A Critical Distance: An Interview with Composer Klaus Martin Kopitz BY JACQUELINE KHAROUF
German composer and musicologist Klaus Martin Kopitz sometimes employs the use of a character in order to access a younger version of himself. Where some artists might use this exercise to prepare for a role or write a narrative from an alternative perspective, Kopitz has created a whole other side of himself—a young woman named Mia Brentano—to regain access toa time and a place and a part of himself that no longer exists. I imagine it is bit like finding out you have a Doppelgänger, a younger little you living out in the world, and in- stead of running away in fear and dread, sitting down with him or her and offering to hear a little bit of what this little you has to say. For Kopitz, his younger self is living in East Germany, working at the piano, recording and writing music. Sometimes it rains outside and so she opens the window to record the rain with the piano. Sometimes she needs to incorporate other sounds, and so she spends time copying noises from the archive in the radio play department of the state broadcasting office. She is a part of him, and yet re- moved at what he calls “a critical distance,” critical because only at this time now— removed, as he is (as we all are), from his past—can he create the work that he has present- ed on his latest album. Much of this work is built on collaboration, both between the past and the present and between musicians. Building on our previous interview (42:1, Sept/Oct 2018), I asked Kopitz about the timeliness of his recently released music, the nature of the uncanny as an important element to his music, as well as his use of layered voices, noises, and other sounds to create auditory collages.
In our previous interview, we spoke about your collaboration with Mia Brentano, who also lends her name and creativity to this new album. Unlike the previous album, you don’t really give the listener too many clues about any specific memories Mia has accessed for writing this music (with the exception of Die Stille des verlassenen Raumes, but I have a question about that piece later in the interview). I also did not realize that you had collabo- rated with Mia for such a long time. In your album notes, you write that the pieces took many years to create and that “each of the fifteen pieces tries in its own way to tell a small, mysterious story or paint a picture with sounds, which could be a dream, too.” Why was it so important to share this music now?
First of all, I may have to say that “Mia Brentano” is not just a pseudonym for me, it’s also a fictional counterpart, a young woman who helps me to create a certain distance from myself. The idea for this figure came when I thought about how long ago some of the piec- es were created, and whether they still had enough meaning to be published. On the first CD, Mia Brentano’s Hidden Sea, one of the pieces is from 1986, A Storm Is Coming. The oldest piece on this CD is Les champs magnétiques, created in 1989, 30 years ago. You may know that feeling, if you read older lyrics or stories of yourself, and then you ask yourself: What person was I at that time? Was that really written by me? There is automati- cally a certain distance there, a critical distance. Sometimes it’s also a creative distance. On the other hand, I would have liked to have at least published the three large collages earlier, but it was not enough music for a CD with a length of 60 or 70 minutes. It was only half a symphony, so to speak. Mia helped me to put myself once again back into my younger self and to revive the “spirit” of this time so I could build on it. I think a lot of artists work that way, especially writers, filmmakers, and actors who live on creating or empathizing with fictional characters. It is a normal act of creativity to give up one’s own identity temporari- ly and slip into another role. It is a source of inspiration, too.
On this album, you have not only collaborated with Mia, but there are many other col- laborations as well—between musicians of different instruments, technicians, narrators, sounds and noise, music and silence, time and recording spaces. From the sounds, voices, and music of real people and places, you and Mia have created this blend of dream and reality which begins a fictional journey (or mystery trip). This blending of truth and fiction reminds me of the German novelist W. G. Sebald, who does something similar with his novels. He draws from his own experiences trekking across Europe and creates a blend of fictional people and sometimes historical narratives to explore some overarching theme or idea (usually related to his German heritage and collective guilt surrounding World War II). With this album, I wonder if you had some overarching theme in mind. Or, in an- other way, what is the message or idea that you most hope to convey to the listener?
