New Music?

The art historian and free-lance cultural journalist Margaret Jardas spoke with the composer Fabian Müller:

Margaret Jardas: In 2002 David Zinman and the Philharmonia Orchestra London recorded a CD of your music. In some way your work is related to impressionistic music. For new music I actually expect totally different sounds. Composers who have turned away from the avant-garde are more or less writing tonal music. Is this a step backwards? Can you actually call this new music?

Fabian Müller: What does «new» actually mean? Today one has to consider exactly what the word means; what can actually be «new»? Regarding content, very little has changed over the centuries. It is still about love, pain and death; it’s about the feelings and experiences which can be expressed in art in general, especially in music. That is why the question of something new is particularly a question of new means’ of expression. This is a question of style. Style has evolved tremendously over the last few centuries. I see the development of music as a constant expansion of aural possibilities.

With regard to traditional orchestral instruments, I must say that this development is complete. On the violin there are no more relevant sounds to discover which haven’t been used in the past few decades. If a composer writes a solo work for violin and renounces the «normal» violin sound for special effects, and calls his music new, he is either naïve or he’s fooling himself. There are no sounds on these instruments which were not discovered in the 50s or 60s. Employing special effects is no longer «new» music.

The question is: who’s music is new? Those who fulfil the expectations of the avant-garde circles or those, however they do it, who break through these expectations. Of course it is not interesting to copy styles of the past. I believe that the younger generation takes the freedom to compose as they like; they display a healthy disregard for avant-garde circles, who seem to always know exactly how music should presently sound. If one asks the persons in these circles what they expect to hear whilst listening to new music, it becomes clear that they are interested in stylistic and aural elements which are absolutely not new. 40 years ago these things were provocative; now they belong to the past.

I definitely do not see the musical developments of the last decades as idle wandering. There are many composers today whom I treasure and who have written or are still writing wonderful music. The 20th century brought unbelievable freedom to music. In my opinion, the present challenge for composers is to use this freedom in a relaxed, non-dogmatic fashion and to make a personal synthesis of all these musical developments.

Margaret Jardas: You clearly believe that «art» music has a future. In your opinion, what can still be considered «new»?

Fabian Müller: If someone today is still interested in «new» sounds, he or she will have to turn to electronic music or stay on the lookout for newly invented acoustical instruments. With regard to sound, it is hardly possible to write something new for orchestra. We should not forget that sound materials and musical forms are the «material» aspect of music. Due to all the musical discoveries and developments of the last 600 years, today’s composer has as a palette of possibilities unknown to earlier generations.

The questions is: does he have the freedom to use these possibilities? Opinions differ greatly. Many supporters of avant-garde aesthetics regard the usage of the latest developments or at least the usage of developments since WW II as the only legitimate approach, and they hope for these developments to continue. In certain circles, the use of tonality is regarded as betrayal. In my opinion, at the beginning of a new century, this constrained, dogmatic way of thinking should be left behind. It’s a bad prerequisite for acquiring truly «new» results.

Today it can’t just be about tonal or atonal music. In my opinion, it is a liberating opportunity to be rid of the idea that music history is a linear continuum with epoch following upon epoch, either as a further development of the preceding one or as a reaction to it. Today all musical epochs are better represented in concerts than ever before; accordingly, we are more aware of them. One should try to see music history as a constant expansion of aural possibilities.

If we see all of the means of musical expression developed up until now in its entirety and take the freedom to use this entirety, then we are at the beginning rather than at the end of a new phase. The difficulty today is to find a personal path in amidst the immense palette of possibilities.

Margaret Jardas: Have you found this path?

Fabian Müller: I am on a path, but I am not certain where it will lead me. I have a very nebulous feeling about how the future will be. If you ask me why I compose the way I do right now, then my honest answer is: because I can’t do it any other way. All aesthetic and philosophical explanations come later. It was always my desire to write down my inner perceptions without any concessions to today’s listening expectations. If I have the need to write something, and it turns out, for example, to resemble Mahler, then that is because I love Mahler’s music very much and have heard it so often since my early teens. I internalised his music a long time ago. Of course I could take that which I’ve heard and change it so much that it would have an avant-garde sound. But why? The reasons for doing that would make me suspicious. Of course I am only speaking of reminiscences and not of long passages or style copying. I do not want to copy another composer’s style.

Aside from that, the sound of a symphony orchestra is still the greatest for me. I could never get enthusiastic about electronic music; it was somehow too cold for me. Therefore, I will continue to compose for traditional instruments. I dream, as most composers probably do, of using present and future sounds in a completely new fashion ... I’m working on that.

The synthesis of various styles used by certain contemporary composers can certainly be called new; music in this form has never been heard before. In Europe, this «new» music can be found primarily in the Nordic and Baltic countries.

Margaret Jardas: Earlier you made a distinction between content and musical material. Until now we have spoken primarily about musical material. Is there such a thing as «new» content?

