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Interview with Karlheinz Essl

Karlheinz Essl (b. Vienna, 1960) is an Austrian composer, performer, improviser, media artist and Professor of Composition for electro-acoustic and experimental music at the Vienna University of Music and Performing Arts. Essl creates electronic and interactive music (with emphasis on algorithmic composition and generative music), and has produced numerous real-time compositions and sound instillations. Since the early 90s he has developed various software environments and computer-based electronic instruments including m@ze°2, a real-time composition environment which Essl uses in live improvisation performances. Essl’s work with computers and a prolonged occupation with the poetics of serial music have been a formative influence on his compositional thinking — his compositions result from confrontations between ordered, abstract models and original tonal, expressive structures. He has frequently sought to combine music with other genres, and has collaborated with artists from other fields (choreographers, dancers, visual artists and poets), including graffiti artist Harald Naegeli (Partikel-Bewegungen, 1991), writer Andreas Okopenko and the artists’ group Libraries of the Mind (Lexikon-Sonate, 1992–98), architect Carmen Wiederin (Klanglabyrinth, 1992–95), artist Jonathan Meese (Fräulein Atlantis, 2007), and created a multimedia instillation for the internet with video artist Vibeke Sorenson (MindShipMind, 1996). Since 2008 he has been composing Sequitur, a series of works for various solo instruments and live electronics (inspired by Berio’s Sequenzas). Essl has been involved with the Darmstadt Summer Courses, IRCAM, the Studio for Advanced Music & Media Technology (Bruckner University, Linz), the Salzburg Festival, and worked with Gottfriend Michael Koening at Utrecht and Arnheim. In addition to his electronic works Essl has written instrumental pieces and solo ensemble pieces for electric guitar, toy piano and music box. Most of his instrumental compositions are published by TONOS (Darmstadt).

Karlheinz Essl at Studio kHz.
Karlheinz Essl at Studio kHz. Photo © 2009 by Johannes Tichy. [Click image to enlarge]

[Julieanne Klein] Your bio states that your compositions result from confrontations between ordered, abstract models and original tonal, expressive structures. Can you explain your commitment to incorporating tonal, expressive sections into your music? It seems this juxtaposition is an effort to somehow create balance between sonic fluidity and organized chaos.

[Karlheinz Essl] Being brought up with rock music and Bach, my initial musical socialization was rooted in tonality. Later I exchanged my electric guitar for the double bass, started to play jazz standards, and became fascinated by the extended harmonic system with its expansions into panchromatic domains. As I began composition studies with Friedrich Cerha, I was stricken by a “Road to Damascus” experience when I heard the music of Anton Webern for the first time in my life. This happened during the Webern Anniversary in 1983, and that encounter dramatically changed my musical life and my prejudices against dodecaphonic and atonal music. I stopped playing the bass and dedicated myself to the music of the Second Viennese School, which I analyzed with utmost care. Through Webern’s music (on which I also wrote my dissertation in musicology), I inevitably arrived at the serial music of 1950s. Attentively, I studied not only the scores of Stockhausen and Boulez, but also their articles and manifestos. At this time I came in contact with Gottfried Michael Koenig, whom I visited many times at the Instituut voor Sonology (Utrecht, Netherlands) which he was then directing. Through him I came to the understanding that the poetics of serialism are not only an extrapolation of the dodecaphonic method; they gave way to a new “synthetic” thinking of musical composition that is based on algorithms. This revelation finally led me into the field of computer-aided composition.

In the mid-1980s I evolved my own personal compositional method based on computer programs (developed on my ATARI ST), where I took Goethe’s idea of the “primordial plant” (which also fascinated Anton Webern) as a starting point for my concept of “structural models”, which could be implemented as software. However, tonality (not only in the harmonic sense, but also incorporated within certain musical gestures that stem from tonal music), was something that I strictly tried to avoid, for I believed it was too connected to an exhausted music tradition that I intended to surpass.

A decade later, I became increasingly involved with musical improvisation when I started to develop my own computer-based instrument called m@ze°2. Here, the notion of sound became predominant, and I discovered the power of harmonic fields that are moving gradually, like clouds or streaming water (as opposed to the ever-changing complexity of my former music). Those harmonic fields (which might be misinterpreted as tonal) are capable of creating a sonic environment for musicians, in which they can act together and explore a shared yet unknown world of sound.

I have read that the “poetics of serial music” has been influential on your compositional process. It seems to me you also find a deep poetic nature in both the use of algorithms for musical composition, the improvisatory element inherent in live electronics, and using the computer’s random generations as the sole source of sound material for many of your pieces. An undercurrent to your work seems to be the establishment of a symbiotic relationship between structure and chance, composer and improviser, man and machine. Can you illuminate your thoughts and philosophies regarding this?

