Interview with Markus Trunk, 9th July 2003 (Part 2)

M: -you did what?

T: I paused it.

M: Oh right, you didn't erase everything.

T: No.

M: Ok, we stayed overnight at Clarence Barlow's. Things like that. We even went to Brussels, to- in fact there was a performance of Walter's piano concerto.

T: Oh yeah, I heard that.

M: You know which one I mean?

T: I know a piano concerto.

M: It's got a Greek title, something like "Ataraxia".

T: I don't know...

M: That same trip we also went to see John Adams's "Death of Klinghoffer", the original production I think.

T: That all sounds familiar because of um, when I was studying with Kevin Volans, the same sort of ex-Cologne people like Walter Zimmermann, Clarence Barlow...

M: Ah, the Cologne connection, that makes a lot of sense.

T: And Kevin gave me some... well Kevin gave me some composition exercises.

M: He did?

T: He did, yeah, which er, you know again I kind of had to work with somehow...

(waiter brings knives and forks)

T: Are you getting me one? A mushroom pepperpot?

M: He must be assuming we are sharing.

T: So, yeah, so Walter Zimmermann didn't do that with you?

M: The exercises? No. Not sure I remember- By that time I had lots of ideas of my own and I was happy to just get on with it. I mean like "Raw Rows" I had already started writing I think. That goes back a long way.

T: Yeah, that's an early thing as well.

M: It was really just one year.

T: Yeah, I don't mean that your pieces are wildly different, but there's a difference in, you know, sort of um...

M: I would think that the approach is probably quite similar. Sometimes I try out different material or a different medium...

T: How do you approach, then, writing a piece? If someone said "make me a string quartet"?

M: Um... I would just sit down and wait for ideas. Just thinking about the instruments and their ranges. But then I... some quirky idea might just pop into my head and sometimes it develops into something bigger... I mean- I guess I've got quite a catalogue of unfinished pieces as well. Where I got relatively far collecting material um, and then abandoned it.

T: Is that what you do, sort of between pieces or something, you collect material?

M: No, not really. What I meant was pieces where I had already assembled and written out a lot of music for possible inclusion.

T: Ok.

M: No, this was... I don't do that often enough actually because what I find what works for me best to get ideas for pieces is actually going to concerts of contemporary music, um, and actually the worse the pieces are the better it works for me.

T: I was gonna say, is it a negative reaction?

M: Yeah, because all of a sudden you think of all the things one could have done... Yeah. Or sometimes I listen to a perfectly respectable piece of contemporary music which er, is not any- not really very interesting but there's maybe one instrument combination that grabs my attention, or one sound effect and I think, oh I could make a whole piece just out of that, that would be much more entertaining. I wonder now whether I can name something like that. There were maybe a couple of pieces that started out...

T: Yeah, because um, it's almost like you don't... it's not being aware of your own self until you come up against resistance, you know, and if you like, a bad piece can make you realise "Ah! That's not me. This is what I would do."

M: But I'm sure, you know, a "proper" composer is just plagued by ideas all the time. You know, they lie awake at night... I always find I just stumble on something, it's almost like a found object. And that's how I... At least that's what I tell myself, it's not really true, of course you make those "found" things up just as well, because once I write the piece I make up all these charts for the pitches or... for rhythmic values, durational values...

T: What, derived from what you've found?

M: Yeah. Very simple ones. You know, I just list the elements... A certain range of chords and then I number them and then I use very simple chance procedures to tell me what happens. That's true for "Leaf". Either just a certain number of pitches, I think it was barely more than one and a half octaves. The sequence of pitches is basically... I think back then I used real dice. Now I use this website that has a dice program for computer games. Don't ask me why game players need...

T: Oh what? Multi-sided dice?

M: Yeah yeah... why game players need um... chance generated sequences of certain numbers.

T: You can get twenty-four sided dice or something like that. It's practically a sphere!

