Interview with Jonatan Sersam

A Malmö based composer Jonatan Sersam (1986) studied composition for eight years at the Malmö Academy of Music, the Conservatory of Bologna and the Künstuniversität in Graz. He graduated in the year 2017. He’s active both as a composer and a musician – he is also one of the founders of the composer group Hertzbreakerz. In his creative work, Jonatan Sersam is experimenting with the narrative structures of music, trying to draw parallels and interconnections between contemporary dramatic thinking and the purely abstract flow and musical transformation of sound. Musicologist Ona Jarmalavičiūtė is asking for the composer to break down his creative process and to talk about its structure and meaning.

What are your thoughts about the structuring of the creative process?

I initiate when I have something that I know is original, free from cliches. Every time I start writing a piece, I always have to go through this “digging”, where I try to find the pure energy, raw material, something that is just music, and not a product of what I’ve heard before, reminiscences of historical music or contemporary music. I’m struggling with this avoidance of mannerism every day, and that is something that goes through in all the above phases. After the digging is done, I structure my harmony. It’s the most important thing for me. If the harmony is not convincing, the air goes out of the piece. I can also focus entirely on rhythm for instance, but I have to be aware of the harmony, even implied, from the beginning. In a totally noise-driven piece, there is also a kind of harmony. I’m convinced about it, and you have to structure this energy, that is the fundamental of western art music.

What are your thoughts about this quote: “Works of art have been compared to icebergs: what is visible is but a small part of the whole. An artwork might seem to exist in splendid isolation, but that impression is misleading. Cultural products inevitably arise from a context, a submerged landscape that is often not easily accessible”?

Yes well, i think that seems true. Although, for me as an artist, my work of art is the iceberg. I need to see the entire iceberg. I think sometimes we exaggerate the importance of social structures, biographical facts, economical context and so on. I think art is above all that in the end. The peek would be the actual piece when performed, the bottom would be me, holding that peek up.

Are you familiar with J. Campbell’s concept of “hero’s journey”? Could you draw a parallel between creative process and such structuring of a story?

Yes I’m familiar with Campbells work. I wouldn’t apply the Hero’s Journey on every piece, I’m more tempted to apply it on an entire artistry. In great composer’s development, you can sometimes read their musical evolution according to Campbells model.

Do you have certain patterns, structures when it comes to your creative process?

It’s wuite different every time actually. But in general, the material appears, then I have to sort it out, I have to understand what it is and why it has shown itself to me. Then I can tame the beast, I can start manipulate it, using the tools I’ve gained during my musical journey.

What is the most fun and the most boring part in the compositional process?

Most fun – the initial phase: discovering a new material, a new sound or a new harmony. Most boring – finishing a piece. It’s always a little strange to have to end something that is infinite. Music is infinite, I think, and I end something because I have to for practical reasons.

How do you usually create a new idea of a piece?

It appears, as a synthesis of thoughts, experiences and maybe even from discoveries from other pieces.

How does the process of forming an idea looks like?

I have to be careful, and quite “scientific” about it. The idea is a fragile thing, and it might always run and hide if it encounters too much semantic pressure…I carefully analyze the idea, it’s inner being, what gives it its face, its identity. Then I can form it according to how I want it to transform.

How do you transform the abstract idea into material – sketch, notes?

I scribble, words, music, symbols, graphics in a mess. I try to define for myself what will happen.

What is your purpose of music sketching?

to “think aloud” and mainly to remember. To make myself aware of what I’ve been thinking already, and what I need to work on.

When do you decide that the preparation (precomposition) period is over and now you will start to actually compose?

too soon! I always realize I should’ve been better prepared. But i’m eager to start writing down the notes, because I like it so much.

Please describe your state of mind when you are creating something.

I try to be focused. I’m also extremely sound-sensitive. I need to be in the music the whole time, which is difficult if I work many hours in a row.

Do you critique your own work? Explain.

yes all the time. But It’s very hard to see exactly what is not working and why. Usually after ca 5 years I can see what a piece lacks and what I could I’ve done about it.

Do you identify with your creative product? Explain.

yes, I think that every day my creative product looks more like me. It’s scary.

Thank you for the conversation!

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