This person has dedicated his whole life and career to one goal – to introduce the world to Austria’s modern music scene. Christian Heindl (b. 1964), a musicologist and journalist, is probably personally familiar with more Austrian composers than any other contemporary musicologist. Heindl shares advice on working with contemporary music and tells about his professional life experience.
You are known for having close contacts with many different generations of Austrian composers. How did you get the idea of this collaboration with composers?
Well, everything happened quite simply. I don’t come from a family of musicians, so I’ve never been active as a musician. But I was interested in music and often listened to it. It all started when I was twelve, at that time I started listening to Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and others. Most of them were introduced from my school friends. I started to buy music, and I often listened to radio. Then I also started to walk to the radio concert hall in Vienna, where you could enter the concert for free. I often went there to listen to modern music and gradually became really interested in contemporary music. It sounded different from Beethoven, unlike Schubert, unlike Mahler and even different from Schoenberg. But this kind of different music was interesting to me and I did not stop trying to figure out what it is.
How did you personally meet the first composer?
Once, when I was seventeen or eighteen, I went to one of those free concerts of modern music and there was a symphony of Austrian composer Jenő Takács for the first time. This symphony reminded me of a newer version of Prokofiev’s classical symphony. It was not a classic stylistic piece, but it contained quite a few classic elements. After the premiere of this piece, a break was made during which the composer shared autographs and I went to him. After the concert I wrote a letter to him telling me that his music impressed me and I enjoyed his symphony. He wrote to me that it was fun to hear it and that he hoped we would meet again. At that time he was eighty years old and our friendship lasted another twenty-three years. He died a hundred and three, and a few years later, I became president of the Takács Foundation and now arranges his music and all the other things related to his creation.
Who followed after this acquaintance?
First of all, I met Jenő Takác and then I started looking for what composers I like as personalities and creators. Most of my composers are, of course, Austrians, but also from other countries – Germany, USA, Great Britain, Czech Republic, Spain and so on. t. Unfortunately, I didn’t get in touch with anyone from Lithuania. I really like Čiurlionis music. But I admit he looks stronger as an artist than the composer.
It is very difficult to deal with the US because there are many very good composers there. However, I personally find it difficult to meet at least one composer who seems to me to be more than “very good”. Most often, I listen to their works only once.
I started to get in touch with quite a few modern composers who lived and worked at that period of time. If there was a concert and the music of an unfamiliar composer sounded in it, the other composer introduced us. That’s all it got.
What attracts you the most to contemporary composers?
I realized that whatever I wanted, I couldn’t ask Beethoven how he wanted his music to be performed and what he wanted us to do with his creative heritage in general. But you can ask the contemporary composer for the same thing and he will give you the smallest and most detailed answer possible.
What problems do you most often encounter when communicating with composers?
Conversation with composers may not always be an accurate source of authentic information. Never believe to everything what the composer tells you. For example, ten years ago I worked with a colleague on a project about composer Paul Kont, and we were unable to find the date of the premiere of one piece. Instead of going to the concert hall or the archive, we decided to ask two fellow composers – Friedrich Cerha and Kurt Schwerts – who were also in the premiere and collaborated on the work. We decided to ask them because we were sure they would know the answer. And both of them claimed to be reminiscent of the evening of the premiere of the piece and the whole concert. One of them said that all this happened in 1952 and the other was in 1967. There is a big time difference. We found out in the library that the premiere actually took place in 1952.
I wrote my dissertation on the Austrian composer Iván Eröd. He told me everything about his life and his creative work. Nevertheless, twenty years after the dissertation I found out that some of his life was a bit different from what he was telling me. And even when I ask him the same questions today, I get a little different answers than twenty years ago. Time is changing reality. It is a bit unfortunate that this composer is now 90’s and is still composing every day. For twenty years he has not created anything new.
Is this often a trend in music history?
In fact, looking at the history of Western European music, it is difficult to find a composer who would have written a really innovative and powerful, impressive piece of work being 80 years old or older. One such composer is Verdi, who wrote “Falstaff”, an incredible opera, at 80’s. The second composer I was able to find was Heinrich Schütz, who lived in the 17th century. However, most composers lose their creative inspiration at this age and begin to repeat themselves.
What is the most important thing for you when you are interviewing another composer or musician?
Well, basically you just have to let the person talk. I usually follow three principles when doing I interview. First of all, you must respect the person you are interviewing. If you are a professional journalist, it will sometimes be that you will have to write an interview with someone you do not like. Secondly, you need to ask simple, open questions. Those that are like suggestions to talk about one or another topic. If you want to ask a narrow closed question, because you necessarily need some specific information from the person you speak, then you can add an additional question to the first who will direct the conversation on the topic you need. You should not abuse the attempt to manage the conversation. You have to let someone talk about what they want to talk about. The third principle is to have at least some knowledge of the area before you are going to interview. For example, if you are interviewing a composer, you should at least have some idea of what the composer is and what he is doing.
What are the main topics of your research?
