Composing like Captain Nemo. Petr Kofroň – interview
From Unearthing The Music
Petr Kofroň (*1955), composer, conductor, essayist and one of the founders of the experimental ensemble Agon Orchestra, is an artist who – thanks to his attachment to “positive disintegration” – constantly evades any possible way of grasping his variable compositional, organizational, theoretical and literary activity, full of inner laughter and liminal energy. The following is an interview with him conducted by Lukáš Jiřička. This text was originally published in “HIS Voice” no. 2 (2014), which generously granted us permission to republish it.
Lukáš Jiřička: Could you outline the context that you entered in the eighties? What were the possibilities of creating and presenting contemporary music? It’s like when my 24 year-old son would ask me what an “exit permit” is. Hard to explain, because we would have to step back not only to the eighties, but directly to the sixties. That’s when Pražská skupina Nové hudby and Skupina A from Brno were founded, although of course at the time much more was happening in Prague, where Petr Kotík and others were. Later on even, some albums came out and a couple of theoretical reflections arose – mainly thanks to Vladimír Lébl and four issues of his journal Konfrontace, banned eventually. When I started making music, I obviously knew about these people, albums and texts. I experienced the end of the sixties, and in 1972 I went with Marek Kopelent to the Warsaw Autumn Festival. When I graduated from high school, I decided to go to the Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Brno because I knew that there were people like Alois Piňos, with whom I later studied, or Miloš Štědroň who, along with Piňos, belonged to a composing team doing collaborative pieces... For a while longer, I was feeling a certain continuity around me, however during the seventies it gradually reached the state, where nothing was happening actually. Everything was standarized by the composers’ union and many of us had no chance to join it, which made presenting pieces more problematic. In the eighties, the situation slowly began to ease. Just for the record: Martin Smolka started to attend private lessons with Kopelent a few years after me; Miroslav Pudlák was there... To be more exact, there was some inflow of contemporary music in the seventies of course, although it almost never had an official endorsement. Sometimes it was coming even from circles nobody expected, I mean from the underground. To these circles belonged my favourites, Karlheinz Stockhausen or John Cage. Also, some people from the sixties’ generation were still alive – we used to attend Dr. Eduard Herzog’s listening sessions – he worked as a director at a Japanese company that provided him with LPs of contemporary music as benefits; Vladimír Lébl was there, we met at his basement lab on Břehová street and we played everything we managed to get. Anyway, in the beginning Agon was actually an association of composers. Mirek played keyboards, Martin played keyboards, and I also played a sort of keyboards, there also were various more alternative-oriented musicians, let’s say: Vojtěch Havel or Ivan “Váňa” Bierhanzl from Plastic People started with us, for example; I would call it a kind of germ. But it was Kopelent’s daughter Veronica who came up with the idea of creating a contemporary music ensemble; I remember very well, when those thirty years ago I told her “this is stupid”. It was because I doubted that anyone would be eager to play in that group and wondered who would actually listen to that. Nevertheless, along with Mirek Pudlák and Martin Smolka, she put some people together. For instance, the saxophonist Václav Bratrych and a bunch of people from jazz or alternative environments played with us. I was quite afraid of a certain amateurism and a confrontation with professionals, because we were far behind the Western groups specializing in contemporary music. Anyway, we finally survived the eighties unscathed, not only in relation to the regime – from this perspective it was harmless fun, basically – but in relation to the music scene of the time as well.
Where were you performing and what was it like? We were registered under one cultural centre as an amateur ensemble. It was our governing authority, thereby we didn’t have to undergo so-called auditions – their main part was a Marxism-Leninism exam. We used to rent a rehearsal room – it wasn’t a problem, each of us was getting two hundred crowns per concert. To be honest, these concerts were quite popular, a number of people were coming to see them. Apparently our performances were perceived as something radically different and alternative enough to attract a truly wide spectrum of listeners: musicians, artists, theatre makers... the entire grey zone.