M: Yeah, that's exactly what I used in "Leaf", a twenty-sided dice for the twenty available notes. But with this online program you can get any number of sides, any number of throws. I just enter them numbers then I print it out.

T: Give me the address! I'd quite like to see it... No but I mean I think it's just interesting where ideas come from, whether it's very intuitive or whether it's a general sense of something and then you find things externally that nudge you on your way, point things out, or even directly give you ideas. You know, like found objects. Found objects are only found if you're looking for it, otherwise it's just rubbish.

M: Yeah. No, true. Of course the found object- you never use it by itself anyway. It just gives you this vision of what there might be and then you try to come close to it... and half the time it works, other times it doesn't. I've said years ago- I told Hauke- have you met Hauke Harder?

T: Yes I remember his first name.

M: He came over for the Jo Kondo opera last year. Anyway, I've told him probably several times that I would stop using dice... that I should be able to decide myself what I want at any point in time. I just keep going back to it... It seems to be that kind of varied but homogenous surface that I prefer. And if I try to decide out of a limited pool of elements what I want it's never as interesting as any throw of the dice because you get these extremes where you have, you know, like the number 6 more often than you would normally like...

T: Yeah you have an idea about how the dice would go, and it's-

M: Yeah if you've got six elements you try to create, subconsciously, balance whereas the dice only does that over a very long stretch.

T: You may throw the dice six times and it's five sixes and a one.

M: Yeah. Or it omits the numbers one and two for the longest time. And musically that's quite nice because it's almost- I mean it could work harmonically if you don't get two of the pitches for a very long time.

T: Well, it's a tool like anything else though. You use it until you have no use, I guess, for it, because um-

M: I don't think it's a cop-out...

T: No, I find it's um-

M: Because if you didn't like what is generated then... I don't- I guess you would never use it just in order to fill time.

T: No it depends what you use it for doesn't it. I mean...

M: I guess I get defensive about it because sometimes I feel it's a weakness that I don't have a clear idea of... Maybe it can be a weakness that I have this fixed pool of elements and I don't change anything about it for a very long period. So it's just very very static and um... I guess when I listen to other people's music I like surprises or little changes and er... so I guess I have to find ways of factoring them in. But I'm not very good at systems, or computer programming or anything like that.

T: What, systems as in coming up with a random number computer programme?

M: Coming up with more complex things. It's always extremely basic what I do.

T: But the simplest means can often produce the most complicated results. I wouldn't er... I think it's a very clear idea though to be open about a particular situation because er... you know there are some things I would use chance for, and you know I like to discover things or come across things or be surprised or whatever.

M: Through chance?

T: Well yes but you know when writing a piece to come across things that interest me. And if I make it up myself it doesn't interest me. It's like... my own decision here does not interest me, in a lot of instances, I mean it depends on the- depends what I'm talking about.

M: Yeah. I guess I've started a few pieces myself over the years where I was trying to force myself to make all the decisions, and it lasts for a page and then I look back over it and I realise it's- it's just willful, even ugly, and at the same time totally arbitrary, and I don't like that.

T: You don't like?

M: Arbitrariness. Because I think in Cage, you know, big master of chance, haha, but he always set- not always maybe, but, um, most of the time the parameters are so fixed, even if you inject different materials into it, it still comes out as "the piece". I guess I'm... That's how I feel. I don't like it to be too er... very...

T: What, the parameters?

M: For some reason I was just thinking of the German word but I'm not totally sure...

T: What?

M: I'm not totally sure of what...

T: Oh I thought you just said it.

M: to translate it. (pause)

T: Well, say the German word.

M: Oh, ok, just to make it more colourful, the word is actually "bunt", which means- it means colourful! (laughs) Well, that's one of the meanings anyway... Sorry, where were we?

T: Just using- using chance within particular areas. But is that a sort of um... previous teaching that's saying to you... Is that Spahlinger in your ear saying "don't use chance, you must have a reason for doing stuff." Or is it some kind of academic guilt from your... from anywhere in your past?

