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Swiss Composer Heinz Holliger Is the Focus of Salzburg contemporary

4 JUL 2012

published in: Concert

Heinz Holliger (Photo: Priska Ketterer)
Michael Kunkel: This year’s Salzburg Festival spans your oeuvre in one “Atembogen,” or “arch of breath” – central works from the past forty years will be performed. What they bring to light are the obsessions that drive you as an artist: for example, extreme contraction, silencing, eradications, negations of individuality. What artistic riches do you discover in these “contractions”?

Heinz Holliger: To begin with, I am interested in learning: what happens when a tone is produced? What happens when a tone dies? … The tone acquires a biological component: it is born, it lives, it dies. This concept is not far removed from Eastern ideas on music, for example Isang Yun’s. I approach this phenomenon in very different ways: in the Scardanelli Zyklus (1975-85/91), it is almost like a diary with individual pages or stations from my entire lifespan as a composer, and I place them together in a very concentrated way – which is rather exceptional in my work. … This is sung with almost empty lungs, or while inhaling. … This means there is no abstract trembling; instead, one really hears that it’s performed at the end of the breath.

MK: Through extreme muting and silencing of music, for example in Atembogen (1974/75), you release an incredibly rich palette of sounds. … It is actually possible to create a new cosmos of sound by preventing sounds from reverberating.

HH: However, the ear has to adapt first to the soft cosmos of sound presented in Atembogen. Then, within this highly differentiated area of piano, there are huge, dramatic outbursts. The soft, velvety sounds, however, are not necessarily gentle or idyllic – on the contrary, they are able to speak with extreme expressivity.

MK: There is also the phenomenon of the pianissimo shock: I think Helmut Lachenmann once described how the soft crunching of a snail’s house being tread on by accident can be more disturbing than a jumbo jet’s take-off. Very soft sounds can be highly charged with violence.

HH: That is the psychological side of sounds. In my work, you can notice a huge filter bearing down on the orchestra. Perhaps this filter eliminates a lot, but subcutaneously, much remains present. An extreme example for this is my piece Psalm (1971) …

MK: … adapted from Paul Celan, a poet who was also very important for Atembogen. (…)

MK: Not only poets, but musicians are also among your “idols”, and some of them are presented at this year’s Festival: this is particularly true for Bernd Alois Zimmermann, who committed suicide the same year Paul Celan did. How important is Bernd Alois Zimmermann to you?

HH: I think it’s fantastic that music presenters are finally noticing that one of the greatest composers of the 20th century – to my mind, the greatest composer of the post-war era – had been “left out” completely. Perhaps it was because of his non-conformism, his excessiveness. Perhaps it was also the insecurity that Zimmermann’s music causes in his listeners.

MK: Like Celan, Bernd Alois Zimmermann wrote with a strong sense of the “acuteness of today.”

HH: He had a sarcasm that cuts and reveals humanity’s vanity with the sharpest knife imaginable. Of course, that made him a rather unpleasant companion, especially for the purists, the early serialists. For them, this was “dirty” music. Serial music followed a concept that held that music self-generates following an inner law, untouched by the subjective or by human depths and weaknesses, although of course the subconscious returns through the “back door” – especially in the case of Stockhausen and my teacher [Pierre Boulez], although he doesn’t like to hear that – but even pieces like Structures I are incredibly volcanic music. Zimmermann, on the other hand, was truly a visionary and a maverick. He tried to integrate new musical concepts into his work. But it doesn’t matter which technique forms the foundation of these pieces, it is immediately clear that it’s his music …

MK: During the past decades, a huge repertoire of oboe music has been written for you, and you are going to play two pieces that are particularly precious: Witold Lutosławski’s Double Concerto for Oboe, Harp and Chamber Orchestra (1980) and Elliot Carter’s Oboe Quartet (2001).

HH: Previously, Elliott Carter had already written the Oboe Concerto (1987) for me. He was an oboist himself. When I first met him [circa 1985], he laughed and pulled the pocket score of Richard Strauss’ Oboe Concerto out of the pocket of his raincoat and showed it to me. In the Oboe Concerto, there is a group of four violas, an analogy with the solo viola in the Strauss Concerto. Regarding the Oboe Quartet, he said that he was not particularly interested in new playing techniques, but of course he knows the oboe very well and takes it to extremes. I had asked him to write this piece because I wanted an adequate companion piece for Mozart’s Oboe Quartet, the best work in the entire oboe literature. Apart from that high point, there is hardly anything comparable, and that is why I am always trying to inspire composers to write for this formation…

