Fanfare: The Magazine for Serious Record Collectors
Volume 42, Number 1 • September/October 2018, p. 84–90
Speaking Its Own Language: An Interview with Klaus Martin Kopitz on
Mia Brentano’s Hidden Sea
BY JACQUELINE KHAROUF
As an album, Mia Brentano’s Hidden Sea speaks to the memories, ideas, and imagination of the listener. True, the album notes may reference other, more specific places, people, and objects that were important to the composer at the time she was writing, but those refer- ences are only examples or starting points for the listener to begin one’s own journey to one’s own hidden sea. The composer of the album is a bit of mystery. Klaus Martin Kopitz makes no claims to the title, and hopes instead that the music speaks for itself. What memo- ries, what dreams, important objects or people, have we poured into the most guarded cor- ners of our minds? This is the question that this album (and the music) attempts to answer, and in that way the listener then becomes as important as the composer. We share in the work to “create” this album, and Mia Brentano, or Klaus Martin Kopitz, become as illusory as our most vivid dreams.
Klaus Martin Kopitz is a composer and musicologist. He studied at the University of Music Hanns Eisler in Berlin, focusing his doctoral research on Viennese Classicism and Romanticism. Currently, Kopitz works at the Saxon Academy of Sciences in Leipzig, where he is preparing a publication of the complete correspondence of Robert and Clara Schumann. With a little English translation help from his daughter, we corresponded about the release of the album, the identity of its composer, and the complexity of music as its own language.
I wonder if you would tell me a little about the project and the composer Mia Brentano. From the album notes, you have provided some clues about her musical identity. She com- poses pieces that “can be given many of the usual labels—or none of them.” She is inspired by places she may never visit again and people (real or imaginary) who have passed away. She thinks little of improvisation, but she likes the atmosphere of jazz clubs. She writes music that sounds improvised but is written down complete. Who is Mia Brentano and how did you come by her 20 miniatures?
Mia is a person, who means a lot to me and who is also very close to me. In particular, I have followed her musical development with great interest for many years and I’ve often spend nights discussing diverse questions of interest with her. I think people who read the booklet attentively might know who she is.
In your album notes you explain that Mia called her music “Advanced Classic” be- cause two crucial factors linked it with the tradition: It is scored, and it require two classi- cally trained pianists. Could you explain more of how Mia arrived at this genre, or how she arrived at writing music without boundaries or labels?
I think Mia just did what she thought was right. It was not her idea to write some pieces which cannot be categorized; rather, she had the realization after finishing it that this music is actually nowhere at home. Any classification into different genres is not necessarily good for music, if you want to handle it creatively. Music needs freedom and in the end there are only two types of music: good and bad one. But the question “What kind of music is it?” was very important to Mia’s audience. They wanted to know what exactly was she doing there. So she called her music “Advanced Classic”.
The album notes also mention a reference to Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words. Like Mendelssohn’s work, Mia’s music seems to speak a message that mere words cannot convey. You pose the implied reference as a question: “But then, why do you need words when the music already says it all?” As a reviewer, I wonder about the exact opposite: Why
do you need music when words say it all? In other words, we can distill this question down to a very basic question about art: Why? And so, in the absence of asking Mia directly, I’d like to ask you: What does her music mean to you?
Music is a language, a universal language even. But it isn’t necessarily a better language than the one we usually communicate with. How well music works as a language, whether it tells us something, depends above all on its quality. If it’s good, it can sometimes say more than words. With just a few notes it can touch us deeply. But of course music cannot say everything; for exemple, it cannot say what time it is. Anyway, I think that Mia’s music really doesn’t need any lyrics, any words. It speaks for itself, in a very special language, in its own language. But she herself was sometimes unsure whether people would understand her.
I wonder if you would also tell me a little bit more about yourself, Klaus Martin Kopitz. You studied composition and musicology at the University of Music Hanns Eisler in Berlin, and you have researched and written extensively on the subject of Viennese Classicism and Romanticism, even founding the Beethoven Research Center at the Berlin University of the Arts. Since 2012 you’ve worked at the Saxon Academy of Sciences in Leipzig on the publi- cation of the complete correspondence of Robert and Clara Schumann. With this tradition- al classical music background, how did you become interested in Mia’s free-flowing, free- form style of music?
You can still learn a lot from the great composers of the past. For example, what fasci- nates me again and again is the thriftiness, the economy of the compositional means of many works. There are famous pieces that last only 60 seconds. Just think of the “Minute Waltz” by Chopin. I’m also very interested in the biography of these outstanding musi- cians. For example, I was intensely involved with the question: Who was Beethoven’s “Elise”, to whom he dedicated his famous little piano piece. So I wrote a little book about this unknown girl. Meanwhile these historical researches have become my job. Certainly I also love many modern musicians, especially from the U.S. I just want to mention Charles Ives, Edgar Varèse, George Gershwin, John Cage, Conlon Nancarrow, Leonard Bernstein, and Steve Reich. John Adams, whom I also admire, recently lamented in a German music magazine that the music scene of his homeland is hardly noticed in Germany. This is really unfortunate, because American music is much more open, more free than the current Euro- pean music.
