Paul Hertel (b. 1953) is named as an Austrian composer, music maker and conductor. His works are performed in a lot of countries, and at such festivals as “Aspekte Salzburg”, “Styrian Autumn” “Huddersfield”, “Festival de Ville d’Avray”, “Austria Today” etc. For a long time, Hertel worked as a theater composer and music director at different stages like Vorarlberger Landestheater in Bregenz, Vienna, Graz, Schwäbisch Hall etc. And as composer of Film Music and operas for instance Deutsche Oper, Berlin. Musicologist Ona Jarmalavičiūtė talked about the journey of life, the subtleties of the music composing process and the part of the musician in Vienna.
How does your work process looks like?
I normally don’t have a daily routine. Maybe it is often more peaceful for me to work in the evenings and at night when the phone is not ringing and no one from outside is trying to contact me. Then I have some quiet time for creative work. But my routine basically depends entirely on the commission and the amount of time I am given to compose. If I have to write a composition within a month or a several weeks, then I know that it is best to get started right away. I divide my time into days and hours, then choose how much time I will have to spend on creation. I have to count every minute of the score. And all the other settings depend on what I’m trying to compose. If it is classical music, let’s say, for instrumental ensemble, then I begin to compose it from the sketch. I write it in the form of a piano score. Then I simply orchestrate it. The first step here is the creation of the form and structure of the work – this is the most difficult part of the composition process. Later, creating instrumentation, I simply form a timbre or sound of this work. It seems easy and simple for me. Most often, when writing a piano score, I guess what melody lines which of the instruments will perform. After the instrumentation step, I always try to understand and write the dynamics of the work, which is a great challenge for me. This is the ‘finishing’. I try to grasp it again and look at the work, looking for various hair mistakes and correcting them. It is important for me to correct new compositions and improve them many times. But when it is ready in the end, the process is mostly finished. Whatever the nature or style of the work is, it will always have a logical structure. And if I compose something that does not correspond to these internal structures, it feels obvious. I’m looking for such discrepancies and trying to fix them. However, details in musical logic must always be corrected. It could be possible, to find small inaccuracies, even when the score is so far ‘ready’. When I am at the rehearsals, or have the function of the musical floor manager I can easily fix it. This is nothing special. Everybody that writes big scores is doing this, but mostly it is not a great issue. The main foundations of the work are usually appropriate, and I do not make mistakes here.
How did you decide to become a composer?
The choice was simple. I knew clearly that music composing is the best thing that I can do. Of course I am able to perform in many fields of activities – for example, I have been writing for many years. There is a very rare phenomenon that I, as a music composer would make a living of text writing. I wrote radio programs, features. I also wrote separate stories and I have published recently my first book with a collection of 13 short stories, that are in a way treaments for feature films. The second book should come out soon. I often write texts for my music, though in some cases I also use librettist for help. My life has been tied to music from my early days. I started playing violin since I was five years old and later I played for the school orchestra. The works that the pupil’s orchestra had to perform were primitive – after all, they were compositions for children. So, because I was bored, I often started improvising my part. Perhaps it was my first attempts to compose. And the other students complained about me, saying, “Teacher, he’s not playing by note!”. However, my improvisations always fit with the work and did not harm the overall sound of the composition. Later, beying sixteen years old I learned to play guitar and had my own band. At that time, we also did a lot of improvisation and performed our own pieces. At that time, I began to realize that I didn’t know anything about music forms, theory of harmony or proper improvisation. I realized that simply playing what sounds nice to me is not enough. So I started to learn the music composition professionally – I became familiar with classical models and rules, and I trained my music making skills. These serve me today to find the unevennesses in the composition and to correct them. Now I know what to change in a particular situation to make the composition sound better. Maybe creativity is not boosted by these classic composing skills, but I can use them to polish the sound that I create.
Also, as far as I know, you studied drama. What kind of traces have this kind of education left in your creative work?
