A Quiet Rumble – Composer Charles Uzor

A portrait by Cécile Olshausen:

At the age of seven, he forgot his mother tongue Igbo and learned Swiss German. In his music, composer Charles Uzor sets out on a journey back to his Nigerian childhood, to the “pounding and quivering nature” of the African tropics, to the distant voice of his mother. Cécile Olshausen visited Charles Uzor.

Charles Uzor Portrait ©zVg Charles Uzor

Cécile Olshausen
It’s raining as I get off the train in St. Gallen. My smartphone I supposed to show me the way to Charles Uzor’s flat, in the centre of St. Gallen, just a two-minute walk away. Nevertheless, I manage to get lost.

Detours have led me to Charles Uzor. Many years ago, we happened to sit next to each other during concert and we talked. Since then, I often heard his name and music, but we never met in person again.

As he opens the door I shake off a few raindrops and Charles Uzor welcomes me into his spacious city flat. My gaze falls on a grand piano, on shelves full of books and CDs, while in the kitchen a radiator ripples like a fountain. A parasol leans in a corner of the living room reminding me of summer, while outside a big Christmas star hangs over the small balcony.

We take a seat at the dining room table. And from the urban holiday lights outside his window, our conversation slowly moves into the life and sound of Charles Uzor, a biography in which so many paths cross.

Charles Uzor was born in Nigeria in 1961. A few years later, a brutal war for independence broke out in his home region of Biafra. At the age of seven, he escaped the horrors of war and found a new family in St. Gallen, where he went to school and graduated. His studies – first oboe, then composition – later took him to Rome, Bern, Zurich and London. Finally, he wrote his doctoral thesis on melody and inner time consciousness. Charles Uzor’s works are many and varied: operas, dance, orchestral and choral compositions, but also many pieces for different ensemble settings.

Through music, Charles Uzor connects with his past and his childhood in Nigeria.

Our chat is calm, a conversation that allows for silence. A silence that I also find in some of Charles Uzor’s pieces, in Nri/ mimicri (2015/2016) for Ondes Martenot, percussion ensemble and tape for example. It is not a linearly developing composition, but rather a soundscape through which one senses by listening attentively. It is as if you enter a tropical house and find yourself – as soon as you step over the threshold – in a completely different world. For Charles Uzor, Nri/ mimicri is an approach to his “African origins”, as he puts it, a piece in which one can perceive ” pounding and quivering of nature”. And it is a reference to his ancestors, the Nri, a legendary Nigerian tribe.


Charles Uzor, Nri/mimicri, Percussion Art Ensemble Bern, UA 2016, Production SRG/SSR

Charles Uzor belongs to the Igbo people and grew up in the south-east of Nigeria, in the Niger Delta, a region with tropical rainforest and many rivers. He spoke Igbo with his family. When he came to Switzerland at the age of seven, this language disappeared within a very short time. To this day, Charles Uzor is haunted by the fact that he could simply forget his mother tongue.

… traditional Igbo sayings spoken on tape….

Fortunate circumstances led to him finding his family again after the Biafra War. As a teenager and firmly anchored in his Swiss life, Charles Uzor decided to stay with his St. Gallen family. However, he has stayed in touch with his Nigerian mother, who now lives in the USA, ever since. And in his cycle Mothertongue (2018), you can hear her voice, speaking traditional Igbo sayings on tape.


Charles Uzor, Mothertongue Fire / mimicri for tape, Maria Christina Uzor, 2018

Uzor processes these recordings into a composition and thus connects sonically with a language he no longer understands, his mother tongue.


Charles Uzor, Mothertongue for Mezzosoprano, Ensemble and tape, Ensemble Mothertongue, world creation Musikfestival Bern 2020, Prodcution SRG/SSR

Charles Uzor’s compositional paths lead him not only back to the past of his African childhood, but also to centuries afar. During a short break in the conversation, when we open the windows to les some fresh air in, I take a look at Charles Uzor’s bursting, colourful CD shelf – and notice a lot of music by Pérotin, Guillaume de Machaut, Johannes Ockeghem or Costanzo Festa. I’m curious to learn, where this love for early music comes from as soon as we continue our conversation.

According to Uzor, pre-baroque music opens up a vastness and wildness, an order and structure that magically attracts him: “I often have the feeling that I was there; images of myself as a Renaissance man come to me, that’s how close I relate to it”. This music with its rounds, rhythms and repetitions also has something African for Charles Uzor. Thus, early music and African language sounds come together in his compositions. Paths that meet, moments of encounter.