I’d also like to ask about the performers Benyamin Nuss and Max Nyberg, “two young pianists who can play classical and jazz, and for whom music has no boundaries, either.” How did you or Mia choose to work with these two pianists? Did Mia work directly with them to collaborate on their performance, or did she give them free range to interpret the pieces on their own?
Benyamin und Max were a great godsend, the perfect match. When Mia started writing pieces for two pianos, she was skeptical at first as to whether she could find performers to play them. She envisioned two pianists who would have a great virtuosity in the classical sense, but who are also well versed in pop and jazz. Last but not least, perfect timing was important for her. In fact, you could dance to a few pieces—if they are played accurately. A great help for a long time was a Yamaha Disklavier, a computer-controlled grand piano, a kind of player piano, with which she tried many things. The instrument played even diffi- cult parts, such as Wake Up, with great ease. Some of it sounded this way like works by Nancarrow, who composed a lot for player piano as you know. When Mia, in 2010, listened to Benyamin’s debut album, released on Deutsche Grammophon, with music from the video game Final Fantasy by Nobuo Uematsu, she was enthusiastic and decided that this was the pianist she was always looking for. She uploaded videos of her tracks to YouTube—played by the Yamaha Disklavier—and sent Benyamin a link. By chance, he was in the U.S. playing concerts when he received her email. He immediately replied that he liked the pieces and wanted to play them, and that he would definitely play them better than the computer piano. His friend Max Nyberg, a young Swedish pianist and composer, took over the second piano. The two are really great, a new generation of musicians. That’s
why Mia gave them free range to interpret the pieces on their own, similar to classical pieces.
Many music reviews—including Fanfare—are somewhat obsessed with labeling and categorizing the music that is reviewed. More than that, I think it is an inherent part of human nature to organize and label the world so that we can better understand and inter- pret it. So I’m always curious to listen to music, or read books, or look at art, that super- sedes labels and clear definitions. But I wonder, if we can’t categorize these pieces, are they still considered music?
I think that dividing the world into different categories is quite legitimate. It helps you to better understand yourself and to determine your own place. That’s not different with music. If you like a piece of music, you’re curious to know who wrote it, maybe when it was first released. You want a better understanding what’s special about it. But that can be deceptive. If I would tell you that Mia lived in the 19th century and was Beethoven’s girl- friend, you would hear her music differently. It’s the same music, yes, but the context has changed. There’s a scene in the movie La La Land, in which Emma Stone tells Ryan Gos- ling that jazz (for her) has always been music that was played in the background, soft music that she heard in elevators or restaurants—so it was actually music that she didn’t listen to, or at least she was not aware of. She didn’t like this shallowness. But then she’s very sur- prised when he plays this apparently trivial music on the piano for her. It breaks a line in a very simple, intimate way, and then Mia—the character played by Emma Stone—isn’t the same anymore. Of course she’s in love with him, but now she also senses that this music is not superficial, it only had a wrong label. You see, by following such divisions you quickly reach non-musical areas. Anyway, you’re right: it’s important to organize and label the world. But it’s also important to repeatedly question these labels or break them through. This is the only way to create something new.
There are many references to external people, places, and things. For example, the title of the CD is actually a play on words. Mia Brentano’s “Hidden Sea” perhaps refers to the “musical journey where new and undiscovered regions and landscapes meet”, and it refers to Hiddensee, a little island in the Baltic Sea off the coast of Germany. “Canajoharie” refers to an actual town in New York State. There are also references to people who may or may not be real, including Stella, a Polish girl who attended the same school as Mia; Jona, a little boy who frequented Mia’s house; and “Miss Ada,” a little girl playing in Mia’s garden. “Christina’s World,” refers to the famous painting by Andrew Wyeth (1948). All these references make the music deeply personal (to Mia) but also make the music a kind of collage that describes her understanding of her world. Do these references apply to any deeper meaning behind the music or, by including these references, does Mia hope listeners will create their own references?
Sometimes Mia really wanted to tell little stories. She was, for example, deeply im- pressed by a gorgeous U.S. road trip—from Toronto and Niagara Falls to New York and on to Long Island—that some titles (“Canajoharie” or “On the Train to Maine”) refer to. Clearly, there is always a real background, a source of inspiration so to speak. Whether the story with Stella is true, I don’t know, but of course it would explain a lot. A particular title can change our view of a piece. If a piece has a title like “Für Elise”, then a second level is added to the music, in this case the vague picture of a person, connected with the question: Who might have this person been? Titles can stimulate the imagination, but in the end the listener is naturally free in what he wants to imagine. And if a piece isn’t good, if it’s bor- ing, a “good” title will not rescue it anyway.
The bonus tracks are “pure improvisations” and yet you mention that they have the sound of being “very composed.” I guess I’m not so concerned if they are in fact impro- vised or not, but I’m curious why you even need to make the distinction if improvisation and composition are just different halves of musical expression.
Improvisation is the most important source of art. It’s the seed from which everything arises—but not more than that. A good idea is not a work yet. The actual work emerges only gradually, as a result of hard, disciplined work. However, the improvisations by Ben-
yamin and Max made me doubt this thesis. With them, “right” pieces were created immedi- ately, without any subsequent work. That’s amazing.
What’s next for Mia? What’s next for you?
The next album will contain pieces for one ore two pianos combined with other instru- ments, also combined with orchestra.