M: (laughs)

T: I don't know, it's just because...

M: I like that term. "Academic guilt". It's like Catholic guilt - it's exactly the same thing. Um, I was gonna say no it's not but that's probably partly it. Sometimes I try to be um... because Spahlinger's very systematic, sometimes I think why can't I be totally spontaneous, and that way very personal. And then that doesn't work either. You know, more like improvising on the page.

T: Well you set up a system and then introduce something completely irrational? Or... I mean for example, "Leaf" is very- just...

M: Square.

T: Well, yeah, it's a thing. It's like what I said in that email saying that it was really, it was an installation going on in my living room. And that's how I really...

M: That's a very fair thing to say.

T: I appreciated it a lot that way rather than, you know, kind of sitting down and listening to it, I just put it on as just some music and I just sat and didn't really... actively...

M: Yeah it doesn't work terribly well in a concert situation, it's true, that's true for probably other pieces as well.

T: Well, it's up to... whatever. But I'm just saying that was my experience that one time, it struck me like that.

M: Yeah. I think "sonic installation" is probably a description that's very fitting for a lot of my stuff.

T: Why did it- I mean, what is it, 20 minutes?

M: Sorry?

T: It's 20 minutes, that piece?

M: Yeah.

T: Why 20 minutes. If it was sort of installationey it could sort of ultimately have gone on for much longer.

M: Oh I thought you were going to say why is it so long, but you're saying why is it so short. It's true. I think in a concert situation it has probably run its course by then because I don't introduce new material at all. I mean there are some elements which only turn up occasionally and it sort of interrupts the process but they are, again, that's only three or four elements and they are always the same ones. I guess I felt quite- it was quite a bold thing for me to do for twenty minutes. Because the usual length is about ten minutes. For me. Even though a lot of people... I often get that feedback, "it was very nice - even beautiful - but I wish it could have gone on for longer".

T: Well, once again it's either one or the other. They wish it ended sooner or they wish it went on for longer.

M: Yeah. No of course you should always go with the people who like the music, because the people who don't like it, just by making it shorter it won't please them either. I'm sure Laurence gets to hear that a lot.

T: What? It should be longer?

M: Yeah, yeah. It's just this little glimpse of something and then... I guess- I'm not into miniatures exactly, but er... But "Leaf" was a bit of a departure, somebody must have encouraged me. But I had all this material. Actually I had a lot more material... This pitch sequence... and I played through it on the piano. I quite enjoyed that. And I selected the good bits. Actually the pitch sequence from start to finish is not one that I... um, generated by throwing the dice in one go, it's actually several chunks put together. And I felt a bit guilty about that because er... John Cage wouldn't have done that! Selecting the good bits! The nice chords!

T: (laughs) And you just sellotaped them together. That's outrageous...!

M: Yeah. But I marked the cutting points by using- by a noise element actually.

T: Oh right, so you can almost hear the sellotape.

M: Oh yes...

T: See the joins.

M: Or the scissors, you know, the sound of the two blades of the scissors cutting. (laughs)

T: I like that idea.

M: Sellotaping?

T: No, now I know that far from being a very homogenous piece it is actually just a kind of Frankenstein. (laughs)

M: (laughs) Frankenstein, yeah. Put together out of... I dunno...

T: The best bits of something else.

M: Ten arms! (laughs)

T: But what great arms! (laughs)

M: Different arms. Maybe I should have called it "Octopus".

T: Well, then how about "On a Clear Day" then? How did that come about? Because the Agnes Martin thing is quite significant really, isn't it?

M: Yeah, I suppose that idea was...

T: In the programme-

M: It's years old. Oh, actually there was an earlier version even from five years before, and er, well this involves admitting to something er... foolish... Right, I had just arrived in this country, I didn't have a job-

T: When was that?

M: Er, ?94, end of ?94. I didn't have to work actually because I was still living off a scholarship, um, which I had had for a year back in Germany. So, er, I had basically all day to compose, for a few months anyway. And I came across this- I was trying to find my way around in Britain, so I went to some SPNM events and I came across a competition and I'd entered competitions before...