What his music manages to combine effortlessly, the old and the new, the African and the Swiss, cracks in his everyday life experience. Because as a black man, Charles Uzor is affected by racism – even in Switzerland. And, as he tells me, every day. Everyday racism.

8’46” – that’s how long George Floyd’s agony lasted

Charles Uzor could not remain silent when George Floyd was murdered. For the black US citizen who was violently killed by the police in May 2020 and whose murder triggered worldwide protest – along with the Black Lives Matter movement, Charles Uzor composed the piece 8’46” seconds – that’s how long George Floyd’s agony lasted when his breath was taken from him. The composition only consists of breathing sounds. For Charles Uzor it was a necessity to write this piece in order to process his own deep shock and to externalise it.


Charles Uzor, 8’46” – Floyd in memoriam, world creation Musikfestival Bern 2020, Prodcution SRG/SSR

Charles Uzor’s homage to George Floyd was premiered in Bern on September 4, 2020. I have an intense memory of this focused performance by the Mothertongue ensemble, directed by Rupert Huber. Not pathetic at any moment. And at the end of the 8’46” no applause – but concern, quietness and just silence.

The rain has stopped now and it’s dark outside. We talked for a long time. In the kitchen, Charles Uzor makes coffee and the soothing ripples of the radiator brings us back from the depths of our conversation to the present. Then I set off towards the station. Now I know the way.
Cécile Olshausen

Charles Uzor Portrait ©zVg Charles Uzor

Musikfestival Bern – Mothertongue, Rupert HuberPercussion Art Ensemble Bern

Broadcast SRF 2 Kultur:
Musik unserer Zeit, Mittwoch, 16.12.20, 22h: Pochen und Beben – der Komponist Charles Uzor, Redaktion Cécile Olshausen.

Neo-Profile: Charles Uzor, Musikfestival BernPercussion Art Ensemble Bern

“I am one of Europe’s slowest composers.”

Dieter Ammann and his piano concerto Gran Toccata @ Sternstunde Musik srf &neo.mx3

Dieter Ammann continues to push forward: with his piano concerto “The Piano Concerto – Gran Toccata”, which premiered at the BBC Proms London and was subsequently performed worldwide, the composer, currently teaching in Lucerne and Bern, is reaching a new career height. Swiss Television SRF is broadcasting an in-depth portrait in its Sternstunde Musik format. Filmmaker Daniel von Aarburg accompanied Ammann during the three years of the piano concerto’s creation: the result is a dense, subtle and humorous portrait of a process that wasn’t always easy, with insights into rehearsals, concerts as well as private situations. Ammann’s youth and his career are also explored.

In his conversation with Gabrielle Weber he talks about the making of both film and concert.

Dieter Ammann @composing

It took you three years to compose the Gran Toccata; would you describe composing a new work as a journey and was the film project also one?

It was an eventful journey: I was already involved in an independent film project initiated by director Arthur Spirk, a great music connoisseur and lover. Then SRF decided to produce a film portrait and everyone agreed to re-start the filming process with Daniel von Aarburg taking over the direction. We clicked already at our first meeting and an unbelievably beautiful cooperation developed from it.

How did the story come about?

I placed myself in the hands of the team with great confidence. The director always anticipated what he wished to film. An enormous amount of good material was produced. According to the motto “kill your darlings”, a lot of cutting and editing turned out to be necessary. For example, my teaching activities at the Lucerne University as well as some private scenes are missing, which is a pity as I am deeply rooted in my family and immediate surroundings.

You live and work mostly at night… how was that compatible with the needs of the film crew go?

It wasn’t just a job for them, they got completely involved. That’s what made it possible to capture personal and private moments. They also naturally took my rhythm into account, set the shooting in the afternoon and sometimes at night. There was great deal of idealism involved.

..and with the soloist, pianist Andreas Haefliger?

Our cooperation worked very well, but not always without problems. We had to figure out and fight about certain things. It was exciting to work thing out together and it created a lifetime relationship.

Your “Piano Concerto – Gran Toccata” was and still is a huge success, worldwide: It is known that you initially resisted for a long time to write a piano concerto and only accepted it on the condition that one of the US “Big Five” orchestras* was involved… Was the acceptance from Boston unexpected? Was it inspiring?

I was actually trying to avoid this huge task. I generally only accept assignments if I can fully support the conditions. For example, in an earlier request for an opera, I set the condition of an eight years production. This could not be guaranteed and so that was it for me.