MK: … very successfully, as the recent example of Rudolf Kelterborn shows…

HH: … and Harrison Birtwistle and Isang Yun. Friedrich Cerha has now written a wonderful Quintet. And in Lutosławski’s Double Concerto, the connection with Mozart is also important. His conversations with Balint András Varga show that he had planned it much earlier as dialogues. In the end, the piece became much simpler. When I visited him for the first time, I brought him Berio’s Sequenza and lists of new playing techniques. He said that that was all fine and dandy, but that he would be more interested in hearing me play the Mozart Oboe Concerto or a Schumann Romance, because he wanted to feel the exact structure of my phrasing. He wanted to hear the arches of my breathing. That is why despite all their differences, there is a common ground between Lutosławski and Carter. These are not just showpieces with new playing techniques. If the latter are required at all, they are completely integrated into the spectrum of sound. (…)

MK: One of your works will also have its world premiere, and hopefully it will not remain an isolated performance: a Double Concerto for Violin, Viola and Small Orchestra. The concerto form has been central to your own music; suffice it to mention Siebengesang (1966/67), Turmmusik (1984), the Violin Concerto (1993-95/2002) or Recicanto (2000/01) …

HH: ... all these pieces focus on an individual casting shadows and dividing. Here, the situation is different for me, the concept of a double concerto means that things are less monomaniacal. This is more about “duality”. I had already composed Drei Skizzen for the soloists of this work, Thomas Zehetmair and Ruth Killius, creating a kind of eight-stringed instrument …

MK: ... just as the String Quartet No. 2 is about a 16-stringed instrument …

HH: ... while in this new piece, I was attracted by quite contrary characters that are heard simultaneously, a little bit like in my opera Schneewittchen (1997/98) based on Robert Walser. While the violin and its obligato instruments, for example, play bright, capricious music, the violas have a soft, funereal character. Like in Zimmermann’s work, very different characters appear simultaneously. The two solo instruments have their own worlds, and the small orchestra adds a rather neutral level between them. Thus, I try to achieve the exact opposite of what Mozart did in the Sinfonia concertante, where the instruments often appear to merge into one. There will be a kind of masquerade [at the time of this conversation, the composition had not been completed], somewhat playful music, but playful in an unfathomable way, as was already the case in Schneewittchen. (…)

MK: Double-facedness is something that one connects with you as an artist-personality: on the one hand, you are a celebrated virtuoso and a welcome feature of any great music event; on the other hand, you are one of the most radical and least conformist artists alive today.

HH: I am sure that is the public perception. In terms of the zodiac, I am on the cusp [of Taurus and Gemini – Heinz Holliger was born on May 21, 1939]. Mozart was considered crazy, but he was able to turn somersaults and write the most profound music at the same time. These things don’t have to go together. As a musician, you have to make the entire emotional spectrum resound. I have a circus side of my personality, but it can flip and lead directly into the abyss. (…) I cannot imagine not having that side. Then the other side would also be skewed. I perform, conduct, compose and teach: I don’t feel these elements to be disparate; on the contrary, within me, there is complete unity. I never think about it at all, I just do it.

MK: The fact that you enjoy a following among higher circles, for whom you represent a kind of artistic figurehead, however, hardly goes together with the content of your art.

HH: Even when I move in elevated social circles, I never hesitate to say what I think. A musician enjoys much more of a jester’s license than a scientist, for example. Perhaps people take a musician less seriously, but that is why I can say things that would cause a much greater outcry if others did so. As a musician, you have a certain kind of freedom. My piece (Ma) (s)Sacrilégion d’horreur for 8 (16, 24 or 32) piccolo flutes and four Basel drummers with whistles (2004), for example, is “dedicated with best wishes to the hangmen of culture in the Basel government and the Basler Zeitung”. This is perceived as a carnival joke. Whenever I am invited to present awards, I use that opportunity to pervert the official situation, saying things that seem essential to me.

MK: In one of your Salzburg concerts, you will conduct Mozart’s Kleine Nachtmusik (1787), one of the pieces especially abused by the music business: how can you even think of programming such a work today?

HH: It is precisely because this piece has been so brutally overdone that I want to liberate all it contains! I think I am predestined to do just that, since I have not conducted the work very much at all. Every time, I found it to be simply wonderful music, abused by routine. That is exactly what I find so attractive about it, especially since Dallapiccola’s Piccola musica notturna (1954), performed in the same concert, is a very meditative, profound piece. Its only similarity with Mozart is the title. In that concert, the challenge is to create one overarching connection between these two pieces. This program, too, is two-faced. Some of the program ideas, incidentally, were contributed by the new Festival Director Alexander Pereira, who had heard Atembogen when I conducted it during his time at the Konzerthaus; he said the piece had touched him profoundly and that he wanted to have it on the program in Salzburg at any cost. (…)

The interview took place on May 11, 2012 in Basel.   

Translation: Alexa Nieschlag