Stockholm New Music 2003;
the core seminar, part 1/2

- a debate on the theme of the festival

Stockholm New Music 2003; the core seminar;
Composing Performers – Performing Composers,
held at Harlem, Nalen, Stockholm 21st February 2002 at 5 PM – 6:30 PM,
arranged by the SAMI Institute.

Part 1 of 2

Participating composers/performers:
Peter EötvösChrichan LarsonDror FeilerIvo NilssonFolke RabePeter SchubackMadeleine IsakssonMats PerssonStefano Scodanibbio
Participants from the audience:
Fredrik Österling (composer) – Michel Waisvisz (composer) – Penny Rosengren (SAMI Institute)

Note: Grammatical errors and other flaws have been corrected by Sonoloco. Some obviously irrelevant minor parts have been edited out, like spoken language idiosyncrasies etcetera, and order of words has sometimes been reversed. Some minor parts blurred by noise have not been sufficiently deciphered, and thus left out. The text is generally somewhat tidied up, to qualify for the print. However, otherwise the rendition below is true and faithful to the recorded material. The recording itself is available from Sonoloco on demand at cost price (CDR and postage), and free of charge for the participants.

The complete panel, left to right:
Peter Eötvös, Chrichan Larson, Dror Feiler. Ivo Nilsson
Folke Rabe, Peter Schuback, Madeleine Isaksson
Mats Persson, Stefano Scodanibbio
(Photo: Per B. Adolphson)


Welcome to this seminar on the topic Composing Performers – Performing Composers, which in a way is the topic of the entire festival, as you know.

My name is Folke Rabe, and I’ve been asked to be the moderator of this discussion, which is held primarily between the composers of the festival, of which you can see at least a number being present here at the table.

Folke Rabe & Peter Schuback
(Photo: Per B. Adolphson)

In November (2002) I was participating in a similar role in a similar seminar here in Stockholm. The seminar dealt with new music and improvisation. That afternoon I began to think about an experience which is I had thirty-eight years ago, in 1965, and I think it has a certain validity in this context too, so I regret if someone was present at that seminar and heard me tell this story, but now you will hear it in its original language, because the person I met at that time was a piano player called Jacky Biard. This was in March 1965, and it was my first visit to the United States. I was spending some months in New York City, and Jaki Byard was playing the piano in Charles Mingus’s group. I was listening to them one evening at the famous Village Vanguard, and after the performance Jaki Byard and I were strolling together in Lower Manhattan, because he was obviously living in the direction of my hotel. During this walk we were talking about music, and Jaki Byard wanted to tell me his opinion on the history of music. He said that in the olden days, in the days of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, everything was in a very good shape, in the relation performing – composing. Composers frequently performed their own music, and sometimes they even improvised new sonatas on the spot. And then, said Jaki Byard , came Richard Wagner and messed it all up. The whole situation was different and impossible, in his opinion, but I think Jaki Byard is no longer amongst us. If he had been, he would have felt a change, maybe, for the better, if he had experienced the late decades of the 20th Century.

Now we will hear the different composers here at the table make introductory statements about their relationships to being composers and performers, and possibly how these roles interact.
First of all I would like to ask Ivo Nilsson to speak.


Yes, I would like to say a few words about why I chose this theme for the festival. There are two main reasons. First of all I wanted to focus on the performers, on the musicians. I think, in contemporary music life, the musicians have been regarded more as a means than as artists, in the latest decades. I think it is a serious problem for this art form, if we cannot involve the performers also as artists, in the sense that they are involved in various aspects of their artistry. Above all; why are they playing this piece? I think we have to return the responsibility of selecting the repertoire to the performers who are playing it. This is a natural thing for a classical pianist. A very important part of his artistry is to compose the program, to select the pieces, the connections between the pieces, and why he or she is playing these particular pieces.

Another aspect is of course the interpretation, which is a difficult topic in contemporary music, because many of the works we hear are heard for the first time. For the audience it might be the first time they hear them. I think, though, that in the way the interpretation is executed, the ensemble always shows a kind of identity in their performance, and there will always be an interpretation of the piece, which is why it’s important to stress the interpretation, even though we cannot compare different versions of a piece. The way the ensemble plays it still has something to say.

