Das Gespräch mit Jan W. Morthenson fand am 4. August 2008 per Rundfunkleitung zwischen Berlin und Stockholm statt.

Interview & Abschrift: Björn Gottstein

The first question I have is about an instrument, that you engaged quite often in your early years, which is the organ. Can you tell me, why the organ was so important for you?

Actually it is a rather personal thing, because the first musician I knew around the year 1960 was the organ player Karl Eric Welin, he was an avantgarde musician and a composer. We got along very well together. We understood each other very well and he inspired me to write for the organ and he performed my pieces around the world. And he was just a marvelous musician. Unfortunately, he died in 1992. And with him I could really experience the big organ and learn lot about sound. And that was also for me an opening into the world of electronic music. And perhaps the peak of that collaboration was the organ concerto which I wrote for the inauguration of the new big organ of the Stockholm Concert House. And that was performed in the beginning of the 1980s.

There are two things you mentioned I would like to follow up on. You mentioned that the organ introduced you to electronic music. How would it do that? Just because there is a similarity in timbre?

Oh yes. I think the organ and the electronic music studio are vey much alike in the way you think about music, about sound, about composition. For example you can sustain a tone in the organ for as long as you want, like you can do with electronic means. And you can mix sounds in a very complex way. Also microtones. Almost all of my organ works are composed with microtones, not just the ordinary chromatic tones. And I think the organ developed my sense for sounds very much, even more than the orchestra.

It seems that the organ and electroacoustics are very much open to your concept of non-figurative music. You mention the organ and electronic music in your book as being instruments being very fit in this regard. Were these instruments important in developing the idea at the time, or was it the other way around, first you had the idea of non-figurative music and the you found the proper instruments?

Well, it was a bit more complicated than that, I think. Because at that time, the beginning of the sixties, more composers were beginning to compose in a non-figurative way. For example, the Polish composers and Ligeti. It was somehow in the air. And, of course, I was at that time as a young composer very much influenced by the historical development. And the crisis of the figuration, figurative music was extremely evident in the beginning of the sixties. And I think also the very primitive beginning of electronic music at that time was formally rather close to the non-figurative thinking. Because a lot of early electronic music was occupied with sounds and colours. And of course the sounds and colours, Klangfarben, they were the main elements in the non-figurative music.

Even though there are of course pieces like the Klangfiguren by Gottfried Michael Koenig, for example, which tries explicitely to describe a figure of sound. But I understand your point and sympathize with you. But when you find that something is out of line or you have a suspicion about the thing like the figure, or the gesture, or expression, how do you go about eliminating it. And you chose a way of writing that is very static, that is very much focussed on harmony and timbre. You mentioned predecessors like Ligeti and Penderecki, but you must have at some point felt that this idiom is one that seems to have come very natural at that time.

Of course, as a very young composer you try to find a very personal way in the chaos of new music and the composition. And I thought about this from a historical point of view and I really felt that I was very uncomfortable working with musical figures. I always felt when I wrote a second, or a third, or a fifth, or whatever, that I was copying something that was not vital any more. And I felt also that the element of timbre and sound was a little bit underdeveloped in the dodecaphonic music. Because it was so occupied with logic and pointillistic figures, so I thought that the emancipation of timbre and very complex sounds resting in itself was something that I could work with.

How did you go about writing these pieces. I don't know if you can and want to explain the becoming of a certain work, Coloratura III for example. It seems to be a prototype for non-figurative music. The question would be: did you lay-out harmony and time schemes and then fill in the spaces. How did this music evolve inside of you?

It starts with a chord. And that chord has to be constructed in a certain way, so that the intervals are rather close. And that the whole chord is rather narrow. Because when you always shift the instrumentation of each tone, participating tone of the chord, then you cannot have too big movements within a group, especially if you have a rather small group like in Coloratura III. In Colorature IV for symphony orchestra I used 17 different types of thirds above each other, and that means that the chord is rather big. And that was possible because I had so many instruments. And I could move the instruments in a much more free way. It is not so very easy write non-figurative music for, let's say a quartet or a trio. It is not a very well-suited ensemble for non-figurative music. There should be at least around 20 musicians up to a symphony orchestra. Or on the other hand you can always use electronic means.

