Hartmut Moeller

Where is music heading?

A conversation with David Hush

This Interview first appeared in Quadrant, March 2001 issue.

HM: You lived in the USA for thirteen years. What is your opinion on the New Music scene there?

DH: American culture has always been famous for its extreme diversity, and music is no exception. There is no doubt in my mind that never before has the American music scene comprised so many composers each of whom is doing something quite different from the others. These differences make the imposition of categories very misleading. Take computer music. Two composers who use computers tend to be grouped together. But computer technology has become so advanced that it has given the composer far more flexibility than before, and so the differences in the finished products of two computer composers are considerable. In my opinion it makes no more sense to group together composers who use computers than it does to group together composers who write for acoustic instruments.

Perhaps the most fundamental yardstick for scores designed for real instruments is the degree of specificity of the notation. A score by Babbitt or Carter is very precise with regard to every aspect of performance, while the opposite extreme would be a so-called‘open score’consisting of verbal directions for improvisation - but there are a great many levels in between.

I myself write for real instruments and voices. While I have been impressed with recent developments in computer technology I am not drawn to working with computers. I use relatively precise notation; I certainly do not ask the performers of my scores to improvise. The pieces that have most recently been released on CD are all very different from each other. The principal bond between them is their tonality. Yet each piece is tonal in a different way.

HM: We should take the time, I think, to comment on the different ways in which tonality is realised in your compositions.

DH: The First Partita for Violoncello Solo (1989) is the only piece of mine on CD that adheres to the harmonic idiom of Bach for the full duration of the score. The principal twentieth-century contribution is the employment of mixed metres. The Partita therefore represents my own individual interpretation of the baroque period.

The First String Quartet (1988) is based principally on what I call‘relativised tonality,’by which I mean a situation where the basis of the tonal language is defined not by the triad but by the chromatic scale. But traditional tonality still finds its way in. The second movement of the Quartet divides into a series of episodes. Solo episodes, designed to highlight the talents of a specific member of the quartet against the background of the other three, are juxtaposed with ensemble episodes. While the solo episodes are based on relativised tonality, the ensemble ones are a direct quotation from Haydn's Quartet, Opus 64/3, and are therefore instances of traditional tonality.

The Sonata for Violoncello and Piano (1990) also juxtaposes the two types of tonality but in a different way from the Quartet. While the first movement of the Sonata draws upon relativised tonality, the second is based entirely on triads. The differences in the types of tonality used in each movement interact with form: while the first movement is a sonata form the second is not.

My most recent recording, Sonata for Violin Solo, comprises the centrepiece of King David’s Lyre, the disc released in celebration of Jerusalem’s 3,000th anniversary. This sonata is unusual in that it offers a symbiosis of traditional and relativised tonality.

There is of course a great deal more to these works than the outline I have just given but it should be enough to provide a general picture. I don’t know whether there are any composers who are doing similar things with tonality as I am.

HM: During your years of education you moved around a lot: you were born in Bristol, England, and educated at Clifton College, the University of Sydney, and Princeton University, where you studied composition with Milton Babbitt, Paul Lansky and Peter Westergaard. How do you see your musical journey retrospectively?

DH: My first move to a new continent was the move from England to Australia, where I completed high school and attended the University of Sydney. Moving to a new part of the world cannot fail to exert a profound influence on one’s musical outlook. When I was in Australia the very distance from Western Europe in general and England in particular enabled me to absorb the music of Bartók on the one hand and the work of Milton Babbitt on the other with a speed and objectivity that probably would not have been the case had I remained in England. My arrival in Princeton marked my second move to a new continent. The most obvious advantage of coming to Princeton was the opportunity to work closely with Babbitt.

HM: Can you tell us something of your experiences with Milton Babbitt as your teacher in composition? What do you think you owe to him?

