TWO COMPOSERS' TALK
Questions by Chiyoko Szlavnics
Answers by Peter Ablinger
Unreleased and partial transcription of interviews held in July & November 2007. Subjects: graphic arts, free jazz, different states of listening, white noise and silence, wordlessnes, perception, 3D pictures, talking pianos, and many other items.
Q: Did you study graphic arts before music, or were you always interested in both fields?
A: At the beginning everything happened together: as a child, I painted and composed; and as a teenager I did both quite intensively. The fact that I studied graphic arts first was a fluke--at that point in school, when I was fifteen, dedicated music studies weren't offered at school--that was only possible later at university, when one is around eighteen.
Q: Did you ever think that you would pursue graphic arts as your main medium, or as the basis for a career?
A: When I started to study graphic arts, I thought anything might happen--not that I would become a graphic designer--but I thought that I might become a visual artist, or something like that. The school I attended focused on commercial graphic arts. The first two years were quite open, the courses in aesthetics were quite good, but afterwards the courses became purely technical, and I was no longer interested. So I stopped the studies. But what I began to realise during the first two years, was that I was constantly translating everything I learned about visual sensitization into its equivalent in sound.
Q: How did you do that?
A: Automatically. I would constantly ask myself, "What does that mean in music? What could that visual perception's equivalent in sound be?". I realised that my thinking was constantly moving from the visual into music--and it still does today. My visual and musical thinking are interlocked. I don't think they are separated in my mind--the separation comes later. When I first think about a composition, I try to compose something pictorial on a piece of paper--it's a drawing, not a score that is composed from left to right.
Q: When you imagine sound, you make a picture first, not a score. So there is already a distinct separation from traditional compositional methods. How does this relate to the epiphany experience that you describe in one of your online texts, when you heard the distinctive "white noise" sounds of wheat and rye fields in Hungary? Was this a particular moment of emancipation from traditional music, which allowed you approach creating music more abstractly?
A: With respect to traditional compositions, I'm certainly not bound to them. Besides the visual thinking I described, at eighteen, I was also a passionate jazz musician--an improviser, and so on. I was initiated to the notion of the new sound--that which is non-harmonic and non-rhythmic--through jazz. I only realised later, even though I am Austrian, that Schönberg existed. I encountered Cecil Taylor first, then Schönberg. So I still consider jazz to be part of my family. It's something I have left behind, but I still have roots in it, you see? Composed new music came later.
Q: Do you consider your compositions to be new music or jazz, or do you not use those terms?
A: It's absolutely not jazz, I'm very far away from that. But in my early works--those that I consider to be "ready", such as "Verkündigung" ("Annunciation") from 1990--in such pieces you can still hear that jazz is much more important than any concept of composed new music. The piece was about a kind of intensity, a kind of physical expression, which every free jazz player knows, especially if you think of someone like Cecil Taylor, for whom the physical is very direct and strong--a kind of energy that transforms you, puts you into a different state, something that is not completely real, a little bit beyond reality--something shamanic. A kind of transformation happens through this physical ecstasy. This was a very important idea for me--a beloved idea for me, for my music, when I was a young man. I wanted to record it on manuscript paper, I wanted to find possibilities for working with it, to find a kind of grammar or...[language, syntax]...with a particular media. That's what I was trying to do when I decided to be a composer, when I stopped being an improviser.
Q: But can musicians, who are playing your notated music, achieve that same state? Is it possible at all in composed new music for the musicians to have this "Cecil Taylor experience", or transformation? Who experiences this state? The audience? Isn't it the absolute freedom for each musician in jazz, to let something flow...
A: Maybe we shouldn't go too far with this because I am not saying that I want to bring free jazz into my scores, and certainly not Cecil Taylor. It was just a certain point of expression, starting with the physical expression, and going beyond that into a kind of ecstasy, a kind of altered state. It's like your eyes are wide open--a little bit more than usual--slightly hyperreal. Or, just slightly more concentrated, just a little bit beyond reality.
It might make sense for us to trace a line from the sensibility of this early piece, "Verkündigung" ("Annunciation"), from its--let's call it "energy"--to later pieces, where I use white noise. These pieces have the same potential for experiencing something like "going through a wall", going beyond normal observation, and entering a different state of listening. One of the things I like most about white noise, is that it is so unreal--it has almost no associations.
Usually, an object provokes many associations: you associate it with yourself; with your experiences--in your head, in your life, or in other arts, whatever. And all these associations create its meaning. The meaning of something is identical with the associations it provokes. So when you talk about the meaning of a piece of music, you are shifting to another language--that's exactly what meaning is: it's something that you describe in another media. And in order for you to make this description, you need associations.
