"The most important thing you can learn in music you learn always from other musicians"
The guest of the fourth dialogue is a composer, double bassist, the head and coordinator of contemporary music/sonic space basel at the Hochschule für Musik Basel/FHNW Uli Fussenegger. The interviewer is Miroslava Tyrina, a music journalist, curator, Stravinsky.online editor, Geometry of sound soloist.
— We’re starting the interview of the project “Dialogues of Stravinsky”. Today with us is a Swiss composer, performer, and curator Uli Fussenegger and I, Miroslava Tyrina.
— Just a short correction from my side. I am Austrian. I work in Switzerland but I am Austrian.
— Oh, I'm sorry. The first question concerns your curator work, curator activity. It’s about the course in the City of Basel Music Academy that you are leading. In Russia probably there isn’t such a structure. It’s like a small university within a bigger one. Could you talk a little bit about its structure? Because the Russian system is quite different.
— Yes. Maybe to make you understand the whole structure — it is a Hochschule für Musik. It has three big departments. One is the jazz department (Hochschule für Musik, Jazz). The other is Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. And the third section is Hochschule für Musik, Klassik.And within this section, there is the Sonic Space Basel. And Sonic Space Basel is more or less my work. I am the director of the Sonic Space Basel. The Sonic Space Basel includes all activities related to contemporary music. That means composition, contemporary performance, the Electronic Studio Basel, improvisation, and also the music theory. When I came to Basel three years ago these were kind of separated courses. And I thought the right approach would be to put all these streams together into one unit. So, I created the Sonic Space Basel. And this now functions not officially but in real as an institute in our big institute. So, that’s more or less what it’s like.
— This is great. Could I ask you why did you say that it is a sort of unofficial institution?
— Unofficial because there are three existing institutes as I explained it in the beginning: it’s the Jazz, the Schola Cantorum for the old music, let’s say, and classical music which has a wide range. It’s more an idiomatic idea and a semantic idea to have the Sonic Space Basel. It’s not, let’s say, on the official side important. It’s more important that the community in the school who is related to contemporary music can feel like a group, that means also content-wise that the improvised work with electronic musicians that composers work with performers and so on in all different kinds of combinations. So, this was the idea to get over this split of the different disciplines which I think in real music life is already more or less done. So, we have so much going on, let’s put it composer-performer muddle. And we in the institution were kind of behind this evolution. And this creation of the Sonic Space Basel was now a clear step into that direction that also academic institutions have to realize that we have to go that direction.
— You are talking about very interesting things about the institution. In your interview in 2018 when you just started you said that in Basel it’s quite complicated to find information on contemporary music. It’s quite a surprising thing because it seems that in Switzerland and Basel contemporary music is quite popular. I wanted to ask you is it the same to this day or your course is changed somehow?
— Well, I think we’ve changed pretty something as we introduced the Sonic Space Basel website where you can now find all the information more or less how to study and which possibility is to study contemporary music you have in Basel now. But that website is new.
Before I came here in 2018 it was not easy to put all these things together mainly to see that all these activities in actual music can be also combined I think in a very refreshing way. So, I think this became definitely better. And I would say the information flow is okay now though it could always be better. Also because of the fact that we and I understand and work a lot as a permanent flow. So, that means that to change our programs permanently is for me a kind of a paradigm because contemporary music is changing so fast. Things are developing very fast. It’s not like 30 years ago. So, we have permanently to adapt what we can offer to our students. And I think this is a very important approach not only for academic institutions but also for any festival or… whatever you want, for an ensemble… I think this is super important to understand oneself as permanently being in the flow.
Paul Brauner: "Fuga Reisen. Eine Erzählung vom Leben auf dem Marktplatz" (2021, UA)
Paul Brauner. «Fuga Reisen. Eine Erzählung vom Leben auf dem Marktplatz», concert of the class of composition and theory of music at the Hochschule für Musik Basel/FHNW
— It sounds very beautiful. I have a question as a person who works with the website concerning contemporary music. It’s clear that students have interests in contemporary music, improvisation. Do they have interests for analyses, like musicology, describing contemporary music, being new theoreticians? Is there such a case?
