Ludger Brümmer

[The first part of this interview was made in 2006 in Montréal at a festival for the 80th anniversary of Francis Dhomont.]

Asymmetry: I first heard your music on the Ex machina CD with La cloches sans vallées. The music is so immediately compelling, and at the same time you can listen to it over and over again, and it never gets old.

Brümmer: I tried to include in that piece a kind of richness or counterpoint inside the structure. I don’t currently do it purposely as much, but at that time, 1992, my idea was to have this richness like an orchestra score where you have several layers of information, not all of it really worth hearing, but the combination creating groups of voices or certain lines or patterns, or whatever. When you hear it first, you start with the melody and the harmonic perception, and when you hear it again, you hear the inside structures. And the more you want to hear them.

I was never very good in harmony. I would not consciously hear “OK, there is a major seventh or minor seventh,” whatever. Some people listen like that, in a functional way. I would listen more structurally; what kind of structure is there, what pattern is detectable, how many patterns are inside the structure. For example, in Bach’s Partiten–even the ones with only one melody, one line–there are two, maybe three voices introduced into that one line, with parallel intervals, interval progression, and so on, and that would be something which would interest me, the structural idea. Ligeti’s Atmospheres is archetypical of this structural thinking. The minimalists have brought a lot of attention to this, and Schubert as well. I think you can see Schubert as a minimalist this way, using these pattern types of information and trying to stay within a certain perceptive range. Morton Feldman the same. Even though they all approach the unit of information differently and how they change the information.

I was very interested in Feldman’s music, and I wanted to go to New York to study with him. I did get a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service in 1991 that would have made that possible, but unfortunately he had already died.

Asymmetry: I find something very uncanny about Morton Feldman’s music. There’s always this sense that—you always feel like there’s something you’re not quite understanding. It makes sense where you think it shouldn’t be making sense, maybe? It should sound more random than it does.

Brümmer: I’m very suspicious about how Feldman is structured. It’s not only random. He must have some idea at least, some—maybe things happened unconsciously, but he must have been thinking about some of the information he put up and some of the strategies for changing these cells of information. And maybe then he said, “OK, I’ll do this variation and then that. I haven’t done this one.”

And somehow he’s very close to all the minimal music guys, even though he’s not supposed to be one of them.

So structure was one line of interest for me, and the other was, of course, piano. I had heard a version, with Sviatislov Richter, of La vallée des cloches, the piano piece I used as a sample, where when he pressed a very low key, it was a little bit like a zither. Usually you have an attack and then a decrease of dynamics; this piano string made a crescendo—very soft and then a crescendo, and he used that purposely of course. It was gorgeous, gorgeous sound. And I could never find that recording later on.

Ravel used a lot of multi-layered structures. La vallée des cloches is a good example where he creates the impression of three or four parallel structures with only two hands. One is an octave, one is a fourth, and so on, and in different registers. And he does something different in each register; one is stopping and others are repeating, very frequently, but you press a key and then the hand goes somewhere else, and when you need that key again, you press it. And this was the background, a pattern with a very expressive context.

Asymmetry: It certainly sounds like a description of your pieces, the way things happen in some of them.

Brümmer: In certain register levels. Of course one technique to use in counterpoint is to put each voice in a certain pitch range. And the rule that you never cross the voices, or don’t try to cross the voices, is a hint that a voice is in a certain pitch range. It’s a question of perception. If you have different structures, and you don’t want them to blend—you want to keep them separate, keep them perceptible—then you have to put them in different ranges, of speed or timbre or pitch.

In La vallée des cloches, the main topic is ritardando; you have the beginning of the piece, then you have repetition of that in short, then shorter and shorter, and in the end you have a ritardando of a certain structure. This idea of simplicity I like very much. Simplicity in combination with complexity. And I think this is what Cage did and what Feldman did, what a lot of wonderful musicians were able to achieve. And I think some of the composers are very obsessed with only complexity or only simplicity, and I’m not sure that that’s going to work out.

Asymmetry: One of the things I was noticing last night, which is something I’ve also noticed on the CDs, is that there will be really large sounds played very softly. You can tell that they’re big sounds, though, so later in the piece, when the volume’s turned up, when the sound is at its “normal” level, it’s like a revelation. What you’ve been suspecting all along.

Brümmer: That’s true. It’s very clear in Le Tombeau du Maurice as well, because I tested sounds on different dynamic scales. And they were of course different. You know this loudness problem with the ear, we hear more content, the frequency content, in louder sounds than in soft ones. And so I like to introduce sounds on a different scale—not a counterpoint idea but on a different dynamic. Like yesterday, in Glasharfe, you had these celesta sounds and then, very soft, these pattern things going on, and you somehow think, “What are they doing here? They don’t belong.” It’s like when you have a picture, and the structure of the textile is still visible. So it’s a different level of something. I didn’t want silence to be the background there—it is later on, but for awhile it’s like something else is going on, somewhere else. And I like as well this kind of silence of the imagination. Very soft sounds, soft structures. When you hear it loud, OK, it is what it is, and then you work with it. But when you are not sure what is it, then you react as you did. It could be this or that sound, and it keeps you probably more active.

