Interview mit Hans Abrahamsen

Das Interview mit Hans Abrahamsen fand am 27. April im Haus Witten statt anlässlich der Uraufführung des Zyklus Schnee bei den Wittener Tagen für neue Kammermusik.

Interview & Abschrift: Björn Gottstein

I would maybe like to start with a question about something that is probably not very typical for your music, but maybe it can help me understand the way that notes are treated. The piece yesterday, Schnee, the intermezzi, they are there for tuning the instruments or retuning the instruments.


And at the same time they are composed music.


Something very realistic, pragmatic comes into the music. The tone is part of the world and not part of the piece of art, or it is in between. Why did you compose these retunings of the instruments?

The retuning of the instruments came when I should write the second version of the second canon. And then I wanted to write a music where I combined two worlds. Because in the first version of 2 it is in a way almost minimal music, and also a little ethnic in a way, for the winds and the piano that is prepared a little with a heavy paper on the strings. So in the second version of it I wanted to combine this, what is characteristic for most minimal music is that it is going on one pulse pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa, almost mechanically. But in my music it is also ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta (Tempo variiert leicht), but then I wanted to have this music in the pianos, still with the preparation of the paper on the strings. But then I wanted to have the pianos make another painting. To have this, if you imagine it as a painting, to have in a way this minimal painting first and then I make a painting where so to speak the instruments are playing the motive in the music, but sometimes focussing in and focussing out. Sometimes it is pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa (mit Accellerando und Rallentando) where the piano has a pa-pa-pa-pa, then pa-pa-pa-pa. And sometimes they start slow and go faster and sometimes its responding, go fast to slow. You can also have the picture: the minimal music is like the snow. And the instruments comes in and is trying to catch the snow. And sometimes the children are too slow and then they try to be fast to get it or they start too fast. That kind of pictures I had in mind. But then I realized that I also had two worlds in tuning. So the pianos are playing so to speak, that is one world. And then the instruments had to play, not in semitones, but something in-between. And part of the first set of canons is the lowered seventh. Die Septime. Which is one sixth of a tone lowered. And therefore I decided that the instruments would have another world in another tuning. And also of a picture of as time goes and intonation forms so to speak. And therefore I needed to have this intermezzo before to be. Where again the cello comes in, like in the first canon. The first time the first low pitch, but now the cello comes in on this low pitch but not playing the fundamental, but the seventh harmonic. And out from that, which is lowered, all the instruments are tuning down, so this low F becoms a right F. And therefore the instruments are able to, in a way the pianos are playing this kind of minimal music, and then the instruments come in. First the violin that starts, the piano has pa-pa-pa-pa-pa, then the violin comes in pa-pa-pa-pa-pa, a little lower, and goes up, a little lower in intonation because it is slower. And then the flute comes in the next trace a little higher. That was my idea. But it was also perhaps another layer that came in in the canons, because it is in a way like in a ritual or in a Dogma film, that I had a vision of: it is so simple, I have one movement, actually each movement is build on the same haiku-like principle, and then I have one painting or one movement. And then the next one is in a way the same, but made it in a little different way like two different versions of the same. And then I had this idea that the movements should be shorter and shorter. I wrote the first two here for the Wittener Tage two years ago. And those two were nine minutes and nine minutes. And then I had the idea after the first performance of the piece, I felt that it was right, that it has to be longer, like a series of pieces, expanded. So but then I said, nine minutes, nine minutes, and then actually, I have investigated in an earlier piece like Winternacht, I wrote in 76/68, where the movements become shorter and shorter. And therefore I thought like in a way time is felt in life, where time becomes shorter and shorter towards the end. And of course we can fight against it. That is another side of it. And so I said: nine minutes, nine minutes, and the next two should be seven minutes, seven minutes, and then five, five minutes, and then three, three, and at last one, one and then time has gone out. But that is very like ... I like this kind of destiny of things happening that you can in a way predict it. I like that you can predict things, it is fatal. But then on the other hand of course things happen against the fate, that kind of counterpart. But then I also liked that in a way to put in these intermezzos as a kind of something coming from outside, but being a part of the work. That was your question actually. But also breaking up the two and two, so actually we have the principle 1-1, the two firsts, and then comes 2 and then comes an intermezzo. So we have in a way 1, 2, 3 and then comes the intermezzo. That it breaks up the twos. And then comes 2b and the two 3s and then comes the next detuning. So we have 3-3, it is divided. And then comes 2a (sic!) and 2b (sic!) and that is two. And then I make a retuning before the fourth, for the violin and viola, and at a last a retuning. But at last it goes 3-3 2-2 2-2. And that kind of destroying of the fatal aspect of the piece, of something coming outside. And I also, in cooperation with the musicians, we talked very much about: should it just be a tuning or should it be a part of the work. And I thought it should be a part of the work. So it is also explained clearly the process. It is actually also important for me to make it clear for the listener how my artistic, which artistic solutions and plans I want to show for the audience. So they are part of it. Like that. To show they have they tune down, that is very beautiful. And then at the same time they have to do it very slowly, and I also write in what way they should do it and in what mood. Then, of course, a lot of things which I don't know and the audience don't know. That is another story.