You listed associates and members of the Agon who played jazz or alternative music. Later on, you were also performing and collaborating on common projects with Plastic People or Filip Topol and Psí vojáci – were you open to other musical fields from the beginning of Agon? In the eighties we really specialized in contemporary classical music, because in 1984, 1985 it was something completely unique. We got ahead of the other groups that were similar to ours by four or five years. When it came to our attitude towards alternative music, opinions differed. Mirek Pudlák had a more academic standpoint, he had simply never understood it, Martin Smolka was wishy-washy; I was the most enthusiastic. At that time, experimental rock music was coming to us mostly from abroad – such as Art Zoyd or Captain Beefheart, which I particularly adored. I have to admit that if I could go back 30 years, I would have been making rock music, it was just much more likeable. Then punk rock appeared, which was another big revelation. I used to go to punk rock concerts at squalid community centres, I would do a pogo dance, I had a crop. It was still developing in an incredibly natural way, because every genre or crossover of popular and alternative music tends to evolve and interfuse constantly. Classical music has not exhibited such qualities over the past few decades. The last thing that affected us significantly was minimalism that we had got to know a bit already in the seventies. In 1983, we heard Terry Riley’s C and A Rainbow in Curved Air for the first time. We were so entranced by them that at the beginning, we started to create and play minimal pieces only. However it couldn’t last too long at the time, and it still cannot. Anytime I have depression I keep telling myself that all of this is stuck in a dead end. It’s still based on some laboratory experiments and discoveries designed for professionals, but there’s no musical feeling in a broader sense.
Miroslav Petříček says that rock music has changed the world a hundred times more than the discovery of quantum physics... But it’s true! Unfortunately, it includes also the means: the greatest invention in the field of musical instruments was the electric guitar – not musique concrète but the electric guitar is a hallmark of the most recent and fundamental change in sonics and musical expression. Back to the question: although we did not intend to merge with alternative music, we experienced our work as some sort of alternative music. However, nearly simultaneously with Agon, a couple of my friends and I – among others, I can mention Vojta Havel and Váňa Bierhanzl – formed the band Drama a píseň, which was completely underground. Later on, Mirek Šimáček and I created a duo and we played only combos. We were producing contact microphone feedback obtained through the headphones and causing creaking noises during the combos. We were touring underground festivals like that. Agon was too academic for me at the time.
Well, if Agon was too academic for you, how were you solving these internal conflicts with Pudlák and Smolka? Don’t you think that their leaving has made Agon weaker? Do you think that Hess’ flight to England made Hitler weaker?
Has it reflected on you? Personally, I have never been attached to this. I don’t know what others have been thinking, but I have the impression that, for example, Martin Smolka also finished school thanks to a variation on Lennon’s Imagine. I studied between 1974 and 1979, and on top of that in Brno, where New Music was still being created. Of course I did like it, but its form was collapsing a bit, it was usually made “in the Brno way” as they used to say. We couldn’t even speak about specific patterns. It may be related to one really grotesque story – I was in middle school and in the very early seventies I sent a perfectly scruffy letter to all the music schools in Europe, where I offered an exchange of contemporary classical music vinyls for whatever I could provide – i.e. Janáček, Dvořák, etc. As a result, I’ve got several hundred scratched albums that nobody wanted to listen to in such a poor quality, for example, Kagel’s Der Schall or Stockhausen’s Stimmung... Yet I started distancing myself from the Brno version of New Music, rather than forming a self-definition. In Brno, I occupied myself with Isaak Dunayevsky, against all odds. Everyone was looking at me as though I was a complete idiot, because in the best case, they perceived Dunayevsky as a composer of romantic songs, or otherwise as a so-called involved composer. But for me, the most captivating thing in his work was the whiff of a very peculiar nihilism.
You’ve mentioned various Czech pioneers of New Music. However, have you found any personalities truly inspiring, like Komorous or Piňos? Weren’t you still more into rock music and songwriting? The land of childhood is the one we keep treading for our entire lives. Sometimes we realize it, sometimes not at all. My inspirations while growing up were: Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Charles Ives, Erik Satie, Josef Berg. Strauss and Mahler as admirations, Ives and Satie as life fates, Berg as a writer in music. They are all united by freedom. I was also trying to be free. No continuity, just doing what I wanted.
