Clemens Gadenstätter: The paradoxes of art and life

Clemens Gadenstätter (born 1966) is an Austrian-born composer who teaches at the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Graz. After studying the art of composing music with contemporary music icons such as Helmut Lachenmann (b. 1935) and Erich Urbanner (b. 1936), the composer is extremely interested in the semiotics of music. This leads to a growing desire to create true contemporary music, not so often in its simulacra. Ona Jarmalavičiūtė, a musicologist, talks about the roots of creativity and the desire to create a musical experience without labels.

As far as I know, as the creator you have long been interested in the subject of music semiotics. Do you use this knowledge to create new ideas for your compositions?

Yes, no doubt. I only perceive semantics as little broader term here – I cover not only the visual symbolic meaning of the object, but also its materiality and taste. After all, it is also semantic information that influences the thinking of every human being and the perception of the world. Because I am not a semiotic, I allow myself to use this term somewhat more freely.

Technically speaking, strategy-making or decision-making is highly related to the high level contextualization of certain thoughts or sounds. First of all, it must be said that each sound contains semantic information. So I use this semantic information to form ideas and contextualize ideas. I have written a text describing all levels of contextualization.

I have heard that with the means of contextualization and semiotics you seek to create unique sound experiences with new symbolic meanings. Is that true?

In my work I am looking for novelty in the historical sense. And I also strive to create such musical experiences that have no labels. Such aesthetic experiences cannot be described in words, they do not have their own definition and terminology. As soon as I can find the word for this experience, I immediately give it a label, along with it, an additional contextual information load. After all, it wouldn’t be an experience at all – with a term comes an intellectual understanding of what it is and I have certain pre-formed attitudes about it. I would like to mention the thought of Helmut Lachenmann (b. 1935) from his book “Music as Existential Experience” (Musik als die existenzielle Erfahrung – O.J.). Here he states that uniqueness is the source of all the truly existential experiences. If we rely on this idea, then, in my creation, I do indeed seek uniqueness. And all my compositional solutions lead me to such an existential experience.

How does your daily work routine looks like?

I work whenever I have time. When there is no urgent work, I can quietly set aside the composition of music from the tenth hour of the morning to the seventh evening. With breaks, of course. Unfortunately, there are very few days when I can only spend time composing music. Usually I have to combine this with my work at the university. And earlier, when I was a professional flutist, I had to combine music composition with rehearsals.

In this case, when it is not the most time-consuming, you need to create a work routine that allows you to start working immediately. Here I use all kinds of tricks for myself – for instance, in the evening I leave some simple, effortless, composite work incomplete, so that the next day, sitting down to work, I already know what to do. This helps me to get into a working state. Of course, I have a trait to compose large opuses and extremely long compositions. I work on one composition for months, and sometimes for years. Whatever I do – no matter if I work on the project or not – I always have a hard drive in my mind that develops ideas about composing music and new music projects. Rarely in my life are there moments when I don’t think about music and creative activities.

You mentioned that you are writing long and complicated musical opuses that take a lot of time. Do you divide your composing process? And if so, to what parts?

Most of the time I create certain composing strategies. At one point I start the process of composing, and since then I go into the research of precompositional decisions, I come back before the beginning of the composing process, where I explain the cultural context of a particular sound, motive or instrument. And then I am going to design all this information into the future. I think that the present, past and future in my compositional process is synchronous. At the same time, all I have researched and found out in my sketchbooks. The whole process really takes a lot of time for me.

Is it usually the same action plan that repeats all the compositions?

No, not really, because the semantic points of approach I work with are always different. Every time I have to apply new techniques and new strategies to express other semantic sounds. I can foresee some things less because I use a certain compositional basis. In this way, I do not have to change my perception of every element in music every time. I am also doing a few templates – such as for certain note fields or proportions that save me in this situation. However, depending on what kind of material I work on, my compositional process and the strategies it creates are different.

So, in your compositional work, you use a certain unifying structural foundation. How did you come up with the idea and how did you formulate this foundation?

