Klaus Ager (b. 1946), one of the most famous contemporary composers in Austria, is a figure with name and influence in the context of contemporary music in Europe. As a president of the European Composers’ Forum in Brussels in 2006-2014 and leading the Österreichischen Komponistenbundes (1981-1994), K. Ager also retained his highly active and productive creative and academic career. Professor, then Rector (1995-2000) at the University of Mozarteum in Salzburg. He obtained a wide range of musical education while studying piano, violin and composition at Cesar Bresgen (1913-1988) and Gerhard Wimberger (1923-2016), and music theory at Gerhard Croll (b. 1927). Later, he studied composer knowledge through his twentieth-century personalities such as Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), Pierre Scheffer (1910-1995), Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007) and Luciano Berio (1925-2003). In his work, traditional, electro-acoustic and computer music are intertwined. Ona Jarmalavičiūtė, a musicologist, talked about the secrets of music making and the part of the contemporary composer and the struggle for a better life of the artist here and now.
How would you describe your compositional process yourself?
As it is difficult to talk about it to the general, I can tell you about my latest composition called “Licht – Traum für Sopran und 2 Gitarren” (light: a dream for soprano and two guitars) (2018). The premiere of this composition took place two weeks ago at the Passau Festival. This festival was devoted to a project involving three composers from different countries – Austria, Iceland and Cyprus. There was also a pre-selected instrumentation, as there were specific performers – you could write the composition for six guitars and soprano to the maximum. I chose a slightly different set of instruments: voice and two guitars. I decided to compose only two guitars, because this composition is closer to me and better known. In addition, composing for two guitars is just a few times better than a wider instrumental composition. And there is one more aspect – contemporary works and so are the performances of the performers. However, comparing if a composition with two guitars and six guitars is much easier to find, who would be able to perform a smaller composition. So it’s more worthwhile and more practical. For this reason, no one writes compositions for the symphony orchestra. However, it should be mentioned that the operative voice and guitar are not the most perfect combination on the stage, because the voice has always overshadowed the guitar and we had to adjust the sound in every way to hear all the voices.
We, each of the composers involved in the project and the festival, had to select one of their country’s pieces of folk music and to offer it as a raw material to a colleague who originated from another country.
So I got an Icelandic folklore song. She was interested in many aspects. First of all, I knew nothing about Icelandic music traditions, so I was eager to immerse myself in the new world and compare my discoveries with the musical traditions closer to me. Specifically, the song itself attracted me with its harmonious duality, expressing in itself both the moral and the alloy qualities that differed from the ear-closer alpine folklore traditions. In addition, the accompaniment of this song is basically parallel voices and not, for example, terraces – which are so accustomed to the ears of a European cultural user. It also further emphasized the unconventional tone and harmony of this kind of music.
The folklore song had other functions, not just aesthetic. She also told a story about a woman, Hal, who travels through the dark bog tunnels, tucked away from the tent to the tent, to avoid the cold local climate and the wind.
The song was mono-like, short and primitive. At first, it is not very clear what such a material could do. The original ideas were simple – to arrange the arrangement of the voice and the guitars, and then to mimic the result and thus extend its duration. However, the more I went into the work, I decided to use its quotations at the beginning of the composition and later in several places in the middle. However, I also chose to use quotes from other, unrelated compositions. So the Icelandic song was like a tent and the other quotes were tunnels between them. In the form of my composition I tried to portray the story itself, heard in music – a journey between tents. In fact, this story can have many different symbolic and metaphorical meanings, but I understand this work as a journey to another world, and an attempt to discover a new life, while trying to find its past – a sense of security.
In addition to the different musical quotes, I also used different texts in the soprano party – I worked with textual excerpts from Robert J. Koco, Giuseppe Ungaretti and H.M. Enzensberger’s creative heritage. Additional texts were needed because the original song was very short and basically consisted of a couple of sentences. The texts of Ungaretti are personally extremely important and expensive to me. I recently read his poems, who were writers during World War II, when he served in the Italian army and took part in a bloody western front, killing about a million soldiers. Reading what he wrote about doing such things, I constantly think of my uncle, who also fought on the same front, just on the other side of the barricade. At that time, there was a fierce battle between Italy and Austria, but, with my imagination, whatever country they struggle with, all soldiers survived similar things. There is a labyrinth to read a set of poems on such topics, knowing that so many people survived a full nightmare.
