Hard questions, unanswered questions: An interview with Peter Clark

© LUCERNE FESTIVAL Kupka's Piano has the great fortune of having Brisbane musician Peter Clark as both its resident conductor and one of its resident composers. In our upcoming concert 'Giants behind us' we will give the world premiere of his two new works In lines, in time nos. I and II. A long-time musical and theoretical sparring partner of Peter's, Liam Flenady sits down with him to find out what his music is all about.

Liam Flenady: You came to composing after pursuing a number of instruments in various styles. What made you decide to become a composer? Was it a curiosity thing, or were you totally convinced from the start?

Peter Clark: Yes, I'm sure that curiosity was the kicker. I have always wanted to know how things work, and composing is in part a practice of pulling apart and putting together.

LF: What do you think about when you sit down to write a piece? Is it purely technical or sonic, or are there bigger issues you’re trying to deal with?

PC: I think about the technical and sonic; there are always bigger issues as well! I start with a sonic idea - in most cases this is simply a way (among many) in which the sounds and instruments might interact – and then I attempt to realise that imagined idea on paper. You might say this is the technical stage. I always have many things I explore here, such as writing truly distinct material or attempting to counter two or more voices against each other while also combining them. These are technical questions that I attempt to answer. They are always – if the piece is going to be any good – tied up in my wider musical goals. These are developing all the time, but are often centred around the attempted creation of a self-unified work of art, perhaps through considering what can or needs to be written now, at this particular historical moment. These are hard questions, of course! Ones that I never truly answer, even in part. Through the labour of each piece I write I am attempting to get a step closer to answering them.

LF: With a title such as In lines, in time I think immediately of Elliott Carter and the dual question of polyphony (composing with multiple simultaneous melodies) and the division of musical time. Are these aesthetic considerations you work with, and how do they come out in the work?

PC: Yes that is completely right: simultaneous voices/lines across or through musical time. The first In lines, in time presents these two questions – of simultaneous melodies and layered musical tempos – at their rawest. Specifically, each part has its own individual time and the other parts don't even get a look in. But that is hardly an interesting idea on its own! How do these layered voices interact? Can they form a complementary relationship, or are they merely heard simultaneously without relation? Hopefully people will hear interrelations!!

LF: The theme of this concert is ‘Giants Behind Us’, referring to Brahms’ famous quote about Beethoven, “You have no idea how it is for the likes of us to feel the tread of a giant like him behind us!” The weight of tradition is very heavy in Germany, and is something all young German composers have to grapple with. But growing up as a young composer on the other side of the planet - Australia - what does tradition mean for you?

PC: I don't care too strongly about tradition. On the other hand I am strongly aware of the history of Western art music – the history of polyphony perhaps?? – stretching back as far as the 12th century. I certainly feel this history when I write. For me there are significant composers and works that – potentially to the detriment of my widemindedness – I tend to view outside of nationality, at least when I'm writing. That said, there certainly were Germans who wrote music that I invest a lot of time and thought into, such as Bach, Brahms and Schoenberg (among others). Ultimately I think that the work of those composers helps me to formulate the questions I ask of each new piece.

LF: Outside of composing, you are also the resident conductor with Kupka’s Piano. You have won scholarships for your conducting and participated in Lucerne Academy for it. Evidently you don’t suck at it, and you take it seriously. Does your conducting have an impact on your composition? Do you ever get the feeling of schizophrenia - having to switch between the roles?

PC: Oh yes, you're right, there are two of me at least! At the moment the street is mostly one way. I prepare a piece firstly as a conductor might – considering how best to physically represent a sound – and then the composer in me seeps through. I start to pull the piece apart; sometimes I even begin to wonder how I might have written it. This is never an intentional process. If a piece interests me I start to open it up as any composer might. The opposite is sometimes true – that conducting influences my composition – but only when I am considering the playability of a passage. Conducting has certainly developed my knowledge of the capabilities of each instrument.

LF: What are you listening to at the moment? Any interesting composers of today we should hear about?

PC: I listen a lot and pretty widely within a certain sphere. Recently I have discovered Ben Johnston's ten String Quartets. I listen to Elliott Carter and J.S.Bach on a daily basis. Glenn Gould's Bach and Schoenberg never get old. Michael Finnissy, Enno Poppe and some of Georges Aperghis and Brian Ferneyhough also excite me, as well as a few works by François Nicolas and Brice Pauset. I would also throw in some 14th century Ars Subtilior for good measure. On the really new front I have been listening to Katharina Rosenberger and Silvia Borzelli. Ultimately the list is infinite.

LF: Aside from conducting in the last two concerts of the Kupka’s Piano concert series this year, what are you working on next? Any grand plans?

PC: My goal is a fairly simple one: to write some good music over the next two years. This will take a lot of hard work! More generally, I'd hope to be living overseas within the next couple of years, continuing work in conducting and composition. I wouldn't mind conducting Ensemble Intercontemporain or Klangforum Wien. That wouldn't be too bad. Let's see what crops up!!