Posts tagged composer
A continuous line drawing: An interview with composer Samuel Smith

Kupka's Piano has been busy lately! Just one day after our concert at the Judith Wright Centre last week we launched into rehearsals for our next show, a performance at QSOCurrent for the second year running. KP flutist Jodie managed to catch up with Melbourne composer Samuel Smith for a chat about his sextet set to feature in this concert.

Jodie Rottle: Hello Sam! We are excited to be performing your work things are become new in Brisbane at QSOCurrent this Friday on the 29th of April, 8pm at the SLQ Auditorium 1. Can you elaborate on your inspiration for the piece? What can our listeners expect to hear, and how did you achieve your desired sound using the instruments of the traditional Pierrot sextet formation?

Samuel Smith: When I wrote things are become new in early 2014, I was trying to reinvigorate my music with a stronger sense of line. Prior to that I think had been dealing primarily with vertical arrangements of pitch – dense textures and static blocks of sound – as the principle method of developing form. I came to things are become new wanting to explore a stronger horizontal narrative and develop a more heterophonic and polyphonic aspect to my language.

To do this I split up the sextet into a series of duos – percussion and piano, flute and violin, bass clarinet and cello – and more or less cycled through these combinations, each taking it in turns to heterophonically decorate a single line. This nearly unbroken line runs throughout the entire piece as though it were a continuous line drawing. The narrative trajectory and larger registral contours are then altered by the orchestration alone.  

JR: Speaking of instrumentation, do you have a preferred ensemble size or formation to compose for? I have had the pleasure of hearing your works live for both orchestra and small chamber ensembles. What can be best achieved with large ensembles, and what are the benefits of working with smaller ensembles? 

SS: Both large and small have their joys and challenges. I’m currently working on a solo guitar piece and I am really enjoying the limitations of a single instrument after writing for orchestra. However, I miss the ‘laboratory’ aspect of an orchestra – all those harmonic devices, registral and timbral extremes and the scope of combinatorial colour is a joy to imagine.

My true preference though isn’t so much about size or formation as people. I will always be happier writing for a musician, or group of musicians, that I know personally, that I have heard play and, probably, that I have shared a few drinks with. Music is a very social experience for me and the more I have worked, talked, workshopped and spent time with the players, the more I will enjoy writing the piece. This doesn’t necessarily preclude the larger ensembles, but with my limited experience of orchestral writing, I’ve found it to be pretty lonely.

JR: You have mentioned to me that you are greatly influenced by the work of Gérard Grisey.  Can you tell us why, and do you consider yourself a composer of the spectral style? 

SS: In 2012, about the time I began composing, my brother and I spent six weeks canoeing down the Murray River. Starting in Albury in the flat, green pasture lands and ending 900 kilometres away, west of Swan Hill in the red dirt of the Mallee, I was struck by the analogue of landscape and musical form. Viewing the beginning and end of the trip in isolation, one would not equate the two at all. However, whilst travelling down the river the difference is intangible as it happens at an imperceptible rate.

This sense of organic, immanent development is something I have always tried to achieve when constructing my pieces, and when I first heard the work of Gérard Grisey I realised that his approach to musical time is a devastatingly good example of that. His attention to formal process is so complete, but the music always sounds spontaneous and poetic. His article ‘tempus ex machina’ on the poetics of musical time was a real eye opener for me.

I don’t consider myself a spectral composer. I think of myself instead as a composer whose horizons were expanded significantly by the spectral school, but I’ve probably got feet in several camps equally.

I’m currently thinking a lot about ways of reconciling my interest in cluster and set based harmonies with harmonic devices derived from the harmonic series, ring modulation and frequency modulation.

JR: Thinking back to my days in NYC and the apparent divide between the Uptown and Downtown music scenes, it seems as though we in the new music genre rely on classifying ourselves into different camps. Do you think there is a benefit to identifying with a sub-genre or style in new music? Or perhaps this doesn't exist in Australia? Do you recognise any stylistic differences within different regions of Australia? 