It was not easy to form libretto, music and find a compromise between these two poles. I had to make many shapes and structural changes to unite text and music. In such creative situations, associations that are caused by certain sounds and certain words are most helpful in creative situations. certain sounds and certain words. Also, as I have instrumental guitars for two guitars, I was very interested in creating a canon in the composition. Instrumental parts sounded between the poems. The recurring motif of the Icelandic folklore song always comes back a little, in which case there is a movement in music. So, in fact, I cut my samples, picked the places or snippets I like the most. The form is traditional and perhaps it is a secretly hidden link to traditional music and things that have become traditions in music.
In fact, such a composite process has proved to be complicated and complicated for me. I had to translate the text many times and search for information for a long time before I finally realized what my song was and what it meant. The analysis of the text was also extremely difficult. I was interested in everything that could have been more or less related to the Icelandic music culture. And the hardest thing was to come up with what and how to do it. It took more than half a year. The composing itself lasted a few weeks and was a much easier process. I have been trying well until I decide what I want and how I intend to do it in my music and composition.
Do you only work on commission or do you sometimes choose to compose freely – for your pleasure?
Well, usually there is an order and I am always busy with it, so I can still find extra time for free composition for my pleasure. For example, when it comes to my latest project and the composition that was formed and completed in the course of this project, in this case it was a very clear order – invitation to the festival and proposal to participate in the project. I wasn’t free and in that case I couldn’t do what I wanted. However, I was not as constrained as I could imagine. Here the requirements were to use the traditional Icelandic folklore song proposed by the organizers, as well as to choose instrumentation between one soprano voice and six guitars. I wrote the score in two weeks – is it not an inspiration?
I think it is equally important to discuss how the process of text and music unification has taken place. I found it very difficult to find texts that I felt were in full compliance with the concert and the performance, or even recording the sound. I first have to read a lot of the wrong texts until I get to that one.
What are you looking for in the text to understand or feel that this text is musical and suitable for writing composition?
It seems to me that the most important thing is to understand what you want and what you are looking for, requiring new text. Sometimes the text is musical and corresponds to the music language. And it is very difficult to talk about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of generative text. Sometimes, for example, I have written compositions that my customers have given me some text to write music. At first I thought that such access to the composition could not lead to good results, and the texts that the clients presented to me were inappropriate for my music composition. Maybe they had some problems, maybe they didn’t sound or know what musical means to express one or the other words. In this case, the composing process is much more complicated for me. Can’t reject the text, edit it or explain it to anyone who just hears that this text is nonsense. You have to work with it and make every effort to find the details that are right for your music. And something is obtained, not necessarily a poor composition.
Do you create if there are no commissions?
At the beginning of my career, of course, there were occasions of such situations. But now hardly. An order is not just a guarantee of security that you will be paid for your labor. He also ensures that the composition will be performed on stage – at least once. And it is extremely important to me to actually hear the composition, to perceive it as an object, a phenomenon that is heard in matter. It is also important to make an entry during the premiere if there is a possibility. It is important for me to know how my compositions actually sound. If there is more than one performance, after the premiere, I usually change and improve the score – there are always new questions and problems in the case when the musician tries to materialize the music ideas that sounded just in your head. So during the performance I also learn about my creation and improve my work.
A year ago, I received an order from Taiwan, who ordered the creation of a European and Taiwanese instrument together. It was an interesting and at the same time very difficult experience. The order immediately told me how about the instrumentation and the purpose of the composition – to combine two different musical traditions on the stage. I listened to a lot of Chinese and Taiwanese music – I tried to compare them and use this method to better distinguish the main features of Taiwanese music. And later I compared these traditions with European music, looking for contact points and similarities. So I worked very long and hard until I came up with the idea, but I composed the composition myself in exactly seven days.
