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After the throw-away opera

Stefan Schickhaus speaks with composer Volker David Kirchner about his chamber music, today's younger composers and the disposable music business

Mainz-based composer Volker David Kirchner will turn 65 this summer. After many years as a violist with the Hessische Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Kirchner began life as an independent composer in 1988. "Ahasver", his latest opera, was premiered in Bielefeld in 2001, and a year earlier he composed the opera "Gilgamesh" for the Expo in Hanover. For some time, Kirchner was one of Germany's most frequently performed contemporary composers alongside Hans Werner Henze.

A festival concert for Kirchner took place on March 13 in the Mozartsaal of the Alte Oper in Frankfurt. It featured a world premiere performance, with Susanne Duch on the piano. Click here for a complete list of Kirchner's works.

Volker David Kirchner. (Photos © Stefan Schickhaus)

Frankfurter Rundschau
: Mr. Kirchner, among today's composers you are not regarded as being especially optimistic. When you encounter a sentence such as: "Most of the people who have a say in today's music business can't even read music", it is tempting to attribute it to Volker David Kirchner - and with good reason. Does composing music put you in a bad mood?

Volker David Kirchner
: No, on the contrary, it provides me with a great deal of joy. But it's impossible to overlook the fact that the music business is in a deplorable state, and that things are getting worse all the time. We've become a pure event society, even in the tiny niche of new music. Absolutely no one has the guts to take risks, especially in the opera industry. Unlike earlier opera directors, no one dares try anything new. The problem is not acquiring opera commissions, but instead finding a house that's willing to perform the results. Music has become a throw-away business.

On your 60th birthday, you took it upon yourself to shake off your embitteredness. The effort doesn't seem to have been entirely successful.

I could make more of an effort to view things with a bit of humour, to avoid taking myself so seriously, at any rate, I try to do so. I feel especially sorry for the young people, for younger composers, who no longer have any expectations. Their prospects are far from rosy.

But there are young composers, certainly, who are considered for prestigious orchestra commissions, composers like Matthias Pintscher and Jörg Widmann.

Pintscher is truly a great composer already, I value him highly. But in these cases too, things could still turn out the way they did for me: first, they build you up, promote you, and then once you're on top, they start tearing you down. Earlier, there were certain ideological constraints, promoted in part by the newspaper feuilletons: Schönberg as God the Father, Webern as the Son and Adorno as the Holy Ghost, with the Adorno epigones in the newspapers seeing to it that everything was excluded that was not in vogue, namely Darmstadt and Donaueschingen (more on The Donaueschinger Musiktage here). The situation has improved, everything has become somewhat freer.

Any resolutions for your 65th?

To get less tied in knots. To derive some joy from life, and hopefully to continue working long enough so that I can put down on paper everything that is present somewhere in my cerebrum - which I have to do in any case, since I'm a freelance composer and live from my work.

Your cerebrum, presumably, harbours no more operas, since you've sworn off the genre. Have you also renounced composing for a large orchestra? Are you focusing your musical powers on chamber music?

Opera is unworkable under these conditions. After the premiere, the whole thing ends up in a drawer, it just doesn't pay. In terms of content, there exists in my work a clear concentration, and essentially, my credo can be found in my string quartets, I am able to communicate best in that form. I no longer need large masses in order to make music. On the contrary: the smaller the forces, the more intense the music becomes.

Your concerts are notable for the presence of "clapping hands instead of wrinkled brows", according to the FR. How do you explain the fact that your works are so appreciated by the public?

Precisely because I have taken great pains in this respect. In the late 1960s, I was still labelled an avant-gardist - a genuinely unpleasant, military term, which refers to the vanguard, so that I always ask myself: When is the real thing supposed to come along? But I never saw myself that way, I always wanted to compose honestly, to communicate, without tendencies or schools. But if you write something that people understand and like, it can't possibly be good - this notion is a scourge, particularly in Germany.

Despite all your pessimism, you can also be quite different: witty, ironic, carefree, as in the case of your "Fantango", composed in 2000 for the Wiesbaden pianist Susanne Duch.

Yes, the Tango Series. I've also got a thoroughly grotesque and humorous side, and why not? Scherzo elements always recur in my music, and there are pieces in which I break up with laughter, partly at myself, at my own existential condition.

At the festival concert honouring your birthday, Susanne Duch will be premiering a new work, "Mandala - 14 Veränderungen einer Schönberg'schen Klanggestalt" (Mandala: 14 Variations on a Schönbergian Sonority). What does this sonority involve?

The basis of this work is a chord used by Arnold Schönberg, consisting of a tritone set above a perfect fifth, a sonority of which Schönberg was very fond, and which he used continually, one derived, in the final analysis, from the Tristan chord (hrmm, ringtone-audio). I spread out this chordal structure, developing from it melodic elements and motifs of the kind found in Schönberg's music prior to the 1920s, his best period, in my view. Had he continued to compose in this way, without veering off into Dodecaphony, he really would have become a great composer.

Normally, one composes variations on a recognizable theme, that's the whole joke. But no one has a Schönberg chord in his inner ear.

The sonority is highly present. It's unnecessary to recognize its original form, for instance as used in the Five Pieces for Orchestra opus 16, it's not a question here of a literal citation.

The pianist Susanne Duch has said that the most intense moments for her are the pauses between the tones. What does the composer have to say about this, having, ultimately, composed the tones themselves?
It's true, the silences between the tones are quite decisive. And if I hadn't compose those tones, there would be no silence, but instead only pauses. That's the difference.


The interview was originally published in the Frankfurter Rundschau on March 10, 2007.

Stefan Schickhaus is music critic for the Frankfurter Rundschau.

Translation: Ian Pepper.

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