Das Interview mit Juliana Hodkinson fand am 10. August 2010 spät abends auf dem Balkon ihrer Berliner Wohnung statt.

Interview & Abschrift: Björn Gottstein

There are two pieces I remember that have a specific historical reference: the Webern piece When the wind blows and the Brahms piece I greet you a thousand times.

There are others, The Recital Piece on Schubert and Nicht schnell on Schumann.

OK. When I watched the DVD of I greet you a thousand times my first thought was: why this? Why this worn out clichee of Brahms' crisis while writing his First Symphony? Later on it made more sense.

It is a clichee. Before I started working on the piece I invited visual artist Joachim Koester into the project. I had a commission from the orchestra and I knew I didn't want to do an orchestral piece on my own. I wanted somebody to bring in an extra pair of eyes or another way of looking at the concert situation. Joachim and I decided, OK, let's go to this orchestra then and see how they play and we walked into a concert, the first concert they could get us tickets for, and that was Brahms' First. And we decided: OK, that is what they play, it is what they do, that's their audience and its competence, these are the people we are talking to, these are the musicians, that is what they do every day. So it was a situational choice, one could say. Along the way, after about six months, I did sort of think: Oh, Tchaikovsky would be more fun. But we had decided. Also Joachim is sort of a fundamentalist and works often with documentaries, and that is why I had chosen him, to take things exactly as they are. So that's why. And the decision of using the anecdote: well, if you look at the programme notes for any provincial orchestra playing Brahms' First Symphony, these are the stories that people know, that they expect, that they want to repeat and so on. So that's the anecdote. And it's interesting that this so-called autonomous music is accompanied by such an anecdotal culture.

I can imagine that the approach to Webern was on a different level.

Yeah, that was, of course, more respectful. Not that our choice of Brahms was disrespectful, but the Webern was a more conscious and respectful choice: to take something that is iconic for a number of reasons, for a pianist, for a more narrow public audience segment etc.

Webern is not ridiculed but it seems alienated or decontextualized. You chop up the original score and then you add the toys. Why is it important to have a historical reference for a piece a like that? It seems almost pubertal ...

The combination of the toys and the iconic piece I mean very literally. By putting these things together, I didn't mean one to be a comment on the other or to undermine the other. In my aural situation I felt that they have equally much to say to me. Of course, they say different things to me, but they evoke things for me of an equal status, even though they are coming from different places and have different musical functions. So it was really about putting these things together and seeing what happens. And I hope I didn't, in this piece, give one universe the last word. You always have the problem, of course, when you start off such dialectics, of which side is going to get the last word. But for me it is really about just putting them together and seeing what happens. So it is a way of setting out my working table and putting some objects on it and, if it seems like a pretence of naivity to take objects that are so different and put them together, it is not meant as a provocation from my side. It is just an interest; they say equally much to me. Just as with Brahms, I can equally as much put myself in the audience’s position from the first time I heard Brahms, the first time I went to a concert etc. as well as being the one who has heard it lots of times and is no longer a teenager and not yet a pensioner.

You say: putting objects on the working table. Is that also what you do when you write pieces not using foreign materials? In the piano piece, When The Wind Blows, everything is taken from somewhere else. But the idea of putting an object onto the table and then starting to work with that, is that something you also do in your other pieces?

When I meet an instrument for the first time or an instrumentalist for the first time, I take the instrument as an object and its materiality at face value. The musician is taking it out, unpacking it, showing me what he can do, and all of that is material to me. So the fact that he warms up and uses his Mendelssohn or whatever to get warmed up and the fact that he is practicing these scales and the fact that he is tuning and doing something with his instrument I don't understand and that doesn't sound like music and then he says, now he is ready and we are going to do some contemporary music ...

... and the piece has at that point already started in your head?

Not the piece, but the material. I can use all of that. That is the musician, his instrument, his practice.

In Why Linger You Trembling In Your Shell? you have gestures that remind me of what you just said: the tuning and detuning, the plucking of the open strings. Are those elements that came about in a similar way?

Yes. So the tuning of the instrument is integrated into the piece, and then it causes the piece to fall apart, but then the piece reassembles itself into something that is roughly valid anyway but maybe valid for something else, and is it valid as music or as a performance, I don't know, but to take the materiality of what is going on and to keep recombining these elements in relation to each other.

You mentioned meeting an instrument for the first time. That happens sometimes. You mentioned in one score that you have been working closely with an oboist. I can imagine Natasha Anderson's bass recorder was maybe also such an encounter. Other instruments you might know well; the meeting of the instrument would seem less important. But would it be possible to take this strategy of taking the flip side of music, the warming up etc. as material as something valid in most of your pieces?

