Karlheinz Essl Jr.: I had a feeling that I was brainwashed – it was such beautiful music

Karlheinz Essl Jr. (b.1960) as an artist is wearing a lot of different masks at once. Some see him as a composer, others as an improviser, as well as sound artist, performer or teacher. His interest in music varies from double bass studies and creation of instrumental, generative, algorithmic or electronic contemporary music as well as interactive sound installations. In his creative work, K. Essl combines his passion for work with computers and serial music composing techniques being the author of music software. He also collaborates with artists from other artistic fields – K. Essl creates music for paintings, life modern art installations, dance, and poetry. Ona Jarmalavičiūtė, a musicologist, held an interview with K. Essl and talked about the struggle of juggling multiple professional paths and the turning points in his career that made him the artist he is today.


First of all, it would be interesting to talk about precomposition, How did you perceive the phenomenon of precomposition?

I think everyone would agree that the composition just doesn’t justappear from nothing. It is based on concepts and ideas. And in order to work on the original composition, at least for me, it is necessary to construct, find and truly understand the music material you have. I understand the precomposition phase. However, this is just one aspect, because the material cannot be perceived solely as sounds, harmony or other parameters. Music is also a procedure in which all these phenomena are formed.

How do you start composing? Are you waiting for inspiration? Or maybe you are doing a research on the chosen topic? How does work with primary music ideas happen?

Processes vary by each piece. For example, in my composition “Hypostasis” there is an obvious precompositional aspect. Perhaps it is not obvious when looking at the score, but this piece of music cannot be perceived by the score because it attempts to touch spiritual themes. Since there are many different ideas in the process, I have written them in many sketches. But in fact, music is born differently. For example, over the past fifteen years I have started to make music from improvisation. I usually improvise with new instruments that I am interested in, or with the instruments that I myself invent – including my computer improvisation programs.

Sometimes it really happens that the idea unexpectedly drops into the head and thus the composing process is started. It happened to me recently when I got a commission to write an orchestral number in the opera. It was a piece for an opera intermission performed by a baroque orchestra. The premiere will be in Kyoto, Japan in November. It is a baroque opera, quite mediocre. But I was impressed by her scenario and the idea of it. The opera tells the story of a Japanese noble woman, Princess Gracia Hosokawa (1563-1600), who converted from Buddhism to Christianity, while the Portuguese Samaritans came to Japan. A woman was secretly baptized and when her husband, a traditional Japanese aristocrat, learned the news, he offered his wife several options: whether she can return and take back Buddhism, or she will be killed. Of course, the woman did not abandon her faith and was therefore punished for the death penalty. Even today, she is regarded as a saint – and not only a Christian, but also a Buddhist believers, what is truly special. So it is a very important historical and religious figure. Opera is called Mulier Fortis, – translated to english “a strong woman”. I think it is quite uncommon for an opera to be created in the 17th century, to have a protagonist character as a woman, and that only emphasizes the importance of this historical figure. It was not a traditional opera, as we perceive this genre today. It is a union of music and drama – a tradition brought to Vienna by the Jesuit Order, and we call this genre a “Jesuit drama”. This genre emerged as a tradition where the students of the Jesuit school had to create theatrical performances with musical elements. Perhaps H. Purcell (1659-1695) also produced compositions of a similar genre, which were termed “semi opera”. The orchestral piece for this project was created by several composers from Japan and several composers from the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna. So I was offered to compose one intermission for this opera. I studied the score and libretto for a long time. And finally, I found a motive that I wanted to compose. I have discovered one metaphorical character that is called “Constantia” (consistency). This character represents the main virtue of this heroic woman and Constance performs an aria. My intermission comes immediately after the aria and the musical material comes from the last chords of it. I use the same harmony and strive to create a smooth transition between Baroque opera and my composition. Of course, my intermission is not tonal, like the rest of the opera. However, Constance’s aria is written in G major and my intermediate is heavily relied upon to pitch G. Different sections are supported in a harmonious way. In this way, a consistent, all-embracing harmonic pulsation is being developed which is being developed in the course of the work.

When composing this intermission, I felt what others call inspiration. I composed everything in ten days. And at that time I had to teach, prepare for the seminars. I don’t even know how did I got everything done. Sometimes this happens and the work just comes up out of the blue. Of course, sometimes it happens differently and it is difficult to write a few pieces for a month. You never know what kind of compositional process is waiting for you.

Is the beginning of your composition process usually based on the commisioners references?