SS: I think there is a rule of diminishing returns for this type of classification. It can be immediately useful to ally yourself aesthetically with certain composers or artists and in some contexts it can be helpful I guess. But, at least in my experience, it seems to descend so quickly into scrappy partisanship that I find really uncomfortable and disheartening. This hasn’t been helped at all by recent changes to arts funding either. I’d like to think that composers of new musics, old musics, jazz, post rock etc. still have more in common than not and I’d love it if we could all just get along and be more appreciative of difference. I guess that’s a sunny optimism I’ve inherited from my Mum and her love of Kropotkin, but I hate to think of musicians and artists fighting among themselves while politicians continue to make such frightening choices.

I think Australia does have some really interesting and exciting regional differences. Broadly, I’ve noticed that a lot of music from Sydney seems to be working with open forms, with a large scope for improvisation. Perth seems to be producing a lot of musicians with an incredible and original grasp of technology. And Brisbane has you guys!

JR: Aww, thanks!!!!!

Finally, what music are you listening to at the moment? Are there any composers or musicians that you can recommend our Brisbane audiences to check out? 

SS: I’m afraid to say that since finishing Masters earlier this I have a bit of listening fatigue for new music. Instead I’ve really been enjoying listening to bands like the Dirty Three and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, as well as Ornette Coleman, Henry Threadgill and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings who I was lucky enough to see a few times in Melbourne earlier this year.

If you’re after some Melbourne specific advice though, I’m always hoping to hear more music by Alexander Garsden or Luke Paulding.

JR: Thanks, Sam. We look forward to having you in attendance at the concert.

You can find more information about Kupka's Piano at QSOCurrent and buy your tickets by clicking here. And have a listen to Sam's music on his soundcloud.

Snakes and almglocken: An interview with composer Jérôme Combier

Tomorrow night, Kupka's Piano will give the Australian premiere of French composer Jérôme Combier's Feuilles des paupières in their concert "Outer Sounds" at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts. Percussionist Angus Wilson interviewed Combier on his music, his time in Australia (both past and, possibly, future!), and the idiosyncratic instrument: the almglocken. If you don't yet have tickets, you can buy them here.

Angus Wilson: Hi Jerome, thanks for taking the time out to chat with me! Can you tell us a little bit about your background, and your style? What can our audience expect to hear in Feuilles des paupières?

Jérôme Combier: Well, my 'background'? You mean 'me'? How to answer to such a difficult question? What is the relationship between the 'background' of an artist  and his 'style'?... I can just say that I am an occidental artist, and in that sense I practice music in an intellectual way. I mean my way of living music is quite inner and introspective. On that point of view it's quite abstract (like philosophy and certain kinds of poetry). For me, musical experience is connected directly to an experience of time, a particular time, subjective and unfathomable, the music-time. I'm looking for this particular perception of time when I write music, and such an experience is what I would like to propose to people. A kind of 'contemplative' attitude, as we can feel in Nature. On that point, I'm really 'Debussyist':

On n'écoute pas autour de soi les mille bruits de la nature, on ne guette pas assez cette musique si variée qu'elle nous offre avec tant d'abondance. Elle nous enveloppe, et nous avons vécu au milieu d'elle jusqu'à présent sans nous en apercevoir. Voilà selon moi la voie nouvelle. mais croyez-le bien, je l'ai à peine entrevue car ce qui reste à faire est immense ! Et celui qui le fera... sera un grand homme !

Claude Achille Debussy in interview from la Comœdia on 4 November 1909, published in Monsieur Croche and other writings. In English:

We don't hear the thousands of sounds of Nature around us, we don't look out for this music, which is so varied and offers us so much. This music envelops us, but we have lived without being aware of it. In my point of view, this offers a new approach. But believe it or not, I have only just glimpsed it, and what remains to be done is immense! The one who will do it... would be a great person!

AW: You mentioned Feuilles des paupières is from a cycle of works, I'd be interested to know about the rest of the cycle.