I am not sure if that word "strategy" requires that I think I succeed. I am not sure if that is my ambition. Of course, I am doing it for people who sat down to listen to music. But on the other hand most of them were expecting to be surprised or expecting to be disappointed. Of course, it is important for me to work within an aesthetic, artistic context and make some kind of artistic manifestation of all these different thoughts and experiences. Whether it's to be defined as musical or whether I musicalize these sounds or not, I don't have a final standpoint on that, whether that is my goal, whether I think that I am successful at it or whether it is important for me or whether I think it should be important for the listener.

I had already started disagreeing with myself. Your pieces often have some form of narrative. I don't know if you agree.

Yeah, maybe dramaturgy.

You can call it that. There is the narrative in the sense of telling a story. There is a sujet. And it is treated in dramatical way, which has to do with the gestural quality of your music. Do you predefine gestures as material you then compose with or do you write them as the piece goes along and development from the moment?

No, rather the first. In terms of the items that I choose, of course I choose the things that I care about or that interest me. So there is a preselection. And even though it might sound for everybody else that these are peripheral sounds, they are the ones for me that are totally central. The gesture of detuning the instrument, here we are onto something totally essential for me. So that's a predefined thing. The other things are in terms of narrative, dramaturgy, structure. Well, structure is maybe a big word, but of course I work quite hard at it, even though I use simple methods like "we are going to go from A to B so this piece is going to be 10 minutes going from up to down". Even though that might be incredibly simple it is very important for me, if I want to have some events along the way, so that I know that no matter what people make of it, I have them altogether at this particular point. Then I have to know where I am on my way from A to B, whether I am in the middle or the golden section or whatnot. So it is this juggling game (although not in all my pieces), of having this habit of having a very simple structure and nodes where I know I want things to come together. And if I have several processes going on - process is also rather a stiff word - but if we have become aquainted with some materials which have their thing going on, then if I want everybody at this point to be together, I have to work dramaturgically to organize that. So I work quite consciously with that.

It is the dialectics between form and structure.

And it also has a very musical ambition. It is not Klangkunst. I am not working with expanses of time where sounds could meet here or there. There is quite a lot of control going on.

Some of the material you use seems rather telling. Some of it is almost striking, when you have a crescendo and a glissando at the same time, for example. Do you play with effects?

In terms of the crescendo that suddenly then gets a bit of extra impetus and everything is going all-out, there is quite often a timbral aspect or something happens to the sound on the way, for example the strings may all be on an upbow and start crunching the sound and you have another sound quality coming at the end. So it is not just the Hollywood effect and the trumpets are not going to come in. For a lot of years and still now I have been using these exaggerated hairpins to achieve precise stops. There could be more complicated ways of notating it and I explored a lot of ways of bringing sounds to a stop, which requires you to have all the energy going for it. It has been very inspiring for me to work with theatre-makers who use all these cheap tricks and say, "Come on, you have to knock the wall down." I enjoy the energy and I enjoy going for it. But you rarely get that kind of Erlösung.

You don't think very highly of theatre directors.


Just because of the "cheap trick".

But they say that themselves. "I need more here." Set-designer Louise Beck and a director I am working with now, Jakob Schokking, they have had a huge influence on me, not only stylistically but also in getting me to do everything double and ten times and a hundred times more clearly.

Some of your pieces have that background: Harriet's Song and Rhoda's Song are meant to be or can be performed within a play. You work with directors. Has this been there from the very beginning, thinking the music from the stage or screen point of view?

I don't know about "from the beginning", but there have been a lot of years starting around the late nineties. when working with other art forms has given me a lot. And it often resulted in rather ambigious forms for me, because either we were defining a context which was not exactly theatre but instrumental theatre with text or whatever, because we were all trying to define a format, where music would still be more of a major element than it is in theatre normally. A lot of these projects, because they were so fragile and they were so on the edge of every definition and they were exposed to funding cuts and legitimation problems this resulted in a lot of pieces being kind of drawn back and redirected into the concert hall where you can always get it played. So some pieces, like Harriet's and Rhoda's Songs, originated further away from the concert format.

But thinking about the stage or the screen, is that also there when not working with a director?

Well, I see the concert hall as a stage or a screen or a performance space. I really have a hard time presenting my things or letting them be presented in a concert if one is not aware of what the concert format is, or if one hasn't thought about what music in the non-concert format is. So whether I see it as a stage or a screen ...

