Karlheinz Essl

Towards a rich "musica povera"



In his keynote for the INTER/actions Symposium 2012 in Bangor (UK), composer Karlheinz Essl outlines a new approach to music composition that is based on cooperation, collaboration, sharing and an intelligent and creative mis/use of technology. As opposed to the current system that is mainly founded on greed and the outmoded idea of a genius who creates his work in splendid isolation, "musica povera" is based on humbleness as it was represented by John Cage whose 100th birthday is celebrated this year.


Keynote delivered by Karlheinz Essl at the INTER/actions Symposion
Bangor/Wales, 10 Apr 2012

Keynote Transcription

by Isabel Ettenauer


Good afternoon! I am delighted to be here in Wales for the first time in my life and it’s great to meet all these interesting people here and I am really looking forward to all those concerts and sound installations and the personal contacts that we will have together.

Today I am speaking about something that I gave the title “Towards a rich musica povera“. Musica povera is an Italian term; literally translated it means “poor music“. As we all are experiencing a global economic crises nowadays, I was asking myself as an artist how to react towards it. Can we continue to support the same old system as we used to do or should we find other solutions? This is what I want to talk about today. It will be a quite short keynote, maybe 15 minutes, it’s basically improvised based on a given map that I constructed for that.

Before I explain the new systems – let´s call it “musica povera“ – I would like to outline the "old system" that we all know and which is currently cannibalizing itself. It is based on greed: everything must be maximized and optimized and growing. In the music business it appears as a highly nested self-referential organism with components that are linked to each other. On the one hand we have a funding system that consists of commissions and grants. Then we have those funded, subsidised ensembles and orchestras, and not to forget the publishers, the art agencies, concert organisers and all the media. What these different components have in common is the concept of labor sharing: There are the composers, the interpreters, the instrument builders, the concert organisers, the public relations. Everything and everyone, every part has its specific function and its own role. Finally – on the high end, so to speak – there is the genius. This could be the composer or the famous conductor or a well-known musician. In fact, this concept comes from the 19th century, but now we are living in the 21st century. It is strange to see that this concept of a genius which was only valid for quite a short period in music history is still alive nowadays. But if I look at you and my friends and colleagues and see what they are doing, this outmoded concept doesn’t fit any more.

Personal involvement

When I was 37, in 1997, I was presented at the Salzburg Festival in the framework of the “next generation“ series where they showed young and emerging composers. At this time, I was still part of the "old system": As a a composer I was sitting mostly alone in my ivory tower, writing highly complex scores which took me months and years to finish, and finally there was the premiere, maybe the piece was played once or twice again. When the festival was over I felt very miserable, although I had wonderful concerts with Klangforum Wien or Ensemble Modern and great encounters with conductors like Hans Zender and other people. But when I returned home I felt empty and sad and I said to myself: "I don’t want to keep on this way, I want to change my life as a musician, this is not satisfying any more." Then I was thinking back to my teenage years when I was a Rock musician, before I became a classically trained composer. I was playing the electric guitar in a band, and we did concerts and had a lot of fun. When I was remembering these days, I thought to myself: "This is actually something I really would like to do again. Not only sitting at home in splendid isolation, in my ivory tower writing scores, but I would like to collaborate with others, with musicians, and create something together on stage and play and perform." The problem was that at this time I couldn’t imagine how I could do that. But I will speak about this later.

Influences: John Cage

Before I am trying to outline the new concept of a “musica povera“ I need to mention a person that was very important as a key figure: an American composer who would have celebrated his 100th birthday this year and who everybody knows: John Cage, whom I was meeting in Vienna a few years before his death in 1988. At this time he had a portrait concert at the Konzerthaus Vienna where a new piece of his should be performed – "Music for..." for any combination of pre-composed instrumental parts. The publisher delivered the material to the Konzerthaus, but they didn’t know what to do with it. So they called me and said: "Could you help us to rehearse with the musicians? They don’t understand what they should do." So we set up the piece together, rehearsed, and the last rehearsal was attended by John Cage himself. He was a short man with a low voice, very humble and modest. He came in and was listening to the music and said: “Oh, it’s great, it’s wonderful.“ No complaints about anything. This humbleness and modesty that John Cage incorporates appears to me as the key aspect in my concept of a “musica povera“.