I think that things you don’t understand completely keep you more active than the things you do understand. And I think a lot of Francis Dhomont’s works are like that. But he works more in an electronic sense. He uses sounds where you say “I don’t know what it is or where it’s coming from or what its purpose is now. I don’t understand it, but it’s very interesting.” You know his piece, Le Foret Profund?

Asymmetry: Yes.

Brümmer: This piece I like quite a lot, because it’s so full of beautiful icons. It’s like being in a shop, and you find these beautiful little things, and you are so surprised that they are there. I find they work extremely well. I don’t know why, somehow they are something, for example, that you would not expect in an acousmatic context– there are these little melodies, children’s melodies, but it’s so well put together, that it doesn’t sound cheap.

Asymmetry: But your music has a lot of that kind of thing, too. And there’s always this sense that, well, that most of the piece takes place over here, so when there’s some other stuff over there, we really pay attention to it. And then suddenly, that stuff over there is here in our face. And that’s really stunning. And there’s lots of melody in your works, like nineteenth century tunes….

Brümmer: [Laughs]

Asymmetry: You never give them much time to take hold, so it’s always this sort of tease. It’s always this sort of “Wait a minute, that was ….”

Brümmer: Well, in an orchestral piece, you can have all the instruments playing two or three intervals or the piano, like in Beethoven, playing different stuff, except there’s not the ability to change the instruments and their timbre and to change it as much as I can do. The sample, the Le vallée des cloches, is like a person I’m talking to. I try to give some input, and I try to expect something, but I don’t know what the result will be. When, for example, you do granulation, you set up a place in the sample and then you do a structure, an Alberti thing, and then you set an increment of the window in the sample, its beginning and its end. You can calculate a thousand samples, with an increment of .001, then you are wherever you are by one second after this time. You know what time should have passed, but you don’t know exactly what happens in this time. You can hear it in the sample, in the source, for example, but this combination of pitch change and the enveloping of these little grains—the spatialization of these little grains—that creates something, a dialogue between the content of the sample, the waves and the new shape, and the transpositions. That I always find very, very interesting.

When you start with a structure, you have an idea of what it could be like. But when you implement it, the result is always different from what you expected. And then it is a process to find out what was interesting in this. Was it useable, could I continue with it? And then it’s like a dialectic staircase, you walk up and you progress and you don’t know exactly where you are, but you know you are getting up or down and suddenly you realize that you are somewhere else. I never get what I want, but I always find something better!

Of course, I choose out of what I find. A lot of it goes into the garbage. So in the end it is a question of how to create context. You have all these structures and since you do a lot of copy and paste, they have something in common. All of them have this progression, there’s a little change in each of the generations. When you copy and paste, you don’t always change all the parameters. You change a few. And then you have variations, basically. And out of these variations you can use certain ones to vary the structure and idea of the piece; you filter and look for the most significant ones.

I find this process very interesting. It’s a dialogue between machine (computer) material, the objects used, and the ideas.

Asymmetry: Sounds fascinating.

Brümmer: Yes, the last two weeks of a composition is a very special moment. Because then I usually have everything there, a collection of all these things. It doesn’t always work out, but I start to learn everything by heart; all what I have, I learn by heart, and when I know everything, then I start to be more intuitive, because it’s there, all the structures. And then I can start with something and continue on to something else. And of course, before you start, you have already your favorites, and you already have ideas. There you will do this this, and there you will do that. That’s the way the form is created. It’s like you have certain areas where you’re sure how they could be—they’re already defined somehow, and then they grow to each other, and then you create the connections. You interact only with sound and imagination. And not any more as much as with parameters, because that work has already been done. This is the montage, basically.

Asymmetry: Getting back to what you said about harmony, what was your musical training?

Brümmer: In Essen, we had a path with two main topics, main subjects, and you could study them separately or all at the same time, because they imply several parallel duties. And that was instrumental composition and electronic composition. My teacher for electroacoustic composition was a pupil of Gottfried Michael Koenig. And of course as you know, Koenig was a Stockhausen technician for awhile. Kontakte was I think around this time. Of course his approach is not mine, but what was passed through the teachers, the algorithm idea, was very interesting to me. It’s very much a German thing, but you could say Boulez is very algorithmic composer, with his series. Serial composition is very algorithmic.

That was my first contact with computer music. At that time we had the Apple II, with a custom made D/A converter, connected to a very large modular synthesizer. And you could just connect all these modules with each other and get the information from the Apple II. Upstairs was a CP/M operating system, or IBM, I don’t remember, some major thing like that, and with Pascal you could write code and then make a file with it, a certain output, and then send it to the Apple II, and the Apple II would play it into the D/A converter. So it was a question of days after you had the code done, when you were able to transfer it to the D/A converter and then the information was used as input to the analog synthesizer. So that was my first encounter with computer music, and I found it fascinating.

My first pieces weren’t quite wonderful….

