Composer Wolfgang Rihm Interview

A fascinating interview with composer Wolfgang Rihm has just been published here by sightandsite. A new composition by Rihm, based on the final scene from Botho StraußSchlusschor premiered at the Bavarian State Opera in October, a modern drama with the title Das Gehege (The Aviary). It was also the first production in Kent Nagano’s tenure as Principal Conductor in Munich. Here are two extracts from the interview, the first on “translating” perception into music, and the second, via a famous essay by Botho Strauss on questions of culture vs. entertainment. Thomas Assheuer and Claus Spahn are the interviewers.


How do you translate that which you perceive into musical expression?

There is no direct line connecting one with the other. I always keep a little notebook with me, where I jot things down. Here, for example, are notes from a conversation I had with a gourmet chef, Monsieur Emile Jung of Crocodile in Strasbourg. He explained to me the principle of seasoning. (Rihm points out a page in his notebook where a list of ingredients is written.) To one strong element, you add three of middling strength and six weak ones. What a marvellous lesson for composing. The result is not grey values, but rather a relationship of dominance that is orchestrated from various different sides. In music, if you distribute the dynamics in this way, with one strongly singled out, three of medium strength, and six weaker ones, you achieve an equilibrium, even if the form is asymmetrical. But don’t worry, I don’t cook up my pieces like that.

Do you share the critique of contemporary culture found in Botho Strauß’ essay Anschwellender Bocksgesang (The swelling song of the billy goat. A highly controversial essay Strauß published in Der Spiegel in 1993 which rails against consumerism and the “sinister aeries of the Enlightenment.”)

I read it, found it comprehensible; in a certain sense I’ve experienced this myself: a hostility to language that permeates the present day, the pervasive predominance of entertainment. As a composer, you experience it even more intensely than as an writer. You are constantly exposed to this universe of entertainment, and informed by its churches that the democratic majority stands at its side. Today, entertainment is considered holy; you’re no longer permitted to say it doesn’t interest you. If you do, you’re considered undemocratic. This connection between entertainment and the majority, this false conclusion: where the majority stands, the truth must necessarily also be found, this idea has become cemented in music to such a degree that the phenomena described by Botho Strauß actually seems comparatively harmless. In the end, a new conception of the human being is promoted by the realm of entertainment. You are called upon, to the point of surrender, to act as a passive medium for the perceptions of others. This has certain Frankenstein qualities.

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1 Response

  1. Lawrence Crawford says:

    Absolutely, nail-on-head, my sentiments! I loved the questions, but the answers were wonderful.

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