But it is moment of irritation. The moment you realize that "wait, they are tuning but it is also music." It is in-between, it is theatre, it is everyday, it is music. It is a magical moment, almost.

Yes it is.

Because everybody lets go. The musicians let go. The audience lets go.

Of course, I don't control how they tune. I have asked them to do all things very slowly. In the spirit of the piece and silently. But it is a process that happens where you suddenly listenly in a new way.

We will maybe work our way back to Schnee during the course of the interview. It was interesting for me to see that two early pieces of yours from the 70s, which is Stratifications and then Winternacht, have subjects that are related to Schnee. That is the layering of the "stratificare" and also the winter landscape, the cold etc. These subjects seem to accompany you over the years.

I think that with a lot of artists in a way some things are like history. Some ideas are growing from the first works you have made, or your dreams, or your vision, whatever you call it. Or your material, to be more direct. And then you develop it. And a lot of the ideas in Schnee can I trace back to very early pieces from the beginning of the 70s. And one of the things is perhaps, if we take Stratifications first, when I was starting composing more, my first pieces were played publicly in 69. I was quite young. I composed before, but then I started academy. That are the first pieces that I still so to speak think of as pieces. I didn't want in a way to write in an avant-garde style. I wanted in a way like the free movement, I wanted to integrate different kinds of music in my music. Like a lot of other composers, I liked tonal music, folk music, I liked music that actually sounded like modern music. All kinds but in a way how to integrate that in a piece. And then I learned something about that from pop art. And also I always talk about a Danish painter I admire very much. He has actually been a professor I think in Karlsruhe for many years. This is Per Kirkeby. And Kirkeby is also a very interesting writer and also wrote poems. And I had read in a book that he had the same desire that he wanted to make different pictures of flowers and also different paintings of different material. But how could he integrate it in one painting. And he found out, he could make a serial. Like Andy Warhole in a way. Andy Warhole has also the serial. But he repeats his Marilyn Monroe or others, the same picture but in different colours. But what Per Kirkeby did was make pictures, but divided it into sections. And in those he put different things. He could put, he is a geologist, and he could put a painting of a moutain from Greenland. Or he could put in something from a flower, different things. He showed very clearly for the listener in the words of Gertrude Stein, this is not a flower; it is a picture of a flower. And I made in a way the same thinking in my music, that I divided my music into sections. Like in Stratifications each section is one minute. And actually each section is divided into two. And then I had some material I put in and then I made a cut to a new one and made a cut. That was my thinking. That is the stratification on one vertical level and at the same time the music is also very stratificated on a horizontal level. But that thinking of that music is, in a way, pictures of music, made it possible for me to be even more expressive. I could make the distance but for me to make the distance even bigger I could make the detail so to speak more. But for example in the first orchestra piece I made in the 70s called, in English it is called "foam", Skum. I don't know what it is in German.