T: We've all been there.

M: Yeah, of course. But actually I started writing and applying this idea I'd had, the Agnes Martin idea, to um, the requirements of the competition which was chamber orchestra. Strings... String orchestra with um, four solo woodwinds, including horn. And then knowing the piece as it is now you can imagine it was a bit difficult with a much smaller number of instruments. The silences between the chords were actually real silences. I guess I used fewer notes but still there were thirty chords in that one and...

T: Sure. The image is still there.

M: Yeah. I'd seen this exhibition in Baden-Baden and er, the complete print cycle of Agnes Martin's "On a Clear Day" was- took up a whole room. It was just one of those thrilling experiences. We don't need to go into details on this, there's not much to look at but there's just all these grids in various proportions, but er, it just made perfect sense to me, and each of them had their own mood, and it seemed to me pretty straightforward to translate that into music even though... You can't really do it, because the horizontal and the vertical are two very um... equal things... it's the same...

T: Well, sure, not literally.

M: They're the same kind of dimension whereas in music I did use basically the picture on the page, so one dimension is time and progressing from left to right and the other dimension is um... pitch, space, or tessitura, whatever, from low to high. I mean these two dimensions have got nothing in common really.

T: Well no sure, but I think the image is really clear though, when I think of that piece I think of this almost like... You definitely-

M: But still the pulsation in time and the number of notes in the chord have not- they are not really equivalents. So, I mean that's almost like, you know... Well, I was gonna say Stockhausen but that's... that's...

T: We won't...

M: Somewhere else...

T: But how did you end up... Because it kind of thins out doesn't it towards the end. It's very dense-

M: Yeah, that's not the case in the original cycle. I suppose I thought-

T: The Agnes Martin?

M: Yeah. Although she does change certain parameters along the way, like in the beginning those grids have a frame around them. Though it's hard to explain it without showing it. Whereas further on-

Waiter: Sorry about the wait there. (Bringing food)

M: That's all right.

T: There you go.

M: Wow. It's got garlic bread as well, that's er... As you can tell. You can almost hear the garlic! (laughs) Yeah, move the microphone a bit closer.

T: Well I could switch it off while you eat, or do you wanna talk while you eat?

M: No, as long as you don't transcribe too many of the noises.

T: Munch munch.

M: Or sounds.

T: No no no. So what were you saying?

M: Oh at the beginning they've all got solid frames around them and then later on the grids haven't got that so they- the lines stick out at the edges. Do you understand what I mean?

T: Yeah yeah.

M: Actually I do that in the piece as well. It's not very audible.

T: How so then?

M: (laughs)

T: No it's interesting how it translates.

M: No it's actually audible with regard to the pulsations because in the beginning you get the pulsations, those attacks at the beginning and at the end of the chord, whereas I think from the second, or probably the third third onwards, basically chords 21 to 30, to be precise, you don't get the attack at the beginning and at the end. A sustained chord starts and the pulsations come in whenever they are due.

T: So it's in the detail.

M: And it's at the top and the bottom as well. The pulsations probably don't appear in the top note and the bottom note. I'm not totally sure about that. So... But the thinning out doesn't happen in the print cycle. Because in my piece basically at the end you've got just one horizontal line and one vertical line or attack. Or no attack actually. I took some liberties but I guess for some reason I felt- because if you go into that room with all thirty prints in there, it's like an installation and you have them all present at the same time, you don't have that in music, so I felt the need for some... dramaturgy? Is that a word?!

T: Yeah.

M: You know what I mean.

T: A direction maybe.

M: Yeah. Something... teleological or goal-oriented. Even though it's not- it doesn't- I don't know how soon it becomes apparent, but I guess at some point you notice it's thinning out, maybe around the middle of the piece. And that's usually when your attention would start to sag. So I thought it was a legitimate device to... keep the interest alive, apart from making the instrumentation of the chords sound nice... I'll have some goo then...