Orders are also important to formulate the topic. For example, another recent order could be discussed. Thematically, I linked this piece to an abandoned monastery in Salzburg, which has a unique symbol in my life, because I myself come from Salzburg and spent my childhood playing in abandoned monastery gardens. When the monastery was restored and the renovated building was opened, this composition was ordered. So the theme of the musical piece was clearly stated. And this music tells listeners about this place where I grew up and spent so much fun.
There was another order where you knew from the beginning what your composition should be. This order took place in 2001, the year when the terrorist attacks took place in America on the eleventh day of September and two hijacked planes fell into the skyscrapers of the World Trade Center. At that time I was in Thailand and attended the festival. Following the tragedy in New York, the organizers of the festival commissioned composers to create a composition about freedom and hope. So, as you can imagine, it was a completely different composition process.
Usually there are clues. Usually the instrumentation is indicated in advance – especially if the customer is a performer. Many musicians have ordered my compositions to perform them. One such performer was exposed from South Africa.
You studied violin, piano, conducting, instrumental, electro-acoustic and computer composition. How did your studios look and why did you finally choose the composer’s way?
I played violin in my childhood and adolescence, but I didn’t really like this activity, and I don’t know if I had a very good teacher. When I started to study violin at the Academy for a year, I had to change everything I had learned at school incorrectly. For me it turned out to be pointless and I felt too old to start learning to play this tool again. The violinist was weak from me, so I imagine that I would have become an altar after my career and would probably play for the orchestra. I don’t know or would be happy with such work. And piano studies were more like an add-on to becoming a conductor. However, I do not regret these experiences because I now have a better understanding of the possibilities of these instruments and know what it would be possible to do with violin, piano or, for example, viola. In this case, the performers themselves cannot mislead me so easily, complaining that one or another place of composition is technically not done.
And the composition was always closest to my heart, from all the subjects I studied. There was both a conductor and an academic career. There are also various organizational responsibilities – creating festivals, concerts, guiding various organizations. But without composing music I can’t live.
At what festival are you most happy to have participated, or perhaps the deepest impressions that you find interesting to remember?
The literary festival Bloomsday is organized in Salzburg on 16 June. This celebration is international and is dedicated to the life of the writer James Joyce (1882-1941) and his novel Ulysses, which describes one day in the life of protagonist Novel actor Mr. Leopold Blum – June 16, 1904 in Dublin. And Ulysses is a book with six hundred pages describing one day in life.
Artistically, this celebration is about literature, and Salzburg often focuses on such personalities as James Shors and others. And there are various concerts, premieres and contemporary premieres on the same day. Salzburg as a city in general is extremely beneficial, as the government gives money to composers when ordering works. I used the situation and for Blum Day I composed a piece for an ensemble composed of viola, guitar, and cello, for an organ.
Do your compositional processes have certain established phases or patterns? Or maybe he’s different every time?
I have no recurring models. As I have already mentioned, sometimes the composition depends on the order, sometimes on the text and finally on what you want to do with it. And the process itself connects with the original idea of the composition. It is not possible to compose compositions of different character based on the same process with certain active models. Of course, the one I made older, I made it slower and less revolutionary. Perhaps this is a problem, but on the other hand, I am comforted by the idea that almost all composers get old.
Do you sketch music and in what form do you usually do it?
Yes, of course, I sketch music, this is a very important part of the compositional process for me. I really like writing, so I often write for myself written sketches. Normally, when I think of an idea, I start working right away and as I develop, develop my thoughts and find out what means I can express it in music. In fact, good ideas come at night, so I always keep my sketchbook on my bed. Of course, it is often that you wake up in the morning and realize that this genial yesterday’s head-to-head idea is weird and it is impossible to convey music.
What other parts, apart from sketching, would you be able to divide your compositional process?