Yes, I have a doctor degree in drama studies. I also completed theory studies about that time and later made my diploma in composition studies. A musical theater, is a phenomenon that combines music and drama. It fascinates me and attracts me. I have worked in theaters for a long time – both as a musical director and as a music composer. As a director of theater music, I traveled with productions throughout the German-speaking Europe (Germany, Austria, Switzerland – O. J.). Creating music in the theater is extremely convenient, because if you have a great director, he will give you a frame, and leave it all at your discretion. Then, as you develope your ideas, you feel free from the commission. Then I can write instrumental music, electronic, electro-acoustic music. In this way I also gain a lot of worthwhile experience and music composing skills. Drama studies have given me a lot, but more in the theoretical context of shaping the worldview. Throughout our studies, we were given the whole story of theater in detail and of the world at large. Because culture and history are always intertwined with music and drama. In general, music cannot be understood in isolation from the rest of the world, also not theater or other artistic branches. In drama studies, I have created such a wide-ranging worldview of cultural-historical context. Even geographical knowledge can be helpful. For example, if you do not really understand the historical situation around the works of W. Shakespeare (1564-1616), you can’t really grasp these “Game of Thrones“ of that particular time and landscape, where Shakespeare’s dramatic creative principles are used and the medieval historical ethical context is displayed. It is true that every kingdom is governed by sex and war. At school we had a drama tour of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s (1749-1832) tour of Italy. All the geographical and historical details did allow us to look at his works with a new point of view. All of the Wiener classics were also a product of the political and historical situation of that time. Art can never be separated from the rest of the world. Music is always related to history and other contexts. I was convinced of this during the drama studies.
What is the difference between the creation of music for the story-line and the rest of the compositional works and projects?
In my opinion from the creative point of view there is no such thing as a difference between music for story and music for aesthetic pleasure. Programic music was an important part of instrumental music. However, when creating a soundtrack for a story, it is certainly important that vision and sound match the other. If I’m composing music for a movie, I’m not free. The director of the film wants to create a certain environment, a cretain state of sound, express some kind of thoughts. Often they require one or another style of music. I can’t just pick up and write as I want. But I have such a luxury in creating other pieces that are not so limited in the idea. It is often the case that I create a story myself, write scripts, and then create music for this story. This is the best. Stylistically today a lot of things are possible and you can find so called contemporary classical elements also in the soundtracks of Hollywood movies. It all depends on what the directors want. Let’s say the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean”. In several places the soundtrack picks sounds for instance from the compositions of G. Ligeti (1923-2006) and A. Schoenberg (1874-1951). Of course, her it is a rather short musical episode – then followed by a romantic Hollywood orchestral sound. Nevertheless, s.c. contemporary music and movie music cannot be considered as separate categories. Film makers use music of any style to cultivate emotions.
According to what criteria do you choose the story or text for music you are creating?
I am simply looking for what would suit me. There are countless boring texts in the world. I’m looking for something that is tingling me, taking into account the emotions that are encoded in the story, I have in my mind to tell. Sometimes I find a poem I like of an author that is still alive. In this case, I try to contact him and offer to cooperate. This sometimes leads to new artistic projects. This year the outcome was a ‘vintage musical’. The years before it was a requiem and than a chamberopera…
Does your music style change?
It’s hard to say. Indeed, I am interested in many different music styles. In my childhood I was taught classical music, later I played popular and rock music. Later on I became interested in avantgarde. Some listeners say I have a distinctive style in my work. But I find it difficult to define. No matter what style you take, there are also good and weak compositions out there. If at one point I am interested in one or another musical style – I try it out.
You are an active member of the Vienna Composers Society. How would you describe the Austrian traditions of music and the composer’s everyday life in Vienna – so called the “city of music”?
