In the tenth issue of Stravinsky's Dialogues: Switzerland, the conversation is conducted by a composer, performer, member of Akademie der Künste, Berlin Annette Schmucki and a composer, member of the Stravinsky.online team Elizaveta Zgirskaya.
— Hello Annette! I'm very glad to meet you and glad to see you! Last days I've been so deep into your art and been there with it for so long, so it seems to me that we know each other already, though we see each other for the first time and I'm very glad for that! I wanted to start with a question that first comes to mind, when I think about your art. So it's your concept language as music, so you create compositions of differently articulated text and I wanted to ask you, what it means for you, language as music, and how do you project it into your pieces?
For me language is my musical material. That means I'm interested in rhythm, on sounds and structure of language, so I take it as a musical material and I translate it in music. For me language is something that is very unfocused. When you take a word like “tree”, then everybody has a picture of a tree, but it's not even the same. And on the other hand music is very-very clear and very precise and a sound is a sound and everybody hears the same sound, so there is a big difference between language or speech and music. So I want to put these two territories together and make one. So I don't want to destroy the meaning but I want to put the view or the hearing of or listening to the music of the word. So there is two things together, there is something with meaning, a word like “tree”, but you also have this [i:], this is long and closed [i:] vowel sound, and you have the [t], and the [r] pronounced, and there is in this word “tree” a rhythm, and there is much sound, and there is also the meaning. So I'm very interested in the boundaries between these two areas, territories, to work on this boundary and to make it very close, just to change territories.
— So what is the way that the word goes through from its original usual habitat in speech to your piece? So how does it change and what does it become in the end?
— It depends on the piece. In a very extreme way it could just be a word, a video projection of a word “tree” on a wall. And it's not sounding, it's quiet music, silent music, and you see this word and then it's another word in a rhythm of time. There is another word, like “dream”, okay. “Tree” and “dream” it's a bit similar in sound, but in meaning it's very opposite or different word. So you read this and in your head you pronounce it maybe. And you listen to “tree” and “dream” and one time it's a hard [t], and in “dream” it's a softer [d], so then it's [r] and then it's a long closed [i:], and in “dream” it's surrounded with an [m]. When I put these words together or one after the other, then you can realize the structure of language, you can realize the sound, you can realize the rhythms, but without even a tone. So this is an extreme case. Sometimes I work with that, like a video installation, music without sound, but sometimes I do it in another way. So I translate the words in music, I could take the letters, I could take the vowels, the sounds [t] or [r] or [i:].
I could take the syllables. So I have a text or I have several words, a list of words, and I translate this list, so every time, with every piece I write, I [invent] other rules for me to translate. When a vowel is long, like “tree”, this long [i:], then… when it's a long vowel, there is a long note, and when it's a short vowel, like “cut”, [ʌ], then it's a short note. So then, the other thing is I often work with formants. When you hear “a” , there are several formants that are important, that you hear [ɑ:] and not [i:] and not [ɔ:]. So you can imagine like windows in the in the overtones scale. There are stronger than others. Like windows and there are lists, and you can see it when you have a sonogram, and you can see this strong or windows, stronger parts of overtones, and so you can play with these sounds or with this spectrum of sounds. You can put this in a score, so these are the sounds of the vowels. Then with consonants it's another thing, you can't really catch them, because the spectrum of consonants are really big, so you can, maybe, or I could work with imitation, so that you can for a “t” you can maybe take some slap or tongue rams in instruments, in wood instruments. What I can say is in every piece I work with other elements, and I am looking for rules, for my own, to translate language in music. I'm not interesting that you hear this word “tree”. Maybe for an ensemble piece I don't want that the imitation is so clear that you can really hear it, this is not interesting for me. Interesting is the material, that's there are thousands and thousands of ways to put it in music. And then I often work with voices, speaking or singing voices, and there you can hear the words or the text, but I hope that it's not just the text that you hear about the music in the words. I think every word has a beauty, a sounding beauty. I'm interested in sound and rhythm of the word without losing the meaning.
— And speaking about language and music I cannot not remember Peter Ablinger with his voices and piano. So is his concept interesting to you or you do something completely different, which you already have said, and I have translated, I think?