Yes, Schaum. It is the same principle as in Stratifications. I made a cut and then you hear a very tune in flute and harp in C major. (singt) But I couldn't write it just as a piece like that. But when it comes up as a kind of picture of that in that connection, it was possible for me to do it. And that is actually what is taking place in Stratifications, and perhaps it is the same in Schnee still. I have one canon and then the repetitions in a way say, it is a kind of trance, you go into time, you hear it once and you hear it twice and you go into a new time. But it is also in a way you are saying, you are hearing it again. And then talking about Winternacht. Winternacht is in a way, the first movement, it is the first piece where I use a German title. And how should I explain. I have written ten piano studies in the beginning of the 80s. Where perhaps I think of Debussy's Images where some of them are French and Spanish and then English. In a way I wanted in a way to divide the pieces into different traditions. The first four German titles, and the next have English titles, and the last two has French titles, and the last one has an Italien title. Actually you can see the same construction as in Schnee, that is 4-3-2-1. But Winternacht is the first one where I use a German title. And now we are sitting here speaking English, and actually when I was young in the school I was not very good to speak English. My favourite language, and I learned very much, was German. And I liked the sound of German. And also when German is sung in the songs of Schumann and Schubert, and the poetry in German. And whereas English in a way, my father was very much connected to the English but also to the German tradition, but the strange thing, I have always that feeling, actually I got this feeling for the idea for writing Winternacht that I was walking on the street, then I went into a bookshop, then I found this Danish translation of Trakl's poetry, and it took me very much. And the poem Winternacht I wanted to make for soprano and ensemble. But actually the soprano disappeared. But the strange thing is, what I want to come back to, is that the German evokes a kind of mysticism in me, compared to the English. The English time is very rationalistic and clear like the philosophers, Russell, whereas the German is maybe more like Doktor Faustus or something mystic and unrational time, not the clock time. And that I wanted to combine in Winternacht where I continue to have the same as pictures of pictures. In the first movement of Winternacht. Each section is again, I started with having four, 1 minute, 1 minute, 1 minute, 1 minute. But then there is this kind of very concrete, no that is wrong, a very objective structure in the piece, but then I let the music become slower and slower. The first is fast, and then slower and very slower. And then at the same time, this kind of objective music, I wanted to make it, it became more and more in the details pictures of Romanticism or Expressivness. Do you understand?


And I wanted in a way to combine again two worlds.

The idea of having music as a picture of music means also that the sound is referring to another sound. Because it is just an image or a memory or a residue of music. And I always try to imagine when I listen to your pieces, what is the music like that your music is a picture of. Is there another music? Or is it just a picture?

No, I don't quote in that way.

It is not quoting. If I draw a portrait of you I am not quoting your face. I am just painting your face. And the painting is something very individual. And there may be a similarity between your face and your portrait. But your portrait is not you. So what I am asking is, is your music a portrait of something?

No. No. Perhaps a counterpoint between all those things that happen in my work. I try in a way to be myself. Sometimes it is very, like in the last movement of Schnee, it is a kind of naivité. I want in a way to come back to something which is ... and then of course from that I put a world together, which perhaps is my music.

I ask for two reasons. One reason is, when those last two canons come in Schnee, for some reason you suddenly feel that this is the core of everything. This is where it is all contracted in this very tiny moment. As if this is the core. And maybe I even could imagine that all the other music is a picture of this last canon. But that might be a very rough interpretation. But what is also interesting is that you say you want your music to be like yourself, at the same time you describe a mechanism by which you create a distance between you and the musical object, which is the form. Allowing your schizophrenic self, or your multi-faceted self or your multi-personalized self ...