JC: Yes, Vies silencieuses is a collection made of seven pieces, each one using a different instrumentation, all taken from a set of seven musicians: flute, clarinet, guitar, piano, percussion, viola and cello. Vies silencieuses is closely related to my residence at the Villa Medici for which it was imagined and where it was realised between 2004-2006. These 'lives' have been inspired firstly by pictorial universes of various different artists: first and foremost Giorgio Morandi and his still life works made with minimal objects: bottles, vases, pitchers…

I wanted to have such little pieces of music constructed with few elements, always the same. I also wanted to have shorts pieces like small canvases, with a very precise form (duration of time in my case). Usually I prefer these pieces played as a full cycle, because:

Sometimes there are particularly austere, wintry, colours, redolent of wood and snow, which cause one to pronounce once again the fine word ‘patience’, which cause one to think of the patience of the old peasant, or of the monk in his habit: the same silence as under the snow or between the white-washed walls of a cell. The patience which signifies having lived, having suffered, having held on: with modesty, endurance, but without revolt, nor indifference, nor despair; as if, from this patience, one nevertheless expected an enrichment; as if it enabled us to become secretly suffused with the only light that counts.

Philippe Jaccottet, Le bol du pèlerin, p. 57.

AW: Given that the almglocken (several octaves of pitched cowbells) is the main reason we haven't been able to program the piece prior to this concert, can you tell us a little bit about your experience with them and why you chose them for Feuilles des paupières?

JC: I like very much the sound of the almglocken; mixed with piano sounds it gives a strange colour, not very well-tempered. That's the reason why I used it in Feuilles des paupières. I was looking for a non-western sound, very raw, and a little bit detuned. Feuilles des paupières and the whole cycle, Vies silencieuses, looks for specific sounds connected to elements such as: metallic sound, wooden sound, the idea of wind… In this way, the almglocken is really metallic, we can feel the matter inside of the sound.

AW: Liam mentioned that you had a great conversation with him about the spectral legacy - that 'spectralism' no longer exists as such. It would be great for composers/musicians in Australia to hear a little bit about your thoughts on the topic!

JC: I don't really work with spectral material and legacy. However, sometimes I make analysis of a particular sound (for instance clarinet or flute multiphonics) and I try to integrate the result into my harmonic material. But usually I work with scales of pitches, integrating quarter-tones. At the end, perhaps we might believe that the music is spectral, but it is not. My way of thinking music is not spectral at all, even if I very much like spectral music. Here in France, it has become a part of history, very important for us, and absolutely related to two composers: Gérard Grisey (who influenced me for other reasons) and Tristan Murail, who I know a little.

AW: Finally, when you think of Australia... what is the first 3 things that come to your head? Good or bad!

JC: Firstly: My travel in 1997 in Canberra and Sydney. I won a composition competition that was organised by the conservatory of Paris and the School of Music in Canberra. I didn't like Canberra so much, but my house was near the lake and it was nice to live there for a while. Sydney was more exciting, I was very impressed by the town and I would very much like to come back there.

Secondly: My son, Côme, who is 7 years old and who wants to live in Australia for the reason that there is a lot of snakes and dangerous animals! He's fond of the taipan...

Third: Australia's natural environment. I would like to explore the country, especially around Melbourne and in Tasmania. Last year, during the summer time I started to write to Sydney Conservatorium, proposing to work for them as a teacher just for one year. I wanted to live there, with my family, to offer this gift to my son, but in the end I did not send my letter…

AW: Well, I hope you consider sending your letter to the Queensland Conservatorium in Brisbane instead - we'd love to have you, and you can tell your son we have lots of snakes!

Find out more about Combier on the website of his ensemble - Ensemble Cairn.

'One need not be dictated to by an overbearing sense of tradition': An interview with Brett Dean

BrettDean600In our last concert at the Judith Wright Centre - 'Modern Music in Exile' - Kupka's performed Brett Dean's epic sextet, Old Kings in Exile. The work will be heard in Australia several times this year - Melbourne's Ensemble Cathexis also recently performed it in their May program 'Reckless Abandon'. In a special collaborative interview Kupka pianist Alex Raineri and Cathexis flautist Lina Andonovska both posed some questions to Brett about the work, his life in self-imposed 'exile' in Germany, and his reading list. ALEX RAINERI: The theme of our last Kupka's Piano concert was 'Modern Music in Exile' which is derived from the title of your sextet Old Kings in Exile, a work which is receiving a considerable amount of airtime, with SYZYGY also performing the piece later in the year! Much of the Australian repertoire we play (by established and the younger generation) are by composers who have relocated either to Europe or America and I'm always interested to know whether there is for composers a conscious intention to find a musical language which still represents a uniquely Australian sound, and what kind of role this plays. What are your thoughts and is this something you would associate with your works?

