Johannes Kretz (b. 1968) is an Austrian born composer who teaches computer music and music theory. His experience of working in the IRCAM Research Center has long been associated with the practice of algorithmic composition. Working and living in Vienna, he does not avoid the original look of harmony and synthesizes unique sounds. In 2004, the composer was awarded the Austrian State Prize for his extraordinary creation. Musicologist Ona Jarmalavičiūtė talked with this composer about the formulation of music and a search logical roots of art.
What could you name as a critical moment in your career that led you to become a composer that you are today?
I should start by remembering my study years when I studied with professor Francois Ibert (1890-1962) and experienced a sort of creative crisis. I started creating new compositions and could not finish them in any way. My professor was an extremely wise man – he didn’t ask me to do more work, give more effort or so on. The professor has offered me to read poems and scientific books. One of the books he recommended to me was a book by Austrian biologist Rupt Reidl (1925-2005), who studied with Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989), a famous Nobel laureate. The book was called “Evolution and Epistemology” or something similar (“Evolution und Erkenntnis: Antworten auf Fragen aus unserer Zeit” (1982) – O. J. remark). The book was written about science, but the same aspects were discussed not only in the field of biology – also the evolution of molecules, art and humanity itself was layed out in the book. The author tried to answer the question – how can all the most complicated things be converted into simple systemic principles. This question has proved to be extremely useful to me, and I started to look at music as a living organism. This paradigm helped me to get out of the crisis and I started to create some unique harmonies – the so-called harmonic families, on which my entire further work is based.
Did these harmonious ideas lead to your musical practice with algorithmic composition?
From very early in my life, I have a well-developed hearing for chords and harmonies. In childhood I was able to play music, remembering the main melody line and chords. I even played “Requiem” by W. A. Mozart (1756-1791) – of course, not all voices or counterpoint, but the main melody and harmony. Getting out of the crisis, that I was talking about before, I started to create my own chord families – I wrote down the inversions, transpositions and alterations of the same chord. This resulted in all the options of one chord – that was the family. This process created for me a new compositional format, in which I did not rely on notes but on harmonies. Later I applied the same principle to creating the families of the rhythmic structures, melodic structures, and so on.
After studying composition, I went to the Ircam center in Paris (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique – O.J. remark) and there I got to know how the music generated by the computer is being made. These composing principles were used by such composers as Tristan Murail (b. 1947) in order to create examples of spectral harmony with such computer program. It started with the composer’s Marco Stroppa’s (b. 1959) idea and he called this new harmony a “vertical structure of the pitches”. No matter how he tried to call it, it was, in essence, a simple structure of chords. I also began to be interested in spectral music and harmony, but at that time my experiments were closer to Pierre Boulez’s (1925-2016) musical chord multiplication experiments.
During this period I formed my ground compositional principles and formulated my compositional models – a certain types of material that were used in most of my work. In addition, I learned how to use computer programs and how to generate music with the help of a computer.
Since besides mathematics and music, as well as not interested in computer science, I decided to try to combine all these areas and create such an algorhytmic music. I think the computer program is extremely useful, it facilitates the process and allows composing using mathematical formulas.
Could you describe us the algorithmic process of composing music?
There is one professional program I like that is designed to generate music according to certain rules. For example, they prevent one music entity from following another, or prohibit parallel receipts. If the rules are broken, the result cannot be delivered and the computer will not generate any of the relevant options of material. The rules are usually determined by the distribution of musical motives in space – when one notes are to be used at the same time, and at other times different. In a sense, a composition formula is being created. However, you are completely out of control of the final version. Simply provide space for your choices and some restrictions on it. The computer itself will generate the result.
So, after creating the original rules – restrictions, you need to enter the object search area so that the computer knows what material you need to generate in the final product. In this program you can search for everything – words, sound pitches, chords, rhythmic patterns, melodies, tacts, motives… The computer program applies the rules to the material that is found.
The computer generates one of the possible options. After listening, you will acknowledge whether you are happy with it or not. It may require a different variant and you might change the rules. In this case, a different additional solution is provided.
Additional to rules it is also possible to create wishes – this is not a strictly rule-setting option, but it can determine that the composition goes more or less in one direction or another. The principle is that some musical wishes can give the program so-called “extra points”.