The idea for the title came to me at the very end, when I realized that the album really represents a journey into the past. I’m glad that something about my music reminds you a lot of W. G. Sebald, who in his novels also undertakes these irritating journeys into the past, thereby breaking the boundaries between dream and reality. Thank you for mention- ing him. In the liner notes of the booklet, I quote a few other artists whose works have always inspired me, among them Paul Auster and David Lynch. This includes the Surreal- ists, and I often thought: It is strange that not many have to compose a kind of Surrealist music. There are Surrealist texts, pictures, and films, but not much music of this sort. With Les champs magnétiques I really tried to catch up with that. But it also applies to newer pieces like Dancing in Twilight. All in all, the music on this CD could best be described as film music, except that the listener has to create this film himself. In German there is the term “Kopfkino” (Cinema in the head). It also arises when reading stories, when they are really captivating and very pictorially written. Maybe this is the message to the listeners: feel free to imagine pictures, stories, or films inspired by the music. In a sense, the music already tells stories, but not on a verbal level, of course.
In addition to blending dream and reality, this album also blends across genre—jazz and classical music—and blurs the line between synthetic music and noise that, at times, sounds a bit like ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) noises. In our last inter- view, we spoke about Mia Brentano and her understanding of her own music and her defi- ance of classifications or categorizations: “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.” I’ll admit that sometimes the high-pitched striking notes and pings were difficult to listen to. Then again, in between these pieces were other songs with warm, almost nostalgic-sounding tunes. I find that con- trast interesting because the listener is sort of asked to wonder which pieces are part of a dream, which represent reality, and which are memories. Is this an accurate way to de- scribe the kind of blending that exists on the album? Or am I again merely attempting to classify your music and creative direction?
No, you describe that very well. I also like your comparison with ASMR; I would not have come to that. That’s a very new, barely explored phenomenon. I feel, for example, whispering as a very strong acoustic stimulus, which can cause very pleasant feelings in me. It does not matter what is being said. Whispering is also an important stylistic device in the piece Ghosts, overlaying it with sometimes unpleasant, almost sinister sounds. Some of them are those brutal, splintering synthesizer phrases that you’re probably referring to, which I made with a computer-controlled Korg M1. But there are also very warm, soft sounds, such as the incredible sound of the six trombones in Wide Open Landscape. Origi- nally, these chords were supposed to be played by an accordion, but the musician had no time. That’s why Shiori Doi, the girlfriend of pianist Benyamin Nuss, played them. And she did a fantastic job, I think; it sounds almost like a living, breathing synthesizer—or another ASMR sound.
I wanted to ask about the layering of sound and voice on the pieces with narrators (Les champs magnétiques, Die Stille des verlassenen Raumes, and Ghosts). I wonder if you could describe a bit of your process and method, or how you approached the material, both
text and music, to create these unique collages. Were you ever concerned about adding too many layers, too many sounds, and in effect losing the impact of the piece?
These three pieces were produced at the Studio for Electroacoustic Music of the East German Academy of Arts in Berlin, which was founded by the composer Georg Katzer in 1986. At the time I was a “master student” of the Academy—it was a kind of postgraduate education for artists —and the production was a bit like the production of a film. We rec- orded a lot, much more than necessary, and then it was all about sifting through the materi- al, choosing the best one and assembling it in such a way that it gets the right flow, the right “groove.” Partly, the performers got clear instructions on what to do, and I also wrote down a few things. This particularly concerns the piano part in Les champs magnétiques, which I played myself. I have rehearsed it before and also sketched how the individual sections should then be mounted and distributed in the imaginary room. Other things I have left to chance. When I played my piano part, it suddenly started to rain and we just opened the windows and recorded the sound of the rain together with the piano. In any case, the main work was editing and post-production, including the use of effects such as room simulation. We were able to use one of the first room simulators, a device of the manufacturer Lexicon that could do crazy things, rooms of any size. When it comes to music, you have to handle it very carefully. By contrast, language is no problem. However, it was generally important for me to use all these means sparingly, and to work consciously with silence, too. A very important partner in these pieces was Uwe Ziegenhagen, the sound engineer, who had many ideas of his own, a bit like the cameraman in a movie. Luckily we had a lot of time and could work in the studio for free, but everything still was analog, with scissors and glue. There was hardly any interest in what we did. East Germany was a very boring coun- try where time stood still. Nothing happened. With these pieces we dreamed into another world, into an exciting fantasy world. The piece Ghosts came later, 1991 to 1995, at that time I already had my own little studio that I could work with at home. But here, too, we did the entire post-production in the academy.