White noise is almost completely devoid of associations. Silence has many more associations than white noise. We've been talking about silent pieces for fifty years! We have talked a great deal about Cage, and so on. Silence is filled with meaning. White noise is like a wall: your imagination has no possibility to make associations--you don't have a chance! (laughs) You might be able to say, "white noise, white wall, white paper", but more isn't possible--it's so figure-less. Even silence has more figures in it--many more figures, it's crowded! (laughs) Silence is crowded in comparison!
Q: Do you mean real silence, or the notion of silence?
A: We know that real silence doesn't exist! (laughs). At least...our thoughts are still loud. When you listen to a white noise piece, after awhile, if you don't like it, you adopt an anti-stance towards it. But before you decide to take this position, you are wordless. That's the best moment. That's what I like. This moment is what I call hyper-reality--or hyper-real--because it's not part of the usual linear way of receiving things: the way we usually think; watch; and listen, putting things into some kind of order. We continually transform our experience into meaning and words, connecting it with things we already know.
Q: Is it important for you to create music for which no words--no thoughts--are possible?
A: Yes. I'm completely aware that this never really exists in time, that this state only lasts for a moment. But for me, this moment is one of the main reasons that I do what I do. It's all about that moment when I don't know what to say: that moment before I shift the experience back into one of the many categories I already have prepared for the things I receive.
Q: Like the first ten seconds of any piece of music you listen to.
A: I have measured it! (laughs) I very much like to work with forty second intervals. When you listen to something that is somehow similar to white noise--to music that is not just telling a story, or that is profound or very dense--I feel that forty seconds is the duration during which you can listen without thinking about it, during which you simply listen. Beyond that, you start to think about it. I have observed this very often, although I can't say if it's true for everyone.
I have used this 40 second interval in many pieces, for instance, in the trees pieces: I recorded eighteen trees, and each tree sounds for exactly forty seconds. A shorter duration doesn't work. During the first twenty-five or thirty seconds, you listen periodically--you anticipate the next interval of time. But after that, periodic memory disappears. On the other hand, thinking begins after fifty, or fifty-five seconds.
Q: Right. Because this state of openness that one maintains, in order to gather initial information, is no longer necessary because the brain thinks that it has enough information to start analysing and anticipating.
A: After forty seconds, you think, "Ah-hah, I'm listening to something", oré "It's still the same, maybe it will go on like this". That's how the thinking starts.
Q: Maybe there is an equivalent of the heightened sense you are describing, in the visual realm--in the 3D dot pictures (stereograms) that were popular in the 1990's, which only work when you relax your eyes and concentrate in a particular way with your peripheral vision--suddenly, a three-dimensional image appears.
A: I'll use the example in another context, this 3D example, and this change, especially the change of perception between observing an ornament, and seeing a "Gegenstand", an "object".
Q: Do you mean regarding one thing as an ornament or an object?
A: No, when you look at these 3D things, at first there are ornament-bubbles, or whatever, and then if you look through them, you suddenly see a 3-dimensional object.
Q: I don't understand, I've never been able to do it!
A: No? Wow. You don't look at what really is the surface, the thing you're looking at, you look THROUGH it. I use this example very often in another context when I describe some other pieces, for example the computer-controlled piano pieces, the "Quadraturen" series, where you have a similar kind of change of observation/reception between hearing a piano, which makes very thick, dense clouds of sounds, and then you suddenly hear a voice--a human voice. And you never will be able to hear both at the same time. It's the same with the 3D pictures. You will never be able to see the ornament (surface) and the 3D object at the same time, but you can switch between the two--if you can! (laughs)
Q: Yes, at university, our sight-singing teacher told us that the human mind can't focus on more than one thing at a time. That, while listening to polyphonic music, you might be aware of the multiple voices/lines, but you can only listen to one thing at a time. Or, you have to switch back and forth between the various elements to keep track of them, perhaps that's why counterpoint became so important.
A: This is a bit like your experience: With the computer-piano pieces, there are people who can never "go through" the piano sound.
Q: Really? They can't hear it?
A: No, they can't hear it. Also, the amount of time people need to "get it" is always different, the "other kind" of listening. Some people enter the room, and immediately begin speaking the same text, for instance, in the piece which is a prayer, or uses the prayers--they pray with the piano (laughs), and others never hear it. I try to help them, I speak the text softly into their ear, but they never get it. (laughs) It's like you with your 3D.
Q: Is seeing something different from the ornament a construction of your brain? Because it's not there on the surface...
A: Yes. Hearing a voice in piano tones is a construction of your brain...because there is no voice, the piano plays...
Q: Right. But it's a piece originally taken from a voice, there's a clear print--it's like a print in a different media.
