'Islands of context': An interview with Gerald Resch

photo: www.georglembergh.com As part of our upcoming concert on May 10, Giants Behind Us, focussing on the next generation of German and Austrian music, our clarinetist-extraordinaire Macarthur Clough and brilliant guest soprano Tabatha McFadyen will perform Gerald Resch's composition Splitter. The next in our series of interviews, composer Liam Flenady has a chat with him about being a composer today, the contemporary music police, and Arabic Pop music. Check out his music here: http://www.geraldresch.at/

Liam Flenady: Firstly, a bit of background. Where are you from and where did you get your musical and compositional education?

Gerald Resch: I was born 1975 in Linz/Austria and consider myself educated in a quite Central European way, with a mix of traditions and influences. My teachers in composition, with whom I studied at various times between 1993-2001, were the Swiss-American Michael Jarrell and the Hungarian Iván Eröd in Vienna, the German York Höller in Cologne and the Swiss Beat Furrer in Graz. Because of quite long stays in France and Italy, I feel a certain affinity to these cultures as well.

LF: In these interviews for our concert, we’re asking our featured composers what a 'day in the life' looks like, to give a sense of what it’s like to be a young composer today. Would you care to indulge us?

GR: In my opinion, the profession of a composer has changed a lot over the last few decades. Nowadays, all the composers I know are very busy not only with composing, but also with organising concerts, writing articles, teaching, etc.

For example, my average 'day in the life' consists of bringing the kids to school, then going home to compose for a few hours, then answering emails, writing letters, contacting ensembles, etc, preparing my lessons for the students at the music university, going to teach, afterwards going to 'Kunstverein Alte Schmiede Wien' where I organise concerts with contemporary music, coming home at night to talk with my wife. If possible, I’ll then try to continue to compose for some more hours at night (or falling into bed instead).

LF: Sounds exhausting - I can relate. But let’s turn to the inside of the musical practice. What are you currently composing? What kinds of ideas or musical questions are you looking at?

GR: At the moment, I am writing some 'Madrigals' for solo voices and accordion on contemporary German love poems. The main question for this piece is how it is possible to transport the content of the poems in such a way that the pieces have on the one hand a specific 'Resch-sound' (e.g. use sonorities I like), but on the other give the singers the opportunity to shape my composition in a way that allows them to really express themselves while singing - so that my music can become their own music.

LF: One of the main themes of this concert is how the next generation of Germanic composers deals with its traditions and its history. From the Australian vantage point, it seems that composers from Germany and Austria have a heavy weight of tradition bearing down on them. Does this impact on what you do? Do you feel you have to grapple with your tradition?

GR: I think that it is a very special situation in Central Europe (and especially in Austria, and even more especially in Vienna), where these 'old traditions' still are quite alive, in a certain way. For example, here in Vienna it is quite easy to hear the Brahms Symphonies in live concerts several times a year. Me personally, I find it interesting to draw upon music of several traditions in order to develop a personal musical voice that is contemporary - one that tries to find a musical tone that is somehow relevant for today.

For example, I had a challenging commission by the Wiener Musikverein to write an orchestral piece, "Cantus Firmus", which would be the first part of a concert that would have as its second part a performance of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's Symphony "Lobgesang": I tried to understand the Mendelssohn piece (even its weaknesses) in order to find a personal solution which has nothing to do with Mendelssohn but nevertheless matches with it. A kind of reflection – and contradiction. I think that nowadays the interest for such 'permeabilities' of old and contemporary is indeed an important issue.

LF: Over the years we've seen different 'schools' emerge in Europe, associated with different regions (spectralism in France, Lachenmann-influenced music in Germany, etc). Do you think this is still the case in Europe? What would be the major dividing lines now, if any?

GR: In general, I think that this idea of belonging to 'schools' is no longer as strict as it used to be some decades ago. For example, it is possible – and quite common today – to be influenced both by spectralism and by Lachenmann. I feel (or wish?) that the authority of a self-appointed 'contemporary music police' is being doubted more and more.

LF: But while these schools may be in decline (or hopefully), do you still feel there are key musical concerns facing the new generations of composers in Germany and Austria?

GR: Difficult to say… For me, one of the most central questions while composing is to be able to build a consistent individual and distinctive work, but stay at the same time open for unexpected influences, surprising detours, etc.

LF: What about your piece Splitter that we're performing in our May 10 concert. What is behind the choice of text? What ideas informed your composing?

GR: The template for Splitter is a text by the Austrian avant-garde poet Waltraud Seidlhofer. She composes texts in such a way that the words on the paper are distributed in a very well calculated manner: it makes a big difference whether a word is at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of a line. Although the text does not ‘tell a story’, it is instead the case that groups of particles build little ‘islands of context’ that are multi-layered: it is quite difficult to explain...

Anyway, the text inspired me to use it as a very rigid pattern for organising the rhythms of my piece. Although this was very helpful for me while composing the piece, I hope the listener will not perceive the strict skeleton of the construction which appears in the background of the piece, but will simply feel that the musical things that happen have a certain logical alliance that he or she doesn’t need to figure out, but will be touched by.

LF: Just finally, what music are you currently listening to? Any tips for our audience in Australia?

GR: I have recently been to Jordan in the Middle East and am at the moment fascinated by contemporary Arabic Pop Music. Perhaps I will write an orchestra piece in which I try to merge some Arabic idioms with a kind of abstracted Bossa-Nova-feeling, brought together with my own harmonic, melodic and rhythmic idiom...

LF: Sounds fascinating. Thanks for the chat Gerald. Looking forward to hearing your work performed at the concert!