“the biggest Beethoven fan ever.”

Interview with Michael Wertmüller by Gabrielle Weber: The 10th Symphony @ Cologne & Pandemic Premiere @ Donaueschingen

Michael Wertmüller continues composing Beethoven’s fragment of the 10th symphony and the result can be heard in the Kölner Philharmonie on October 14. Immediately afterwards, a new work will be premiered at the Donaueschinger Musiktage*: a true tour de force for the SWR Symphony Orchestra, having to face the increased hygiene requirements in a reduced size.

The Berlin-based musician masterfully mixes musical styles, genres, formats and formations. He travels internationally both as jazz drummer and composer and his pieces are always shrill, fast and highly complex. Thus he constantly shakes up new music clichés and cannot be allocated to any fix place.

Wertmüller and Beethoven or Wertmüller and the pandemic conditions: is that possible?

It certainly is, reveals Wertmüller in an interview via zoom from Frankfurt, where he was discussing an upcoming music theatre production.

Full blast, Peter Broetzmann sax, cl Marino Pliakas e-b Michael Wertmueller dr

Gabrielle Weber
You are currently in Frankfurt, working live with people again, travelling. Has your work changed since the pandemic?  More online, less travelling?

My work as a composer hasn’t changed at all – even before Corona I was alone at home for weeks and saw no one. At the moment there are fewer meetings, of course and I work more via zoom – like everyone else I suppose. Apart from the fact that live performances are on hold, little has changed.

Have you lost many live concerts?

In the last fifteen years I have experienced kind of a cross-fade: proportion and ratio have shifted from many tours and occasional composing to the opposite. That’s why it wasn’t so drastic for me: only one big USA tour with my trio was cancelled.

Your trio: Full Blast?

Yes, exactly, my jazz trio with Peter Brötzmann and Marino Pliakas. A big USA tour was planned, across the country from east to west. This cancellation hurts of course, especially since we had some successful tours in the States in the past. We had been invited to various festivals and were often on tour without state support, almost self-sufficient.


Michael Wertmüller, Full blast, Suzy, 2008

You are in the middle of the preparations for your 10th symphony in Cologne and the piece is part of a trilogy**. Part one had to be postponed due to the pandemic, part two was conceived differently: were there moments of uncertainty regarding the project?

Not really interestingly, as it takes place in the Philharmonie, which is huge, with its over 2100 seats and the project was always conceived for a chamber music setup. I don’t know if anything else is coming… but only 200 people are admitted.

Still three weeks to go… what does your project look like?

My piece, the 10th symphony, will take place in the great hall. It’s in the form of a music theatre. I wrote music to individual sections of a text by Gesine Danckwart, a younger Berlin author. Three singers, two string quartets and two ensembles will be interpreting it, for a total of some 25 musicians altogether.

There is also another, separate project, a sound installation distributed throughout the building, whichs can be experienced over four days.

You continued Beethoven’s 10th?

That was more of a working title, as there are only very small fragments, no more than four-five-bar sketches. I only used a tiny theme. In this project, Beethoven is relatively irrelevant to the tones themselves. Novoflot, the opera company who’s responsible for the project, asked itself and me the (big) question: what would Beethoven sound like today?

What matters most to me is that I was actually asked to do some Beethoven related work in the first place, as I would almost have been offended if I hadn’t been able to do anything about the great Beethoven anniversary. I am the biggest Beethoven fan ever.

“I am the biggest Beethoven fan ever.”

How did this fascination come about?

I was already a fan of his music as a child. As well as of Miles Davis’ and John Coltrane’s. I am actually a simple, rather romantic type of guy who easily gets enthusiastic.

Portrait Michael Wertmüller

Can this enthusiasm be heard in your composition?

Beethoven is constantly present in the back of my head. The music I love accompanies me always and everywhere, even in everyday life. Like Coltrane, Miles, or Bruckner and Shostakovich. This automatically flows into my music, whether I play or compose.

Will it become more tangible in Cologne or will it remain subconscious?