How were you getting the scores and what exactly did you use to play in the eighties? How has your repertoire changed since the Velvet Revolution? As far as I remember, in the eighties we used to play mostly Petr Kofroň, Martin Smolka and Miroslav Pudlák. In our ensemble, there were also Vítek Janda and Pavel Kalina. Additionally, we played a few foreign pieces that either someone had got for us or we had borrowed from the library in Darmstadt, which allowed international borrowing. Some samples of the scores that used to appear in books or journals, we just copied – that’s how we got to Steve Reich’s work. People brought us compositions from abroad; Jan Novák’s daughter, for instance. We put an emphasis on playing our own pieces, not because we couldn’t get the scores from abroad or we were bigheaded, but because no one else was willing to play them. Of course a huge turnaround has come after the change of regime: in the early nineties, our activity was generously subsidised, considering the present reality. Moreover, Western publishers started to approach us with a sort of mix of curiosity and kindness, therefore they enabled us to play pieces practically for free... Dramaturgy? For me, it meant catching up with the world of post-war music.
Hasn’t it become a part of the order of time already? Wasn’t it organic? We didn’t use to create any elaborated concerts. I can’t remember well, but I think that there always were some foreign compositions combined with ours. We used to compile the programme with pieces we just liked. I recall that we got really excited about Giacinto Scelsi, who we had heard for the first time in Darmstadt, where we managed to go in 1987. It was cool, because we didn’t have much money for food and drink for example, so anytime when those courses with the Western artists that always kept wallets stuffed with dollars in their back pockets came to an end, we used to go to the toilet and drink the tap water. We used to walk everywhere. In one shop, we were just carefully watching and trying to memorize something and put it together after coming back home. Our heroic times lasted until the mid-nineties. In 1996, Mirek founded his own group, Martin started an international career; Ivan Bierhanzl, Mirek Šimáček and I were only ones left. At that time I begun to feel tired of New Music and we moved towards the fusions I’ve mentioned. The biggest flashpoint was a collaboration with Petr Křečan, the founder and the leader of the oddness called Kilhets. In 1979, he emigrated with his girlfriend to West Germany, then he partly returned somewhere to Tachov. We used to go there, but unfortunately Martin Smolka couldn’t stand this because Křečan’s thinking was absolutely destructive. We did one or two performances with him. It was also about our interest in graphic scores, as we believed that they could enrich our musical thinking. It was at a time when we were feeling lost, we were out of ideas, so we chose an absurd starting point, basically. Eventually we tried to bring to life our musical imagination through close cooperation and communication with rock and alternative musicians.
Why have you turned to the link-up with rock bands and artists? Why haven’t you continued and released your collaboration with the radical character from the Czech underground Petr Křečan? Did Kilhets really use to attract your attention? We’ve done about three things with Petr Křečan, then we just moved on. Not everything has to be “released”. Some things you just do for yourself. For me, the most interesting thing on Kilhets was the absolute improvisation that indicates “positive disintegration”, which is really close to me. It means that through absolute improvisation you can reject all your skills, knowledge and everything you’ve ever heard. Then there will come a moment when you have nothing up your sleeve, you just have to listen – and listen to the sounds around you, but perhaps also around you in outer space or maybe in your inner space. There may appear a moment of epiphany as well, as a result of a musical emptiness and humility.
What were the similarities between Kilhets and the group Drama a píseň and what were the performances of that wild gang like? Don’t you have a feeling that thanks to experience with that music, you’ve opened up to a kind of composing technique that rejects classical notation, as a ritual music genre or music which works with a musician’s energy only? Drama a píseň had nothing in common with Kilhets. For me that music was dadaistic a bit, from Šimáček to the very edge of the acoustic experiments. In the duo with Šimáček, we used to play literally ritual compositions, which function only in conjunction with the ritual. And we have done it in every possible way: music as a starting point (a musical version of The Lord’s Prayer), music as a connection with the ritual (proper intonation of the text to increase efficiency) or music as a product (spinning an amulet produces sound).
Energy and intuition are noticeable in many of your performances, but I’d like to ask how it is changing the role of a conductor? To what extent have you given the musicians themselves a free hand to create music? Every musician has his own world, it’s more about finding musicians with the world and then just marveling at the interfusion of the universes.
Has the orchestra got stronger since the revolution? Well, it started to get stronger during the first half of the nineties, when continual, generous subsidies began to interlock with decent earnings from concerts and tours abroad. Suddenly, we could play those great pieces.
Have you discovered something valuable as the conductor of the orchestra that has influenced you as the composer? No. I must say that for me it was always related to stress only. Maybe once it happened to me that I felt lost in the middle of some composition by Scelsi, but, being aware of the absolute necessity, I finished conducting in a sort of trance, because I had an intense feeling that somehow I could really understand that piece. To this day, I’m not sure if I wasn’t completely beyond then. Conducting hasn’t brought anything into my composing practice. It seems to me that also at the opera I have to keep everything under control... and this is quite spastic. But I have obviously enjoyed working with people on modeling the composition.