Through my studies of serial composition theory I came to the understanding that order and chaos can be seen under a common perspective. They are no longer representing antipodes, but extreme positions on a scale. This enables one to perform gradual transitions between purely random and completely determined structures, as the dichotomy between order and chaos is abandoned here. They are not opposites, but different appearances of the same thing. To me, this concept of mediation between obvious contradictions is the crucial point of the serial poetics. It has nothing to do with row manipulations, it goes much further; it is the beginning of a new understanding of music that is based on algorithmic considerations. Later, I applied Stockhausen’s “scale” concept to other aspects of my writing process, exploring the dichotomy between composition and improvisation, the difference between concrète and abstract or between nature and technique. This enables me to move freely in between, unfolding the power of the differences.

Your compositional output is outstanding, spanning every possible medium: orchestral, chamber, musical theater/performance, live-electronics, electronic-computer music, realtime and meta-compositions, meta-instruments, installations and soundscapes, film music, visuals, text compositions, and works for solo instruments! Can you select one or two of your favorite pieces and discuss them for us?

One of the most important pieces for me is Lexikon-Sonate for computer-controlled piano, which I started in 1992 as a work-in-progress. During this time I was working on a commission from IRCAM (Paris). While at IRCAM I became fascinated by the programming language Max, which enabled me to use my own compositional algorithms (which I developed for score generation several years prior) in real-time. In order to test this new approach, I wrote a couple of Max programs which simulated various pianistic playing behaviors — clichés ranging from the piano music of Bach to Stockhausen: espressivo melodies, pointillistic structures, chord progressions, arpeggios, glissandos, etc. As an example, I utilized the well-known baroque figure of the trill as a structural model, and then extended it in a way so that its various structural parameters (speed, pitch content, dynamics, durations) could be modified in real-time.

Similar to Goethe’s primordial plant, the evolution of its components (e.g. the number and properties of branches, stems, leaves, flowers, roots) can create an endless variety of plants, even some that do not exist in nature. In my experiments, however, these changes are achieved by random operations. These act as a variation factor that subsequently yields a stunning number of different yet structurally related musical variants.

The various models of Lexikon-Sonate (with funny names like Esprit, Joyce, Dependance, MeloChord or Ricochet) are combined by a “conductor” who selects modules using chance operations, switching them on or off. Over the run of this infinite piece that never repeats itself, the user can either engage an “auto-pilot”, or she can decide herself when the conductor should evoke a new model and cease playing a previous one. This very rudimentary (and yet powerful) control of the piece was later expanded when I opened the inherent hermetics of the piece by surpassing the conductor. Now I was able to play Lexikon-Sonate like an instrument by using MIDI controllers and the computer keyboard.

here.">Karlheinz Essl performing <em>Lexikon-Sonate </em>on a Bösendorfer CEUS computer piano
Karlheinz Essl performing Lexikon-Sonate on a Bösendorfer CEUS computer piano. Vienna, Bösendorfersaal, 12 December 2008. A video of the performance can be viewed here. [Click image to enlarge]
The user interface for <em>Lexicon-Sonate </em>.
The user interface for Lexicon-Sonate . [Click image to enlarge]

The second work I want to discuss is a series of compositions for various solo instruments and live-electronics entitled Sequitur, which I started in 2008. Somehow it can be seen as a reference to Berio’s famous Sequenze cycle of solo pieces which focus on specific playing techniques (including extended techniques) of each respective instrument. Up to now I have finished thirteen individual pieces, including flute, violin, voice, electric guitar, toy piano and kalimba. All Sequitur pieces use a software written in Max/MSP which creates an electronic accompaniment from the instrument’s live input; the player is confronted with his own playing, and this creates a situation like moving in a house of mirrors where the identities becomes blurred.

A video of Jennifer Hymer performing Sequitur XIV, for kalimba and live-electronics, can be viewed here. Hamburg, Klang!-Container, 13 September 2009.

It is possible for the players to perform each piece alone, without the direct assistance of a sound technician. The player is required to press a key on the computer keyboard whenever this is indicated in the score. Following specific triggers, the software generates a complex canon on the fly, the temporal structure and density of which being controlled by random operations. This yields different results every time the piece is performed. Although following a precisely notated score, there is always a good portion of surprise for the musician that serves to emphasize his awareness and attentiveness.

You also have spent a good deal of energy designing and disseminating freeware software libraries / environments for real-time composition, live performance and sound design. Some examples are the aforementioned Lexikon-Sonate (an algorithmic music generator — current version 3.3), REplay PLAYer (a generative sound file shredder) and fLOW (an ambient soundscape generator). Are these software applications created out of fun? Do you intend for composers to utilize your software as a basis for serious compositions?

