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"Despair is something vast"

Thomas Assheuer and Claus Spahn talk to composer Wolfgang Rihm about productive solitude and his latest opera

Wolfgang Rihm.
Courtesy Internationales Musikinstitut Darmstadt

Die Zeit
: Mr. Rihm, in order to get in touch with you, it is necessary to write a letter. Why is that so?

Wolfgang Rihm: I attach great importance to the time that belongs to me alone, time that is not taken up with appointments. I have a cellphone. If someone leaves a message on my mailbox, I call back. In relation to what is known these days as "globalisation," I'm provincial. I'm no world traveller. A Tibetan sage once said you have to remain in one place an order to see your own shadow move around you.

What surrounds you when you sit over your musical composition?

György Ligeti once said that when composing, he derived stimulation from the odour of a freshly-sharpened Faber Castell pencil.
For me, there is nothing in particular. My greatest stimulus is the movement of the mind itself. I find that the matter at hand is the greatest stimulus. The creative act! And time. That’s the most important thing! To take enough time! That’s why one of my main activities is to constantly free myself from external obligations.

Do you ever experience despair in your work?

Despair is something vast. You don’t despair because your shoelace comes untied, but because self-doubt interferes with your productive interaction. Then doubt turns into despair. In relation to perpetual demands we find ourselves unable to fulfil, we speak instead, I think, of irritation and helplessness. There are days when everything seems to go wrong, from the very start. There is a wrong number, or someone asks: "How long is it going to be? We need the piece." I can't deal with that.

How do you translate that which you perceive into musical expression?

There is no direct line connecting one with the other. I always keep a little notebook with me, where I jot things down. Here, for example, are notes from a conversation I had with a gourmet chef, Monsieur Emile Jung of Crocodile in Strasbourg. He explained to me the principle of seasoning. (Rihm points out a page in his notebook where a list of ingredients is written.) To one strong element, you add three of middling strength and six weak ones. What a marvellous lesson for composing. The result is not grey values, but rather a relationship of dominance that is orchestrated from various different sides. In music, if you distribute the dynamics in this way, with one strongly singled out, three of medium strength, and six weaker ones, you achieve an equilibrium, even if the form is asymmetrical. But don't worry, I don't cook up my pieces like that.

A new piece of yours premiered at the Bavarian State Opera in October, a modern drama with the title Das Gehege (The Aviary). It was also the first production in Kent Nagano’s tenure as Principal Conductor in Munich. The text was drawn from the final scene of Botho StraußSchlusschor (Final chorus). What attracted you to this play?

I saw Luc Bondy’s production of Schlusschor in Berlin in 1992 and was excited by the final scene. I immediately thought: I could make a monodrama out of it. Later, I met Botho Strauß and told him how much his text had fascinated me, and he told me he had woven in subliminal references to Arnold Schönberg’s monodrama Erwartung (Expectation). I had sensed this intuitively. It was only years later that Kent Nagano asked me whether I wanted to compose a piece that could be performed before Richard StraussSalome. He wanted to begin the evening with a contemporary work, and I told him there was only one possibility, the final scene from Schlusschor by Botho Strauß.

In this scene, a woman approaches a caged eagle and surrenders herself to the creature …

A woman who enters into a relationship with an eagle and then kills it, but only after making erotic overtures. This aspect, it seems to me, is not so very distant from the figure of Salome, who also kills the object of her desire.

The critics shook their heads, they were completely at a loss.

I was captivated by the text and the scene. Suddenly, the woman is alone in front of this animal, which also wears a mythological uniform. I had to cry. Here was theatre that was already moving in the direction of musical language.

Schlusschor is a highly political work, a piece about Germany and about German Reunification. How do you perceive this aspect?

Exactly. But like every work of art that really moves me, it also possesses other dimensions. Abysmal ambivalence.

The woman and the eagle never come together. Unification with the symbol of the Reich fails, because the eagle has been confined to the zoo of modernity and has grown lethargic. Ultimately, a westernised, Americanised Federal Republic has conquered the Germans.

That is one aspect. But the powerful stage situation goes beyond such interpretations: a woman goes to a zoo at night, frees a wild animal in the hopes of establishing a connection with it. The interest of the audience was geared toward what the wild animal wants from her, but she is up to something with him too. For the purposes of musical theatre, these events are sufficient. The director of the world premiere of my piece is the American film director William Friedkin. He made The French Connection and The Exorcist. Perhaps he will find in it more than a universal phenomenon. We shall see.

Nonetheless, the cultural and nationalist undertones are difficult to overlook.

I don't perceive only a nationalist position in the work. In France, for example, critiques of Americanisation play an enormous role, and no one calls them nationalistic. There is much that justifies Botho Strauß. When I am involved with the medium of music, of course, I am not localisable in this way, although everything I do could be regarded as German, and with good reason. I don't make Indian music, I don't make American music, I make German music. I'm constantly asked about this as though that somehow required a defence. An English composer writes English music, what else is he supposed to do? Should he write Russian music?

What is German about your music?

I find myself located within a tradition, one with which I'm constantly involved: Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Schönberg, and so forth.

Does the Italian composer Nono also belong to this tradition?

Nono too. But Nono regarded Bach and Schönberg as foundational. All the same, he arrived at different solutions, because he grew up in a different culture.