When contemplating the program for this festival, I was first thinking about who the performers were that I wanted to involve. I was thinking about performers who really have a certain identity in the pieces they play, and a very strong personal sound, personal touch, to what they’re making with their music.
So, when I got into contact with these ensembles, the main thing for me was to pose two questions:

Which pieces are the most important pieces for you to play?
Why do you play it the way you do?

The program, then, has been created in dialogue between us; between me as the artistic director of the festival and the ensembles.

When we were discussing the composers I discovered that most of them actually were performers themselves. That’s how the theme developed; composing performers – performing composers.
There was something that these composers had in common; their very active role making music.

I also want to point out that there is no guarantee, of course, that the composer is the best interpreter of his own music, or the other way around.
I would be very interested in hearing the different opinions of the invited composers here; some personal thoughts on what it is being a performer and a composer at the same time, and what kind of problems this may produce, as well as what kind of advantages. Another issue is the reason for taking on this double role.

On yesterday’s pre-concert talk it was very interesting to hear you, Peter Eötvös, mentioning the problems you had with the instrumentation when composing. As a conductor, of course, you know more than any of us about instrumentation. It would be very interesting if you could develop your thoughts on this problem a little bit.


Sorry for my very bad English. I’ll try to explain. I absolutely agree to this idea that the composer is not the best interpreter of his own music.

Peter Eötvös & Chrichan Larson
(Photo: Per B. Adolphson)

For me it is very important to interpret my music, because this is one art of the composition in the first period of the life of the piece. If I discover some problems during the performing; one beat is too late or difficult to […], too slow tempo, the metronome is not right; it’s much better if I try it myself, and I feel in myself there’s something wrong, because afterwards I can change it. For example… a very important example, because there is an opera, The Three Sisters; I wrote it in 1996, and it was first performed in 1998 by Kent Nagano as the first conductor. I was the second conductor in the same work. Between us was just a monitor contact, and I listened a little bit to the other orchestra conducted by him, and his tempi were generally faster than written, but at the same time his interpretation had an enormous continuity, whereas I allow much more freedom; I’m much more of a rubato conductor than Kent, for example. He’s a very practical man, and the tempo to him is simultaneously his form of controlling everything, because if there is no difference in tempo, nothing happens. This is an art of security for him, to keep the tempo and never change it. The second interpretation of the same opera was conducted by Niksa Bareza, an opera conductor from Ljubljana, I think, and he took the exact opposite approach. The tempo was twice as slow as written, and I was very happy with that too. […] One tempo was faster; the other was much, much slower, and my interpretation is in between. I would never say that my interpretation is the best in this case. I learned the importance of interpretation practicing with other composers. I was chief conductor for Ensemble Intercontemporaine for 13 years, and before the Intercontemporaine period I worked with Stockhausen for 10 years, from 1966 to 1976. With Stockhausen I learned an enormous precision, the most maximized precision I’ve ever experienced, concerning tempo. You know that some of the Stockhausen pieces, like Inori, for example, or Michaels Reise, indicate, in the same bar, two or three different tempi, and a tempi can be 71,5 or something like that. That is a real necessity in this type of music. […] I learned a very special kind of precision; a very special way to hear the instruments and control them with a score.

Peter Eötvös & Chrichan Larson
(Photo: Per B. Adolphson)

During the time with the Intercontemporaine I worked with Messiaen, with Xenakis, with Pierre Boulez, naturally, […] with Steve Reich, with Carter… All these contacts with composers took place during rehearsals, and I conducted, very often, first performances. The control that these composers extended was very important for me as an interpreter, to understand the relationship between the written music and the ideas of the composers.
I conducted, for example, once the two
Mallarmé Improvisations by Boulez, and Boulez came to the rehearsal. After the first movement he told me I was too fast, I conducted too fast. I told him: “But Pierre, you conducted faster than me in your recording!”
“Yeah, Peter, you know, I was very young as I conducted this piece that time. Now I’m older, and I have much more time to listen” […].
This is a very typical problem. With experience you have more and more time to listen to what’s happening in the orchestra. This is not only a question of tempo, but also of the relation between me and the musicians. In the last five years the movements of my hands are much more quiet conducting the musicians; never more than a sign like that; it’s always a possibility; “please start if you want”, that we have time, that I have to try to wait until they start if they want. This is the reason why I prefer, in this case, to give the example of jazz, because the contact between jazz musicians is the most fantastic. For me it is much more interesting than the contact between the conductor and the orchestra in classical music. The chamber music is of course very good. The string quartet is a fantastic formation. The relation between the orchestra and the conductor is not so fantastic. […] In jazz there is a musical element, which is the contact, and the art of communication between these musicians is so natural, a fantastic dialogue, and I try in my way, in my form, to refine these forms of contact, to introduce them in the contact between conductor and musicians.


