'Do the thing that seems not to be allowed to be done': An interview with Genoël von Lilienstern

Lilienstern_Pic_3 Genoël von Lilienstern is one of the four young German composers whose works Kupka's Piano will be giving Australian premieres next Friday at 'Giants Behind Us' - the second of four concerts in a series hosted by the Judith Wright Centre. With rehearsals of his work The Severed Garden well underway, flautist Hannah Reardon-Smith interviews him about his life and intentions as a composer.

Hannah Reardon-Smith: Let's begin with the basics - where are you from, where did you study and with whom?

Genoël von Lilienstern: I come from a small town in former West-Germany. I studied composition with Korean composer Younghi Pagh-Paan and with Swiss composer Hanspeter Kyburz. I also studied computer music at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, Netherlands.

HRS: For our audience who might not know what it means to be a composer today, give us a quick outline of what kinds of activities you get up to - a 'day in the life' of Genoël von Lilienstern...

GvL: There is no typical day for me. My schedule depends very much on the actual work or project I am occupied with. So there are times when I am more busy with administrative tasks like answering e-mails, preparing presentations, writing proposals for funding, working on a lecture or preparing a journey. Other times I am busy with the more technological aspect of my work - right now I work on a composition for flying loudspeakers - so I go to my workshop and do computer programming and construction work there.

But eventually I will come back to my desk and have to work on a musical score. And that is extremely absorbing work. People that know me well can see when I am into that kind of business: "You are composing, aren't you?" I cannot stop thinking about the music and its notation anymore. So my ability to lead an everyday conversation gets diminished. It is like going to a slightly different world. And when the piece is finished I need one or two nights out with friends and drinks to come back.

But in general I can say - being a composer is not as insecure or painful as many people might imagine it to be. I can make a living from this artistic profession and that makes me very happy.

HRS: We were introduced to your work by members of ensemble interface, who we will be working with later in the year here in Australia. Have you worked much with them? What has been your experience working with young performers (in their 20s and 30s) and emerging ensembles, and how does this differ from working with established groups, such as Ensemble Intercontemporain?

GvL: Each ensemble has its own psychology. So when meeting musicians you don't know yet for the first time you would just be friendly and observe their behaviour the first, let's say 15 minutes before doing or saying too much. With younger performers it can be a very relaxed and casual atmosphere at the beginning, but gets a little more difficult during the rehearsal when insecurities arise, because some of the players might still not have the routine or pragmatism of solving "impossible" problems.  Well established ensembles like Intercontemporain would be more reserved in the beginning, but when you manage to convince them that you have the skills they are open to do or try "anything".

Independent from these aspects what makes the deciding difference for me is when an ensemble is not only very good, brilliantly realizing the note text, but also self-secure and curious enough to make their own artistic decisions within a piece.

I know ensemble interface very well since they are the players of the same year (2008/09) of Ensemble Modern Academy in Frankfurt which I participated in. After some time of not seeing each other we worked together again this January and it was a joy to do so. They are top-league players.

HRS: I have recently returned from Japan where I participated in an Ensemble Modern academy run by Tokyo Wonder Site - a wonderful opportunity to explore the music of the region while receiving support and tuition from some of the most experienced musicians of our genre. I believe you spent some time at Tokyo Wonder Site for a residency in 2011-2012. What did you focus on during your residency? What was your experience of the country, and do you think this has affected your subsequent composition in any way?

GvL: That is true. I was in Tokyo Wonder Site - unfortunately only for a month - which is way too short to really understand and see everything one would love to. I was having a piano piece performed and myself performed a piece for live-electronics. I got to know and talk to artists from south-eastern Asia like Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand - which I had never done before.

Apart from the obvious fascination of this exceptionally intact non-Western culture people were still (and might still be) affected by the events of the 2011 Tsunami. I met a video-artist who had lost his mother and who made a video piece about it. That really aroused questions in me as to why one makes art, under which circumstances and what for. Radioactivity was also an issue, and it was very hard to get information about it, such as how to know how much risk you take if you drink tab water, or eat fish. I was convinced before that one should abandon nuclear power - but the difficult situation in Japan kind of graphically displays why that is absolutely necessary.

HRS: What are you currently composing? What are the musical questions or materials you're trying to develop?

