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Czech composers in the post-modern era, Czech Music CD series #1: chamber music.

The CD published as a supplement to this issue of the magazine could not possibly claim to illustrate the recent development of Czech music in full or even as a representative cross-section. It is far too small (someone important will always be left out, and even the pieces selected do not represent the whole output of their composers), and so while Czech Music Quarterly has decided to acquaint readers with Czech music by the direct method of providing them with sound recordings, it is long-term enterprise and this CD is just the first piece in the mosaic. The series is deliberately not conceived as a chronological view, as will be clear from the very first CD which focuses mainly on the current middle and younger generation of composers. Here composers born in the 1950s rub shoulders with one composer 20 years younger.

Despite great diversity of style, the generation to which the five older composers belong (out of the six on the CD) shares a number of more general features that have to do with their common historical experience. These features are individualism, resignation to what for years was enforced isolation from the international "festival" mainstream coupled with resistance to identification with the conservatively minded institutional musical life in the Czech Lands. Orchestral pieces are almost absent from the lists of their works (the situation in Czech orchestras being unfavourable to the attempt) and most of their output has consisted of chamber music written for a circle of like-minded performers. To this day their work tends to be performed as part of their own projects, ensembles and small festivals. Their example is highly illustrative of the much in the life of Czech music over the last 30 years.

Let us therefore first take a look at the period of the 1970s and 1980s, when this generation grew up and started on their active careers. These were the two decades of the rigid Neo-Stalinist regime installed in 1968 by Soviet tanks after Czechoslovakia's brief experiment in cultural and political liberalisation. It was an epoch that brought centralist control and conformism to the life of the Czech arts. Official concerts of contemporary music were for long years grey and boring affairs. Conservatism also ruled the music schools where composition was taught. At the Music Faculty of the Prague Academy of Performing Arts the key teaching posts in composition were held by mediocre composers, prominent in the Communist Party. Composers like Martin Smolka, who were students during this period, did not feel themselves to be the heirs of these conformist composers in any respect. Instead they tended to see themselves as the successors of the Czech avant-garde of the 1960s, i.e. of groups of composers who at the time were ostracised and driven underground into the position of musical dissent. In their biographies Martin Smolka and Petr Kofron for example identify their teacher as Marek Kopelent, who gave them private consultations since at the time he was not allowed to teach at any school.

Compared with the politically extremely regimented Prague, the situation was rather better at the Janacek Academy of Performing Arts in Brno, where a group of progressively-orientated composers with a broad outlook and serious interests in new musical trends continued to teach even in the 1970s. In Brno the truly outstanding teacher of composition was Alois Pinos (see CM 4/05), who published important works on the theory of composition and kept up contacts with the Darmstadt Courses, where he was regularly invited as a teacher and to which he took his own students. Peter Graham, Josef Adamik and Petr Kofron, for example, all studied in his class. It was in their circle that there first developed a clear search for new, in the broad sense of the word "post-modern" stylistic orientations, as it were in an attempt to find a way out of the all too familiar territory where the wearisome and in fact already anachronistic conflict between the ruling Czech traditionalism and the forbidden fruit of the 1960s avant-garde was still endlessly raging.

Since official concert life in the field of contemporary music was centrally directed by the Union of Composers and offered few possibilities for free musical expression, these composers sought their own ways of getting their work performed. In the mid-1980s, therefore, the Agon Ensemble was formed, led by a group of composers. Initially it operated on an amateur basis (and so could not be controlled by the authorities) but later became more and more a professional body. In addition to presenting works by its own composers, the ensemble introduced the Czech public to important foreign works and the music of the half-forgotten Czech avant-garde. On the Brno scene a similar role was played at the same time by the ensemble Art incognito (later Ars incognita) and the Central European percussion ensemble DAMA DAMA. By the time of the revolutionary changes in 1989 these ensembles had already created a solid performer base from which other professional groups could emerge in the 1990s. The circle of composers that had been the architects of Agon and Ars incognita went on to define the character of the festivals New Music Marathon in Prague and the Exposition of New Music in Brno, both of which became important components of musical life. Agon also managed to break through into several foreign festivals, for example the aesthetically like-minded Bang-On-A-Can Festival in New York, and thanks to the overlap between its members and the Marathon Festival to arrange a whole series of invitations to important foreign composers and performers.

