One line

Philipp Krebs (composer)

ICTUS feat. Pony Says
Thu 01.02., 21:00 CET
Laureate concert Composition Award Stuttgart 2023
Wed 31.01., 18:30 CET
»I can’t afford to give up«
Fri 02.02., 18:30 CET

Musicologist Michael Zwenzner in conversation with composer Philipp Krebs.

00:00:00 00:00:00

MZ: You could say with Brecht that we’re living in rather dark times at the moment. And I wonder how you as a composer are dealing with this, what your personal crisis mode looks like, whether this is also occupying you artistically in some way or whether you are perhaps taking a step back and going your own way.


PK: I think the answer is a bit split, because on the one hand, of course, the crisis mode is nothing new. We’ve been dealing with it for almost four years, you could say. And if you look at it from a personal point of view, I think we’ve already passed the peak. So the valley has definitely been deeper before and things looked more hopeless at the beginning of the pandemic a few years ago in terms of our work. And since then it’s been a bit like thisto use this old trigger term, we all know the word resilience nowthat I’ve built up a kind of protective layer in my confrontation with the world, but it also remains permeable. So I’m definitely concerned with what happens all day long, especially because it’s all about media communication in every respect. So everything we see is transported via mass media, whether it’s on a very basic news level or somehow processed by pop culture. And that is the second part of the answer. On the other hand, apart from me personally, I still have to behave in the context of society and can’t take myself out of it. So I don’t think that my artistic work is something escapist. Everything that comes at you every day, everything that happensit’s there, I can’t block it out.


MZ: The next question follows immediately, with regard to the audience: To what extent can or should what you do in your profession, what you compose, serve as enrichment or even encouragement for an audience? Or what could the audience ideally take away from the performances of your pieces? Would you even want to think about that? Or how do you see it?


PK: Of course, it’s always difficult to think in terms of the audience. Precisely because that’s an aspect of our field, that we don’t have to primarily aim for saleability. But I always think it’s nice to offer something that doesn’t necessarily pick people up where they are, but rather offers them a hand and perhaps an opportunity to take them with me. It would be too easy for me to say: I’m now getting so close to the audience that we pick people up where they are, as if everything has to be broken down a bit, contemporary music were complex and but has to be somehow simple. I don’t think that’s true. We always talk about »the audience« as an anonymous mass, which is also a generalization, but if we start from this definition, then I think the »audience itself« is much more open-minded, more interested, more enthusiastic than we sometimes think. And that’s why it’s always important for me, also based on my personal experience, to make a kind of offer so that even non-professionals can somehow recognize something from contemporary music, be it a reference or something that they may have already picked up somewhere. And then I say: I’ll use this straw to pull you in and bring you down to my level.


MZ: Besides we all share the same existential background of experience and there is already a connection there anyway, even in some way that you don’t have to explicitly emphasize again, perhaps artistically. That’s probably something that happens in passing anyway. Perhaps we can now move on to your pieces. You have two pieces in the festival‘s program, Paramount and Vice. And I would like to ask you to perhaps describe in very brief words what you have formulated very beautifully in the program texts and perhaps also use the references in the titles to show what has driven you artistically. Maybe start with Paramount, the ensemble piece that you composed a few years ago.


PK: Well, that’s somewhat representative of the way I’ve been working in this area over the last 3 to 4 years. It used to be incredibly difficult for me to put a title on a work once it was finished. What do I want, what is it supposed to do now? Do you have to give it a name somehow? What is it called? And since Paramount, it’s actually the case that the titles are there first and the process works the other way around. And I’m actually a relatively big fan of using one-word titleswhich is also symptomatic of these two pieceswhere the interpretation of the term is not unambiguous at the definition level, but open-ended. And if we start with Paramount, then it will, I hope at least, be relatively different if you present people with what they associate with it. For me, the initial assumption was that this is something that sounds big and somehow impressive. And if you look up the definition, that’s exactly what it means, namely something that towers above everything, that has prestige, that has quality, but that also has a height of fall. So if I am standing on the summit implied by this term, then I can also look down from somewhere, I have a grandiose panorama in front of me and there is a height of fall that is traversed. That’s the metaphorical, almost romanticizing side. And on the other hand, if you’re a bit interested in or familiar with pop culture, of course the first thing that »clicks« is that it’s the name of one of the major film studios that played a role in the Golden Age of Hollywood. I say »played« deliberately, because this whole studio system, which we know from the Hollywood context, is also a very romanticized idea, à la »the rise to stardom«, which no longer exists today in this form and perhaps in the romanticized idea never at all. Of course, this has also become integrated into the production mechanisms of the cultural-industrial exploitation machine and this veneer of glitz and glamor of this entertainment machine has peeled off over the years. And I think from these two perspectives, if you look at it as a metaphorical approach or as an interpretative approach for this piece title, then you’re actually already on a relatively good track of what inspired me to dive right into it, and what is ultimately reflected on a musical level in this piece.