Due to the very early request, I actually got a few years’ notice for the piano concerto before I started to compose, so I didn’t freeze…

What was the musical spark for the piano concerto?

At the beginning I listened to an enormous amount of piano literature for about six months and created an extensive collection of examples of textures. I was interested in what complexity is possible on the piano – not in the sense of New Complexity, for example, but intrinsically, developed from the instrument. This collection with all notations and verbal sketches was stolen from me during a train ride and all of a sudden I had nothing left. That was a real shock.

You once said: “Freedom is at the heart of composing contemporary music”: Particularly in the case of commissions for large orchestras, there are framework conditions, sometimes obstacles, which can be restrictive. They come from music that is not primarily and originally written to contain improvised material, where freedom is supposedly greater.

Writing for 70 musicians is not a restriction for me, but restrictions also exist when I work with an algorithm program on the computer or when I write for piano trio. It is precisely the friction with the restriction, the sounding out of limits, that fires the imagination.


Dieter Ammann, Après le silence. Für Klaviertrio, Mondrian Ensemble, 2004/05

Restriction is fuel for fantasy.

…when working with orchestras there is a strict working rhythm, with usually little time for rehearsals and little freedom.

I do not only have high demands on myself, but also on the interpreters of my music. Fortunately, it is mainly artistically outstanding soloists and ensembles who deal with my works, so when a top orchestra has four rehearsals, the world premiere really works. However, a world premiere rarely corresponds to the interpretational ideal. This requires several performances. In my opinion, the promotion of music should move away from the premieres hype and rather towards the obligation to perform a new piece several times.

There were also interpretational differences in the piano concerto. Each orchestra and every conductor come with his or her own sound. Contemporary orchestral works in particular are rarely performed twice. However, I have the qualitative claim to add something valid to the repertoire, so that a constant engagement with the music is possible through replaying, as for example in the case of “glut” for orchestra.


Dieter Ammann, glut. Für Orchester, Lucerne Festival Academy, Dirigent George Benjamin, 2019

You describe yourself as a slow composer – a new work of yours is to be expected only every few years… What’s next?

2022 I will turn – whoa! – sixty. I am looking forward to a residency with the Basel Symphony Orchestra or a birthday concert of the Sinfonietta. Perhaps there will be one or two more symphonic concerts in addition. The postponed Swiss premiere of the piano concerto will also take place in 2022, at the Lucerne Festival.

Recently, I started working on a concerto for viola and orchestra, for soloist Nils Mönkemeyer, a co-commission of the SOB with the Munich Chamber Orchestra. This will be followed by a piece for one of the world’s leading orchestras, followed by a cello concerto. If I get to live that long…;-)
Interview: Gabrielle Weber

SRF-Filmportrait Dieter Ammann / Gran Toccata, Sternstunde Musik 2020: Regie Daniel von Aarburg / producer SRF: Markus Wicker:

The Piano Concerto – Gran Toccata, Premiere is on tour since August 2019, soloist Andreas Haefliger, among others: BBC-Proms / London, Taipei Symphony Orchestra / Taiwan, Boston Symphony Orchestra / USA, Munich Philharmonic / Munich Gasteig, Helsinki Philharmonic / Helsinki. The Swiss premiere at Lucerne Festival has been postponed to 2022 due to the pandemic.

The CD recording of Gran Toccata with the Helsinki Philharmonic conducted by Susanna Mälkki on BIS Records label will be made available on neo.mx3 immediately after release.

Dieter Ammann’s neo-profile includes short videos of the original material by Arthur Spirk.

*Big Five: New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra and Cleveland Orchestra

Dieter Ammann, Andreas HaefligerLucerne Festival, Sinfonieorchester Basel, Mondrian Ensemble, Nils Mönkemeyer, Basel Sinfonietta

Broadcasts: SRF1
Dieter Ammann – Gran Toccata, Sternstunde Musik, So, 23.8., 11:55h; Di, 25.8., 13:00h; Sa, 29.8., 9:40h (Dauer 1Std)

Broadcasts SRF 2 Kultur:
Musikmagazin, 22./23.8.20, Redaktion Benjamin Herzog / Beitrag Silvan Moosmüller.
Musik unserer Zeit, 29.7.2020. (Erstausstrahlung 12.2.2020), Unspielbarkeit, Redaktion Theresa Beyer

Neo-Profiles: Dieter Ammann, Lucerne Festival Academy, Sinfonieorchester Basel, Mondrian Ensemble, Basel Sinfonietta