I am interested in creating a sound that is uniquely mine, that expresses something specifically personal. However I'm not sure that necessarily constitutes something uniquely Australian per se, nor do I pursue that consciously. When I consider what sounds around us are absolutely and uniquely Australian, however, then indigenous music and language, the Australian-English accent and birdsong come most readily to mind. Aspects of all of these things have been sources of inspiration for me one way or another; indigenous culture in rather oblique ways, the latter two quite overtly at times in specific pieces. In fact, the last movement of the sextet wouldn't have come about in the way it did without a timely encounter with my most favourite of Australian sounds, the song of the pied butcherbird. There's one particular song that I seem to hear every time I visit my parents' place in Brisbane which closes the piece.

LINA ANDONOVSKA: Following on from this, I'd like to know what excites you the most about Australia's contemporary/newly composed music scene? You obviously spend a lot of time in Europe and know the scene there intimately, but what do you think is different or perhaps unique about the Australian new music culture?

For musicians growing up in Europe, there can be a sense of tradition constantly looking over one's shoulder. Whilst I've loved coming to grips with this wonderfully rich cultural heritage throughout my professional life, it can be a heavy weight to bear and can manifest itself in a very profound conservatism, not only in orchestras (where it's not so surprising) but to a certain extent even in new music circles. In German orchestras for example, the standard repertoire and the western canon seem set in stone for all time, never to be questioned or tampered with. Many players wish, with an almost messianic zeal, to "protect" their cultural heritage and seem to perceive anything "modern" (in some cases this means anything post-Schönberg, even post-Brahms!) as a threat to their long-perfected ways of making music. The new music scene in Germany can, however, also seem stuck in its ways; specifically in the post-war period of innovation where cutting ties with a weighty and troubled past and a redefining of artistic purpose were of such importance. I feel that times have changed and yet new music in Germany still seems to have to fulfil certain expectations and parameters born out of that period. At times, the lack of acceptance of different voices that don't fit in with the overriding, "Darmstadtian" aesthetic can seem every bit as reactionary a world view as that of their symphonic-orchestral counterparts. By contrast, Australia's "outsider" position in the musical world means one need not be dictated to by an overbearing sense of tradition. Whilst the music scene, including the new music scene, has some very conformist aspects to it, In many cases this "traditionlessness" has led to the emergence and flourishing of some highly original thinkers and sonic explorers, genuine mavericks and nonconformists; artists such as Anthony Pateras, Jon Rose, Ross Bolleter, Liza Lim, The Necks and Richard Tognetti come to mind, for example. That is one of our great strengths and something to be cherished.

ALEX: The middle movement of Old Kings in Exile is called Double Trio. It's not uncommon for composers to feature groupings of instruments within works for this 'Pierrot' sextet - such pieces come to mind as Elliot Carter's Triple Duo, Franco Donatoni's Arpège, Gerard Grisey's Talea - and I wonder with this kind of history of core repertoire how you as a composer would approach writing for this instrumentation which seems to have become the 21st century piano trio?!

The Double Trio title of my middle movement is a conscious "doffing of the cap" to Elliott Carter's remarkable Triple Duo, a work that was a particular source of inspiration in writing my own sextet. The colouristic and textural possibilities and instrumental combinations became in and of themselves a significant part of my approach to the piece, especially in that middle movement. I certainly agree with you about this instrumentation becoming a kind of 21st century standard ensemble; in fact, I think that the remarkable sonic possibilities of the Pierrot-plus-percussion combo will see it emerge further as a standard go-to ensemble for composers in years to come, especially as many orchestras retreat away from commissioning new art music in favour of financially more lucrative cross-over projects, live-music cinema presentations and backing-band type appearances, much to our communal cultural impoverishment in my opinion.