This is a rather difficult question, as the process is quite personal and composite, as I have already mentioned, is sometimes very different and is individual to each composition. There is always a process in which I try to decide what I am going to do – it is usually the first and extremely difficult and frustrating, and still takes a lot of time. Creating an idea for me is an essential process in composing music. And then the composing process itself. Since the first part takes a lot of time for me, then I always miss the second. And I have to hurry up and be productive. I write the composition, press externally, in a record short time – everything lasts for a week. It is time for me to be too late to add my composition. Under these conditions, I can do anything. Perhaps for this reason I try to delay my precompositional process of formulating the idea?
Is it easy to understand your concepts after reading the scores of your creations?
I don’t think so. I doubt very much that any analyst would be able to make an analysis of my compositions and see the frame of the work clearly. Whatever you understand, unless I tell you where the dog is hanging.
As far as I know, you create both instrumental, electro acoustic and computer music. What are the differences between these three methods specifically in your compositional practice?
The farther away, the more I like to compose on paper in a traditional way. The computer screen is not so convenient, it cannot simultaneously run parallel to all the pages of the composition and also see all the details that are marked on them. In addition, the computer screen worries me.
I was engaged in electronic music when I was younger in my first career. I have now abandoned this area a bit. This is different music when you hear and feel unnatural. In my opinion, we have such wonderful musical instruments created over the millennia. They really are made up in the sky and perfected to deliver a clear, clear sound, as well as having different timbres and colors. Why not use these instruments for your creation? It seems to me that traditional Western European musical instruments are worthy of compositions and their possibilities are vast, and yet they sound extremely beautiful. By doing so, you can take less care of sound and sound. You know what the instruments are, meanwhile thinking about the timbres that are right for the piece, and no longer need to turn your head for sounding things. It seems to me that all this is extremely interesting. Electronic music is based on completely different principles. Everything here must concentrate on a specific sound and nothing more. You have to realize the idea and then listen to it right away. There is no breeze between you and the music.
On the other hand, it is sometimes easier not to rely on performers, because they do not always give such a result as they want, and the performance is always imperfect – in contrast to the record when you have the opportunity to constantly improve the final version – all eternity. I often come to performers’ rehearsals before the premiere and I am very disappointed that my vision or opinion has not been ignored. Electronic music concerts do not have such humane organizational problems. Although not, I remembered a little absurd case when a piece was made for clarinet and recording. And suddenly in the hall, the columns were lined up along the wall only on the left side of the stage, and the sound was not on the stereo, but on the left. It was funny and tragic at the same time. The performance was not happening and I was very dissatisfied with how they decided to make this composition. And the audience was not too fond of this kind of music. It was a technical problem, but the clarinetist wasn’t very pleasant and I didn’t cooperate with him anymore. I think we got serious because I was no longer invited to that festival. And the clarinetist has, since then, made a great career in politics, and it seems to me that he is a minister of culture.
Have you ever had an idea for a piece of art that could not be implemented – was it impossible in one way or another?
Well, the developer does not implement one or other concepts for very different reasons. I always plan at first without limiting myself, dreaming as far as I can. Well, then I start working on composition and suddenly realize all the difficulties, shortcomings and limitations. Sometimes, even with all these weights, we can stifle and find a way to implement the concept of musical language and means of expression. Of course, it will never be perfect, just as you imagined in your mind. However, sometimes limitations appear to be too difficult and no matter how we try to find a way to bypass them. Then composing becomes impossible and realizing that your original concept was perhaps too grandiose and utopian. Beautiful illusion, nothing more. Then there’s nothing to do with it and to give up. Sometimes I easily accept that I cannot express some ideas in matter, and sometimes it is more difficult. It all depends on the situation.
You come from Salzburg. How did Vienna came in your life? Do you currently live in this city?
I live between Vienna and Salzburg, because Vienna is more about my professional affairs, and my family lives in Salzburg. I never really moved to Vienna, but when I became President of the Vienna Composers’ Union I had to spend a lot of time here. Originally hotels and trips to Salzburg, such things are difficult, they are very busy and take a lot of time. So I bought an apartment in Vienna.
What experiences did you most change as a composer?