— Well, that’s an interesting question. I think it’s hard to talk about students like these in general because we have of course improvisation master students which are very different from let’s say composition bachelor students. But generally, I would say you have those and those ... There are definitely some who are interested in analysis. And of course, I think this reflection area in music becomes more and more important because when musicians go out of the school most of them will live as freelancers. If they want to survive in this market, they also need the capacity to talk about their music, to talk about their creation, let’s say, to have this reflective level. Today it’s not sufficient anymore just to play the instrument in a brilliant way or just to be a good composer. You need the capacity I think really to have also a kind of a multi-perspective view on your own work. We try to feature this. That’s why also the reason why music theory is also a part of Sonic Space Basel. Because we absolutely believe that it’s super important and a kind of tool which musicians really need these days.
— You said about multi-disciplinary things. This probably reflects your own view on contemporary music. And it’s quite interesting because you studied contemporary music, ancient music, and improvisation. And you talked about this. Out of all the things concerning music is there something that interests you more.
— This is a complicated question. I would say it makes a difference if I see myself as a performer or if I see myself as a composer, as an improviser. I also worked a lot with electronics.
As a performer, for example, I love great Renaissance music. I love Bach and Mozart. I mean I did it quite for a while as a performer on a level which was really good for me. But I could not see how to do this for the rest of my life. Just to make clear the perspective for example as a performer is a different one as a listener. And I would say what drives me to do this, or this, or this is not so much connected with the fact how the quality of this, or this, or this music is.
For me, it’s a very important thing is the music has to have relevance for my life and it has to have relevance for my let’s say surrounding, my social surrounding, and the surrounding of the society I am living in. So, it’s more this aspect. So, it would be super hard to say this is more important for me than that one. It also changed. You know it’s appeared I more focused on this or that. But maybe if I watch my musical life retrospectively it could look like a plan but you can’t be sure it was not a plan. I was always a person who was pretty spontaneously driven into the activities I did. And this is I mean you noted by yourself it’s also very much connected to the people you live with, to artists when you meet somebody or find somebody and you have a session together and it comes up oh wow it works really good. Then you maybe start to develop a project together where you don’t know at the beginning in which direction it will go. So, it was very much driven also by the things like that. And besides that maybe I shouldn’t say that as I am working in this institution but personally, I have to say the most important thing you can learn in music you learn always from other musicians either you are in an institution or not. That was also for me. I understood my musical life always and I still do it as a permanent learning process.
— Now the way you talk about your activities and your attitude to music, and what I see when looking at modern musicians, both Russian and Swiss gives rise to the feeling that the figure of a modern musician is now close to the Baroque era, when a musician was an improviser, composer and immediately a performer. Do you see a tendency for a figure of a universal musician in world music?
— Yes, absolutely. I totally agree. I think that is a very important path. The music is going on. Again, I wouldn’t say one thing is better than the other. But I think we’re in the moment right now after this post-war super-specialization and different directions… that we are on the path right now which is absolutely important. Whatever come out of this I am totally sure…
Actually, I think what is important for us as an educational institution that we still offer both. We should be a place where you can also really totally specialize on something if you want. That means that we of course need also the teachers for this. But we also should offer this open structure for people who also understand studying as a kind of orientation to what and which direction you go. And I describe my own musical life before orientation or finding out where should I focus next is a part of being an artist. So, I think this is why we definitely should support this kind of modular thinking.
— About working with open structures and improvisations or a composer as an artist… I read that you work with Christoph Marthaler. I couldn’t really find any specific information. There are not many details. Could you, please, talk about your work.
— Yes. I worked actually with ChristophMarthaler several times in times when I was still a member of Klangforum Wien. Mainly for over 20 years, I was the responsible person for the program, let’s say, dramaturge these days. There we had two three music theatres together with him which meant I was working as a kind of dramaturge. Later on, besides Klangforum Wien projects I had two big projects with Christoph together where I was the musical director, where I could form my own band, where I was kind of responsible for the whole musical part of it. The last time we did this was in 2019 at Ruhrtriennale. The core of the project [Nach den letzten Tagen. Ein Spätabend] was the music of the Theresienstadt composers and it was a kind of the core where we linked theatrical and also musical lines. From there we started on.
Christoph Marthaler. «Hotel Angst»
— I'm sorry, could I ask you? Theresienstadt... Could you expand on that?