The sextet form is a grouping that allows any number of approaches, whereas by comparison it's much harder to liberate the piano trio from its overtly 19th century, romantic salon music laden sonic heritage. It could be argued that Schönberg turned to this highly original and (at the time) unusual quintet formation for Pierrot Lunaire in 1912 because he (and his followers) were either ignored by orchestras altogether, or treated with hostile contempt by them, as they were by critics and audiences as well. He later formed the Society for Private Musical Performances in order to address these problems. Over a hundred works by a vast array of contemporary composers including Debussy, Ravel, Bartok and Stravinsky - as well as by Schönberg himself and his followers - were performed over a three year period before the high inflation rates of the early 20s made it impossible to continue. Even large scale works were presented in specially-made chamber ensemble reductions along the lines of the Pierrot quintet combination, further proof of its durable versatility. (In an interesting parallel to the aforementioned money-making ventures of today's symphony orchestras, Schönberg, Berg and Webern staged an evening of their own arrangements of Strauss Waltzes in 1921 in an attempt to bring some financial security into the society's coffers, with their manuscripts auctioned off after the show. The society lasted only another 6 months...)

LINA: On another topic, I know that your music is often very influenced by the literature you read, so I'd like to know what you are reading at the moment (and what you're listening to as well!)?

I've been delving into the different versions of Shakespeare's Hamlet, with a view to an operatic treatment in a few years. In fact my most recently premiered new work is a take on aspects of the Ophelia character, scored for string quartet and soprano and to be performed around Australia by the ASQ and Greta Bradman this coming November. Also, Harold Bloom's "Poem Unlimited" provides a fascinating analysis of Hamlet and thoughts on the nature of theatrical illusion. I also recently enjoyed reading Haruki Murakami's latest novel, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

I've been listening to quite a bit of new music from Canada in preparation for a residency there as composer/performer/curator for the Toronto Symphony's new music festival in a couple of years and have been enjoying getting to know two new English operas; George Benjamin's Written on Skin and Julian Anderson's Thebans.

LINA: Finally... I would like to ask where your inspiration stems from? Some of us have moments where we are really disheartened with ourselves and our creativity, and it is often hard to find momentum to get the energy levels back up. Do you experience this, and if so, where do you regain the momentum from?

Well, without some honest self-criticism, I don't think any composer or artist of any kind will get very far. But it can be dangerously debilitating as well if it gets the upper hand too much of the time; one has to keep it grounded and real. Three things in the battle with creativity and search for inspiration for which, on a daily basis, I'm very grateful are: firstly, that my wife, Heather, is also a creative artist; secondly, that she has an informed, yet profoundly individual understanding of music and, thirdly, that she isn't a musician herself but a visual artist! The constant, inter-disciplinary dialogue that has evolved between us over the years about what we're up to, where we might be stuck, ways to solve problems, how someone else may see/hear what we're up to, etc, keeps us going and, if needs be, can pick us up from the floor. As a consequence, if something isn't working for me, I find it helpful to distance myself from music altogether and immerse myself in something else creative, be it a film, an exhibition, reading a good book. Not surprisingly, these are common and reliable sources of inspiration for me, to which the titles of my pieces attest. (Cooking a meal while listening to John Coltrane or PJ Harvey also seems to help....!)

Visit Brett Dean's profile on Boosey & Hawkes

'My building blocks are variations': An interview with Melody Eötvös

meotvos_profile Kupka pianist Alex Raineri chats with exciting young Australian composer Melody Eötvös, now based in Indiana. Come along to 'Modern Music in Exile' this Friday night to hear the world premiere of her new work!

Alex Raineri: We're really excited to be giving the world premiere performance of your new work Wild October Jones at Friday night's concert. Could you tell us a little about the piece? What does the title reference?!

Melody Eötvös: Wild October Jones has been quite a while in the making.  Several summers ago (which was actually winter in Australia) I spent some time in Melbourne.  I was at one of my first record fairs and happened to be curiously browsing through several albums of playing cards these people there had accumulated and were selling.  They were rather special cards because of the particular edition and 'frontispiece' each had.  So I was flipping through pages and pages of these cards and then one suddenly jumped out at me (as pictured above).  It was a reproduction of a beautiful painting that depicted a train passing a carriage at full speed, and the carriage halting to avoid a collision, and a young woman falling off the back of the carriage.