Doesn't music in particular teach us that thinking in national…

Wait! I didn't refer to national identities. It's not a question of national borders, but rather of cultural tradition.

Do you share the critique of contemporary culture found in Botho Strauß’ essay Anschwellender Bocksgesang (The swelling song of the billy goat. A highly controversial essay Strauß published in Der Spiegel in 1993 which rails against consumerism and the "sinister aeries of the Enlightenment.")

I read it, found it comprehensible; in a certain sense I've experienced this myself: a hostility to language that permeates the present day, the pervasive predominance of entertainment. As a composer, you experience it even more intensely than as an writer. You are constantly exposed to this universe of entertainment, and informed by its churches that the democratic majority stands at its side. Today, entertainment is considered holy; you're no longer permitted to say it doesn’t interest you. If you do, you’re considered undemocratic. This connection between entertainment and the majority, this false conclusion: where the majority stands, the truth must necessarily also be found, this idea has become cemented in music to such a degree that the phenomena described by Botho Strauß actually seems comparatively harmless. In the end, a new conception of the human being is promoted by the realm of entertainment. You are called upon, to the point of surrender, to act as a passive medium for the perceptions of others. This has certain Frankenstein qualities.

In an interview with this newspaper, Strauß said: "Decline was always there, a permanent intellectual topos beginning in Antiquity. It can't be any different. Ultimately, all epic poetry originated from the spirit: the times of greatness are behind us."
Do you believe this too?

Every artist finds himself in this position. He is confronted with things of quality that survive from the past. He has to work against this. He has to set his own creations against them.

But you don't look backwards nostalgically, do you? You must hope to accomplish something by composing.

There is a dialectical tension. I don't expect from the present that it will negate the power of the already existant. I hope that it is able to arrest the process of decline (which is itself a figure of thought). Of course, water doesn't flow upward. Things move downward. Everything we do as artists is directed at delaying this process of downward flow.

And what is flowing away?

Speaking figuratively, it is the substance itself. It flows away. It's always been like that. In those imagined better times too, which themselves responded to a past that was in turn conceived as being somehow superior.

Do you have the feeling of fighting for a lost cause?

The lost cause is the one you take up right from the beginning. Your life's work consists in converting a lost cause into a winning one.

And to remain with the same figure of speech: Where is the source?

The source cannot be localized. It could be referred to as a cultural stream. I can't say that Nono is better than Beethoven, or Beethoven better than Bach, or Bach better than Josquin. Art doesn’t work like that. When he started out, Bach first had to give form to his lost causes, Beethoven as well. That is the point of having a knowledge of history. Not that you go down on your knees in wonderment and say: Woe, that’s amazing, we can’t do anything these days! But instead: I must be able to answer that. I am left completey cold by the attitude: You fall from the sky knowing nothing at all, and the less you know, the better art you are able to make. For a time, that was the kind of thinking people liked to promote in the visual arts: I've never seen anything. I know nothing. I make art.

Does Das Gehege stand in a larger compositional context? As part of a cycle of works?

There plan is to group together three monodramas. The first is Aria/Ariadne, the second Das Gehege, and the third the Penthesilea Monologue. In this way, it’s possible to have the masculine figure make his appearance before dying in a marvellous way: at the end of Aria/Ariadne, Bacchus appears. In Das Gehege, he becomes the eagle. In the Penthesilea Monologue, the lacerated eagle becomes the lacerated Achilles. The piece could be called Drei Frauen (Three Women).

It’s always a question of rending and dismemberment, of sacrifice and self-sacrifice.

That is certainly the unifying element.

Is this merely an aesthetically unifying element – or the signum of our history?

That’s an interpretation I can't simply exclude, assuming it comes from a somewhat profound angle, but it's not one I would want to set above the work as a heading. Interpretation adds something new, it’s a response to the score, not something that takes it over it exclusively, ruling out other approaches.

Do you follow the debates about director’s theatre?

I’m often asked whether this or that director has interpreted my work correctly. I always answer by saying that the musical work offers itself up to the sense of scenic fantasy, but without being prescriptive. The director takes up the offer contained in the work and responds to it using his own resources. Well, some people then say, it's different with contemporary music, but with older works, things have to be done just so. I doubt very much that people would like it if Rossini’s operas were consistently served up exactly the way they were at the original performances. In those days, there wasn't much direction, things were more-or-less improvised. Today’s public wouldn’t be satisfied with that.

Are you interested in interpretation as an art form as such, in different productions of the same works by Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, Mozart?

The operas themselves interest me. And the interpretation has its equivalent in the music. Many people enjoy discussing how one performer takes a certain tempo faster, and another more slowly. With such putative connoisseurship, the work itself has no importance at all, the emphasis is on demonstrating your knowledge of the possibilities represented by the work, which are then observable in very slight interpretive differences. I find all that somewhat exaggerated. In his Feuilleton articles, Debussy wrote very pointedly about this phenomenon: it was a central preoccupation, he says, to discuss the latest interpretations of Beethoven’s symphonies, as though the speakers had some kind of special access to the beyond which allowed them to identify the correct tempo. Aside from that, of course, music does require interpretation, certainly.


"Das Gehege" is playing in Munich in January, February and July 2007. Dates here

This interview was conducted by Claus Spahn and Thomas Assheuer.

The article originally appeared in Die Zeit on October 26, 2006.

Translation: Ian Pepper - let's talk european