GvL: I am currently working on a piece involving "futuristic" instruments like robot-arm percussion and flying loudspeakers. In the situation in Berlin where we have the luxury of having numerous good ensembles for contemporary music I don't want to stick to a status quo of business as usual, because I have the discomfort of feeling close to applied arts. So I'd rather take a little risk and make an effort to look for an entirely new music - even if one might think that this kind of utopia is not realizable today.

HRS: We get a sense in Australia, a very 'young' country, that Germanic composers have a lot of historical baggage when it comes to music. The famous Brahms quote about Beethoven being a 'giant behind him' (which we're using as a title for our concert) sums up nicely this often fearful reverence of such an enormous tradition. Is this an issue for you? How much do you think of historical precedents (and trying to 'overcome' them)?

GvL: Brahms was more likely to get directly compared with Beethoven. Well that wouldn't happen to any currently living German composer. I would say Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann - they are all my good friends. When I want to encourage myself to be more brave in making risky decisions I might have a look at Beethoven's Große Fuge, when I feel I am getting too modest I might stick to some Schumann Symphonie No. 4 hubris, and when I want to bring back to my mind what degree emotion can reach in music I would go and listen to a Schubert song.

However it is true that a certain kind of tradition is hard to escape from in Germany - it is the philosophical direction of Hegelian dialectics and historization of artistic topics. Prime examples of this dialectic approach would be composers like Lachenmann and Spahlinger. Everyone has to relate to that kind of thinking in some way. Some would love to abandon it and play with the material in a natural, innocent way, some think it is absolutely necessary to inscribe the dialectic aspect of perception in their works, and others come up with elaborate constructivist alternative drafts. My approach would probably be the latter.

It all has also to do with the problematic history of Germany in the 20th century. After 1945 the overwhelming qualities of Wagnerian music were considered to be manipulative and dangerous. So a more distanced view upon music, leaving space for the questions and perception of the individual seemed to be necessary. A reason why Stockhausen was poorly received in the last 30 years of his life, was because he started having a religious approach towards music, which was in opposition to Hegelian 'Age of Enlightenment' thinking.

So Hegel probably is the real giant behind us.

HRS: What do you think the key musical questions for young composers are in Germany and Austria today?

GvL: Although I have to admit that Germany and Austria have a special musical tradition, as described before, I don't think that there are key musical questions today related to nationality. We are living in an internationalized, individualized world and we are learning from each other. I see a tendency of younger composers to relate to new situations of media reception, music production and maybe a questioning of the usage of classical instruments. I also think an important thing for young composers today is not to stick too much to real or abstract authorities like institutions, academies, national culture, market, genre.  I admire people that have a clear awareness of what is going on and at the same time really trust in their own musical ideas and perception.

One should do the thing that seems not to be allowed to be done.

HRS: Tell us a little about 'The Severed Garden' - your work that we're performing in our May 10 concert. Is there a specific inspiration for this piece? What are the key ideas in the work?

GvL: If you like you can hear something like a biography of harmonic and rhythmical elements in this piece. At the beginning there is a more vivid, fast, almost agressive characteristic, which later gets mellowed, slowed down. Maybe it is a transition from a pretty abstract construction into a more singing and at the same time symbolic quality. The association of a funeral situation is pretty obvious at the ending. As well, my musical idea was to have structures that could anytime shrink or magnify, like a rubber kind of being. Due to that, the piece has rather complex metrics and every bar is a small challenge. Not easy to play.

HRS: Is there somewhere online that people can go to hear more of your music?

GvL: Yes. At Soundcloud and also at YouTube if you search for my name.

HRS: Just finally, what music are you currently listening to? Any interesting new music that Australian listeners should try to seek out?

GvL: I really like spending time on YouTube digging into remote or arguable genres like early 30s electronic music, Italian progessive rock or 80s commerical mainstream. But I am not sure if that is something to recommend, since it is more my personal sociologic and music historical interest that I have here.

Some composers that have impressed me in the past two years: New York composer Bryan Jacobs, Ecuadorian composer and guitarist Lucho Pelucho, Tokyo composer Yu Kuwabara, Mauricio Rodriguez from Mexico City and Ed Bennett, composer from Ireland.

Currently in Germany there are some younger composers that might be interesting: Alexander Schubert, Johannes Kreidler, Sergej Newski, Johannes Borowski and Enno Poppe.

Best concert I heard this year: The Psychic Ills from Brooklyn.