All these programs were essentially written for my own purposes, but I soon realized that they might also be useful for others. However, to clarify, I consider Lexikon-Sonate as a composition of mine that is distributed in the form of software, instead of a score or a recording. As this piece is infinite and can neither be fixed nor reproduced, I have decided that the most appropriate way of its propagation is the process which generates the piece at runtime, i.e. the software. Yes I am giving this piece away for free, but it is released under a Creative Commons License, which expressively interdicts using my piece for creating other compositions.

However, this restriction doesn’t apply to my compositional tools like REplay PLAYer and fLOW. Although these sound modules are part of my personal electronic instrument m@ze°2, they may be used by others as software instruments, and I am happy to say they are widely used.

Lexikon-Sonate is based on a network of compositional functions written in Max, the so-called RTC-lib (Real-Time Composition Library for Max). It consists of more than 100 software modules specifically invented for algorithmic composition in real-time: rhythm and harmony generators, chance operations, selection methods and so on. As these tools can also be useful for other composers, I released them as open source.

In addition to the expected list of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Anton Webern and György Ligeti, you also list among your influences several early music composers, including Perotin, Guillaume de Machaut and Johannes Ockeghem. Can you discuss how/why these early musicians have influenced your work?

On the one hand it’s the algorithmic approach of these composers that has interested me from the very beginning: the rhythmical patterns of Perotin, the color/talea method of Machaut (which can be seen as a predecessor of serial composition techniques), and the highly complex canonic structures of Ockeghem. This music is fascinating, full of non-musical contents such as proportion systems and numerology that add other layers of meaning beyond the mere sounding. To me this music seeks to reflect cosmic principles in an attempt to express divine truth — by these elements it becomes transcendental.

In the early 90s you were composer-in-residence at Darmstadt (Darmstädter Ferienkurse für Neue Musik) and also produced a commission at IRCAM. Can you discuss the differences between these two monumental European institutions? How have they changed over the past few decades?

In the early 1990s Darmstadt became a melting point of young composers who went there not be educated, but to share ideas (which in fact is another way of learning). This spirit of artistic camaraderie/collaboration was instigated by Friedrich Hommel, who directed the Ferienkurse at this time. Every two years, the so-called “composer’s forum” brought together several dozens of young composers from all over the world who presented their ideas and music in lectures and concerts. Regrettably, this progressive concept was abandoned when Hommel resigned, and was replaced by a more conventional system supported with famous and prestigious teachers and students.

At the time when I worked at IRCAM it was mainly a production studio and a research institute, whereas the pedagogic department had just started its activities. For me, it was wonderful to work on my composition and to discuss my ideas with composers and researchers there, and to receive their feedback and technical support.

Vienna is generally viewed as a more “traditional” classical music center, though they do produce a successful contemporary series each year (Wien Modern), while Berlin is renowned for its forays into electronic, avant-garde and experimental music. How do the cities compare in your experience?

In the 1990s, Vienna became famous as the cradle of New Electronica with names like Christian Fennesz and the MEGO label. A bunch of new venues and clubs came up where one could listen to New Electronic Music (as it was called), and many of these places still exist. In my experience, Vienna maintains a variety of æsthetics that range between popular and experimental; its proponents live and work together, side-by-side, in peaceful co-existence. The scene in Berlin to me appears quite different — less open, but with a stronger conceptual foundation which has enabled the advent of a specific “reductionistic” æsthetic that is very dominant there.

Your compositions and writings are peppered with references to other composers: Gold.Berg.Werk, Sequitur, While my guitars gently whip, Take the C Train, Deconstructing Mozart… I love your witty titles! Do you think of these once you complete a piece, or do you model your process around the inspiration for the title?

In fact, titles are always extremely important to me, and I always strive to choose them before I actually start composing. They act as a guide that helps me to focus on the core idea of the piece that I am about to write, and they also act as a source of inspiration. How do I find them? In a process of mediation that can takes months. Sometimes they suddenly appear, either in my dreams or in those precious moments right before you fall asleep, when the soul is detached from the body and the mind.

As a vocalist, I absolutely love Sequitur IX. Can you describe your process for writing for the voice as opposed to other instruments? Do you find the voice more difficult to write for (as so many contemporary composers seem to)?

