Manfred Stahnke talks to Canzona
Interview September 1990, Wellington

On the avant-garde situation, on Ligeti, on Stahnke, on general aesthetics

Between the 3rd and 16th of September the German composer Manfred Stahnke visited New Zealand. His tour was sponsored primarily by the Goethe Institute of what was (just) still West Germany, with support both from the QEII Arts Council and the music departments in the universities of Otago, Canterbury, Auckland and Victoria.
At the universities Stahnke lectured, gave seminars on various topics, held discussions with New Zealand composers and composition students, as well as introducing his own music and playing selections of it.
Manfred Stahnke (39) lives in Hamburg, where he also did most of his musical training, including several years under Gyoergy Ligeti. He has worked as well in California and Illinois and won several music prizes in Germany.
For Canzona, Martin Lodge put a number of questions to Manfred Stahnke at the end of his stay in New Zealand.

Canzona: For many years you studied composition with Gyoergy Ligeti in Hamburg. How does he teach? What effect has he had on your own musical thinking and approaches?

Manfred Stahnke: Well, in fact Ligeti doesn't teach any more - he retired two years ago. This year, 1990, he has given lectures only once, in Hungary.

But how did he teach during the fifteen years in Hamburg? He was very decisive in his views, for example he rejected a lot of the music of the fifties and sixties. If his students came with music related to it - for instance using the 'new complexity', serialism or whatever - he didn't appreciate it. What he proposed very strongly was for us to search for really new attitudes towards writing music; to find music out in the world, to go to Africa or South America or to the South Pacific (in fact he proposed I come here to collect  things), then to re-think our Western compositional attitudes. He didn't want to just go on in the old terms of art music. But he himself is schizophrenic about this, because his attitude is actually very artistic and very Central European.

He collects everything that he can of European music from mediaeval up to the present day. He has a big collection of records - Shostakovich was his latest favourite! But he said 'Please, please never copy these composers, never go on with Xenakis or Stockhausen or whoever in the tradition of Western composition. Try new ways.'

I think that somehow, we, his students, as a group came to think like this: 'Look, there is a new audience, there are young people, we must reach them, we must not write for the sophisticated experts of the Avant-Garde. We must write for "normal" people'. But of course this is unachievable! We will always write music for specialists, for a small circle, unless we go to the jazz festivals, for instance, and we can't do that because we aren't jazz specialists. So what can we really do?

Leaving Ligeti's thinking now and moving on to my own ideas, I think the first point to accept is that our music will never be popular in the sense that Mozart's or Beethoven's music is. But what we can find is some connection with our world, with today's chaotic world, this world of many layers, of syncretism in religion, in art, in many aspects of our lives. We must react to it, and the Post Avant-Garde movement of the past ten years grew out of exactly this point of view: don't stay in your little  room, but look out into the world and respond to it.

The next thing to do is to find ways to overcome Post Avant-Gardism, and this is what Ligeti suggested: try to find a melting pot in yourself somehow! He said, let's not just make a collage out of what we hear, what we see. We have to be open and we have to react, but we have to find a specific way to put things together so that a third way will emerge. Let's say we have a music A from Africa and a music B from mediaeval Europe: at the end there must not be A plus B, but for us composers, we must find point C. This is very hard to achieve, I think. It takes a long process of making, hearing and living with music - and this was the main point Ligeti wanted to make.

I don't know if he achieved this in all of his own works. But of course Ligeti has the wonderful opportunity to be unique by means of his own history: he's always reflecting on his own history and what he wrote previously, and this is wonderful to watch. The 'chaos' in his piano concerto, for instance, for me is very characteristically filtered by a kind of reacting to self, to his own history.

Canzona: Is the old modernist 'Avant-Garde' school still the new music Establishment in northern Europe? What is the status now of people like Stockhausen, Boulez, Berio, Xenakis? As a younger composer, what is your own perspective on older figures like these?

