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Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers.

Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers. By Mint Andras Varga. (Eastman Studies in Music.) Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2011. [xiv, 333p. ISBN 9781580463799. $49.95.] Illustrations, index.

Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers has been almost thirty years in the making. The author, Mint Andras Varga, spent his entire career promoting the music of contemporary composers, first at Editio Musica Budapest, and later at Universal in Vienna. His work brought him into contact with many of the most prominent composers of the last half-century. Although not a trained musicologist, his devotion to music, his keen ear and intelligence, as well as his flawless command of the English language have made him one of the most sensitive and successful advocates for new music in recent times. His book-length conversations with Witold Lutoslawski, Luciano Berio, Ian n is Xenakis and Gyorgy Ku rtig (Witold Lutoslawski [London: Chester Music, 1976]; Lucia no Berio: 7.wo Interviews [London: Boyars, 19851; Conversations with. Jannis Xenakis [London: Faber & Faber, 1996]; Gyorgy Kurtag: Three Interviews and Ligeti Homages [Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2009]) are models of insight and empathy. The present project--putting the same three questions to as many composers as possible--has occupied him since the early 1980s, and the first version of the volume under review was published in Hungarian exactly a quarter of a century ago. At that time, 82 composers were included; in the American edition, Varga eliminated 21 of these and added 4 new ones. arriving At a new total or 65. Prior to the publication of the book's new incartuititm. Varga gave his interviewees, a chance to revise or update their answers, and quite-a few of diem availed themselves of the opportunity. The result is a fascinating panorama of many issues central to music in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and a testament to the wide range of aesthetic positions held by composers today. (Gyorgy Kurtag's answers to the three questions were already included in the Kurtag interview book referenced above.)

The questions have t.o do, respectively, with any particular pieces of music that changed the composers' creative lives; their responsiveness to sounds of the everyday environment.; and their views on personal style versus self-repetition. They are excellent questions. sufficiently focused to give the book its thematic unity, yet broad enough to allow the composers to discuss their music on their own terms.

The answers vary widely not only in their content but also in their length and depth. Some composers provided very brief. one-paragraph responses while others contributed many pages. Some, with whom Varga has enjoyed a closer professional contact, are obviously more comfortable with the interviewer than others. The author describes his connections to the composers in introductory paragraphs inserted before cach interview; here we may learn how the meetings came about. Varga also offers thumbnail sketches of his impressions of (imposers' personalities, freely admitting, if he was unable to get close to a certain composer, (tither personally or musically.

Out of the 65 composers, 10 are front Varga's native Hungary, and 10 from the United States; the remaining 15 represent 14 more countries. There is only one woman--Sofia Gubaidulina--among the 65. A lull 40%, or 26 composers, have passed away since the interviews were made, which gives the volume a certain ret-rospective character. (Milton Babbitt and Petrovics died since the hook was published.) Chronologically, the interviewers represent the entire span of the twentieth and the early twenty-first century: the oldest composer in the volume is Wladimir Vogel, horn in 1896; the youngest, Johannes Maria Stand, horn in 1974. In general, Varga managed to make contact with the majority of (he defining figures of Western music since 1945.

As one might expect. there is a great deal of important biographical material here, and, when Varga was able to establish a personal relationship with the composers, quite a few revealing anecdotes. The composers' philosophical and aesthetic ideas are no less interesting, but what makes the book really unique is the way Varga occasimiany breaks the pattern of successive conversations between himselland the composers to let We composers respond directly to one another, as when he reports John Cage's responses to what Morton Feldman had told Varga about Cage. or when he has Feldman, Earle Brown and Witold luttoslawski amplify and contradict one another's statements. Lutoslawski, to whom Vary a felt particularly close, Occupies a central position in the hook. The first question, about life-changing pieces of music, was inspired by what the Polish master had told Varga about his initial encounter with a work he identified as Cage's Piano Concerto. (This is certainly the Concert /or and Orchestra.) Throughout the volume, Varga seeks to find out whether his other interviewees have had similar experiences.

As an extra bonus, the book contains an extensive appendix (entitled "Encore") sampling another long-standing project Of Varga's. Over the years, the author has asked numerous composers to make drawings that would, in their own view, express, represent, or symbolize their music. He created .t special collection of these drawings, presently housed at the Akademie der Kunste, Berlin, as the lint Andras Varga Collection. The drawings offer a self-commentary vers. different from the interviews: much more subjective and sometimes rather opaque, yet other times even more illuminating than the verbal descriptions. Drawings by 26 composers from 14 countries are shown here, including 9 who didn t give interviews. (Among these, we encounter another lady, Silvia Fomina (her first name is here spelled Sylvia]). This material is utterly fascinating, and would deserve a close interpretive study, which Varga does not consider his task to attempt here. In the case of Iannis Xenakis, in whose work the connections between music and drawing are most crucial, the issue has been recently explored by a major exhibit at the Drawing Center in New York City. (See the booklet accompanying the exhibit: Jannis Xenakis: Composer, Architect, Visionary [New York: Drawing Center, 2010].) In his book of conversations with Xenakis, Varga was one of the first to publish Xenakis's thoughts about "arborescences"--a metaphoric designation that develops one of the central concepts of the composer's music out of a visual image.

The book has the obvious merit of introducing quite a few composers, not well known in this country, to an American readership. It is extremely informative and carefully edited (though the name of Pierre Boulez's concert series Domaine Musical is repeatedly misspelled as "Domaine Musicale"). Among the most extensive entries, particularly valuable to those interested in the composers in question, I would like to single out the interviews with Attila Bozay, Klaus Huber, Gunther Schuller, and Andras Szollosy, in addition to those already mentioned. But the principal achievement of the book is to have organized this virtual symposium with sixty-five composers, providing a broad panorama of contemporary music, showcasing many major artistic issues and illustrating the enormous diversity of the international scene.

PETER LAKI Bard College
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Author:Laki, Peter
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 22, 2012
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