MZ: Let’s stay with Paramount. What seems to be very important to you is the sociality of the different ways of playing together, these different constellations. Perhaps you could say a few words about these setups or these different conceptions, how the musicians relate to each other during the performance.


PK: Yes, it’s a relatively large to expansive piece, with a maximum of up to 20 musicians. So we simply have a large ensemble apparatus with many solo instruments on stage. In other words, a kind of classical chamber orchestra instrumentation, where each instrument appears at most twiceif at all. And I think it’s only the violins, cellos and percussion that double up. And it’s always exciting for me to see: How do I deal with such a selection of instruments? And one approach I chose was to say: I want to achieve a kind of mechanism, a kind of construction, where no one stands out as a soloist. That was the first idea: how can I somehow give each person involved a percentage share of the whole story of what is contributed musically? If you then look at the individual voices of each musician, it’s not much at first. But if you put it together like a puzzle, like cogwheels interlocking, and once it’s running, it’s like a big clockwork or a machine in the end. And that’s one of the big ideas that hovered over it. And there are relatively large passages where I simply try to pull it off. But on the other hand, of course, it’s always utopian to say: I made the plan at the beginning and I’m sticking to it 100%. Because the exciting thing for me is to break out of the plan that I made at some point and find deviations. And so there are also other constellations in this piece, for example, which are placed at the beginning. The whole thing begins with a relatively long sequence in which we only have a string quartet and live electronics together and it takes three, four, five minutes for the whole thing to pick up speed. In other words, a historically charged constellation is decoupled and introduced. And on the other handunderneath this whole machine framework that I just mentioned, so if we stay with the machine metaphorthere is also a kind of motor at the back of every apparatus and for me the motor is like a kind of further historical foil, namely that of a piano concerto. But not in such a way that we have a piano soloist who performs against this group, but in this case there are two pianists, an actual piano and a keyboard that is out of tune by a quarter tone, who form the core of this whole apparatus and set a beat, a rhythm. And the whole ensemble that remains there does not oppose this, but actually fans it out. And so when we turn back to it, it interlocks into this other large overall constellation.


MZ: Very nice. Maybe we’ll stay with this machine aspect again. I would be interested to know what particularly interests you about this machine aspect. Especially in the age of AI and the associated dystopias like in the Matrix films, for example. You say that you also break that down. In that respect, there are also some ironic momentsat least I sometimes get this feelingin your scores when you write »highly dramatic, it’s a serious business« in one of the pieces. But how is this mechanical aspect motivated in your work or how would you position yourself also to this idea of machine in music?


PK: I find that exciting because, if we extend that to the way we listen to music in everyday life, everything I listen to digitally has somehow already gone through the periphery of some machine. So if we just take a basic look at the means of modern production technologyit’s an incredible amount of work from recording in a studio, to editing, post-production, mastering and release, in most cases on digital platforms today. So all the music we listen to is already going through the machine anyway when we listen to it digitally. And I find that exciting to say: I can’t exclude the production mechanisms that affect listening to music and creating music. And I find it an exciting aspect, especially for pieces like this one, which are originally intended for a live concert situation and which, in the worst case, are only performed once. And after that, access is only possible if there was a recording. Then it can only be heard through the machine. And I find it exciting that this actual moment of the performance is no longer important, it is ephemeral. I also know ninety percent of this piece by the variants of the recording that exist. And with this retranslation, which will now take place again when it is rehearsed and performed at the end of JanuaryI, too, first have to detach myself from this mode, from this quality of recording. I will then immerse myself briefly in this live world again. And that’s a bit representative of what inspires me in my thinking, that I can’t and don’t want to exclude everything that happens culturally, especially in pop cultureas far as the mechanisms of reception by which we receive music, film, media in general are concernedfrom my composition or my art.