— Do you know what it is? It's a Jewish ghetto. It was a concentration camp.
It was pretty famous composers like Ullmann who were there. It was kind of our starting point and thinking point from where on we put music theatre which actually happened in the future. That was kind of a kick-off thinking.
So, I mean the music was of course not only from there. It was music from our days as well. It was music from very different idiomatic directions. This was a totally different kind of work I had with Christoph. We did also I think in 2000 or so the project on the Salzburger Festspiele about Giacinto Scelsi. That was of course totally different. Much more things were given — we had scores and all stuff. The approach in this field was absolutely not comparable, let’s say. But contact with Christoph is going on since, I think, 1995 or 1996. It was the first time we first intensively worked together.
— Do you have any further plans to work with Christoph?
— I am not allowed to talk about this.
— A question concerning your work with another composer, like a Swiss musician Andres Frank when you performed Aperghis’s pieces. It’s a kind of a double-sided question. The first question is – working with contemporary composers like Apergis… did it end when you started composing yourself? How does your interaction with composers work? And how does your compositional process interact with it? The second question: have you stopped working with contemporary composers when you started writing music yourself?
— No, of course, not. It’s hard to say there is one way to work with contemporary composers because I don’t know how many pieces have been written for me but it’s pretty some. Of course, the processes are very different. There are composers who need a kind of their own private space. There is a talk in the beginning, a kind of input. Of course, they know my plane. We maybe meet once and then when the piece is ready. With other composers like with Beat Furrer it’s a kind of the middle way. He shows me some ideas and we try some things out. Maybe in the second step again. Then he is by himself. Then once when the piece is ready.
With Georges Aperghis it’s totally different. For the last piece, it was a procedure which went on almost half a year. So, it was a permanent conversation. As we couldn’t see each other during this process and we started with this tape of the piece, he started to write the first page of the piece, he sent it to me, I recorded it here in Basel, sent it back. Then came the second page and so on. He made corrections of the first page, sent me a new version. I recorded it again, sent it back. And we talked of course about it. But during corona, we could not meet. So, this process also had another timing. Because normally you meet a composer maybe for two days. And then you also have a kind of the pressure to have talked about everything which is relevant in these two days. So this process with the piece, Opal wood, was totally open. That was very interesting for me, I must say, to have this kind of creation over a much longer process. This was extremely interesting. I never did it that extreme to this extent like in this case.
But with Georges it was always like that. Also, you know ten years ago he wrote another piece for me, Parlando, a really big double bass piece. There also it was a kind of cooperation. It took a while till the final version was really done. Because when you’re also technique-wise, you go to the extreme edges it takes a while to find how far you can go.
What relation to my composing process concerns — yes, of course, I’m very much influenced by that. As I said, for me it’s mainly the process of learning. So, I understand how other people think, how other people approach. It does not I think directly influence me. But to learn or really to get familiar with an approach of a person you really like and you really think it’s a good person and you really get to know the approach to creation — it’s a big thing. And I think it’s a big privilege also to be so near to this process.
— The question about the Opal Wood piece. You talked about very intense collaboration. What role does the electronics play? Will you, please, talk more about the process? At what stage did Andreas Frank join? Or was he from the beginning? What is the role of electronics in the piece?
— The role of electronics … I mean in the performance it’s just a tape. But the tape we did 8 years ago when we both coached in Darmstadt. Georges had this kind of idea of a sound: actually, the tape is completely done on the fifth lowest string of the double bass. It’s played just with super-high pressure just with the wood of the bow extremely near the sul ponticello which almost has no sound because you don’t get into the string. So, you have to microphone it extremely high that you get something out. When you just hear the tape you are thinking about an animal from, I don’t know, three hundred thousand years ago. It was a very specific sound.
We just did this work together 10 years ago in Darmstadtand thought, okay one day we will pick this out again. And 2020 was a moment when it was clear we’re going to have this project and the piece for ECLAT festival. Okay, now is the moment when we get out this tape. Then the tape was kind of the sound basis of the whole piece. And Georges started to write into the tape. I would also say maybe you realize it’s partially a pretty untypical piece for Georges Aperghis because there are longer parts where you don’t have these specific consonants of talking quality but it’s more like very very much merged sound into an electronic sound. So, that was quite special.