Stahnke: No it's not the Establishment any longer. There are many styles, very much the same as in New Zealand and anywhere in the Western world today. Stockhausen is a special point of interest now, of course. He has a group of outstanding musicians around him, but it's only Stockhausen. There is no "school of Stockhausen". The same is true for Boulez: he was at the centre of thinking in Paris for a long time, but he is no longer. There are so many other people now in France writing very different music - Gérard Grisey for instance, or Tristan Murail. Berio has no school, nor has Xenakis. They are well known, of course, and performed widely - but there is no going with this.

Some composers tend, when they are very young, to begin to write in these styles. But, for example, if you think of Kevin Volans, he studied with Stockhausen, but his music is now exactly the counterpart of his former teacher's. In fact Ligeti suggested this to us: 'Never write like me!' If there was a young student who came with a kind of Ligeti-like music he would say immediately: 'Please! This is forbidden.'

Overall the situation is chaotic and there is no single focus. There are some smaller focal points - Ligeti was one in north Germany, and many people from USA, England, Italy, Japan and elsewhere came to study with him. In Hamburg now my group "Hamburg Consort" and others are trying to build up something which is related to his ideas.

Canzona: We are beginning to hear of a tendency called "Die neue Langsamkeit" in contemporary German music. What is this? How does it fit into the broader pattern of recent musical developments?

Stahnke: Okay, "Die neue Langsamkeit" is just one of the many possibilities being explored now by composers like Walter Zimmermann, for instance. His work is musically somehow related to the ideas of John Cage and Morton Feldman. There are some very good performers, too, who search for music in this attitude. It is one of the 'schools' we have in Europe now. Sometimes this is related to the "New Romanticism" and the attempt to compose strongly with "feelings". "Die neue Langsamkeit" ('the new slowness') is a reaction to the fast, crazy outside world, perhaps.

Canzona: Your special area of interest is in microtonal music, especially the creation of new ways of dividing the octave alternative to the traditional Western equal temperament. What is the present situation, both in your own music and that of others? What direction are things likely to go in the immediate future?

Stahnke: Microtonal music, as you mentioned it, is just one aspect of what I'm trying to do. There are even more important aspects, for example formal and rhythmic structures. I think if we had a very well developed rhythmical language we then could have a chance to write music of our time ... It's not so important to write in particular scales, or microtones - it might be twelve tones, or 'out of tune', or intuitive or whatever. But if we can find a way to come close to a kind of dance .... maybe an inner dance, or maybe even a dance on stage where the musicians themselves dance for example as, in a rudimentary way, Phil Dadson does with "From Scratch" - this would be the way. The body must somehow be included again, and this can be done, of course, by singing, by vocal lines... we must try to find new ways of vocalising.

The 'microtonal attitude' is linked to the necessity of finding a world other than our old fashioned, European one. The European musical world is fixed: fixed on specific pitches, fixed on paper and fixed on certain rhythmical patterns. Our Western notation is very limited. Our paper can't express the rhythmical fluidity of what I can find, for instance, in South America, or many other parts of the world. We have to find new ideas. I think one basic point of interest could be improvisation: we must find new ways to improvise and be musically spontaneous. So microtonality is linked with many other things.

As for the general situation, some composers now are using newly built instruments, even in Europe. Or 'found' instruments. There's a lot going on in percussion music - I heard a wonderful piece by Adriana Hoelszky recently. Another innovative composer in this field is Lukas Ligeti, himself a percussionist, and the son of Gyoergy Ligeti. Lukas has a strong affinity for African interlocking patterns, and to pop music. Overall it's a most innovative situation at present, very lively. People are trying things out. It's as if we are at the beginning of something, nothing is clear, nothing is academic so far - it can't be taught in music schools. One of my problems at present is trying to work as a teacher in a music school and find some kind of meaningful curriculum!

Canzona: Working with new or unusual scales and octave pitch divisions must entail creating a whole new practical aesthetic. The composer must have to rethink elements of melody, harmony and pretty basic relationships between pitch and rhythm. Presumably performers have to re-learn some aspects of note production (what it means to be 'in tune', in particular). The audience, too, has to listen adventurously. How do you, as a composer and performer, go about creating a new aesthetic perspective for such music?

