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Profile Karlheinz Essl

Karlheinz Essl in Conversation with Joanna King

Radio Austria International (23 Mar 1997)


The composer we're to focus on for today's profile of Austria is quite a challenge to many of us, including music lovers. Karlheinz Essl is at the forefront of modern composition in Austria and his works have been performed around the world. And if you ever wanted to compose yourself, he may just give you a chance to do so. Joanna King reports:

Karlheinz Essl's compositions has been performed at some of the world's top modern music festivals such as Vienna's "WIEN MODERN", the "Ars Musica" in Brussels, the "Schoenberg Festival" in Duisburg and the Salzburg Festival, and by most of the top modern music ensembles in Europe. He's been composer in residence at the "Darmstädter Ferienkurse für Neue Musik" and he teaches computer music at the Studio for Advanced Music and Media Technology on the Bruckner-Conservatory in Linz.


Clearly the best way to approach the composer is through his music. So before we hear from Karlheinz Essl himself, here is an excerpt from his Lexikon-Sonate (1992-1997). We'll be taking along a look at this composition because it interestingly illustrates the extent to which he has harnessed modern technology and broken down the barriers between composers and audience. This is music in which you can have an important role.

Lexikon-Sonate (1992 ff.)
Live performance on a Yamaha Disklavier
University of Toronto, Dept. of Music Walter Hall (10 Mar 1998)

Download mp3 (6:41, 7.7 MB)

The piece at its original conception is endless. It is written for computer-controlled piano, and the computer program Mr. Essl developed to compose and play it, acts in "realtime", that's to say: now, at the moment it is turned on, endlessly and variously composing. He showed me the program the day we met and the way different musical modules are built in. The "conductor" so to speak in the computer program calls on the different musical modules, much as a human conductor calls on different instruments on the stage. So having set the general tone, you can sit back and listen while the computer continues for you... and never ever repeats itself... or you can continue to participate.

Karlheinz Essl: You are the super-conductor. So you can tell the conductor to give a cue to a module he chooses himself. And that's what you can do right now. [Demonstration]

The music the computer produces when it continues on its own has a certain musical structure as you heard. I only touched a couple of [computer] keys at the beginning of the snippet we had there. So we ask Mr. Essl how much the computer knows of ordinary music theory.

KHE: The computer does not know much about music - in fact he does not know anything. But I tried to give him the rules or at least what I consider to be rules. In fact there are several aspects which form a melody: you have rhythm, harmony, dynamics, phrasing (how the notes are actually played, how long they last) etc.

And how does he actually create a program which decides how the music develops? This aspect, as Karlheinz Essl explains, touches on the theoretical underpinnings of some schools of modern music.

KHE: It's a knowledge which comes from serial music of the 1950's that if you have a lot of decisions to make you can either use a complex system or dogma, but the effect of this decision will always sound arbitrary because there are thousands of ways, and if you chose just one it is only one decision among thousands of others. And that's the reason why composers like John Cage for example used an oracle (like the I Ging), or coins, or a random generator in order to make these decisions. And I am also using these techniques. In Lexikon-Sonate there are hundreds of random generators which act like hidden oracles, and whenever the program does not know which way to take it would ask a random generator for its advice.

The Lexikon-Sonate has been performed widely abroad as well as in Austria. And it is available over the Internet. But of course one of the most important questions this particular piece raises is the composer's intention.

KHE: I have problems listening to records. I don't like something that is conserved in a way that you just reproduce it. That's the reason why I like to go to concerts, but almost never listen to records. I like music that is always different, and new. I was interested in this idea for a long time, but I found no way to realize it. But then I came to IRCAM in Paris where I worked as a composer, and there a software called Max was developed which allows you to create musical structures which are carried out in realtime and which one can also control in realtime. And with this programming language, I was able to realize this original idea of music that is composed on the fly and which also allows the listener to interact with it.

JK:And what's the response been on the Internet?

KHE: Every day I receive several emails regarding this Lexikon-Sonate because a lot of people use it, not just for recreation but also for musical experiments, or to make their own pieces with it or to get inspiration.

But we usually think of creative people as wanting to make something which is an expression of themselves - a finished product. Karlheinz Essl has striven to delivere something to his audience which they can complete for themselves. I asked him what he's aiming at here in interacting with his audience.

KHE: It has to do with listening. I want to challenge the listener not just to consume the piece but by listening becoming something like a co-creator, being a partner of the composer and the composition itself. This can happen with any piece, even with Mozart or with Bach. But if you give the listener also the possibility to decide how the music goes on, he would have to listen much more carefully.