It is quite difficult to explain, as it all started to develop gradually. For example, when it comes to pitches, I found some sound features that were of interest to me in shaping the foundation. I simply tried to create a single line of notes that consistently change one or the other. And this has created one model of certain musical features. I strive to describe harmonies, rhythms, proportions, or pitches of sounds not only in abstract structures, but also in terms of certain sound characteristics. By this principle I make lists, from which I received kind of a sound palette. I can take it into account when composing, but it is a free choice based – not a closed or strict – system. I also create similar lists with semantic and historical sound information. In this way, examples of musical material are created not only in the abstract aspect. In addition to these palettes, I have also created a number of templates that I have translated into ways to move from one sound to another.

You mentioned that you are not putting the precomposition process away from composing itself. Maybe you could broaden this statement? What is precomposition for you?

While trying to answer the question – when composing music begins, it is important to understand, how we define this process. If I say that composing begins when I write the first note on the pentathlon, then it would be possible to say that precompositional decisions are taking place before that. But if I define the composition of music as an system of organization, then composition begins when the first decision is made. And this happens much earlier than the beginning of the creative music writting process.

In the second way, every time before composing, I have to ponder and consciously understand those decisions that were made before I was born and became a composer. We do not think about it, but many precompositional solutions have been adopted by my first decision.

For example, if my first decision is to compose a piece for the violin, there are many other early decisions in my choice that determine my new composition. I have a pre-formed aesthetic perception of the environment, I know that the melody needs to be written on the pentathlon, and still use some understandable notation, strings, etc. These things that exist before I start composing influence the entire compositional process. I must think of them if I want to create a composition for the violin. After all, I can’t just pick up and write anything that drives my head. This instrument and our music traditions have their own limitations. I can only try to redefine these parameters or at least try to reflect them and be conscious of all precompositional rules.

The process of precomposition for me is all we know about how to organize any music parameter. It’s like one big game about the decision-making tradition. The rules of this game are what determines my actions before I start composing. In my opinion, every composer seeks to change the rules. For example, L. van Beethoven (1770-1837) – how he perceived piano and the genre of sonata difered radically from the traditional perception. I think this is essentially the purpose of composing.

How do you usually create an idea for a new work? How does the idea-forming process look like?

Generally speaking, someone has to cause some creative anxiety inside me. Maybe there is a question that I can’t solve, some kind of thought that I can’t understand – something electrically energizes me.

I live my life and do not wait or look for anything, but my internal antenna continually catches stimulus from the outside that inspire me for creation. And a lot of things irritate me. And this is usually something new that I don’t know about. Because then I usually do, not of a scientific nature, but some research. Sadly, I will never have enough time to develop all these ideas into musical compositions.

Are you going to deepen intellectual questions while preparing for the composition?

Well, it depends on how we perceive the intelect. Do we mean only an oral expression with words? This is a very important aspect. It may be that the philosopher would accept such a definition of thinking. However, the artist also uses his imagination, metaphors, and flair to formulate the expression of his thought. I think that the composer must first think about the sound, especially through his imagination and intuition. So the language and fantasy here blend into what might be called intelligence. However, it is important to make decisions and build your own rules when creating something. When the creator tries to understand every precompositional non-decision he has to grasp from various concepts, he is also looking for ways to express it – possibly with the help of metaphors. Structural metaphors are needed, with the help of which we can express, write and accumulate sound meanings and their perception. I think that there is a lot of thinking and possibly intellectual activity in this process.

Even at this compositional stage, when I redefine the sound, I perceive as a metaphor – when I when i dare to water that does not exist in advance. There is no water, but it manifests itself in reality thanks to my crochet – it becomes water only because I do the crochet action. And then I feel the water. It’s a paradox. However, in my opinion, art very often reflects one or other paradoxes and we do not need to deal with them. Perhaps it is the charm of art. After all, paradoxes in the real world drive us crazy. And in art we see beauty, no matter what.

You mentioned that you are inspired by many different things that make you think and look for contextual and semantic meanings. How do you transform these abstract ideas into material music?

Suppose something is making me nervous and this is the right topic for creating musical material – that is related to sound, instrument or other parameters. Then there is a long process of searching for information about this object and the information contexts associated with it. For example, many years ago I was made nervous by a marching army orchestra. The appearance of the orchestra itself did not cause me anxiety, but my own reaction greatly disturbed me. I think all this was due to my army’s perception and thinking of such a collective power of music that inspires people to go to war and allow themselves to be shot. Of course, this is not something that fascinates me. This military music and wind orchestra march in the sense of a unique eccentric experience is again not what I am looking for creatively. However, the power of this sound and military music has affected me emotionally. Of course, this was not a pleasant experience – I didn’t enjoy this music. Rather the opposite. And that caused me an inner anxiety and feeling of nervousity. And there’s a lot to do with that.