Which you did. Have you always worked at the EMS?


Can you tell me a little bit about the EMS at this time? I would imagine the equipment to be rather primitive.

Yes, it was rather like the Cologne electronic music studio in the sixties. And it had a rather complicated development in the seventies and the eighties, because they started to introduce new digital technology, a hybrid technology, which was partly analogue and partly digital. And that was a big problem, there was a big conflict. It didn't work very well I think, but it was a rather unique studio in the world. But that was the transistor period, because like all other studios in the eighties and nineties everything was digital. But I worked also a lot with the so-called live electronics. I added electronic parts to instrumental parts. And that was very, very exciting for a long period.

It would like to talk about a specific piece, which is Neutron Star. Is that non-figurative music?

No. I can say that. Neutron Star is a very early digital piece. It was composed when there were not even analogue-digital converters. So we used the electronic current directly coming from the computer. And it has a funny background, that piece, actually. It consists of short musical elements. And it was compressed into a very dense structure. And it was composed as a commission for a grammophone record to make pieces just for a grammophone record. And I took as an inspiration for that, a sound inspiration for that piece, the cracks and the negative things, that you are so disturbed by when you listen to an old grammophone records. That was the starting point. And I think that was a rather early, solitary digital music piece. It lasted more that 15 years until digital music returned to the ordinary life of composers.

It is a very beautiful piece. Very abstract, very direct, almost harsh, now that you mention that you used noises that are usually considered to be a disturbance. That seems very meaningful.

I don't use the actual noise. That was just an inspiration. The noise, the sounds, are all directly from the computer. And what you hear are electrical explosions so to say. And they are combined in a very complex way later on. But everything is from the computer. And it is a very raw type of computer music, because, as I said, the electrical signals are not transferred into what you call digital signals, but the recording of the electrical outburst are the sound material.

Maybe one last question about non-figurative music. When you wrote the book it is almost like a manifesto. It makes a very strong point against the figure. And it seems actually that your argument does not allow any alternative. Yet at the same time you must have been aware of the fact that there are other composers and other music around. Were you very dogmatic about this idea of non-figurative music in the sixties? Would you have said that all other music is wrong from a historical point of view?

No, of course I cannot say that. When you propose a certain branch of musical theory, of compositional theory, of course, you concentrate very much on the arguments around that theory. That is not to say that the arguments are the proper way of acting as an artist or say. It is just an argument within argumentation for a certain theory. And I don't think you can think about right and wrong in composing like that. There is a certain type of logic in composition. And I think most composers follow a certain type of logic every time they compose. It is like a language. And this type of language has a certain grammar, a certain vocabulary, a certain meaning. And I try to clarify these elements as clear as possible. And in doing so to exaggerate a bit, just to make some kind of boundary around this. The aesthetic part is of course focussed, but it is a polemic against other types of music. I mean, you can write so called wrong music, historically wrong music, which I have done myself many times, for very strong reasons. Perhaps this argumentation I used in connection with non-figurative music has a certain historical point, because as you know the figurative music went into a crisis in that period, intervals were rather wornout and even the forms were repeating themselves very much. It was a very difficult musical situation actually. And I think a started a lot of development in the sixties, which then became very vital in musical life.

Lots of the notation you used at that time is graphical. Then I was very surprised when I opened a recent issue of Nutida Musik containing a lot of pictures of yours. Have you always been a visual artist? Are these painting related to the scores? Are the pictures scores? Are the scores pictures?

Well, I think I have worked within many realms of the artistic life, writing, theory, picture, composition, television, and so on. I started rather early with the connection of music and pictures, abstract pictures, when I made in 1963 a television film about a then famous Swedish painter, Olle Baertling. And these abstract pictures where combined with the specially composed orchestra music of mine. And I worked also with lasers and I worked at Westdeutscher Rundfunk in Cologne making four television programmes, totally abstract, dealing with light, colour and abstract forms only. And with my especially composed music for these abstract television programmes. And then in the eighties I started to make pictures with shadows only, no lines, no paint, nothing, just an immaterial constructions of shadows and light. And then I transformed this particular visual language into acrylic paintings. And I use still my tonal principles from my music compositions in the visual works. So for example there are no symmetries, there are no foreground or background, you cannot memorize the picture, and there are no repeating elements in colours or so. Just abstract relations. And one funny thing is, when I work on these paintings, I work very meticolously, very precise. And much more precise actually, then when I compose music. I needed some kind of freedom in my music. But these visual workds are very, very strict.

