Interview with Georges Aperghis


"The composer is his first critic. He knows the reality of things" (Georges Aperghis)


Hearing Georges Aperghis' music can be, no doubt, a memorable experience. Meeting him is another one, even better perhaps ... The interview that follows took place on one of the benches at the entrance of the Akademie für Tonkunst, during a lovely sunny afternoon.

Sounds from the trams, high-pitched sounds from a saxophone player rehearsing, chatter and laughter in the background.
The interview came at the end of a long day Aperghis had spent with young composers.
It also took place before the "Aperghis at Night" concert at the Central Station, but that's another story...


[The interview was conducted in French and has subsequently been translated into English.]


You have taken part in the Darmstadt Festival Summer courses for more than 8 or 10 years. Is there an assessment that you could make of these years in terms of the evolution of the composition's approach that you have noticed in the young composers' works with whom you are working?


Of course, there are very different tendencies that we can find in the works of these young composers. It seems to me that composers used to be much more attached to compositional matrices or to mathematical and algorithmic structures. I used to see very narrowly specialized researches. Now, based on what I am seeing, it is as if we are witnessing a return to a certain spontaneity in writing music. There are young composers who are not seeking to use a very structured language and who are obeying their instincts. A lot of them use the piano when composing in order to search for intervals or chords they are interested in. I was quite surprised this year seeing this, specially here in Darmstadt, which is considered to be the temple of a certain sophistication.


Does this constitute a kind of a return to some aesthetics inherited from the past?


Not necessarily. There are some young composers who have digested things ... Evidently, in the case of some composers who lay claim to being spontaneous, we are in some cases in the presence of a poverty of language. They must, at the same time as being spontaneous, be able to be much more structured. During the time I have been coming here to Darmstadt there were some composers who surprised me with their maturity. I think of Prins for instance. There is also an Iranian composer whom I met few days ago, another New-Yorker ...


When discussing your oeuvre and your style, we might start with the following question: what does tradition mean for you? Do you consider yourself to belong to a certain tradition?


Yes, but this tradition is really vast. It is not limited to the occidental one. My whole story is based on experiences lived in different countries: in Asia, in Africa, in South America and in Europe evidently. Let's say that this entire corpus makes of us persons who are attached or bounded to things we have heard or read. If there is something I am really attached to, it is this one: to never go back to the past and to what has been done during the years since [the Second World] War.


Renewing the listening experience


Your works seek to reach a renewal of the listening experience. You also give an importance to indeterminacy. Tell me more about the surprise that you try to reach in the final work.


Well, if you want to surprise someone else, if you want to renew the listening, you have to start being surprised yourself. You have to gather the conditions that make you surprised. From a long time ago, this is the thing I keep looking for. Once you have set and put down a certain number of ideas, of plans, the issue is how to implement the "machine" – I call this a machine - an engine that starts distributing things in spite of me. It is this engine that will say that that thing will start here and that other thing will be there ... At a certain point, there is a kind of complexity that takes place and that escapes me. How do I react as a composer? Should I stick to my initial plan and continue without taking into consideration the new ideas that emerge, or should I say that I will follow these new ideas even if I get lost or if I lose the work? I like very much being lost. I like taking risks. But this will create problems I did not have at the beginning of the compositional process. Often from one problem to another, we reach the "why" of the piece. The very first idea is then revisited throughout this infernal circuit and this makes the work richer, even though it changes it a lot. This happens when the process works.


Some other times, I am dealing with works that I call "born-sick works". The process starts in a normal way and then it gets blocked somewhere. Despite some attempts to find a solution, it remains a sort of trial to find the real subject of the work and to diagnose its disease.
There are some happy days and some others more sad. That's how life is ...


Going back to the surprise you try to establish, it is not just intended for the public but to the musicians themselves too. You have mentioned in one of your courses here in Darmstadt that when premiering a work there is always this surprise that is present and is due to the fact that musicians have not yet appropriated the work. But after performing the work several times, you keep searching for this surprise element, to recreate it ...