For example, I like big thirds – and in this case I can request that as many of the big thirds as possible would be used in this composition. However, the desire cannot violate the strict rules that have been laid down. Just like writing a counterpoint, we want the soprano and bass to go in a different directions, but this wish should not violate the rules of the counterpoint.
That’s how the work is going on – step by step. For instance, you are listening to the generated music example and you understand that there are too many repetitions. Then, in the formula, you introduce an additional rule that it is necessary to avoid repetitions. If I want to use more twelve tons sound, then I write a rule that would promote the twelve ton harmony in the piece. And each time computer generates a more complete version of the composition.
I can provide you an example of how the program works. Music programming is based on the principle that the boundaries of the space in which it was created should be set in the search box. Example – I want to use elements like “mouse”, “cat”, “dog” and “horse.” Using this “material” will make the program generate an option. Then I choose the rules of how I would like these animals to be generated. For example, I choose to repeat animals a hundred times because I need one hundred animals. I choose that one animal cannot repeat twice in a row. Also, I will not allow the dog to go after the cat because they hate each other. And yet, for example, I want to maximize the number of “cats” – but this is not the rule, but my wish for which the program gets extra points. When these conditions are met, the computer has generated such a variant for me – “cat”, “mouse”, “dog”, “cat” – that is right, because only a “dog” cannot go after a “cat” and a “cat” can. This is just one of the possible options that match the formula and the search field.
Most often, in my compositional process, I generate separate sections of the composition and then combine them by hand on paper, as it is quite difficult to generate two different composition segments at the same time with a single computer program. So, finally, I always adjust my computer-generated composition by hand.
Now in my composing practise I come backto the handwriting music on the paper again . Because in this way a manier of thinking is completely different. Sometimes creative ideas and thoughts come up in mind. Then all of them are much more convenient for writing on paper than trying to program on a computer. By composing with hand I can express myself much more freely, and the writing process goes much faster.
So the discussion about computer-generated music is long and difficult one. So far, it is hard to decide which composition method is more useful. Both algorithmic and manual composition have many advantages and disadvantages. When composing with a computer program an artist can get trapped and start creating very long and boring compositions. Just because it is very easy to compose works of any length here – it seems like the generated music sounds so beautiful and it could last for hours. Therefore, it is important to consciously organize the optimal duration of composition.
How do these principles look when working with the formulation of musical works?
As an example, I can present the composition process for my concert for piano solo. The idea was to simulate the movement of a jumping ball by means of music expression. Calculating the mathematical formula to express the ball jump curve is not that complicated because there is a specific space and a constant speed of movement. If nothing happens – the ball will fly straight ahead. However, we have different phenomena such as gravity and wind, which change the trajectory of the ball. One needs to think about how at a certain speed the ball changes its position when the ball moves under certain conditions.
If you choose to depict two jumping balls, you can get all the extra rules. As such, you may decide that these balls hate each other and jump to try to get away from each other. Or vice versa – the balls are in love and try to reach each other, but their jumping curves are not getting crossed.
So I decided to convert these ideas to my piano concert. I wanted that the music at the beginning would make it possible to imagine that the ball was actually rolling through the keyboard. But of course, if the program simply present the curve, the computer will generate a very primitive sound – something like a emerging and descending chromatic scale. So I had to improve my idea and give the program something different.
I decided to custom a certain wish – to hear some of the chords written in this composition as often as possible. The curve started to look a little different and the sound itself changed substantially. Finally, I proposed a twelve-sound system to support the composition and the musical movement of the jumping ball. I also created other rules and I gradually improved my concert for the piano until such a option as I was satisfied with. Perhaps it would be possible to work with all these ideas on paper, but it would take a lot of time.
As another example, I can present a work composed of four voices and electronics (“Black tide echo” (2010) – O. J. remark). Here, the idea of music is also based on the curve of the movement of jumping balls. The harmonic structure is formed as a duplexing movement. The idea of the work was to start with a minimal musical motive that would repeat the c sound many times. However, at the end of the composition, a twelve tone series should emerge – so no sound should be repeated. I wanted the computer to generate a composition that would bring a harmonious transition from recurring sound to dodecaphony. In order to achieve this, I had to adapt a million different rules – it can’t be too much of repetition at the end, and there must be twelve different sounds in a certain order.