— I think it's interesting and it's really beautiful pieces. For me it's very important to work with other people, so when I work in a neighborhood of his work I like to work with people. They are interpreted or co-composers of my work. So I can make an example. There are several pieces of Repeat One, these are pieces of a series of pieces of pop songs. Repeat One means, you know, when I hear pop music, I press the button of repeat one, so I can hear the same song the whole night. And I made some pieces about that, about this pop music, and about being with the song for a whole night. So there first step I asked the interpreters, the ensemble or the soloist or who it is, “which songs do you like the most?” So they sent me their pieces. For example, now it's a piano player and he wants a piece of Repeat One, so he sends me three pieces. One is Angie of Rolling Stones, one is Herbert Grönemeyer, it's a German singer/songwriter, and the other is Helene Fischer she is… in German you say “Schlagersängerin”, it's sort of... in the 60s or 50s there were the songs, that were played in the radio, you didn't call it songs, but “Schlager”, it's a hit.
So okay, he sent me these three pieces, this was the first step, then I sorted out the text material and made it to a meta-song, you know, I have three songs and I put it together. You hear thousands of times “love”, you hear thousands of times “I”, you hear thousands of times or five hundreds of times “you”, and so I sort it in an alphabetical way, the text material, and I send it to him, and then he has to speak the text, this meta text, and this voice, his own voice, will be the his score. When he plays the piece, in the end, he listened to his own voice “Aber, Angie, Angie, aber, aber, Angie, alles, ist” and, yes, and so on. “Angie” is, you know, maybe you know the song of Rolling Stones and it's just “Angie” and nothing else. So then his voice, his own voice is structuring the time and the structuring the inputs that he has to play. And so in another, in a second working step, I cut out some one second pieces of these three songs, he has to play it on a sampler, and yes, also I translate all the text material and also the structure of the songs in a piano part. So there is also this work with the formants of the vowels and other things, and with the alphabet of this, from “a” to “z” of these text materials, and then I translate this in piano, in this 88 keys.
So maybe what is near to Ablinger is that he also works with the voice, a very specific voice and a historical voice, but I work always with the voice of the player himself. That means, the pieces can't be played by others, so there are very personal pieces. I worked in summer with Ensemble Mosaik in Berlin, they played another Repeat One piece, so there were five interpreters and five instrumentalists and five songs. So in the last years I put me in a direction where every piece is something very unique. To work, to really work with the musicians not to be “I have the great idea and then they have to play and then they have to do what would I mean!”, but to “we are a pool of people, we are collective”, like this. And in these Repeat One songs they hear, they really listen to their own voice. And the voice gives me back something that I couldn't [invent].
— So you described now the story, you talked about the story taking the texts of songs, and I wanted to know what texts do you also use for your pieces? Maybe it's your self-written text or different words? So what are the sources initially? So have you worked with poetry, for example?
— Yes, when I was young! One time I wrote a piece of a text of Robert Walser. And one time a piece of the poem of Hans Arp, so he's a surrealist, but these are the only two poems I used and this was in the 90s. So after that I… oh, yes, and one time I was part of an opera project in Berlin, at Deutsche Staatsoper, with a libretto of Jonathan [Safran] Foer, but there I recognize that it’s not, uh… I think poems are poems and it's enough, you don't have to make some music with it, I'm not attached on that. I read very-very often poems, I'm really a great fan of poetry or lyrics, but when I work with language, then I compose the text myself. So it's maybe like this Repeat One thing — there are some sources of songs, some lyrics, but I never take a text and do music of that. So the first step in my work is just to compose the text or to write a text, but I don't think it's writing — it's composing a text, because my rules are very strict to how to sort out the words, which word I could take after the other. So when I don't have external sources, I take a word and then I go from one word to the other, like I compose. There are rules, maybe I can change one vowel, I can change one phoneme, I can change one letter, I can put two letters to other letters there, I can put away two letters. So there are simple rules, but very strict rules, and I'd have to find the next word that is meaning something, not “dklfjghcsldghcnlsd”, not something like this!
So I'm looking for a word that has a meaning with these very strict rules, so I'm composing a list of words or even a text. A text that has a narrative character. But for me the sound is really the structure, the sound, the rhythm is really important. Then on the second hand it's the meaning. So I'm composing the texts myself, it's sort of composing. And after that I'm thinking about it, how could I invest in the sound, in the structure, how could I show the sound, the structure, rhythm of this composed text. Maybe to show that, for me, when we speak, a word is like a point, a point of meaning, it's just a point. It's just the meaning, that is important, and in my work I want to overstretch the words. Not to speak slow, not this, but to show that a word has a duration, a word has a rhythm, a word has a beauty of sounding, and every word is another sculpture, a little piece of music its own.