This may be the beginning of composing, but not necessarily. Sometimes I do without a commission and just compose what I want. In recent years, I have often felt directly inspired by modern musical instruments or new techniques of performing traditional instruments. For example, toy pianos. A decade ago I recorded the entire CD with compositions for toy piano. I am fascinated by this instrument because it resembles a piano, but it has no cultural and historical context. He is a piano, free from public expectations. And it sounds like a percussion instrument. Reminiscent of Gamelan rather than Beethoven Sonata or Rachmaninoff’s concerts. I asked a friend to lend a toy piano, improvised it for a long time, and from that somehow all the compositions were born.

How do you make new music by improvisation? How does composing take place in such conditions?

Of course, improvisation does not mean absolute freedom. It also has its own structure, rules and models. For example, by writing compositions for toy piano, I created primitive improvisations in the eight-tone scale up and down. I felt that this sound was fun for me, it had freshness and charm. There is also no tonal center, so the sound has a constant movement. I recorded this sound into a computer program, forming a canon with very narrow time changes. This created a variation of sound, and this was the beginning of the composition. Finally, I created another layer of electronic music – there were a lot of tests and mistakes. It was again improvisation – this time with recordings. This is how I composed the piece for play piano and recording.

When the musician performs this composition on the stage, we put the column inside the piano. In the beginning, the recording sounds and the artist simply replicates it to create the illusion that he plays the scale up and down. Finally, the sound intensifies and the musician really starts playing what sounds on the column, but at the same time the recording changes and the canon starts to sound. The overall sound becomes so complicated that the public is disrupted – one person with two hands would not be able to perform it. This is such a small trick. This composition is called “Kalimba” (2015). Because it is a toy piano, the work resembles not traditional piano music, but rather African models of sounds.

As I understand you are composing both by hand and by computer programs. How do you decide what compositional principles you will apply to one or another idea?

It’s a sensation. Usually the idea itself is inseparable from a certain compositional principle. Computer-aided creation of algorithmic music offers different possibilities and limitations than handwriting. Perhaps other composers have one work model that repeats itself during his career. In my case, each composition is a separate matter. My career is not very stable in itself – I’m doing different things, I’m not a constant person. But in terms of influences, one could say that I am being formed by the second Vienese School, J. S. Bach’s works, medieval music. I try to draw ideas from everything and don’t repeat it. As A. Schoenberg has said, “the most important thing is to do not repeat”. That’s why I don’t like sound loops. Well, “Kalimba” was made with sound loops, but it uses so many different loops that the principle of loop repetition is destroyed by itself. But usually I do not like repetitions in creation or in life. As a result, my compositional process is usually hard to predict.

Do you sketch music? How does this process look in your creative work?

Again, everything is changing and there is no constant in my professional life. In my youth, when my career started – it was about 1990 – I often sketched musical ideas on paper. I usually wrote the texts and described the details of the idea. Also created and the notation-like sketches. And today I work with a computer program from the very beginning when composing electronic music. In this way, sketches are no longer necessary for me. But sometimes I write out the melodies and ideas that have accumulated in my mind.

What were the most important moments in your career? How did they determine your life and form you as a composer you are today?

There were several such strong moments. As the first, I would like to mention my acquaintance with the music of Anton Weber. It happened a long time ago – it seems to me at the beginning of 1983. That was Anton Webern’s 100th birthday. At that time I was a student and studied in the class of Friedrich Cerha (b. 1926). At that time, our relationship was quite tense and unreliable. Later we became good friends, but the first two years were difficult. So at that time, F. Cerha invited me to listen to the concert after the lecture. The professor said that we would hear the piece of A. Webern and I need to hear it. At that time I was 23 years old and I have never heard dodecaphonic music. At that time, I was much more interested in counterpoint-based compositions. During the concert I felt as if I was brainwashed. It was such a beautiful music. After that I told myself that all I have heard about the second school in Vienna so far is just a bit of a fuss. I decided to explore this music of A. Webern, A. Berg and A. Schoenberg. At that time, I really didn’t have the ability to compose dodecaphonic music. My professor understood me and allowed to do analyzes instead of creative work. I started my study from A. Berg and my goal was to find out about every note in the score. I also created structural analyzes and just wanted to figure out everything that was possible. This helped me to understand music better, think about it and eventually enriched my composing process.