DH: I found Babbitt to be a wonderful teacher both in the classroom and in private composition sessions. Babbitt’s seminar on twelve-tone music aroused in me a tremendous admiration for Schoenberg (in Australia I had been more interested in Webern). The first thing that impressed me about Babbitt as a private teacher is that he was able to hear anything I put in front of him perfectly. Regarding his ability to conceptualise on the structural ideas of my music, Babbitt showed an acuity of perception that would have been intimidating but for the fact that he is by nature relaxed and warm. Working privately with Babbitt had special advantages over the seminars; in private sessions I could talk at length on any subject I wanted to.

There was one enormous asset in both seminars and private sessions. This was Babbitt’s ability to make me aware of the importance of structure in music on every level. In his classroom teaching he stressed not only the mere existence of structural levels but also the organic relationship between them, and he managed to transmit the same point in his private evaluations of the pieces I was working on. This is the mark not just of a great teacher but of a first-rate mind. A man with lesser intellect who was interested in layered structures would not have been able to progress beyond imparting the theories of Heinrich Schenker. Babbitt's intellect is so vast that he can accommodate Schenker into his own way of thinking, resulting in an application of Schenkerian ideas to a repertory that resided outside Schenker’s territory, specifically the twelve-tone repertory.

I am enormously indebted to Babbitt for the emphasis he placed in his teaching on structural layers and the organic relation between them. The fact that I now write tonal music in a certain respect signals that the wheel has come full circle, for tonality was the focus of Schenker’s entire life, although I suspect that if Schenker had come across one of my relativised-tonal scores he would have inserted more than a few exclamation marks to indicate his disapproval of the voice-leading!

On the face of it, the recent works I just commented on could not be further away from the music of Schoenberg and Babbitt: while my pieces are tonal, the works of Babbitt and of the later Schoenberg are twelve-tone. I have already pointed out the influence of Babbitt with respect to structural layers; this influence may be discerned in my recordings. In addition, when I was a graduate student at Princeton one of my principal interests in twelve-tone music was its capacity to generate a network of varying rates-of-unfolding in an enormous diversity of contexts.

One of the purposes of the first part of my article on Babbitt’s Composition for Twelve Instruments is to show how the set-forms within each twelve-part array are made to unfold at different rates from each other; it is these varying rates that enable the construction of hierarchical layers. Similarly, my doctoral dissertation postulates that Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Film Scene, Opus 34, operates on different modes of continuity. An analytical exposition of these modes owes a great deal to the consideration of Schoenberg’s methods of varying the rates with which sets unfold. These varying rates are shown to have ramifications for many aspects of the piece’s structure. When I started to write tonal works in Princeton, I was very interested in the compositional potential of the general idea of varying rates-of-unfolding whose specific application I had studied in the music of Babbitt and Schoenberg.

HM: But what connects these concepts of twelve-tone-music with a work like your Solo Cello Partita which, as you said, adheres to the harmonic idiom of Bach?

DH: Prior to writing the Partita, I became immersed in Bach’s remarkable techniques of varying the rates of harmonic unfolding in his works for solo violin and for solo cello. This was not a novel perception; on the contrary. My point is that my study of Babbitt and Schoenberg had served to heighten my awareness of Bach’s particular techniques. I felt that I had something to add to Bach's contribution to the solo cello repertory; hence the Partita. My Sonata for Cello and Piano incorporates a much more individual approach to the practice of varying rates-of-unfolding. The Sonata embodies a technique that I have called the counterpoint of cycles.

HM: Having made clear the indebtedness of the structures of your tonal works to Babbitt and Schoenberg, the question remains: Why did you choose tonality?

DH: There are two main reasons. The first was essentially historical. I felt that after Schoenberg, Babbitt had taken twelve-tone music almost literally as far as any one individual could possibly do; what could I possibly add to Babbitt’s contribution? The second factor was more personal. After having spent a great deal of time writing in the twelve-tone idiom I felt that my gifts were better suited to tonality. My move to tonality was not so much a step forward as a return to my roots. While my Sonata for Violin Solo is my most recent recording, in dating back to 1976 it also represents my first acknowledged work. And as I mentioned earlier, the Solo Sonata is a tonal composition.