How important for you is the need for provocation, a punk lack of stability or the desire to get the image of a “bad boy”, “drug addict”, someone who doesn’t act in the way the others expect? It’s hard to explain today, but I was growing up at the beginning of the seventies, when the only way to maintain a consistent personality was total isolation, separation from the outside world. The absolute desire for free inner space. My motto was “composing like Captain Nemo”. I rather meant that to a certain degree you have always moderated your concerts in a really hilarious manner, sometimes you used to play a piece twice for fun or sing Do lesíčka na čekanou between particular compositions... Was it a way to parody your basically institutional position or rather, it came up for the purpose of dramaturgy, let’s say? Certainly it wasn’t calculated. There are moments, when you just get into euphoric mood – they talk about my terrible drug addiction, by the way – and this kind of euphoria is associated with different behaviours. It seems to me that the situation reached its climax when I got undressed with the poet Magor Jirous... it was totally spontaneous, now I wouldn’t be able to do such a thing. They say otherwise I’m pretty boring, because I don’t go anywhere, just sit at home. I prefer to be alone and I have no friends... I have a huge need for something called “positive disintegration”. To spell it out, I desire to fall apart so I can put myself back together in a better way. I’ve always wanted to step out of time one day and then start to look for myself again – it could mean that I would blow off the music. At the age of 35, I trained to be a bricklayer and I took over a building company from my father. I decided to do music only for entertainment. Earning a living through something different than art is definitely more satisfying for me. The old good brickwork.
Wasn’t that lack of calculation and your need for disintegration destructive to the orchestra, its discipline? Once again, I must say that it depends on a particular composition. Now, for instance, we’re working on Milan Adamčiak’s piece, which is so challenging in terms of tempo and precise entry of each instrument that it demands completely rational conducting; there’s just no way to improvise there. On the contrary, when we were playing with Plastic People, they were capering around together and gave us a certain freedom too. Some pieces you have to conduct in peace, but sometimes you should do it differently.
Why is Agon playing much less in recent years? The reason is quite simple: a tiredness, which has three aspects in total. First of all, there is the organizational aspect. When Váňa Bierhanzl started with the organization in 1990, there were a lot of institutions and foundations we could turn to, for example Soros’ Open Society Institute, Goethe-Institut, French Institute, etc. They were able to give us two hundred thousand crowns at the beginning and if we did well in the organizational field, then we would receive even more, which actually happened. But it’s already gone. As if out of spite, just when Heiner Goebbels came here to play at the Divadlo Komedie for a small audience, suddenly we didn’t get any subsidies. We were left one million crowns in debt. That’s how art support in Czech Republic ended up. The second aspect of our tiredness is strictly psychological. We were doing all these things for free and apart from anything else, it’s not easy to organise such a Marathon of Contemporary Music, what’s more I did only a little. The main work was done by Váňa Bierhanzl. Thirdly, it was caused by our tiredness of contemporary music, therefore we moved towards rock music.
The Agon Orchestra was considered to be the most important contemporary music group in the Czech Republic, isn’t it obliging? Hampering the Agon’s activity means hampering the activities in this small area in general... I personally think that we’ve done enough with Agon, and I myself don’t want to continue it anymore. Secondly, contemporary music found its legs and something’s happening after all.
Do you think that if you were working more consciously, you could become autonomous and do it for a living? I’ll come back to the issue that at one point separated us from Martin Smolka and Mirek Pudlák. Mirek wanted to form a regular ensemble which would be able to reach the highest professional standards, play everything thanks to great instruments, and receive some universal subsidy for that. But if you ask me, that was exactly what I didn’t want. I have never wanted to create some universal group, which would have to play everything because of some universal subsidies. The Ensemble Modern, for example, play every composition they’re expected to but they’re obviously not enthusiastic about many of them. Recently, they played something of mine and neither musicians, nor conductor enjoyed it. But I’m one hundred percent sure that they cashed in on it... For those years with Agon, we didn’t play a single piece we didn’t want to play. We took responsibility for everything we used to play. I refused to play many pieces that someone was offering me, because I knew I wouldn’t enjoy them.