I have to do that.

... so you are creating a distance to the music for the music to become personal?

I have to, because if I just wanted it to be personal it would be rubbish for me. I could not write, I have to do all these kinds of settings for myself. It is a little perhaps like the Danish dogma, like Lars von Trier, that later, in the 90s made the dogma movies, with a lot of films with a lot of rules. You have to do that and that and that. I a way all those rules are made to give you freedom to do something else. I feel very much connected to that thought with all the rules for myself I made in the 70s.

At the same time for me there is a moment, but this also has to do with the technique of layering and canon, I have noticed this with a lot of pieces of yours. I feel that every layer is going its own way. And they touch sometimes. But they are not connected but flowing on top of each other. For me it feels like alienation. There is a distance between things. And they cannot really come together. Do you feel this alienation?

For example, in the first movement of Winternacht, there comes a very high flute and then plötzlich, suddenly, there comes a very quiet music. It is all in layers, trumpet fanfare, horn hunting fanfare and the violin playing a kind of Sicciliano music. And my picture of it is of course to hear all these things alien, has to be heard clearly, very transparent. And maybe also because you are hearing it that way you are hearing it differently, then just hearing. Again like in Schaum the C major, I wanted to hear them in that connection. But it is also a little surrealistic. When I am talking about it. It is strange, that those things are at the same time. And they are just there. ... But you are right. A lot of my music is in a way, a lot of my pieces are trying to get a balance between two things that are different.

Not in the way of dialectics, thesis and antithesis.

No. No.

But letting them stand by themselves.

That's right. Let the audience, so to speak, listen to it. I don't make the synthesis. It is up to the audience.

Another piece I would want to talk about is Märchenbilder from 1984. There is an allusion to Schumann. At the same time it seems to suggest a narrative. Is there a fairy tale?


It is called "fairy pictures". There are only pictures of fairy tales.

It is again pictures of ... It is not tales.

But were fairy tales in any way involved?

I feel that Märchenbilder is a sister piece to Winternacht. But it is more enlarged. Again it is opposite. Where in Winternacht the movements become shorter and shorter, the sections, I go to another side in Winternacht, to another artist that has inspired me a lot, that is Escher. Escher is inside the second movement of Winternacht. Escher, this fantastic graphician. Where he has different worlds at the same time. And he also makes illusions where it goes down, but at the same time goes up and all those kind of things. And in Märchenbilder the sections become longer and longer, so in a way there is a ritardando, I feel. That is very traditional. And at the same time there is an accelerando. The first three are together. The next two. And then the longest one alone. So that is in a way a accelarando at the same time there is a ritardando. The way I am thinking first of a piece. And then again I chose the titel because of the "Märchenbilder", it is again pictures of music. But it is pictures of a fairy tale. Märchen. In Danish "eventyr", like our big Hans Christian Anderson, Märchendichter. So it is in a way meine eigene musikalische Märchen, told in music. Or set in music. And some of them are perhaps like, as you can see in Schnee, titles like "lustig spielen aber melancholisch" und "mit Trübsinnigkeit". It uses adjectives to describe the music. When I was very young I didn't like composers to use that; music was just, that was before Winternacht, music was just itself. It had to be clean. And you do not have to say anything about expression. It is something you put on with a big hand. But in Winternacht I began in a way to go into this feeling of music. Because music is, in a way, a very, very strong art form. Being able to do that. And I always respond very directly to music. And in Märchenbilder it is perhaps quite melancholic and then I always think of the music very much as characters.

Characters as people in a story or character as a mood?

Also a mood but also things that pop up in the music, almost like characters.

It is interesting that music that tries least to be expressive touches you in amazing ways, when you think of Feldman.

That is the balance because in a way you are most touched when you don't know when it happens. And that is again the dialectics. ... But again, you are very right about mentioning Feldman. Who was it, it was a Swedish director, Lars Norén, that said in the paper, that you take everything away, and then when things are taken away the audience can grasp what happens, but if you want it too much, then it cannot. In a way it is a little the same in music. You take away, or make distance. But it is really a kind of balance.

