On Saturday 14 April, Serge Vuille and electro-acoustic percussion collective We Spoke: New Music will perfrom at BBC Radio 3 Open Ear at LSO St Luke's. Ahead of the performance, Serge caught up with composer Fritz Hauser, who tells us about how cicadas inspired his piece As We Are Speaking.
(Serge) Fritz Hauser, you have commissioned John Cage, collaborated with Pauline Oliveros, are composer in residence at the Lucern Festival, and you’re also an great storyteller. Would you be happy to share some of these stories with us, maybe starting with the story behind ‘As We Are Speaking’ that we’ll be playing as part of Open Ear?
(Fritz) As We Are Speaking was written for the Australian ensemble Speak Percussion in 2003. I was on holiday in Corsica and the deadline for this commission was getting closer. I thought it was going to be a great location to write music but it was so hot that my brain wasn’t functioning properly. There was a moment when I was lying in the shade in this unbearable heat and I started dozing and paying attention to the cicadas around the house: polyrhythmic textures that were both overwhelmingly in-tense and reassuringly simple. I liked the fact that they were all ‘speaking’ at the same time, creating a complex texture together. I thought: ‘There is my piece: As we are Speaking’. Short movements that start and stop abruptly – as cicadas do – scored for seventeen woodblocks. The instruments don’t imi-tate the sound of cicadas, but reference their rhythmic and pitch material.
Your music often focuses on one specific instrument, where does this come from?
After nearly 50 years of playing I am still very interested in exploring percussion instruments. I don’t really feel the need to build new instruments. I prefer to explore new ways of playing, or composing, to get further into the sound, and beyond the instrument. I don’t need to hear woodblocks, I need to hear a story, I need to hear energy that goes deeper than the instrument.
Your piece Schraffur is not written for a specific instrument, but can be played by any number of per-formers, on any instruments or objects. What is the concept behind this work?
Schraffur is a gesture, a motion. It can be played on anything that has a texture, where sound can be produced by scratching. One or more performers scratch one or more surfaces regularly and continu-ously and what comes out is a constantly evolving cloud of sound. It transforms physical textures into sonic textures. The acoustics of the room also come into play, resonances and reflections occur.
In fact we will produce a version at the Lucerne Festival this summer with 300 performers where we will play nothing else than the room itself. Walls, handlebars, stairs – everything that has an interesting surface and/or resonance.
You were at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival last November for two concerts including one celebrating the late Pauline Oliveros with ICE and Distractfold ensembles. You knew Pauline well, can you tell us about your collaborations?
I met Pauline many years ago. We were both on the same label ‘Hat-Hut’. I had the wish to work as a duo with other artists on the label and I was completely charmed by Pauline’s just intonation accordi-on. Just intonation produces an unusual range of overtones which combine with the sound of percus-sion. I remember writing a letter to Pauline in 1986 asking – almost begging – if she’d be interested in us working together. She was on tour in Europe and we met for a duo recording and concert. It was a very intense encounter with this beautiful philosopher, performer and composer. She was funny, clear in her intentions, fast, full of humour. When playing she was absolutely focused and going into in-tense concentration. We kept in touch for many years, played several times together in various con-texts. I commissioned her for a piece All Four in 1990 and she commissioned my piece Deep time in 1991. She wrote a quote I really love for my solo album at that time: ‘Every heartbeat is unique, listen carefully’.
And John Cage also wrote you a piece! That’s a good story to share!
That was actually Pauline’s idea. I was in New York in 1989 and I was thinking about approaching John Cage for a commission and she told me: ‘Yes, call him and tell him I’m sending him you and my love’. He picked up the phone and we started a conversation. The process was very long – he dropped out many times. He was a witty character, keeping me in the dark until the end. One day I just re-ceived it in the post! One Four was everything I hoped it would be, the right duration, the right instru-mentation. We then met in Belin, I asked for his advice about performing the piece and he said: ‘Dear Fritz, this is your piece’. It was such a beautiful statement by such a famous person: trust and encour-agements to make decisions and own the interpretation. It really influenced the way I understand composer-performer relationships. I usually don’t play pieces that were not written for me, and always insist to meet performers I’m going to write for. This is why I love working with We Spoke. We have built up trust and musical connections over the years. They always make sure to communicate the composers’ vision through the detail of their interpretation.
You are composer in residence at the Lucerne Festival this summer, what does this mean for you?
I’ve had the chance to play at the Lucerne Festival three times over the last twenty years. Being invited now as composer in residence is an absolute honour. It doesn’t really get better in Switzerland. The main difference is the trust that comes with such a position. It’s not like a regular commission, I can really make proposals and interact with the festival on a larger scale. We will do 12 events of different scales, from the very small to the very large (I mentioned the piece with 300 performers), new works, collaborations with video artists, and architect Peter Zumthor will be in conversation with me. It is a very interesting and challenging process which is taking all my attention. Of course I would like to ap-pear at my absolute best.
You can hear Serge Vuille and We Spoke: New Music perform Fritz Hauser’s As We Are Speaking at BBC Radio 3 Open Ear on 14 April at LSO St Luke’s. Click here to find out more.
Header image by Priska Ketterer