Asymmetry: [Laughs]

Brümmer: [Laughs] One has to start at one point!

Asymmetry: If your first pieces are wonderful, then often that’s as far as you go.

Brümmer: Yeah, that’s true, that’s what I admire Stockhausen quite a lot for, because he has done these really extreme changes of his attitudes towards music. So he’s really developing himself. [Ed., when this conversation was recorded, Stockhausen was still alive.] Giving up a lot of old paradigms, a lot of old ideas, and with the risk of failing with the new ideas.

For me—well Francis [Dhomont] said to me, “This is a new period of your composition. Because these pieces I heard sound totally different than what you have done earlier.”

Asymmetry: The ones last night?

Brümmer: Yes. I’m not sure if that is right….

Asymmetry: I don’t think it is.

Brümmer: You don’t think it is? [Laughs]

Asymmetry: Well, it’s partly true. In the sense that you never do the same piece over and over again. In the earlier pieces, we know that if there is going to be a surprise in a piece, it will be a surprise that we know, as it were. This sense that there’s something going on that’s peripheral, and suddenly it’s right in front of us. That’s very common in the earlier pieces. And that doesn’t happen as much in the pieces we heard last night, not until the last piece, Glasharfe.

Brümmer: Yes, there was no harsh sound, they were quite mezzoforte. One strong accent.

Asymmetry: I was most taken with how the speaker placement was part of the rhythm. It was as if where the speakers were was what made the rhythm, not the time, not the spaces between sounds or the length of the sounds.

Brümmer: I tried in this to resolve a rhythmical pattern into a spatial pattern as well. And in this case, it’s a very simple form. It’s not even an eight, it’s a circle. But when you have several circles, in different directions, and at different distances, then you create another counterpoint. It’s a different cue for perceiving this identity as a singular identity. So there is this type of structure and that type of structure. So it’s creating a transparency inside the complexity. That was the hope.

Asymmetry: I felt with Glasharfe that I was always aware of silence. Not because the music has pauses in it, but you’re always aware of the silence underneath the music or along with it. That was something that was new for me, in Glasharfe. I didn’t know if that was new for me because it was the first time I’d heard your music in a hall with speakers, or if that was a new thing that you were doing.

Brümmer: Well, for me it is quite different to work in stereo and in four channel. In stereo, when I have movement, I can’t do a lot with it, I can’t place a lot of layers in this level. While with four channel, I can do two this direction and two that direction–already four structures which can be entirely, clearly differentiated from each other. And then you can have different speeds as well; when you have a circle you can have different speeds. Since you can follow it around, it’s like you have to turn, and this turning makes things clogging, the structures clogging. You arrive with one and you turn and the next one you pass, they pass here, so they pass twice each time they go around, and each passing is like voice passing in counterpoint.

We could only get eight channels to work last night. Initially I planned to do sixteen or eighteen channels, but we couldn’t get the interface to do what we wanted.

Asymmetry: Speaking of things not going the way you wanted them to go, that place where you had to stop the piece and start it again, that was extremely interesting. Because for any of us in the audience, hearing this piece for the first time, we’re just hearing what’s happening. And our job is just to accept whatever we get. And just deal with it, whatever is happening. So here’s this piece, and it’s moving a certain direction, and it’s doing things, and we’re taking it in, and we just accept it.

But you knew that what you were hearing was wrong, so you stopped it. When you started it again, we heard the same material that we’d heard before, but now synchronized differently. Now it’s going a different place, and it means something different. It was wonderful; absolutely revelatory. The second time we could hear what you wanted. And I was more aware at that point of how you make decisions as a composer. You know that someone has made decisions about everything, but you’re usually just aware of the music. Suddenly, there you were, standing there making decisions about the piece. It meant this over here, it was starting to mean this, and then it starts again, and it doesn’t mean that at all, it means this.

Brümmer: The logic was gone, because a repetition was no longer a repetition.

Asymmetry: And it was fine; as far as we were concerned it was fine, it was that difference and being able to hear that difference. You should try that more often!

Brümmer: Hahaha, tell the machine to be asynchronous…

Asymmetry: …to make mistakes, and then stop it and start it again. Because we’re hearing basically two versions of the same piece, then. Our expectations become part of the situation. This business of expectations and perception is what you’re doing anyway.

Brümmer: It’s an extreme of density, but the only structuring method is time, because you have these different levels going at different speeds, roughly related; so if that’s not working, you are not able to comprehend this mass of sound. It’s like chaos. With this rhythmical identifier, it becomes something more clear.

Asymmetry: That did happen. As it got more chaotic, it actually got simpler. Because it blurs, like you said. And when you played it again, with everything synchronized, suddenly it was more complex. Because we could hear the complexity. The complexity was apparent and understandable. Comprehensible because perceptible. Whereas in chaos, the complexity is not perceptible. And it seems much simpler.

Brümmer: That’s true. Like white noise. It’s a very simple sound. And it’s the highest degree of complexity.