Thomas Hart Benton's "Wreck of old '97" provided the spark of inspiration for Eötvös' new work "Wild October Jones"

The whole image has a very animated perspective to it.  I bought that single card there and then for $3. Anyway, several years later I found it while cleaning out a box of souvenirs I'd gathered over the past 5 years or so, and decided to research it a little. After some intensive googling I discovered the painting belonged to an Indiana artist Thomas Hart Benton, and that we have several of his works throughout the IU Bloomington campus. For me this was too serendipitous to ignore and I knew I had to write a piece based on this painting one day, but it had to be a piece with a particular kind of energy and sound... something I hope I've captured. It was strange though, because I knew I didn't want to use the title of the painting "Wreck of old '97". So I brainstormed a little while staring at the picture for hours. To me the painting has a wild, untamed look about it - I started seriously writing this piece back in October - and of all the references my crazy, film saturated brain instantly connects with Indiana (even after living here for 5 years)... you can probably guess..

AR: Already at such a young age you've got a very impressive list of achievements to your name! After completing a BMus at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music (Griffith University) you went on to study at the Royal Academy of Music (London) and you've just finished up a DMA at the Indiana University (USA). On top of this you've had a significant amount of successful grants and funding opportunities, including a substantial one recently from the Australia Council for the Arts. What are some upcoming projects for you and where to now?

ME: I remember listening into the online streaming of the Soundstream Collective broadcast by the ABC in 2012, and Julian Day saying something quite similar about my collective activities and how they're contributing nicely to my 'mantelpiece' - it's always flattering when somebody points out these advances (so, thank you!).  I'd have to say though that the foundation of that mantelpiece is structured around an uncompromising outlook - for each success there has probably been about double the number of rejections! So, we composers develop very tough hides over time and need to have a very quick bounce-back rate.

I am thrilled about the Aussie Council of the Arts grant - given the changing climate in Australia at the moment with arts funding (and just funding in general) I feel exceptionally lucky to have received one of these - I'll be using it for a collaboration with Bernadette Harvey (Sydney) to develop a large piano work, most likely a Piano Sonata, and this project will carry through in to 2015.  In the meantime I have a wonderful collaboration with Musica Viva and the Red Room in Sydney that will be coming to an exciting conclusion in October this year, and in a few weeks I have a reading/workshop with the New York Philharmonic as part of the American Composers Orchestra Underwood New Music Readings program.  After these I have to make a decision about teaching applications to universities beginning with the 2015-16 academic year... so very exciting times ahead with lots of change!

AR: Extended techniques play a large part in the instrumental writing of Wild October Jones. There's now quite a tradition and a 'repertoire' of sorts for these techniques and I'm interested to know how you personally approach this as a composer and what kind of a role they play in the compositional process? 

ME: For me it's been a gradual building up towards using extended techniques like I have in Wild October Jones. It was also a very dangerous decision as there is only so much you can indicate on the score, and couple that with a brand new piece without a recording to refer to, there's a lot of room for interpretation and many different directions the sound of this piece could be taken in.  So I'm very excited to hear what Kupka's Piano does with it! As for the compositional process, as I mentioned earlier I wanted a particular sound and energy for this piece, and the extended techniques are a crucial part of that.  I think it comes down to a common desire with composers to expand the timbral plane that they're working with.  For me, I wanted both more transparency and a thicker, harsh-block sound as part of my palette.  What happens in between those two extremes could be anything, as long as it works with the structure etc.  My building blocks are variations, and through these I can alter the tone colour around a basic theme, while leading the piece towards its high-point, then releasing that tension away at the end.  That's a really simple, wordy way of putting it though... actually doing that in the music required a lot of thought and fluency/fading of colours across the variations

AR: Lastly, what are some desert island pieces? Top five?

ME: No. 1 is always going to be Bartok's 3rd String quartet.  It's also my "if you have 15 minutes left to live" piece. No. 2 is Shostakovich's 2nd Piano concerto (my mum was learning this when she was pregnant with me... so it kind of stuck) No. 3 Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin No. 4 all of Bach's Well-tempered Clavier (both books) No. 5 probably Stravinsky's Firebird (1910 version)

'Islands of context': An interview with Gerald Resch

photo: 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:

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!

'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.