Conversation with Vinko Globokar
Originally published in Avant no. 21 (UK, Spring 2002). Republished in eContact! 10.2 — Entrevues / Interviews with the kind permission of the author.
This conversation took place at the Electronic Studios of the Technical University in Berlin on 6 September 1999.
[John Palmer] Considering the fact that our time here at the Electronic Studios of the Technical University is rather limited, I want to delineate the content of this interview straight away. There are two interlinked themes I would like to touch upon. Firstly, I would like you to talk about the notions of communication, drama and semantics also (but not only) in conjunction with the use of electronic instruments in your music. (I believe these are very important aspects of your artistic creativity). Secondly, I would like to better understand your musical mind… I know this is a huge theme in itself.
[Vinko Globokar] That’s right!
Let’s attempt to deal with these “meta-questions” by focussing on some specific works of yours: the Discours cycle, for example. This is a very unified and self-contained series of works which we can take as a starting point. Why the Discours? What are they? What did you want to achieve by writing these works?
The Discours is a series of eight works, ranging from number 2 to 9. The basic idea of these pieces is to try playing an instrument as one would speak. That means that I am not interested in the semantic aspect of what is “being said” in these pieces, as I am equally not interested in the content of the text itself. My main preoccupation is to focus on different aspects of speech and human communication. So, for example, the material of Discours II derives from the timbre of spoken language (I mean the sounds of vowels and consonants) and I try to reproduce these timbres, I mean the colours of these spoken sounds, on the trombone. The aim is how to achieve a kind of control about the timbre of the trombone. If you look at the history of the trombone you see that this instrument has always retained a “trombone sound”, that is a stereotype idiosyncratic sound which has not taken into account further possibilities to manipule its timbre. Then someone invented the mutes which are nothing but filters. By using such filters in Discours II the trombone sound will resemble the sounds of different vowels such as A, O, U, E, and so on. If you transfer this technique on other brass instruments using different mutes you get some other vowels. In this way you can achieve a very subtle control of the timbre of brass instruments which actually derives from linguistics, rather than from musical terms.
In Discours III, the emphasis is on how a text is spoken, that is recited, rather than played in the traditional sense. So, different ways of reciting a text become different ways of playing the piece. That’s why in the score I place the literary text above the musical notation (the instrumental parts vary from three to five oboes). Here the musicians’task is to play the music with the intention of reading the text. For instance in the text you find accents, I mean the way certain words are stressed. This accentuation is, of course, very important in spoken language and the musicians have to take account of when dealing with the articulation of the music. Also, the speed of the discourse depends on the text.
In Discours IV I have used different ways to address a message, for example, you may play for yourself, for the audience or for one or two persons. So if you play for yourself, you may as well play off the stage! In the normal concert situation we usually experience one discourse for, say, one thousand people. But in the moment you choose to offer more than one discourse to more than one audience, you don’t necessarily need to present your discourse in the hall. This is why in Discours V the audience is standing outside the hall and the musicians are “visiting” the audience by playing specifically for them as individuals, and by asking them questions without giving them the option to answer.
Discours VI is a kind of study on the use of gesture in speech. I chose a dramatic text by the Italian writer Eduardo Sanguineti called Traumdeutung for one woman and three men. In this text Sanguineti writes:
The four actors should behave as a string quartet.
So I used a string quartet situation where when the four string players speak they have to behave (I mean shape the phrases) as musicians, and when they play they have to behave as actors (they have to dance, for instance).
In Discours VII I use spatialisation as the main musical factor. First of all, I use an instrument which does not play in the traditional sense of the word, but acts as a kind of speaking computer. It is a tuba player who does not play the instrument, but speaks into it. The other four musicians are playing around the audience and conveying an information to the people which is always turning around them.
Discours VIII is a kind of box-ring in that one, two or three musicians are confronting each other in a circle. Each scene contains an extra-musical element. For example, at a certain point in the piece, when all five musicians are playing, I write in the score:
You find yourself in an elevator with four other people who do not know each other. All at once, the elevator stops. Play this music according to this psychological circumstance.
There is another similar situation in a duet where I write:
You meet somebody who does not speak your language. You both don’t understand each other’s language. Try to communicate with these given notes.