I am interested in contemporary music, especially in Austria. I am also interested in the 19th century. tradition, when the national identity of the peoples in the culture began to form. How has this changed and what traditions do different countries have? For instance, how Russia began to use a lot of folklore in their music. Another theme is music for children. How to compose music for children to listen to? How does the composing process and the final finished work change? What kind of music should be used for children?
I’m interested in the precomposition stage and the actions that composers perform before composing a new piece. What would you comment on this topic in the Austrian or Vienna musical context and in the music writing traditions?
I think every composer creates sketches of his work in one form or another. I imagine that most musical sketches are still made on paper. And sketches can varie – they can only capture the original idea of the work or its origins, and it can also be the full score of the new composition.
However, there are also composers who do not use sketches but just start composing. Especially if we talk about the present times when music is compiled on a computer, that opens up quite different creative possibilities. Composer can start writing straight into the score and don’t worry about failures because everything is easily fixed.
For the last twenty years, the composer can do anything – write the kind of music he wants. There is no common process by which all composers start composing works. There are people who do nothing at all during the precomposition. There are a number of composers as far as I know, Rachmaninov was one of those who completely composed the whole work in his head. After that all he needs to do is sit down at the table and write it down. Of course, such composers have a wonderful memory. Everything changes if you as a composer are also a pianist virtuoso (in the case of Rachmaninov) and so your memory is being developed from childhood. If you can memorize the longest musical compositions in your youth, why not write your entire music from memory later.
Sketch writing has really many good qualities. Imagine that such a situation really happens – yesterday you got a comission and want to start working today. But there is no idea in the mind. Then you can always look at your old sketchbooks that you have made ten or twenty years ago and get ideas from there. In fact, such a situation in the professional life of the composer happens much more often than we would think. Then, after the premiere, listeners are delighted with the innovative idea that the composer suddenly discovered when he was sixty years old. But he actually wrote this idea in the form of a sketch, being forty. You never know.
Could you tell me how you organize the concerts and how do you choose which musicians to work with?
Well, if you want to organize a music concert, basically you need two things – space and money. For these two things, you need to find two partners to help you find a room or finance. I know a few places and organizations in Vienna that often help me organize concerts. Then I try to introduce those ideas to those organizations and to convince them that it is the concert they might like. It can be very simple to convince them, but other times it’s just impossible. You must be able to live with disappointment when organizing concerts. If, out of ten of your ideas, one is successful, then that’s not bad.
You say it is extremely important to have an idea. How are you looking for inspiration and your ideas as a writer in your life?
Now my writing process looks a little different than it looked twenty years ago. Today, the most common ideas for concerts come from listening to some music on YouTube. It suggest you to whatch new similar musicians performances and in this way I discover new interesting composers that I haven’t heard yet and I want to organize their concert.
As far as I know, you also write librettos for operas. Could you tell us more about this area of your career?
Yes, I used to write libretto earlier. It is not a source of livelihood and does not earn anything from libretto writing today. However, I am fascinated by the process of making music and words a whole. When I write a libretto, I often think about how my words sound and whether they are musical. I always write the libretto according to the melody in my head. Then, according to my text, the composer creates music that sounds just the opposite of the melody I had in my head. However, using this technique I know that my text is possible to perform musically. And that is important.
How would you describe your text writing style?
As far as my writing principles are concerned, I try to write to an understandable reader. I don’t think it is necessary to use sophisticated terms when writing an article for a newspaper. You can’t expect the reader to know what you’re writing about. Of course, the texts in the scientific journal, in the musical journal and in the ordinary newspaper are different.
How did you find your style?
You have to try and learn, this is the only way to improve your writing skills. I have probably learned writing by reading books and other people’s texts, especially the texts of my fellow musicologists.
How does the writing work process looks like?
The longest phase goes before the first draft. I am always happy to receive a commission at least two or three weeks before so I would have time to write a new text. For the during the first two weeks I just live with the question of how I should write this text. I have no idea, not even a little hint. I think about that question for a couple of weeks until finally, the idea comes up suddenly. Then, as a matter of urgency, I get to the computer as soon as possible to keep in mind the thought that came to my mind and write the beginning of the text. When I have a starting point, I can easily move out of it and all the rest of the text is easy enough. I usually finish the whole text in two or three hours, as with the whole process moving, I get more and more new ideas. But even after thirty years of professional life, it is still very difficult for me to start writing a new text and come up with the original idea of this text.
In the past, you lectured as a visiting lecturer. What was the most important thing for young musicians to say? How did you want to affect them?
It is important that people understand that when it comes to music history, everything is interrelated. We should not feel marginalized by the history of Western European music. In addition, it is important to teach the fundamentals of aesthetics and philosophy, as this fundamentally changes the way people think. Musicology is a kind of world philosophy.
Another important aspect for me is to allow students to form their own opinions, to discover each composer for themselves. Maybe they will discover something close to the work of Janaček or Beethoven. They need not be hesitant to say if they see don’t see anything interesting in Stravinsky’s or Schoenberg’s music. I appreciate when students have their opinion and are not afraid to express it.
Thank you for conversation!