That is interesting. When you say that you apply certain musical techniques to painting, is the opposite also true? Would you say that it is important for you how the score looks, especially when you are using graphic notation?

Yes, I would say so. I tend to make rather abstract graphical scores. You know some composers, they make very expressive graphical scores. But that is actually not my line. I like to have a certain type of abstract material from the beginning and then let the musicians work that. And it is remarkable how abstract material stimulates some very talented and imaginative musicians, like Karl Eric Welin for example. On the other hand, when you write very expressive graphical scores I think the results with the musicians are not always so very interesting.

I see what you mean. We have to talk about the first of two paradigm shifts that occured in your life, which is the turn toward meta-music, that took place in the early seventies, maybe even 1970? What would the first piece be?

I think the first piece is from 1969, Decadenza.

I see.

And then during the seventies I worked a lot with meta-music, which means in my view "music about music." A musical commentary, a compositional commentary towards a musical genre of some specific type or music, like military music or opera music or demagogic music or so. I thought then that the social aspect of music, as we all remember from the seventies, the social aspect of everything was very interesting. And I found that I could express my relations and my negative feelings about certain types of music rather well in compositions, actually. It was much more interesting than writing articles about them.

Which would be the natural thing to do, if you were to comment on something.

But writing music about it, makes a totally different statement. And it is very typical that these compositions during that time, during the seventies, they were very much discussed by musicians and critics, because it was within the musical sphere so to say. It was not so abstract, not so theoretical, it was rather primitive I would say, but much connected with musical reality. And of course musicians sometimes got very bad feelings about what they were playing, because they knew that this is a very negative aspect of our work, that for example I wrote a piece called Alla marcia for orchestra, tapes, and stroboscopes, and salvation army chorus in 1973. And a very big a part of the big orchestra, they just left the rehearsal and so on. It was very difficult and complicated. They got very angry and very disturbed, because they felt that this was a criticism of their work, their everyday work, and you can really come to troubles when work in this way.

Was it a criticism of their work? In a way it was.

The work of a musician is very strange, because actually they don't do what they always want to do. They have to play what the conductor and the radio board and so on decide. And they are human instruments for other interests. And of course, when you make a point of that human condition, it is very embarrassing. And Alla marcia is a piece about musical demagogy. Very brutal actually. And very much also against the listener who wants to hear this. I mean Wagner-type of demagogy. And when a musician realizes he is just an instrument for this type of entertainment, he can have very bad feelings about if, of course.

But that would be something, that you intended, that the musician reacts to the music.

Oh yes.

When talking about meta-music, one question that arises is the relation between music and meta-music, the semiotic aspect of the meaning of the tone, the meaning of the sound. Of course you are still only writing music, but if you are writing meta-music in the truest sense of the word, it is also something else. It is music that depicts music. Music as a commentary to music. There was a similar problem in linguistics. One wanted to speak about language in language, so there were new styles of writing, to establish the difference between language and meta-language. Was for you the difference of the sign quality in any way relevant for you?

I cannot say that. And funny also, that a few years later the whole concept of post modernism arrived. And that is also a meta relation philosophy, the philosophy about the meanings of words and the meanings of meanings, and criticism and all that. I think in my case, my pieces in the field of meta music, they were dealing with a much broader sense of the music concpet, namely the whole atmosphere, the whole concept of a genre, like church music for example or funeral music. Not specifically with certain tones or certain elements in these fields, but more with the whole atmosphere, the whole sense of the genre. And the whole effect it has onpeople. So it was not so specified as you presumed.

It was just a question that came up. You mentioned church music and you had written a lot of organ music. Had the organ never been a problem in being a church instrument?