Peter Graham (*1952) (real name Jaroslav Stastny), who works mainly in Brno, is one of the most original of Czech composers. His music reflects his passionate enthusiasm for eternal experimentation on a wide front. Since each of his pieces is the result of fascination with a new problem, his style is hard to define overall; in his output we will find Cageian indeterminate pieces, minimalist pieces, and pieces that superficially look rather traditional. On closer examination, we find that the author's strong and distinctive personality imprints them with more integrating features than might be apparent at first sight. One is his hostility to traditional performance styles and his effort to push performers towards creative and unconventional interpretations, which then gives even apparently simple scores a typical "Grahamesque" sound. Some works, in which a diatonic world and motoric rhythm predominate, also suggest more aesthetic connection with rock music and for example American minimalism than with anything from the European tradition.

While still a student at JAMU in the years of "normalisation", Petr Kofron (*1955) was one of the first Czech composers to attract attention with a highly original post-modern approach. His diatonic "endless" pieces from the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s showed that here was a composer with strong aspirations to become the enfant terrible of Czech music. In his second period he moved from this rather artificial naive style to pieces that were structurally more complex and also less easy on the ear. At the beginning of the 1990s he took on the direction of the Agon Ensemble in Prague, and since then he has composed in close co-operation with the ensemble, and indeed his music has been to a considerable extent tied up with it. This represents a certain limitation that gets in the way of the greater diffusion of his pieces, but is also an advantage in the sense that pieces are "made to measure" and the composer maintains complete control over their interpretation. Under Kofron's direction the ensemble changed its name to the Agon Orchestra and in the course of the 1990s appeared at numerous international festivals.

Martin Smolka (*1959) is the only one of the composers mentioned to have a solid footing in the international context. From his student years he followed his own temperamental and aesthetic tendencies in a self-conscious way, seeking to define his own musical originality. He then systematically based his musical language on his introspective insights. It is a language dominated by slow tempos, "detuned" consonances, a dreamy, melancholic mood, and playfulness in the use and treatment of unusual sounds. Smolka is another who started out as a "home" composer of the Agon Ensemble. Commissions from festivals like the Warsaw Autumn and Donaueschingen as well as distinguished ensembles and interpreters soon made him the leading representative of his generation of Czech composers abroad.

Ivo Medek (*1956) has played a fundamental role in Brno, his main centre of activity. He was a founder of Ars Incognita in the 1980s. He is not only a composer but also an active organiser of musical life in Brno, where he acts as a crucial link, working on joint projects both with composers of the older generation (Pinos, Stedron) and the younger (Dvorakova, Kavan--with whom he founded the improvisation group Marijan). He has taken part in team composition projects in various combinations. His style integrates a wide spectrum of the technical and sound discoveries of the new music, expresses his special fondness for percussion instruments, deploys humour, erudition and interest in integrating music into multimedia performances.

Pavel Zemek (*1957) (real name Pavel Novak) is also a highly individual and distinctive Brno composer. His experimentation takes the form of radical decisions and a pioneering expansion of composing technique. In his current creative phase he has been composing exclusively in strict unison and systematically exploring the possibilities of this limitation. Although he is of the same generation as the composers mentioned above, his originality has only recently been recognised and highlighted. Today his work is ever more often being played abroad.

The younger generation to which Ondrej Stochl (*1975) belongs, has been struggling with the problem of how to define itself in relation to the very similarly orientated composers of the preceding generation and produce something genuinely new. What is more, the external conditions in which this generation has been entering the active music scene are no better than at the beginning of the 1990s--the Czech state is offering even less support to contemporary music than in the past. Younger composers have been reacting to this situation by striving for the highest possible quality in performance and for ingenious forms of concert presentation. In the framework of their synthetic style they are seeking to innovate in terms of expression and technique. One manifestation of the aspirations of the younger generation has been the founding of the composers' and performers' group Konvergence (which apart from Stochl includes Tomas Palka, Jan Rybar, and Michaela Plachka; the first three being not only composers but performers as well.) The aim of Konvergence is to present both pieces by the composers of the group and concert performance of pieces by established foreign composers.