In another part of the composition, after the harmonic transition, I decided to compose something different – I wanted to depict two different trajectories of ball movement in the voice of soprano and bass, and use alto and tenor as transitional voices. In these common sounds, two different curves reflecting the trajectories are merged. I think this kind of composition resembles the principles of composing a counterpoint. As a computer-generated composition, it is extremely beautiful and musical – just like human made.
Algorithmic encoding of music in many aspects resembles the writing of mathematical formulas. I know you graduated from mathematics at Vienna University. How do you understand mathematics and how does it affect your creative principles?
My problem has always been that I have been interested in too many different areas. When I was a child, I was very interested in physics, and I read a lot about the theories of Albert Einstein (1879-1955). I studied mathematics because my father wanted me to study a more serious subject, not just a music composition.
However, mathematics studies helped me enormously as a man and a creator. After all, mathematics has nothing to do with the calculation – it is a way of thinking. Perhaps this is also a formalistic way of thinking, but it contains very simple rules – axioms – and some of the more complicated rules that are derived from them. Mathematics is more about the properties of numbers and the attempt to create new formulas.
So, from this point of view, math is not much different from composing music. Most people who are not related to mathematics think this science is extremely boring, but in my opinion it is an art form. I see beauty and even some mysticism in mathematics. Even as a mathematician very often can distinguish where there is mathematical formal proof, and where there is really true. For me, math is a mystery.
During the years of study I often heard this joke – mathematicians think about the physicists that these maths do not really understand, just use it as a tool. And physicists respond by saying that mathematicians are more abstract dreams, but they can’t use their own ideas. It turned out to me quite interesting.
Is it possible to see the difference between man-made and computer-generated music?
Often, I allow my students to listen to computer-generated and handwritten music, and they find it difficult to distinguish which one is what. Typically, in the test, two of my compositions have been written by hand and the other two have been generated by a computer system. The probability of guessing is usually 50-50. So, in my opinion, it is not possible to predict what composition is composed in any way.
Most students expect constructivity and lack of expression from computer-generated compositions. Humanity is somehow associated with drama and irregularity, and if the work is based on different principles, it is expected to be simply a computer generated algorithm. Since these evaluation criteria are deceptive, correct answers are not available to my students and they give up instinctive illusions.
As far as I understand, harmony is an element of the music language that determines your creation, and in your compositions you formulate unique harmonies. How do you formulate new unique harmonies in your compositions?
I can show you the example of my original harmony I am working on lately. I write melody in five white notes and generate chords from it – that’s why the melody is pre-designed in harmonic form. The first chord is composed of the first four notes in the melody. In this way, the chords become a kind of introduction to the melodic line. This is how I can predict the structure of the work far ahead – and further chords point to further sections of the melody.
This is one of the typical ways to directly link the melody to a harmony. Sometimes it sounds too primitive and simple to me, in which case I create additional chords. And then I add a few extra notes to the dodecaphonic accompaniment.
Such experiments can lead to extremely long and complex chord sequences. On a similar principle I have put so called chord families. First of all, when creating chords I try to decide what their meaning and function will be in the composition. They will not necessarily be used in purely chord form – perhaps it is a cloud of sounds, arpegio or cluster. But first of all, I get to know these sets of chords – so I can easily understand the music I work with.
What is the meaning of your pre-prepared, typical harmonic models in your music?
They are useful as a construction plan that indicates what kind of music can come from one or another idea. That is why I decided to use some of my own chord families. I tried to create music from them and not to be distracted by thinking about music before I started composing.
As I know, you are also interested in another topic – the unification of harmony and timbre. Maybe you could explain this concept more widely?
First of all, it should be mentioned that this concept is related to spectral music. There are two different schools here – Tristan Murail (b. 1947) and Gerard Grisey (1946-1998) are based on the fact that they create chords from the spectrum. I am more interested in the somewhat opposite school, whose main representatives are Marco Stroppa (b. 1959) and Jonathan Harvey (1939-2012). They first create harmonic order and chord structure, but only then form a spectrum of sounds. While studying at the Ircam Research Center, I was extremely interested in this school and tried to turn the chord into a spectrum. I was most concerned with chords and wanted to create and highlight other melodic, colorful and timeless musical features.
How does the chord spectralization process look like?