As you can see in these examples, I am dealing with specific psychological situations which I am trying to transfer onto musical discourse.
What you are saying is that the variety of human behaviour as experienced in every-day life is integrated in your music.
Yes, exactly. And it becomes a musical stimulus.
In order to insert more energy in the sounds! Because if you don’t have this extra-musical aspect, the danger is that you will end up playing music in the usual traditional way, I mean the kind of Romantic manieristic manner with all these non-reflected patterns. In order to escape from them, I propose this injection of psychological and linguistic qualities which establish the way of playing.
What you are also saying is that sound becomes very much a matter of meaning.
Absolutely! You try to give a meaning, but you know very well that you cannot control it! And here is the tragedy of the music, because meaning is shaped in the head of the listener. In this sense you cannot say, for example, “this sound means this,” because each individual will create his own mental cinema out of that sound, what I mean is that the listener will interpret that sound according to his own culture.
But you are certainly proposing your own cinema.
I do propose my cinema, but it is a cinema that helps me to write the music. I do not expect the listeners to understand what I intend to say.
This means that you are prepared to get any sort of response from the audience.
Yes… any response!
What about Discours I? You did not mention it in your previous answer.
Initially I wrote it for trombone and tape, but then I threw it away! Later I wrote Discours II for five trombones. The problem with Discours I was that I recorded the trombone on tape and I did not like the results. That’s why I decided to withdraw it.
There is another interesting point you have brought up earlier on: the audience! What do you make of it?
For me the audience is only a quantitative term. It means, for example, that “… there was a large audience” or “… there was a small audience.” I would never dare to speak about the quality of the audience, because an audience is nothing but an addition of different individuals who are all different from each other. So in the same audience you have no two people who share exactly the same cultural background. How can you then, as a composer, expect to know how people are perceiving your music? It’s a completely open thing! One day is x, the other day is y: you never find the same person in the hall. For example, this kind of speculation about composers trying to persuade an audience can only be done if you operate with stereotypes. Take a march, for instance: a march implies an army! Or take a kind of Hollywood-like string sound: these are stereotype sounds which bear a quite precise association in the mind of people. But when you are working with new information you can expect anything.
And what about the relationship between the performers you write your music for and the audience?
I never write for a specific performer. Even when a friend asks me to write a piece for him I never ask him to show me what he can do. This is a reason why I prefer to write for an instrument which I don’t know very well (I wrote only four or five pieces for my own instrument out of hundreds). I am more interested in being surprised by the music I write, rather than thinking “Oh, I would not dare to write this because the performer won’t be able to perform it.” History shows us that there are always people who will find solutions. For this reason trying to be careful has no sense in art! Regarding the audience, I would say that, when I perform, I try to convey the fact that I am teaching something to the audience rather than being judged by them.
You do mean “teaching”?
Yes, teaching! Not to be judged by them. And this provokes a kind of freedom where there is no fear.
Why do you think you have to teach something?
Because I write music which I think should provoke some reaction, this means that I am the person who is helping a process to take place! I am not helped on stage. I am on stage to propose something which is intended to provoke some kind of reflection. I do not belong to those composers who write music for pleasing the ears of the audiences. I don’t consider music as an entertainment, but as a critical tool.
Not challenge. Just a critical tool, I would say!
I am thinking of your work Hello! Do you hear me? This is another example where communication plays an important factor in your music. Can you tell me how this work came about?
It was the Helsinki Radio, in association with the other Scandinavian radios, that proposed me to write this work. They asked me to write a piece where an orchestra would be located in Helsinki, a choir in Stockholm and a jazz group in Oslo. As the three groups where playing at the same time in three different places, the first thing that came to my mind was how I would resolve the problem of communication between these three different groups. Eventually, I simply decided to refer to the basic model of communication where the message is firstly sent, secondly received and thirdly answered to. So I decided to write a piece containing three types of messages: one being a stereotype message where the audience may recognise something, certain patterns, another consisting of my own music, and a third type of message which may surprise even myself, for example if the three musical groups are behaving in three different tempi simultaneously, the result will be a superimposition of tempi and rhythms which eventually gets out of control also for myself. I must say that I also had the idea of using electronic stations located between the three cities so that the messages would have been still more transformed. But due to technical difficulties I had to abandon this idea.
