Composers Edition’s Dan Goren talks with composer and performer ahead of an intergalactic performance in Berlin’s Zeiss-Grossplanetarium
DG: Klaus, your relationship with John’s music goes back around 20 years. How was your interest sparked and what keeps you coming back to it?
Klaus Schöpp: Was it chance or destiny that John sent me, I think in 2001, the score for his quartet Transitions for clarinet, violin, cello and piano? I don’t now recall! It took a little time until our first performance in 2003 at the Konzerthaus Berlin. Excited about his music, we wanted to continue our collaboration. The next steps followed logically, resulting in the Trans cycle. Importantly for us, in John’s music we can both show our virtuosity and play together as a chamber music group. John shows himself as an outstanding composer in both modes, able to write a music always in flow, highly precise, ingenious in its colours, deeply felt and reaching beyond: A trip in a new sphere!
DG : The ‘Trans-solo’ series of works presented together with the ensemble work Transference in this concert all relate to each other and follow an earlier work ‘Transitions’. What is it that you’re exploring repeatedly here John?
John Palmer: It all began with Transitions, for quartet, originally commissioned in 2000 by pianist Margie Wu and premiered by Klaus’ Modern Art Sextet (later renamed Modern Art Ensemble). Written for the virtuosity of four distinct musicians, it explores aspects of temporal relations within a musical flux where the compression and expansion of four initial melodic phrases are articulated in ever-changing segments of melodic and harmonic gestures. I was interested in exploring virtuosity as a powerful means for dialectic discourse within the western tradition of chamber music.
DG: What does a dialectic discourse mean in this context?
JP: I mean the art of logical argumentation, that is the art of discussing different perspectives about a subject with the aim of establishing a common axiom, postulate, or at least a common ground for debate. The subject of the musical discussion in Transitions is constituted by the four melodic phrases. I have always found chamber music, especially from Haydn’s string quartets onwards, to be the perfect setting for this kind of musical scenario: a theatre of transitive interactions delineated by intrinsic transformations of melodies, harmonies and rhythms that I perceive as ever-changing transitions of elusive states of mind triggered by sound. Perceived in this context, virtuosity becomes the main vehicle for such a search.
DG: And the ‘Trans’ cycle of solo works came out of ‘Transitions’?
JP: Yes, Transitions included four instrumental cadenzas that in 2010 became short stand-alone pieces: Trans-solos 1 to 4 for cello for piano, clarinet, violin and cello respectively. From this moment on, it became clear to me that I had to further explore virtuosity as a dialectical means in conjunction with the musicians of the Modern Art Ensemble. I also wrote Transference based on fragments from Transitions, now with flute. This was followed in 2013 by further solo works (Trans-solos 5 & 6) and finally a larger piece Transparence for the full sextet in 2014.
DG: The Carl Zeiss Planetarium sounds like a magical setting for this performance. How do you feel it relates to the music you’ll be performing?
KS: We will have cosmic projections on the planetarium dome, displaying perpectives of the earth, the planets, the sun and the stars while we are playing. We will perform the Trans – Solos from different parts of the totally dimmed performance space. John will perform his synthesizer work Spirits and we end with his quintet Transference on the stage. In addition, we will perform Makiko Nishikaze’s Islands-Inseln (again distributed around the space) and honour our friend and wonderful composer Georg Katzer who died this month with a performance of his sextet Arietta-hektischer Stillstand-Adagietto entschwindend which he wrote for our ensemble. So the public will have the experience of a concert in which the instruments fill the room, sounding from each direction, together with an impressive display of the spheres.
DG: The audience are in for quite a journey then. These works of John seem to me to be journeys, of a metaphysical kind – how do you approach them as a performer?
KS: Yes, it’s quite a journey through consciousness, and I hope we will find an opportunity to play the whole cycle in a nearer future… Our practical approach as musicians is always the same: practising the parts, finding their beauty, bringing them together as a chamber music group; reading, playing, listening, trying again… It is music, the world of sounds that connects the people and of course also John, as the composer, with us, his musicians.
DG: So an ongoing artistic partnership, the bedrock of so much creativity. It must be hugely valuable as a composer to have worked with a fine group of musicians such as Modern Art Ensemble over so many years.
JP: It is indeed a real privilege for me to have been able to work with musicians of this calibre throughout the years. The Modern Art Ensemble are not only fantastic performers but also highly dedicated musicians who are fully commitment to contemporary music beyond any specific idiom and style. Undoubtedly, their vision and enthusiasm remains a continuous source of inspiration for my work. After so many years, I remain as impressed as ever to see how they have managed to maintain an autonomous position and identity within the European scene: these are true music heroes who will perform the music they believe in beyond any financial, aesthetic and political constriction, and will take the risk that comes with it.
Thursday 13 June, 8pm
Planetariumssaal, Zeiss-Grossplanetarium, Berlin
Modern Art Ensemble + John Palmer