It’ll remain subconscious. The question of how Beethoven would compose today is answered by our line-up: Johnny La Marama, a hip Berlin jazz band, the “Ensemble of Nomades”, which brings in New Music, and three singers with a classical-romantic background. These are the three worlds that are valid for me today and combining them could certainly be something that Beethoven might have wanted to do in the present days.

Word’s out that musicians are completely overwhelmed when they have to interpret your pieces, as well as the audience… will that be the case this time?

The music will be relatively digestible, even pleasing. Very harmonious and also danceable. The only thing that could hurt is its intensity. But I have made the experience that I can trust the audience a lot – I don’t underestimate it.


Michael Wertmüller: Musikfabrik Köln, Antagonisme contrôlé, 2014

In Donaueschingen a new piece of yous will be presented in the Baarsporthalle immediately afterwards…

Donaueschingen is always a big challenge with its whole ongoing tradition. Even though I have been invited several times, I always think of something special for it.

..a ” grandiose piece…”

The piece had to meet the new increased hygiene requirements… a chamber music miniature…

It is absolutely not a miniature. On the contrary: it has on purpose become “grandiose”, megalomaniac, because of this corona affliction. It is everywhere and I have it too.

“Megalomaniac”? So in your case, the new guidelines resulting from the pandemic were inspiring, not annoying?

The instrumentation has been reduced and the normal symphony orchestra practically cut in half. I had no problems with that. I chose a soloist approach for the piece and wrote extreme virtuosity into it, which made it haunting, pathetic, shrill and very virtuosic. I have no trouble anticipating. As musicians, as artists, we must be able to anticipate, otherwise we are lost.

…anticipate…?

I take the situation seriously and have full confidence in the government, in the experts. But now it is important to carry on and to be consistent.

Every little thing I am allowed to do right now – and at the moment we can be thankful, if culture even takes place at all – I want to do right: full on. I want to cry out now, really loud and really furious – that’s what I do with my work. It will be a scream, an outcry.
Interview: Gabrielle Weber


Michael Wertmüller, Zeitschrei for Piano, Bass, Percussion, Steamboat Switzerland, 2015

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**as part of the “Labor Beethoven 2020” project – Contemporary music festival for Beethoven’s anniversary, in cooperation with the Akademie der Künste Berlin


#3 The 10th Symphony, 14.10.2020, 20h: Philharmonie Cologne: Novoflot Opernkompanie, Ludwig van Beethoven, Michael Wertmüller.
Further performances are planned for December in Berlin (dates & locations tbc)

Neues Werk Donaueschinger Musiktage, 16.10.2020, 18h / 21h*:
SWR Symphonieorchester, opening concert, Dirigent Titus Engel: Paul Hindemith, Kammermusik Nr.1 (1922), Michael Wertmüller, Neues Werk / UA; Oliver Schneller, The New City / UA, Lula Romero, displaced / UA, Klaus Lang, Neues Werk / UA, Cathy Milliken, Neues Werk / UA

*DONAUESCHINGER MUSIKTAGE canceled at short notice (12.10.20):
On Friday, October 16 at 8 pm, 
SWR2 will broadcast a rehearsal recording of the opening concert.

Michael Wertmüller, SWR Symphonieorchester, Titus Engel,  Novoflot Opernkompanie Berlin, Steamboat SwitzerlandPeter BrötzmannDonaueschinger Musiktage, Kölner Philharmonie, Gesine Danckwart, Johnny La Marama, Ensemble of Nomades

Neo-Profiles: Michael Wertmüller, Steamboat Switzerland, Donaueschinger Musiktage

Music for eardrums – ‘Elemental realities’: new piece @Donaueschinger Musiktage, final concert 20.10.2019

Jürg Frey ©Graham Hardy

Gabrielle Weber
Composer Jürg Frey devoted four months to the composition of his new piece “Elemental Realities”,
commissioned for the closing concert of the “Donaueschinger Musiktage”. In this interview he talks about this extreme state, about “listening” per se and the privilege of not having to compose on commission only. 

