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Gruber interview about his new chamber concerto Timescapes

HK Gruber discusses his chamber concerto, Zeitfluren [Timescapes], receiving its premiere at the European Music Month in Basel on 9 November, performed by the London Sinfonietta.

Your worklist is dominated by concerti written for leading soloists, including Yo-Yo Ma, Håkan Hardenberger and Ernst Kovacic. How different is it to compose a chamber concerto without a specific instrumentalist in mind?

I’m fortunate in knowing the players of the London Sinfonietta very well, as is also the case with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group who co-commissioned the piece with Basel European Music Month. I count them as my friends and they are very gifted people. Each ensemble has a real group dynamic which generates a distinct personality just like a single soloist. Timescapes is not a concerto which turns spotlights unduly onto solo instruments. My experience playing in orchestras has informed me that collective argument is what counts – this is democracy in action. However there are plenty of individual virtuoso challenges for the players – with these groups I always feel I can ask for more.

Like your trumpet concerto Aerial, Timescapes is in two movements, slow followed by fast. Why does this appeal rather than the traditional three movement format?

In neither work did I set out to write a two movement work, but on both occasions it has seemed exactly the right thing to do. It provides the strongest possible contrast, rather like a slow upbeat and a fast downbeat, as if energy is being collected and then released. The first movement, entitled Nachtstaub [Nightdust], starts on a journey without a clear destination, like the way HC Artmann created poetry, using the sound of a word rather than its sense, then another word, then the two words copulating to produce a third. It is like a body being revealed with the open notes and harmonics on the strings offering the bare bones while the wind and brass provide the flesh. Gradually elements coalesce until there is something of the mood of a funeral march, with shadows of Mahler or Berg accompanying the procession. The solo melodic lines in the wind lead the way in an increasingly macabre fashion, rather like the Pied Piper. After this darkness the second movement, Anderntags [Another Day], bursts in with reaffirming light, a reminder that life goes on.

The second movement combines strongly rhythmic elements with hints of light music. Was there a particular impetus, like the tap-dancing routines of Fred and Ginger in Aerial?

Yes, it was the wonderful sound of the Roaring Twenties, as heard on old shellac recordings. Last year I worked with the Berlin Palast Orchester on a Weill album and this was an amazing experience. They play all that dance band music by composers like Ralph Benatzky and Robert Stolz who are more familiar for their Viennese ‘silver operettas’ which were removed from the repertoire by the Anschluss. But it was something that the orchestra’s singer Max Raabe said that really struck home. He said that they were trying to achieve a high intellectual level like the Dada movement. That reminded me of Weill saying that you could entertain without being stupid. It was the orchestra’s aim to create a good mood, full of positive energy, that I tried to capture in this movement.

So have you tried to recreate the Palast Orchester’s soundworld?

Well, that was a challenge, because the standard chamber orchestra does not often like to hire saxophones, a sousaphone and a banjo. So I had to artificially create these colours. I’ve used particular blends, registers and vibrato in the winds to provide the saxophones, a tuba as sousaphone, and combinations of harp close to its table, bouncing strings and piano to simulate a banjo - my harpsichord of the proletariat. I also use ‘bell up’ writing, as the players of the Palast Orchester do this a lot.

There are some pretty complex metrical schemes emerging as the movement progresses.

Yes, and it’s all part of building this sense of energy. I’ve adopted the ‘variable metrics’ techniques of Boris Blacher in pieces like Rough Music, but this goes further. I discovered when listening to certain types of Eastern folk bands that the rhythmic patterns often relate to the Fibonacci series. This is what I use behind the latter half of the movement, spiralling with ever-shorter periods, until there is a final big bang, the moment of maximum energy.

So how do you balance systematic elements with the freedom one might associate with your popular music influences?

Both system and freedom are important to me and, though they seem to be opposites, they act together to provide my musical philosophy. For instance in the first movement the pitches are worked through systematically yet simply, rather like a child constructing with building bricks. There may be a couple left over whose colours initiate the next idea, in the spirit of free fantasy. So the system, whether twelve note or rhythmic, just provides the bedrock which is not necessarily discernible to the listener. What is more important is that I always let the ear lead me on when I glimpse interesting new territory.

Beyond future performances of Timescapes what other projects do you have coming up?

My next piece is an orchestral work for Simon Rattle and my friends of the Vienna Philharmonic to be premiered in January 2003. Simon is also going to be conducting Frankenstein!! in Philadelphia next March - I can’t believe that 2003 will be the 25th anniversary of our creation of the work together back in 1978 in Liverpool. There’s a new engraved Frankenstein!! score on the way and I’m hoping 2003 could be a monster year for the piece. There seems to be a lot happening in the States coming up and I’m looking forward to the US premiere of my chamber opera Gloria at next summer’s Aspen Festival. Gloria is the prettiest pig in the Alps so I’m interested to see how she likes being transported to the Rockies.

Interviewed by David Allenby

HK Gruber's monstrous creation Frankenstein!! is 25 years old in 2003. Listen to a clip in our sound sample library.

>  Further information on Work: Zeitfluren

Gruber photo by Johnny Volcano

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