So I split the military march according to certain features, such as the sound of the drums, rhythm, etc. Materialization in this case first appeared in the phase of my search for information and research. In this phase, I usually make lists. I wrote all the thoughts and then I could identify some or all of the interrelations of these phenomena by simply naming some things. Lists are longer and then I automatically come up with ideas on how to contextualize all these features based on historical and semantic aspects. Of course, all the layers of contextualization intertwine with each other, but I have to separate them, because only then can I perceive them as separate. Then a large amount of sonoric material is obtained. For me, the music material means not a particular note or sound, but the sound in context with other sounds. Therefore, the context is a means of creating bridges between sounds. This is a complicated procedure because there are many ways to codecealise each sound. I build bridges that connect this sound with other sounds.

Sometimes I try to find all the sounds that fit one context. Obviously, this is not fully possible to accomplish, but it is important for me to look for sounds that are contextualized at different levels and form a certain aesthetic sonoral field.

In my opinion, the most important thing when writing a new composition or materializing a new idea is to make it change my mind about the world and me. I don’t want to stay the same all the time before I start and write a piece. It is possible that there are other professions as well. That’s for bakers. Maybe not everyone, but the baked bread itself can fundamentally change the baker – his attitude to bread and eating may change. And maybe later he starts thinking about the entire global system – how to feed the whole world, etc. Change is probably one of the most important things in the life of the developer.

How does your work with music material looks like? Is it also based on intellectual activity?

If you perceive intellect as a common perception – thinking, feeling, intuition, etc. – Then yes. But only by agreeing with this broader understanding of intelligence. Because I don’t think most of my compositional decisions are made deliberately. It’s like a feeling, I seem to feel the music between my fingers. Of course, after making the decision, I always reflect on it – why I did one way or another, created one or another piece of music. It is important to think about your work with reflection and to feel responsible for what kind of music is presented for the world. Finally, you also have to feel responsible for your listeners. If I do not evaluate my own movement and my activities, then I simply cannot take responsibility for it. In this case, I could also say that I support my activities with constant reflection and intellectual work.

And in what forms do you usually express all these reflections materially? You did mention that you are making lists, or are you using other kinds of musical ascoses?

There are many sketches. I usually make them all on the paper. In this respect, I am old-fashioned because the computer screen is too narrow and one-sided. You see, I need to put all the sketches on a large desk top. Each sketch must reflect a different layer of contextualization in which I make compositional decisions. Lists in my creative practice are just one of the sketches. Next to them I use graphic sketches, systematic sound organizing strategies and so on. In some sketches I try to go into the instrument as a source of one or another sound. I strive to find every possible reality for every sound I work with. In fact, sketching is a difficult stage and in my case it takes a lot of time. I am writing all the sketches of the sketches until the final score of the musical work comes up.

Dancing to the side of the biographical interview, I wanted to ask how did you decide to become a composer?

When I was thirteen years old, I did start writing notes. Maybe at first I was attracted to this because perhaps all of us sometimes want to do something just because the person we know and plow did the same thing in their lives. In youth, it seemed to be an important reason to make one or another decision. So I hooked up for music writing and continued doing that. Of course, I had to experience a lot of different experiences, because at first I had no chance to learn music art professionally. I had to discover everything myself and it was this research process that fascinated me. In addition to writing notes, I also played the instrument – flute, which made it easier for me to pursue a professional musician path. When I was fifteen years old, I decided to study it. Of course, at that time, I really didn’t realize what consequences this decision will have for my future life! However, I started to pursue this profession and work for it. At that time, I knew perfectly well that I didn’t know anything about it and that I needed to learn a lot to finally implement my plan. First I went to gymnasium or university (Vienna University of Music and Performing Arts – O.J.) to learn to play flute, and one year later – to compose. I would not say that I became a composer only after the entrance exam. Of course, this was just the beginning of a long road.