Yes, indeed. I was talking to a composer who brought a work of musical theatre. I am one of several composers who work on the tension, the tension of the difficulty. The technical difficulty is not here for granted but is here to create a tension that we loose when performing the work for numerous time. The musician will then feel more confortable and less tense, and the work will be then less interesting. What could be the solution? I do not know yet. Maybe to find things that could come later on: to add things to the work after performing it a number of times in concerts. There could be some difficult parenthesis that could be added or measures to be replaced by others, etc. I have never done this, but I have always thought about the way of finding the tension we have as musicians when we do not know the piece very well.


When speaking about the musicians, you seem to find an important part of your inspiration from the musicians you are writing for. How do you look to this relationship of composers and interpreters?


It is an essential relationship because the musicians are the ones carrying the work. It is they who are performing the work and "breathing" it. They are linked to the work even when I do not know them, when they live abroad. I always think about them. I am in contact with them by phone or mail. I am always demanding in terms of information regarding them, their possibilities, etc. Not necessarily to follow the direction they choose; sometimes I go against them. When dealing with some very strong personalities I try sometimes to find the subtlety they have or vice versa. It is very important to me to know who will be performing the work for the first time. For further performances, the work will have its own life.


There is the pleasure of writing, of rehearsing, but there is also the pleasure of knowing what I can I do or what I can't do depending of the musicians I am writing for.


Composition technique and "Matrices"


Let us approach the compositional technique you use in your works. I would like you to speak about what you call the "matrices", these sorts of reservoirs of compositional techniques, of the leftovers you have not used in your previous works and to which you resort when writing a very new work.


I do not know how my other composer colleagues deal with this issue. Indeed, when composing a work, I keep what I call "matrices": small engines that can give birth to polyphonies or musical structures, etc. They can be compared to software programs. Thanks to this software I can have this or that idea. In order to realize new ideas, I start by using a program that I had, and I transform it – in the same way than the computer researchers do – to find the idea. When I use this matrix it will give birth to another new one, which will be transformed after a while. I always work with some existing materials. I have hundreds of matrices.


Can we consider in this sense that there is a kind of continuity from one work to another? An invisible link between the works?


Yes ... I always have the impression when composing a new work that I should deal with a new idea. I am at that moment very excited. But finally when hearing the piece, I say to myself that it is coming from the same man who is following his path. There is an excitement that we create for ourselves, as composers, to be someone who is discovering completely new things. This can help composing and writing. When we reach the end, compared to the idea of the beginning - where we had the impression of reaching the moon - we discover that we went just to the street nearby... (laughter). But when we realize this, it is often too late ... The work is then finished ... (laughter).


Does this apply to the "sick-born works" you mentioned earlier?


There are works, we know we realized 50% of what we wanted to realize when starting to compose. With other works, we realize 90 or 95%, and this is a real pride. It gives me the impression that I am unassailable. Even if I was told that people do not like the work or they find the work boring, I am not hurt because I know that I realized the idea that I had in mind. There are other works that I have lost while working. The issue of their realization is not the problem. It is the question of the problem that points out the work that is lost. It is then a work for nothing. Often, the public does not make the difference between the two types of works. But I know deep in myself that it is a lost work.


Even if the reception of the work is positive ...


Yes, exactly. Even if the public is happy, I know that they are happy for not much. We as composers know very well what we are doing. This is why I think that the composer is his first critic. When people compliment or criticize we know very well the reality of things.


"Unfinished" works ...


Going back to the question of a finished work from an aesthetical point of view. When do you consider a work as finished?


This is a mystery ... I have talked about that question with some composers. Painters say the same thing too: there is something that happens and that makes us feel that the work is done, that we have explored all the combinations, the possibilities and that we finished talking about these subjects. And at the same time, there is the opposite face of this issue: I say to myself that if I did not have a deadline, I would have never finished the work. I would always find new things ... It becomes somehow an imaginary work since it will never be played because never finished ... This is Giacometti's answer, saying of his works that it is not finished but it has to be exhibited ...


Is this the idea of a completed work, rather than a finished one, as the French poet Paul Valéry used to say about poetry: " A poem is never finished, it is only abandoned ..."? ("Un poème n'est jamais fini, mais seulement abandonné ...")


I think that art works are like pebbles that mark the path that ends with the composer's or the writer's or the painter's death. It is these pieces that make history.