Later I studied musicology and wrote a dissertation on the second Vienese school. The teacher insisted on narrowing the topic and chose to analyze the late works of Weber. These were incredibly interesting, where the composer sought to create a synthesis of what he described as a vertical and horizontal representation of the thought of music. So he talked about harmonic principles and counterpoint. He tried to link Bach and Beethoven in his work and to create a common synthesis of these composers’ styles, which he wrote in a letter to his friend. That way I was able to link my topic to my passion for a counterpoint. In these compositions, the past met with the future. They were highly structured and precomposed, so to speak. So from the interest in Webern’s work, I got to know other serial composers – Stockhausen, Boulez and others. All this happened in a similar period when I was 23-25 years old.

At that time, one of my friends, who was working at the University of Music and Performing Arts Graz, introduced me to the computer, because I was very interested in this. At that time, no one in Austria had such a thing as a computer. A friend explained to me that all the ideas in my mind about algorithms, structure, shapes, and components can be done much faster and more conveniently with a computer program. While writing my dissertation, I lived in my friends apartment. So I had the opportunity to work with a computer and a text wrapping program. I worked well on my dissertation – I wrote about 50 pages. On the return of my friend, I stated that I could no longer work without a computer. He advised me to wait and buy another model that was brought to Austria. So I saved my money and bought it.

However, it was very difficult to continue working with it, as it was a completely new and empty computer system, and the typewriter was rather poor. So I wasn’t able to get the whole text I had already written – I had to rewrite everything. But on the other hand, it was a great practice, as I was able to read it again, understand and correct the errors found by rewriting the part of the dissertation.

At that time, I discovered an experimental programming language called “Logo”. It was invented by a teacher of mathematics and pedagogy and was designed for children to learn programming. The children were given very simple tools to create their own worlds. And a device called “turtle” was created as a reminiscent of a toy. The device really looked like a turtle – at his head there was a pen and pupils had to program commands what the turtle should do. He performed simple procedures, such as moving forward, backward, turning 90 degrees, etc. And you can create movement schemes or shapes. Maybe this is a toy for kids, but the possibility to construct your own language is very interesting to me. My vocabulary as a composer in my professional life could be, for example, a twelve ton row. And with the help of this language, I am willing to create musical constructions that grow and are expressed in complicated notation. In this case, having a vocabulary can create a whole world. For me, this creative principle is extremely fascinating. That’s how I got acquainted with the possibilities of computer music.

The third important point in my career was probably the discovery and application of algorithmic music in creation. I have always loved to analyze compositions and once in the library I found a string quartet by Friedrich Haag (?), composed in 1959. I liked listening to this composition, I thought it was such fantastic music. And then I decided to analyze this composition. I got it completely wrong. I couldn’t figure out with what principles it was composed, no matter how hard I tried. Finally I wrote a letter to the composer and explained my situation. He wrote to me and was very understanding. He said he understood why it was difficult for me to continue this analysis because the piece was composed based on random operations. I did not expect this answer – this composition sounded very logical to me. We continued this discussion and soon became friends. This relationship was extremely important to me because he introduced me to his work and his principles, from which I got a lot of inspiration and ideas. I felt like being a student. He introduced me to the serial music and there was another creative impetus in my life.

After studying, I received a proposition to work at the IRCAM Research Center and write a composition for the ensemble using a computer program, created by Boulez in 1988. I tried to realize this composite idea, but it wasn’t that easy. Because Boulez had a very sophisticated idea for electronics and a live ensemble. I had to take care of microphones, live sound processing, audio specialization and other things. At that time, all this was very difficult to realize. So, in this case a new computer program was being created. That’s how I really pulled into computer music. This was the next step.

Well, there were many of them.

In your biography you are named as a composer, performer, improviser, media creator, teacher – you are also interested in different topics, areas and compositional techniques. Your identity seems to be scattered and hard to define. How would you describe yourself?

It seems to me that I am something between all these descriptions. I don’t have one label – I’m everythiing. At one time, composing with the score was the most important to me and I felt a traditional composer. Later I was interested in improvising music. Sometimes I get caught up in media compositions. My field of interest is constantly changing – and hence myself, and my identity is never the same for a long time. There are many different things that inspire me, I can’t do anything about that.

You create music for projects related to other arts – photography, architecture, etc. I wanted to ask how do you associate and unite music with other arts in such cases?

