Rods and Strings: performing for a virtual audience


An Interview with Franz Martin Olbrisch


Berliner Franz Martin Olbrisch is no stranger to the Darmstadt Ferienkurse. He has been a composition teacher in 1994, 2004, 2006 and 2010 and again this year, and has had many performances of both instrumental and sound installation works. This familiarity with the Ferienkurse is easy to see in his most recent work, Rods and Strings. This work, for a modular ensemble of 1 to 20 players, presents the audience with sound objects that they can manipulate, videos and photos from past Darmstadt Summer Courses, and an ensemble performing with live electronics. I recently spoke to Franz Martin about this work, his inspiration, and the process of presenting it at the 2014 Darmstadt Ferienkurse.

Rods and Strings is a work for a modular ensemble, so did you conceive this piece as a whole or were you already thinking of particular smaller groupings while composing? Is this the first work where you have used an ensemble in this way?


Before I started to compose I had an idea for a special piece. Six years prior at the Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik, I did a version of the idea where you present a concert in a completely different situation, let's call it an installation or whatever, in a gallery or museum venue where the listener moves around and is mostly alone or with a few other audience members in the room, and has a free space to walk and listen and observe. In Witten there were only three situations, an installation without sound objects, only with speakers and video. It was performed many times in the festival with performers ranging from school ensembles up to seasoned professionals from the Arditti Quartet and Klangforum, for example. I wanted to take this idea a step further for Darmstadt.


I brought this idea to Thomas Schäfer, because Darmstadt is also a situation where you have a range of different players. But, it is nearly impossible to plan exactly what will happen before the call for participants is closed and we had to finalize plans long before. You cannot say how many violins you will have, in which projects they are involved, or if they will have additional time for additional projects. So the idea was to say "OK, we have a lot of different players so I make a score for the instrumentalists that can be realized in different ways."


Normally we compose a piece and the piece is a piece, and there are some works in our history, from the twentieth century and also before, which can be realized with different people, but if you have a piece for five instruments you have must have five instruments. Or with a Renaissance ensemble, maybe they change instruments but they play the same notes. And my idea was to say, "How can it work? If I have a large ensemble, it must work as an ensemble, but if I only have a few players, it must also work as a trio or so." The whole ensemble is for 20 players, but when I started on this project I was already familiar with the room [the Kunsthalle]. If I put 20 players in the room, there is no space for the audience. For me the solution was to build ensembles from the 20 parts in the score.


This is a special thing to have to think about as you compose; it is not easy. Some problems that earlier composers had – for example in the Renaissance and before with polyphonic music, to bring line and harmony together – we don't have this problem. To compose a piece like Palestrina or Josquin des Prez, for example... it's very, very hard. We know from our studies as music students how to make stylistic copies; we can make a short example of that but it has nothing to do with the original. Also textbooks, like Jeppesen's text on polyphony: after studying the book for a year or two I wondered why the examples sound nothing like the original, like Palestrina; it's two different worlds. With the style we have now I think it's a little bit like boxing. If you learn boxing without a partner, you have no response, and I think as a composer you need a response. We grow up with the problems we have and if we don't have problems, it is too easy.


This was also a way to put myself under pressure. Once I understood the problem, I started to focus on special lines, for example the first flute in this ensemble is a focus, as is the first violin. These and a few other parts are possible to play as a solo. And this solo piece is completely different from the ensemble piece, but it must also work within the complete ensemble piece. To manage all these things was the main problem in this composition. When I started the project, I thought about making it for a longer duration, maybe for one hour or more. The installation requires quite a bit of set up, so to make it just a few minutes long makes no sense; it must be for a whole evening concert. The other part of this is the combination of the installation with what I call the 'media situation'. In Rods and Strings I altered the installation from the Witten festival; there are more sound objects, using sounds like an artist, each object only doing what it can naturally.


Does the flexibility of the ensemble size complement the multi-media aspect of the sound installation?


When the ensemble comes in we have videos. I have a historical perspective on the Summer Courses in Darmstadt, which means the material from the videos comes from the summer courses. I also have some pictures from the summer courses on the wall. It's only visual, and I have a digital frame with some papers: documents, letters from Darmstadt written by students or teachers from the Institute. When the ensemble comes in, what you see on the videos are people – some well known, some not well known – and they are listening to the music. The videos are of the lecturers: they present pieces and listen to the music... a kind of virtual audience on the wall.


The visual element of this work seems to sum up the history of the Darmstadt Courses. Are you transporting the audience back in time, or perhaps bringing the past to the present, or something else?


Often in 'sound art' we create a piece for a specific venue, it makes no sense to create a piece with videos from Darmstadt and transport it anywhere else. It is an exhibition from Darmstadt. It has to do with this space, with this history, with what happens here. For me it is like a link in a computer system; it is possible to use the link or not. For example, I can be influenced by the link to Darmstadt history, but I can also say it is not important.


What does the title "Rods and Strings" refer to?


The title refers to the acoustical differences between 'rods' and 'strings'. However, they may be interchangeable, as happens when the string becomes stronger and is not under tension. We know this phenomenon very well from the piano: as the piano strings go up they become rods, especially in the highest register. It is an acoustical problem that has been very well researched by many people. It was my idea to deal with this acoustical question. I had, in fact, a seminar in Dresden to deal with this very problem. We researched what happens when we do a kind of physical modeling – what happens inside the material acoustically and how it alters the sounds.


For the sound objects we have strings; maybe the spring [a large Slinky which is one of the sound objects] could also be a rod or something in between, but it has to do with this idea. As I worked on the piece and thought about what kind of sounds to use, I thought it would be better to use basic acoustic phenomena in this media installation so all the harmonics in the ensemble are coming from what happens in strings and rods, mostly in rods. For me it is very interesting because we always think we have a natural harmonic system, but what we call the natural harmonic system is only a system from the strings. For example, the harmonics presented by the amplified flute are manipulated into the harmonics from rods. This is the electronic aspect of the piece.


Rods and Strings will be premiered on Thursday 14 August 2014 in the Kunsthalle in two ensemble groupings. The first is a string ensemble and the second is a wind trio of soprano saxophone and two flutes, which by contrast are neither strings nor rods.

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By Geoffrey Landman
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