A lot of things have changed me. I think most of all I was changed by my own work. I feel that with each written composition I become a little bit different, somewhat richer, and more experienced. Every experience affects what I am today. I also believe that my teachers and friends, my family, are the people I communicate with and who I associate with my life. I think they shape my character.
What influence did your composers – Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Scheffer and others – have on your career and compositional principles?
Of course, my professors helped me form my creative style as a composer and polish the technique. Olivier Messiaen was fascinated by me as a creator and a great fan of his music. However, he was not a traditional professor as one would imagine. I wouldn’t say he had been analyzing the compositions he had given him for a very long time or working with me. He talked to me and told me things. I am not saying that it is irrelevant and has not affected my work, but the learning environment was somewhat different. I still remember a few things he explained to me or the topics we discussed.
You are part of a musician community in Vienna, Austria and all over Europe. You are actively involved in solving social societal problems faced by today’s composer. How would you describe your own experience in these organizations?
Well, I should add that I founded these organizations. When I organized the festival in Vienna we had one question and wanted to know what German composers think about it. Then I contacted my friend composer in Germany and started talking to him about how it would be useful if all the composers from each country and the European Union had a community, solving problems and issues. That’s how the original idea was born and everything went step by step. We founded this organization in 2006 and I was the first president until 2013. Later I had to leave because of my health problems. But it was a success story.
What changes in the life of composers did you see when you led this organization?
It is quite difficult to provide a generalized analysis, as each composer will personally present his or her opinion and each will be different. Composers’ living conditions differ from the country or city in which they live, the style or nature of their music, their financial possibilities – whether they have financial sources abroad. I think the music industry is threatened by modern music composers, because it refuses to cooperate with modern and avant-garde music that is more difficult to understand and accessible to the masses. Since today’s composers are separated from the music industry, their financial situation is comparatively much more complicated and this is a real and very big problem, because serious music is an important part of modern culture and it is to be abandoned simply because it demands from the listener’s intelligence ardam real education, is absurd. Popular music has no such lasting value. However, it is like taking over the whole world. I am going to this cafe because there is no popular music in the background. That would make me mad.
How would you describe today’s music scene in Vienna?
There are many different music scenes in Vienna, representing different music stylists and I’m not part of all of them, so again, I find it difficult to speak in general. As I have already mentioned, the financial situation is not favorable for composers in Vienna, as in Europe. Even with many orders, you cannot live with dignity, and the composer who has regular orders is an exception. Usually, composing music becomes a hobby for many, and next to it, they are looking for a different, more stable job. And as a platform for music, there are positive and negative qualities. It’s a big city with great competition. The musical scene is alive, there is a constant movement, there are a huge number of musicians who migrate to Vienna from other countries. Of course, this enriches the city and brings quality performances, concerts and university. On the other hand, because there are surpluses of composers in composers, their prices are falling and it is becoming increasingly difficult to live decently on music. It would be difficult to compare Vienna with other Austrian cities, because Vienna is unique in size. Other music capitals in Austria – like Salzburg or Graz – are much smaller and all the composers know each other, and still work at the same university. In such cities it is extremely easy to form composer communities compared to Vienna. They create communities organically.
What do you think is the role of the composer in society today?
Today, my personal opinion is not very good. There is no interaction between serious and popular music, no collaboration between the music industry and independent composers. Also, money is not distributed equally by states, which is a huge problem. We are trying to organize a community of composers, but the composers themselves are often not very fierce or fierce souls, they often make difficult decisions themselves. So, as you can imagine, trying to organize a community of composers together is a real challenge. And there is no external support, because the state or the music industry, at least in my opinion, does not really understand what it is, what its value is and what it needs. It is, of course, difficult to understand when information is not available to you. So serious music becomes more and more isolated from society and the composers suffer from it. We are trying in every way to start this conversation and build bridges between independent composers and various organizations that support them, but it will take a lot of time and inhumane effort. It is to be hoped that the situation will be corrected in the future. Wait-and-see.
Thank you for the interview!