Toy Piano

Fourty years before, the same John Cage wrote a piece entitled “Suite for Toy Piano“. It was composed in 1948 and used for the first time in music history an instrument which was not built for musicians. It was an instrument which was created for children, and it was considered as crap. Cage who was collaborating with Merce Cunningham's Dance Company was using this tiny instrument with only white keys. It was actually nine keys that were used in this charming piece of music, which decades later gave rise to a renaissance of toy piano music. We have also one of those key figures sitting here, Xenia Pestova, who will play today on this instrument.

In this piece, Cage purposely did not use a grand piano with its long tradition and all the music that was written for it. Instead, he concentrated on a very primitive and poor instrument but nevertheless made something completely new that could also give rise to something that we as composers might continue.

For me, it was the toy piano which changed my compositonal career in a way I never would have expected. In 2001, I came in contact with Isabel Ettenauer – one of the first pianists who developed the toy piano repertory as she gave a lot of commissions to composers. When she asked me to write a piece, intially I was a bit reluctant as many of the toy piano pieces that I've heard didn't sound so good. But I took the challenge to overcome my resistance and asked her to lend me her instrument (a 3-octaves Schoenhut Baby Grand) in order to experiment with it.

Finally, my research resulted in a piece named Kalimba where I tried to expand the limitations by placing a tiny loudspeaker inside the instrument, using its resonance board as a resonator, and playing a pre-composed electronic soundtrack through this hidden speaker to which the pianist was playing at the same time. On the soundtrack are only sounds from the toy piano itself which have been processed by a computer program written in MaxMSP. During the performance of this piece, the listener can hardly decide whether actually the pianist was playing or the playback. So in the end it sounded as if the instrument was falling apart and by this creating a wonderful chaos of sounds.

Today, seven years later, I find myself having written several toy piano pieces which are all very different: Kalimba (for toy piano and playback), WebernSpielWerk and Listen Thing (for toy piano solo), Sequitur V (for toy piano with live-electronics), and whatever shall be... (for extended toy piano, gadgets, surround sound and live-electronics). Currently, I am writing a composition for amplified toy pianos and ensemble called under wood that will be premiered by Isabel Ettenauer and the ensemble "die reihe" in November 2012 in Vienna.

What I find so intriguing with the toy piano is the fact that it is a poor instrument without history. The Fortepiano as it was developed by Silbermann in the middle of the 18th century is full of meaning and wonderful compositions that were written for it. If you go to a piano and just hit a key, it's not only the sound of a note that you hear, it's the whole history of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Boulez, Stockhausen, whatever... However, the same note played on a toy piano appears completely different, more related to percussion instruments, and its sound does not carry the burden of the tradition in itself.

That gives you as a composer the freedom to work more freely with it. And this approach of using non-traditional instruments in a creative way is an aspect that could also be interesting for others as well. And some composers among you are not only using the classical instruments but also self-constructed things. In electronic music we have the term “circuit bending“ and this is also meaningful to apply for acoustic instruments, by looking at them with a different view, like a young child who sees a violin for the first time, not knowning that you can bow the strings. To him it might rather appear as an interesting percussion instrument, for example. This could be an aspect that supplies lots of interesting possibilities.

New instruments: m@ze°2

Having such a fresh view on old instruments, I asked myself: “Why not constructing my own instruments?“ This question came up when I was fancying to play again on stage. The main problem was that I could neither play the electric guitar nor the double bass anymore as I was completely out of training for many years. I had no instrument! So I was starting to develop my own electronic instrument based on MaxMSP in 1998 which is called m@ze°2: a modular system of so-called "structure generators“" which are running autonomously by themselves, driven by algorithms that I have conceived. By using various controllers (such as MIDI faderboxes, foot pedals, the computer's keyboard and mouse, a camera) I have the possibility to control these algorithms (or system parameters) on the fly. (I will use this instrument in the piece by Andreas Weixler and Se-Lien Chuang which is being played in the last concert on Thursday.)

Hyper-instruments: Sequitur

In 2008, I was starting to use classical instruments - like a piano or a flute - in order to create extended hyper-instruments by the aid of live-electronics. Initially, I was referring to Luciano Berio's Sequenza cycle where he composed very inventive portraits of the different orchestral instruments. I admire his work, but I wanted to extend it by live-electronics which are generated in realtime solely by processing the live input of the solo instrument. Within three years I composed a cycle of 14 different pieces called Sequitur. The first piece was using the flute, which is very obvious as composers who likes combining instruments with live-electronics normally starts with the flute. Beside classical instruments like flute, violin and trumpet, it also includes more exotic instruments like a toy piano, an electric guitar (which I play again myself), and a kalimba (an African thumb piano) and also the human voice.

