Thomas Wally (b. 1981), an Austrian composer, violinist and lecturer living in Vienna, has dedicated his life to music from a very young age. Today he can enjoy a diverse and successful career in music. His works are internationally recognized and performed on many world scenes. As a successful violinist, Wally works for the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna State Opera’s Orchestra, and plays in the Lux string quartet. He also teaches at the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna. Many describe him as a composer of virtuoso and technically difficult music. In his work, T. Wally often strives to maintain a balance between a strictly constructed score and an organically pleasing sound. About music in his life and different creator and artist amplitudes, T. Wally talks to musicologist Ona Jarmalavičiūtė.
How do you start writing music? Do you create draft, sketches, and how your creative process looks?
I would not say that there is some kind of constant process that is repeated in my work. I am often very interested in the possibility of expressing mathematical ideas in music, but I also care about the sound of my works. I’ve written a lot of caprices. When I compose caprices I don’t really use any sketches or pre-composition. I just want to sit down and write, and then watch what’s coming. When I create, I want to be completely free. But I only compose caprices in that manner. My other compositional technique is digital ideas and their construction. Most often, I am interested in a certain arrangement of harmony in the work. I try to create the work in which the harmonic elements of the composition are repeated in different variations. I am not talking about a series of twelve-ton music that avoids harmonious repetition. I want certain chords or certain harmonies to repeat in my works, but always with certain variations. When I compose such works I simply have to create the sketches of harmony in the work. Without them I would be confused and I couldn’t see the overall picture of the whole idea.
You mention the dual nature of your compositions – you love to construct music, but when you write caprices, you are seeking complete creative freedom. This seems to be quite the opposites and it should be difficult to reconcile these compositional techniques. How did you choose to make music with just such principals?
Personally, I like the caprices more. It is most fun to listen to them because you can feel the true spirit of freedom. However, as a composer, I have to be fully prepared for this. I must be able to concentrate my attention on creative work and not to be distracted. It is really much more difficult to compose music without sketches when you have to make all the creative decisions here and now and solve the problems that arise. There are several reasons why I started writing music with a more relaxed technique. In my youth, when I was fourteen – sixteen years old, I made quite a lot of popular music. And then I just wrote what sounded nice. So, when choosing free compositional technique and composing caprices, I started writing with the same principles as writing popular music in my youth. But there is another reason. In 2008, I composed a work for Swedish writer Augustin Strindberg. I started to look for information about him and read one book describing his principles of leisure time. A. Strindberg likes to paint. First he takes a small canvas and draws as long as he has inspiration – for two, three hours. And then he takes a new larger canvas where he tries to depict the same idea. So he begins to work and then usually realizes that he will not be able to draw what he had imagined in his mind before. Thus, the drawing usually comes in a completely different way than he expected. While reading the book I really liked this creative process and I decided that I would love to try it out, linking my work with Strindberg. This is how the first caprice called “Meer, teach, schwefelquelle” was born. I wrote short musical motifs every two or three hours, expressing different ideas. I started working as Strindberg and then I realized that sometimes I wanted to compose music without prior mathematical constructions or strict harmonic structures. In other compositions I go deep into the details and analyze them, but when I write caprices I don’t think too much, just write what I feel.
What in the youth did most inspired you to become a composer and to start expressing your mathematical ideas in your music?
I always loved composing. While I was still six years old, my works were baroque and classical. When I was twenty years old, I already studied violin, but I knew it wasn’t all that I wanted to do in life and that I wanted something more. I think even because my brother had already studied composition at that time, I thought I would do the same. However, at that time I was not interested in contemporary music. I thought I’d become a film music maker.
I know you love jazz music very much?
Yes, I loved jazz, but I never had a special connection with this style. I studied in a class of really great teacher who simply encouraged me to try out new ways to create music. That’s how I started creating contemporary music. However, I cannot tell how all these mathematical ideas are born in me. I probably have systemic thinking and I like to analyze things. Later my precompositional structures became more and more detailed and complicated. I started using sketches to see the overall picture of the idea and make it easier to understand in the further process of writing music.
