Young Composers Academy 2020 – Closing Concert
Saturday, 7 March 2020 @ 3:00pm
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, Orchestra Hall
Contributed by Joey Tan (BMUS4, YST)
An Interview with Dieter Mack
Dieter Mack is a German composer and ethnomusicologist. He studied composition at the University for Music in Freiburg with Klaus Huber and Brian Ferneyhough, as well as music theory and piano. He has held various assistantships, lectureships and professorships in Germany, Switzerland and Indonesia. After a one-year research stay in Bali, Mack founded his own gamelan group, “Anggur Jaya” in Freiburg. Since 2003, he has been Professor of Composition at the University for Music in Lübeck. He is currently the head of the musicians’ selection committee at the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) and a member of the music advisory board of the Goethe Institute. As a composer, he devotes his time to chamber music, particularly larger ensembles, and as an author, he publishes mainly on intercultural issues in music.
I had the privilege of interviewing Prof. Mack about himself, his unique path to becoming a composer, and his work.
JT: How did you get drawn into composition and ethnomusicology?
DM: I have learnt classical piano since the age of 9, but my real interests were in gymnastics. Unfortunately, I got a spine injury at 14 and had to quit any kind of sports for two years. As an alternative, I turned to music, classical piano on one side, and on the other side, I founded a rock group. We were all very curious and first just played cover versions of pieces from famous groups. Step by step, I became interested in classic rock (ELP, Yes, Van der Graaf Generator), jazz (Soft Machine, Miles Davis, Carla Bley, Keith Jarrett) and psychedelic music with electronics (Tangerine Dream, Popol Vuh).
In these fields, I started to make my first compositional experiments (I was one of the first in Germany to own a Moog Synthesizer) and all of a sudden, I was focused on electronic music. Automatically I crossed the border to contemporary art music, turning to Stockhausen, Boulez, Nono etc.; and finally, it became clear for me that I wanted to be a composer. But as I knew that it might be hard to make a living, I studied music theory and piano together with composition. And my first professorship in 1986 was in music theory (my CV on my website).
Ethnomusicology was quite accidental. In 1977, suddenly (and I still don’t know the reasons for it), my teacher Brian Ferneyhough asked me to make a class presentation on Balinese music. As there was almost no material available, he sent me to a colleague of his in Basel/Switzerland, who was said to be a specialist on it. That guy was very helpful and friendly, and at least, I could give my presentation.
To be honest, I didn’t really like the music – at least that which I was presenting on (Gamelan Selunding and Gambang from East Bali). However, in some way, I was obviously “infected” and quickly decided that I had to go there to see the real life in Bali. And I went there for the first time in 1978 which then turned my life around by 180 degrees. Step by step, this became the central field of my work, research etc., besides composition and western music theory. I almost completely dropped playing the piano in favor of playing gamelan (I regret it a little today).
JT: What are your current interests in composition?
DM: At the moment, I am very much occupied with microtonal issues, caused by a commission for Javanese pelog/slendro gamelan and another commission for quintet (flute, bass clarinet, violin, cello, piano) where the players also have to play percussion instruments.
The central sound is coming from two Japanese Rin with G (+20 Cent) and A-flat (-30 Cent). There is a distinct beating when both notes are played together and this becomes the motto of the piece, which as a whole, is very dramatic and mystical. In both compositions, I also work with various electroacoustic inserts. While in the gamelan piece it is recorded and transformed gamelan sounds, in the second it is the voice, and the speaker lies in the piano, so that the resonance is amplified by the piano resonator (strings open). I have a further plan which has a similar idea, but for orchestra and solo soprano.
Microtonality in my music is based less on a certain system or spectralism. It is, for me, more of a feature to create unique sound worlds with a magical character.
JT: How have your experiences in Asia influenced your music?
DM: This is difficult to answer. I was never interested in imitating something or in quoting something from Asia. I was never interested in “World Music” or “East meets West”. Even when I compose for gamelan instruments, I do it in my language and use the instruments only as a source of sound. A real influence has certainly been the experience of collectivity in gamelan playing, although you find this in a jazz big band as well. I have a fondness for metal instruments, but I cannot say whether I liked those sounds and therefore became interested in Balinese Gamelan, or vice versa. Also, some more “transcultural” things like formal principles started to interest me, but you may find them also in Mozart’s music.
JT: What is Klingende Fäden (Sounding Threads) about?
DM: While in most of my recent pieces I mostly started with a harmonic matrix, Klingende Fäden is based on some linear melodic lines that then disintegrate, step by step, and fall into fragments which then go together in a new way. So there are numerous forms of transformations throughout the piece. For me it is like a spider’s web, but dealing with a temporal dramaturgy as well.
JT: Share with us the process of composing the piece.
DM: There was no special process, except that after I got the commission, I tried to learn about the musicians, their characters, and their abilities. I always do that if possible. Then I intentionally made a catalogue of the basic melodies and possible derivations. I also made a harmonic matrix, but it is less important here. Finally, I had an overall plan which I worked out and then I started to write the piece in detail. In fact, even then, I only used up to about 60% of my prepared materials. But that was fine, because these preparations also bring it deeper into that intended sound world.
JT: One more question, just for fun… Do you have a favourite food in Singapore?
DM:Oh, I am lover of seafood of any kind. I cannot eat meat (pork, chicken, beef, lamb etc.) because of a former sickness. And as cooking and eating is my hobby, I like any kind of interesting food in good restaurants but also on the street. Therefore, I do not have a favorite dish. I certainly would like to visit the restaurant “Odette”.