Speaking generally, up until our century art in most fields, in painting, in music, in literature was dominated by a strong sense of established form. What is a piece like the Lexikon-Sonate, with its built in uncertainties and passions for random choice suggest about the trends of our times?

KHE: These facts reflect the ongoing changes in society and politics. Now we live in a situation where all fixed systems are collapsing by themselves and new ways of thinking will happen. And this is always reflected in the arts as well, even before it is politically carried out. In this sense, art can be seen as an indicator of a change that will happen in the near future.

Close the Gap

An excerpt now from Close the Gap (1990) for three tenor saxophones, performed by the ensemble XASAX from Paris.

Close the Gap! (1990) for 3 tenor saxophones (excerpt)
Performed by the Wiener Saxophon-Quartett
Austrian National Library, 29 Nov 2006

To speak about the position of modern music as a whole, there has always been difficulties for artists inventing new forms of expression until public taste catches up with them. But with modern music, is this gap between the minority who appreciate it and the majority who don't not understand it at all, greater than before?

KHE: I think art music in general never was addressed to the big public, never in history. Even Mozart (and also Beethoven) was mainly consumed by a very small part of the society which was the nobility. Now, with our historical orientation, we primarily listen to music from the 19th century. But contemporary music was always addressed to a very small audience. I am not interested to speak to all people, even if I surely would like to do, but in fact the interest of the mass audience is not satisfied by art at all. So I have no problems to see that my audience is comparably small.


An excerpt now from Karlheinz Essl's Entsagung (1991-93) played by Austria's foremost modern music ensemble, "Klangforum":

Entsagung (1991-1993) for flute, bass clarinet, piano, percussion and electronics
Klangforum Wien, Dir. Gerd Kühr

Around a third of the performances of Karlheinz Essl's music are in Austria, and two thirds abroad. He was discovered (so to speak) about 10 years ago and supported as a young composer, but is expected now to function as an independent artist. Austria is a small country so working internationally is important.

KHE: Of some help was also the Internet because it gave me the possibility to present myself as a composer not only in Austria, but globally. Through this I get a lot of reactions and a lot of performances due to the Internet.

JK: And what has been the critical reaction towards his works in the United States?

KHE: Well, if you ask me, it is not easy to answer the question because I don't like to speak so much about how other people think about me. But in fact the reactions were wonderful: people did not expect a composer from Austria making such things. I had a lot of discussions where people said it is incredible that a young composer has so much knowledge about the roots of New Music compared to young Americans who are cut-off from these traditions. The interesting thing about my music, the Americans said, is that there it shows a broad knowledge of the history of music combined with technical understanding of music since the 1950s.

Helix 1.0

An excerpt now from Helix 1.0 (1986) for string quartet, composed a decade ago and performed by the Arditti String Quartet of London:

Helix 1.0 (1986) - first section
performed by the Arditti Quartet, London

Download mp3 (6:39, 8.0 MB)

Karlheinz Essl originally studied chemistry and played music on the side. I asked him how he became a composer:

KHE: During my school days I played in rock bands, and composing meant writing a rock song or making arrangements for our band. But in this time I also came in contact with Karlheinz Stockhausen because I was very much interested in electronic music. His influence was very strong: when I finished school I decided not to work as a chemist, but to study musicology and composition. Even when I started studying composition, I did not view myself as a composer at this time but as someone who is learning about composition in order to understand music much better.

It changed when I became 23. At this point it became clear that my main subject would not be musicology, but composition. I decided to concentrate on composing.

As influences on his development as a composer Karlheinz Essl cites the tremendous challenge given him by his teacher, the Austrian composer Friedrich Cerha. Stockhausen was also an important influence as was the work and writing of Gottfried Michael Koenig. - And how difficult was it to chose composition as a career? It's an ambition that brings with it a lot of financial and professional insecurity. Either you're very, very good, or it's better not to bother.

KHE: The decision for me was clear, but the problem was that in the beginning it was not accepted by my parents. They did not like the idea that I was becoming an artist, they wanted me to become a business man. And it took a lot of years until they accepted my decision. But then I had my first success as a composer, and this made things easier for us.

This surprising, as Mr. Essl's parents are some of the best known patrons of the arts, particularly music and painting, in Austria.

KHE: If you have children you also have to think about the future. And being an artist is a very uncertain life. I understand their problems. And if my son who is now 5 would decide to become - say - a dancer, I would also be a bit critical about it. I think he should learn a normal job! [Laughing].

© by Radio Austria International / Joanna King (1997)

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