Monday, 23 May 2011

Words and Music

Advance copies of Bálint Varga’s Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers have just arrived, and what a remarkable publication it is. Birtwistle, Boulez, Cage, Carter, Henze, Kurtág, Ligeti, Nono, Reich, Tippett and Xenakis are just a few of the artists who agreed to discuss their music and their influences. In this post we extract a few choice morsels but urge you to seek out a copy in your favourite bookshop, as we are unable to reproduce the compelling flow of conversation and ideas within the confines of a blog post.

Gunther Schuller

To get back to Darmstadt: in the early fifties there came about an alliance between the German radio stations, composers, publishers, modern music journals, and festivals. Radios, as you know, are subsidized by the state and can broadcast new music without any great risk. A political/business linkup developed: a festival premiered a new work, it was recorded or taped by a radio station, and then the tape was broadcast throughout Europe. And everybody became richer and more famous. As a result of a terrific publicity machinery, everything was made to sound bigger and better than it really was. That is how lesser composers, like Pousseur or Kagel, became touted as “great” composers. We were told in Darmstadt that they and Boulez and Stockhausen were the masters of our time, and we should all compose like them.

There were three composers in Darmstadt in those early years who thought this was all pretty silly: Alexander Goehr, Harrison Birtwistle, and me. We were young and fairly cocky, and didn’t necessarily swallow Stockhausen’s line. I am proud of that. In the end—around 1957—I left Darmstadt, never to return.

Pierre Schaeffer

I am going to tell you why, at a particular moment in my life, I embarked on an adventure which I called concrete music.

I am not a composer. I have a degree in engineering but I have always regarded writing as my calling. As for my profession: I was one of the pioneers of broadcasting. I set up an experimental studio during the German occupation (today, they would call it an atelier) with the aim of developing the bases of radio art. Is it possible to create art devoid of the visual aspect? Is blind art viable?

Those were great years even though we had to work clandestinely during the occupation. We also participated in preparing the liberation of Paris. The first broadcasts went on the air a few days before the withdrawal of the Germans: it was rather a perilous undertaking.

It was after the war that the development of radio art really got under way. We wanted to find out all the possibilities inherent in this genre based only on text, background noise, and music—a genre that freed the imagination. Logically enough, I attempted on one occasion to create an experimental work in which I set out to explore at what point background sound, the condensing of noise turns into music. (In other words, musique concrete was the outcome of an accident, just as most other innovations. One stumbles on something one was not looking for.)

Toru Takemitsu

The pieces I wrote during the past several years have had a great deal to do with water. I love the sea. It has many faces. Numerous currents are whirling in it, each with a tempo, a color, and a temperature of its own. This phenomenon reminds me of the structure of music.

Twenty-five years ago when I started composing, I carried out concrete musical experiments with water. During a visit to France I was surprised to find that Pierre Schaeffer was working in the same direction. In my Water Music (1960) I use the sound of dripping water. I collected material from rivers, wells, and the sea and in the process of concentrating my attention on these sonorities, I grew fond of water.

Nature is important for my music in other ways as well. All four seasons are beautiful in Japan. I live on the shore of a lake and forty thousand cherry trees blossom in the neighborhood. Still, I prefer the autumn when trees, the grass—nature as a whole—change from day to day. One cannot catch the actual moment of change, only its result is tangible. It is a phenomenon that is of interest for me also as a composer.

Iannis Xenakis

Metastasis, that starting point of my life as a composer, was inspired not by music but rather by the impression gained during the Nazi occupation of Greece. The Germans tried to take Greek workers to the Third Reich — and we staged huge demonstrations against this and managed to prevent it. I listened to the sound of the masses marching toward the center of Athens, the shouting of slogans and then, when they came upon Nazi tanks, the intermittent shooting of the machine guns, the chaos. I shall never forget the transformation of the regular, rhythmic noise of a hundred thousand people into some fantastic disorder . . . I would never have thought that one day all that would surface again and become music: Metastasis.

I composed it in 1953–54 and called it a starting point because that was when I introduced into music the notion of mass . . . Almost everybody in the orchestra is a soloist, I used complete divisi in the strings which play large masses of pizzicati and glissandi. In other words, I do not use the term “mass” in a sociological sense.

Another experience of my youth dates from the time immediately preceding the war. I used to make outings to the countryside near Athens. I would take my bicycle, select a spot to erect my tent and listen to the sounds of nature. Crickets, for instance: their chirping was coming from every direction and was changing all the time. Those are also mass sounds, you see? But I also liked listening to the wind and the sea or the rain as it was lashing at the side of the tent.

Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers by Bálint András Varga is published by the University of Rochester Press and will be available soon from all good booksellers.

The image at the head of this post is taken from the book. The drawing, by Johannes Maria Staud, was made 'at the time of preparing the score of my opera Berenice in 2003/4.'

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