MZ: Then let’s move on to Vice and return to this topic of sociality, these different constellations of interplay. The setup is completely different, if you could perhaps describe it very briefly.


PK: So this project, or rather this piece, was initially born from the idea of bringing together two ensembles that normally perform independently on stage. On the one hand, there’s the Stuttgart trio Pony Says, who originally come from improvisational music and are relatively electronic. So originally they used to play keyboard instruments, guitar and percussion and nowadays they mainly play synthesizers, analogue synthesizers, digital keyboards, electronic guitars with effects and instead of traditional percussion they mainly have an e-drumset, i.e. a trio, which gives them a very electronic pop-cultural sound. And on the other hand, we bring them together with musicians from the Belgian Ictus Ensemble, who are quite volatile in terms of their equipment, so this ensemble brings an incredible pool of musicians who are always on the go. And in this project, it’s mainly classical ensemble instruments that come along. And this electrified trio together with a selection of acoustic instruments, which otherwise operate independently, we are now bringing them together to form a body of sound for this project. And since that was the idea from the start and I always find it interesting to come to terms with the circumstances that are involved in the creation of pieces once they get rolling, that was an aspect that was definitely important to me. And so, on the one hand, we have this electro sphere, genuinely electric sounds, against the scaled-down, but in this case still rather traditional ensemble apparatus.


MZ: And the title Vice again you have chosen very ambiguously. It’s also a reflection of what actually happens musically in the performance?


PK: Yes, that’s exactly how it is. So there are two major readings that you can take with you. On the one hand, this classically read »vice« means bringing together two constellations, between which a hierarchy is established, i.e. someone is at the top and the other constellation is placed below as a vice constellation, but can step in as a substitute with the same rights and obligations if the main constellation fails. So that is, of course, the obvious interpretation. And secondly, for me it also refersif you translate it directlyto the vicious, the wicked. On the one hand, this term stands very, very prominently for pop culture from the eighties, which has experienced a huge wave of nostalgia in recent years, especially in pop culture products of our time, and which has produced forms in various media that refer to sounds or idioms from the eighties. Howeverand here we come back to the production mechanisms that I mentioned earliercontemporary production mechanisms and influences from today are used, resulting in a very strange melange, a sound or a media image that refers to 80s aesthetics, but which never existed back thenI can’t know because I wasn’t alive then. And this mimetic process of imitating something and generating something new from it that perhaps never had a role model, which of course opens up a super big association with nostalgic transfiguration and idealizationthat comes in on the other side and I also find that very exciting.


MZ: How great is your longing to tear down these boundaries between popular culture and phenomena like »New Music«, which is now a time-honored, over 110 years old term. Is that also of importance for you or does this demarcation no longer play a major role for youin your generation anyway?


PK: First of all, I would deny that this demarcation has ever existed, as it is simply a construction. So if we stick with the pop culture example: For me, it is in my personal interest, but also in my research, that if you look back over the last, let’s really say, 100 years, the boundaries have always been blurred, that pop culture products have always had an influence on high culture and vice versaif we want to define and call it that. It starts back in the 60s and 70s, when films likethe best-known example is Kubrick’s 2001use pieces of contemporary, classical music for their soundtracks and make them known to a wide audience in the first place through this use, through the fact that it takes place in pop culture. To this day, I think there are people who, when they hear the opening of Zarathustra by Strauss or the Ligeti pieces, immediately think: »Yes, that’s the 2001 music.« So that’s the smallest, simplest example. And I think something like that also runs through a bit: For example, the production mechanisms at the beginning of the 50s and in the 60s, in the electronic studios, at WDR, at SWRthis production technology, I have it here today on my device, on my computer, in my software, which is mainly used to create pop music, electronic music. So it’s always been connected somehow. So inspiration and boundaries are fluid and I don’t think that’s a bad thing, on the contrary. I always find that very exciting to observe, even today. I think you can also talk about current trends on both sides. In contemporary music, due to the smaller size of the scene, you get to know what the current trends are incredibly quickly, for example the whole aesthetic of extended playing techniques. What began with Lachenmann has simply resulted in a sound catalog to this day. It’s like a sample database, if we want to put it that way. Just as there are somehow the idiomatic electro-synth sounds of the 80s, there is a sound catalog of extended playing techniques in contemporary music. So it’s not for nothing that there are already sound files where I can simply buy and access them collectively. So it’s reproducible, it interlocks and I could go on for hours with these little observations that I make every day, somehow drawing from them what drives me.