Are your solo albums 12 Monsters and Lízaly si sladkou pěnu just private eccentricity or do you consider them a piece of your whole work? Or perhaps they belong to a separate sphere? I don’t know, I would just repeat that I’m against a linear life on principle. I write books of poetry and novels, for instance. Also, I have some texts that I’ve been hoarding for about 40 years.
Don’t you want yourself to publish? Well, I don’t know what for. I enjoy gaining experiences in different fields and I don’t have to be the best at anything. I like a trial and error method. I like stealing, playing with sentimentality. What makes me feel good is a sense or a feeling of my own wrong-headedness. I consider a computer my personal partner, which offers me something that I bring together on a certain basis of weirdness. The principle of coincidence is important for me as well.
Do your orchestral compositions that we can hear on the album The Red and Black e.g. have something in common with your solo work included in the albums 12 Monsters and Lízaly si sladkou pěnu or maybe are they completely independent from one another? I don’t like to follow the beaten path. I enjoy going into the unknown, sometimes even intentionally getting off track. When I wander around driving my car, I take it as something positive, otherwise I would never get into those places, and I would never visit them again. In this sense, my “popular” CDs are a trip to other lands. The technique of “composing” such pieces is peculiar and based on the capabilities of the computer. It’s wandering around the world of internet waves, downloading MIDIs and various records, putting something totally different into MIDI, using irrelevant details, mixing everything into surrealistic combinations. This is just a pleasant trip by Trans-Siberian Railway with middle-class society and meeting curiosities that we throw into the pot and cook.
Don’t you have the impression that despite the overall dispersal, you create compositions in specific periods? Of course there are periods, in music as well as in life, when your personality changes so much, that if you met a version of yourself from ten years ago today, you wouldn’t recognise yourself. In the years 1970–1975, I started to experiment with New Music, over the next five years I moved on to New Romanticism and Simplicity, over the period 1985–2000 to the ritual compositions; since 2000 I’ve been focused on pseudo-big band nonsense and pseudo-rock.
In this sense, are you satisfied with your position as an art director of the the National Theatre Opera? Well, this is a wonderful experience, when the play really takes place, I feel that these musicians genuinely enjoy it and it does it itself actually. At the theatre, I’ve met some completely amazing characters I would have never met otherwise. Property masters, custodians, stagehands. A number of these stagehands are more intellectually and humanly interesting, inspiring, dedicated to theatre than all that artistic circle. As Josef Goebbels would say: “Whenever I hear the word artist, I reach for my revolver”.
At some point you were writing essays about music, aren’t you carrying on? And what about publishing your compositions? They were only partly released. Now I’m not writing about music at all. As a matter of fact, I have some ideas for theoretical texts, but I would have to blow off everything else for half the year to write them. I feel that I owe the most to Josef Adamík. I would like to decently analyze his works. Also, I have a thought to analyze ten minutes of Richard Strauss in relation to Germanic runes. But I won’t get around it anymore, I suppose. After all, I wrote everything I was supposed to write. I was forced to do it by the objective circumstances of the time. In the seventies and eighties, any theoretical reflection was missing. I wrote many analyses of my own pieces, or I asked a few friends to write something about my music and if nobody felt like doing it, then I wrote it on my own and then just countersigned it. One of those texts I have attributed to Marek Kopelent, the next to Alois Piňos, another to Jaroslav Pokorný for instance, etc. Then I sent them those texts, fifteen copies I believe. One day, Alois Piňos gave a lecture about young contemporary composers, among others, also about me, and he read the excerpts from my text dedicated to my music but with his name on it, as his own text actually. Would I like to publish something? Not really. Everything is either being thrown away or found by someone. Sometime in 1975, when I was still at school, the conceptual artist Jiří Valoch was performing his shows at Divadlo hudby in Brno. I was always sitting there all alone. After the last evening I went to him and said how fantastic it had been and how deeply sorry I was that such a meager number of people had attended to that. He told me: “Anything you do, you do for only one person. I was that lucky to do it for someone who I could meet live”. I recall that story so often. On the contrary, sometimes I think that I might isolate myself as the Captain Nemo, clean out all of these archival records, organize them in terms of dramaturgy and create from them approximately forty CDs. There are some truly interesting pieces, for example Miroslav Šimáček’s indescribable conceptual quirks. I’m quite amazed by how high-quality these records are, although they’re analog. However, I tell myself that I would like to hire a decent symphonic orchestra and play with them the entirety of Czech modern symphonic music from Fibich and Foerster through Suk, Ostrčil, Ježek of course, and E. F. Burian up to New Music and the present.