Stahnke: As I said before, everything is really linked. It's not just a matter of microtones. We have to think again about writing music and presenting music to the audience, for example. What I'm trying to do in Germany with our concerts is not to have a beginning point and an ending point, but rather to have a fluid chain of events. People arrive and someone begins to play or maybe someone talks about what will be played, there might be pictures there as well, and gradually a concert-like atmosphere evolves. This is my ideal picture.

You are right that the audience must listen adventurously. In fact it must be an adventure for all of us when we create these future concerts. I hope our music cannot be commercialised, and I tend to avoid commercial links. For example, I really don't want my scores to be published. Certainly it would be nice to have a CD someday, but I must be sure in myself that my pieces are really worth listening to. We'll have to see what happens.

Canzona: From what you have heard during your time in this country, what is your impression of New Zealand music?

Stahnke: I am fascinated by what I have seen and heard in New Zealand. There are such very distinct attitudes towards writing music. Dunedin was very different from, for example, Christchurch. Of course there are composition teachers and they have a big influence on the younger circles of composers. In Christchurch, for instance, the environmental idea seems to be very much associated with John Cousins, but apparently he does not implant it in his students. What I heard from his students was composed music, more or less in ways I could have found in Europe. But John Cousins as a person was absolutely fascinating. We have environmental art in Europe too, but not connected with music in his sense.

With John Elmsly in Auckland you have a composer who has very strong links with the "high" art of writing orchestral music, which for me is related to an older kind of thinking in music. It is not innovative in the way that, say, Phil Dadson's or Jack Body's thinking is. This is something like what some are striving for in Germany - or what many of my friends want to achieve: to get back to very simple things, to a kind of young people-music, this is what some of us would like to do.

In Wellington I have heard some examples of Jack Body's music. and it seems to be close to what Phil Dadson is thinking: trying to avoid the old 'art of composition' of Western Europe. Isn't it strange? I was brought up in this culture for so many years, and I have the very strong feeling that it is old, that it has become historical - and Neo-Romanticism and the old Avant-Garde all belong together. Writing music on paper with specific pitches, with specific rhythms is old: It was old when John Cage was active in the thirties and forties.

All the ideas we have now in Europe come from older times. It's not new. But what may be new is the extent of this way of thinking. There are more and more young people who now think we have to look at disco and pop music and Africa and the Pacific. We have to re-find this old kind of directness and spontaneity. This is the kind of thing Ligeti suggested. The problem for Ligeti, and he knows it himself, is that he is actually not a spontaneous musician. He has to think, he has to calculate. But he draws also: For example he often paints his scores beforehand in colourful patterns, as if he is weaving a piece of clothing, maybe an African one. He is not the sort of person who could ever improvise in music. But others are trying alternatives now: not composing but just making music! The term 'composition' itself feels somehow so old and worn out.

But back to New Zealand! You are so far away from Europe here, and so close to other cultures, like Indonesian and Chinese cultures - well, they're not that close, but closer to you than to us! - and I would suggest you look at these cultures. Consider how relative our European culture is, just one possibility of many; and now it's full, the bottle is full of the old sophisticated music.

We must find new kinds of sophistication derived from simple elements: a simple pulse is rich if it's not hit exactly; scales are endlessly rich, even with only five notes per octave, if we allow the pitches to be a little off each time; timbres can be enriched by close-to-harmonicity. All this taken together is 'microtonality': proceeding from the simple to the chaotic, and vice versa. We must break out of the twelve tones and our rhythmic notation. Ethnic music was never 'locked up' like that, with its absence of notation. Europe was lucky once, when it was still 'ethnic'. At its best, Europe's ethnic world of dance and song found a symbiosis with the 'high art' of musical architecture - in the classics. In Mozart. Let's try a Mozart-lick.

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