In Conversation with Karlheinz Essl

An interview by Nava Hemyari
for the punctum collective

ZOOM Conference (28 Apr 2020)


Karlheinz Essl, Kevin Fairbairn and Nava Hemyari
Hofburgkapelle Vienna, 2018

river_run | Crossing Borders | Changes & Challenges | Teaching & Learning

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Nava Hemyari: We just heard river_run by Karlheinz Essl, performed by Ming Wang (guzheng) and Karlheinz himself (live-electronics). The name of the piece are the first words of James Joyce’ famous novel „Finnegans Wake”:

past Eve and Adam's
from swerve of shore to bend of bay

The piece - as it’s name suggests - is a flow. A stream of sound, passing through different shores and finally pouring to an open sea. These different shores represent different musical cultures and styles and historical areas.The piece is composed for guzheng - a chinese instrument with about 2500 years of history. The Chinese guzheng looks like a tiny boat itself. So in a way it is a boat, floating on this river, going to different kinds of music.

river_run, performed by Ming Wang und Karlheinz Essl
Musiikkitalo, Camerata Hall (Helsinki, 28 Oct 2016)

Crossing Borders

Karlheinz Essl: I was invited to write a piece for traditional plucked instruments and I had the choice between the Chinese guzheng, the Austrian zither and the Finnish cantele. As I already started one year before exploring the Chinese music history and tradition with another plucked instrument called Pipa (in my pice Autumn's Leaving), I was highly interested in continuing my research and to move to another instrument: the guzheng.

NH: How long did it take you to develop the piece?

KHE: It took quite long. The first thing that I understood was that the guzheng has a very long tradition, and it’s not an instrument that is easy to play. Let me just briefly explain how this instrument looks. It’s a so-called zither instrument. It has a wooden resonance board with 21 open strings. Each string is plucked and has a fixed pitch. There are neither frets nor a fingerboard, so you play more or less on open strings. By this, you can achieve wonderful resonances.

On the guzheng, there is a set of highly developed playing techniques which are impossible to learn in a short time. So the first thing I did was to buy such an instrument and to improvise. The first thing that became obvious was the pentatonic tuning which represents the Chinese tone system. But I wanted to get rid of it and started to experiment with alternative tunings in oder to overcome the inherent pitch system. Finally, I found a new tuning which maintains the pentatonic but also introduced different pitches and intervals. When I improvised with this new tuning, I discovered many interesting melodies in this 21-pitch-scale which includes music from Schubert (like his „Leiermann”) to Gustav Mahler (quotations from his 5th Symphony) to Alban Berg (the beginning of his piano sonata). And finally, a very famous rock-guitar riff from Deep Purple’s „Smoke on the Water”. After that, the idea of river_run emerged, sailing between different landscapes (Schubert, Mahler, Berg and Deep Purple) on a boat named guzheng, floating down the river of sounds through different landscapes of musical styles.

river_run tuning © 2016 by Karlheinz Essl
Scordatura of the guzheng for river_run

I forgot to mention that this piece is not a solo work for guzheng but a duo with computer and live-electronics. During the composition of this piece I developed a computer program which takes a live input of the instrument (which is picked-up by a contact microphone) and processes the sound in realtime. So you need two players: the guzheng soloist who plays a precisely notated score, and and a second musicians who operates the computer. The music is fully notated but also allows different ways of interpretation.

NH: Can you explain a little bit how you worked with the musician Ming Wang, how you communicated with her and how you developed the piece?

KHE: We started with improvisation. I invited her into my studio and showed her some things that I had discovered - some playing techniques that I’ve found, and also the new tuning of course. Then she showed me some things that she would perform on the instrument. There was a lot of mutual learning.

NH: Because she is also a composer herself?

KHE: Absolutely, she also understood the compositional aspects from the very beginning. So we were acting on the same level. Not like: „I am the composer and the chief, and you the musician who just carries out my instructions.” But in the end I gave her a worked-out score which contains no improvisation. It’s fully notated as it tells a sort of hidden story.

NH: More general questions. You use a lot of algorithmic structures and techniques in your compositions. Would you say that feelings also have a place in your music?

KHE: This is not a contradiction. The use of algorithms is not an end in itself. It’s always a means to create emotions and gestures and energy.