The first such project was with the graffiti artist Harald Naegel (b. 1939). He was much older than me but an anarchist. He was not a vandalist and did not participate in the subculture of graffiti artists. However, he created art and expressed himself in graffiti. Of course, other attributes of this form of expression came – for example, he had to remain anonymous because his art touched on political topics. Also, his graffiti art have never been long-lasting and most of the paintings are probably not existing today. But fortunately he has a photographer, a newly-painted work is always photographed and several albums with his creative photos have been released. At one point he got into jail, but many of the cultural world figures were struggling to release him. And he was released it in a few weeks. I met Harald Negel in 1980 through my wife. At that time I was still a young student, and he was a famous artist with a name. Then he had the idea of creating a graffiti performance in the museum with him creating the graffiti art live. Of course, not on the walls of the gallery, but on additional artificial walls. So when we met, we discussed about art and music – I was convinced that he was still a huge erudite. And then he told me about his new idea and asked if I would like to work with him – could I create a composition for his performance in the gallery. I immediately agreed, but then I felt strange because I had never created this kind of music and I was completely unaware of what I needed to do. I don’t think it would be appropriate to write a score in this situation and ask the musicians to do it. After all, the artist will improvise by drawing graffiti. There’s nothing planned here. As you might imagine, it was a great challenge for me. I could not come up with any kind of music composition for such situation. Only later did the thought come to the idea that I could use the same sound components as Harald Naegel in drawing graffiti. So his performance consisted of spraying with a graffiti spray can. In this way, he essentially did three things: drawing dots, long lines, or shaking the can before drawing. I have decided that it will make the three main sounds or musical expressions that I will try to reveal and portray in my composition. I decided to use instruments such as flute, bass clarinet and saxophone. I composed a piece that is written in non-traditional graphical notation. From these three sounds – dots, lines, and shake of can – I created a dictionary, and with the help of the dictionary I started creating stories. Here I used computer program and algorithmic principles of composition. In this way, I randomly wrote different sound layers for each musician and told them to play independently from each other. The music is so free and open that it fits every time a graphic artist, flutist, saxophonist and clarinetist create something together. The work was called “Partikel-Bewegungen”. This performance was shown in several art museums in Düsseldorf, Zurich, Darmstadt. It was a truly successful project with uniqueness and freshness.

Could you share your opinion on the contemporary music scene in Austria? What do you see most in your professional environment?

I find it difficult to give my insights, especially because I myself am in this scene and am part of it. It is very interesting for me to watch today’s young composers working in Vienna and feel how their music understanding changes and how different it is from our generation. When I grew up, the image of a composer was like a man who alone sits at the table and writes scores while inventing new worlds in his compositions. Now everything is going a little bit different. And I had to adapt myself to this change of lifestyle myself. Transformation took place in 1997, when the premiere of my works at the Salzburg Festival was performed and it was a great success – great performances, a favorable reception from the audience. After this event ended, I died in depression because after this peak I had no more to know where to go and what to do, I felt a sense of meaningless towards my work. I realized that I don’t like sitting alone in full isolation and writing scores. All of this started under enormous pressure. Then I tried to figure out what I would like to do next and remembered my experience as a performer in adolescence. I started to improvise and create improvisational performances on stage. At that time I was somewhat distant from the traditional composition and started creating electronic music. And then I combined these two areas proportionally in my work.

Do you imagine yourself as part of the stage of Viennese improvisational music?

Not much. At this point, I’m focusing on collaborating with other creators. I make music for texts – working with the writer on one funny project. And without any commission, it is just fun and interesting for us to do it ourselves.

Another area that I am focusing on today is creating records of the sounds from environment. I am looking for interesting environments, recording sounds, and assemble them with modern ambient compositions. Other people are filming, creating videos, taking pictures of their life’s impressions. I choose a sound recording because when I listen to it later I can remember one or another place – what was the atmosphere in it, what happened in it. Previously, it was a complicated procedure, and now we recorded sounds with one click on their phones. However, a year ago, I discovered another new technique that opened up completely different audio recording capabilities – recording environmental sounds with microphones in your ears. We all have two ears and with their help we hear three-dimensional sound – we can not only indicate what sounds we hear, but also what direction they are spreading from, how far away they are from us. Usually we cannot feel these nuances in the sound recording because they are created by our body. The brain begins to perceive and orient in space by sounds already in infancy. However, if you record the sound of the environment, it sounds flat and two-dimensional. There is no depth of sound. Similarly, when we see a magnificent view and make it a picture. You can’t feel so many things and aspects from the impression that you experienced when you saw the original image. However, if you put your microphones in your ears, they record the sounds of the environment just as they hear them here and now. The sound becomes three dimensional and it becomes a completely different listening experience.