I think it is very nice that you use not only numerical but also color expressions when creating your composition structures. It seems that both the logical and emotional beginnings of the work are important for you.
Yes, I think I partially build up the pre-compositional structures that I would not have to think about the tones and harmonies that I need to use when I start writing music. Then I feel more creative and I can focus on other musical parameters and the sound of my compositions.
How do you usually get the primary mathematical ideas you want to express later in your creation? Are they inspired by ideas of other personalities, perhaps some literature?
This is a very difficult question… How does it come from? I think I have precisely that kind of precision and structure-minded thinking. In some sense, all of my creation really has a logical sense to me. I know it may sound crazy, I just have a very strong inner conviction for the correctness of my music. Perhaps, in fact, I am simply looking for the rational reasons behind my music. Of course, as soon as I started learning the composition, I looked at other composers and tried to get ideas from them. But these ideas were really not inspired by anyone. No one has taught me such things, nobody has shown that music can be expressed in such ideas or structures. I think they are spontaneous. I also teach atonal music – antique compositional techniques, counterpoint, etc. When you write such atonal music, you always start thinking about what material you use in your creation. There are always melodies and chords that you use because they simply sound nice. But here you begin to think about the deeper compositional structures, the means by which these melodies and chords can be constructed. Suppose you can use symmetrical chords in your work that consist of certain intervals. I think when I start to think about such things in a scarce way, I create mathematical ideas that I try to express in my work. I spent one year studying in Helsinki and my professor Paavo Heininen was an extremely systematic person. He has taught me to really think systematically about how I construct chords or melodies in his work. I remember how he asked me to write one very short composition for the four voices based on chords. In this composition, I only used three ranges – thirds, fourths, and fifths. And then I realized that the chords that would be composed only of these ranges are not very much. In the sense that there is a finite number of them and I had the opportunity to evaluate all the possibilities available when composing these chords. When I wrote my first composition for the orchestra and the chamber orchestra, I used chords composed of two intervals. I wanted to know how many such chords exist and, because it was a finite number, I could calculate them myself. I can find out all my options – how those chords look, what their sounds are like.
Your composition “Postpostscriptum (2x11x12x4): Les îles des nombres” was ordered by pianist Yumi Suehiro?
Yes, she asked me to compose this piece. We met in New York in June 2017 at the Contemporary Music Festival. However, she did write a letter to me a little later and asked me if I would be interested in such a suggestion, or would I like to compose a piece for her. I agreed.
How much did you think of the instrument’s possibilities and the technique of the particular artist Yumi Suehiro, when composing this piece for piano?
Well, before composing this piece, I had already written a cycle for piano solo called “25 easy pieces” with a duration of 90 minutes. Since I have already composed a lot for solo piano, in this composition I didn’t need much to think about instrumental adaptation, I know quite a lot about what is possible to play the piano. Composite piece without playing with piano and only when it is completely finished, I played it once. Clearly, not in tempo, but slowly. Although I am thinking of a musician’s capabilities and techniques, this does not mean that my works are easy to perform. I really have a reputation as a composer who writes highly technical music. The pianist was pleased to see the result, she said she had fun time learning this work.
You are both a performer and a composer, and you are also perform your own music composed for violin – your main instrument. How does the work process change with my own music?
I think there is no big difference when I learn to make a piece composed by myself or someone else, because when I practice playing violin I always work on technical difficulties and try to overcome them. But when I do my work in my string quartet Lux, I usually run rehearsals and make most artistic or interpretive decisions. This does not mean that other members of the ensemble are unable to express their opinions and ideas, but they are teamwork. For me, as a composer, it is very rewarding to be a violinist just because I meet many other performers and have more contacts than other composers. And I just know what I can compose for a violin. This facilitates the whole process. Once I took part in the contest and my composition was performed. The commissioner said when she heard my music, she immediately knew that I was a musician and performer myself. I believe that for other musicians, this perhaps creates more respect for my work. If I’m myself playing it and I am sure that it’s all possible to perform, they trust what I’m suggesting them to do. On the other hand, all this may be a problem, because when composing, I sometimes focus on certain performance techniques or try to create great technical tasks for the performer. One could say that I create more virtuoso music, although the virtuoso might not be the right expression here. Perhaps from listening to my compositions, one can simply notice that they were created by a man who likes to play loud and technically unhealthy music.