Did you choose this configuration?
No, the configuration was chosen by the Nordic Radio Association.
You just mentioned the electronics: how have you used electronics in your work?
In my piece Drama (1971) for percussion and piano, for instance, I used six loudspeakers which are controlled by the two performers. The pianist uses a throat microphone controlled by a pedal, for the amplification, which is connected to one loudspeaker; the piano is amplified, too, and its sounds are sent via a second pedal to a second loudspeaker. I also use a ring-modulator linked to the throat microphone so that the voice of the pianist can influence the piano playing, and this is channelled to a third loudspeaker. The same configuration applies to the percussionist, so that all in all you have six independent sound sources, each one being controlled by the performer who produces those sounds.
Was this your first work with electronics?
Yes. After that, I bought myself a cheap sound processors, the Yamaha 900 which I used in two other works, Kolo and Prestop No. 2 for trombone. Only recently I finished a big work at the [Heinrich] Strobel Foundation [Ed.: now the ExperimentalStudio für akustische Kunst] in Freiburg, and from time to time I have used tapes, but this is not my medium, really.
Talking about electronics… actually, your music is predominantly acoustic: what is your approach to electronics as a compositional medium?
I would like to answer your question in another way: since the 1970s the essence of my composing is always either a question or a reflection. What I mean is that my musical thinking is activated by something else which has nothing to do with music! Once it may be a political idea, another time I am interested in dealing with an archetype, or a psychological circumstance, a description of a painting and so on: but it is always something that is located outside the music. I never write music about music! What is also important to say is that when I choose a “theme”, it is this theme that generates, I mean triggers, everything else. It generates the kind of production material I need for my piece: the invention of a compositional technique, the eventual use of technology, and so on. But I myself have no special love for the technology in itself. Technology is just another instrument. It’s a tool.
If I understand you correctly, technology is just another instrument amongst many others; it really depends on the concept you have in mind. And this concept is your main artistic preoccupation. In this sense, it is a conceptual approach to musical creativity that you are talking about.
Yes. I am of course interested in electronics as a prolongation of an acoustic instrument. Take an instrument like a trombone, for example, where the traditional techniques do no longer correspond to the expressive possibilities that composers may want to achieve. In a case like this you have to constantly invent new performance techniques. But these extended instrumental techniques are of course very often limited because they depend on the physical possibilities of the musician and the instrument itself. And that’s when an electronic instrument can help going beyond such limitations. So at the end what you have is an entire palette of sounds ranging from a Brahmsian sound to the most multiplied and deformed trombone sounds which are also part of this musical chain.
This is something you keep stressing in your masterclasses. For you the use of an electronic instrument begins there where the extended techniques of an acoustic instrument ends. It is a tool which allows you to go beyond the physical limitations of instruments and performers.
Yes, that’s exactly what I mean.
What about the tape as a medium? Have you ever written a piece for solo tape?
No, I did two Hörspiele for the radio, but this is something different. It is not a pure musical thinking. For my work Individuum and Collectivuum I went to eight different countries (each speaking a different language) and worked with different groups of musicians on dissimilar playing models. At the end I recorded only one hour of work focussed on the same model played in each of the eight countries. In this way I got eight musical documents which I ultimately mixed all together, the result being a superimposition of words, noises, discussions and music.
Have you have used the tape in an instrumental context?
Yes, in orchestral works from time to time, and of course at the end Hello! Do you hear me? where I wanted to show that this interstate communication ends with a disaster. In order to do this, I went to the electronic studio in Basel and together with Thomas Kessler we connected the wires the “wrong way”, so that at the end of the piece everything becomes chaotic.
And you used this as the culmination of your communication?
[Laughter] Absolutely! And I had problems in Finland because at the end of the tape you hear a sort of crash, a totally distorted and disaster-like sound. The funny thing was that the technician there told me, “The audience will think that the technicians made a mistake!”
Really, for you it is not a question of medium per se, but a matter of æsthetics…
Yes, you can say that. Now for instance I am using the tape in conjunction with recordings of Yugoslavian folk music. As I said earlier, my musical work is mainly based on themes which essentially reflect an existential preoccupation. I am also interested in archaic themes as long as they relate to contemporary issues. It is the confrontation with reality which really interests me. I am proud to say that I am an old-fashioned man who still believes in dialectics!