Fabian Müller: I would like to speak about that. I want to speak about the need of a composer to express indefinable things and feelings with music. There is a constant yearning to express the unattainable, a yearning for perfect happiness, perfect love, ecstasy and beauty. The music of most of the composers whom I treasure expresses the joy of these wonderful things which make life worthwhile; at the same time one hears a melancholy or sadness because these things can never be obtained. Such music can grip, shatter and enchant us. It comes from a no man’s land somewhere between yearning itself and that for which we are individually longing. The music of Olivier Messiaen is the best example in the 20th century for what I am speaking about. For me his music is truly forward-looking.

Because of the purely intellectual usage of sound in the last decades, this transcendental dimension in music has often been neglected. The duty of the younger and forthcoming generations is clearly to bring this dimension back to music. In my opinion, music is only of permanent value when it speaks to people in its totality. In the long run, neither rampant intellectual tickling nor emotional rapturing without logic will speak to the listener. The only people truly interested in how well a piece can be analysed are musicologists and critics; this is sadly often their only way to grasp a piece of music. The term musicology contains a paradox. What truly makes music fascinating cannot be explained in scholarly terms anyway. Can anyone explain, for example, why we are so moved by the theme in the 2nd movement of Brahms’s double concerto. And this after hearing the piece on countless occasions?! Of course we can say plenty about the intervallic tension in the melody, and we can understand why it’s a «good» melody. Has anyone ever composed a comparably beautiful melody simply by grasping this scholarly knowledge? Music is like life, it can’t be explained. An individual work is comparable to one human: long analytical explanations in the program book are comparable to anatomic descriptions, and they give me the feeling in a concert that I am hearing an aural corpse.

Margaret Jardas: You spoke about the yearning for the unobtainable; isn’t that from the romantic «Zeitgeist»?

Fabian Müller: Today music with tonality or a tonal reference is often referred to as «neo-romantic». Sometimes people say that about my music, and it annoys me…«neo-romantic» is such an unclear term. When a few triads or a short melody suffice to cause people to call a work «neo-romantic», I see this as absurd. Of course, if this yearning for unobtainable, transcendent things is romantic, then I am «romantic». But why «neo»? Is yearning simply the feeling of one epoch? Of course not! This is one of the feelings which distinguishes us as human beings; it’s a permanent theme in every kind of art. Because yearning has always existed, there has always been romantic expression, and there always will be. The «Zeitgeist» simply determines how this yearning is expressed; the «romantic» 19th century is one style among many.

Margaret Jardas: You studied composition in the USA and in Zurich. How can composing be taught? How does one become a composer?

Fabian Müller: It is very difficult to teach composition. In the best case, a teacher, by his own example, can awaken in the student a passion and an enthusiasm for the activity. In this respect, I way very fortunate to have Josef Haselbach as my first teacher. He had this passion, and he was able to enthuse his students. Of course one can study and examine scores. But this will not teach the student to compose music as I define it. A teacher can help the student discover his or her own ideas…discovery in the truest sense of the word, helping them discover that which already exists.

I began composing when I was 12. My first works were polkas, waltzes and mazurkas. Since then I have filled up piles of pages, but it was a long time before I started calling myself a composer. The self-confidence I found among American composers helped me very much.

Margaret Jardas: Is Switzerland a «good» country for composers?

Fabian Müller: In some ways, yes. Aside from Finland, which seems to be a small paradise for culturally active persons, it’s difficult everywhere. People who claim that there job is composing usually hear this question immediately: «And what do you for a living?». A justified and sometimes unpleasant question! Very few people can earn a living as a composer. We are dependant upon commissions. In contrast to visual art, music is ephemeral; because the sponsor is financing an experience instead of an object, it is more difficult for composers to find a commissioner. There are persons, private patrons, who give out of passion or joy for music.

One cannot expect much from state sponsoring. Composers will always receive too little attention and financial support from government institutions. On the other hand, on an international level, the possibilities are immense. I always try to think beyond the boundaries of Switzerland. When one observes how frustrated artists are with the national institutes responsible for supporting the arts, one realises that Switzerland is simply too small to properly deal with the enormous amount of cultural activity going on today. Switzerland is a wonderful place to live, but as an artist, it is important to orient beyond Switzerland, otherwise you will quickly be blocked by boundaries, not just financial ones.

Margaret Jardas: What are you working on at the moment and what does your near future look like?

Fabian Müller: 2003 was a productive year. In the spring I finished an opera for children which I have been working on for years. In the summer I finished two works, including a quintet for clarinet and string quartet which will be premiered in April 2004. I also arranged the fourth movement of my string quartet for large orchestra. I am presently composing an orchestral work which will be premiered at the Interlaken «Musikfestwochen» in August 2004.

Margaret Jardas: Music from the early 21st century! I’m looking forward to that!