Thank you very much. We have made an informal little list, and the next name on the list is Stefano Scodanibbio. Would you like to say something about this?


A few words… I’ll try to say a few words… Well, from the theme that Ivo evoked and Peter developed, that the composer is not maybe the best performer of his music, unfortunately I couldn’t experience this because I didn’t have a bass player play my music so far. I hope it won’t be too long before another bass player will play some music of mine, because I do want to hear my music without playing, and this should be a real experience… or shock, maybe, for me, or trauma! I do hope that this will happen.
As far as the general theme of this festival goes, I’m particularly pleased to be here, and honored, because, actually, it’s a thing that I feel very much, the relation between performer and composer, being a performing composer. You know, I’d like to consider myself in a way part, a small part, of that old Italian tradition from the Baroque age on, especially in string music, since I am a string player, from the greatest composers of the Baroque age, like Corelli, Vivaldi and so on, up to Paganini […] and so on, so… the relation between composition and performance for me is crucial, and if I can make a prophecy, I think the last century was the century of the division of the roles. I think the next one – this one! – can be a century where, again, there won’t be anymore such a separation between table composers and instrumental performers.


Thank you. Mats Persson, would you like to voice an opinion?


For me, composing and performing and improvising are three aspects of the same thing. These three activities all come together in my work. For instance, when I play, say, Cage’s
Solo for Piano in the Piano Concerto, of course I make a version as a pianist, but of course also make a version out of this huge material as a composer - I look at it both ways -, or when I play a Haydn sonata, which happens sometimes, an early Haydn sonata, I try also to improvise the ornamentation in the repeats […]. Also when I compose I do it with all my experience, as a pianist, with intuition and timing and things like that, so for me, all these three activities come together.
You said, Folke, concerning Wagner, that he was the beginning of the end, but I would say… in Schönberg,
Piano Pieces opus 23 there’s a preface, and he writes, about the best fingering: “The best fingering is that which allows the exact realization, die genaue Wiedergaube des Notenbildes”, steht das, and I think that is something quite new in music, and from there I think these developments start during the 20th Century, leading up to the situation we have now, with specialized composers, specialized musicians. Maybe the composer can’t play any instrument at all, and the performer is more like a domestic servant of the new music. We also have the Baroque expert, the expert of contemporary music and whatever.

Ivo Nilsson, Folke Rabe, Peter Schuback,
Madeleine Isaksson, Mats Persson
(Photo: Per B. Adolphson)

This situation started in the beginning of the 20th Century, and I think it’s a dream for the music industry. It’s very good for them to have one guy playing, one guy composing, one guy conducting. It’s much easier to sell this as a product, I think. It’s more difficult to sell the concept of music as an organic being, so to say, in this old tradition […].
Of course the gramophone industry has a lot to do with this. In this context I think of a history about Charles Ives. He played his old
Concord Sonata, and he played it often, but every time he played it differently. He made new sections, he put in improvisations between sections and so on. You can read in books that he couldn’t decide what he wanted, but maybe he didn’t want to decide; he wanted all these possibilities, I think, because when John Kirkpatrick came to Ives he wanted to print the music, and he more or less forced Ives to determine one version, which was then printed, and which Kirkpatrick also made a recording of. I think this says quite a lot about this situation.


Yes, I’ve heard some of Ives’s own recordings. He made some very primitive 78 rpm records, and they are very spiritual, a very happy music making!
Madeleine, your approach is slightly different. You began as a musician, and changed to a composer, is that right?