A: Yes, but with this shift of perception you can see that the one who denies hearing a voice is right (laughs), the other one is wrong! But the other one is what I think our brain always does--the first one is also wrong--everything we hear is a construction. You never hear reality.
Q: Sure, we are taught to hear and see in certain ways. The systems, schools, the environment we grow up in. Instead of being shown that there are many different ways of seeing things, of perceiving things--especially in music, where there are traditions and canons that teach us to hear in a particular way.
A: If this particular way didn't exist, there would be a different one. We always have to construct. Without construction you perceive nothing. I always thought there would be a possibility to go beyond that, to observe the "construction-less", but in the meantime, I've learned that it's not possible.
Q: Even with white noise for forty seconds?
A: No. Maybe only as long as your brain doesn't start to "talk".
Q: Staying with this idea of the voice and the piano, and white noise--you seem to be very interested in translating from one media into another. For instance, your translations of recordings into scores for musical instruments...
A: The translation itself is not the goal. I'm bringing two things into relation in order to create a third thing, which doesn't exist, or, which is not objectively present. Just like in a Lucier piece, where two tones are there, and create a third thing, which is the beating, which is not there in either of the two single elements. I love this very much, and I think it also goes very much beyond Cage, who was so concentrated on the objectivity of sounds, and who was so interested in separating sounds, a) from each other, b) from our intention. I think that the beating example shows well how this idea doesn't exist--it's abstract, but it's not true.
My interest is not the sound, not music, not composition. I only use these things to provoke a certain process of perception, a relationship between the sound and the listener. And if I bring together street noises and classical instruments, the first one functions as the uncomprehensive, surrounding everything, and the second as our given cultural reaction to it. It's not so much an interest in a transformation from one to the other.
Q: You talk about photorealism, etc., but I don't think you're talking about Gerhard Richter's paintings that are as realistic as photographs, but aren't photographs. You're talking about some other result, which is neither the listening experience of environmental sounds, nor is it about hearing traditional instruments producing something unrecognisable...
A: Right, it's something in between. I suppose one just has to experience it (laughs).
Q: I didn't hear the piece, "The Orchestra", performed in Graz as part of your cityopera, in which you having a recording and an orchestra playing simultaneously. What was your experience of that? What was the "third thing" in that case?
A: Uh-huh. Oh my. I don't know. Since then, I've made many more pieces like this, other works. And there are so many different possibilities in this. If you want to talk about the orchestra piece in Graz, I very much like the beginning, where there is white noise, very loud, and the full orchestra is playing, but you don't hear a single tone. And it was absolutely magical--the atmosphere was magical at both performances. Everybody wanted to hear what the orchestra was playing, everybody was opening his ears as wide as possible, and after awhile, you do start hearing a little bit behind this curtain of amplified white noise--this completely untransformed, plain, white noise. And then: something that was a wall, at first, becomes more and more three-dimensional--you go into it. And then, you are inside it. And then, you hear differences between foreground, background, and things like this. This brought this process of hearing--combined with the desire to know what is happening--you can see the conductor conducting, and the musicians playing, but you can't hear it. You really want to go through this wall. But this isn't exactly what you asked about, the creation of realistic sounds and instruments.
Q: No, but it's interesting that the "wall of noise" becomes a clear...that it's related to the aural 3D experience. But when you make other recordings, of street noise, for example, and you translate that for instruments, do you hear the result in a similar way to hearing voices in the piano sounds? Can you hear the recordings when you listen to the acoustic instruments? Or do you always have both playing simultaneously?
A: I use it this way, or that way. There is simultaneous playing with the original sound, or the transformation into classical instruments, or sometimes only the instruments themselves, so that the relation is not so obvious--what you hear is more abstract.
Q: A computer-controlled piano can play so many notes that it can represent more of an original recording's details. But with single instruments in a small group, that must be more difficult--one might rather hear the instruments themselves, and listen in a conventional way. It might be more difficult to hear the original recording, the source material coming through...
A: The piano has the possibility of moving some steps towards the idea of a phonorealism, but humanly-played instruments never can.
Q: Right. So it is more difficult for audiences to have that experience of...
A: Yes, yes. Or you can do it another way: in a piece I just completed, there is an ensemble playing a structure that comes from a source that is a rain recording, but the recording itself is not heard during the performance--the ensemble just plays a structure that comes from the spectral and temporal analysis of the rain. At the same time, there is a kind of temporal installation on stage during the piece, in which water drops on a percussion instrument--so there is a relationship between the water installation, and what the musicians are doing. So one can guess what the source of the ensemble's structure is.
Q: But it does sometimes help to know what the source is. Just some small piece of information, so you know that it's not a conventional new music piece you're about to hear, but something else.