It is interesting that you would say "take away". The sculptor takes away the marble. But you as a composer put on. But for you there is not a block of material. Or do you feel that you are sculpting the music from something else when you say "take away"?

I had that feeling when I wrote Schnee, because there, with many movements I came to a point where it was very easy to do that or that. But it is necessary. Just let it be. And then I took it away.

Was it the first time you had this feeling?

No. No. It is a very old feeling from perhaps, if I should connect Schnee to some of my other pieces, I would connect to very early pieces. Perhaps a piece, which I think you should have heard, called Walden for woodwind quintet.

After Thoreau?

After Thoreau. I found the title for the piece after I wrote the piece. Then I read this wonderful book and felt, again, like Märchenbilder I borrowed from Schumann, I could borrow this title from Thoreau. I actually thought it was called "Walden", in German, a kind of strange plural of "Wälder" where the project is to find out how to live most simply with the most important things, in the forest. And the book is full of wonderful poetic descriptions of him sitting at the pond and his thoughts. And maybe that simplicity I dared to do again, I am doing again in Schnee. Whereas in pieces like for example the Four Pieces For Orchestra some of it, it becomes simple in the last movement.

The Four Pieces For Orchestra were originally piano pieces.


The orchestra doesn't seem blown up.

I composed them first, they are the first four of the Ten Studies For Piano and the first four have German titles. And my intention was in a way that the piano should dream of the golden time of the piano in Germany. And when I wrote it, I dreamt myself composing the same music for orchestra. Actually a very big orchestra. And I first did it twenty years or so afterwards. So some of it started almost like an orchestration of it, but it developed very fast into a recomposition of it. Perhaps like, of course, like the big piece by Boulez, Notations, which is also based on the early piano pieces by him. But Boulez, I think, much more adds bars. And I follow in a way more bar by bar, but in the piano pieces, the first piano piece goes again very, very slow. I have been very interested in time. Very, very slow time. On one side. And on the other side very, very fast time. Which also you perhaps you can see in the Märchenbilder, in the last part, which is actually played too slow on the recording unfortunately. It has to be played with the same energy, like I always think it is fabulous to fly. Because when you go up you have the feeling of the accelerando of the flight. It goes faster and faster. The flight is going on. And then when you look out it goes slower and slower. And at the same time you feel it goes faster and faster. And then when you are up flying you really feel the energy of the plane and you look out and it goes so slow. At the same time you have the fastness and the slowness, but you also, as in the first, also some of Märchenbilder, it goes very slow, but especially in the first piano piece, where it has to go so slow that you in a way don't imagine the melody. If I sing a melody for you very, very slow, then I am sure you cannot hear which melody it is. So to speak, the figure disappears and something else comes. And that kind of slowness was difficult on the piano, because the piano rang out. And so in the orchestra version it goes very, very slow. Twice as slow as in the piano. And therefore there came a new dimension of slowness into the music, where time, in a way, becomes different. That is also important in some of the movements in Schnee, the third one, which actually goes very slow.

You mentioned recomposing. You have also recomposed pieces by other composers. Why do you do it? And what do you do with the pieces when you recompose them?