Yeah, my direction in the beginning was to be a pianist, but I’ve always have had an interest in composing, and at the time I felt the piano was a very good instrument to develop this side of my interest.
If I can say something about the theme for this festival, I have to say, first of all, that I’m the only one here who is a table composer. I’m also the only woman.
When I think about this theme, I have two keywords in my mind. They are language and distance. For me, being a composer, the act of composing is a language, of course. Living today we are surrounded by so much language. Playing the music, of course, we are submerged in a lot of languages. For me it’s a little bit problematic, because I think one really needs to force oneself to have a lot of distance to the musical language, to also have the courage to go in to your own language, and develop it very strongly.
For me there was no space to be a musician and also go into this world of my own musical language. It’s a question of time and responsibility.
You talked about Bach and Beethoven and Mozart […] and that they played their own music. My question is if they also played other composers’ music. Playing another language – not your own – is very strong for me, affecting to my mind. […] It must be very difficult to keep this inner distance, which you strongly need to develop your own language. I didn’t have that courage. Also, I wasn’t very interested in going up on stage, and for me to develop this musical language I need also to be in life, not in music, I mean normal life, family, what’s going on, and listen, listen, outside the music, having this distance too, to grasp what music really is today. What is it for me? I need that distance.


Thank you Madeleine. To me it was very interesting to hear you talking about this difficulty in making your own music and playing others’ music.
First of all, I should have mentioned in the beginning that our purpose with this discussion is definitely not to find the perfect recipe on how to deal with these matters, but rather an exchange of experiences.
Chrichan, you are a musician who has been playing other composers’ music, and your own music, and you’re also composing. What is your opinion in this matter?


I think I can share a little bit of Madeleine’s attitude towards writing, to a certain extent. I’ve always written music, actually, parallel to my playing the cello. It came to a point where I felt I really had to find this distinction between the two disciplines, and it was an important step for me. It was twenty years ago. It was kind of a starting point; let’s say table composing, as opposed to restricting myself to the only instrument that I deal with, the cello. It’s interesting now, twenty years later, to look at what I have been doing, and I can say frankly that I prefer playing other composers’ pieces instead of my own. That’s for sure. I noticed this particularly well when I played a solo piece I had written for cello. I thought it was a very awkward experience.

Peter Eötvös, Chrichan Larson, Dror Feiler
(Photo: Per B. Adolphson)

In the concerts during this festival there is a communication between me and the other players in the group while we’re playing my music, and that helps a little bit, because it’s like Stefano said; of course we want to hear our music played by others.
I just think that the composer’s interpretation of his own music is one of a number of possible interpretations. If we look back through history we can find a large number of successful performing composers, less successful and the other way around. It has been going on always I guess.
What happens now, for me personally, is maybe a phenomenon, a universal problem or phenomenon, that I want to work with realtime transformation systems which take a lot of time to learn, and the practice takes an enormous amount of time.
I’m about to write a piece for guitar and flute where I will try to use these techniques, but actually, what I’m doing, I’m paying an assistant to realize the technical part of it. I think this is one possible way, as long as I want to do both, and it takes time, as you said, Madeleine. That’s one reason why I left Ensemble Intercontemporaine in 1989; that I realized that it was not possible to compose in a serious manner, remaining a member of the group. That’s a pragmatic story, actually.


Thank you. Dror!


I think I will start with a more theatralic gesture, because when I played my piece on Monday, before we started to play the piece, there was one person going around with ear plugs for the audience, because he supposed it would be too loud, so maybe I will try to offer you ear plugs, because maybe I will say something that somebody don’t want to hear. Maybe it’s even more adequate. This is a kind of good beginning!

Dror Feiler offering earplugs!
Peter Eötvös, Chrichan Larson, Dror Feiler
Ivo Nilsson, Folke Rabe
(Photo: Per B. Adolphson)

