Interview with Bettina Skrzypczak

Deutsche Version

  • What do you feel when you confront a blank sheet of paper?

A feeling of joyous anticipation of something I'm going to discover and also a feeling of responsibility for the decisions I'm about to make. I regret that I can't realize the plethora of ideas that come to me in front of that empty page quickly enough.

  • Does that mean your conception changes even as you write?

No, I carry the composition around with me for a while and perhaps make a few little sketches. When I have the feeling the idea has matured, I begin to write. The actual writing process is the second stage. It's preceded by the more important part of my work, thinking about the piece.

  • How do you conceive compositions in your mind? Do you imagine structures, something visual, something physical, or are you more inclined to follow a feeling of form?

That depends, but as a rule I go out from a feeling of momentum, of process, of development. I sense this process more and more clearly as a work germinates. But movement or emotional states would be appropriate terms as well. That is my point of departure. Then comes the intellectual work, for everything must be ordered and defined. And observed - it's important to subject one's own ideas to critical examination.

  • The processive aspect is evidently important to you. How does that manifest itself in a work?

For instance, in developments I can achieve by structuring timbres. Or in process as dynamic form, as constant transformation: full of potential surprises, leaving enough latitude, space for something incomplete.

  • Do you think in parameters or in more holistic concepts?

In holistic concepts. Harmonic transformation plays a major role in extended formal progressions. The harmonic structure is designed to allow 'gentle transformation', successive change, to take place. In other words, new elements are added, others disappear; or - an idea that has been preoccupying me - there are movable clouds in which harmonic changes occur. These shifts can be continuous or unexpected, but an inner logic is always there. Sometimes I need to establish fixed points of reference. The spaces created between these fixed points are shaped only as I write. In some cases an aleatoric principle may be involved: I can anticipate how often something will happen in a certain passage, but just how that something will look is a spontaneous decision. The important thing is to define the overall framework, the process as a whole. The details, the atoms, can still be shaped differently, but as lively and important as they may be, they are nonetheless subordinate to the overall process.

  • What principles of order do you apply to the material in processive sequences of the kind you describe?

I construct several chords or vertical blocks - not according to specified proportions, more on the basis of intuition. I conceive a rough idea of them and notate them. They have to correspond to my 'mood' at the time. Every chord could be said to possess a certain 'mood'. But I also observe the structure, of course. Both aspects are always present.

  • So you're in a certain mood today and translate it into chords. And if you're in a different mood tomorrow, what happens to the chordal material?

When I start a new piece, I'm always sure of what I'm going to write, and it stays as it is. It's like a coherent dream. I dreamt a piece once, a whole orchestral work; that was fantastic. Unfortunately I never wrote it down. That is a means of grasping everything at once. There are feelings that comprehend everything in a single instant, the way memory can recreate the experience of ten years in a single moment.

  • Speaking of dreams: in your choral work "Acaso", you've set texts dealing with dreams.

Not with specific dreams, but with the nature of dreams, their boundless, unfathomable, processive, mysterious quality.

  • Do you think that dreams have the potential to comprehend something more clearly on the intuitive level than rational consciousness can?

Yes. In Acaso I looked for texts revolving round conceptions of dreams, of vastness. The essence of these texts practically defies definition. The only thing to do is to try and write music that bears some similarity to what they circumscribe and that achieves the same ends by other means.

  • These texts open up semantic fields that partially overlap: they deal with stars, constellations, the sky, infinity, conceptions of space, dreams. For instance, the orchestral piece "SN 1993 J". 'SN' stands for supernova, in other words, a celestial phenomenon. How do the sound and structure of the music relate to that?

I don't write programme music. But sometimes events assume significance because they set off a train of thought. In this case it was a small item in the paper about a new star. I was impressed by the contrast between the dry note and the enormity of the event it described. But I also had purely musical ideas that corresponded to it: ideas of animated harmonic fields and of the alternation between chaotic and ordered structures.

  • The motto of the piece seems indicative of its underlying idea.

'What is it like? Where does its meaning lie concealed?' That truly unsettled me. But I've always had a feeling for the stars. I like to look at the starry sky at night. It's something that exists in our knowledge, our consciousness, but that we can never fathom. I yearn for what we cannot comprehend, cannot experience.

  • How could that longing be interpreted aesthetically? As a romantic escape from reality? As the quest for a reality unlike the nightmare we live in?

No. More as a fascination with what cannot be seen - not escape, but hope.

  • What kind of hope?

For something new, a new world, new discoveriesÉ a difficult question. One example: space. If one has a feeling for a large space, that always implies the hope of being able to fill that space. The unfulfilled. I need a sense of constantly seeking. Recognizing something, grasping it, and then moving on. The joy of discovery, of participation, of discovering life that way.

  • Always keeping in mind that this is happening in art and not in the immediacy of life.

The two domains can't be separated. They form a unity. One's compositions are akin to a diary of what one experiences in everyday life, little as one may realize it. The situation is probably different for older, more experienced composers. I can imagine that when they hear their earlier works, they're amazed at what they've experienced and how much they have changed in the course of time.

  • Your acoustic ideas are evidently always connected with some form of spatial, three-dimensional awareness.

I think very spatially. And there are, naturally, diverse ways of translating this into music. Those are the possibilities I'm after. Timbre is certainly one of the most important factors.

  • Is that where your predilection for orchestral compositions comes from?

I've gradually come to realize that large-scale means aren't the only approach to dealing with space. A solo work can achieve it in a different way. But I have a great affinity for the orchestra and love to write for it.

  • What do you find so appealing about it?

Firstly, the broad spectrum of colours. And then, with an orchestra, the players can be used individually or in groups - like chamber music only more complex. I like to compose orchestral music that transfers some of the responsibility to the individual players. That demands unwavering concentration, of course, and very attentive listening. Sadly, not all orchestra musicians have honed their awareness to that extent yet. Some of them grumble, others are enthusiastic.

  • What traditions do you hark back to?

The twentieth century is often said to have been informed by two main currents: on the one hand, Schoenberg and the Vienna School, and on the other, Stravinsky and the French tradition of tone colouring, going out from Debussy. The second approach is much closer to me. And the colourist quality of the Polish music of the Sixties appeals to me as well. What a pity I wasn't alive then.

  • You're still considered a 'young composer', but you already teach music history at a conservatory, where you meet musicians who are half a generation younger again. Do you already encounter perspectives there that are new to you?

Their world is the world I 'anticipated'. It's expressed even more clearly now, and that's why I feel comfortable in it. The crucial point is that new values are gaining importance. For example, freedom is understood differently today. It's no longer experimental in the sense of opening up new spaces; they've largely been discovered. Today freedom lies less in the quest than in the decisions to be made.

  • The so-called postmodern situation, where anything goes, is often invoked today.

Yes, pluralism. There was a point when everything was developing and everything was permitted - wonderful. But now a time is coming to think: in all this diversity I finally have to decide for something. For something that suits me and that I consider the most important thing. And then I must be able to justify that decision, which gives even greater substance to the word 'responsibility'. That is the historical situation today.

This interview with Max Nyffeler was done in 1996. It was published in the series "Composers in Switzerland" by Pro Helvetia, Swiss Council for the Arts.

Dasselbe Interview in deutscher Sprache