It started, it is again a strange thing, because in the 70s orchestrated versions were very foreign to me. The music has just to be direct. I couldn't reorchestrate. I couldn't think of it, it had just to be so. But then in the 80s I made another version of Winternacht for another kind of ensemble. Then I began to feel like a painter. If you see Rembrandt or Munch, you can see, they have a motive, and then they paint it. And then they make it again but in another version. And certainly that opened a new world for me, because it is a way very hard to always make a new music. In a way to find out that the new things can come out from making a new version. It is not just a copy, but the way you are telling it, the story becomes different. If you understand. But then I did it also with another piece. But that was very strange, actually, in the end of the 80s perhaps I could not, for almost ten years I couldn't write any music. Between 87 and 98 I almost didn't compose anything. And I had to quit different commissions for example, also here in Witten I had a commission for the Arditti Quartet by Harry Vogt, and it was very, I had to realize that I couldn't write it. So I was in a way silent for many years. But in those years I did some copies of other composer's music. Schönberg, Opus 19, some of them. Others. And also some of my own music. My wind quintet Walden I made for five other winds. And actually when I started after this fermata, I started to write, I haven't written all ten studies for piano. I had to write two more. And those I did out from old sketches. But then I started a new piece, my piano concerto, which is, I think, for me, an important piece. Where I actually started by making again one of the studies for piano and orchestra. Again it developed into something else. And this kind of thinking made me again be able to write notes at my desk. And perhaps in a way it is to see, again like a painter, to accept to tell the same story in different ways, again and again perhaps, but then the story becomes different by time. And that is also a very important part of Schnee, where I have one Schnee and then another one. The same, told again. And then I have this strange ideas of the three-dimensional pictures where you have two pictures that are almost equal photographed with one meter. But when you look at it there come two in the middle first and then those two are by the eyes going together and that has the third dimension. And in a way I had the same feeling with music. Da-da-da-da-da-da. The repetition is in a way, that two times are put together in our memory as a third time. And also had this way to tell the music. I use the word tell or play or what you call it, the same music in two versions. And then I put in a third time. Three-dimensional time. Therefore actually those kinds of arrangements, transcriptions, what you call it, has in a way, opens a new world for me, which is in a way integrated in my own work for the first time in Schnee.

The Piano Concerto was important because it was one of the first pieces after the long gap?


Other pieces of yours don't have a conventional form.

It was a commission from a Norwegian group, BIT20 in Bergen. And I wrote it to my wife. She is a piano player. It is a commission and it is my second piece with a solo. I also wrote a piece for cello and ensemble called Lied in Fall, which is in a way, I read about Wolfgang Rihm's thoughts, es ist ein big Linien sung by the cello in 14, 15 minutes throughout. It is a big line sung by the cello through the music. With a lot of echos in the ensemble and falling lines. So it is a big Lied, in Lied in Fall, in fall, im Herbst, or in fallende Linien. That was my first piece for solo and ensemble.

I would not say that the piano in the piano concerto is a line.

No, the piano is totally different.

But it is not part of the ensemble. It is seperate.

In the Piano Concerto? Yes. The cello piece is different. Actually the piano is played almost all the time, all the time until the last, where the piano is silent for a moment. But it was an important work for me. And also a transition from my older pieces to Schnee. And actually Schnee, the first canon from Schnee is based on a material that I had sketches for in the time when I was silent. But I didn't know how to make it. First after I had done other things.

In those 10, 11 years you didn't write, you were nonetheless thinking about music?

You know, it was very strange, because I first started composing after. Because it was in a way, I realy tried to compose for many, many years. But i couldn't. I cannot say it wasn't good enough, but there came nothing. And of course it is a very big challenge, because in a way you have to give a lot up. And for me I first made eine Befreiung, I made myself free when I said to myself and others that I have stopped composing. I said that. And I didn't say it officially, but I just began to say it to some people that I have accepted I don't compose anymore. And then gradually during a year a critic wrote it in the paper. But it was very strange, at the same time after that year, when I have got myself free I was beginning to compose again. And perhaps you can first do something when you are free to do it. Maybe that is characteristic.

I can imagine that you have to let go.

You have to let go. It is not so important. It is not so important to compose. Do it if you want. So I in a way I feel it was good years where I did a lot of other things besides trying to compose. It is good, like the fields sometimes in the winter. Sie liegen brach. Brach, dasselbe in Danish.

It is good for the field.

I felt it was good for me. I needed to renurture.