I guess the question is really, when Brahms writes a c-minor chord, that is an entity in itself. It is not about the pianist sitting on stage. Of course it is, but not in a reflected way, not in the text at least. And in your pieces ...

... there is no c-minor chord.

Of course not. Or there might even be a c-minor chord. That is not the point.

It is always the doing of it. Even though I may conceive things as related to a very specific performance situation, I am aware that these pieces will be translated into other situations and usually they survive, or sometimes they survive and sometimes they fail, and that is interesting, too. They make their way. And they fall on their nose and get up again. But the strength of having considered the context usually goes with it.

And has that become a necessity for you? Or are there also pieces that are confined within the music itself?

2430 There would be a couple of pieces. Sagte er, dachte ich, it came from a book, Thomas Bernhard's Der Untergeher. It is a one-on-one experience with the reader which would be the imaginative world for that. But that would be more or less the only piece, I think.

When talking about sound and material. I don't want to make a catalogue of sounds and gestures you use. It can be unconventional, it can be noiseful. At the same time these sounds are very telling.

Telling. You said the word before. I wonder what you mean.

I guess it has to do with mimesis. Maybe I have been listening to your music too much from moment to moment. For me every moment of your music contains a very precious truth about the world, something I can apply to my experiencing the world. I guess my question is, how are your sounds related to the outside world?

That's hard to answer.

Some composers find it very easy to answer that.

What would be a good answer?

Let me rephrase the question. When you imagine a sound, it is just an isolated sound having to do only with music?

I don't spend so much time thinking about my relationship to music. It is not a big dialogue in my life, me and music. The other thing is, I don't often imagine sounds, I meet them. I find them. Or somebody, a musician, gives me a sound.

How else?

The order is sometimes that I have a vision that usually goes horribly wrong along the way and turns the music against my will. It could be that I have a vision of wanting to recreate, for example, some urban bustling combination of events, or a forest bird-chorus or something like that. And of course nobody would ever "get" that from listening to the final piece. But that is the kind of model that I start off with. I think in Some Reasons For Hesitating I had this idea of some latent thing in the air, where some sounds would come out and others wouldn't, and it would be hard for the listener to focus along the way, but then I had the competing more conventional musical idea that I have to go from A to B, so we start up here and then we go down there and we end in the middle. And the piece resulted from the distance between these two visions. It's music. It doesn't take up a lot of my time thinking about autonomous music.

I can see how that is not important while writing the music. But for the self-conception of the artist it is quite important.

I feel totally unprofessional at that point. Totally. Incompetent.

You are not saying to make yourself more interesting?

Probably. Of course. I had one year of being a guest composition student, but otherwise I haven't visited an academy and I don't know how that works and what goes on there and what is taught. That isn't saying it doesn't interest me and I don't wish and regret and all of that. But I have spent more time hanging out with people who are on the periphery of the art form than at the centre of the academy and its conceptions, and some of what they do is music and some of it is not.

Nonetheless what you produce is a text in the classical sense of the word. And that makes you a composer.

Yeah, and I enjoy doing that.

Is notating important for you?

It was for some years. Now, since I have my kid I don't notate myself or if I do I wish I didn't and try to pay my way out of it. And then I slipped the whole script vanity, writing, notational style went totally down the drain and I started to be more pragmatic about it. But in the late nineties the whole work concept and how I am balancing notation and sound and the completeness of the score and how much is to be defined, that was a millimeter-precision thing, the resketching, over and over again, until it had that ambiguity.

It is also an aesthetic pleasure reading the scores. They are beautiful.

Up until 2004, and then after that it is not.

That is actually true.

From ‚I greet you a thousand times’ I didn't care what kind of program or handwriting was used. "Just get it done." And I am not ashamed of it. Because it goes together with a more pragmatic and more theatrical way of thinking. "OK, you want a punch on the nose? Write a punch on the nose. Don't start arranging the bar lines. Write a punch on the nose."

I think contemporary music as a whole has since 1945 gone through this process you just described. Taking it very seriously, experimenting, finding signs ...

... fetishism

... exactly. And from a certain point on most composers realized, it is not that important. As long as it works for the musician, it is fine.

