Celebrating Wolfgang Rihm at 70

A Conversation with the Composer

Ensemble Modern: The collaboration between Ensemble Modern and you goes back to 1981, when your Third String Quartet ›Im Innersten‹ was performed. This was followed by many performances and world premieres, including ›Un chien Andalou‹ in 1984, ›Umsungen‹ in 1987, ›Abschiedsstücke‹ in 1993 and of course ›Jagden und Formen‹, a whole group of works. Are there moments you remember in particular, especially from the beginnings?

Wolfgang Rihm: Impressions converge and mingle. However, there is a basic Ensemble Modern feeling: the certainty that the music will be rendered in the best possible way.

EM: You are celebrating your 70th birthday this year. Ensemble Modern marks the occasion with performances of the works ›Abschiedsstücke. Gedichte von Wolf Wondratschek‹ and ›Concerto ›Séraphin‹‹ at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, the Alte Oper Frankfurt and, early in 2023, at the Philharmonie in Cologne. How would you describe your special relation with these two works?

WR: In hindsight, these two works seem very different to me. I am curious to see if that is actually the case.

EM: ›Abschiedsstücke‹ was given its world premiere by Ensemble Modern and Rosemary Hardy under George Benjamin’s baton in Badenweiler in 1993. How did the collaboration with Wolf Wondratschek come about at the time?

WR: Wolf Wondratschek grew up in Karlsruhe, as I did, but we only met much later. He gave me his ›Mexikanische Sonette‹, and I set some of them to music under the title ›Lowry-Lieder‹– large-scale orchestra pieces …

That was in 1987/88. Five years later, ›Abschiedsstücke‹ followed. The sonic climate here is a totally different one. In between, in 1990, there was the world premiere of ›Mein Tod‹ – another instance of a symphonic tone. As I said, ›Abschiedsstücke‹ is totally different. But how? I really could not say right now …

Perhaps they are more like concert works – and thus closer to the idiom of the ›Séraphin‹ pieces? Still: a different climate, once again. The expressive worlds could not be more dissimilar.

EM: ›Concerto ›Séraphin‹‹ is part of a family of works with many offshoots, including ›Séraphin‹ and the ››Séraphin‹ Symphony‹. What was the original idea behind ›Séraphin‹? The development of the pieces is certainly not linear. Would you still call ›Concerto ›Séraphin‹‹ the final version?

WR: Yes. I think that’s now been done. There is enough music for an entire »Séraphin Day«: starting with the texts by Baudelaire and Artaud about this shadow theatre run by an Italian called Serafino (hence the name), one can imagine theatrical concepts, without limitations … from very concrete to very abstract …

The basic idea was presumably to follow this free flight of imagination as long as possible.

EM: Another group of works is ›Jagden und Formen‹, which first appeared as ›Gejagte Form‹ (1995/96), then as ›Jagden und Formen‹ (2001) and ›Jagden und Formen (Zustand 2008)‹. How should we imagine your work on the various stages of development? What was the impulse to move to the next level of development? You once called yourself the »landscape gardener« of this landscape of works …

WR: By the gardener metaphor, I was surely referring to the totality of my various projects and plans. I tend to their growth. But they have to do the growing themselves. That means I am responsible for delivering energy, maintaining an optimal climate, ideal humidity, et cetera … also for light and warmth. And occasionally, the soil has to be tilled. Insecticides … or as one says in German: »Pflanzenschutzmittel«, plant protectants – I tend to avoid them.

EM: For the world premiere in 2008, the piece was conceived as a musical and choreographic evening, involving choreography by Sasha Waltz and her company. How would you describe the interplay between music and dance? Does music require a certain physicality to be choreographed? Are there other pieces you would like to see choreographed?

WR: I believe that choreographic imagination can be sparked by all kinds of musical forms of movement imaginable. Even by »unmoved« ones. At least that is how I imagine it. Choreographically talented people certainly have more profound insights to offer on this subject. When composing, I do not, in principle, consider the »danceability« of the emerging piece. If a choreographer’s imagination is sparked by my music, I do feel that this is a kind of confirmation that all music has its roots in and goes back to the human movement repertoire.

EM: In the autumn a recording of ›Jagden und Formen (Zustand 2008)‹ made in 2020 will be released on CD by Ensemble Modern Media, in cooperation with Deutschlandradio Kultur. A recording also documents various states. Can one say that the performers with all their experience update a work with each performance, with each recording?

WR: Absolutely. The potential, the inherent possibilities of music are shown more clearly, more openly, more unguardedly too, by each interpretation. Performances also help to remove the layer of claims made about a composition; they make it appear increasingly naked. The opposite is also imaginable: occasionally, interpretations give the works new and false clothes – for example, they cloak them in royal garments or fashionable rags … we must remain alert.

EM: Is ›Jagden und Formen‹ now complete, for you? You once said that double bar lines at the end of a piece signify nothing but the beginning of a new thought.[1]

WR: I believe that ›Jagden und Formen‹ brought something to a close. If there is still a feeling of »continuation« (perhaps even something uncompensated), that precise feeling is part of the final appearance of this specific sequence of processes.Despite all its furore, it is not a »wham-bam ending«.

EM: Apart from composing, fostering young talent is a central pillar of your activities. Many of your former students are established and renowned composers today, now teaching themselves. What makes you engage with the coming generations over and over?

WR: Maybe I want to find out what moves them? I don’t know. I don’t feel I was born to teach; I always have to overcome a certain resistance to find a way into these many other souls, but I believe that this allows them to draw courage to be idiosyncratic. More, at any rate, than if I had a so-called »thought-out system« to offer them. They can experience the figure of the teacher as a contradictory one, caught up in the same pressures they experience themselves. And then they can witness how this teacher, fighting his own pressures, manages to suddenly liberate himself and throw off fashionable challenges. Until the next conflict ensnares him with its pressures. But please ask the people in question. As teachers, we give every student something different. Every person who is driven by questions. Not an answer – but a new question?

EM: We recently began a wonderful new partnership between the Lucerne Festival Academy and Ensemble Modern. Here, we present a selection of works by young composers who have participated in your Composer Seminar as part of our series ›Happy New Ears‹, giving them another podium to be heard. Do you advise them on how to deal with performers or ensembles?

WR: There is no general advice to give, just individual pointers. Presumably I advise all of them to articulate their ideas as unequivocally as they can. Every aesthetic approach should be possible in its own way. Which means deploying as little »That’s how this is done today!« as possible!

EM: Aesthetically, what is your opinion of the young generation of composers today? Are there musical tendencies, commonalities, directions?

WR: Sometimes I think I am hearing a profound wish for individual statements. None of them really want to create something that is typically of this moment – but that is also the hardest thing: to be effortlessly different. There is no recipe for that. Upheaval and calm continue to be elusive. Especially simultaneously. But what am I saying …? Everything we do is always, inalterably »NOW«.

[1]Translator’s note: »Doppelstriche am Schluss sind sowieso nur in die Länge gezogene Doppelpunkte.« –»Final double lines are nothing but drawn-out double dots«, wordplay alluding to musical repetition marks or punctuation colons.