HM: Moving on to a more recent work — in March 2000 your Second Symphony received its world premiere in Australia. Sir Georg Solti has called it a fine work. Can you say something about the main ideas behind the Symphony?

DH: A well-known European critic recently raised the question of whether there is such a thing as a contemporary symphony. When you think about it, most contemporary orchestral works are not called symphonies, and those comparatively few new works that are presented as symphonies generally bear no obvious connection to the symphonic tradition that we are all familiar with. So the question that the critic raised is not unimportant. I look on my Second Symphony as an answer in the affirmative — namely, that there is certainly such a thing as a contemporary symphony, that the phenomenon of the symphony is definitely not relegated to the realm of the past.

The main idea behind my Second Symphony is that it represents a late twentieth-century interpretation of Beethoven. In being a contemporary work, it is a symphony born of the age in which we live. But in addition, I wanted the Symphony to bear an organic connection to the music of Beethoven.

HM: How far do you see the Second Symphony leading to other pieces?

DH: It would be quite absurd to suggest that my Second Symphony represents the last word on contemporary compositional interpretation of Beethoven. I see no reason why the Second Symphony cannot be followed up by other works pointing in a similar direction.

HM: Let us now turn to some more technical matters of your music. I notice that your music contains comparatively fewer dynamic indications than many contemporary scores. What is your attitude towards dynamics?

DH: I have always maintained that the only significant difference between Babbitt’s music and mine is that Babbitt inserts a greater number of p’s in his scores than I do, even though I am entitled to use more. Speaking seriously, to talk about how I treat dynamics I need to elucidate my attitude towards performers.

Far from viewing the role of performers as solely technical, I see collaboration between composer and performer as a collaboration of artists. If the performer is an artist, he or she will confer on a piece an interpretation that is unique. I learn a great deal from such interpretation. I learn not only about the piece at issue but also about more general possibilities of creating with sounds. Because I revere the individual interpretation of an artist in performance, I like to give him or her a fair amount of freedom. This is why I specify in the performance notes of my scores that all tempo indications are approximate, even though each metronome indication I notate is the one I would choose if I were playing.

Likewise, while I do not explicitly state in the performance notes that each dynamic indication is approximate, I don’t like performers of my work to feel tied to only one dynamic level in every passage. In certain passages, performers may use minor fluctuations in dynamic to articulate phrases and phrase-rhythms. If these fluctuations make the flow of the music more convincing and effective, they are fine with me. When I say that I like to give performers a fair amount of freedom, I should add that freedom is, of course, relative. I do not, for example, condone a performance that all but ignores such things as rhythm and tempo for the sake of expression. And I am no friend of rubato unless it is specifically requested by the composer.

HM: Can you give an example from any performance or recording of your work where a performer takes a certain liberty with dynamics to good effect?

DH: Yes: Mirjam Ingolfsson’s recording of my Solo Cello Partita. At the very end of the first movement, the principal theme makes a final appearance. There is no new dynamic in the score at this point, yet Ingolfsson drops down a dynamic notch to piano. This has the effect of conferring a quite new meaning upon the theme. In the recording, these last few bars of the first movement come across both as a conclusion to and a commentary on all that has preceded, not unlike the final couplet of a Shakespeare sonnet. Yet the final couplet of a Shakespeare sonnet always consists of new lines while here, in the Partita, Ingolfsson is playing bars that we have heard before. In my opinion, it is precisely her choice of a new dynamic that enables her to confer a new meaning on these notes. This is the sign of a real artist!

HM: Can you think of any recording of Bach’s music where similar liberties are taken?

DH: Probably the locus classicus is Zina Schiff’s 1989 recording of the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita No. 2 for Solo Violin. Schiff’s innovations here pertain to far more than dynamics alone, however. They pertain to phrasing as well, but then the two are hardly unrelated. In many recordings of Bach, a soloist will make the music sound all but static in maintaining a near-constant dynamic level and flow of notes without any particular awareness of phrase rhythm. Schiff, by contrast, is completely attuned to what Bach is about; the listener is therefore able to discern contours of phrasing and of articulation in the music of Bach of which other recording artists seem for the most part not to have been aware. Schiff’s interpretation of the Chaconne is nothing short of amazing; it represents one of the highest artistic levels achieved in the history of recorded sound. Her innovations cannot fail to make the listener conceive of the piece in a different way.