T: Just eat away. So did you basically orchestrate the previous piece or did you just start again from scratch.

M: Um. I guess I needed new chords. I started out with a lot more little pitches-

T: Who did you write that for, incidentally? Because I heard obviously the BBC Symphony Orchestra, but there's a recording from-

M: A friend of mine, the same Hauke actually, had put together a concert for Hessischer Rundfunk in Frankfurt. That's where "Leaf" was played again.

T: With er... Dahinden?

M: They were part of the- they played in the original performance as well. Because Roland was basically studying with Alvin at the same time as me, or mostly with Anthony Braxton, but he was around. He and Hildegard. Anyway the um... the radio editor of Hessischer Rundfunk responsible for contemporary music, Bernd Leukert-

T: What's his name?

M: Bernd Leukert. I think it works quite well in Germany the way that you've got all the regional radio stations. I mean not as many as there used to be now, some mergers going on there, but they all have their own proclivities and er, biases but overall in Germany it works well, you know, some go more for the Wolfgang Rihm school and others go more for experimental stuff and he's a bit more on the less academic side. Anyway, he had come across my music through Walter before and he said- oh didn't I mention that... Why do I go into so much detail?! Probably had too much of this... It may be interesting to you...

T: Well, that's the...

M: Or boring! Anyway he said- he basically gave me this commission. He said can you do something by September? That's why I had to go back to an old idea as well because there was not much time. But that was a big surprise for me. And the biggest surprise of all was that I thought that- I clearly remember that he said, er, he was sorry he couldn't pay any money, but probably what he said was that he couldn't pay any proper money, or something, but there was quite a bit of money involved. I only found that out when I got there for the first rehearsals. After I'd done all the work basically.

T: Oh right. That's nice.

M: Well, it seemed to me like a decent pay, so um... So that's how that came about. The German broadcasting system paid for it - the German taxpayer! I think that's probably a bit lacking here. There are not that many commissioning bodies and the only radio station that commissions is the BBC and they're trying to be terribly balanced so... They do commission composers from various corners, I mean, it's just not enough...

T: But um... And what are you writing now? Those songs.

M: (laughs) I have done a little bit more work on that. Yeah, working with text is just... a nightmare for me. But that's the kind of thing that every time- well not every time, but, almost every time I've tried that I've thrown it out. Because usually I was trying to use that as a crutch, to get away from generating a piece out of chance procedures or... rows of chords or whatever. I thought, oh just follow the text. But that's the most horrible thing you can do, you know, try to illustrate something.

T: So are you looking though for a more intuitive way of working? Because this is what it seems though, you've got this kind of, um, this Jekyll and Hyde thing. "Chance? I don't wanna use that! Why do you pester me!? It's like a drug addiction. (laughs)

M: There's some guilt involved, yeah. I should just forget about it and um... I haven't tried it recently, but what I think might, you know, wouldn't hurt is breaking things up a bit, introducing some er... anarchic element into the proceedings.

T: Into the piece itself or into the composition process?

M: Oh, in the piece itself.

T: Anarchic, like what?

M: I dunno.

T: Something completely external to your um... process of work or what you would expect...?

M: I doubt I would go that far. But maybe external to the process that's in motion at the time. (pause) Yeah, I dunno what's gonna happen to these pieces whether they... They're very very short which may help them survive! (laughs) Because they're basically one thing and then they're over.

T: Just a straightforward setting of- What are the texts?

M: They are sort of, asyntactic poems, surrealist maybe. I mean, they are early poems by an Austrian woman writer, and they er- I think the first time I tried to set them was in 1984. (laughs) So, oh my God!

T: You love them!

M: I do. I can't explain it. Because there's a lot of other poetry around which I hate for throwing together random words and they don't do anything for me, but these seem to evoke a specific atmosphere, they resonate.

T: What's her name?

M: Friederike Mayr?cker.

T: Ultimately you'll have to spell that-