Petr Kofron -- Agon Orchestra/The Red & Black, Audio Ego 02

Martin Smolka -- Agon Orchestra/Martin Smolka, Audio Ego 03

Peter Graham -- Der Erste, Arta Records F 10073, Twentytree Still-Lifes, Sot Records 1997

Ivo Medek -- DAMA DAMA, WORE 990011-2, WORE990014-2, WORE 970006-2

Pavel Zemek--Barta -- Reflections, Supraphon 3425-2

Ondrej Stochl -- Konvergence, Studio Matous, MK 0057-2131

Available for on-line purchase at

Petr Kofron

In some survey, you once responded to a question on whether you kept up with developments in contemporary music by saying that you kept up with the way contemporary music and your view of it evolved in your thoughts. What have you discovered?


Despite every kind of twist and turning in my life I keep coming back to Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Charles Ives--composers I discovered when I was seventeen.

If I'm not mistaken, your activities in recent years have had a great deal to do with various forms of theatre. What makes theatre so attractive for you?

I enjoy different kinds of recycling (pieces of music, texts). And of course in a theatre performance there is less pressure for music to be autonomous and so recycling doesn't annoy so much.

Can you in some way pinpoint and name the roots from which your music grows? Do you feel yourself to be a part of any tradition or current?

Music grows out of life. Music goes the way life goes. I accept the tradition of my life and sail in the current of my life.

What are you really getting at as a composer?

Nothing now, actually.

Pavel Zemek

Can you say something more about your original unison technique--where does it come from and where is it supposed to be going?

The unison was the most beautiful thing that I got from the orchestra of the Janacek Opera. It took 10 years for it to find proper expression in my own writing. Today what gives me the most pleasure is the fact that the instruments don't stand against each other, but instead help each other, and also that dissonance vanishes from the harmony and that this to a certain extent also dematerialises the structure of the sound.

In the nineties you had a period studying with G. Benjamin and G. Grisey, and Grisey especially is one of the most remarkable phenomena in modern music. This experience isn't very common for mature composers--and at the time you were already a teacher of composition yourself. What did it give you?



I'll say a few words about Grisey, for example. It was clear to both of us that at 40 I couldn't absorb as much as at 20. But he gave me the courage to carry on with what I was trying to do. What exactly? Adding another line that only emphasised certain points in the basic line. And also the courage not to be afraid of musicians. I sincerely admired Grisey's calculations of the harmonic series; he had literally wall-papered the whole of his large study with them. He was very friendly and I could go to him for individual instruction, which allowed me to compare our habits with his approach. I helped him repair his flat, and he took me on and fed me ... His premature death just after I left grieves me to this day. He was a great admirer of Janacek and he was curious about our students as well. Perhaps contact with him would have been just too great a miracle ...

What are you really getting at as a composer?

Ten years ago I might have written something maybe a little elevated. The closer I get to the end, however, the more often I wonder if 3/4 of what's behind it all is not just my conceit. Maybe next time I'll say something, but today I'll keep my mouth shut.

What are your most recent fascinations in music? What has surprised you, or electrified you?

Musical form as an "infinite" flow of consonances, in polyrhythms, polymetrics, with the separating off of instrumental groups, a soloist, two conductors: a cello concerto for Jiri Barta. The speed of the alternation of consonances interests me. Unfortunately, I work at an ever slower pace: it's a pity that we can't be here for 200 or 300 years. That would be amazing.

Ivo Medek

You say your music is built on processuality, on the superposition of processes, but this is above all a technological definition. How would you characterise your music from a purely aesthetic point of view? What are your "sound" preferences, and what kind of expression are you trying to achieve?

