Interview II


Something About Creative Principles

By Christoph Schlüren (1996)

Eight months after the first interview, at the great Eliasson Festival in Stockholm’s Konserthus, we met on November 19th for another interview:

 The last time we met we spoke of how you discovered your own inner “alphabet” while you were still a student and becoming acquainted with modernist methods.

“Yes. I missed genuine depth in the music I was confronted with. So I asked myself whether I was completely on the wrong path or in the wrong country. But I found out this wasn’t the case. So my next question was: what to do? I had to ask myself this question! Deep in my inmost being. What’s my musical point of reference? From my earliest beginnings? That’s how I discovered the ‘alphabet’ in myself.“

Did you have any guideposts? Bach? Jazz? Early polyphony?

“Yes. No. Yes. If you make a truly deep study of the old masters, you’ll find not only something like their own personal nature, but also something behind it. Something very objective. But it’s conveyed subjectively, by Bach, and so on.“

What’s the relation between the personal and the supra-personal in your music?

“I don’t know. I’m not detached enough to say. It’s just as impossible for me to speak about particular works of mine: I don’t have the necessary detachment. But I basically try to give each work enough substance for it to stand by itself as a subject. From this approach, I can only hope it will achieve an objective quality – objective in the perception of the listener.“

Can this aim be productive when you come to write?

“No! I never have it in mind when I compose! It’s something I hope for when I try to distance myself from my own work. It’s unquestionably something worth striving for. And it unquestionably happens in Bach.“

It’s obvious that your music is personal at first and impersonal at the end.

“A piece has to be more personal at first than toward the end. After all, I only try to follow the music as it emerges, which is a truly objective process.“

To what extent do you envision the specific shape of a work when you start out? Do you know at first how long the themes can be sustained?

“No! Maybe I have a vague notion of the overall shape when I begin. But it’s so difficult to explain, for I don’t think it’s musical in character. Its character is different. So it’s impossible to answer the question of whether I have any idea of what will happen at the end when I start out. Maybe, maybe not.

“Now that I think about it, perhaps I do have a notion of the idea residing in the material, of the inflection, but that’s all: what will grow out of it, in an organic development generated by the music itself, by the theme, the motif – by itself.“

And do you know roughly what harmonies to aim for and which ones to avoid …

“Yes, of course, for the harmonic material is defined from the very first chord. That’s what it’s based on, that’s what it relates to. I don’t even know where the beginning and the end are. That’s how tightly they interlock.“

How do you arrive at an end with regard to harmony?

“I’m not the one who reaches an end, the music itself does. I just try to follow it as it emerges. These are very complicated questions! Sure, I can carry out many thoughts during the act of creation, but that’s not important at all. I learned from Bach that music is always in flux. It was as if the heavens opened wide, and I always remember it when I hear it again. It’s my basic nourishment.”

You spoke of two alternating modes that form the basis of your composing. But when I hear your music, it doesn’t sound modal in the conventional sense.

“No, it doesn’t! But you have to understand that I can’t have an idea about myself. I’m really not interested in cultivating a distance from myself or my work. I don’t know what sort of sensors and tools I use in my music or thought. Of course I know the defining features of the Renaissance, the Baroque, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Debussy, Bartók, the music of the 1960s, and so on. But to me, what’s generally important is to dispel my experiences! To liberate myself from every attitude! At the same time I’m like everyone else: we’re all influenced by every experience we have. Still, I feel it’s essential to free ourselves from them.“

When you look back, are there any attitudes in your earlier works that you no longer like?

“That’s a very tricky question to answer, for I have no idea how things will continue. My description might be completely wrong one day later.“

For example, when you cut back some Bartolozzi techniques, in the winds, for instance …

“I think it’s simply that I don’t have any use for them at the moment.“

At least we see an increasing use of instruments within their natural expressive potential.

“Yes, so it seems when I look back at my own path. But I can’t be so sure I won’t use it again at some point, maybe even tomorrow.“

When listening to your music, it seems to me that on the one hand it’s brought about absolutely consciously, but on the other there’s always something inexorable about it.

“It’s impossible for me to avoid what has to come. As I said, I try to enter or get behind what’s happening in the music itself. I recognize it myself with the help of my paltry little system that I discovered many years ago. To me, it’s a tool that allows me to take my bearings on the music itself.“

Is it like this: the simpler the basis, the greater and more varied the potential for development?

“Yes, of course.“

So extreme chromaticism has an extremely limiting effect on potential expression?

“For me, at least.“

Do you see other examples?

“No. If you want to find your way in the world, you have to adhere to restrictions and work within limits. Otherwise it’s impossible to relate to anything.“

Gravity, and consequently tonal relations …


So tonal relations are a restriction, but would you ever find them restrictive?

“No, of course not. It’s an indispensable point of departure from which you can have an infinite spectrum of outlooks. That’s why it’s also the opposite of a restriction. Without this restriction you’ll never find an entryway to Eternity. You first have to be aware of the limits of your vantage point. Limits in your mind as well as limits toward the outside world.“

The coexistence of opposing and conflicting force-fields has been part of your music from the very beginning of every piece. Is it perhaps related to the omnipresence of the two modal variants?

“I’ve never given it any thought. It’s true, I’m fairly sure that the dualism is always there from the very beginning. I even think it occurs most forcefully at the beginning. And in my experience the music itself generates a sort of entropy.“

Doesn’t a broad buildup of tension presuppose the avoidance of small-scale tendencies, even a kind of inhibition?

“It all depends on what the music, the theme, the pure material itself demands. I’m not the one doing it. I try to keep my fingers out of it!“

Aren’t you guided by something like your projection of the theme?

“Perhaps. But there’s no boundary line between me and the theme. There’s nothing between us. That’s why it’s so difficult, so impossible, to say what happens. I could spin a fairy tale about it, of course, but I don’t think that’s such a good idea.“

One feature of your “system” is its mobility, its ceaseless changes. But it’s not a system in a systematic sense …

“No. But that doesn’t bother me, for all the activities are always related to the same basis, the underlying harmonic flow. If you walk out in the noonday sun, you can see many things of all shapes and sizes everywhere, but they all relate to the sun. Because the sun is shining. It’s the same sort of connection when we talk about music. About the many occurrences and activities within a minimum of time.“

Form arises in the light of the sun. What does that look like when applied to the archetypal classical form, with a central climax followed by a resolution?

“If you mean form in conventional terms, you’re completely lost. Substance, form, shape: all must form a single unified whole! If you try to divide them, you’re done for.”

To be sure, but what about changes of direction, curves, turning points?

“You’re talking about the most complicated situation for a composer in his dealings with music: weighing up the various forms of energy against, with, and toward each other. The types of weight in the musical material. That’s what it’s all about. But now I have to go.”