Interview with Marie Luise Knott (EN)
Lucia, let's start with your musical education. What was your most important encounter that made you follow your path to become not a musician but a composer?
I had a musical education by chance and it started so early that I can’t even remember myself without it. I was the second child of a large family, living in the suburbs south of Rome. Next door to us lived a very old couple: an unsuccessful but passionate violinist and composer who worked as a watchmaker to support himself and his wife, a Swiss musician. They started sort of adopting me early on and gave me informal lessons every day in harmony, solfeggio, piano, guitar, sax and violin. Nothing was really systematic, or „professional“. It was more like life together. The flat itself was fascinating: so little and dark, with a broken old harpsichord upside-down and leaning against a wall. The flat was full of broken clock mechanisms, old scores, various instruments and carillons and I remember it as a complex sonorous world de-regulated by the clicking of the many fragmented time-machines. It was not a pedagogical experience, more a sort of process of developing an acoustic sensibility. I wrote a portrait of this room in 1988, La stanza deli otology in frantumi for ensemble.
You adopted your neighbor-family. Was it with them that you took your first steps into what would fortunately become your passion?
Yes, I started composition during my childhood. I had been writing musical fragments under the supervision of my professor-watchmaker as far back as I can remember, but the very first composition I still have among my manuscripts is a Quartetto written in 1979-1980, while I was deciding to study to be a composer.
This decision came just after listening, on Italian radio, to Aura, an orchestral piece by Bruno Maderna.
Can you tell us more about this? I think „ Aura“ was one of Maderna’s works from his last years. Full of what I would call narrative power, and at the same time its fragments flow. Was this your „education“?
Indeed! I do consider Aura my virtual composition teacher.
I remember the first time I heard it, the pulsating transparent wide landscape realized by the string orchestra at the beginning of the piece, with such a vast range and subliminal sonorities. I felt I had been projected into this sound-cathedral, free from the chains of time.
Since then I have listened to the piece again and again, and analyzed it by studying, in the Archivio Bruno Maderna, all the preparatory sketches, and discovering different versions of the score. Maderna first prepared detailed highly structured material for the various formal areas of the composition and then cut it into parts, alternating fragments of every texture with complete freedom and even violence, breaking up the inner contrapuntal organization and searching for a formal kind of „narrativity“, as you say, which still fascinates me. The „aura“ emanating from this music is also due to Maderna's firm belief in music as a language that refers to and speaks about itself and can be perceived in its entirety.
Did you ever feel seduced by the idea of „absolute music“.
Yes, every moment of my life, it’s my impossible dream, the irreversible mirage: but „absolute music“ does not exist!
How do you get the first moments or sounds of a new composition? What happens? How do you work and what obstacles do you face?
Composing is always entering a chain, a series of compositional links and acts. No composer is alone or starts from nothing. When Lachenmann states how important it is for him to copy other existing scores before feeling ready to start a new compositional adventure and how important it is to do it every day as a ritual, I understand and agree completely (although I may have a different strategy for analyzing important scores).
Anyway, I couldn’t say there is a starting point in the process of composing. What I do, as I begin a new piece, is always a reaction in continuity with what I've composed just before, or what I've heard and discovered in the compositions of other composers. Even when two pieces, following one another, look very different and may seem connected to radically different projects, the writing has a continuity, or it cannot exist, just as a river that creates its own bed, exploring the territory and seeking the best places to flow, can appear different in its different segments.
I am not sure if I can follow you here. Your music often echoes what I would call “the knowledge” from other times and other genres. I think it was Gilles Deleuze who pointed out that as an artist you never sit in front of a blank page: When you start working, he said, you meet all the existing images, sounds etc. Either you get rid of them, or you start animating them in your own way, or „Eigensinn“, in your own compositional language.
Yes! I think every composer is influenced, taken hostage, by what he reads, sees, hears or feels. Music is in itself a trans-border entity, abstract, untranslatable, but communicable and identifiable in very different cultural contexts. I make references, sometimes very explicit ones, in my titles and my dramaturgical strategies, in order to stress the definition of a character or a formal shape or to force the listening process into a particular direction. Hombre de much gravedad, for example, a drammaturgia (music theatre in concert) written for the Neue Vocalsolisten and the Arditti Quartett, appears to be an acoustic study of Las Meninas by Velasquez. Every character in the painting has a musical presence, which consists of a vocal and instrumental couple, and these strange presences are displayed on the stage, in keeping with the famous spatial cage devised by Velasquez around the Infanta Margarita. This reference was necessary in order to disrupt the traditional symmetry and sound coherence of the double quartet and to create an acoustic depth of scene, offering the listener a play of interventions emanating from foreground and backdrop.
In Helicopters and Butterflies, a theatrical piece for solo percussionist, the reference to the Gambler by Dostoevskij fosters the idea of a vertical development of sound generation. The percussion set is organized on different levels, like the hotel Dostoevskij describes. The roulette wheel is on the upper level and the percussionist continuously makes the whole space vibrate, starting from the ground and ending at the ceiling like a whirlwind.
In those two projects the external references support the formal development and underscore some musical intentions. It’s an acoustical theatre piece reinforced by an already existing literary or pictorial work well-known to the public.
It sometimes happens in my work that this play of references is exclusively musical. I refer to an already existing musical piece in a clear or a subliminal, all but imperceptible way, in order to create inner echoes or to stimulate the listener's musical memory and enter the hypothetical process of sound associations. Most often the quotations I make are connected with a special timing I want to create. In Pinocchio, una storia parallela, a Drammaturgia for four male voices, written for the Neue Vocalsolisten, I quoted different fragments from the 4th string quartet by Bartòk in a free vocal elaboration. In this case, I wanted to give the acoustical impression of Pinocchio always running and running, as Collodi depicts him in the classic Italian children's book. In some of Bartòk's fast rhythmical textures you can perceive something like the universal characters of the European oral music tradition. In this context, my quotations were meant both to convey an „ambulatory“ effect and to re-create an „oral“ memory.