You’ve staged a lot of operas but you’ve also created some musical stagings of Mauricio Kagel’s pieces. What is your attitude towards listening to the recordings of stage works which combine a stage action or improvisation directly with the music? Sometimes it’s musically interesting actually, for example in Partch’s compositions, even if it results from the absurdity of their instrumentation, at other times, namely in the aforesaid Kagel’s works, as soon as they lose their visual, theatrical components, they transform into strange experimental music of the sixties, which doesn’t stand out from the standard Neue Musik output of that time period. Kagel often created strongly contextual music with genre and stylistic references to the café music of the thirties, a range of regressing genres, trivialized means of musical expression, etc. If the listener doesn’t recognize or just doesn’t understand them, he may completely miss the meaning of the composition.
It comes to my mind that regarding contextuality and his inclination towards conceptual art, he may compare to Josef Berg, the organiser of happenings and distinctive music drama productions... First of all, it must be said that Josef Berg was primarily a writer, his literary output is huge actually. Also, in his musical work, he derived from the literature and, to a large extent, unfortunately from the Brechtian Theatre which was dominant in Brno at the time. Brecht’s plays were being staged by the director Evžen Sokolovský and everybody became fixated on them. Berg created a few chamber operas in the same spirit, according to quite a classical model mostly. The most bizarre and only experimental piece in this area is probably the opera Eufrides před branami Tymén for tenor, trumpet and some sort of announcer. This is truly a literary or literary dramatic venture with insufficient, meager and, let me say, also a banal musical constituent. Admittedly, working on his other pieces, such as Evropská turistika or Snídaně na hradě Šlankenvaldě, leads to nearly absolute music, but their structure is constantly determined by a strong literary dramatic base. Further, there are obviously his actions. To the most famous belongs that lecture about oriental music, when he impersonated the Indian professor Salanradhak in the company of Alois Piňos as his Indian wife, in front of a still unsuspecting audience. The dramatic side is almost predominant here, notwithstanding the material, that is, the structural issues of music become unimportant in comparison with the concept itself. From today’s point of view, this is basically not different from the expression of action and conceptual art. Finally, I must say that the majority of those “artworks” are unrepeatable mainly because of their dependence on Berg’s personal involvement. After all, he engaged in them all of himself, even his body; in this context I must recall that sometime in the mid-seventies, Petr Štembera injected a twig into a vein in his left arm. I’ve always been fascinated by the figures who swam against the current, I mean those artists who didn’t make art for a living. It occurred to me that making music as a hobby, in a retreat would be the best solution. Berg managed to do that, because in the fifties he wrote propaganda songs, then he orchestrated for The Brno Radio Orchestra of folk instruments (BROLN) and simultaneously he earned a living by creating theatre music, which he later either cut out or used for the next compositions. For instance, he tried out his last piece Snění on the music for Ludvík Kundera’s radio drama Dva ve vánici. Berg has always been considered a weirdo that people were laughing at, sometimes in Brno but mostly in Prague... and also in Darmstadt. When he came there once and presented his chamber opera records, from the perspective of the sixties, everybody saw him as a complete “wacko”, who did exactly the opposite of the current trends. There were two things I liked about him from the start: his sense of mystification and his capability to insert anything into anything, mixing styles – then, in the sixties! –, but above all I liked his literariness, because if I hadn’t been born in 1955 but five or ten years earlier, I would have chosen literature.
Why? Wasn’t music in the early seventies a safer area? It was neutral. Doing your own thing in the field of writing was quite risky at the beginning of normalization. Music is abstractive, so I’ve escaped into it, nevertheless I was constantly writing texts for the drawer and I generally enjoyed literature more.
Is it something specific about Czech New Music? It always goes beyond the music in a way – Vostřák made a shift towards the mystique, Kopelent towards emotionality, Komorous towards Eastern culture, Berg towards literature…
Has it made any reference to the aforementioned sixties at the level of composition? The New Music of the sixties is not about “composing techniques” - I have never written a dodecaphonic piece, for instance. This is a matter of another kind of creativity and thinking about music. In this sense, the reference to the way of musical thinking in the sixties was possible.
