Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers

Bálint András Varga's Three Question for Sixty-Five Composers is a goldmine. It was published in Budapest in 1986, and just came into print in an English language edition, which has been revised to include post 1986 updates, and a handful of younger composers who are still living.

Here are Varga's questions:
1. Have you had an experience similar to Witold Lutoslawski's: he heard John Cage's Second Piano Concerto on the radio--an encounter which changed his musical thinking and ushered in a new creative period, the first result of which was his Jeux vénitiens (1960-1961). [N.B. Varga was referring, of course, to John Cage's Concert for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra.]

2. A composer is surrounded by sounds. Do they influence you and are they in any way of significance for your compositional work?

3. How far can one speak of a personal style and where does self-repetition begin?

I'm surprised to find composers I haven't heard of before, like Sandor Balassa, who responded to the third question in a most compelling way.
The artist, while changing his subject, tells of this and that--what he has experienced and dreamed of in the course of his life.

The permanent and repeated moments are manifested through the author's personality and his limitations. The fact that his subjects are communicated by him, means that we see through his eyes, we experience his works filtered through his personality.
He goes on to say:
I also want to tell people to remain faithful to their youthful ideals. Why should I only do so just once? The fact that modernist music has lost the sympathy of listeners is due in part to its renunciation of the principle of repetition. Look, I am no linguist. I have no intention of inventing new languages. I would like to communicate something in the language we have, so that my message should reach its addressees. My main concern is for them to understand me.

My next excerpt of particular note comes from Sir Harrison Birtwistle's response to the second question:
Color is like orchestration, if you like. You can't divorce color from a picture, it is part of it. You cannot divorce orchestration from a composition.

I just find smell very evocative, in a purely Proustian sense. Like taste. I do not know if it has anything do do with music but it seems to me to be a very potent recaller of material. Smell is something . . . I smelt something the other day that I hadn't smelt for forty years: the smell of a dairy. The sour smell of slightly stale milk--no matter how you clean the place you can never get rid of it. I went to a farm, and I smelt this and it was amazing--it was my childhood.

But do you get any musical ideas from smells?

Then there's Elliot Carter:
To work out a series of stylistic devices and then use them as formulae bores me as a prospect and it bores me in others who do it. Self-repetition is to me a sign of fatigue.
and George Crumb:
All of the great composers of the past had immediately recognizable fingerprints. With a more recent composer like Stravinsky, for example, even though he is referred to as having changed style many times, what strikes me about his music over his whole lifetime is its consistency.
I find the response to the third question by the "humble" Morton Feldman quite interesting:
Many people feel that if they hear one piece of mine, they heard it all. Yet all Rembrandts are more or less the same. All Giottos are more or less the same.

You are not hurt when people make this remark? Perhaps you agree?

About my music? I don't agree. It means they are not listening. All Proust is the same. Kafka is the same. All gardens in Vienna are the same.

Why is it people expect music to be so different? I'll tell you why. Because people get very bored, they can't listen to music. They can't listen to music . . . My problem is that I want all my pieces to be the same but I haven't got the discipline to make it the same . . .
Pierre Schaeffer's response to the third question comes as a surprise:
I cannot answer this question because I am not a composer. Why did I stop writing which I had always regarded as an experiment? I had a positive and a negative reason.

The positive reason has nothing to do with music. I used to work a great deal in radio and television--but after all, we only have one life and for me, writing was my actual vocation. I only have a few years left to write my books: philosophical works, novels, and other things. For me, music was an accident. An unfortunate accident.

The negative reason: music today is in a crisis. My contemporaries try to flee from their all-encompassing metaphysical fear in that they seek an impossible sort of music: stochastic or repetitive music, Stockhausenian blah-blah, Cageian clownery. I do not wish to become the victim of new simplicity--I prefer to reject it all.
There are many more interviews I could quote, but I'll save further discovery and delight for you. Gunther Schuller's interview is so compelling that I cannot bear to take only an excerpt. It certainly whets my appetite for his forthcoming memoir Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty, which happens to also be published by the University of Rochester Press.

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