My favorite piece on the album is Die Stille des verlassenen Raumes (The Silence of the Abandoned Room), which won the Hanns Eisler Prize of Deutschlandsender Kultur in 1991 and a Prize of Forum junger Komponisten of Westdeutscher Rundfunk Cologne in 1992. The backstory for the piece concerns the ending of East Germany in 1989 and the slow departure of people leaving the country. I really love your description of Mia during this time: “When Mia produced the piece in March 1990, the Berlin Wall was almost gone, the room that had been closed for a long time was actually open, everything seemed possi- ble.” How did you choose the languages—including Amharic (the official language of Ethiopia), Icelandic, and Yoruba (a language spoken in West Africa)—to blend and weave throughout the piece? And without the translations of the texts, what do you hope the lis- tener will experience or understand?
The creation of this piece was, in a sense, a real adventure. You have to imagine that East Germany was a country where virtually no foreigners lived. After all, there were uni- versities, where it was not quite so provincial, and which dealt with the world “out there.” At the University of Leipzig there was even an African Studies section, where Irmtraud Herms introduced me to the secrets and beauties of the many African languages, including Amharic and Yoruba. But they only had short sound examples on tapes, in poor quality, and I wanted to work with “real” people. I wanted to record their voices myself, with the best microphones we had, in stereo, to get a really fantastic sound. I intended it to sound very direct, very alive. Anyway, I finally found the two spokespersons from Ethiopia and Iceland at the Berlin Humboldt University, where the young Icelandic woman was really the only Icelander living in East Germany. My search for a Yoruba spokesman had almost failed. In desperation, I went to the Nigerian embassy and was presented to the cultural attaché there. After I had explained to him my concern, he asked only: When should the recordings be? He spoke Yoruba himself. The piece is about the unique sound of certain languages, about their great beauty. The sound of languages is sometimes already close to music in its own, you do not have to do anything else, nothing to compose. Yoruba is called
a tone language. This is a language in which saying words with different “tones”—which are like pitches in music—changes the meaning of a word even if the pronunciation is oth- erwise the same. The other main themes of these pieces were: imaginary rooms and noises. At this time I was always on the lookout for mysterious, weird noises. That was a real ma- nia. There was a large noise archive in the radio play department of the state broadcasting, where I was allowed to copy a lot. That was a real treasure trove. From this archive, for example, come the animal sounds, the meow of a cat and the peacocks scream in Die Stille des verlassenen Raumes, just as the noise of lightning that strikes a tree at the end of Les champs magnétiques. Other noises we have recorded ourselves.
The nature of the uncanny is something I have studied in my work to become a creative writer. It’s not just an eerie feeling, but a certain knowledge of an imbalance in the world (Romantically called a sense of “existential dread”). It’s rare to see the uncanny explored so directly in classical music, but the discordant, “eerie” sounds of some of the pieces do speak to the uncanny (which is also embodied by the writers and filmmakers that the album plays tribute to). Perhaps the uncanny is most obviously represented in the piece Ghosts. You mention that this piece was inspired by Paul Auster’s novel and that it was intended for a radio play. I wonder if you could tell us a bit about how you developed the idea to create the piece for Auster’s novel and a bit about why the play wasn’t completed or per- formed on the radio. Did you collaborate with Auster as well?