New type of musician: composer/performer

At the end of the 19th century, a composer became a person who was mostly sitting at the desk and writing. But before, s/he was either an instrumentalist or conductor: Mozart was a celebrated pianist, but this changed later when the composer was isolating himself in his chamber in order to write music. Nowadays, within this new system, composers are not only writing music but they are also performing it - either alone or together with other musicians. This gives rise to a different type of musician: the composer/performer which became the key figure in the field of "musica povera".

DIY: intelligent use of technology

And finally, the intelligent use of new technologies could also be very helpful in creating new hyper/meta instruments and new compositional concepts. Personally, I am an advocat of self-developed things. I never buy lots of synthesizers, hardware tools or software packages. In my studio I have a bunch of exotic instruments and of course several computers, but I try to create all those extensions to the instruments only by software, not by using commercial tools that force me to obey a certain aesthetics that I hardly share. That is also the reason why I am using a programming language like MaxMSP which gives me the possibility to create my own environment according to my own imagination, my own aesthetics, not being dependent on concepts that were originally conceived for commercial music.

Open forms

Furthermore, I am very much interested in music that is not merely reproduced from a score or a fixed media. I find it always more challenging and rewarding – as in Early Music or in Baroque – when a given compositional framework provides a certain freedom in the way how it is interpreted and re-created. Andreas Weixler's Phenotype that you will hear on Thursday, is a compositon which includes the concept of score and parts, but those parts are fluid concepts which are controlled by the composer himself who acts as a conductor and live-musician. Although this piece is a composition by Andreas Weixler, all the musicians who play in his piece are also contributing as composers. I find this quite interesting that composers are not anymore controlling everything from the top; they are rather agents who let things happen.

This idea of the Open Form that I was outlining is not new. It was first described by Umberto Eco in 1962 and I still consider it as an interesting concept nowadays. Music is not anymore a fixed and iconical work that is merely reproduced, but a process that can be changed at the moment of its creation. This also rises the question about the compositional organisation of this type of open forms. What we learned from serialism and also from John Cage is that the use of random and chance operation can be very helpful to create open and fluid environments where music can be experiences like a living organism, like a plant that is emerging during its own performance. If I come back to philosophy again, there was not only Umberto Eco who developed these ideas about open forms and open systems. Some years later, two French philosophers - Deleuze and Guattari - described the concept of a rhizome: a kind of root which is growing by itself, not being controlled from the top; a completely autonomous system that searches for its own way. Those networks that we create nowadays between musicians and composers are not directional. It's not the old top-down approach, but now it goes bottom-up by individuals who share ideas.


The question that finally rises up for me is, “How can we distribute those ideas?“ In the old system we had publishers and media who were taking this burden from our shoulders, but there are many disadvantages, especially with publishers. I had to find other ways in distributing my music and I decided in taking a radical step by proclaiming, “I do not sell my music.“ Instead, I am sharing it. People can download my scores, they can download my music, they can download my software. As for Sequitur, the live-electronics are distributed as individual computer programs for each piece that can be downloaded and performed by the musicians. In the best case, the soloist is capable of playing the piece completely alone, autonomously. And by this concept of sharing and not selling I am gaining much more performances and concerts than ever. And the money doesn't come from selling the scores, but from the royalties or commissions that I get in turn. There is an old biblical truth, “The more you give, the more you receive.“ This is something that I am happy to experience myself, day by day.


To conclude, all these thoughts contribute to a new image of a musician/composer who is autonomous, but also connected with others, embedded in networks which s/he also constructs or maintains. Those musicians are not sitting silently at home in splendid isolation; they are communicating with others, they are collaborating and creating something together. And finally, this is something I learned when the Internet came up, that we are obliged to share what we do, not sitting on our developments, on our software, on our music, but giving it to others and in turn getting other things, other media from other composers and musicians. Finally I want to say that I don't believe in self-glorification of an outmoded concept of a genius, but in the power of collaboration and interaction!

Thanks for your attention.

Transcribed by Isabel Ettenauer
Edited by Karlheinz Essl
April/May 2012

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