— So, in your works you dive in very deeply into the structure and to the phonetics of the word, and it's, if I understand, it's very important for you. And your native language is German. So do you have any multi-language works and how getting deep into the word is possible, when the language is you're not mother tongue in this case, and would that be interesting or important to you as well?
— Yes! A long time I just worked with German, so in Switzerland it's also Swiss German, German is just a foreign language for me, so Swiss German is very different to German. And when we are at home, we speak Swiss German. Now I am living since 16 years in the French part of Switzerland, so my sons are speaking French. What is the mother tongue, so that is German. German is even a bit foreign for me, but it's the language you speak in school. French is now very important where I live. But when I work with different languages, I work with people, that are.. you say — mother tongue?.. that are speaking English or that speaking French as their first language, or even of my work in collectives with other people, so with the duet Blablabor this is also… We work with language all the time to make radio plays or performances like this and there we often work with languages, that are very-very far from German. So with, maybe with Turkish or Japanese or like this. And then we.. or Tamil for example!.. and then we are looking for people, that from Tamil or from Japan, and we are working with them together. They speak, we try to notate the melody of the words, we discuss the images of a word in Japan, maybe “tree” — it means other, has other symbols, has other connections to you as “tree” in German — “Baum”. And it sounds very different and so it's really a research to catch something of another language. There are words, different words, in language means so much! Language creates a territory, I think. So this is on one hand I or we work together, so I think I'm not allowed to know every language. And on the other hand, sometimes I work for my own with different languages, and I like very much to translate on the sounding level. So that you have a word in German and in French or in English, that has a similar sound, but a total different meaning. So I think it's very beautiful. Sometimes I also translate German and German, I put together words, that are very close in the sounding level, but not at all in the meaning.
— I found on YouTube an interesting work, that is called Drei Möbelstücke and, if I understand, this is one of the examples of your principle language as music. So it's interesting for me, how the score looks, so what musicians see in front of them and what is important for you to notate there exactly and what is left to the will of the performer?
— This was the anniversary piece for my house ensemble Proton, I work a lot with them, we did a music theater and a lot of things together. So this piece is for the 10th anniversary of them, birthday piece. That order or the process was like that: I asked them, everybody from the ensemble, to give me three little texts, what does mean — it is ensemble for everybody of them; and they have to put in once the word “Möbelstücke” (“Möbelstücke” is “furniture”), they had to put in this word and I gave other words that they cut, when they wanted, like Gefäß [“vessel”]. And there were several words; and these words that I wanted to be in the text of them, these words were of another piece they played, a piece of mine they played. So it's like quotes of this other piece they played two or three years ago.
So they gave me an audio file of their voice with this text. So what I did is putting these eight texts on a computer audiologic. I put these texts together so the word “Möbelstücke” was like an axis there, so the other words were other axes, other verticals, that there they are together. And then I translated these texts, that everybody has had their own text, and I translated this text in music. So on each vowel they had to play a tone, a note, and so sometimes they had also to speak the vowel in the third part, and in one part they had to “hum” — this quote of music where these words came from, they had to listen to the ensemble, to themselves, play and had to “hum-m-m”, like you are in the route, in the forest alone, you have your headphones on and you hear a song and sometimes you sing a bit, but it's not something for an audience, it's just for yourself. So there are three parts in this piece and they have their own voice, and they have to react in three different ways in these three parts. First time is “humming”, the second time play is making gestures with and without sound, so they hadn't instruments, they had just to make a movement and sometimes they had to imitate their own instrument, like “Whee!” — something like that, and the third part was speaking the vowels. And so it's something very intimate, because everybody has his headphones on and is listening to his own voice. And then we have the idea, that it's not a piece, that you can really make onstage, but to make a film. Okay, it was corona time, but the idea was after! To film not the ensemble, not everybody together, but everybody. We had three cameras. One time just the head, the face, one time just the chest, and one time a bit more. So then I composed the structure, which person comes after which person. It's like a composition, you can see, not hear, but see, and so we put it all together. For them it's an audio score in the ear and they have to react, and then it's the second layer, the second space is the video. And they talked, that they spoke about themselves so.
— If I understand correct, so there wasn't a written score or text that they followed?
— I translated the audio, I wrote the text because what they spoke they had also written. Because, when not it's so difficult to learn the score, yes. It was like a little help — to have the text that they hear written and so they could follow and they could see what they had to do on this “a” or on this “o” or like that. But this is just a little help!