Andy Frank was involved pretty late. I did of course at home already the whole solo recording during the process. So George in pair also could hear. And it was going on to find out this right relation to the electronics. And he had all this material in advance. But then we met three days before the concert in Stuttgart and just worked two days. Because I realized it’s a pretty untypical dynamic proportion between a solo instrument and a tape. That’s not like there is a solo instrument and the tape is somewhere. But it’s really totally included thing where it’s not clear what is doing the tape and what is doing the instrument without live electronics. There is no live electronics. It’s just the tape. So it was concerning mixing and also filtering and stuff. It was pretty delicate work. And it was really great to have a composer like Andy Frank at the mixing desk who really understood the process and the idea of the piece. Not to say that another sound engineer can’t do it but, in any case, it was great to have such a good person there.
Uli Fussenegger plays Georges Aperghis' Opal Wood (2020)
— When I listened to the piece it seemed to me — and it’s wonderful — that there is a mixed timbre of some sort and you can not really identify where the real instrument is and where there is a tape sound. And this sensation is very good.
And another question about the piece Kaleidoscopic Memories by Beat Furrer. It seems to be quite complicated for performing judging from the sound. As a performer could you share your impressions of the piece? And the way how you worked together in some way or you received the score.
— Well, we actually did work together because there are some sounds in the piece which are definitely my creation. And I showed this to Beat. Wow, I want to take this. This nowadays creates problems for me because I get emails and calls. They ask, “How do you do this sound?” Because there isn't another really relevant notation for it. You just have to know how it works. But coming back to the piece it may be just shortly explained. There are two levels. Let’s say, there is a live player and there is a tape. And the material of the tape is exactly the same as the live player does. So, I’m kind of playing with myself in this piece because, of course, I prerecorded all this material but the bars appear in a different space. Let’s say, from the live part bar one, two, three is in the tape part bar two, seven, ten. It’s a structure like this. More or less it’s really the same material. So, the piece can only be performed by a click. And it is definitely heavy to play. It’s a really hard piece. It took me really a while till I had it. There the process of creation was… we met in the beginning. Then Beat had the piece more or less ready. And I had to do the pre-recordings for the tape. That was the stage where we intensively worked together. And also there in this part of the work he also made some changes. He also involved a person from IRCAM because the tape is … there are sometimes small granular synthesis on it but not a lot. Just more putting in the space because in the end the piece deals with the fact how the room of double bass sounds. There are very narrow clear sparkling sounds and there are these wide low sounds with where you think they come from the big room. But this is for the microphone is always the same. It’s kind of a space piece in a way. And when I performed it live, I performed it with five speakers. There are two speakers to the audience. There is one middle speaker beside me to the audience. And there are two rear speakers which look away from the audience. Their direction is on to big metal plates, a percussion instrument. So, it works like a diffuser. So, there is the possibility to make the sound wide. In the original, it’s a four-channel piece plus a live player. Then you have the possibility to feature this space aspect of double bass sounds even more. This is kind of an idea. This was the work which IRCAM’s guy then did.
— That sounds quite unbelievable from a different aspect. It’s a big work. If it is a space piece have you ever considered gaining, adding a theatrical aspect, or maybe performative aspect?
— I think in that piece that would be totally against Beat’s idea. I think he wants really to bring the focus totally to the ears. I think any kind of performative aspect would kind of not destroy but maybe lead the intention to the wrong direction. I think in this case it wouldn’t be his idea. We are friends for more than 30 years. I know him so well. I would never suggest this to him. He would not say “no”. I think for yourself you must see the artistic urgency of an idea to do something in that direction. I don’t see it in this piece. I see it in a lot of pieces but not in this piece. Because it’s so much ear-focused.
— To you as a performer also in this piece and in other pieces you have extended the techniques. Have you ever considered or maybe have you done this already a book on contemporary new techniques? Do you think about it?
— To be honest, no, I don’t. This is a difficult question. There could be so many interesting things I’d love to do. But I have only this one life. You know, I would like to perform more. I would like to compose more. That I definitely would do before I write a book. I am now teaching for a long time. And I try to give my know-how just, let’s say, in a personal way which I anyway find it’s much better and more important than to write a book. A book is good information for people who maybe have no possibility to come here and meet me or come to my courses. On the other hand, a book is always a little bit a monument that lives in the world after you. This is totally against my intention. I don’t want to pass my time building monuments. I prefer a kind of a personal exchange because I always think… You know, when my students come, I get much profit of that because I learn so much from them as well. I like more this kind of exchange aspect, to be honest.