Ghosts was the first novel I read of Paul Auster, and it fascinated me from the first page. I immediately saw certain scenes in my mind’s eye, and it was also wonderful how he treated the city of New York almost like a person. The whole novel plays in authentic set- tings, yet this story, which begins as a detective story, is absolutely fictional, and increas- ingly permeated by a subtle, unreal horror. I procured Auster’s address, which was not difficult, because he was in the Brooklyn phone book, and wrote him a letter. He answered that he liked my idea of making the novel to an experimental radio play, but first of all he wanted to know what kind of music I was doing. I sent him a tape cassette containing my designs and other pieces, and on August 28, 1991, he wrote to me: “Thank you for your letter and the tapes of your music, which I really enjoyed.” The Westdeutscher Rundfunk Cologne had a famous department for experimental radio plays at that time, led by Klaus Schöning, and he wanted to produce the piece. In 1979, Schöning realized John Cage’s Roaratorio, which today is regarded as a key work of acoustic art. He also knew my piece Die Stille des verlassenen Raumes. Unfortunately, I was not the only one who was interest- ed in Paul Auster. Problems occurred when the novel was to be filmed, because the filmmaker had contractually secured the exclusive rights to the novel, at least until the premiere of his film. On December 14, 1992, Paul Auster wrote to me that he was very sorry about my radio play ideas, but “It’s too soon, let’s wait.” Three years later—the mov- ie was still not finished—I took the fragments from the old radio play and recomposed it to the piece which can be heard on the CD. During the work, I asked the Korean composer Yun-Kyung Lee to contribute a separate text. She was living in Berlin at that time and now gave a voice to the invisible “ghosts.” Perhaps you could call the piece “Variations on Ghosts,” and I think it captures the atmosphere of Auster’s novel quite well. Incidentally, his letters were completely hand-written—unbelievable! Of course I’ve read everything from him, most recently 4 3 2 1. In my opinion he is one of the greatest living authors.
At the same time, you have also included music which is highly accessible, Romantic even, which feels a bit like jazz, especially on the pieces with horns, woodwinds, and drums. As I listened to the album in one sitting (an at times strange, but beautiful, mysteri- ous trip, indeed), I was glad for these more traditional pieces because they undercut a bit of the gloom and starkness of the other more layered, synthesized pieces. I’m curious to know if the writing/creative process was much different for writing these kind of more “traditional” pieces (if you will), or if these pieces were left as they are—without the touch of a synthesizer or noises and discordant sounds—simply because those effects didn’t fit with the nature or intention of these pieces.
Yes, I deliberately wanted to create a contrast to the more experimental pieces, so that the listeners can “relax” between. That’s why I’ve added these more traditional pieces, composed in a kind of “fake jazz,” with melodic fragments. But that is indeed another crea- tive process, because you need “real” ideas. I mean, inventing memorable tunes is still the greatest challenge for a composer. And that is not enough, because a melody only becomes memorable and unmistakable with an original harmony. I just name two big songs of the popular culture from the last years: Believe by Cher and Happy by Pharrell Williams. I could mention many others, such as The Girl from Ipanema or all songs by Stevie Wonder. They have burned into our memory mainly because of their harmony, less because of their melody.
Anyway, I also really like those melancholic, jazz-inspired pieces of my CD. It may sound unusual, but it is precisely why these pieces were notated very carefully, like classi- cal music, and are to be played without improvisation, which is typical of jazz. By contrast, the experimental pieces, or at least their basic material, are largely improvised. In that sense, the creative process was indeed very different. Sometimes, however, the synthesizer was just one instrument among many, like the piano, but it offered the ability to be con- trolled by a computer. Floating was supposed to be a piano piece, but it was impossible to note down exactly the constant tempo alterations. Previously I had composed another piece of this kind, in which I wrote the individual notes in a timeline with a seconds-raster-grid. But it was much easier to model the timing directly with a computer, which then controls the instrument.
And then I’ll just conclude as I usually do with a question about your upcoming projects and/or performances. Do you have plans to work with Mia on another collaborative, mul- timedia album?
First of all, I would like to take a look back and thank everyone who contributed to the album, in particular Ralf Kemper and the others from Riverside Studios Cologne, as well as Benyamin Nuss (piano) and Andy Miles (clarinet). It is very inspiring to work with such wonderful, versatile musicians who both are also very good composers. The present version of Angry Mia—for four clarinets and bass clarinet—was directly written and arranged for Andy, and was finished only during production, after he gave me some important clues. For the future, another project with two pianos is planned, which has already progressed quite far. And then I would like to make a production with a bigger cast, like orchestra, but that’s hard to realize—or as Paul Auster said, “It’s too soon, let’s wait.”