That always depends on the particular piece concerned. Most of my pieces have their own particular poetics, their own "global" principle (often taken from outside music) and the musical order derived from it. With the Wings, everything was based on the motto of the piece--the poetics of wings in various states--from fluttering to majestic beating, associations and relationships on all levels, but also movement up and down as the principle of construction and form of the structure. Everything interpenetrates to create a single whole.

You do a great deal of improvisation. To what extent to these activities connect with your composing, i.e. with writing notes on paper? How do the two activities influence each other?

There are connections at various different levels. When one does a free improvisation the focus is more on fusion, noticing the connections and impulses generated by the others, creating one's own impulses, and concentration on now. When, however, we play something repeatedly in the framework of the Marijan Ensemble, some connections and sequences, and sometimes even structures, increasingly stabilise. The improvisation becomes more and more based on forms that have already emerged; what happens is a blend of improvisation and composition, which has become common recently and already has a special name-comprovisation ... When you are writing notes you have time for everything, which can be both an advantage and a disadvantage--often it is hard to choose one of several alternatives--but again the issues of order, structuration, the balance of co-existence, continuity and succession do not have to be tackled ad hoc, and indeed in my case, on the contrary, these things always come at the beginning of the composition process. I only start writing down the notes when I know almost everything about the piece. This means that I can even write while watching TV, for example. It is actually just like making a "fair copy" from notes and sketches in a diary.

What are you really getting at as a composer?

If someone is to write contemporary music what he has to have above all is that "urge", that need to do just that, even though he knows that it will take up a huge amount of time, that he won't be able to make a living from it, and that it is actually a kind of lifetime hobby. I simply enjoy doing it. Not just the composing itself, but aspects of communication with the audience through the piece, those games of transmitting and perceiving and the (mis)understanding of the information that a work generates and sends to the audience ...

What are your most recent musical fascinations? What has surprised you, or electrified you?

At the moment I have my hands so full of admin, making grant applications and being an organiser, that unfortunately I don't have much time to keep my ear to the twitter and hum. And so I don't think I shall mention any concrete thing. But generally (after all I do sometimes get out to an interesting festival) I can say that what surprises me is that recently not much has been surprising me ... Perhaps I'm also getting old and starting to be too detached from it all ... Yuk!


Ondrej Stochl

If you had to define your music in some way in relation to the panorama of contemporary classical music, where would you situate it?

I'm not sure if a composer is the right person to make such an assessment of his own work, and I am also opposed to any "pigeonholes in art", since although they are an aid to orientation, they are very misleading. I know that the influences that have set me off in various directions have been more or less strong, but they have never been absolutely fundamental. So I probably don't belong to any ... 'ism'. But if there's one thing that really annoys me, it's the principle of conscious return to something already tried and tested and accepted by the public. I'm disgusted by the cool and ultimately very short-sighted pragmatism of all eclectics--whether those who want to pack the halls by this method or those who copy the most recent influences so as to grab the role of the one-eyed king.

The young generation of composers today doesn't seem to be producing music that is in any way fundamentally different from that of the older generation. Do you feel a need to define yourself--as it were--as against the generation of your teachers or former models?

Every generation probably defines itself in a different way. You might say my generation is weary of this eternal competition--who is going to be the first to invent a new system, sound or whatever, never known before. One reason is that the preceding generation created an enormous field, but while it has been discovered, in my view only a small part of it has yet been exploited. This is evidently why it is now up to my generation to take up the techniques discovered and use then in many new ways, from different angles an in many as yet undiscovered connections and dimensions. To work intuitively with what has been created as a result of rational construction, and vice versa. This is why I think the greatest contribution of this generation will not be any kind of forced synthesis of styles, nor the invention of something new at any price, not to speak of any post-modern negation of all that has gone before--this would already be sheer nonsense. It would be superficial and easy. Each composer ought to find his or her spontaneous mode of expression without copying someone else's style or, on the contrary, shrinking from using an already discovered detail in a new context. This way apart from new discoveries this generation can above all come up with further dimensions of the already discovered and (thanks to this) rather more creative maturity that was usual in the preceding generation. I don't know, judge it twenty years from now.