In fact, I haven’t written much for voice — I always find this instrument quite challenging. However, I am often involved into improvisation projects with singers that provide a lot of inspiration to the process. Furthermore, I am currently scrutinizing non-western chants and vocal techniques. When I was composing Sequitur IX, I experimented with my own voice and tried out everything before writing it down. In this piece, I was utilizing techniques of overtone singing, combined with plainchant singing and belcanto, as if Eastern and Western religious ceremonies were melting together into something beyond the now…

Karlheinz Essl and Margarete Jungen rehearsing <em>Sequitur IX</em>, for mezzo soprano and live-electronics.
Karlheinz Essl and Margarete Jungen rehearsing Sequitur IX, for mezzo soprano and live-electronics. Studio kHz, Klosterneuburg, August 2008. Photo © 2008 Marian Essl. A video of Jungen and Essl performing Sequitur IX can be viewed here. Vienna, University of Music and Performing Arts, 20 October 2009. [Click image to enlarge]

As a performer and researcher of contemporary and electroacoustic music, at times I find myself concerned with the [perceived] elitism of this genre — Milton Babbitt’s admittedly contentious essay “Who Cares if You Listen” comes to mind. While I don’t believe sophisticated art should be simplified or “watered down”, what are your thoughts on this? You eloquently stated in your interview with Bruce Duffie:

… it becomes music only by listening to it, and listening is a not passive way of deciphering a given code. It is a creative act of perception. In fact, by listening we compose the music in our brain and our heart. As a composer, I do not merely supply a certain code which has to be deciphered by the audience, but rather I open structure which can create different musics in the ear, the brain or the heart of the listener… I don’t expect people to have a certain knowledge or training. The only thing that I hope for is that my audience has an open heart and lets things happen.

Should contemporary composers / artists seek to enrich audience appreciation and facilitate a positive listening experience? If so, how can this best be achieved?

My personal approach towards this question relates to an old concept that was an important æsthetic premise in the 18th century. At this time, it was believed that music should transmit its “message” (I put this in quotes for I am bit skeptical about this word) on two levels: one for the amateur (Liebhaber), and one for the specialist (Kenner). In the discourse of Postmodernism, the concept of “double coding” seems to be quite similar; pluralism instead of unification, which doesn’t mean to abandon the benefits of modernism, but to increase these benefits by communicating multiple messages.

I do not agree with Babbitt when he compares new music with science and suggests to disconnect it from an — what he thinks — ignorant public. On the contrary, I am trying to create venues which takes place outside the bourgeois concert halls in order to reach a different audience; people that are open-minded and eager to experience new æsthetic adventures, without necessarily being specialists. My goal is to set up enchanting situations that catch the listeners and draw them deeper and deeper into the music. This often happens in improvisational contexts — the energy solely depends upon the magic of the moment, which often creates surprising sparks that can ignite an audience.

In this hyper-digital age that we currently find ourselves in, what elements do you feel are positive and which do you feel are detrimental to the state of music? The state of mankind / humanity?

What I currently observe is a confusing variety of different æsthetics, audiences, promoters and venues that are too often completely closed and isolated from each other. In our globalized world people tend to create small and manageable environments where they feel at home with their friends and peers. This simultaneity of groups and networks creates a somehow chaotic situation which nobody can overview. But, like all chaos, such a situation contains the potential for self-organization. So I do not worry how things might develop, as I am confident that the right people will find themselves together in the right places. I only hope that they will achieve something together that is more than the sum of their individual parts.

We are living in a world besieged with moral and existential dilemmas. Members of First World nations are enjoying exponential technological growth and material wealth, while the developing world grapples with ever-increasing poverty, violence, the effects of environmental destruction, and the disappearance of vital resources such as water and food. I love what you stated (also in your interview with Bruce Duffie):

I have no concerns about the future of music, because music will go on forever. But I am very concerned about the future of our living on Earth. There are a lot threatening facts. In the arts, we are sometimes very much outside those things, so we reflect them of course. Sometimes an artist has the gift of prophecy to see things in advance, to express it and to find a symbolic representation of these things that could warn us.

Elaborating upon this statement, do you think artists have a moral responsibility to represent these issues in their work, or at least take social consciousness into consideration?

At all times, artists have a responsible function in their society. They are the ones who are capable of transforming visions into perceivable forms that then show us unknown (and sometime also alien) aspects of the world, thereby granting us a better understanding of who we are and where we are going. Therefore, I consider it extremely important that the global threat of climate change is thematized by composers and sound artists in the Ear to the Earth movement:

Besides this, we need to address the broad inequalities that exist between the First and the Third World. Clearly we need to change our Western lifestyle, and seriously consider all the unquestioned amenities that go along with it. This includes maintaining an awareness of our limited resources, and making conscientious decisions for how to use them in a responsible way. Above all, Westerners must abandon the idea that we (as individuals but also as a society) are the navel of the world. We need to become humble towards our neighbor, towards nature and towards God.

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