BRENTANO River of Memories. Blue Moon.1 Under the Surface.2 Les Champs mag- nétiques.3 Floating.4 Der Besucher.5 Wide Open Landscape.6 Silver Rain.7 Die Stille des verlassenen Raumes.8 Over the City of Glass.9 Angry Mia.10 Septemberland.11 Lily of the Valley.12 Ghosts (for Paul Auster).13 Dancing in Twilight.14 Brahms Is Sleeping.15 • 1, 5, 6, 11, 12, 14, 15Benyamin Nuss (pn); 1, 5, 6, 10, 14, 15Andy Miles (cl, b cl); 3Heiner Reinhardt (b cl); 13Johannes Ernst (sax); 6, 14Shiori Doi (tbn); 9, 11Hans Dekker (dr); 2–4, 7–9, 13Klaus Martin Ko- pitz (Korg M1, Yamaha DX7, Akai S1100, pn, programming, noises; 8Katrin Gralki (vocals); 3Marie-Noëlle Fileyssant, 8Ayo Ajayi, 8Jóhanna Eydís Þórarinsdóttir, 8Timkehet Teffera, 13Yun-Kyung Lee (nar) • MONS 874621 (62:44)
This second album from the collaborative relationship between Klaus Martin Kopitz and his muse/friend/alter-ego Mia Brentano differs in several important and fascinating ways from the first album. Where the first album—Mia Brentano’s Hidden Sea—included music exclusively written and performed by dual pianists, this latest album includes music that is a collage of sounds, noises, spoken languages, moods, and tones. While the piano seemed to be the mainstay of the Brentano-Kopitz collaboration in the first album, the syn- thesizer and other electronic sounds, or computer-manipulated sounds and voices, becomes the anchoring instrumentation for this album. To be sure, we still hear piano music, but it is transformed, layered, and at times distorted by the interference of other noises—explosions,
ticking, breaking objects. Such music can be disorientating for the listener, and so in be- tween some of the more heavily collaged pieces, the composer has also included more traditional ensemble music—clarinet and piano, bass clarinets, drums, and trombones. In total, the album is itself a collage—an auditory exploration of that blurry space between dream and reality. In his album notes, Kopitz mentions several writers and filmmakers who inspired the music, including E. T. A Hoffmann, Poe, Kafka, and Paul Auster, Hitchcock, Andrei Tarkovsky, and David Lynch. (On a side note, I love that David Lynch is included in the list because I frequently thought of Twin Peaks while listening to the album.) Like these artists, Kopitz has managed to warp his audience’s sense of the reliability and pre- dictability of reality.
And yet, to describe this “Mystery Trip” as a collage in some ways fails to really ex- plain why I find the album so compelling, relevant, weird, and uncanny in only the best way (very interested readers should consult Freud’s essay on the uncanny). Take for exam- ple my favorite piece on the album, Die Stille des verlassenen Raumes (The Silence of the Abandoned Room), which includes narrators speaking in Amharic, Yoruba, and Icelandic, as well as a singer mimicking the sound of angels (oh, yes), synthesizer, noises (such as footsteps, breaking glass, and snapping), and electronic sounds. It is strange, otherworldly, at times disturbing, but ultimately an expression of humanity—the messiness of life, the sound of voices overheard in far away rooms, the existential dread of our own existence. To represent the uncanny in an auditory format, employing the human voice as a layer of fur- ther disorientation, is not easily done, nor is it simply some sort of expanded ASMR (au- tonomous sensory meridian response) recording, though sometimes I had this response from sounds on the album. Rather, the album is an effort to question and confront the lis- tener’s notion of reality. Why are some of the pieces so beautiful, effortless, and accessi- ble? Why are the other pieces “dark,” heavy with electronic sounds, unpleasant, difficult to listen to? We, as listeners, are asked to engaged emotionally with this music, to reorient our perceptions of our memories, to find beauty in what we cannot understand. Jacqueline Kharouf