Dare you predict the way in which your music will develop in the future?

No! And I'm glad about that ...

What would you like to achieve as a composer? What are your goals?

Well, if I have to write about the highest goal, it is to find a balance--between reason and emotion, between the power of the impact of the detail and the whole ... I would like to have my language under control to a degree that would make me sure of this balance. For a long time I've been interested in the effects of music on the deformation of the relationship between physical and psychological time, and neither in this I want to remain just at the stage of intuition; I would like to get through to some rational core.

But at the same time I want this goal to keep on changing and getting further away. So that I can be sure of always having a reason to write.

Martin Smolka

The text in the CD booklet says something about the sources of your music and the point it has reached. After more than 20 years of active composing, do you have a sense of the way in which your music will develop in the future? What attracts you?

To answer directly I would have to describe dreams and desires and all kinds of plans with very unclear outlines. And that is unreliable. The history of my last larger work, Semplice, is a good example. I had found four poems-prayers by various medieval and modern mystics and for ages I was thinking in terms of a monumental oratorio. Gertrud von le Fort, fascinating visionary verses such as "God of Flame-Throwing Mountains" were to be the axis. Then in a moment of high creative pressure I wrote a letter to Armin Kohler, the programme head of the Donaueschingen Festival, asking if he could advise me where to turn to get a chance of having the planned piece performed--somewhere where I could get and orchestra and choir, and perhaps an ensemble for early music. He surprised me by accepting it into his plans for Donaueschingen, and later he surprised me again by having a completely different idea of it. What attracted him was the notion of combining old and new instruments, while the singers were fading out of the plans. Then when I got my hands on verses in the original languages, I discovered that they inspired me less, and there were long-drawn out inquiries (never complete) about whether I could obtain permission to use the texts (of the modern verses), and meanwhile I was working on other things and my enthusiasm about the flame-throwing mountains quietly cooled off. Eventually, after three years of dreaming and half a year of intensive work, Semplice turned out amazingly well: it's a long piece, it was played superbly to a concert hall full of experts and connoisseurs--I have something to be happy about. But in fact it was not at all what I had been wanting to aim for in the beginning and what had attracted me then. Instead of visionary monumentality it was more about delicate colour shades and subjective lyricism.


Would you say that your music was in some specific way linked up to Czech culture? (I'm not asking this as a routine duty question, but because I think that it is).

I have often felt an affinity with the writers Hrabal and, when reading Svejk, Hasek. With their bizarre wry humour, which hides enormous kindness, and in the case of Hrabal, a potent nostalgia. But that probably couldn't be demonstrated in my work. Maybe I am just projecting my literary preferences onto my creations. Your question could only be answered by someone from as far as possible outside Czech culture. I am as far inside as possible--I'm as Czech as they come, I have always lived at one Prague address and if I take a trip 200 kilometres to the west I become half-illiterate, because I have never learned any foreign language properly. I am stuck inside my Czechness like in a cage, but I know Cage better than Czech music. I am definitely more connected to Feldman and Webern than to Feld and Eben.

What are you really getting at as a composer?

To answer that would sound banal or pompous and probably both. I'll do better to try to get at it than to define it in words.

What are your most recent musical fascinations? What has surprised you or enchanted you?

Unfortunately my capacity to be fascinated is weakening a little. But recently I was bowled over by Pavel Zemek's 4th Symphony and in general by his style over the last years, his exclusive concentration on unison.

Encountering Gerard Grisey's last work, Quatre Chants Pour Franchir Le Seuil, was a fantastic overwhelming experience. There's a brilliant simplification there (relative, in relation to his earlier work), of the same kind that I love in Stravinsky's Requiem Canticles. I very much like Part's piece for strings, Orient Occident. I think that it's in this piece that he got his second wind, reviving his tintinnabuli with a freer approach.