A: I like the difference between the recordings and the transformation. For me, the recording is the continuity; the everything; the thing that surrounds us; the thing that is not ascertainable--reality as the totality which is not completely grasped by our brain. You can only perceive certain things if you already have frames for reacting to them, and grids for comprehending them. In contrast, what the instruments do--the transformation--always works with a kind of a grid: spectral; temporal; etc. You can very often hear the grid structure--the smallest element--in these pieces. Therefore, the relationship between the continuous sound/noises and the grid also reveals something about the world and yourself, and your own observation. For me, the grid is a kind of metaphor for our perception, for how it works. We always have to have some kind of grid.
Q: Do we?
A: Yes we do, absolutely. Here's an example in musical terms: until the 19th century, we had the tonal grid in our ear. At the french Expo (in 1889), when they heard Gamelan music for the first time, they interpreted it as pentatonic music, which it wasn't. Our cultural grid was tonal and tempered, so we--or they--Europeans couldn't hear it.
Q: But Bach did some really strange things in some of his pieces! I hadn't realised that he also wrote pieces that were outside of that frame of reference.
A: Maybe there are some other references. Do you know the Manneristic music from the 16th century? It's not very well known. Bach more or less got everything from this period--everything that is not obviously from his own time, such as French Suites, etc. The whole fugue technique, especially all the rhetorical gestures, also all the hidden things--eye music, numbers--the symbolic things that are only in the structure, and never in the sound. There were also some amazing things in terms of tonality during that time.
Q: Who were the Mannerists?
A: The well-known one is Frescobaldi. He lived at the end of the Mannerstic era, he was also a keyboard player. Monteverdi also belongs to them, he also lived during the last stage of Mannerism. Or there's Carlo Gesualdo, with his extravagant harmony. Luca Marenzio composed such a nice piece with all twelve tones...the first voice goes chromatically one and a half octaves up and down, in whole notes. And the other four voices do everything to make this somehow work! They were really conceptual.
Back to where we started. I want to give two more short examples, from the perspective of listening. We know that at the end of the 19th century, music became more and more chromatic. And then we have Schönberg. But if you listen to the recordings, even the recordings of the Kolisch Quartet, when you listen to people from that time playing chromatic music--twelve tone music, and such--you realise that they didn't hear the chromaticism--they didn't hear it! And this is true until around 1980. They really didn't have an ear for it. And suddenly, in the 1980's, when all these new ensembles in central Europe cropped up, when a new generation suddenly appeared everywhere--Ensemble Modern, Recherche, Klangforum Wien, Intercontemporain--there was a generation change, and suddenly you could tell that they really heard the chromatic.
Q: Is it partly because composers were also working with quarter tones, and smaller divisions, using the same tempered grid? Since they had to practice the divisions, they really had to learn the...
A: I think that's part of this development, yes. A refinement of the grid, which you have to hear.
Q: But instruments weren't constructed for that.
A: Yes, well that's another thing. But a violin isn't built for anything.
Q: In your voices and piano pieces, why are the voice and piano not in unison? I thought the piano was supposed to be something like a spectral analysis of the voice, very close to the voice. But in many of these pieces, the piano plays something quite different. One of them even sounds like jazz. Why are all the pieces so different? Do you use a different process each time?
A: I always have to choose from many possibilities of analyzing these sounds. For example, I have the option to analyze only the loudest tone, or the ten loudest tones, if you're working with ten fingers. Or, I can have the program analyze the full spectrum, or only a certain octave. And if I set it to only analyze the basic speech octave and only the loudest tone in a particular tempo, it might sound like a jazz bass. There is one piece that is a little bit like that. And it's fun for me to make decisions--for instance, if the speaker does have a relationship to jazz, then I might do this. Sure, there is a little bit of room to play--I have to make these decisions anyway. The most recent one from this series is with Schönberg's voice. And the resulting piano part sometimes sounds a little bit like a piece by Schönberg.
Q: So these pieces are portraits?
A: Yes. I also might say that the relationship between the piano and the voice in the Feldman piece is one of the most abstract. But the degree of abstractness is always the same. If the grid--and here I am talking about the photographic grid--is very fine, it looks realistic. If the grid is very coarse, it looks abstract. At a certain point, you can no longer recognise what the photographed object was. It's the same in this process: if you analyze with very long durations, it will sound more abstract. With a small grid, the piano seems to follow the voice very closely. For the Feldman piece, I only used very long durations, so there is never a close and mimetic relationship between the voice and the piano. Therefore, the piano part sounds like a loud Feldman piece.
(end of transcription)
To read about Chiyoko Szlavnics, go to: http://www.chiyokoszlavnics.org/