Do you find this difficult in today’s society?
Dialectics are no longer of use. You will not tell me that repetitive music has a dialectic!
Why is folk music so important for you?
Because it is an immense source of incredible richness! In folk music it is not the sound product that is important. What is much more important is the kind of ritual which exists in this type of music. That includes, for example, how the musicians behave: how they communicate. It is how they handle their instruments; it is their way to make music which is so bound to their lives!
What you are saying is that when you propose some elements of folk music in your works, you are well aware that you are touching on archaic motifs.
Yes, but I should also say that I would never use a musical quotation.
What about your work Kolo for example?
In Kolo, as in other works of mine, I am not using folk melodies but I am trying to evoke the timbre of the Balkans, that kind of nasal bag-pipe kind of sound which is characteristic of those regions. In the score I write:
Please imitate a bag-pipe with your voice.
In this way you can get a sound-colour which derives from the folklore. But what they are singing is my music, and not a music which I import! What I borrow from the folk music is the way of producing certain sounds which are typical of that music.
And by so doing you are evoking certain images.
I hope so.
You are a composer, trombonist, conductor, teacher and writer, and you have now been active for about 40 years. In retrospect, how do you look at all this variety of musical activities in your life?
I must say that I hate any kind of pigeonholing and specialisation which exists in today’s musical life. It’s perhaps a necessity for the industry, but in the arts I do not accept it! Not least if the field of music! I try to do all the work which is possible for me to do myself: compose the music, play the music, conduct the music, teach the music and also write about it in order to get a kind of exhaustive palette. When I compose my playing helps me a lot to know how to write for musicians, when I play the instrument my knowledge as a composer and conductor helps me to understand what I am playing. Each activity helps the other. I know it’s unusual. If I am one year long absent from the stage as a composer, I will be present as a performer. This brings in another question, though: how am I perceived as a musician? If you ask a composer what he thinks about me, he’ll probably tell you that I am a good trombone player; if you ask a trombonist about me, he will tell you that he may like my music. This shows us that you are not taken seriously when you touch on too many things. Today a Leonardo Da Vinci would be considered as a charlatan, totally unacceptable!
What about your teaching activities?
In the past 18 years I have been regularly teaching in Florence.
And you give master courses around the world…
Yes, from time to time.
You have always been very interested in different performance approaches and new ways to make music and think about music. I am referring to your educational work Individuum and Collectivuum where you are dealing with improvisation. Can you tell me about it?
The basic idea of Individuum and Collectivuum is creation, creativity and musical invention. Personally, I do not understand — and I will always repeat this — that an instrumentalist spends all his life playing only music which has been written by other people! I really cannot understand that an instrumentalist does not feel the need to invent and play his own music. And what makes it worse is that these other people are dead people! If you think, very seldom one plays music by living composers! I wrote Individuum and Collectivuum in order to stimulate creativity. The goal of this work is to put the instrumentalists in the position to invent something personal. The beginning is difficult and always trivial, almost banal and childish (in the bad sense of the word, of course). But if you don’t try, the situation will always remain the same!
That means that surely in your idea of music education you would implement this kind of creative approach and process from day one.
Of course. And this is the main reason why I wrote the three chapters of Individuum and Collectivuum. This work is equally addressed to professional musicians, amateurs, people who do not read music, or non-musicians and other artists who can apply the same musical ideas transferred to other art forms.
And this is surely very much in harmony with the Renaissance-like, all-encompassing approach to music which you have mentioned earlier.
If you think of forty years ago and all that has happened in your musical life so far, how do you see yourself in this time-scale and right now?
I would answer in French: “Ça continue!”
But are you proposing any solution?
Yes and no! I don’t expect sounds to reflect my intentions because there is always a process of deviation taking place between the original intention and what different people perceive when listening to music. I really don’t know if I can change anything with my music! It’s a hope, a kind of utopic hope. But what is sure is that a musical work is a document which will remain. It’s a document that testifies certain things that happened at a certain time in society. This is an historical truth which cannot be denied. In one hundred years people will say, “This music reflects certain events that happened in those years…”. For me, music is not only a matter of l’art pour l’art. In fact, l’art pour l’art as such does not interest me, at all.