We notice a difference between the works that you intend to concert halls and the ones dedicated to music theatre. The later ones are maybe much more open and experimental. Is this difference between these two categories clear for you? Does it define the problematic related to the composing process?


These are the constraints proper to a musician's life. When you compose for an ensemble used to perform contemporary music, you know that you can take some risks, because you know they will do it as well. But when you write for a big orchestra, even though it is an excellent orchestra, since you do not have much time to rehearse, you cannot go so deep. My works for the orchestra are not really simplified but have a different nature.


On the other hand, I take time to rehearse the works of music theatre. I can get lost and find again myself with the performers. It is a completely different attitude. I take the risks of arriving with fragments of texts and music, and to finish the work in the theatre. Sewing together the fragments and the lights and the texts and the behaviors of the performers.


If you fix the music before, you oblige it to follow the other parameters. But if the music is conceived with the other parameters, everything becomes organic. But in order to complete it this way, you have to rehearse for a month or a month and a half. It is not even a rehearsal - it is the making of the piece.


Music of the words


In written or vocal works, the text is almost never – perhaps even never – absent. Why is it so important for you to rely on this component?


There are some works in which I do not use texts. But there are often texts in the other works. I am often interested by both language and speech. Even when there is a voice singing or an instrument playing I cannot imagine it other than as an avatar of the speech or as a mask of the speech. This is why I do not hear melodies in my head. It is something I cannot understand. I like melodies very much but I do not succeed in writing them. For me it is the rhythms of words from different languages, the different ways of talking, or of whispering... it is something that I have dealt with for a long time.


These texts sometimes say something, but other times do not mean anything. You speak of "music of the words" ...


I think that there is one. We realize this when we hear for the very first time a language that we do not understand. We first hear a music. It is a substance. If we cut into this substance, and if we make out of it a mosaic based on musical principles, we will get musical monodies or polyphonies. There are colours and music in these words or phonemes. The problem is that when putting two consonants and two vowels next to each other you expect to get a sense out of it. Something that could look like a word that you know. Here the music loses its abstract aspect because concrete things come to disrupt it. What can be done? There are plenty of possibilities: you can leave the original sense but then immediately contradict, like a red herring, to lose the listener and to find him later on, etc. The particularity of the words (la parole) remains in the fact that it can say something very precise. This is why I am really interested in it.


There is an expression of yours that "music appears when language reaches its own limit" ...


We find this with the great writers, the great "stylists" like Flaubert and Céline and Proust. Suddenly, you have music. We can read paragraphs without understanding them. We have to read them afterwards in order to understand their true meaning. We can find it too in the writings of Beckett who used to work in a very musical manner. There are the same substances that come back like a spiral. There are things that are being added, others that are taken apart...


Since the '90s you have used technology in your works like video, electronics, treatment of the sound in real time, etc. What caused this shift, compared to a period characterized by other forms like musical theatre, forms that are much "classical" ...?


Yes, more archaic and more acoustic I would say. It occurred when I noticed that I could use electronics and videos as if it was emanating from the voice and from the human body. Not as a thing that comes from nowhere. I am like St.Thomas, I need to see so I can believe. If I do not see who is doing what and where the sound is coming from, it is as if it does not exist for me. And I did not want at all to do this. But when I realized that it can come from the body or from the hands or from the voice, then I was really interested! It started to interest me through the voice, because I said to myself that I can do things with electronics that the voice cannot do: I can extend a spoken sound over a long time, I can have a long chain of words from the voice, I can manipulate registers, I can superimpose voices, etc., but also dispose syllables in a sort of a haphazard treatment.


You speak about a musical poetic particular to electronics ...


Yes, because there is an emotion but it comes from beyond nature. It is the same kind of emotion we feel when seeing a robot crying or dying – like in Kubrick's 2001: Space Odyssey. When we hear voices that cannot say or sing things, there is still an emotion. It is as if we are hearing bel canto without it being bel canto.


Tarek Kai

By Tarek Kai

"The composer is his first critic. He knows the reality of things" (Georges Aperghis)


Hearing Georges Aperghis' music can be, no doubt, a memorable experience. Meeting him is another one, even better perhaps ... The interview that follows took place on one of the benches at the entrance of the Akademie für Tonkunst, during a lovely sunny afternoon.