For example, in the case of one composition, I wanted to turn the spectrum into chords as a musical composition of the choral genre. First of all, I wrote a simple choral. Then I followed what had already been done by the composer Pierre Boulez (1925-2016) – I was engaged in chord multiplication. This is the process of having a chord and transforming it from a second pitch to a third and so on. The chord is multiplied by this principle. However, this simple action creates the illusion of spectral music that I was not happy with. The generated sound was simply too sharp. Then I wanted to create a chord inversion on the mirror principle. Again, it wasn’t a sound reminiscent of a real spectrum of sounds.
And then a little different idea came to my mind. If we look closely at the sound spectrum, we could easily see that it is composed of sounds with the same frequency – for example, if the first overton is 200 hertz, the second will be 300 hertz, and the fourth will be 400 hertz, and so on. In this case, the difference between the frequencies of overtones is always 100 hertz, but in the higher sounds of 100 hertz there is a much smaller sonoric range than the lower ones.
Then, the first five overtones of the spectrum should be perceived as equivalent to the sounds of the five-tone chord. Then I extend this chord with logical repetition and get a kind of spectral sequence. The problem is that these sounds do not produce the same 100-hertz difference that is necessary for the spectral structure, and the sound frequencies are not proportional to each other.
When I tried to solve this problem, I counted the frequency difference between each of the pitches in this chord, thus creating several frequency differences. Transferring them to other registers, I got something between the chord and the spectrum. I tried to further improve this process because I was not completely satisfied with the result, and I studied sound synthesis theories.
At that time, I was just trying to compose my first computer-generated music composition. I composed a few strange spectral chords, but in order to really turn them into spectra, I had to write additional octaves that expanded the range of this chord, hiding even more its chordal nature. This composition sometimes resembles a Sudoku game. First you have a chord and you transpose it with several halves down and up. Then always try to find as many notes as possible to match the sound of the chord. I have composed a really long series of chord spectra and on this principle I have my original harmony.
In what other processes do you formulate unique harmonies in your music?
At some point, it started to seem boring for me to write one nice simple note after another and started looking for other sound structures, a unique sound. In addition, I was also concerned about the grammar of sound synthesis, which could give logic to the sound that I was looking for. In addition to spectralization of chords, I also began to synthesize new original sounds. In synthesizing sounds, I usually try to create a hybrid between two and more different instrument timbres. When one timbre turns into another, there is always a very unusual and original sonoral derivative. It is often used in my work as a unique sound. Of course, I created such projects with computer programs. How else. The synthesis of sounds and the merging of two timbres into one another cannot be expressed by hand on paper.
It is possible to create a certain new sound without necessarily merging only two timbres. You can try to find the original sound between four different instruments – for example, flute, cello, Taiwanese singer and bass clarinet. The computer system I use analyzes overtones and finds them matching the sound of other instruments. This makes the transition from one timbre to another extremely smooth.
I promise to write all my harmonic and timeless experiments on the score, and then you can see some clear patterns. These would help to clarify the following questions: how is the spectrum created from the chord and how are two different sounds merged into one. If you want to switch from one sound spectrum to another, it would be wrong to transfer a single-spectrum first overton to another spectrum’s first overton and so on with the remaining overtons. In this case, we will not hear any fusion – simply a long glissando. This is the simplest transition from one spectrum to another, not the timbral merger.
To truly merge two spectral sounds, you need to create glissando only between closely related pitches that are minimally spaced apart. All other sounds need to be simply silenced. So the first step is to lay out both spectra as close as possible to the nearby overtones, glissando technique can be used in their blending. It is important to mute as few sounds as possible to make the chords more closely related to each other. It is not my own invention, this technique has been used by the Ircam research institute and the honorable composers who worked and experimented with it.
How did your compositional process change during your life?
When I started composing – in my earlier years – I would usually start with a melody, and then create a harmonic accompaniment for it. Only then did I care about other aspects – like instrumentation and others. I think this process is typical for composing music.
But now I’m starting to create the opposite – I start from the external aspects of the work and move towards the inside. So first I create the structure, rules and formulas for my new composition, and only then I write the melody and the formula harmonic. This is because I feel very free when creating harmonic structures and try to strengthen my composer’s other aspects – I invest more in the idea and form of the composition.