Changes & Challenges

NH: A general question for you: everybody changes in time and taste developes in different directions. How would you say you have changed from a while ago, how has your taste changed?

KHE: The past is more than 40 years ago. When I was a teenager, I played rock music and also composed pieces for my band. But I had always the idea of combining rock music with baroque, with concepts of counterpoint and quite complex musical arrangements which were inspired by bands like Genesis, Pink Floyd or Gentle Giant. Later when I became adult, I changed the electric guitar for the double bass and played in different musical styles like Jazz - the traditional Be-Bop and Swing repertory, based on the famous „Real Book”. By this I learned much about harmony.

At this time, I also studied music theory and composition at the University of Music and Peforming Arts in Vienna. After my first diploma I haven chosen another teacher: Friedrich Cerha. At this time, he was one of the most avantgarde composers in Austria, besides Roman Haubenstock-Ramati. I came to Cerha with my background as a rock and jazz musician and an interest in counterpoint. He didn’t like it at all! He said, that this is not the music of our time. And he urged me to get in contact with the music of the Second Viennese School like Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. I told him that I am not acquainted with this music, and that I don't like it. But in order to study with him I had to learn this music. First I was very unhappy and dissapointed and developed a writer's block that made it impossible to compose music for two years. Cerha, however, suggested to analyse scores of Webern and Berg instead. I took this as a chance - I could have changed my teacher of even stopped composing - but I accepted the challenge. I understood that this could bring me to new borders and horizons. So I started with the analysis of Alban Berg’s string quartet op. 3. What I found there was a big discovery. I understood that every note that was written there has a dramaturgical meaning and contributes to the whole construction of the piece. It’s a very dense and emotional music full of hidden mysteries due to Berg’s obsession with numbers, obscure stories and secrets. I got very deep into this world and understood that every single note that you write needs to have a necessity.

NH: Who are your favorite composers? Who do you like especially?

KHE: At this time I began to write my doctoral thesis on Anton Webern, and he is one of my heroes. But I prefer not his late works although I wrote about his late string quartet op. 28. I love his pieces that he wrote before he the twelve-tone technique was formulated. Those pieces which are not based on a certain system, that are open and free and concentrated and dense - full of emotions. Next to Webern there is Alban Berg, more than Schoenberg. And in the music after WWII definitely Karlheinz Stockhausen. He was not solely writing fantastic pieces but also formulated interesting theories and concepts that accompanied his musical work.

Teaching & Learning

NH: Karlheinz, you teach as well. I want to know how you choose the people that you invite as guests to your seminars. How you decided who could be interesting for your students?

KHE: All my seminars are based on an annual theme or motto which I always try to find w in advance. And than I think about people like composers, artists, or musicians who could contribute to this field. I also like people who are doing very different things because I am interested to learn something from them.

NH: So, what’s the general appeal in teaching for you? What is it that makes it so attractive?

KHE: To be honest - I teach in order to learn! I am teaching since more than 25 years, first in Linz and now in Vienna. Teaching became crucial in formulating artistic ideas and to make them comprehensible for others. I learn from the questions of the students and the challenge that they put on me. They ask questions - and often I don’t know the answers! But maybe we find them together. And by this, I can also discover things that I did not know before.

NH: What do you say you would do in order to preserve the personal style of students in composing when you teach them so they won’t necessarily try to become like you?

KHE: For me it’s important to unfold the personality of the students and not to make them a projection of myself. My teaching concept is more that of being a mirror that might help the students to understand what they are doing. And sometimes I'm also acting as someone who motivates them to enter new pathes that they didn’t know before.

NH: Do you have any general advice for young struggling composers who are trying to make their way in the world?

KHE: It’s impossible to give a general answer to this question. But the most important thing is to be brave and willing to extend the own limitations. I expect from my students that they are adventurous, that they go into the unknown, into the void - and that they develop themselve as persons who are not just reproducing the same way of writing but are bold enough to start always from zero. To create something new, a new perspective.

NH: And finally - how are you getting along with the COVID_19 quarantine? How do your days look like? How do you spend your time?

KHE: It’s indeed an incredible time; I never have experienced something like that before. It’s not the time now for writing the best symphony of the world and to extend yourself. Instead: becoming silent and humble. Listen. And ask yourself: what is the essence?

Listen to the interview...

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Updated: 14 Jan 2024