We Austrians are often proud of being a music country. But, unfortunately, this is not true any more, if we look at the economic situation of authors rights. Here we are a music-import-country. We have very old and long musical traditions, a kind of musical legacy and heritage. And it is both good and bad at the same time. Some tourists coming to Vienna want to listen to W. A. Mozart alone. This is simply a paradoxical situation. Especially since Mozart is not from Vienna, he has only lived here for a while. Perhaps this “music city” label is just a bubble where the composers and performers of this city live. And perhaps Vienna’s physicists, lawyers, or writers feel the same. Hard to say. However,there is a lot of different styles that have their roots here. The Viennese Classic, The waltzs, the twelve-tone-music. A lot of people associate the waltz with the sound of Vienna. Even Schoenberg has created ‚Walzer’ (op. 23 no. 5.) Not only has Vienna a strong music scene, but also in other Austrian cities. Here, serious music is performed along with popular or rock, jazz music. However, in my view, Austria is no different from other countries in this respect. For example, I was recently in Riga and listened to local contemporary composers. I felt that all of their works were a mix between mainstream avantgarde and folk music. At least that is how I have an external approach. I think that, in fact, the same is today in Austria. And the composer’s everyday life in Vienna is the same as everywhere. If you are a successful composer then you will survive. However, it should be mentioned that Austria is one of the countries where the musician can live from their profession. As far as I know, this is not possible anywhere else in principle. Maybe still in Berlin or Los Angeles. That is why there is a huge flow of musicians to Vienna and there are a lot of musicians here. And they are going through as freelance, independent musicians. And in fact they are living – have a nice place of residence, maybe a car. There’ not living half-hungry. Of course, they are busy and the cost of musicians is falling. But the musicians are going through it here. And here it is very good to be a composer or try to create your own ensemble of musicians – because there are so many strong performers here. Even foreign conductors are sincerely surprised by the quality of performers. And a great audience too. So from this side I would name Vienna as a music city. Nothing is just white or black. And I really wish that the culture of music will be protected in this city in the future.
Do you have any insight into the future of contemporary music?
Here you should define what is contemporary music. Would you name it as a classic avantgarde? This term is very slick. What is contemporary Music in general? Avantgarde is a product especially of the midst of the last century – it cannot be sayed that avantgarde is contemporary music, because ‘contemporary’ means – now. And what if it’s banal music, that was created in these days of the 21th century? Is this also the contemporary music you meant? This whole definition of contemporary music is not specific – it is hard to see what kind of music I should be talking about now. On the other hand, when talking about the mid-20th century avantgarde, in my opinion, this could also be understood as a certain stylistic framework that perfectly integrates into further culture of music. The motifs of avantgarde sounds are used in films and in popular music. For example, Frank Zappa (1940-1993), having taken inspiration from A. Schoenberg, has used twelve-tone melodies in his music. I think it is important for any style to know how to integrate itself into the remaining cultural and social contexts. Look around (Wiener Ringstraße) – there are the buildings that were built somewhere between years 1860 and 1880. A lot of people didn’t like them at the beginning, they were angry that it was a blend of classical and contemporary styles of architecture. And now the people of the 21st century adore these buildings and call them “classic”. On the other hand there is no guarantee that what people do not like now, will, or will not be worshiped in the future. In my oppinion, it is enough for the composer to match his time. If you make something too early – you can call yourself a pioneer, of course, but you will starve all your life. If you compose it too late, then you probably won’t have any fun. Unless you’re G. Rossini (1792-1868), he’s lucky. And in his time, he was considered a composer of a rather old music style. C. Monteverdi (1567-1643), on the other hand, is an example of a successful pioneer. To tell it very simply: Before him, there was prevalent in Europe a more intellectual music, but a bit boring as well. Then Monteverdi caused a revolution in music, adding emotional melodic lines and transferring the polyphonic style to the monadic style that leads at last to the baroque opera. He brought polyphony and emotional melodies in a new way together and invented the ‘Basso Ostinato’. My music combines melodic music of any kind and also avantgarde stylistics. This is me and such music works for me.
Thank you for the interview!