That's an interesting aspect. What is the role of „oral tradition“ in your music? Your „home“ is what I would call „invented music“. But in 2009 you created, together with the South African composer Philipp Miller, "Sebenza-e-mine" , a work, based on sound documents, about sounds from Jo’burg and from inside the mine, and also based on traditional local songs. That must have been a totally different work. I remember that you even worked with a local choir, The "Zulu Isicathamiya Chor Ntuba Thulisa Brothers". They were probably shocked when you confronted them with your methods. How did you work with them?
Working with them was a deep and really regenerating experience. The zulu vocal heritage is handed down and learnt by heart without its being written, but it is as complex, detailed and sophisticated as a modern score can be. After my 10-year collaboration with the vocal ensemble Neue Vocalsolisten, I felt I was ready to try a completely different strategy, starting from the performance and composing the work together with the singers totally live. They presented some pieces from their repertory and we worked together, arriving at some extraordinary and surprising short forms and varying them from my sound perspective, creating a completely different construction that they were able to perform magnificently. The result was new and old, radical and historical at the same time, a journey into the persistence of certain sound-patterns throughout cultures and eras.
Was this experience the beginning of something new in your music? You often feel attracted by moods and fragments from former times, in particular you're attracted by the baroque period. Is there a specific reason? Would you say there is an inner correspondence or tension between baroque and contemporary music?
What is interesting for me in my study of baroque music theatre productions, is the freedom and the experimental attitude typical of this period and the special treatment of the singing voice. The concept of opera was at its very beginning and projects were mostly left to the composer and the librettist. Director and dramaturg were not official presences until later in the history of opera. That gave the composer and the librettist a strong hand in the theatricalisation of music writing and in the connection between music and text. Many new theaters and spectacular scene-machinery were built, but the „theatre“ effect was sought through the compositional and literary work first of all. For me it’s also very important that theatre might be especially acoustic (rather than visual) and could be present in the score itself, a silent object indeed, susceptible of miss en scène.
In the open, fragile and plastic musical system of the baroque period there was a special search for expressing in music the nuances of the many poetical „affetti“ and the composition was never an acoustic commentary on the text. On the contrary, music sculpted the characters with an audacity that seems not to be present in modern productions, while so many clichés are activated and the visual aspects, with the excuse of new forms of Gesamtkunstwerk, often de-functionalise the compositional connection with the text.
What, I wonder, is the special attraction of composing an opera? What does opera mean for you? Would you say that you work totally differently, if theatre is involved?
For me, the most interesting side of making a traditional opera (the staging of singing characters in costume in the context of a scene) is the interaction, discussion and exchange of ideas with the team a priori from the score, sharing the visionary goal of a unique result. This preparatory phase is sometimes very long: it could be that the chosen ensemble of persons find themselves taking part in a dialogue that lasts two years or more. This interaction, this attempt to verbalize impressions, projections, dreams about the future, about the imminent and immanent work, gives my score a special richness due to the “intoxicating” meta-text suggested or expressed during the evolution of the concept and the process of distilling ideas and options together with the team. It’s in itself a form of operatic life, a sort of „Sunday“ in my monastic compositional life, which is spent mostly in the silence and solitude of my studio.
How do you find your libretti? Do you mix fragments, thinking that every small part conveys the whole oeuvre?
I need and seek a libretto which is not only significant but offers some specific features as well. The most important of them are the possibility of a natural continuity/discontinuity between the speaking and the singing voice, and the potential of fostering the vocal rrealizationof the timbric print of the words, in order to generate melody that can keep something of the image acoustique. This was the case in many vocal works of the baroque period, since the libretto was written by great poets and the composer was meant to reflect on every word and on the poetical labyrinth as a whole. In some of my ffavoriteoperas, Mozart’s Don Giovanni or Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi , I think the musical composition deeply penetrates the text, respecting and emphasizing the natural speed and sound-reality of the dialogue.
In Albertine, for example, a theatrical piece for solo female voice and whispering male voices embedded in the audience – a work written for Anna Prohaska – I selected fragments from Proust’s novel that could fit with the compositional concept: the female voice represens not only the fugitive and dead androgynous woman, but also the delicate French lake landscape where Albertine met her secret lover, the little blanchisseuse.
Proust’s writing is such a vast mine of sound perspectives that it was easy for me to extract just the right, the necessary sequences.
The titles of your pieces often convey the notion of „study“, and in one article I read, you were portrayed as someone who distanced herself from the subjectivity of creating a work of art. Is that true?
„Studio“ (or étude) is one of my ffavoriteforms in the classical musical repertory and this word, at least in Italian, is also often used for pencil sketches for oil paintings or frescoes. The studio, in this case, is a medium of meditation, an attempt, a preparation that is in itself a work, maybe more fragile, realized with cheap material, in less time, conveying the „journey“ of the artist's hand on the page, since mistakes, rejected strokes, aren't erased, but just corrected.
I've always been fascinated by these works in progress and sometimes I do publish scores that I have written just for myself in order to study a particular aspect of an instrument or try a particular technique, and I declare it in the subtitle through the word „Studio“.
Studio in music means also something like a preparatory, deliberately non-definitive phase which belongs mostly to the score.
And this is what is most important for me, the score as neutral medium that safeguards the forest of signs, the potential performance, and can be interpreted by an infinite succession of musicians with different performance perspectives, as time goes on.