Interview with Manfred Werder

Used by permission of the Publishers from ‘Manfred Werder’, in The Ashgate Research Companion to Experimental Music edited by James Saunders (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), pp. 353–357.  Copyright © 2009

Manfred+Werder++old+fire+statioI came across Manfred Werder’s music for the first time in 2000, following up encouraging comments made by others about his work and that of the Edition Wandelweiser composers with whom he is associated, eventually meeting him whilst he was on a residency in London later that year. These composers, centred around Antoine Beuger’s publishing company, create an uncompromising music: it deals with extremes and archetypes, is generally very quiet and silence has a large share of the often extended performance durations. The presentation of sound material is very clear: gridded structures and the establishment of spaces in which sounds might be placed are common traits. Werder’s music comprises a number of different ongoing series. His ausführende writing project (1999?) is a set of compositions for between one and nine performers. Each of these pieces contains a series of 160,000 time units, each lasting 12 seconds and consisting of six seconds of sound, followed by six seconds of silence. The scores are performed in succession, with the next performance starting at the action following the final one of the previous instalment. In his recent dated pieces however, Werder specifies a gradually reducing number of conditions for the presentation of sounds and actions, from the trio stück 2003’s instruction for two of the performers to play a common pitch lasting three to seven seconds once during the performance, to the more open requirement of 2005/1: place/ time// ( sounds ). The precision and subtlety of his exploration of modes of performative action can be seen when comparing this with the later 2006/2, which specifies: places// a time/// ( sounds ). Werder’s music questions our place in the world as both participants and observers.

The interview was conducted by email between 1-10 February 2004.

In the preface to the score of stück 1998 you write the phrase ‘für sich, klar und sachlich. einfach.’ [to itself, clear and objective. simple.]. This seems like both a performance indication and an aesthetic statement which defines your work in general. In practice, how does this statement relate to the way your music operates, and your aims as a composer?

That’s a very interesting point to start. The phrase ‘für sich, klar und sachlich. einfach’ replaced all further indications on dynamics, sound qualities etc. since 1997. In general I wanted to write a music where the used material – sound and absence of sound – were just there as material (and not as an author’s composed preferences). The used material could be seen then more precisely as context specific material (the accidental qualities of performers, instruments, the site), as general conditions in a world, and itself as part of the world. In this sense every sound bears its precise dynamic and quality through its context.

I thought all indications would lead to representation only, so I decided to describe (more literally than poetically) a general and essential attitude aimed at letting the ‘world’ emerge from its context specific potential. I think all my work operates in relation to our complex situation of being the world, and at the same time observing the world.

For me one of the interesting things about the piece is the disparity between the extremely tight control of pitch and duration, and the relative openness of the sounding result (as a consequence of unspecified instrumentation, or uncontrollable sound production within certain boundaries for example). So when looking at the score or listening to the first few events in performance it seems to be completely about the structure (a repeating pattern of a sound lasting six seconds followed by silence for a further six seconds, with only the pitch and register specified). Gradually though the timbral fluctuations that result from sustaining these events for long periods of time reveal themselves and I find my listening focus gets drawn into the sounds: a note becomes a complex of micro-events. Given your comment about the importance of context, do you feel your music operates at this level primarily, or at the more immediately obvious level of the event?

In stück 1998 I think the framework still generates contextual questions relating primarily to ‘music’ and ‘composition’, and I agree with your description of a note becoming a complex of micro-events. Although it may strongly depend on the performance: you describe with ‘extremely tight control of pitch and duration, and the relative openness of the sounding result’ a framework which may also lead to a performance of some ten minutes of silence by using an instrument with a small pitch range.

There’s a fundamental disparity between the score and a performance. I see the score as a specific section of the world, a performance as a specific section of the score (and also the world), and context as the support of a possible event. Both, context and event, are essentially inseparable, and arise everywhere (in our experience and perception). A performance proposes and creates a specific intersection of articulation, context, and the listener’s experience and perception in a heterogeneous mutuality. The more balanced the meeting of all parts, the more challenging an event may emerge.

Later then in for one or a few performers (2001- ) I propose a framework focusing rather on an acoustic exploration of the surroundings. And there I think the sound events operate primarily as articulations affecting the listener’s quality of perception of the surroundings.

Presumably this is a consequence of the more unpredictable placing of sounds: the only direction in the score is ‘a lot of time. a few sounds. for itself simple.’ I would hope that musicians contemplating a performance of this piece would be sensitive to your approach, but to what extent are the range of possible performances acceptable to you? A ‘lot of time’, and ‘a few sounds’ might mean many different things to different people.

One of the things which I find intriguing about your work, and that of Antoine Beuger and Jürg Frey, is the tension created by relatively little sound in a listening environment: you’re almost torn between two parallel existences. So picking up on your previous comment, do you intend an active exploration of the surroundings by the listeners and/or performers, or do you feel that the articulated events are the listening focus?

I wanted this score to become ‘a function of truth’. It’s essential to get a performer to the point where he advances into fields where he and his risk are not backed up by a structure, however far this structure would go in the composition. If I see a performer not willing to collaborate in this sense, it hardly is acceptable to me, so I locate this question rather there. But still, that direction of four lines is literally the score which prescribes a very clear and intrinsic situation. I think this score comments on ‘precision’ and its omnipresent impact, especially in occidental culture, and hopefully generates some experiences towards an other ‘economy of precision’.

