Composer to composer: Serge Vuille interviews Sarah Nemtsov

Ahead of his performance at BBC Radio 3 Open Ear on 30 September, experimental percussionist and composer Serge Vuille interviews Sarah Nemtsov about her work Drummed Variation

Serge Vuille 3I discovered the music of Sarah Nemtsov when I started learning her Drummed Variation for the Tzlil Meudcan festival in Tel Aviv this summer together with Joe Richards. I met Sarah there and really enjoyed fine-tuning the piece with her – including when she insisted to have the bass drum louder than I would ever dare. Ahead of our performance on 30th September at LSO St Luke's, we talked about the piece and her music for this blog.


Hello Sarah, thanks for taking the time. I remember you have a very nice story about the instrumentation for Drummed Variation, would you be so kind to share it?

Hello Serge, very happy to share the story. When my son was two years old, he started building his own drum set. He started with a tin-can in the centre, and continued building around it using old kitchen items, a small chair, bottles, whatever he could find. I watched him play and build this over three years. When he was five, he got a real drum kit for his birthday that was in March 2014. At that time I received a commission for Darmstadt festival and I wanted to experiment with percussive sounds and live electronics using a Korg Kaosspad. My son didn’t need his junk drum kit since he had a new one, and I loved all the sounds of these found objects so I took the idea and developed it further to write Drummed Variation which is also dedicated to him.


Sarah Nemtsov rutsig 2013 3col

And did you also take inspiration from him for the musical material of the piece?

Not directly, but I was often listening to him, trying to figure out the way he was thinking these complex rhythms and grooves. I even tried to notate them at some point, but there is no direct reference to this in the piece.

I also really like street drummers, both for the way they build their instruments, and for the wild creativity they display when playing. It’s almost as if the fact that the drums are made of found objects gives an incentive to find crazier rhythms to play on. And as a result, the player is sitting in the middle of some junk, but playing and feeling like the biggest drummer in the world.

In contrast to this, there is a strict fugato in the piece. I like to combine this baroque idea of formal discipline with references to street drumming, techno or heavy metal.


Drummed Variation is part of a cycle which started with Zimmer (Rooms), how does it fit within the cycle?

I wrote Zimmer in 2013 for Ensemble Adapter, and when I was asked to write more music for the same ensemble, I decided to write three solo pieces to extend some of the ideas from a different angle. The Kaosspad was used on harp in Zimmer so I used it with the drum in this extension. I also wrote a solo for flute and drum machine, and clarinet and guitar pedals. I am now writing for them again and I think I will call the piece Haus (House) to end the cycle. It’s a more intimate piece, but with strong amplification and video, as if you have the sounds under microscope, discovering structures you would not expect.


The music you wrote recently often involves powerful amplification and electronics. I remember being afraid that the bass drum was too loud when working on the piece, and you insisted for it to stay at least at that level. Can you identify with this aesthetic?

Well I would like to say that not all my music is loud, the new piece Haus for example will be much more contained, but it is true that I love raw energy. I think it is sometimes missing in New Music.

I really like musicians, and I like to see them in their element, happy, focused, sometimes stressed, but fully committed to the music. That’s why I would like my music to provide material that is joyful to play, and also requiring a high level of concentration. So it is not so much about being loud for me, but rather for the music to be busy and active; polyphonic – I studied a lot of Renaissance and Baroque Polyphony.


And what are you working on at the moment?

I am very excited to have a new orchestral piece dropped.drowned premiered on 22 September by the Cottbus Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Evan Christ. It is a large orchestral piece with triple winds and a tiny bit of electronics. The piece is about getting into a flow and also about silence, and how people fear silence, because – as the author Janet Frame puts it – ‘it is transparent; like clear water, which reveals every obstacle … And when people stare too close to silence they sometimes face their own reflections.’ There is not much actual silence in the piece, but there are windows, created by specific instrumental colours.

I also have another orchestral piece ‘scattered ways’ from 2015 performed at Klangspuren Schwarz in Austria on 7th September. Two orchestral performances in a month is rare so I’m really excited.


Congratulations! We are excited about the performance on 30th September too. Your Implicated Amplification for clarinet and guitar pedals will also be performed on 8th November as part of Kammer Klang at Cafe OTO, so this is a good season to get to know your work!

Looking forward to hearing the performance on BBC Radio 3!


You can hear Serge Vuille perform Sarah Nemtsov's Drummed Variation in BBC Radio 3’s Open Ear at LSO St Luke’s on Saturday 30 September. He’ll be joined by LSO composer Jack Sheen and contemporary music group An Assembly, along with organist James McVinnie and avant-folk artist You are Wolf (aka Kerry Andrew).
Click here to find out more and book tickets.

Sarah Nemtsov is a German composer based in Berlin. Her music is performed internationally by ensembles including Ensemble Recherche and Ensemble InterContemporain. She was a guest teacher at the MusikHochschule in Cologne and won the RicordiLAB competition in 2016.

Serge Vuille is a percussionist based in London. He plays with ensembles including the London Sinfonietta and Ictus Ensemble, runs his group We Spoke: New Music and regularly performs as a soloist. He also directs the series Kammer Klang at Cafe OTO.


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