Besides Berg, I can think of one more loner that sometimes used to move away from music towards the theatre, drama and theory, namely Emil František Burian. Even his works are not played often... E. F. Burian. His son Honza Burian keeps his entire output in one huge cupboard, that once it burns up, everything will go to hell. One day we dug through that cupboard and we found a tremendous number of works from the twenties. Later on, we played them too... There is that massive disadvantage of the Czech cultural environment: anytime you find an artist whose output would probably be the subject of critical publishing anywhere else in the world, there pops out a problem to set his work in a historical context, either musical, theatrical or literary. When we worked up Burian’s composition from 1926, such a strange one, we didn’t know what he had meant, what position it had occupied in his artwork, what had been his source of inspiration. Our interpretation is just absolutely ecstatic.
But on the other hand, the majority will stand for the immanent quality of composition. The originality of composing solutions, arrangement and so on. There’s no telling, in fact. Burian consequently swam against the current. Basically, we somehow can associate him with Ježek and Bohuslav Martinů, but the difference between them is that in both Ježek’s and Martinů’s works, the context is immediately obvious. When I hear Martinů’s tango, for example, harmonized and instrumentalized in some way, I know right away: yeah, this is jazz plus France of the time, Stravinsky and so forth. With Ježek it seems to be practically the same. But in case of E. F. Burian, I often don’t know. When it comes to the voiceband, it is such a weird issue that was thought to be finished and no one believed that it could be developed. But when we think about rap, we will discover that it’s made on the principle of the voiceband.
You occupy yourself with the opera. What is the main difference between the opera and the musical theatre in your opinion? Put simply, the opera is a musical genre. It’s primarily about pieces of music, not music dramas. Although at the start there is a libretto, it is symptomatic that many opera librettos are totally useless at the theatre. At the musical theatre, this range is wider. Watching opera performances without the music can’t be truly exciting, even if they are directed in a really inventive way. Perhaps one of Robert Wilson’s pieces, but he’s generally humdrum.
The opera is created at the moment the composer finishes the score after musicalizing the libretto. Only since then director start to wonder how to stage it. On the contrary, musical theatre is formed in cooperation among actors, the scenographer, costume designer, composer and director of course. Working on the opera requires finding a story and a librettist... Formerly, operas were written by full-fledged musicians, thus not by the artists who were at the border of music and theatre or music and literature. Contrarily, everything was divided, there existed professional librettists, who usually had something up their sleeves and the composer didn’t care about the text he got, as was the case with Puccini’s La Rondine. Puccini was given some opera libretto and he decided to compose something at the border of the operetta. There are exceptions, such as Wagner or Janáček who used to write librettos themselves, and it’s true that Janáček’s librettos are of a higher literary quality than those of all Czech operas put together. The opera is a genre based on the theatrical narrative that is also formed by structuring of musical processes. A director doesn’t have to think about the tempo of performance, its rhythm, proportions. Everything is given.
What about opera productions from the second half of the 20th century? Composers such as Luigi Nono, Olga Neuwirth and Phil Glass introduced to us new dramatic strategies, composing techniques, they found a new way to use the voice or arrangement... Well, musically it may be completely different that Schönberg, Berg, their predecessors and contemporaries, but regarding the dramaturgy, it follows the same track. It’s no problem for us to admit: “yes, this is the opera”. Even though in the cases of Bang On and Can we ask ourselves, what it exactly is, whether it is a musical or an oratorio – we will figure it out in the end. Also, in Morton Feldman’s opera Neither, we can still feel that this is basically Schönberg. To be brief, during the last century, particular components have progressed, for example in the area of theatre or music, nevertheless their combination seems to be pretty classifiable either as an oratorio, pseudo-pop music or as a completely classical opera, for instance with the works of John Adams. In my mind, it is because the authors of those artworks are musicians above all, regardless of how deeply they understand the issues of theatre.
Speaking about the relationship between the opera and musical theatre, isn’t it just John Cage who offers the third possible way towards i.e. performance and action; whose artwork hasn’t been continued by other artists (and I don’t mean just the opera series Europeras) because it didn’t represent any genre or method? John Cage is, although everybody slobbers over him, a separate historical personality, and although he has been considered a “visionary”, since the fifties his work has been FIRMLY grounded in the poetics of that time. For me, there’s nothing inspiring about him these days.
Translated from Czech by Kinga Szubańska, proofread by Peter Alfredson.