Most often, I try to relate the idea of the new work to the form of music – often I use mathematical proportions, as well as the sequence of Fibonacci numbers and the idea of a golden incision. For example, in one composition I put the structure of the work in proportion to the progressive number ratio. Initially, such a composition resembles blind juggling in number relations, but then, in the depths of the composing principles, realize that the proportions in music have a special effect and are not empty figures.
Also in this example I made a structural decision – to create the culmination of the composition at the place of the golden section and to compose the quarters in the second half of the work. In this way, a certain spectral harmonic transformation occurs at the culmination of the work. And both of the harmonic techniques are cut in proportion to the gold section.
Another example would be a project with the Reconsil ensemble (one of the major Austrian contemporary music ensembles, founded in 2002 – O.J. remark), which was conducted in Africa. During the project, each participating composer had to write a piece about one African continent. So on that occasion, I started my research on the South African music traditions and found some folklore songs that inspired me to create.
The songs were performed in a sophisticated language with a lot of vocals and a lot of consonant sounds in the melodies of the songs. I have experimented with this music in every way and tried to transform the songs into a material related to the families of my chords. I sought to adapt South African folklore to their unique harmonies.
Thus, in the final composition, the original melody sounds in the upper voice. It has remained unchanged so that the authenticity of South African folklore can be heard. However, this melody has been written with tonal harmony, with uniquely formulated harmonies. In this way, I have united two different music languages and traditions into one composition.
Of course, in this example, the composing methodology is somewhat different than usual. Because I already have some predefined melodic elements here and then I have to put all my composition around them. I also maintain a balance between the Boulesian harmony and the traditional African melodies. However, this project could be referred to as a compositional clause.
How do you start composing new music?
Good question… In fact, I usually start composing after receiving a comission. Comission gives me clarity and greatly facilitates the precomposition process. In this case, I have out-of-the-box initial ideas that I can get to compose easier and faster. Much of uncertainty is eliminated. For example, if the customer says he would like a string quartet, the length of that quartet and the date of the premiere, I don’t have to start to create without knowing how to go the first step. In addition, the customer often names the meaning or function of the composition. Although my methodology changes from time to time, what I said earlier, I usually start composing from a melody. Maybe I find an example or idea that inspires me and helps formulate the rules for a new composition. That’s how it goes.
In what stages would you be able to divide your compositional process?
Well, it all depends on the situation. Although common principles and tendencies are being seen, my compositional process is not patterned and it is not possible to give an absolute formula. Creative ideas come to head when they come. I can’t control this process of inspiration. And I collect these ideas – I have a notebook and I collect them for the future. I do not usually compose if there is no order from outside. When I receive a comission, then I try to find in the notebook which idea would be most suitable for this particular case and in such circumstances.
When I start composing, I always go through a certain phase of experimentation, when I try to define myself completely and what I promise to compose. And finally I start writing music. The writing process itself usually does not take long – from one month to three. Of course, the time is saved by the fact that the formed ideas are already prepared in advance. But, as I said, there are exceptions to this scheme.
I believe that all the exceptions to this scheme are somehow related to artistic research, which I also carry out on the basis of the creative projects on which I participate.
Could you give an example of artistic research in your life? Why was this an exception to your well-established compositional process?
Once, in 2005, I think I had to write a composition for piano and electronics (KlangLogBuch (Sound Log)) Duration: about 90min Comission: Florian Hölscher. I was somewhat frightened by the length of the work ordered, because I was worried about how long it would be possible to keep the audience focused to the music. I decided to do the experiment and, by dividing the composition into five parts, allocate each division to the rest of the continent – first to Asia, then to America, Africa, Australia and finally Europe (Expedition 1: “ngeche” (Africa), Expedition 2: “ponso no tao” ( Asia), Expedition 3: “plenty o nothing” (America), Expedition 4: “didgeridoo” (Australia), Expedition 5: “second horizon” (Europe) – O. J. remark).
I wanted to link this music to my artistic research on traditional continents. At that time I had been doing it for some time, analyzing the music traditions of different locations. Of course, I couldn’t really go to every continent and dive directly into different musical cultures. However, I went to Taiwan.