Annette Schmucki - drei möbelstücke - Ensemble Proton Bern
Annette Schmucki. drei möbelstücke. Ensemble Proton Bern
— Now you mentioned the work with video, you said that video was one of the bases for the piece. I also saw your piece Repeat one_two songs, which also has a video, the video of lips counterpointed with… How much video means to you in your works and how often do you use it as a medium in your works as well?
— In this piece Repeat one_two songs this is really a corona piece. I have been asked to make a piece for two musicians that are separated, and they wanted to make a video of both playing this and putting it together, and so I took the challenge to really compose the video, not just to film them like a stream. It's not at all interesting for me this streaming things. I think it's horrible! But there I could really take the challenge to be very close to the mouth, because when you're on stage the musicians are far away and you can see them staying there, but I thought it's very beautiful to see the moustache and the mouth. It's like porno, you're very, very close to something very intimate. So I thought this was really great to work with that. So I asked the two musicians to make a film very close and then I cut it myself, because it was like a composition too.
In another piece it was played… it’s one year now, it's a piece for ensemble, and I filmed these lines of trains. You know, in Switzerland we have trains with electricity and above there are lines, and when I - I travel a lot! — and so I always make films of these lines and of the rhythm they're going up and down. So I made a piece about these lines and then the score was video stills of these lines. So it was a piece about glissando, because it went up and it went down, and it was also a piece about unison, to play together, but you aren't really together, about heterophony. And then I made also a video, so they played on video stills like a normal score or there were pictures. You could see that the film, the video, was behind them, they didn't see it, but it was coordinated with they had also this audio score in headphones, with their voices, that speak, they had to read text about fixing cables and repairing cables, so on a text. And they had to speak this text and they had their own voice in their ears to follow the score. And there was also a video that was coordinated with the same pictures of their score. What I told first, this silent music that I'm working now on, it is that I have several video beamers, little beamers, and they put words in a certain rhythm and there are different beamers and then I make a video of these different rhythms and putting together words. Accidentally... no it's not! I compose it, I know what I do, but sometimes the words are the same words that are projected together, sometimes they are very different, sometimes they are very near. So this is another thing I'm working on it now. It's very interesting for me, this visual music, music that doesn't sound but it’s all the same music.
— Now you also touched the pre-recorded sound idea, so how often do you pre-record anything? So what's your attitude and what do you think about pre-recorded sound, like pre-recording something and adding it to the score or to the piece itself?
— I don't often work with pre-recorded sounds, but then 10 years ago we founded a band, another musician and me, with samplers. We have, both of us have two, have one little very simple sampler, and there I began to record, I had to find sounds. The first time I only took arm glocken, cowbells, and I made sounds on these cowbells, and that was my instrument, these cowbells. Sometimes only hit it, sometimes scratched or something like that. So I began to.. it was interesting to… it did.. There weren't electronic sounds, but really made sounds. Then I began to play with the voice, also voice sounds, and so on, so I'm not singer, but only sounds, speaking sounds, you can transform them as you want it with the sampler or also on computer. And there I recognized “oh, it could be really interesting to put sounds that are not very different from what you do live, to put it as an audio, an external audio file!” So also with Ensemble Mosaik I wrote a piece for clarinet and flute, and we made some recordings of what they had to play, and there was a third voice, a third part, that was me with my sampler, and I had also a score, but I had the sounds on my sampler were the instruments, that played this, just these tones and just their own score, so I could play with them on the same concert, but with their instruments, some things like that, I think, are very interesting. Or you record your own voice and you speak, and you can also put in your own voice, you can make a duo, duet, of your own. Things like that, I think, this is very interesting, so I don't want to play with things that are very far away, I put some sounds from the North Pole or I don't know what. But I'm always interested in this neighborhood and on these boundaries and on these sounds that are very close, so this heterophony, like this.
— I wanted to talk about your artistic links. I know that you're part of blablabor together with Reto Friedmann, so can you talk a little bit more about this collaboration and all that you've been working together for more than 20 years?