How do you really work? How Does Your Composite Routine Look Like?
I would like to have the opportunity to compose on a daily basis, but I have other responsibilities and limitations in my life. I teach at the university as well as perform a lot of concerts, I make music recordings. However, in my agenda I usually know and plan very clearly when I spend time composing music. I try to compose in the morning and spend three or four hours doing this. I start when I wake up. I try not to start too late. So, for example, the time between nine and the first hour is the most appropriate. Then I turn off my cell phone and try not to do anything else, just create. Of course I go out of work every hour – I make a coffee break or play something on the phone. When I write a single piece of work, I usually already have ideas for some other works I plan to compose in the future. I do not work with them, but as if they were digesting in my mind, I know in advance which direction I will start to create other compositions. When the time comes to start composing a new piece, I simply sit down and systematically write down the things I already know. For example: ‘2017, July 31st. A new work for piano solo. Duration is about five minutes. The premiere will take place on April 17 in New York. The work is dedicated to Yumi Suehiro. The main idea is to play with intervals as in Postscriptum. Title – “Postpostscriptum 2x11x12x?” I wrote this because I wanted to repeat the idea of intervals in the composition “Postscriptum,” which consists of eleven intervals, which are twice the sound of each of the twelve chromatic sounds. But this time I knew I wanted to expand this idea and create a longer work, so I wrote “x”. This is how it all started. I have had many ideas that didn’t work out and I couldn’t implement them because they were too complex. That’s how I dropped my clean up and the main idea of composition that fits me. I sketched the sketches, and I have a general view of the system. And then you just have to write music. In writing such systematic or constructive music, I really do not have to be as creative as, for example, composing caprices. I just used one or another combination.
How would you describe your creative work in today’s music context?
I don’t know who said it, probably not one person, but many. There is the thought that the work of art consists of an idea reflecting the philosophical side of this phenomenon, as well as craft, mastery of technique, which is more associated with sensuality. If something is just an idea, without any craft, then it is basically a philosophy. However, the craft without the idea is also not art, it is simply a simulation. I have the feeling that contemporary composers seek to emphasize the philosophical or ideological aspect of their creation so that they no longer draw attention to the composition of music as a craft, their works sometimes seem disorderly or even unprofessional. I have noticed a tendency in some of the works of some contemporary composers – even famous and successful. To my mind, too much of music intellectualization is a problem. For me, music is both an idea and a craft, neither of these can rise above each other. In fact, I spend a lot of time managing my scores and correcting compositional mistakes in my works. Maybe it’s pedantic, but for me it’s important. It seems to me that such simple things define me as a creator. I believe it is important to have an idea in music. However, it is a sound expression that affects us through hearing. And this awakens our emotions. If you, as a creator, want to change the world by presenting philosophical or intellectual ideas, then you should not try to express them in sounds or to be a composer. Because music doesn’t directly translate ideas. I don’t think music is language. There are, of course, similarities, but music and language work on completely different principles. Music also deeply affects the human psyche as words, language, or philosophical ideas, and it affects other parts of the brain. As far as I know, the vision is much more related to intellectual processes than hearing. So people who listen to music come out with a completely different kind of experience than seeing a picture or a philosophical idea. Music influences people on other principles. When people come to listen to my music, I appreciate that. This means that this person dedicates 10-15 minutes to his life for the things I have created. I always want them to feel meaningful and spend their time well. It describes me as a composer.
Thank you for conversation!