click and you listen to it – score and no score, in different versions… To resume, I would say that maestro Niculescu’s composition circle shaped us as both intellectuals and musicians.
Was it like a regular composition class, or was it a free discussion class?
It was a free discussion class. We would listen to one, two, three works, and afterwards we would ask the maestro: “why did the composer write that particular note there?”, or “don’t you think it’s rather too long?”, we all offered our opinions. Well, being young, I myself didn’t dare open my mouth as much, but Balint, Nucu Teodoreanu talked, I would add a thought or two once in a while… We would sometimes disagree with one another, the maestro would explain and reason, would read us from a book, would then say “but wait, do you know that other work of Stockhausen’s? Let’s listen to that one too”. And one thing led to another, it was like an open school, it wasn’t a class during which the maestro would talk and we would take notes. We were so keen to learn, and he inspired us… He would say “see, this thing here hasn’t been done before” or “here’s something we could use too, this type of writing, but be careful, it’s not fit for an orchestral work, where such notations are more difficult to make and there’ll be no coordination between instruments, but in chamber music you can experiment with graphic musical notation” – and so on and so forth, it was just to give you an example. And then Balint would take the floor, or myself, about some piece we were writing. I had the privilege to hear Aurel Stroe, or Anatol Vieru, whom I would visit, and who told us about whatever symphony he was working on. And they did it in such a friendly manner – we were students, they were the great masters, and they shared everything with us – what they were working on, how they did it, they showed us the scores…
You said maestro Niculescu received CDs from Éditions Salabert. How did he manage to keep in touch with the French publisher [in those times]?
Well, it was Costin Miereanu, now a French citizen, who was the artistic director when they opened, in the 1970s, and who convinced the reading committee that there were some Romanian composers who deserved to be published and made known. They chose ten composers, five from inside and five from outside Romania, to promote and publish. Those from Romania were Niculescu, Stroe, Vieru, Țăranu and Olah, those living abroad were Miereanu, Marius Constant, Alexandru Hrisanide, Costin Cazaban and Mihai Mitrea Celarianu. So, because they had works published both by Salabert and by Editura Muzicală [in Bucharest] – all of them had to sign, on the contract with Salabert contract, sauf Roumanie – the contact was maintained, and they received scores and CDs from them.
Were there other kinds of music played at maestro Niculescu’s?
To my knowledge he only listened to the so-called art music. They would also listen – they would pass them around, Aurel Stroe, Vieru, Olah – to various recordings of music from the Far East. Maestro Niculescu had cassette recordings of Tibetan cult music, of Javanese and Balinese gamelans, or choral music from Albania, which is very interesting, for four voices, with some parallel mixtures. Stuff that in fact was their research tank for their own music – at all times, all their lives, these people thought of nothing but their music. I never heard Olah for instance, a musical phenomenon, talk about anything else than music. Mrs Niculescu of course “listened” to the TV, as during that period there was nothing to watch, really. They had a video player, she liked kung-fu movies, she would watch them morning, noon and night. Again, to resume, there were of course the classes at the Conservatoire, but on Saturdays or Sundays – I was quite industrious, I wrote quite a lot – I would come by to show him my work, and then I would stay for a chat, for a coffee, for a cigarette or for a Bruce Lee movie with Mrs Niculescu… That sort of things.
Interview by Petre Fugaciu