Asymmetry: In the piece with the dancers in the video, Xronos, there’s a place where the music starts to get more and more frenetic with the dancers making these sweeping gestures and the woman whips around and suddenly the image stops, but the music keeps swirling around; that was amazing.

Brümmer: I wish you could have seen it with three movies, because then the woman’s in the middle movie, and before this white thing she’s in a black context, in the middle with something dark on the left and on the right and at the moment the white comes, they are all three in white, so you have one picture and her in the middle; this makes it even more extreme. And as well, this movement of the waves everywhere, surrounding you, and you have this large picture, then the stopping of the waves is so extreme. Like when you’re on a boat or a plane, you get used to a kind of movement, no problem, and when suddenly it stops, it’s like an accent in music. And this is one thing that I’m always very aware of, because for me an accent is usually the end of an idea, the end of a paradigm, a shift of paradigm.

Asymmetry: That’s true.

Brümmer: In Glasharfe, for example, the end is not really a decrescendo, I don’t perceive it as a decrescendo. It is not a process, a logical, declining process; it is more the appearance of certain objects, harmonies, structures.

Asymmetry: So the actual size of the idea, the thickness, is the same; there’s a dropping out of individual lines.

Brümmer: Yes, individual lines, and these lines are not always processes. They are objects of a certain type, and that for me is more likely to be unusual. With granular synthesis, you have to create a logic when you make a mosaic, either distributing the pieces randomly or making them into a recognizable image or creating an arabesque. You have to do something with it. It doesn’t do it by itself! And this is usually what I would call the process. That’s a burden for the minimalist era, but I see the minimalist idea as a consequence of classical, it’s not as new as it was perceived.

Asymmetry: It’s easy to see that now.

Brümmer: Of course. We even know after when a style is used by different composers, they put different lights on it and then you understand more what its potential is—how far they can go, where is the finish, where is the end of this kind of idea. Well, we all know Philip Glass found the end much quicker than others. Even though I like some of his pieces, I think he probably decided that he doesn’t want to be a very famous composer without any money. And I can accept that! But it means he has stayed the same, while the others were for a longer time more interesting.

Mimimalists put up a certain question, I’ve found, which is very interesting, and which for me was very important as well, and that is the question of beauty. Beauty is something which was abandoned, well a certain type of beauty, and I absolutely understand why, and it was necessary, but it’s always the question for all contemporary music, even though we are now in a post-serial time. The question is what do you want with the music, what is it supposed to be? I was in Donaueschingen, where you can hear a lot of composers, young and old, talking about technique. And I wonder why. I like Chopin and Ravel, for instance, and I wonder why are we not able to create something not similar but something touching this idea of intensity, emotion. Why do we always talk about composition technology and compositional techniques? Why is emotion such a problematic topic? And the minimalists, they address this somehow. This I found very new.

Asymmetry: But part of that is an illusion, I think.

Brümmer: About the minimalist composers?

Asymmetry: No, about the emotional aspect disappearing because composers are talking about technique. I think you get a lot of talking about technique, especially when the technique changes. So if you’re going from tonal, which everyone sort of takes for granted, and you move to serialism, which no one takes for granted, then there’s going be a time when you’re talking about the technique, to the exclusion of other things.

Brümmer: Of course.

Asymmetry: Tonality is an extremely complicated system. But it’s a complication that’s been going on for so many hundreds of years that everybody just takes it for granted. But we listen to Schoenberg now, and it’s perfectly emotional.

Brümmer: Even Webern is so romantic nowadays!

I like the minimalist idea of creating a bridge between the old and the new, Romantic and Modern. After the first World War, there was a break up with everything in music. Everything before was not valid any more, and somehow the new music didn’t create something to fill the gap. The idea of structure, technique, was becoming more important, and expression was becoming suspicious. And in electronic music, it’s even more extreme. Like with Koenig, electronic music was the most dry, a-emotional kind of music. That’s the context I grew up on, and only later that I discovered musique concrète. In our school, we did not have this music. The books by Pierre Schaefer are in French, and there were no German translations. Only recently have there been English translations. And I didn’t speak French.

Then in ’94, I was invited GRM to play The Gates of H there, and then I started to dig more into musique concrète. It was basically Francois Bayle’s idea to put me in this program, and then from there on, I got to know Francis Dhomont and this Canadian music, for example, Canadian musique concrète, acousmatic.

That changed somehow my life, but I still know that I compose in a different way, in an entirely different way from how they do it.

Asymmetry: That’s clear.

Brümmer: [laughs] But then I ask myself, then why am I here?

Asymmetry: Well that may be part of the reason you’re here.

Brümmer: But there must be something which is a bridge. I’m very happy, very glad about it, but I feel that when I talk to Francis or other composers about the way I construct my music, they seem to understand how it is done, but they think absolutely differently. Even though we both use accents, for instance, I don’t create a form out of an idea of proportions, of numbers or whatever, like Stockhausen would do. It’s more an expression of expressiveness. [Laughter.] In a serial context, an expression of material. Everything is an expression of material, and emotion is a consequence of material, material meaning proportion, theory, whatever. In musique concrète, however, form arises out of intuitive reactions to the appearing status of the sound.