The two parallel existences are the human condition: being nature and (consciously) observing nature. The absence of articulated events brings about a heightened experience of being more and more dissolved into this whole environment of sounds, of nature, and in happy moments we experience just ‘being’, or ‘being nature’. Then, in the very moment of an articulated event, as a moment of awareness of oneself observing this articulation, emerges the space of consciousness of the human being’s condition.
Maybe experiencing this space again and again is already enough. But how to get ‘composition’ to that level? And knowing that ‘composition’ is only one of the ‘involved parts’ of such a moment.

What then is your role as a composer, and to what extent do you feel you can intervene in this relationship?

A composer not backing up his work against the risk of its disappearance will find himself exploring the potential of his work’s own effectiveness.

I think all composers would view that in a different way: notation is always a compromise. For me notation should be efficient, meaning it should serve its purpose without containing redundant information, even if a lack of explicit direction in some areas creates particular contingencies in its realization (looking at what composers don’t notate is always revealing). I think your notation is efficient in this way, and its role in your work is a very interesting one. I’d like to ask you about how it relates to your working method. Whilst some of your scores involve quite a lot of material (the 4000 pages of stück 1998 for example), others are more conceptual. Could you explain how you work?

An important part of how I work is observing, sensing the world and nature of the involved parts of this performance moment. The performance as a moment where people meet and where all incidences may coincide, where the possible (das Mögliche) may become the real (das Wirkliche). I observe and sense this moment of coincidence and interaction in order to refine my propositions towards such a moment. I’d say the most important and beautiful part is observing and sensing how I personally coincide with the world’s very sound. Often I just listen for hours. Then I try to think what it is that I did when I listened. So I look at the world wherein I see myself interacting. There I see my possibilities to be effective.

What appears in a score in a certain way is what a composer (still) may consider worth mentioning (the same would stand for an interview), bringing us back to the question of an economy of precision. We live with a tremendous excess of the explicit. Conceptually I wouldn’t separate too much scores like stück 1998 or ein(e) ausführende(r) (2002-) with their 4000 pages from later prose scores including only a few words. I’d rather think that a certain idea or layout for a composition proposes a certain ideal form of the score.

There are some quite fine distinctions between your pieces and particularly between versions of pieces (such as ein klang und eine stille, or stück 2003), where sometimes there is only one word different in the score, but the impact of this change is often very large. They seem to hint at trying to isolate performance archetypes, particularly in relation to listening and observation as you have mentioned, but also relationships between performers. Is this questioning of how people interact important for you?

Beyond a cultural extinction through what has been called ‘the society of the spectacle’ a richness of expression does obviously exist, and personally I feel a fundamental necessity to deconstruct the complex ‘wickerwork’ of elements and parameters involved in musical composition and its performance situation. This ‘wickerwork’ is actually mirroring our entire culture. So I try to isolate basic questions. In this sense I aim at focusing on ‘that people interact’ before questioning ‘how people interact’.

Where do we localize the essential impact of a performance of one performer in relation to a performance of two performers, or three performers? Where do we localize the essential impact of no articulated sound in relation to one articulated sound, to two or even three articulated sounds which already seem to be much closer to infinity? Elementary numerical relationships, especially within the numbers zero, one and two, and the ideas of the infinite reveal quite some questions on ‘composition’ and its ‘constitution’, finally on being.

In the scores I claim these questions to be the compositional questions (and there I aim at omitting to work on all questions I consider being contextual in order to avoid their dominant presence). The performances then materialize these questions, and a whole contextual situation emerges where the compositional questions and their materialization should maintain a transparent balance. At the end I hope the richness of being and expressing to become a palpable experience.

Some of your pieces are performed in succession, continuing in the score from where the previous performance finished. You’ve also organized series of daily performances of your pieces in a particular space. This seems closely linked to your idea of being and observing the world, perhaps mirroring the structure of the pieces on a larger scale. Why do you present your work in this way, and how do you view the boundaries of both a piece and its performance?

The presentation is always an invitation for people to meet. A performance lets a whole range of human beings’ sensations emerge, and the more we care for these sensations’ quality, the more we need to care for the presentation as well, which actually opens a new field of compositional decisions.

There is an essential relation between the what and the how of a proposition. I aim at bringing forth a flat as possible hierarchy within all the incidences coinciding, and its quality is then the listener’s possibility to live his own experience. With the performance succession I intend to balance ‘performance moment’ and ‘non-performance moment’, finally to balance the performance moment and life.

Incidences demand a general and certain awareness of care and attention otherwise they get lost in mere representation. I intend to conceive how ‘the world’ appears as ‘world’ in a performance.

I conceived a more general layout (for example in stück 1998) in order to continue to refine a layout as one complex: all pieces then intend to refine this complex. I need to reduce the focus on both an inner-compositional field of possibilities of ‘attraction’ and a linear process of a work as a succession of ‘autonomous compositions’ in order to let appear the mere world as a field of incidences.

So I conceived these scores which are performed in succession: each new, both easily recognizable and essentially different succession may so draw our attention to the situation’s ‘material’ as an exact moment of ‘world’.

Maybe the boundaries of both a piece or a performance are the boundaries of its potentiality as thought, or as information. Intuitively I would ask for a centre, or centres of a piece and its performance. The centres of a performance could be what I called before a heterogeneous mutuality.

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