— Actually, I asked this question because I am also a performer. I am a performer from Russia for whom this is quite difficult when you want to find a book on extended techniques. When you hear amazing things done on instruments and you cannot really find any way to see how it is done or how it should be done. So, it’s a quite complicated thing.
— I totally agree. That’s also why I mentioned it. Of course, it’s hard for some people to get the approach. As we learned now during corona partly you can get the approach. I always help people. Just sit down and write an email and ask him. He still can say “I have no time, sorry”. But sometimes it really works. Sometimes people also liked to share know-how and share ideas. I think with the technique we have now, on Zoom with the microphone you can definitely talk better about a special advanced technique than in a book. I think as we have this possibility of exchanging, we are on the right way.
Uli Fussenegger plays Beat Furrer's Kaleidoscopic Memories
— Unfortunately, we are moving towards the end of the conversation. I want to ask you may be a general question. It concerns the ensemble performance in Europe or locally in Austria or Switzerland. In your interview in 2018, you said that some famous ensembles like Musikfabrik or Intercontemporaina little bit tired of contemporary music. I also was a free listener of several workshops of contemporary composers and contemporary musicians from ensembles. Also, I had the same sort of impression that people are a little bit tired of contemporary music or performing it. Could you talk about this?
— Maybe “tired” is not the exact term what I meant. I understand the idea. I think in the 80s and 90s these big ensembles had not to think about their relevance in the music world. Because there were so many pieces which were played for the first time really in a good way. And the quality of the performance raised enormously. And contemporary music, in general, was not clearly a part of the whole music scene. It was so clear that the music had to be performed in a really good way. So these big ensembles did not have to think about the relevance because the relevance was just given.
But later on, there came more and more ensembles. Players became better and better. There are so many places you can study this music now. There are now a lot of players around. So, ensembles have to think why us. All the big pieces they have recorded. Everything is done. You have to look for a kind of new goals. Because also if not to a big extent but contemporary music has arrived in the concert houses. It has arrived in the operas, not to a big extent. But it’s there. So, let’s say, this super big importance that we have to fight for the existence of this music in the society, in general, this is not much extended as it was 30 years ago. So, that means for ensembles they have more to think about “What are we here for?”, “How are we doing this?”, “Why are we doing this?”
The other aspect is ensembles like Klangforum Wien, Ensemble Modern, Intercontemporain — all these groups are now between 30 and 40 years old. So, they already start to create their own history. And they also have to deal with problems like not getting into the attitude of an orchestra and stuff like that. So, they are now, I think, in the discussions of the ensembles which have not been there like 20 years ago. I would say, it is so much of being tired but it’s more about thinking about the relevance of this work. It’s more this approach.
— And the last question maybe. The Academy you created is another approach to understanding the ensemble as well. So, this is kind of also a path, a way to a feeling of the new music or a new feeling of music.
— Yes, of course. It’s also a lot of ensemble work we are doing here. But also, it’s the fact that a lot of ensembles are founded here in the school. For those who are doing their master’s they often stay together. I mean not big ensembles — ensembles between, let’s say, 4 or 8 players. Of course, the ensemble work is a super important work which has to be done.
I mean it’s changed a lot. And ensembles are mainly not conducted anymore. The pieces are coordination-wise differently organized now. A lot play with click… and of course with improvisation elements. So, that’s changed a lot. I mean if you compare this with the work of Musikfabrik the ensembles of today are working very differently, much more performative, of course. It’s a very important element. I think this is a pretty revive the scene.
I’m also planning — it’s not easy — to open Sonic space that small ensembles can also study here as ensembles not only as individual persons. But this is not ready yet. As I said before it’s a permanent flow you have to be in. That’s one of the projects definitely I want to do.
— Sounds very optimistic and good. Optimistic for the future of contemporary music.
— I am totally optimistic. Absolutely. But it needs effort and empathy, of course. Otherwise, it doesn’t work.
— Yes, definitely. Thank you very much. We need to finish. It was an interesting conversation. It was wonderful.