[Two years later, I visited ZKM, and after a tour of the sound dome, Brümmer and I had the following conversation.]

Brümmer: In the sound dome, we put in an LED system with a lamp on top of each speaker to give another sphere of information in addition to the sound. Sometimes I think it is easier to understand or to receive information that is more multifarious. The mind creates strange combinations between things, like the appearance of an object in your mind when you hear a sound. Or you imagining a sound when you see something. If you switch off the sound on a TV, you still have some idea of the sound. This was for me very interesting with abstract movies from Fischinger and Roetmann. They’re so radically musical these visual objects, because they are abstract. As soon as they have this abstractness in their visual appearance, they are much closer to musical information, and our brain can process them in the same manner. For each object, there’s always a kind of similarity to something familiar, but it’s always very short-termed. It’s not a strong impression; it’s very modifiable very quickly from this gesture to that gesture or that form. And I think this stimulates the brain quite a lot.

In the Klangdom, the LED information is just colored light, color and intensity—many LEDs distributed in space, appearing in a certain light combinations or color combinations. And I thought first of all, I hope it’s not too cheap, to put, for example, a mapping between the location of the sound and the amplitude of the sound to the color and brightness of the LED. And I found that it is not at all cheap, because of the complexity of the entire thing. If you have many sources of information, it’s so rich that it appears to be an atmosphere, an aura.

Asymmetry: That would have been my fear, too. That it would just be too easy.

Brümmer: I thought the same, but I found it created a very fascinating aura. And this fascination–I shouldn’t say hypnotic because hypnotic means you switch off your brain, but I would say hypnotic in that sense that you turn yourself inside, to that inner perception and not a rational perception, that you perceive much deeper in the music. And I think that’s very good, positive thing for music, this deepness, this intensity of experience.

And one thing which makes it all even less obvious is that the color mapping is really not all that easy. There is quite a lot of information to encode. When is it red; at which level does it turn from blue to red to green to yellow; is it a rainbow or is it only one color? The artist can even edit the light information for his piece and create a light score, which distributes some additional ideas on top of the composition, which would of course be even more artistic. We haven’t tried that, but it’s an option for someone who likes to distribute structures, who has an interesting structural idea and wants to wants another level on top of the music. This is possible in the Zirkonium, in the Klangdom environment with the LED light. Another, which is not such a new idea, would be interaction with a laser score. One good thing about recent developments is that you have color lasers, so you can use lasers with modifiable color beams, so it’s not only the geometrical sculpture the lasers draw or the movement or the gesture, it’s color encoding as well. We tried it once, and I must say it’s fascinating. It’s like fireworks! Fireworks is such a simple thing. In a certain way it’s complex with all these little dots, lighting dots, but the phenomenon is very simple. You have one dot going high, and then it explodes into several dots, and these dots explode in different colors and different angles and big flowers, small flowers, or whatever.

And there is as well this fascination with abstractness, with combinations of rhythm, of gesture, which we enjoy quite a lot. It’s not a thing you draw in the sky, it’s just pure light somehow, still abstract, a gesture. I think you could do this with the laser as well, and I’m just wondering what happens when you put electroacoustic music together with laser information. What is interesting? I mean, always in the beginning it’s very primitive. Then things get more sophisticated, and that first fascination seems to be odd and naive five years later. This happens quite often, what you have to go through if you want to proceed, but you have to start somewhere. I think that even though some aspects are naive, you are fascinated as a composer, as a creator, by certain of these aspects, and I’m sure that you are able to give this fascination to the audience as well. And as well the audience is growing, growing in terms of their experience. Their first exposure to laser and music is one thing; if they have seen it twice or three times, they get other demands.

As with video, it’s not necessary; it’s not the music. It’s not an essential part of the composition. But it can be for certain people who are very engaged in processing visual information, a very strong part of the art work. For some others, it is not as strong, It’s an offer of information, and the audience decides what kind of information and what part of the information it wants to perceive. And still I think, of course, that the best information is the music itself. The most deep, the most intense information is the music by itself, but I think not many people are able to perceive music by itself.

Asymmetry: On the other hand, in the piece in Montréal with the live pianist and video, there were certain things happening on the video that would match what the piano was doing. So when the pianist did something, you would expect things to happen on the screen. And then things would happen on the screen that you had formerly associated with the pianist doing something, but without the piano.

Brümmer: I agree that the visual is very strongly integrated into the entire composition. So I wouldn’t say piano plus video. Sometimes it is video (pre-recorded), but sometimes it’s live controlled. For example, one moment in the beginning the piano plays a sound, and the video occurs while he’s playing the sound and then disappears. It has the same amplitude envelope as the piano note has. So for me it’s like a different other piano note which is on the screen. And then, simply because the piano is polyphonic, you can’t keep doing this for the entire composition, with very strong, dense structures, but at least the idea there is to bring the visuals as close as possible into the music, to integrate it into the music. And the way to do that is to have one player controlling everything. It’s not the action which is controlling, it’s the resulting sound of the piano controlling everything. A microphone takes acoustic information that is then used to trigger the video and trigger some live electronics and trigger some notes from a sampler. So everything is controlled by the sound. The piano is a super instrument.