The organ pieces I wrote during the sixites and seventies, especially for Karl Eric Welin, they were performed both in concert halls, big concert halls with big organs, and naturally also in churches, in cathedrals. The religious element of the church for me was not very important. I used it specifically in a piece which I called farewell which is about funeral music, that is specifically written for the church room, as a religious atmosphere and it confronts that. And I had problems also, I wrote a piece, a non-figurative organ piece called Pour Madame Bovary and that was performed in a cathedral here in Stockholm for the first time. And of course there was some normal religious debate about that. Just because of the title. I wrote a very similar piece for a religious celebration in the cathedral in Uppsala called Encore for a very specific clerical audience from the whole world and it didn't make any problem at all, because the title was Encore and not Pour Madame Bovary. So you can see that the imagination does not go very far sometimes.

Taken the funeral piece, Farewell, you have used quotes to a certain extend? And how did you treat them? Did they become your material? Would you let them be and surround them with music of your own?

Actually, I don't use quotes. I use some characters as quotes, but not musical quotes. The only piece where I actually use quotes is a string quartet called Ancora. But also these quotes are not exact. No, when I make a relation to some kind of musical atmosphere, I use the big thinking about it, so to speak, and not specific quotes or imitations. Or rhythms or so. I don't go into such specific details. I want to have a more general attitude towards the specific phenomenon.

I listen to Farewell and was sure that you were quoting something without knowing what it was. Maybe that is what you mean when talking about the general attitude.

The one piece with quotes would then still be considered to be meta music, I suppose. Or would you say that Ancora is no longer meta music?

I would regard it as a kind of meta music. actually. It is a piece about folk music. And was commissioned for the music council. I use quotes from the Balkan countries and Greece and Turkey. But as I sais they are not really exact quotes. The are quossy quotes, if you can understand that strange words. But again, I play with atmospheres of music, I play with attitudes as a material, not so much with specific intervals written. I want to have a more free relation between the music and the listener. And I don't the listener to be searching for details. I want the listener to think and feel and not be so specific.

In a way you are placing the Balkan folk music next to avantgarde music. They are of course different kinds of music, but at the same time there was a very pessimistic view of the possibility for these two musics to exist. You describe them as fragile, threatened by music culture.

Yes, that was the main theme of the whole piece. And that is also the reason for the title.

"Yet." It is still there, but not for much more longer. I would like to hear a bit more about the idea of a threatened music. Would you say it is worthwhile protecting a music. Also folk music and avantgarde music are threatened in a different way. One is the popular culture of the past, the other at the end of the bourgeois culture.

Actually, I think there is a lot of common elements in these two branches of music. I think both, folk music from rather exotic countries, and avantgarde music, they are used and they are inscribed in a very broad type of modern music now. A type of music which we hear everyday nowadays. Which consists of elements of very, very different kinds. You can hear it in every television programme. There is no such big difference anymore between folk music or popular music or avantgarde music or classical music or what you have. They just melt together. And I think the very rationalistic modern musical life, using computers and all that, they use all materials they can handle, they can get their hands on. And it does not matter very much if it is folk music or if it is avantgarde as long as it fits the situation. You have it in computer games and all the kinds of sound illustrations. You can make use of something which is very usefull in the specific detail of the sound score, once again with pictures and so on. I think what is coming up is a synthesis of everything, and were we do not find the differences very interesting. Because we use music nowadays also together with other medias, with other senses. Like we see things and we hear things together. We don't so much seperate the listening as we did before. Because the modern media, they can combine artistic elements in new ways. And I think we are moving toward a very big aesthetic synthesis.

Is that good? You are loosing something and gaining something.

I think the loss is more important than what you gain. Because what you lose is differentation, you lose the specific understanding of a specific music, an atmosphere, what it means. You loose meaning. Synthesis always simplifies meaning, I think. And meaning should always be extremely specific. And I think the loss is culturally just terrible. When you have a global music, you are not interested to know whether it comes from Indonesia or from Africa or America or whatever. As long as it sounds good in a club when you dance and so on. I think the big meal of all these aesthetic elements is just a very dangerous development.

You wrote Ancora in 1983 and the year after you wrote two pieces that seem to have become very important which is 1984 and Strano. These piece are included on a CD. They seem to be a turning point away from meta music.

