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The Viennese composer, Kurt Schwertsik, discusses his recent concertos for Colin Currie and Håkan Hardenberger and his new ballet, Kafka Amerika.

The title of your new marimba concerto for Colin Currie, Now you hear me, now you don’t, could be a metaphor for the elusive quality in much of your music. Why have you favoured the fleeting, everyday ‘music in the air’?

When I was searching for a basic strategy as an artist, John Cage was very important to me. He described how you can listen to everyday sounds – in the street, in nature, in conversations. I agree with Cage that we are people that live in the air, and this is the medium for transmitting the soundwaves that we understand as music. At Darmstadt I liked his Zen-inspired spiritual view on life and he reinvigorated my interest in the Dada movement.

What drew you towards Dadaist figures such as Satie and Schwitters?

Satie always intrigued me. As a student I learned about him as an icon in the development of avant-garde music, but when I listened to his works they didn’t seem to lead towards modernism. Then I finally understood his whole aesthetic and the life behind it. Schwitters also appealed to me: he was rejected by the Berlin branch of Dadaists because they thought he was too petit-bourgeois. But I liked the way he transformed his apartment into a work of art in its own right. This seemed to match Satie’s ‘poor’ life, and gave me solace as an alternative to the complex, science-led world of Darmstadt. Similarly, Cage treated the commercial aspect of composition as secondary and focused on seeking a unity of existence as an artist. His gentle, ironic humour was anticipated by Haydn, whose largely unglamorous life I aspire to.

What is the relationship between the marimba and the strings in the new concerto?

The marimba is often in the foreground as a concerto soloist, but at other times is subsumed into a background role with the string instruments – hence the title of the concerto, Now you hear me, now you don’t. Only occasionally does the marimbist play chords with multiple sticks – in most of the movements the chords are spread horizontally and the melody creates the harmony as in my other works. I decided on the soloist only playing marimbaphone rather than lots of instruments as I don’t subscribe to the ‘kitchen sink’ school of percussion. I compose differently to Cage or Varèse, as I prefer the clarity when the percussion colours have definite pitches. That said I am not prejudiced against ‘noises’ in everyday life.

Watch a rehearsal video

Viennese music and traditions are often sensed in your music. Is there a whiff of the coffee-house in Divertimento Macchiato, your recent work for Håkan Hardenberger?

During my youth in Vienna I remember suffering a surfeit of divertimenti, which were stale-smelling neo-classical pieces written after the war in the earnest spirit of Gebrauchsmusik. So I was reluctant to write a Divertimento and only got beyond this by returning to an antique Italian world for the movement headings and tempo indications. After the premiere, my wife Christa suggested adding Macchiato to the title and this seemed perfect to me, as it captured an ironic image of modern so-called ‘designer coffee’ – more Starbucks than Old Vienna.

Is there a different approach writing a concerto for a familiar instrument such as the trumpet, as opposed to your ‘Cinderella’ instruments including alphorn, guitar, double bass or timpani?

No, the challenge is largely the same: how to create suitable music for the instrument. As a composer, for each new piece, I am a little like a nervous flier – a successful airplane landing is one you can walk away from. There are compositional decisions and many of these may be made subconsciously. Michael Frayn summed this up in The Human Touch, describing how a choice is made whether to spread marmalade or honey on the bread at breakfast. He remembered having picked up the marmalade but there was a blind spot in awareness of the decision itself. I do remember one conscious decision to stick to the pure trumpet sound, apart from one passage where the mute goes on. As a horn player, writing for the trumpet was not difficult for me, and I didn’t need to discuss many technical things with Håkan, whereas writing a concerto for violin with its distracting repertoire of special effects is a different matter.

Your new Kafka ballet follows dance works centred on Frida Kahlo, Pasolini and Nietzsche. Do you consciously shape your music to depict the personalities in a ballet?

I often have an image in my mind when composing a scene, but the characterisation depends largely on the choreographer for the ballet. Working with Johann Kresnik I never guessed how he might use my music. I could picture a person walking from left to right but in the final ballet he might fall from a great a height, or crawl or be dragged across the stage. Kresnik constantly surprises and delights me in how the music combines with the dance to create something else. I’m collaborating with Jochen Ulrich on Kafka Amerika and he has provided a detailed scenario which sticks largely to the fragmentary events in Kafka’s novel though, like all choreographers, I know he will transform the narrative and my music into physical theatre.

How is the early 20th century American setting of the Kafka ballet portrayed musically?

I haven’t consciously quoted American music, because there are Americanisms embedded into my style, like the blues and foxtrots that underpin popular music. Anyway, Kafka seems to have a very odd view of America. It is only in the final scene about the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma that I feel a glimpse of a fantasy America. Even though the organisation of the theatre is wrapped up in distinctive Kafkaesque red tape, there is an unusual sense of optimism here, the open-ending chiming with the modernist view of the fragment as a reaction to reality. The flavour of the novel’s era is there in my music, because it permeates all my works. I remain nostalgic about the '20s and '30s of the last century - the great beginning for the modern arts that I can still sense in everyday life around me - though I’m less confident about what those decades in the 21st century might bring...

Interviewed by David Allenby

Now you hear me, now you don’t
for marimbaphone and strings
3 February, Queen's Cross Church, Aberdeen (world premiere)
4 February, Eden Court, Inverness
5 February, Queen's Hall, Edinburgh
6 February, Marryat Hall, Dundee
7 February, Concert Hall, Perth
8 February, City Halls, Glasgow
11 February, Wigmore Hall, London (London premiere)
Colin Currie/Scottish Ensemble

Divertimento Macchiato (2007)
for trumpet and orchestra
23 April 2009, Music Hall, Aberdeen (UK premiere)
25 April, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow
26 April, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Håkan Hardenberger/Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Kristian Järvi

Kafka Amerika (2008)
Ballet with choreography by Jochen Ulrich
10 October 2009, Linz (world premiere)
Bruckner Orchester/Dennis Russell Davies

>  Further information on Work: Now you hear me, now you don't

Photo: Karl Kleemayr

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