I traveled with my friend, a musicologist who was originally from Taiwan. During the trip, I met the locals and went to the so-called Orchid island, where I listened to the traditional singing of indigenous people. I knew that these people had a tradition of singing with quarterly clusters, and that fascinated me. The pursuit of such a singing manners in my composition for piano and electronics was also a major challenge, as it was not possible for piano to perform quarterly clusters. So I met the local singers of the island, stayed in their village and even recorded their singing. After analyzing the recordings, I generated electronic music that structurally corresponded to the traditions of singing in quarterly clusters. So the composition was finished and the electronics were performed at the premiere with the piano performance. In the final version of the composition it was possible to hear a lot of authenticity of music and feel the local spirit, transformed by modern original harmonies and synthesized sounds. In fact, the work was quite successful and often performed. However, the Taiwanese project turned to another direction that I did not expect.
I thought it was not a very nice situation when I took something from these local people and used their traditions, but I didn’t give them anything back. So, on that occasion, I started another artistic study of the musical traditions of Taiwan, and especially of the Orchid Island.
I returned to the island and made friends with local singers. Once, to my surprise, they told us that there was a nuclear waste storage facility in the southern part of the island. That caused me a huge shock. Especially thinking that these people on the island were not really very civilized. They lived as if they were trapped in the Bronze Age until the 1950s, and money in their life came since the 1970s, and at about the same time they started writing. However, the people of the Orchid island were still very naïve when they started to integrate into a common society. Then the government introduced itself and offered to establish a fish processing factory on this island. As a reward, they promised these people free fish, money and so on. After signing the consent documents it turned out that it was not a fish factory but a nuclear waste storage facility.
It was really a terrible deception and we couldn’t forget it with a friend. So we decided to help some of these people. To this end, we have begun to develop a variety of projects where we talked about the problems of the Orchid island for the rest of society. It was a rather long project and a number of events were organized to inform the people around. It ended with the last event in 2016, when a performance on this topic was built in the state theater – the largest hall in the country. During the show, a political performance was held to raise funds for the natives and help them live in such circumstances. Usually during the events on the orchid island and the Taiwanese indigenous traditions on the stage, local islanders performed their traditional dances and sang – beautiful girls with long hair and strong guys performing traditional indigenous rituals.
We decided to contribute to the show and we came up with a somewhat sharper political concept of performance. We no longer wanted to portray the idyllic folklore scene that was usualy offered. With this political performance, we decided to depict the real life of indigenous people.
The start of the performance was about as expected by the listeners, but in the middle of the performance we started to tell the story about the nuclear waste storage facility by visual and sound means. I was responsible for the music of the performance and created electronic sounds for it. It was an extremely important thing for the Orchid islanders who had become friends to me. Thanks to this performance, they were able to communicate their difficulties and many people became aware of this serious problem in Taiwan. A total of 10,000 people watched this performance.
The appearance of the nuclear waste repository was even discussed in the parliament – on this occasion, the president promised many beautiful things, which were left behind. However, at least the public has learned this story, which is the most important thing. Thus, for example, in this case the composition has a different meaning – here the aspect of social actuality is also highlighted.
We are also working on one project at the moment. It is supported by the Austrian Science Foundation and a group of composers and researchers participate in this project. At the same time, scientists and artists seek to analyze and discuss the topics of ethno musicology. In this case, the composition of music also becomes something other than the production of beautifully sounding music. That is why artistic research, at least in my life, always leads to compositions that are more than just aesthetic satisfaction.
Is this the meaning of creative work for you? Or maybe it is something else?
Well, actually, I wouldn’t say that all my work has to be meaningful in such a way. I feel the sense of purpose while working with art research projects, and it is important for me to expand my field of activity as a composer. I am fascinated by research projects when I travel to other countries. However, I also enjoy creating music that is simply liked by other people, giving them one or another aesthetic pleasure. Just like research, I also prefer traditional comissions – for example, to compose a string quartet for the “Wien Modern” Festival. Both of these experiences are needed for my full-fledged creative activity.
Maybe we could talk a little about the Austrian music scene. What would you see and point out the core values of Austrian music today?
I am not convinced that I am the right person to answer this question because there are several music scenes in my view, not just one. It is important that there are many media in Austria that allow different musical styles to emerge and that all of these scenes are interesting for the public. There are many opportunities in Vienna for different music styles. So it is a great medium for musicians and music lovers. There is an extremely strong stage of improvisational music, as well as avant-garde music.
All this fragmentation of the music scene into many platforms and their consistent distribution is extremely important in contemporary music, not only in Austria, but all over the world. The globalization of culture and music throughout the world have divided it into many small scenes.