As well the player who is sitting behind the computer is multiplying what the other player does, so the result is very complex. I wasn’t inspired by the idea, but I found something similar to that in what Stockhausen did in some late compositions. You have technical ideas that are very simple. Take a frequency modulation, take a sound, take the intensity of the frequency modulation and make a gesture or so. And then combine it in a certain pattern. And then try to do what we talked about before, try to implement a two-dimensional, x/y coordinate into an order.

And suddenly you gain a lot of complexity out of those very simple items. Just because of the combinations, combinations, basically, of the parameter levels. And you get the same result when you have a player doing something and someone behind the computer doing another thing. The result is a combination of both activities, so you have an opportunity to create complexity with simplicity.

Asymmetry: Which is why it’s multiplication and not addition. It’s not piano plus computer.

Brümmer: Yes. It’s not successive in that sense. And in that piano piece, precomposed material is combined with improvisation, with reactions. The pianist watches the movie and has to react to what he sees. He can control the sounds but not what appears on the screen, what’s seen, or the behaviour of the picture. Is it only a blink? For example, he plays a sound. It can be only flashing, a picture and then it’s gone, or it can be an accent, a picture that appears and then fades away.

The piece is like a duel. Two people are playing, but they’re playing one instrument. On two separate things, a piano and a computer, but basically playing one instrument.

And I think it’s good that you mentioned this example, because it’s a part of the usage of video materials with electronic music over the past fifteen years, and I think it shows that the degree of sophistication is getting much better, much more interesting, much more rewarding for the audience. It’s not like someone videotaped something and someone played the flute, and then someone decided “Hey, let’s put them together” and think this is big art. It’s another degree of integration in both media and taking them seriously.

Last September [2007], we did a Klangdom project together with the Budapest Music Center, asking four composers to create a piece for the Dom. For all of these composers the Dom space was the paradigm. And it was interesting how differently they used the space, especially to see the space being created in a different way. One of them, Todoroff, a Belgian composer, used theremins as controllers. He did at the same time real time sound processing and dresser control, which detects either x/y coordinates or speed emphasis. Then basically what he’s doing with his movements is controlling the music and the spatial appearance of the music. Another was Stevie Richard, a violinist who wore a controller on her right wrist, so the same bow movement creates the sound and, using the movement information, modifies the sound. That was quite interesting. And then we had one dancer who used laser beams, each beam with a single identity. So you touch through the beams and create a reflection and then the reflection creates a sound. So the dancer was playing with these beams, touching these beams, and then creating the sounds and movements of this space. So the dancer created movements with his body, and with these movements as a player, he created part of the music.

And Andre Szigitvare did video processing of a dancer doing the same by altering the height of his body or the speed of his movements. And he had a green marker in his hand, and when he showed the marker he could switch things on. So the aim of the project was to interact with this idea of controller. How do I create the movement? Not the movement by itself, but instead each composer having a different aesthetic and the different technology used and so creating different ways to control the mechanisms to control the space, to control and create the music. I thought it was very spectacular concert.

Asymmetry: Sounds like there were a lot of chance elements in these pieces. What’s your take on chance music generally?

Brümmer: I saw Cage once in Stanford, giving a lecture, and it was funny. Many people showed up, a really crowded auditorium, a large auditorium, and he was reading his strange texts and people were very concentrated and very quiet, calm. And I saw him a couple of times in Witten. A lot of premieres there. Chamber music. For example, the premiere of Etudes Australes. Two concerts with Grete Sultan, who was at that time already 75. And it’s such a hard piece, you can’t learn it by heart! It’s basically two concerts of interpolations from random notes to random chords, three hours, roughly. At that time I was very fascinated by this concept of randomness, controlled randomness, the interaction between rule and random.

And I think at the time he was a lot in the WDR. He did Hörspiel as well and the Sound Bridge things. Or something like 24 hours of Satie on his birthday. This project was really fantastic. Today you couldn’t think of doing such projects anymore. The broadcast system has became much more success-oriented.

Asymmetry: I even heard the Satie Vexations on the radio, in 1978 or ’79 on KPFA in San Francisco. I don’t think that would ever happen today.

Brümmer: Only if you are a small station.

Asymmetry: A college station.

Brümmer: Web radio might be a possibility. But it’s like the time of experiments is gone. Today everything has to be very target-oriented.

Asymmetry: At least for radio. I think for concerts it’s still OK. I go to lots of live concerts in Portland, and there’s a very wide range of all sorts of interesting experiments. [Ed., this is much less true in 2011.]

Brümmer: In Germany, I have the feeling it’s just the opposite. They demand more planning, more event type plans, polished, intelligent, clever programming.

Asymmetry: Part of it certainly is that the audiences in Portland for new music want adventure.