HM: Returning to your Cello Partita, the links of this work to Bach are clear. To what extent are baroque performance practice techniques applicable to this work?

DH: Some baroque performance conventions may be applicable, but the most important issue is the insight of the performer into the piece and what he or she will come up with as a result of this insight. It’s important, in other words, not to approach the Partita — or, for that matter, a work from the baroque era — with a preconceived idea of how it should be played, because a preconceived idea carries with it certain conclusions about the music.

HM: One of the most frequently heard complaints about contemporary music from performers is that it is so difficult to play. Performers seem to feel that composers make unreasonable demands on their time and patience.

DH: It is true that a lot of contemporary music poses special problems to the performer because it lacks a precedent which the performer can draw upon. Leaving aside problems of notation, a performer who has been raised on the traditional (that is, baroque, classical and romantic) repertory is going to have enormous problems with a work that bears no obvious relation to this repertory, and here we are talking about ninety-nine per cent of contemporary music!

It is invariably the rhythmic aspects of new scores that baffle so many performers. If the composer has a good reason to use difficult rhythms it is surely incumbent on the performer to learn them, no matter how much time is involved. If, on the other hand, there is no discernible rationale for difficult rhythms then the performer is quite understandably reluctant to devote time to mastering a score whose surface intricacies appear to be nothing more than the result of a whim on the composer’s part.

HM: Which of your works would you consider the most difficult to play from a technical standpoint?

DH: Probably Contrapunctus (1986) — the solo version for unaccompanied viola. It is probably one of the most consistently and uncompromisingly contrapuntal works ever written for an unaccompanied stringed instrument. I was very attracted to the idea of using a single stringed instrument to evoke a continuously evolving dialogue between independent voices. It is certainly not easy to play — Walter Trampler and Michael Tree have, independently of each other, each played it and find this to be the case — but the main point is that difficulties aside, it is playable. And I believe that composers should not be afraid to take instruments into new territory — Babbitt said that if music ceases to evolve, it will cease to live.

HM: Though you have, I suppose, much more to tell about Babbitt and Princeton, let’s now concentrate on other, later points of reference for your artistic development.

DH: The musicians of the generation after Babbitt that have influenced me the most are not composers but instrumentalists. My love of Beethoven owes a great deal to the recordings of Ashkenazy, particularly of Beethoven’s sonatas. The influence of Beethoven in my work is unmistakable. In particular, the two-movement design of my Cello Sonata is very much influenced by Beethoven’s last Piano Sonata, Opus 111. While I was not aware of it at the time I wrote the piece, it is no coincidence that the opening of the second subject in the first movement of the Cello Sonata directly recalls a theme from the exposition of the first movement of Beethoven’s Opus 111.

Another great‘teacher’ is the Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux. Of all the violinists I have heard interpreting the solo violin works of Bach, Grumiaux is the most natural. He had the most remarkable gift for intuiting the inner logic and unfolding of Bach’s music and for imparting this logic in his performances and recordings. Grumiaux’s recordings greatly enhanced my understanding and appreciation of Bach; without them I would have never written my Cello Partita. And if you listen carefully to the Partita you will discern the influence of Bach’s solo violin works.

HM: In the light of this influence, it seems appropriate that when Carter Brey gave the New York premiere of the Partita, he opened his recital with the Partita and followed it with one of Bach’s Solo Cello Suites. What qualities of the music of past masters fascinate you the most?

DH: In a great work of music, one always has the sense of the intuitive working in tandem with the rational. Exactly how the two are correlated will depend on the composer and on the piece. But when they are really working together, the result is very special. The two composers who come most readily to mind are Bach and Mozart.

Hartmut Moeller is Professor of Musicology at the Music University in Freiburg and Lecturer at the Music University in Rostock, Germany.