Now to the real matter. I feel I am first a musician. I started as a musician. I was a little boy playing instruments. I stopped playing completely when I was 16, because I couldn’t stand the discipline of ensembles, orchestras, teachers and so on, and started again when I was 22, when I came to Sweden.
I could not think about being only a composer. I think it’d be too boring. I personally need the direct contact with the audience. I don’t think I could stand a life sitting by the table writing and then going […] to listen, and then feel the public liking it or not liking it, the musicians liking it or not liking it and nothing more. I really like to play. For me it’s a natural thing, of course, to play. I usually play only my own music, and I like to play my own music, and I think I play it maybe the best! I’m very happy to have something to say that nobody else is saying. I was thinking I would come as the last, and everyone has said all the beautiful and wise things, and I have nothing to say.
I started as an improvisation musician, and for me, as Mats said, improvisation and composing and playing are parts of the whole.
The structure and the discipline that I can find in working, composing on paper, will never be found in free improvisation, but on the other hand, the things that happen when you improvise free, sounds that can occur, I could never think about, and find out about, when I sit in front of a paper or a computer. […]
I think that, in a way, the problems of the split between composers and musicians and so on exist, but do not constitute the essence of the problem of new music. The essence of the problems of new music is that it has become a kind of dated phenomenon that still exists, kind of, on the periphery of the people who have the money, who pay for the chamber orchestras and the symphony orchestras etcetera, and as a matter of fact; they don’t want it; they don’t care, because they have no natural interest in this culture, but they still give the money, because a state has to have an opera house, they still have to have a symphony orchestra. Maybe in ten, twenty years it will not exist anymore. Then we will be left with ensembles and musicians and composers who want to interact with each other. Then I think, in a way it will be a more poor music, in economical terms, but maybe it will be more rich in will power, in the will to offer something and to give something, a part of your life, and to give up some of your comfort.
I see it as a parallel to what happens in politics. Hegel and Nietzsche both dealt with the slave and the owner, the owner of the slave and the slave. Who is the slave and who is the owner nowadays? We have the same parallel. We have the poor people in Afghanistan, who are ready to die for something, and we are very comfortable. We don’t want to die for anything! We just want to continue our very, very nice and comfortable lives. Then who is the slave and who is the powerful owner? This was exactly what Nietzsche was discussing from one point of view and Hegel from another. I mean that this is the point of our music. We want get the money. We want to continue with our comfortable lives. We don’t want to exceed certain limits. We don’t want to make things that would cause the people who give us money to stop giving it, and because of this our music looks and sounds the way it does. Of course, I’m saying it here, but I’m a part of this. I also get the money and the scholarships and the commissions and so on, but being a musician, having the possibility to play my music in, maybe, a techno club in Berlin, the next day in the Frankfurt opera house, and the following day in a jazz club, gives me, in a way, a kind of freedom – maybe it’s an illusion – to operate on different levels and see that the audience is there.
It’s like, Ivo, when we were in Darmstadt playing at the summer courses. One evening we decided to go and play a club there. We went there and spoke to the people, and nobody there knew that every year there is a new music course in Darmstadt, which we consider to be the most famous in the world; nobody knew! Then we played the club, and the people were completely astonished, and they thought; wow, is this the music they make at this summer new music course, which we didn’t know existed? That’s interesting! This shows that it is possible, but we have to have the will to leave our comfortable Parnassus and go down – or up; it depends how you see it!

Chrichan Larson, Dror Feiler, Ivo Nilsson
(Photo: Per B. Adolphson)

I usually say to a musician when I give them the notes, like when I came to Donaueschingen, to the Südwestfunk Orchestra, and they had problems with the notation, that I think it very much is a question of attitude. I said: “For me it’s better you play the wrong note with the right attitude, than the opposite!”
They were looking at me, and they didn’t understand it at all. They were saying: “He doesn’t care about his music! He doesn’t care what notes we play!” They didn’t understand that the essence is not… - of course the written notation is very important, but it’s a means to achieve a musical expression, and if you don’t have this realization, it doesn’t work. I think this is what we as musicians can contribute to the art of composing. This attitude, and the conviction that it is possible to cross the barrier of the paper… because the paper can be very beautiful, but it’s dead, and we can give it life. On the paper it doesn’t exist as music. It exists as a vision or an idea; I don’t know what… but we make it come alive!
I think, because if this, if I can quote Karl Marx, that we have to take over the means of production! Thank you!


We have one more member of the panel who has yet to speak, Peter Schuback, but we still have some time, and of course the discussion is open for the audience to raise questions or make comments, and of course also for the members of the panel to continue discussing. Peter!