— Yes! We make radio plays, so we began, but also several performances. We have very much of this radio, of these old radios, about 120. The one side is the work with language, and the other side is really to play with radios. So we have also these transmitters, that small pieces that can send something to this radio, to these radios, and so we play with this “receiver\sender”, so this play, and with adjusting the frequencies on these small radios that are our instruments. It's like language. Language wants to transmit something, wants to send something, and there is a receiver, like we in the moment, we try to speak together and we try to receive something and to send something. And these are beautiful symbols of how does language function, so does I really receive what you send me or not — this is the question, this is the question. We often say that we can guarantee that we make music of language, yes, we can guarantee that. And so we have some words in the beginning, a specific idea, a theme like this, and then we grab in the words, we are looking for the etymology. And then of this pool of words and ideas of the word and roots, we compose little texts and then we start to interact and work with other musicians. They have to translate the texts but they have no score, they have just the texts in their earphones and they have to play. It's like a simultaneous translation, they hear it and they have to do it, but we don't want the emotions or the meaning, that they translate the meaning of the word. So when it's love, it's not to play very smooth and so on, but we want that they listen really to the melody of the word and to the rhythm and to the pitches. And then we have a lot of material music, a lot of sound, and so we work with voices together to re-translate, so we give them the texts, that were at the beginning, and they have to sing these things, this music, this melodies or what it is, with text. And so we create songs, we create radio plays and sometimes we create material for us to play with our radios. Yes, we do that since 20 years and it's a really very strict work, but on the other hand it's very playful, I don't know, we often laugh. It's also fun also to work together with other people that are our co-composers. It's not just interpreting something, it's really working together. At the moment we make some jingles for the Sonic Matter radio, in Switzerland there is a new radio that is sending 24 hours new music or contemporary music, and they asked us to make some channels and some assignments for this radio, that is our work right now.
— In January you also took part in the project of Studio for New Music P2P ON AIR where you did the search for the musical material together with musicians. So I wanted to ask, was it a new sort of work for you and what did this experience give you?
— I was really very happy to do that! First I thought, “oh, no this Zoom!” I couldn't imagine how it works, but it was really great, because these young musicians were here and they worked really with me. They had their own ideas, so I'm not really a teacher but I loved to see this enthusiasm, this great power from them, and everybody was so different, and they didn't hide that, so it was really great experience. I wanted not to be the teacher and to say “okay I work like this, ta-ta-ta, and now we do that”, but I wanted to do it like an adventure, so everybody had to be involved or had to send some ideas, and we really developed it! Like Sergey, I think he thought it should be like this, I don't know, but I think to do something together and not to have this “okay I'm here and they are here down”, I don't like that at all. So I think it was really a happy coming together and to research, and to find some answers, yes. It was too short, I think! We could have had to go further, but okay, it was like this. And I also thought it was really okay to do that on zoom. The sound was… I couldn't really, I think I say control the sound, so the sound was not very good here in Switzerland for me. When I could have been there, then we could have worked on sound a bit in a more specific way, but I thought as project it was... I would do it again, it was really cool, yes! But it was really cool ensemble, I think!
P2P ON AIR. Session 1. Annette Schmucki.
P2P ON AIR. Session 1. Annette Schmucki.
— And at the end I wanted to ask you in the end, so what projects are you working now, so would it be connected to the sound like language as music? So what is important to you at the moment artistically?
— So what I just said before - this is silent music with the words projected on walls, this is very important for me. Then I worked on a piece for last September. The theme was “swarms”. You have neurons in your brain and they move together, and they make the nearest and smallest connection, it's like the birds sometimes, you have a lot, a lot of birds in the sky or fishes in the sea, and they this is a swarm. This was the festival theme and I made a piece for four trombones. But in reality, when you take birds or fishes it's very-very quick — this movement. And on the other hand, I worked with consonant shift, so there are landscapes of this movement of consonants or vowels in words, you know, and it's a duration of thousands of years, that the vowel or consonant is shifting, is mutating. So I worked with something very-very slow. On the other hand this fish swarms or bird swarms or the swarms in the brain, that is so quick, that you can't stop the time. Okay, I worked with this consonant shifts, and that is something that I will continue to work on. So I created some landscapes of words, that change a bit, and a bit, and a bit, until they become another meaning. It's not a real landscape of words, so I invented it, it's really artistically made. But I think I would move on in this direction to work with birds, that are changing, changing... a quantitative changing that... at least there is a qualitative changing.
— Аnnette, Thank you very much, it was very interesting and wonderful to talk to you! I'm a big fan of you, I looked at your works and I'm very-very impressed as a listener and also as a composer myself, I'm a composer myself, and I hope that we may meet each other very soon, maybe not on this kind of interview or interview basis, but as, maybe, composers on the composer basis, I would love that! So thank you very much!
— Thank you very much! This is always very interesting to try to explain or to be in connection!