This is not new. Such ear microphones have been in use since 1970. At that time, they were called the “art head” (Kunst Kopf). It was a rather strange mechanism – indeed an anatomically accurate head model with microphones in ears. But the head was big, heavy, very strange to take in public places. And also, it was extremely expensive – around 7,000 euros. It was hard to get and hard to use. Especially in order to record sounds in a more intimate, subtle environment – like in a restaurant or elsewhere. Thus, such recordings required microphones that were less visible or at least less extravagant. So I use headset-like microphones, and as I keep them in my ears, my own head becomes an “art head”. And microphones record sounds just as I hear them. Then, after creating the record, I often process it and assemble it until I create an experiential composition that I hope I enjoy.

I have done a lot of such recordings and all of this goes to a joint project called “H.E.A.D.” (hearing entirely artificial domais). During this project, I recorded sounds in different spaces, in different cities, and tried to restore my audio experience. For example, in this project in Graz, I recorded environments in the city market, the tram station, and the park in the music university yard. I’ve been working on a computer program for all the recordings so that the whole composition of Graz reminds me of a dream. The listener flies with the sounds from one situation and the environment to another, everything spills out and has no logical basis. But, on the other hand, the sound situations are so real that the public can believe they are in Graz city when they close their eyes. So it’s a strong and misleading experience. I have done such projects in many different cities around the world. For example, when visiting Oslo I visited my friend’s chef’s restaurant and asked for his permission to record kitchen sounds. He agreed. It was also an unusual experience. The chefs reminded me of the musicians a lot – they were artists, but on the other hand they were just waiting for commissions from orders. There was also a lot of humor in the kitchen and threy had a rather positive atmosphere.

I later added poetry to the recordings. I asked my friend, the poet, to listen to the recordings and write a text reflecting his inner thoughts. He spoke the voice of his thoughts and we put it in the record. It was also a great addition to the project, giving this modern listening experience new facets and making the audience think.

Did you have any idea in your creative practice that could not be implemented or was impossible to implement from the beginning?

Yes, one orchestral piece. I had the idea not to use any normal sounds – just the noises caused by unconventional modern performance techniques. It was possible to do the orchestra, but it takes very long rehearsals and you have to have great authority as a composer in order to explain to the professional musicians how you want them to play their instrument. Such music was curated by H. Lachenmann, and even as an icon, he had major problems and difficulties in performing compositions, as musicians simply did not know how to play such music and it was technically unusual and difficult for them.

It was the beginning of my career and I was commissioned to create something atmospheric for a symphony orchestra. The musicians were professionals and had performed contemporary music before. I didn’t even think they knew how to perform my composition. Although, perhaps, I have not chosen the most obvious notation, I do not know where the problem was. But in the final, it was a complete fiasco. The musicians did not know what they were playing and tried to imitate the sounds I expected of them. So the premiere took place, the piece was once performed and even a record. But it was a tragicomedy. It was really a painful experience in my professional life.

I know you have created your own musical instrument – a computer program called Amazing Maze. How did you come up with the idea of creating something like that?

This happened right after my depression, caused by the Salzburg Festival concert. I wanted something new in my life. I was thinking of becoming a musician and a performer, but I didn’t know how to play decently any existing instrument. That’s why I created a new one myself and it is based on the creative principles of improvisation, which were also extremely important to me at this stage of my career. It was 1998. At that time I used a processor that was fast enough to produce rhythmic sounds, and finally it was possible to create electronic music with computers. However, the possibilities were rather limited and I had to use some examples of sounds that I had recorded or created myself. That’s how the Amazing Maze was born. However, when I created an improvisation program from the recordings I had, I didn’t use long sound excerpts – all the recordings were broken into short, momentary impulses. I put all of them into a certain category system, dividing the sounds into the types – like, the continuous sound, the impulse, the rhythmic sound, the melodic sound, the pulsating sound, and so on. A similar categorization was applied by H. Lachenmann and I used it as an inspiration for my program. By arranging the sounds, I made the improvisation process much more conscious and gave the artist a greater sense of control. Basically my instrument is playing itself and it forms a composition. However, the performer can change the direction of the movement of improvisation. In addition, the sounds cannot be repeated. That is why sound categories were created.

Recently, I have been improvising with the Amazing Maze program and have made a duet with the singer. The project is called “Out of the Blue”. We never rehears and meet only on stage. She is a great singer who knows modern performance techniques and reacts quickly to the ever-changing situation. She prepares poems for improvisation. I choose the models of sounds and recordings I will use in the concert. But that’s all. No one knows what the final result will be on the stage. And listeners often react to sound like a pre-written composition.

Thank you for the interview!

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