The British music scene revolving around Cornelius Cardew and the London Scratch Orchestra or Christian Wolff played a decisive role in Jürg Frey’s early years. Today he is regularly played in London’s insider circles, but this hasn’t always been the case. For many years he was considered an insider tip, he hardly ever composed for the public and from the 90s onwards he did so in close collaboration with the composers collective and label “Wandelweiser”, a community of likeminded people aiming to do “radically quiet things”. Then, in 2015, as Composer in Residence at the Huddersfield Festival, he set off on a rather unexpected late international career. 


Jürg Frey, Floating Categories 2015, live recording 2017

Jürg Frey, you define yourself “composer of silence”. How do you feel before the premiere of Donaueschinger Musiktage’s closing concert?
Calm right now. In my case tension is at its highest peak before the first rehearsal – the first meeting between my music, the conductor and the orchestra. If things go well then, I can attend the premiere in a confident state of mind.  

How did this commission come about?
That is not clear to me neither (he laughs). I received an e-mail from Björn Gottstein, the artistic director, with the subject: “Attention, short-term request”. I thought it was going to be around 2020. I first took a few days to think about it but eventually agreed and set to work for four months, non-stop. I reached the limits of both my physical as well as mental capabilities. 

How did you start to work on your new piece ‘Elemental Realities’? 
The beginning, the first three to four weeks, was the most difficult time for me. At first there were hundreds of ideas, a real thunderstorm or flickering of them. Then the energy and direction of the piece started to take shape. In order to be able to work at all, I had to bring down the exuberant initial creativity to a reasonable level. 

Were there guidelines or could you just set to work
I could do whatever I wanted. The piece just shouldn’t turn out to be overly long: that’s the nice thing about short-term requests, no demands allowed. 

In a quote regarding the piece you refer to “sheet of music as membrane” between silence and sound – and to the individual performer as fragile link between “private silence” and “music resonating in public space”…
Every single note occurs to me in awareness that it resonates into a room and that it comes in touch with silence on the back of the sheet. Each note has two directions and each note counts. The interpreter also stands on the threshold between sound and silence and this threshold is fascinating to me. 


Jürg Frey, Extended Circular Music No.8 (excerpt), Live at Dog Star Orchestra, LA 2015

“The piece gives musicians the opportunity to shine.” 

What can we expect concretely in terms of sound?
There are two components taking turns with each other. On one hand a two-dimensional one: for example strings or percussionists, playing continuous stationary sounds.
On the other hand, small musical elements, such as short melodies and chords, sequences of individual notes, all very delicately instrumented. The musicians are very challenged. 

You spoke about the composition, conductor and acoustic entity triptych, but what role does the audience play?
The act of “listening” – be it carried out by the musicians or the audience – is crucial in my opinion. The connection to the audience occurs through listening. When musicians play but also listen precisely, this is conveyed to the audience, even in large concert halls. 

“Mine is music for the ears, for the listeners’ eardrums – be they sitting in the concert hall or in the orchestra.” 


Jürg Frey, Louange de l’eau, louange de la lumière, Basel Sinfonietta 2011

Donaueschingen, especially a closing concert performance, is regarded as a key moment in a composer’s career – has your composing changed since then?  
It had no influence on the act of composing itself. But the work situation has changed since my music now has more resonance. In the past, 90% of my works were written without commission and my only motivation was artistic urge. Now I sometimes decline commissions because I wish to continue composing freely and if I feel the inner need to do so. I consider this freedom as a great privilege.
Interview Gabrielle Weber

Jürg Frey ©Graham Hardy

The Donaueschinger Musiktage will take place from October 17th to 20th. In addition to Jürg Frey’s, the event will feature premieres and panel discussions by and with Michael Pelzel, Beat Furrer and the Collegium Novum Zürich. 

World Premiere Jürg Frey: “Elemental Realities”, Donaueschinger Musiktage, Sunday, October 20, 17h, Saalsporthalle 

Sendungen SRF 2 Kultur: t.b.a.

neo-profiles: Jürg Frey, Donaueschinger Musiktage, Michael Pelzel, Beat Furrer, Collegium Novum Zürich, Basel Sinfonietta