'I wanted to involve the body more, the senses, the physicality of sound…': An interview with Katharina Rosenberger

katharina_020_300 As part of our upcoming concert on May 10, Giants Behind Us, focussing on the next generation of German and Austrian music, we bring guest musician Samantha Mason to perform Katharina Rosenberger's composition phragmocone for solo saxophone. The next in our series of interviews, composer Peter Clark has a chat with her about being a composer today. More on her music here: http://www.krosenberger.ch/

Peter Clark: Let's dive straight into your life as an active composer! Tell me about how music and composition intersect with your day-to-day activities. What does a day in the life of Katharina Rosenberger look like?

Katharina Rosenberger: I count myself amongst the lucky beings, where one day never entirely resembles another. I feel a little less lucky when I am haunted by dreams with compositional problems, where I am stuck in a piece and with every breath I try to break away from troublesome harmonies or congested counterpoint. A perfect day starts when all that I have on my agenda is composing. Then I love to drift into a piece and lose myself entirely into music for hours and hours. The reality is that production work, teaching preparation and commuting rapidly consume most of my day - if I don’t block out hours I don’t get to sit down and compose at all.

I do, however, always carry a notebook with me, as I easily get carried away in my thoughts and thus solutions to my nightly weariness come up in unexpected moments. I need to be able to capture these…

PC: We should give all of this a context. Where are you from? Who did you learn from? Is there anything else new listeners should know about your formative musical years?

KR: I was born in Zurich, Switzerland and was involved in music from an early age. My formative years show a wide range of music making: jazz, world music and free improvisation. Equally important was my involvement with theatre, the visual arts, literature … in fact, I would say getting a sense of culture, understanding the cities I lived in, living together in general influenced me a lot in the way I figure out relationships within my compositions, within the music and the performer, and the listener.

Teachers that have marked me immensely are Michael Finnissy and Tristan Murail.

PC: So you are a Swiss composer taught in America by Frenchman Tristan Murail. Most of the composers in our concert are German or have strong German ties. Do you feel you do? If so, do the great figures of German composition - Beethoven, Brahms, Schoenberg, Lachenmann - have an sway in your writing and thinking? Do you ever grapple with a particularly Germanic history of music composition?

KR: Ha! You really got me there… I realised that for many years I was trying to run away from a Germanic contemporary approach to composition, which I perceived as overly rigid and kopflastig ("top-heavy, overly intellectual"). I wanted to involve the body more, the senses, the physicality of sound… but I also recognise that I never shook off an obsession over details and how these relate to the entirety of a piece, and passing out the inner logic of a composition. I truly love the above-mentioned composers and hope to have in my music some of their boldness, lyrical beauty, and visionary mindset.

PC: As a fellow composer, I know I have found the work of other composers and artists provoking for my own development. Would you say you have been strongly influenced by other composers? Have creators in other artforms prompted your work? Can you perhaps bring all of this together into a clear vision of what your music is (a very hard question I know!)?

KR: Absolutely yes, I have been influenced by all sorts of creators. I like to see my music as a connective tissue between events, actions, and people. Music is vital and relational, it cannot stand alone and hence should always evolve and be aware of its surroundings.

PC: I discovered your music through New York ensemble Wet Ink's recent CD, entitled TEXTUREN. It is fantastic. How - if at all - does phragmocone, your solo saxophone work heard in the upcoming Kupka's Piano concert at the Judith Wright Centre here in Brisbane relate to the works on that disc? Where did phragmocone come from and what is it concerned with?

KR: I am very, very happy to have phragmocone performed in Brisbane! This piece is actually closely related to the music performed on TEXTUREN. The CD presents a musical journey through a collection of chamber pieces, spoken text and electronic interludes that are all based on the interconnectedness of the aural and the visual. Lines, textures, and forms are derived from and inspired by visual art, geometry, and the anatomy and morphology of plants. The structure of phragmocone, the contours of the melodic lines and the overarching rhythmic incidents, follow closely logarithmic spirals as they are found in the chambered proportions of a nautilus shell.

As contemporaneous life moves more and more towards the digital, the ephemeral and the make-believe, the importance of nature, of real things that I can touch and smell, have become increasingly important to me.

PC: I'm always listening broadly and often to some pretty weird stuff. It interests me greatly to hear what other composers listen to and are consumed by. Are there any recordings you are currently obsessing over?

KR: Oh yes, it ranges from noise music (e.g. Sonic Youth – silver sessions) to the beautiful madrigals of Cipriano de Rore and Adrian Willaert (I am in the middle of an extensive project here…) to one particular piece Toques para difuntos, a traditional song of the Hñahñús living in the central altiplano (Hildago) in Mexico. The INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia) of Mexico has launched an incredible initiative a decade ago to record and preserve the music of Mexico’s indigenous people and an extraordinary series of CDs has resulted from these efforts.