Interview

Dieter Ammann’s works will be published by Bärenreiter-Verlag from now onwards. He was recently awarded the prize for the most promising composer by the Siemens Arts Program. He discusses the background to his works with Marie Luise Maintz.

takte: Dieter Ammann, what are the most important works you have composed to date? Have there been stages or turning points in your composing?

Ammann: I must begin by saying that it is important to me to develop a personal style, naturally not in order to repeat oneself, but rather in order to find a way in one’s chosen direction. There are a few turning points: one was after the first two pieces which were still characterised by serial thinking, Developments (1993) and piece for cello (1994/1998). In the cello piece the pitches are still treated very strictly, however, I was already working intuitively both rhythmically and in instrumental colour. And in its use of pitch, Regard sur les traditions (1995) can also be easily explained. After that, it became more and more intuitive. In The Freedom of Speech (1995/96), this freedom was already on the agenda, although the title is also concerned with the death of my father. Here for the first time, I have chosen a route which is sometimes laborious, of composing the introduction and developing what follows out of it.

Then for me, there are pieces where I’ve personally progressed: firstly Gehörte Form – Hommages (1998). I had seven months to work on this in Weimar, and this is reflected in the time dimensions and the tonal elaboration of these three string instruments. The next steps came a little later with Violation (1998/99), where the relationship between solo instruments and ensemble was a central theme. Then come three orchestral pieces: in Boost (2000/01), I unambiguously referred to Grooves (2000), and in Core (2002) I again referred to Boost. Finally, in the piano trio Après le silence (2004/05) I have pushed the boundaries even further in the breadth of expression. Then bringing these extremes together under an arch, without the music dividing up, was a step forwards for me.

You’ve used terms such as scene change, that’s to say, you’ve used theatrical terms to describe your music. Many composers take literary works as inspiration, or works of fine art for the structure or emotional themes. Do you have such interests?

For me, music for me is exactly the medium which doesn’t need to convey any content apart from itself. I therefore don’t take such stimuli as my starting point. What I attempt is to translate my acoustic concept into a form which is also meaningful, or at least stimulating, for others. These are always pure acoustic perceptions, inherent musical events.

In your music, you frequently develop extreme contrasts of tension, juxtapose structures which form a rapid interplay – for instance between very energetic, eventful and very peaceful zones, and these build up from extremely complex stratified individual events.

This is connected with my personal fondness for fashioning from musical processes. I’m an impatient person and like it when I’m surprised, when as a listener, I’m alternately thrown onto a roller coaster of musical events and am carried away by it. Music which grabs my attention means more to me than something where I have to open seventeen doors before I can find out what it’s about, what the composer’s on about. That’s to say, when I write, then it’s always also for me as a listener, but that’s naturally a subjective process. At any rate, this curiosity and impatience has led to the fact that, with the exception of two pieces, I have stopped working with a material in long processes and examining it in all its facets. It’s much more the case that certain rules which I give myself, only apply selectively from time to time. When I notice that I would prefer a quite different acoustic outcome, I take some time off and modify or abandon the material. On the one hand this is a liberation, on the other hand you can’t hide behind the academic art of material treatment and illumination, because you have to decide make your own mind up whether this idea, this sound visualisation stands up to scrutiny and justifies itself. These are extremely subjectively located tonal concepts, which I then attempt to portray in a material most suitable to this concept. Therefore there are also tonal shapes in my mind, sometimes spaces in which dissonance and consonance are distinguishable – then once again the complete chromatic range up to quarter tones, which I then interpret as a further differentiation of the chromatic. I find it exciting to shape something direct, something haptic, and despite that to create musical depth in the spatial sense, so that with repeated listening you can perceive things behind it, which you were completely unaware of at first hearing.

People probably often ask you about your interest in jazz. It’s clear that improvising is something other than composing. Despite that, there are indeed connections. 

Through my father, who was a scientist and teacher, my approach to music was firstly through playing, then through listening. And even now, notation is always a distraction for me. I believe I have a different relationship to rhythmic aspects. There has been, and still is, a great deal of new music which is never allowed to pulsate. I no longer know exactly which composer made the remark that the problem with new music was that everything was rubato. In addition to this, people can tell my background as a performing musician from my treatment of instruments. It is important to me that, although the boundaries are tested in terms of playing technique, the music remains realisable. At the same time I have noticed that my intention very often coincides with the technical possibilities of the instrument, that I somehow feel and think out of the instrument. A characteristic of improvised music is also, that at almost every moment it is constructed as a dialogue. I also try to realise this principle of action-reaction in composed music between instrumental groups or individual instruments, and perhaps it also seems to be so lively for that reason.

Finally, a very general question: do you need to compose?

I actually began to compose because of an enquiry I received. I would never write without a commission. But, when I compose, I am so engrossed in it that a piece runs through my life for months, like a leitmotif. It can happen that I work for a year on fifteen minutes of music. I’m also a family man, love my children and wife very much, and am happy teaching. But when I compose, I can enter into a sound world for months, and meanwhile, I have a great need for that. Something else should be mentioned: I have the feeling that I have something to say in composed music, which others would say differently, or not say at all. I believe that I have something to contribute there, which is worth devoting myself to for the rest of my life. Indeed, I wasn’t a composer in the strict sense of the word until I was thirty years old, rather I was an interpreter, an instrumentalist. Naturally I developed pieces in bands, but that’s something other than “academic composing”. Here is something independent, which really contains something of me, something personal.

A brief look ahead: what are your next projects?

In the next few months, I’ll be busy on my second string quartet. In addition, my teaching commitments at the Musikhochschulen in Lucerne and Berne absorb a lot of time and energy. In spring 2009 I’ve accepted an invitation to be composer-in-residence at the Swiss festival ”les muséiques” and I’ll also be presenting my work as a musician in the Freefunk area. For 2010 another invitation from a major festival is lined up. With the commissioned work associated with this, I’m taking on a compositional task which I’ve already had in mind for a long time: to write a piece for orchestra which is calm for most of the time, and which is capable of forming a convincing trilogy with my two orchestral works Boost and Core.

In conversation with Marie Luise Maintz

from: takte 2/2008

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