The learning process itself has brought many frustrations to my life. It was a completely different experience than I expected. I have learned a lot of different music composing techniques there, but nothing has been explained about what composing music basically is, who needs it and what I can do with it. All these questions were essential to me at the time and the university did not give them answers. Finally, I had to come to the conclusion that every creator just had to go his own way without any prior guidelines and discover the way in which his music will bring the meaning. So it was a very interesting and creative disappointment. If I hadn’t experienced it, I wouldn’t have started my quest and research at all, I wouldn’t have raised more complex questions about this profession. So I don’t blame anything for that.

Well, then, you move forwards, step by step. There was a period when I was very strict at one time. And it was extremely important to me to find out what modern music is all about. Because in that case you have to create something that would contradict everything you understand as music. As if asking a question – what music could be in addition to how it is visible now? Only in this way is musical innovation born. This paradox, like the contemporary music itself, is extremely interesting to me. And in my opinion, if the work does not offer a new approach to music, it is not contemporary. Of course, this may be a piece of art, but it is more a product that repeats existing traditions than a truly contemporary work. Of course, this may be a bit too strict for categorizing music. However, this motivates me to remain creative. It is like a carrot hanging in front of a donkey and pushing it forward.

In my opinion, composing has nothing to do with the production of musical works. These are absolutely different things. I think the composition is a way of thinking, being, living. It must give you joy and happiness. I think that if you really want to be a jazz musician, it is also a way of living. Or, if you are a Buddhist monk living in the mountains and creating music – this again becomes your way of life. Well, of course, one should expect that music will be created from time to time in such a life. This is important because you will then introduce others to your creative fruits and they will give you feedback. It also gives a lot of reflexive reflection on your chosen lifestyle.

What kind of reflections do you get from other composer creative work? What are you looking for when listening to music?

I think it is important to understand that I was born and grew up formed by a particular tradition of music that dominated my home, town, and country. The music I grew up with was very close and precious to me and is up to this day. This music has not lost its value. My generation was one of the first to grow up listening not only to Beethoven and Mozart. At that time, popular music and rock bands flourished, which was also an important part of the music tradition I had been raised in. I think I’ve written a few compositions based on popular and rock aesthetics. It also changed my approach to music.

I remember years of studying a year when I didn’t listen to classical, contemporary or popular music. At that time, I was interested in what I called “ethno” music. So simply the traditions of other cultures as far as they were available to me. Since the Internet didn’t exist yet, I bought music records and books that reflected other music cultures. I wanted to use them in my work, but because some of the attributes were too strong to simply be recited as an ethnological music quote. I do not want any non-subtle musical references when listeners might notice that this composition was influenced by one or another exotic music culture and its traditions. So I did not know how to use this knowledge in my work, but I am convinced that this period changed the perception of my music.

Other things that also affected the way I understand music were movies and books. Julien Gracq or Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein (1989-1948), or Marcel Proust (1871-1922), and of course many others. It just sharpened my sense of music and creativity. Yes, the question of music was important to me to understand what I was trying to do, but sometimes it seems necessary to get out of the main stream of my information so that you can have a real influence when fresh information is just electrifying you. After all, if you have been in the water for a long time, you will not feel it, just as we are no longer in the air. Unless we start to stop it or change the environment.

You were talking about the fact that every composer has to survive transformations. How does your journey towards self-knowledge look?

Well, it is important to realize that every new thing you learn about yourself hides something new, another secret, another unresolved problem. So self-knowledge is an endless process. In my case, it lies in the decisions to work with a material that I don’t necessarily like and I don’t feel confident in. Maybe I do not have such a creative experience, or in some place the material is not suitable for me and poses a lot of trouble. Again, all this causes me a creative anxiety. It is only at this stage that I learn something new or find out what is the most important thing and people should not avoid unpleasant experiences. This is the evolution of every human being. And I try to love those sounds and the music I create. Perhaps, while working, I will discover new qualities of these sounds or release some of the features that are deeply hidden in this sound. And then this music will become mine, and this sound will start to appeal to me. It often happens that we miss the bright sound qualities through our ears. Since some of the sounds are too often used and have too much semantic information, we simply do not hear them, just react to them. Like that car sound or a police car siren. Or quotations of known compositions. I don’t know if anyone is listening to Mozart. They hear and react, but don’t listen very much. And so the sound features passes through the ears. Their discovery and hearing are also part of musical evolution. But, of course, there is no purpose in this journey. The goal is probably to move or travel here. Don’t stop looking and working. And of course, follow the direction you move. The direction must match your moral and aesthetic provisions. I wouldn’t like it if I moved in an unacceptable way and, for example, I would start composing traditional music. Then I should change something. And I think this process will never end on in my life. Well, unless I decide to stop making music, I’d die or something else would happen.