For me there is a distinction between performing and composing. It’s a very clear distinction. They are two completely separated disciplines, but I still do both, simultaneously and in the same way! In my composing I’m improvising, I’m reading, I’m playing, and in my playing I’m reading, I’m improvising… and composing! When I play
the Bach Suites on the cello I’m composing the Bach Suites, I’m improvising the Bach Suites, I’m reading the Bach Suites. When I play, or when I write a piece, I’m also reading what I’m reading, I’m listening. It’s very mixed-up, but there is a distinction in the way of doing it, sometimes.

Folke Rabe, Peter Schuback, Madeleine Isaksson
(Photo: Per B. Adolphson)

We have heard the word table composer. I don’t think there is any such thing as a table composer. […] I think that you, Madeleine, said that you were only a table composer nowadays. I can say that’s wrong, because you are a pianist, and I know that you are a very good pianist, because I’ve played with you; the Beethoven Sonatas if I remember right. […]
I think it is very dangerous to pronounce this distinction between composing and performing. Every distinction can be dangerous if pronounced too much. We carry it with us inside. Some time ago I met a mathematician, and he said that he was much more intelligent than I; that I was more musical. I met philosophers who said that they are more suited for reflection, and they are not! I meet painters who say they can see better, and they cannot, and I meet musicians who believe they can hear better… Beethoven was a good example of that!
When I’m reading or playing my music, I’m not sure if I’m the best player. It’s a question of how we are reading it and how we are doing it. Someone here said before that the composer not always is the best performer of hos music. Why is that so? […] Chrichan, you expressed it very well, because you, Peter Eötvös also told me, have a way with tempi and changes, and you have a feeling for getting into it in a special way, but it is very important to express why we are not, as composers, always the best performers of our works. In some cases, as in the case of Dror Feiler, I think the composer is also the best interpreter of his own music. It depends on the music. In my music, some cello pieces I have written, I can’t play myself. I figured that out. Chrichan, you mentioned that you too had difficulties in playing a certain cello composition of yours. Other pieces I can play on the cello. I’m still reading it, I’m working on it, I’m still composing it… […]
I think it is very important to deal with this inside ourselves. It’s not a question of being a composer or a performer or an improviser. We are all three simultaneously.
This question has been raised a little bit to vocally in Sweden the past years. It’s getting better now. Twenty years ago it was completely impossible being a composer and a performer. You appeared suspicious if you could play. We even had, here in Sweden, a teacher of composition who told the pupils: “If you are going to be a composer, you have to give up your playing”! This is very dangerous! Some composers couldn’t enter the union, because they were interpreters. It was very difficult. This has then slowly dissolved.

Peter Schuback reading from an old Collage festival
leaflet from 1979
Ivo Nilsson, Folke Rabe, Peter Schuback
Madeleine Isaksson, Mats Persson
(Photo: Per B. Adolphson)

I can even tell you, twenty years ago we had a festival here, a group of composers. We were dissatisfied with this situation, so we hosted a festival called Collage in 1979, I think, with composers-performers. It’s very strange to see the names of the participants; Dror Feiler, Mats Persson, Knut Sønstevold, and everyone is there! Ivo Nilsson was there, riding his bicycle on stage. We played Wagner, from Tristan, and you, Ivo, were biking around and around in perfect tempo. We were very surprised. If this boy is that good with a bicycle, he can become a musician!
That’s more or less what I have to say. I don’t really understand the question. I think it is completely natural. I see that all young composers of today are always, somehow, musicians. Composers of electroacoustic music – a music which unfortunately has disappeared, because nobody believes in it – blend in instruments, because they think it’s boring to listen solely to loudspeakers. I don’t think it is, but they are all musicians when they are composing. […] Just as a comment, I’ll respond to what Stefano said about wanting to hear his music played by other musicians. That’s the one thing I cannot agree with! I have no interest whatsoever to hear my own music! Not in the least! I have heard it already when I composed it. I have seen the possibilities. Of course I want to have it performed, for two reasons: the response from the listeners, and… money! […] There are better ways to make money, that’s for sure, but you are also, in a way, grateful to the persons who make a work out of reading your music. It’s a way of continuing through the dialogue with the musicians, and work together. We are not working just when we are performing. […] The performing is not the only necessity. The act of composing in itself has a worth. The playing and the studying is making music music. When we can commit it to the stage is another matter, how it touches the public and so on. That’s more or less what I have to say for the moment.

To part 2 of the seminar