12 or 15 September 2010

Anton Webern is considered by some who consider these things to be one of the greatest composers of the 20th century.  He was part of what is called the second Viennese school.  He broke the rules. 

On 15 September 1945, at the age of 62, he stepped out of the house he was staying in, in the small Austrian town of Mittersill, to smoke a cigar and take in the evening air. 

An American soldier saw the light from the cigar.  He thought this the first sign of an insurrection and with one bullet shot dead one of the 20th century’s greatest composers. 

I do not know if there is a moral to this story, but on the 50th anniversary of Webern’s shooting, another young celebrated Austrian composer decided to celebrate this anniversary by holding a forum for composers in a farmhouse in this same small town of Mittersill. 

I was invited to attend as a composer in residence, I had little idea of what my responsibilities were, but was informed there would be a small ensemble of clarinets, bassoon, violins, a viola, a cello, a double-bass and a conductor at my disposal to rehearse and play my composition at the closing night concert the following Saturday.

This was all very daunting.  The conductor introduced himself to me in his perfect English and said he was looking forward to working with me and when might he expect my scores?  And there lies the problem or at least the mis-understanding.  Maybe before I accepted the offer of being paid to spend days in an idyllic setting in the Austrian Alps, with all my creature comforts taken care of, I should have checked what was expected of me. 

I knew that Wolfgang knew something of the17 and had been impressed with No Music Day in Linz (also in Austria) last November; maybe he assumed I was a proper composer as well.

I got here on the Thursday evening, the here being a farmhouse half way up an Alp called Scharnihof (?) A few hundred feet below us is Mittersill and there are breathtaking views on all sides with the added soundtrack of cowbells.  The Friday and Saturday are taken up with a symposium, the title of which is Strom, which I understand to mean a very large river, but can also mean the power and force of its flow.  But I do not think the use of the word Strom in the context of this symposium was to be treated literally. 

Although it was an international composers’ forum, I soon discovered that I seemed to be the only one invited who could not speak German fluently.  Even the composer from Colombia could.  And as for the Italian one, she came from a German speaking part of the Italian Alps.  This brought the assumed hegemony of the English language into question.  More Deutschland uberalles (?), the sun never setting empire.

But three days into the forum, I discovered that the Lithuanian composer/drummer Vladimir.. could also not speak German, but he spoke so fast and it was so heavily accented, that I had no idea that he was speaking English at all times to everybody.  At least for him he was already speaking a second language, thus he was excused. 

I diligently sat through each of the lectures and discussions of the Strom attempting to pick out the odd words in German that I understand, in an attempt to piece together what was going on but seeing as my German does not stretch much beyond, yah, nein, bitte, danke and auf wiedersehen, the intellectual intricacies and subtleties were pretty much lost on me.  Googling all the other six composers etc.

Then I noticed in the programme that I was to be taking part with Heinrich…. in conversation with Bill Drummond.  Thankfully this was conducted in English, but all the time I was attempting to answer as honestly as I could, I kept wondering what the fuck was I going to compose for the end of the Mittersill Composers’ Forum concert for the following Saturday?

I had vaguely been fantasising about constructing a score to be performed by the17, with having half up one Alp and the other half up another Alp and there would be some sort of call and response thing going on, like you see in a film of folk yodelling from one Alp to another.  But once I got there, I realised the distance from one side of the valley to the other was too far.

That evening I received an e-mail from Leah Gordon.  Leah, amongst other things, is the curator of the Ghetto Biennial in Port-au-Prince Haiti; I had been a part of the first one.  She had done a translation from Haitian Kreyol into English for me.  It was of a text written by a Haitian colleague of mine called Claudel Casseus.  It was Claudel’s account of climbing to the top of a mountain that overlooks Port-au-Prince.  This was to be one of the17 texts written from the top of 17 different mountaintops around the world by 17 different members of the17.  Once I had got all 17, then the performance of Score 1: Climbwould be complete.

Claudel’s text, even translated, was so inspiring I decided I would climb the Alp at the back of where we were staying.  According to one of our hosts, there was a marked path all the way to the top and I could get up and down in one day. Maybe at the top of the mountain I would find the required inspiration. 

The next morning, I started my ascent, with only one apple for provisions.  It was a lot harder going that I had thought it would be.  I had to push myself to the limit.  At the age of 57 and with the onslaught of arthritis in both my knees, this may be the last time I ever get to attempt such a thing. 

But once I got to the top, I felt better than a man should ever feel. The notebook and pencil were soon put to work.  This is what I wrote:


A couple of hours were then spent at the top just staring off at the other distant Alps.  How many miles away were those distant snow covered peaks?  How come it feels like a warm summer day but all around there are patches of snow?  Were some of them in other countries?  Italy, Germany, Switzerland?

Then there were all the sounds in my head, it was like I was hearing the world; everything was sounding sharper and clearer than I had heard on the outside world and my inner soundscape for almost four years.

That evening in my room I knew what my first score should be.  It was written in five minutes.  It read:

Once that was done, the plan for the week was clearly mapped out.  In my head each day I would write a score that in some way would…