MZ: The question then is about the art character, isn’t it? What constitutes the character of art? Or is it still a relevant category at all? So where is the difference between entertainment, perhaps, which is a bit more superficial, which is perhaps a bit more atmospheric, and on the other hand what we perhaps associate with the demands of Western composing, which now has a great tradition. Where would you place yourself there? Or is it also an artificial contrast for you?


PK: Hm, yes, I think the contrast is most likely to lie in the purpose or goal for which these products exist. And in the sphere of the culture industry, it is of course the case that the products should be sold and reach as wide an audience as possible in order to make a profit according to the capitalist logic of exploitation. And that is diametrically opposed to what we are aiming for here in contemporary music. So art doesn’t have to make money, that’s also something nice, that it can’t, doesn’t have to make a profit according to market logic. I think that’s the biggest difference that comes before that.


MZ: Indeed you could say that in fact there is sophisticated music in the pop music sphere that really challenges you artistically and perhaps even creates something new aesthetically. I actually see this as relatively fluid in the meantime and I also see the audience’s behavior as relatively fluid, so to speak, or volatile, so that depending on the opportunity, they can perhaps dock themselves somewhere else, in different musical spheres, so to speak. That’s what I experience here in Berlin when I go to a club and they play Xenakis and then club music and the audience sits there and goes along with both things equally. I found that one of the most incredible experiences here. I have one more question about the performers. You have three very renowned ensembles playing your music. To what extent do these interpretative idiosyncrasies and the technical skills of the ensembles also play a part? Especially now with the commissioned work, Vice, for these two constellations.


PK: Yes, that is of course always a point from which a certain, one could say intimidation emanates, especially at the beginning of the development. What do I do now, what is available to me? Am I overburdening or underburdening someone? But the nice thing is that I’m not interested in creating virtuosity just for the sake of virtuosity. In short, it’s nice to be able to work with these performers. But it doesn’t necessarily have an effect on the end result that this is created with knowledge: This is exactly for this renowned ensemble or for these musicians. I think I like to cross that line and it’s always a bit of a balancing act. When I write things where I think in the process: But it’s really easy here, it won’t overwhelm anyone, this is easy. Then I free myself from that and then maybe suddenly these are the parts that turn out to be the most difficult in the rehearsal: This will be the most difficult. So it’s always ambiguous, I can’t influence it and that’s why I free myself from this thought.


MZ: I talked to Christine about itwe understand each other very well on this pointthat it’s always a bit about showing: What can we do as artists against the backdrop of all these challenges facing society as a whole to answer the question of meaning, so to speak? I definitely know a few composers who currently see themselves on the brink of becoming climate activists and say: »Hey, what am I actually doing here? It’s so far removed from what we are and should be dealing with on a daily basis«. And making the connection is of course always very welcome, also from Christine and from me too. But it’s not the only possible approach to what you do as an artist, of course. And I learned a lot from Enno Poppe in that respect, who tends to hold back completely when it comes to ideological questions as such. Would you perhaps actually want to hold yourself back?


PK: Hm, I think that’s where we meet what we talked about at the beginning, where I said something about reaching out to the audience, I think that’s more the social aspect, which you also just mentioned. What else do we have to say, as people turn away? For me it’s more about trying to find a balance between these spheres, on the one hand contemporary music, the high culture sphere, and on the other hand the pop culture sphere, in order to bring people in from both sides. And I think it’s more important to me, even if we can’t make a direct practical difference with this art, to bring people in on both sides anyway, because I think we can mobilize people if we appeal to them in an interesting way, and if they like it, then perhaps we can figuratively translate this kind of energy into other spheres of society, if we can somehow manage to come together. Perhaps this energy can also be translated. That’s what comes to mind spontaneously.


MZ: So the target is creating as much context as possible. In the broadest sense, bringing things together, bringing people together. And I think that’s already exemplary, especiailly in a world that is totally falling apart, in filter bubbles and echo chambers. I think that’s exactly the aspiration we should all have, to create this sociality. Very nice, Philipp, thank you.