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Book Review

Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers

Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers by Varga

(Eastman Studies in Music)

Bálint András Varga, ed.
University of Rochester Press, 2011 xiv + 333
ISBN-10: 1580463797
ISBN-13: 978-1580463799
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Bálint András Varga is a music publisher from Hungary. He has spent 40 years working with composers, interviewing them and writing about and reproducing those interviews. Those composers include Lutosławski, Kurtág, Berio and Xenakis. Although new and containing new material, Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers, a title from The University of Rochester Press' outstanding "Eastman Studies in Music" series, must reflect the insights that Varga's work over this length of time has afforded him.

Such exposure has obviously directed Varga towards those concerns which will be the most pressing for composers – and more widely, creative artists; more widely still for musicians as human beings. Hence which would be the most illuminating questions to ask them all so as to convey to the general and specialized reader in the written format as much as possible of what they are about.

The questions which Varga asked of composers from Gilbert Amy to Xennakis are these:

  1. Have you had an experience […of another's work…] which changed your musical thinking and ushered in a new creative period?
  2. A composer is surrounded by sounds. Do they influence you and are they in any way of significance for your compositional work?
  3. How far can one speak of a personal style and when does self-repetition begin?

To seek the views of threescore and five composers on those matters is a great idea. But it's more than mere curiosity or reportage. Not only have the questions themselves been carefully and cleverly thought out. But also the composers approached and the way the project was explained and they were asked to approach it – presumably. For the results are very revealing. Indeed, they make if not required, then certainly "advised" reading for anyone interested in really understanding how composers work in general; and how they see their role in the contemporary world of music.

The first question seeks to elicit, really, the extent to which a composer considers themself the inheritor of a much longer tradition and the extent to which their own preoccupations more pressingly determine the direction in which they (wish to) go. When there are revelations, how does the composer adapt? How (if at all) do (possibly new) methods become integrated, and/or adapted, to a composer's existing style? How do existing styles get modified? This question was prompted by Lutosławski's response to Cage's Second Piano Concerto, which he heard on the radio and prompted him radically to embark on a new phase. Jeux vénetiens (1960/61) was the result.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, some composers who responded to this question reported immediate changes; others that the influence needed much longer (years, even) to ferment, mature and emerge as viable. Tristan Murail, for example, sees the computer as fundamentally liberating in ways that nothing else is. Peter Eotvos decided to become a composer at age 4. Ernst Krenek was inspired by the Schubert B Flat Major Piano Sonata. This is typical of the spectrum of responses that make this book such interesting reading. Crumb meticulously lists chapter and verse of Mahler and Debussy. Carter names works from the beginning of the last century, and which may claim still to influence his style. Cage names Rauschenberg's paintings rather than any one piece of music; though if it is, it's Feldman.

The second question had a wider range of responses than you might perhaps have imagined. Penderecki describes how sirens during a vacation on the Baltic were important. Johannes Maria Staud has a preference for the wind and rain when actually working; not the misery of intrusive sounds – a crazed mandolin player in his apartment building. Denisov regrets our divorce from nature. Carter includes the spoken word qua sound. Maxwell-Davies is in the majority of composers who prefer natural sounds, hates aeroplanes and identifies the hum of generated alternating current for household use as "an out-of-tune G".

Varga explains that he asked the third question for very personal reasons: during his years as a music publisher he (often?) experienced disappointment, annoyance even, when composers shied away from innovation and repeated themselves. Given that a personal style almost inevitably implies revisiting certain aspects of the way they work – after all, the greatest composers from the past have always done so – where exactly is the dividing line between surprise and novelty on the one hand; and "safety" on the other? Is that line fixed?

This was the hardest question for the respondents; perhaps because it applies to much other human activity beyond specifically musical creation. Cage, of course, dismisses the very notion of personal expression. Dutilleux seems to suggest the issue has never come up. Carter – always as succinct as he is illuminating – places those aspects of style which run the risk of being repetitive firmly second to the conceptual and expressive "adventure" that he believes each new work to represent.

So, it's clear that there are almost as many possible variations in response to these three questions as there are composers to give them. And scarcely a one that's not intriguing and informative.

Some 82 composer were asked to participate in what was clearly much more than a factual questionnaire or survey – at times it took on the sense of a dialog. Indeed, Varga was able to meet about 40 of these in person. The rest used letters. In the case of the former, more extended conversations took place, were recorded and transcribed and arranged in a form readable enough not only for eventual publication, but also for checking by the composers themselves.

The logistics of this enterprise were such, almost needless to say, that it took many years to complete. Eight years in fact. Boulez, Stockhausen and Ligeti sent their replies by return of post. Kagel and Birtwistle took… a lot longer! This English-language edition is a welcome revision and expansion of the (presumably) already fascinating earlier Hungarian one. It contains new material and is updated by some (though it's not always clear which) composers. With the exception of Messiaen, most major composers of the last (and this) century are represented in Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers. Although the book lacks photographs or musical examples, it's well indexed and has diagrams illustrating the process of composition not only by, perhaps predictably, Xenakis, but also Andriessen, Babbitt, Benjamin, Rihm, Ruzicka, Staud and Szőllősy among others.

At over 300 substantive pages, this is a very worthwhile and intriguing book. It's revealing and has a few surprises (noises do not influence Ligeti or Birtwistle) as well as expanding and re-inforcing what you might expect (Schnittke found some sounds around him "unbearable"). Specifically, it's a book that really does illuminate and provide a highly useful exposition of how composers think and work. Recommended.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Sealey.