Whatever works. This may be out of the frame of the interview but moving to Berlin has consolidated this for me. In this piece Some Reasons For Hesitating, which was maybe the high point of my own notation fetishism, there is a fifteen-piece ensemble without a score and that was a demonstrative choice. And all the work that went into that and the first performance and the rehearsals and the pain and the anguish. And then this piece had a few performances and I was really ready to throw it away and think, ah fuck, the ensembles just don't relish this kind of music and this way of working. And then, while I was breast feeding, KNM played it without me going to the rehearsals and I just barely turned up for the concert and I didn't even know if I would make it. And they played it like angels and they were like: "What is the fuss about it? It is selbstverständlich, we can relate to this." And coming here to Berlin and working with some of these musicians individually and together in trios and small constellations, and I am sitting there, I can go, "OK, if I want you to play this, how do you want it notated? What is your favorite sign for cchh?" And they are: "Juliana, whatever. I know you want cchh." That pragmatic approach encouraged me even more to drop the notation fetish.

But this score has not become a paradigm?

No, but it puts my stress level down.

Except at the rehearsals maybe?

But then I am just there. It has never been an ideal situation for me not to be at the rehearsal and to have a universal score so to speak that can just travel without me. In my experience I find that even colleagues who put most of their energy into deterministic notation still do want to be at the rehearsals. And they don't feel separated from it. And they don't say, "I have written it and now you do what you like." They care for the process. I really care for rehearsals. I really love rehearsals. That is where it all happens for me.

But your pieces have been done without you being in the room.


And it worked.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But I'm on my own with that.

Let's talk about sagte er, dachte ich. This construction "sagte er, dachte ich" makes it hard to grasp what is being said, because it's in double quotation marks. What was your fascination with this? And did you try to translate this syntactical construction?

No, I think it is more associative. I don't think I wrote in the programme note, that this is a piece about that. It was an association on my part of this idea of frameworking, like a narrative framework that is in boxes. So you have an original experience, which is nostalgic, melancholy, painful, traumatic, whatever. And through the repetition, both the repetition of remembering, obsessively, and then also the repetition of "this is the story that is told", with all the illusions and extra layers of psychology that come on top of that, then these frameworks become an experience each in themselves, and you never quite know where you are within the framings. You are going around in circles of obsession of "oh my god, can I get out of this?" So it was a relativley intuitive approach to this idea of nostalgia, repetition, self-illusion and so on.

When looking at your titles I had the feeling that it was often referring to states of the possible.

There are a whole lot of "if", "what", "when", that kind of stuff, eventualities.

It became to me a musical subjunctive.

It is very speculative in that way.


It is not only the titles. The whole contract that you go into, that I am going into as a composer, I have a contract with my score, and the score is a contract with musicians, these musicians, any musicians, people who read it, people who don't read it, the relation between reading it and hearing it. All these different relations are some kind of risk that we go into with the best possible meanings, but knowing that you have to take it as it comes.

"Meaning" as in "intention"?

Yeah. I have my intention, and I know that the listener has another intention, and the musician has another one. I hope that in some ideal state we can converge on something which might not be the same thing, but has some value. And these kinds of speculation on what we all might get out of treating the violin with a ping-pong ball and a feather, what could we get out of that, all of us? Is there any likelihood of us converging on this? (lacht) Firstly, will it all happen together? Can you control the action? Secondly, if it all happens and it goes ka-bum-wush, then what? What do we get out of that?

But still, overall, I don't want to say "fragile" because that is just a clichee, but your music does have the quality of not already knowing the answer to the question the composition is raising. You are only giving one of many possible answers. And that's different to listening by some testosterone-driven composer, let's say Boulez or Stockhausen. They know the answer to the question they have raised.

If I knew the answer I couldn't be bothered to write the piece. Because it is a kind of exploration. So even though I am controlling all I can control, and trying to pretend that this is a score that is finished, that I will meet the deadline, that I know what I am doing and I am a professional, all of that, even then it doesn't interest me that much if I know what is going to happen. So I give it to Ringela Riemke or whoever, and then something else is going to happen as well. So some things, some of my intentions will survive as I intended, others will take a detour, and then something else will happen, and I just hope I set up a situation that kind of guarantees that something will happen (lacht) and that it will be worth spending time on.

That is very modest.

No, no, no. I don't mean it with modesty at all. It just really honestly doesn't interest me to know what I am going to say. That was one of the challenges with I Greet You..., working with this documentary way of "OK, we want to get the audience from here to there and there we have this section" and we had a lot of debate. That is not to say I am not happy with how it ended and everything, but it was about, how much can we calculate that people ... Joachim was: "I know my viewer and if you do this and this and this then the people will come out on the other side like that." And it was great to work with that kind of confidence. But I don't have it. And I don't go around trying to earn it. And I am sure that when I am 93 I won't be more confident on that point. I won't know my listener any better.