Twenty years late I have got to know deeper Ligeti's Horn Trio and I was immediately hooked. For the last four years I have been teaching 20th-century styles of composition at the Janacek Academy of Performing Arts and so I am being forced to study many things I believed I knew well again, and more deeply. And that is wonderfully enriching. I have been "rediscovering" Bartok and Messiaen, for example.

Peter Graham

When listening to your quartet on the CD and other examples of your music it is impossible not to ask about your attitude to what we usually call tradition, and by extension to the ambivalent "remixing" and "plunderophonic" responses to tradition in our so-called "post-modern age". So I'm asking ...

I have no simple way of answering that question. I am more interested in history than in tradition. History has always interested my right across the board--I mean not just the history of Europe, but of other continents, and also various marginal phenomena. A sort of "recycling materials and ideas" has always been cultivated in music, and remixes and plunderphonics are just technically more advanced forms of the idea of operetta potpourri ... As in every area, the most important thing here is who is doing it! (Think how often even behind the most avant-garde sounds you can sense ideas referring to something in light pop or salon music). At the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, when these "all-embracing" trends became very up-to-date as a result of the mass spread of computers, I reacted with what was more an attempt to "purify" my own musical idiom. But the quartet mentioned is a little exceptional, in that I wrote it immediately after the death of my father, who had been a devotee of classical and especially quartet music. It was a kind of belated regret that while he was still alive I hadn't given him much pleasure ... At the same time it was a commission from the Welsh Arts Council for the Cardiff Festival, where they had invited the Kyncl Quartet. This was not an ensemble you could expect to have much sympathy for sound experiments. But I was also interested in exploring what could be done with these "ordinary notes and traditional harmonies". I therefore concentrated more on the construction of the form. I gave it a great deal of thought, but in the end the piece still seemed to "write itself". It was a very organic process, with individual elements running through all the movements of the piece and continuously being transformed. Every time something new appears it is actually only a mutation of something that has been there before--it is just that at the beginning this isn't immediately recognisable. It strikes me that this has something in common with life--the way we change and at the same time we are always ourselves ... But I only noticed that subsequently.


Can you in some way pinpoint and name the roots from which your music grows? Do you feel yourself to be a part of any tradition or current?

I don't know if roots is the right word here--it is better to talk about a kind of very broad seedbed ...

These sources and influences are terribly numerous; I wouldn't like to leave one out but it's impossible to enumerate them all. Sometimes it can be something very tiny--perhaps just two notes quoted from somewhere, while at other times it is some principle transferred to different material and so forth. Certainly one important source for me is nature, which I see as a huge reservoir of forms and processes. I am also interested in the way other creative artists work--architects, poets, dramatists, film-makers, writers, painters and so on. All kinds of inspirations can be found in their thought processes. And even if I don't use them consciously, I think they have some effect on my own work. In music I find more distant areas (historically and geographically) particularly attractive, but here my interests tend to change in a pretty unpredictable way. Am I a part of some tradition or current? Somebody else will have to answer that question, and with the benefit of distance. I tend to be more conscious of all the places where I don't belong ...

What are you really getting at as a composer?

With every piece I try to create a certain world of its own which has a certain poetic quality. I want each piece to differ in some way from other music including music I have already written myself. Of course this is extremely difficult--even the greatest masters fell into their own stereotypes! The worst thing is that I am always at square one ...

What are your most recent musical fascinations? What has surprised you, or electrified you?

Only just recently I found out something that maybe everyone knows but for me it was a genuine discovery that changed my life. This is that every activity has its own rhythm, which I can not only observe, but also control--i.e. I can interpret anything I do as music. The funniest thing is that this idea occurred to me thirty-five years ago as a "concept for Zen monks", but not until now did it occur to me that actually I could try it myself ...
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Title Annotation:theme
Author:Pudlak, Miroslav
Publication:Czech Music
Geographic Code:4EXCZ
Date:Jan 1, 2007
Previous Article:The organ is quite a treacherous instrument.
Next Article:Reflections on the most recent year of the Musica nova competition.

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