Brümmer: I think as well it is in which location in society are these concerts played. Is it like Musica Viva in Munich, which is a concert series placed in the main concert building.

Asymmetry: No, it’s in bars and coffee shops.

Brümmer: Yes, that’s what I wanted to express. Here you have the people who go to normal concerts, who buy season tickets, and you have to serve them. They expect something different than experiments. These concerts cannot be experiments. In Berlin, some people have tried things like that, but outside of Berlin, not so much. Probably they have too much money.

Asymmetry: Well, that’s always a problem.

Brümmer: [laughs] Yes. We have quite a lot of money [at ZKM] compared to other studios. Of course, compared to IRCAM it’s not a lot. I still think there’s experimentation, which is important. The good thing about money is that we have a lot of studios, so we can invite a lot of people. We’re don’t have the problem of the experimental studio in Freiburg. They don’t have a lot of studios, so they invite composers for two weeks, and their goal is intrumental music and extending instrumental sounds, that’s the normal aesthetic.

Asymmetry: Extending instrumental sounds is a good idea.

Brümmer: Well, I don’t like the stereotype that you need an instrument as a source for the sounds, and then you do something with the sounds. As soon as you do instrumental music, you are involved with notation. Tempered… scaling. All of this is suddenly there, and you don’t need it necessarily. As an acousmatic composer you can decide for a tempered scale, but you don’t have to. If you have a piano involved, you can try to compose without a tempered scale, with a distuned piano, but it’s hard to get it performed. I think aesthetically, you think in sound in different ways. Sound is always not a sound object, as in acousmatics, it is a note.

Asymmetry: Oh. I was thinking that when you mentioned extending, you were talking about pushing the instrumentalists into thinking more about sound than about notes. And the instrument becomes, in that sense, a thing that you use to produce sounds, not necessarily notes.

Brümmer: My problem is that in Germany this term, this paradigm of instrumental composition is very broadly accepted. The problem of electronic or algorithmic composition is put aside.

Asymmetry: But isn’t that true everywhere, for electroacousic? It seems very silly to me, that attitude, but it’s pretty wide-spread.

Brümmer: Well, in France it’s not quite as strong, because you have GRM with Pierre Schaeffer, and you have Bourges. [This interview was made before the Direction Regionale des Affaires Culturelles Centre shut down the Bourges festival.] In Stockholm as well, though electroacoustic music has been stronger in Sweden in the past. And the Aarhus center in Denmark is similar. I think what’s happened is that a majority with a certain aesthetic has the money. And a majority always excludes a minority. Even if the majority itself is a minority. Contemporary music is a minority that’s even more restrictive than the large majority. The large majority is usually more tolerant, because it’s so large. But if you have a small group, and you know everyone, you’re much more intolerant towards people who are not part of your aesthetic. That’s my feeling. It is about resources. They want to keep the resources, and they divide them among themselves. And it’s not only a conscious behavior; I think it’s as well a unconscious behavior.

Places like Donaueschingen and Witten are the scene of instrumental composition. Of course they would ask an instrumental composer to do an electroacoustic piece, but they would never ask an electroacoustic composer to do an instrumental piece. And that shows exactly what it’s about. It’s about aesthetics. They don’t care about the instrument, but it’s important that you are a certain kind of composer and that you deal with certain paradigms.

Asymmetry: When I was talking to Paul Rudy, he said that his imagination didn’t work as well with instruments as it did with electroacoustic. And he said that that probably made him less of a composer. I said I thought that that probably made him more of a composer. But just the fact that he could say that…. I mentioned that one thing that really stood out for me in the interview with Michèle Bokanowski was her preference for electroacoustic music, as a composer, because with that you start with the sound. With instrumental music, you end with the sound.

Brümmer: For me it’s not, because I work a lot with algorithms. But I would call it an interaction with sound. For me it is a bit more than an acousmatic composer like Gilles Gobeil. Because when I construct an algorithm, I don’t know the result. I have a rough idea, and sometimes it works out, but sometime I end up with surprises. So say you have a sample of a few minutes to read from, and you decide to start to read from minute two. You don’t know exactly what event is happening at minute two. The parameters are too complex to understand all the details of it, or the consequences of it. So the result is partly a surprise. For example, how does a grain duration interact with the content of the sound? A grain is like a filter, so there are interactions between structure and sound. This I find very fascinating. So the music always surprises me during composition.

We shouldn’t forget that Bach found a lot of his fugues through improvising. So that’s starting with sounds, too. I think this way of composition is a consequence of industrialization, of job sharing. All this serialist approach is a consequence of this, too. Wouldn’t be possible without. But the consequence is you become more abstract. Ligeti is a good example. Ligeti’s not really a serial composer, less serial than Stockhausen, definitely. But Ligeti was very good at making structural ideas interesting and communicative. I mean musical. A structural idea is not necessarily a musical idea or a good sounding idea. He had this ability to make the ideas in such a way that they work musically. I think the best example is the Sternzeichen of Stockhausen. It’s serial pop music! [Laughter] These are serial melodies, but they are so cute, so beautiful, and I think so appealing despite their way of construction. This is what I find is art to make a structural idea, concept or paradigm in a way that it sounds musical. People like to hear it.