Yes, I would say so. I apply certain terms, certain words for my own development. And for me the word existiantialist music is used, maybe for nobody else. But in the beginning of the eighties, maybe '84 or '85 and some years later, I started to work with music without any meaning, without any goal, without any purpose. Not just music for itself. Not just l'art pour l'art, but music with no specific energy, with no specific tendency or specific energy or no specific road to walk or no specific theory and so on. It is just a rather negative kind of aesthetic, where a lot of things don't matter so much any more and where meaning has been lost and lot of these idealistic aesthetics in the composition in music of the avantgarde is lost. It has to do maybe with my private life, my age and so on, but since then I have written music mostly in this direction. It is a kind of resignation of course, or a kind of reaction against youthful, idealistich ideas. I don't know exactly. But I felt that it was important for me to do that. And sometimes I am getting into troubles with musicians also because of this ideology. For example with the Kronos Quartet; I wrote for them a commission called Après Michaux – after the death of the French painter and writer Michaux – and it was very hard for them to deal with such negative music elements and to deal with such aesthetic hopelessness. And I think it is particularly difficult to work on this idea with musicians, because musicians are mostly very positive, I don't want to say happy, but very optimistic people somehow. And they have a love for their work and their instruments and so on. And to work in such a negative way with people is not so easy.

I am trying to think how you would write a piece of this kind? How would you develop your material? Can it develop at all? I would think not. It is hard to imagine.

I have used for maybe twenty years a specific message which I called accumulative technique. That means that every motive, every part that is written, gives rise to the next element. So everything is dependent on the former elements. It is not like development or variation in the modern sense, because this is on the microlevel. Actually I have no big problems in developing structures, in developing music and time and so on. Because these small particles, they are full of ideas actually, within themselves, which give rise to the next element and the next and the next and so on. So they are connected very tightly. Not at all like serial music. But in a much more microscop level.

Proust-like is what you said once. I found that very helpful. Strano is the first piece where this is applied. The way you describe it in the commentary, gives me the feeling that you yourself were surprised by the piece.

Yes. I would also say that the big orchestra piece, 1984 for orchestra and synthesizers and tapes was one of the earliest pieces. And as you can imagine from the title 1984, the title of a book by George Orwell, it is connected to control mechanisms from the conductor and so on. And then it ends in a very negative way. And I would say perhaps that Après Michaux is one of the most radical pieces in this direction. Actually, in the last twenty or thirty years I have written very few pieces dealing with compositional high qualities, so to speak. Where everything is very clear and defined and so on and exact and has very strong relevance. One example of that type of music is my organ piece Restant from 1986, and there are also some few other parts, but when I work with digital instruments and lasers and very complicated technology, like a piece from 1988 called Silence 20 for tape and laser projections, of course I have to be very exact with the instructions and every element. It is very different to work with technology than it it is to work with living musicians.

We have in the past talked about your pessimistic view on the development of art in general, but I didn't have the feeling that you were particularly upset or angry, but just noticed it as a matter of fact. Would you say that you have a certain calmness regarding this subject? Or is it a strong political agenda?

No, it is not a strong agenda for me now. I am almost seventy years old, and I have not been a part of the Swedish music life or the international music life for more than fifteen years now. So I look at these things from a great distance. And I think the great forces changing musical life nowadays are so extremely strong and have nothing to do with personal ambitions or so. Not even commercial ambitions. The forces are even stronger. It depends on media and the enormous consumption of media and the new materials needed for all that and so on. And I think the culture of music can no longer be seperated from the general development of the society. You cannot have a special life in concert halls any longer. You can try to preserve it as long as possible and you should do that. It is very, very important. But in doing so, you can always relate what you are doing to the general surrounding world around you. And what you feel what you are doing, being a composer arranging a avantgarde festival or whatever, becomes more and more specific. And I think it is also important to carry on the traditions of the past. And I think avantgarde music and even early electronic music and so is part of the tradition. Part of the history. And all my first pieces they are no in a museum for digital art here in Sweden. And it is very strange to have your production in that place. But I think we must have a rather philosophical look at those things.