Swiss composer Thomas Kessler is “Composer in Residence” at Lucerne Festival 2019.
His over half a century long journey is filled with surprises and yet marked by intrinsic coherence. He’s known to have influenced a young generation of musicians in Berlin in the 1960s, such as Klaus Schulze or Edgar Froese, founder of the cult band “Tangerine Dream” and yet some were astonished when Thomas Kessler decided to broaden his horizons and break contemporary music boundaries again by starting a collaboration with a Californian hiphop poet.
“Utopia” – no perfectly smooth sound
Kessler’s work has been considered groundbreaking from his earliest pieces, in which the single performers had complete control over the electronic output of their playing instead of being routed to a central mixing console. But he went even further and dared to transfer this configuration to an entire orchestra, wanting to create something utopian – and called the piece “Utopia”.
Each time, this procedure led to a new journey of research and discovery, for as soon as a solution was found, it led to further possibilities and suggestions. Over the decades, a dozen of “Control pieces” originated from 1974’s “Piano Control” for instance, and “Utopia” also experienced two further orchestral transformations. In the third piece, which will also be performed in Lucerne, the orchestra – and thus the sound – will be distributed throughout the room.
Thomas Kessler: Trailer, Composer in Residence, Lucerne Festival 2019
This is quite representative of how Kessler (born 1937 in Zurich) proceeds. He is never satisfied with the achieved solutions and always yearns for something new and unique. This let him to systematically avoid the mainstream patterns of New Music. After his composition studies in Berlin, Kessler founded his own electronic studio, which soon became renowned. His reputation eventually reached Switzerland and from 1973 onwards he taught composition and theory at the Musik-Akademie in Basel, where he also built his prestigious Electronic Studio. He’s to be considered one of this country’s electronic and live-electronic music pioneers, alongside Bruno Spoerri and Gerald Bennett.
He always distanced himself from any kind of academicism and instead of aiming for a perfect, smooth sound, he would strive for the unusual – as in the “Utopia” orchestral pieces. One needs a certain amount of confidence, in order to delegate sound modulation during the concert, live and via laptop to each individual musician within the orchestra. Something new can emerge: “The result is an electronic orchestral sound, because nobody is absolutely precise. One is a bit louder, the other a little quieter, it’s not quite right and the result is a mix of sounds you’ve never heard before.”
Slam poetry and orchestra
When Kessler moved to Toronto, after his retirement in 2001, he was looking for new musical encounters, beyond the established concert scene: “on the street, in the pubs where young people meet on weekends, the place of vibrant slam poetry, an art form that impressed me deeply and that is highly popular over there. Although people tend to state that rap is dead, slam lives on and simply can’t be killed”.
After some research he finally contacted slam poet Saul Williams and the two got along right away. Their first work for orchestra was based on lyrics, (“…said the shotgun to the head”), followed by a string quartet (“NGH WHT”), with a completely different style and use of musical idioms – but both unique in contemporary music, because of their bold but still accessible effect, that cannot leave the listener unaffected.
Concerts Lucerne Festival u.a.:
17.8.2019, Late night 1: Mivos Quartett, Saul Williams: u.a. NGH WHT
24.8.19, 15h, Moderne 1: Thomas Kessler u.a., Control-Zyklus III
24.8.19, Late night 2: Thomas Kessler, Saul Williams, Orchester der Lucerne Festival Academy, u.a. Utopia III, „…said the shotgun to the head“