Asymmetry: I haven’t found, though, that serial means anything, doesn’t mean anything in particular for me as a listener. If people are making good music, they’re making good music, and if it’s terrible, it’s terrible.

Brümmer: But some people are different. Some people need tonality.

Asymmetry: I have a lot of 12 tone music, and it’s just as lovely and charming and gracious as any tonal music I have.

I prefer noise, actually.

Brümmer: So you must like Ablinger.

Asymmetry: Not as much as some other people. More like Zbigniew Karkowski.

Brümmer: I don’t know his music well.

Asymmetry: Or Francisco López. Or any of the noise artists.

Brümmer: And the Phill Niblock type?

Asymmetry: Niblock not as much, but I don’t know his music very well, yet. [Ed., that was then. Now is now!] Ablinger, either, I should say. I feel with Niblock, though, that I don’t like it as much, because I’m not a good enough person. If I were a better person, I would like it better.

Brümmer: What is goodness? You mean discipline of listening?

Asymmetry: Yes, exactly that.

Brümmer: I understand. You need a certain power to get into the mood of this and that takes awhile, and it’s not fun. You need to force yourself a little bit, I agree.

Asymmetry: But once you do, then the fun opens up again.

Brümmer: Yeah. It’s like Feldman.

Asymmetry: I felt that way with Feldman too. And with Scelsi. It was a great effort for me, but the reward was obvious.

Brümmer: Now, if you compare Scelsi to Feldman….

Asymmetry: I like Feldman much better.

Brümmer: Sometimes I do like Feldman on CD, but I like it much more in a live context. Especially the long pieces. For Philip Guston, that’s four, four and a half hours.

But currently what I like very much is Scarlatti. I was just wondering, what do I have on my Notebook, all the mp3s, and the ones I listen to quite a lot are Scarlatti and then there is Feldman as well. Rothko Chapel. Certain music can help me to concentrate on things. And then, when I’m on, I have to switch it off. Then I find always that music distracts me so, and I cannot listen to music in the background.

So you are going to Bourges next? How long will you be staying there?

Asymmetry: For ten days.

Brümmer: Oh, so for the whole festival. Bourges is a strange festival. It is somehow peripheral, somehow very important. At the same time. And somehow politically very strange, because of Clozier and Françoise, their domination, though we all know that we need people like that for continuity. Otherwise, if you have a weak leader of such a festival, who’s not fighting for money, you eventually won’t have the festival any more. Still, it was born with them, and now it’s the question of what happens when they die or when they’re not willing or not able to take care of the festival any more.

And then, you know, in years past, they had so many problems with the city, money problems, and the festival was in danger, and the studio was in danger.

Asymmetry: And you used to be able to get their CDs in stores in the U.S. No more.

Brümmer: They should switch to Internet distribution. It would be perfect for them. We will do the same. Of course, it’s a lot of work to find the right distributor. But it’s perfect for us. And even the quality problem; you use a 192kps stream, and you have not perfect but a reasonable sound and an amount of data which is easy.

In our let’s say low numbers selling field—we’re not selling a million copies or so; if you’re good, you’re selling five hundred or a thousand—the Internet is very rewarding, because it’s cheap and you don’t have to invest so much. So the threshold for distribution is much lower. But on the other hand, the aesthetic will be more diverse, more flexible, more…. You won’t have this effect of a curator deciding about the quality of certain things. You’ll have a more democratic way.

Asymmetry: I don’t know that that will make much difference in practice, though. You’d think that the quality would suffer under the more democratic way, but I don’t know that it will. Either way, there’ll be a lot of terrible music and a lot of really fine music.

Brümmer: That’s true, but—I wanted to mention this awhile before in the discussion—who is deciding which composer is successful? I was once in a jury, and there were some people from the radio station who do all the festivals and they were mentioning someone: “Oh yeah her name is continuously mentioned, she’s played in Donaueschingen, and then she was played in so and so,” and then of course we take the names and place them in concert series here. So that’s one mechanism. You have certain key points. If you appear there, you are distributed to the other points, then you are in all the important concerts, and then it depends a little bit on what you how you continue as a composer, but there are certain mechanisms which are decided by a very few people. If you’re in or out. And then, like for us in Germany, Olga Neuwirth is one example where I don’t understand how she got away with so many bad pieces. And is still such a famous composer. I don’t understand this. And certain other composers who are much better don’t do as well. Natasha Barrett was a composer I liked.

Asymmetry: Agreed. Very good music, Natasha’s.

Brümmer: Everyone has bad music, too.

Asymmetry: There are very few people with no bad pieces. Let’s see, there’s Ludger Brümmer…

Brümmer: Hahaha!

Asymmetry: Well, thank you very much for showing me around and for talking to me, again.

Brümmer: My pleasure! I hope the two interviews work out all right together.

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