Peter Ruzicka and the boundaries of consciousness | Music | DW | 04.10.2010
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Peter Ruzicka and the boundaries of consciousness

Poetry becomes music in acclaimed composer Peter Ruzicka's work, but is new music too obscure for most listeners? Ruzicka talked with DW about his influences and making contemporary compositions accessible.

Composer Peter Ruzicka

Poetry must be "permeable" to be set to music, said Ruzicka

German composer, conductor and music manager Peter Ruzicka has been involved with many prestigious orchestras and ensembles in Europe. From 2001 to 2006, he was artistic director of the Salzburg Festival. This year, he is the Beethovenfest Bonn's composer-in-Residence. He discussed his work with Deutsche Welle.

Deutsche Welle: The motto of this year's Beethovenfest is "Into the Open," a quotation from German poet Friedrich Hoelderlin. Many of your compositions also draw from literary sources. Is music no longer self-explanatory?

Peter Ruzicka: For many decades, the development of the musical material itself was more important than connecting music with words or literature. Think about the major works in the 1950s and '60s: Stockhausen, Ligeti, Nono.

But today, that's different - composers feel freer. We just have to be careful that the texts we use are "permeable," meaning not too self-contained. If the text is too esoteric for the listener, then the music can't have any impact. As a composer, I’ve tried to combine the text with the music in a way that’s logical but also rewarding.

You've suggested that about 80 percent of poetry is not suitable for being set to music. What makes Hoelderlin or Celan's poetry different?

Perhaps I’ll say something about the connection between Celan and Hoelderlin first: I heard that the last book Celan read before committing suicide was a biography on Hoelderlin. It contains this melancholy line, "The spirit that grows dark." That line marks a moment of departure.

Friedrich Hoelderlin (1779-1843)

Ancient mythology plays an important role in the work of Friedrich Hoelderlin (1779-1843)

There's a very direct connection between the two poets, even though they're separated by more than a century. It's a matter of fragile elements that reflect some aspect of life and of our recollection of those traces in history. Celan's work reflects the 20th century's biggest wound - the Holocaust. And Hoelderlin conceptualized a new relationship between people and nature and had a liberated vision of life. Those qualities are significant for us today because they're forward-looking. For me, they've been influential.

You're currently at work on your next piece, an opera. Are the thoughts you just described part of the background for the work?

I have a vision for an opera that will continue down the same path as my cello concerto titled "Across the Border." It will be about the boundaries of consciousness. I've talked with people who were in terrible accidents and described the sense of floating away and then being forced to return. They did so against their will because they were experiencing something beautiful.

I want the opera's theme to be crossing seemingly intractable boundaries, with all the difficulties involved in staging that vision convincingly. I hope that it will work out.

You met Paul Celan personally in Paris just three months before his suicide. What sort of experience was that?

It was my first direct encounter with death. Even though I wasn't actually there when he died, I experienced it in a very real way. The encounter was deeply troubling. I was very young at the time - a "Parsifal," so to speak - but it was one of the most important moments in my life.

I wanted to know what brought about his death, and that sharpened my sense of history. I would say that meeting Celan taught me much more about history than so-called history classes in school. There, a great deal was suppressed or forgotten - after all, that was in the 1950s and '60s.

Peter Ruzicka at the opening of the Salzburg Festival in 2005

As the former head of the Salzburg Festival, Ruzicka is well-versed in music events

You've spent your life switching between being an impresario and festival director to composer and musician. Is it no longer possible these days to be a "full-time" composer?

In our society, I feel it's a big problem. This summer, I led a course for 10 young composers at the Rostock University of Music and Theater. We were composing string quartets, and I asked them all at the beginning, "Can you, should you and do you want to live as freelance composers in our country?" And the answer was surprisingly unanimous: "Yeah! We want to give it a shot."

But I'm happy that they have that kind of optimism. It's different in Germany than in Scandinavian countries, for instance, where the state offers grants for composers to work. In our society, you have to be brave to put yourself out there. Most people take another route. They teach and then compose in their free time.

Modern music is written in such a way that it's only understood by a fraction of the population…

One possible solution is in better communication and presentation. Wherever I've been in charge - in Hamburg at the opera and at the Salzburg Festival, for instance - I've expended a lot of effort on music outreach. That means offering introductions and explanations of the pieces performed, ideally with the composer present. I also worked hard to create programs with a logical connection between traditional music and new music - "composed programs," so to speak.

When those strategies work, then there are no more barriers for the audience, and the program is a success. I think there are a lot of prejudices out there, and directors need to take the right steps to overcome people's hesitation.

Interview: Anastassia Boutsko (gsw)

Editor: Rick Fulker

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