The romantic image of the composer nowadays is no longer interesting nor relevant. The lonely ones underestimated modern composers now are being constantly encouraged to collaborate with each other. I also encourage my students to do the same. Also, a contemporary composer also has to be active. There is no point in sitting in the room and waiting for the big festival organizers to contact you. You need to take a creative initiative yourself.
Publishers also lose their importance in the context of contemporary music and music editors are no longer needed. I have recently spoken to one of my friends publishers and said that music editing doesn’t pay out even when talking about composers such as Mauricio Kagel (1931-2008), a world-class contemporary music maker. In such a case, nothing is going to pay of when published.
In my opinion, nowadays every composer must be smart, able to communicate and twist from different situations. I think the composer should care about the combat society needs it – and not just what society could do for you as an individual.
How would you describe Austrian traditional music or sound?
Hard to say. Perhaps things like traditional sound have a clearer sense of coming to Austria from another remote location. As a grown up and living here, it is really hard to tell what the main features of Austrian music might be. I think they can be determined by the history of the country’s music and some traditional lines of sound like the dodecaphony and the second Vienna school associated with it. But nowadays, culture and music in general are perceived globally, and I think there are no clear features of national music, especially in terms of contemporary music. At least, I personally couldn’t find something that would stand out as necessarily an Austrian style. And successful music is also successful internationally, not only in Austria. So it’s hard for me to talk about it. If a person comes from a different part of the world and compares Austria with his home country and its musical traditions, I imagine that he could distinguish several features.
Maybe you have some thoughts on how the music scene will look in Austria in the future?
Few years ago, we mentioned the centenary of the Rite of Spring (Igor Stravinsky’s (1882-1971) – the work was first performed in 1913 – O. J. Remark). And it was a scandal that had essentially shaken the era of modern music. In my opinion, modern music is already a thing of the past, because innovation no longer seems to be the main engine of today’s creation. Of course, everything is constantly changing, but we are no longer looking at progress as a linear process. In the twentieth century, composers refused tonality, then set the height of the sounds and all other musical parameters. But I no longer see where one can go in this direction. Earlier, modernism was associated with modern music – nowadays it is no longer. I think that the focus now is on the innovative and progressive nature of the concept or idea. However, the music form is going back to the classic shape.
Of course, everything is changing – we are not living in the eighteenth century, listening to classical and folk music alone. Now classical music is just one of many other styles, alongside popular, funk, techno and other music. In the twentieth century, the reigning avant-garde music also turned into a small fish of style in the music ocean. As the art of music is no longer stylistically unified, classical music is becoming less and less important for the general public. Then, as a serious musician, you start to worry whether we will continue to make concerts in the future for only two or three listeners. I think the creator has to think about his importance and role in society. Man is not a separate island. It seems that the composer’s profession must rediscover its purpose in society.
I can also share the observation that contemporary students entering composition studies often have no experience of classical music. Typically, they admire the film music and hope to become the young Johnais Williamsais (b. 1932). Earlier, all composition students were mentioning Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933) and György Liget (1923-2006) as their ideals. Nowadays we hear such names as John Williams (b. 1932), Hans Zimmer (b. 1957) and so on. A frequent young man who has mastered a computer program and uploaded several examples of minimalist music to the Internet, hopes to become another world-class Hollywood composer.
However, this is not bad, it is like it is. Simply the teachers need to respond to it. Most often, such depicted students have more different skills – perhaps very sensitive hearing for instruments or sensitivity to meters, or maybe they work well with multimedia. Almost everyone is perfectly caught up in modern technology. It should also be noted that I have a lot of interdisciplinary students lately, which is really encouraging.
It is hard to say what the future of the concert tradition is. In essence, the tradition of listening to music solely for aesthetic pleasure is not a very long history phenomenon. In previous times, art has always had some practical work, it was not a simple routine. The phenomenon of a concert dedicated to aesthetic pleasure only occurred during the Baroque period and I am not sure if it will live long. However, for most people this is a difficult and unusual situation – it takes a few hours to sit still and just listen to music. They are not accustomed to this and I understand that such things are not for everyone. So paradigms are constantly changing and little. We only need to monitor and respond to such things. But creativity as a phenomenon will always be the foundation of everything and it will not disappear until the man is alive.
Thank you for the interview!