Do you know your pieces before you write them? You were talking about plans, you make in advance. Do your pieces surprise you?

Yeah. Absolutely.

So the outcome is open when you start the piece?

No. It's not "outcome". Otherwise you couldn't be surprised. I have an idea, and it goes wrong. Or it turns into something else. Or something else comes along. And maybe afterwards I find, "Oh yeah, that original idea is kind of there, but hey, something else happened as well." This is a very unmusicological way of talking.

I am sorry I am a musicologist. I can't do anything about it just now. I wanted to ask one more thing about titles and sujets: the earth, the stone, the water. Why is that important?

There are two titles. There is Water Like a Stone and Earth Stood Hard As Iron.

And Machine à eau.

That's true. Water Like a Stone came from a Christmas carol, an English Christmas carol, a Christina Rosetti text, and it was a commission for a Christmas project, a Christmas piece. The title was a line from the Christmas carol. It's freezing, "water like a stone", I can relate to that.

You have maybe never jumped from a 10 meter diving board. I wouldn't have thought of Christmas.

The sound of that carol is also in the piece. So for an English audience, which probably has never heard the piece, that would be quite obvious. Earth Stood Hard As Iron is a personal variation, a little cryptic, but it is another line from the same carol, and I was working with a similar compositional idea, I didn't expect that anybody would actually link that up. And Machine à eau, that was the name of the building in Belgium that the piece was written for.

OK. So the question can be discarded. What else was I going to ask? Ah, Sonic Bricks. What is that?

4830 That is my next baby. (Actually, I have a running bet with the sound designer about how many children he will have by the time Sonic Bricks gets into production). It has been hatching since 2006. I had a vision for a kind of music theatre, for want of a better word, a thing I wanted to do made up of a lot of fragments that are related in some complex way. I went to a director with this idea, and we have been working on it. We have had three workshops now, one with KNM, another with actors, text and space and visuals just using recordings of KNM, and the third one just putting it all together into some kind of a full format. It is a rather extravagant project, also technically and in terms of budget and production and everything.

Who else is involved?

I am the composer. But it is collaborative. Me and the director Jacob Schokking are working it out together. And we have some text by Ursula Andkjær Olsen and other sources, which of course we are cutting up and putting back together.

Is there a masterplan?

There are several provisional and successive masterplans. But it is also an exploration. So if we knew the Masterplan, we wouldn't do it. That is why all these workshops, even though not all of them are totally groundbreaking in terms of "you have never seen this before". But the combination, it is the combination, what we are trying to do is build up this archive or library of sonic and visual and gestural and whatnot elements which we can recombine and recombine and recombine. So even though they start off by having nothing to do with each other, just through recombination they begin to talk to each other. And this idea of the material talking back as you start to recombine it, it's the deluxe version of that. In all media. Or at least, in several media. In dance also. And text. Text bricks. So for every medium we have bricks, a whole archive of text bricks, and Sonic Bricks ... It is very painful, this project, because we tackled it the way we did and because of the nature of it, it is expensive and it is really hard to write project descriptions that give lots of money. It would be much easier if we said, "it's about: A meets B". So it was due to be finished and premiered early next year, but now we are looking at 2012. So it is a bit of a sore point. It is my megalomania.

I was surprised by the results. They were all very unique.

Which ones do you mean?

The ones I found on the website.

Ah. Right. That is what I mean with this idea of working with bricks and recombining them. We take the texts from one of those five pieces and use it with a totally different music and then combine a really loud piece Scrape with a text that is all about it being too quiet. All this kind of stuff. Rather schizophrenic. It might be a huge flop or we will get it done one day and finish it.

And become world famous.

I don't know about that. But it would be nice to get it done.

Do you like short forms?

It is a new thing for me.

New? Some of your pieces seem rather short. Maybe it's just the scores that are short.

The match-stick pieces, they take quite a long time, actually.

That's true. The reading impression is different.

I am getting into shorter forms now, like with the Webern piece, but other than that is has been pretty much the conventional new-music ten-minute thing. Which in Germany is twenty minutes.

No. Twenty minutes are long even here.

I feel more überfordert here than for example in Denmark.

Maybe you can write 15 or 16 minutes of music. But when you write 20 you better have something important to say.

This is what I get from theatre people. They can tell when nothing new is going on, and they have short attention spans. "Juliana, get it going!" (lacht)