Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Starbucks and Old Vienna

The latest edition of Boosey and Hawkes’ trade newsletter, Quarternotes, contains a fascinating short interview with Viennese composer, Kurt Schwertsik. Asked why he favours the fleeting, everyday ‘music in the air,’ Schwertsik replies:

When I was searching for a basic strategy as an artist, John Cage was very important to me. He described how you could listen to everyday sounds – in the street, in nature, in conversations. I agree with Cage that we are people that live in the air…At Darmstadt I liked his Zen-inspired spiritual view…he reinvigorated my interest in the Dada movement.

Schwertsik is also one of the interviewees in Peter Dickinson’s acclaimed, CageTalk. There he describes his encounters with Cage at Darmstadt more fully:

He gave three lectures, including the “Lecture on Nothing” where he has those beautiful pauses. And he gave another lecture during which he lit cigarettes. Each one was somehow handled differently – smoked once, twice, not at all, or smoked to the butt.

Schwertsik goes on to describe Cage’s use of the I Ching in composing Music for Piano:

People were very upset. I remember Ligeti asking him if he would use chance operations and then select something that pleased him. He mentioned Kurt Schwitters, who used to look at the landscape through a little frame and then say, “Oh look, this is typical Schwitters!” He thought Cage might have been involved in an objet trouvé venture, which was not true – obviously.

Schwertsik was ostracized by Darmstadt as, under Cage's influence, he moved towards Dada:

I believe the function of art is to denounce seriousness. It should be fun. There’s a halo of awe around modern music. You achieve more if you’re not serious.

Hence, perhaps, the title of his 2007 composition for trumpet and orchestra, Divertimento Macchiato. “After the premiere,” he explains in Quarternotes, “my wife Christa suggested adding Macchiato to the title and this seemed perfect to me, as it captured an ironic image of modern so-called ‘designer coffee’ – more Starbucks than Old Vienna.”

Perhaps too it is fittingly Schwertsikian that he is incorrectly described as deceased in the second edition of Grove.

Divertimento Macchiato can be heard as part of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s Scottish tour in April 2009, and his latest work, a ballet entitled Kafka Amerika, will be premiered in Linz in the autumn. CageTalk: Dialogues with and about John Cage, edited by Peter Dickinson, is available from all good booksellers.

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