You are talking about being a composer in an Austrian tradition of music. How would you describe the musical environment in which you grew up?

Speaking of my musical influences, I spoke more personally, and the definitions of both contemporary music and new music are also my own personal views. But the attitudes towards the environment is predetermined by culture and art rules. So in other way, this is not at all personal, because my opinion is also the fruit of previous traditions. I think that the traditions of classical music were indeed extremely strong until the second half of the 20th century, when we can start talking about the cardinal changes in contemporary music. And today we can start talking about returning conservatism again.

In fact, this is a very difficult subject. In my opinion, not modern music is being created nowadays, it is a simulation of contemporary music or an attempt to copy what is perceived and renamed as contemporary music in society. Just like modern curators are trying to simulate modernity. It is also important to talk about music production. If the composer has to create eleven compositions per year just to make ends meet, we cannot again expect from him such philosophical thinking about music and compositions based on extensive research.

But on the other hand, art production can be a phenomenon dictated by the general flow of society. We are developing more and more music simulations. It seems that this is driven by the social system – not because someone needs it, but simply because of the act of production itself. This is obviously related to capitalist values. These musical and other kind of products have no value – we all know it well and we clearly feel it. But one way or another, it is important for us to believe in the system we are in. This is a vital but cruel thing. I don’t know how to get out of this situation. So far, I see no other way to live my life and talk about these problems with my students. I’m trying not to be imprisoned in the system, but am I? After all, you will not be tested. But at least there is some kind of internal disbelief system. I do not think that we should get rid of the system, but create something in our life that would suit and satisfy our needs. And not to manipulate our desires and limit our opportunities and thinking. In addition, swimming in the river with a stream – yes, it’s easy. It looks like the water is carrying you. But you could feel the water and yourself much better if you try to swim against the stream. Because you need so much strength and endurance, at least to stay in one place. Well, so far this is just empty thoughts, I don’t see any solution in this situation that would fundamentally change the overall picture. But the artistic simulacra is a huge cultural problem that we face today. A very dangerous situation arises when art, as a language of emotion, unites with the economy. And we have to look at it and realize that this situation is real, it is part of our daily lives.

Maybe you see some trends in Austrian music in the future?

I think trends and fashions are easy to see and predict. I am very happy that at the time I began studying at the Vienna University of Music and Performing Arts in 1984, there was such modern music as I had never heard of. At that time, it was not possible to see what would follow this kind of music. No future trends were visible. I think it is the same today. It is hard to tell what will follow. There are many alternative roads – from conceptualism to post-something. However, we cannot foresee anything entirely in the future. As the young composers of these times grew up in completely different conditions than my generation… and perhaps in some respects, we cannot say how they will use their pre-dictated context of musical traditions and where their works will turn. As a teacher, I can offer them freedom and familiarize my students with a wide range of musical composition techniques. I also hope that future creators will not be constrained by any aesthetics or style. Style is one of the most terrible things a composer can have. It’s like a self-inflicted self-imprisonment and a false belief that you feel free in these five square meters. I do not sincerely wish this to future composers and I hope they will be able to create in the way they want, and they will not have to label themselves with a certain name so that artists can enter the market from the very first days of their career. Maybe it’s a bit naive to see, but I’m sure marketing can’t do much if there’s no quality product hiding behind all the colorful ads. Of course, there is a lot of evidence that this belief is an illusion. Because there are very poor products that have an incredible impact on our society. That’s a red-bull drink that is worthless. But, on the other hand, popular, influential and carrying huge profits. The manager of this business (Dietrich Mateschitz (b.1944) – O.J.) is now developing a television station where things will be sold by covering them with such marketing masks like sportiness, being solid and earthy. It is clear that this is a time-wasting thing. And we can’t do anything about that. However, it is important to have some naivety and faith in yourself. I think art is a great combat tool that does nothing to harm anyone. But art has the power to destroy hierarchies, which is very important. This would be a stimulus of the desired changes.

Thank you for conversation!

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