Conversation with Matteo Fargion contd. 5 (Stuttgart - some techniques and influences)

Stuttgart - some techniques, influences

T: You've written an opera.

M: Yes that was when I had the opportunity to go to the Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart when I had this residency in um... 96 or 7, we'll have to check on these dates. Um, 97 I think it was, um... or- started with a year and became eighteen months, and it was a wonderful time because for once I didn't have to write for dance. It took me a long time to write anything, but I started with a set of songs, the Tosca Songs. Um, yeah that was me sort of- I suppose, I mean I even used the same singer, Beth Griffith, and I wrote especially for her, but it was the first time I could just do what I wanted and I thought well, I'm in a very strange place and feeling very weird so I better do what I thought I did best, write songs, um, at the time thinking would be an easy thing, I could do one a day, and what we were saying before, um, of course they did turn out to be one a day eventually, it took me about three months to get started, and I found the text- I decided I had given up on trying to find a text and I wanted to set in Italian, and so what I did was take the- my favourite opera Tosca- the first idea I had was to set the whole libretto for the second act, I would just set the whole thing, I mean as it was. But, then I thought there might be copyright problems, and anyway it was far too long- is this interesting?

T: Yeah go on, what the hell.

M: No, I just took all the words that Gloria Tosca sings that had the letter A in them, a very Georges Perec kind of way of- and I took all the- yeah, just went through the whole libretto and just took all the words that she sang with the letter A I wrote out, um, and- oh yeah, how did I decide which was the text for each song? The ten pages of the libretto, so when that page ran out, that was that song. Um, and so the first one has a lot of "Mario Mario Mario Mario ah ah ah..." kind of thing, some of it makes sense and parts of it don't. But I really liked them. My original idea was to take all the words that Mario sings with the letter E in them and then so on with the five characters, with the letter U and the letter O and then make a kind of opera. I still like that idea, but I'm not quite sure why.

T: But that's what I was gonna say though, I think you do have a way of working though, you know, in things like that and the whole- going back to whatever we were talking about Chris Newman, that kind of almost arbitrary choice making in order to just create an impetus to start work. What was the last thing you wrote?

M: Oh, the German Oratorio. That's- apart from that theatre music, yeah, the worst commission I've ever had but you know I managed in the end, but that was that setting however many, 13 or 14 German texts, um, as part of a play basically, I call it a musical, they call it an oratorio, but, it was incredibly hard because they um... it had to be for non-professional singers, actors basically. So I had- and they didn't want it to be ironic, and I didn't want it to be ironic either. The play is very much like a Brecht play and so the danger was to be like Kurt Weill or Eisler, for the music to be like that.

T: Wasn't it a Brecht play?

M: No, no it was kind of a rewrite, yeah, it was called "Das Kontingent" and it's, er, kind of an imitation of- or, they wouldn't say imitation they would say like a reworking of the same- of the style, so it had short scenes, rather didactic scenes, usually with a song at the end of each scene. Um. So how did I write that? I dunno, I think I wrote... I mean I always start with pitch, I think that's one thing, without pitch I have no idea, and I- How do I get the pitch? Um, um... well, various kind of methods to get me started, most of which then I end up not- kind of not using, I'm trying to think in this case, I think because it was German I decided I would get some- a book of folk songs, umm... It was the case I went to the library and thought what can I use as starting material, um, something to get me going which is what I usually need. Um, so I got, yeah I got a book of folk songs and er I chose a few, they're all rather dull on the page, that stuff sounds rather wonderful when it's sung by an old woman somewhere, but on the page is really boring, E minor... Anyway I wrote out a few of them and then used all those kinds of passed down techniques like um insert a note between each pitch and then if that still sounds too close to the original, insert two notes, er, change the accidentals, you know change the mode I suppose... So those are my starting points so I had like three or four pages of just dots on the page, yeah but melodic line, kind of melodic, not completely random kind of thing, but a line that I could play and then change, so I think that's very often for instance how Gerald Barry used to write music, starting with a line and then... Then these texts were coming and I just kind of wrote- first I wrote the melodic line alone to set the text to the line, and I did most of the songs like that, or at least half of them, and then as you well remember I got incredibly stuck cos I didn't know how to go on, how to... what should happen next, how to fill out these melodic lines. And the solution I found- I had to- yeah the actors needed this er to start learning something so I sent them at least five or six of the tunes and I knew that they couldn't change them cos they need to memorise them by rote. So then I had to fill them knowing that whatever I did that tune had to stay the same.

T: I suppose I'm putting you in a group with a whole bunch of other people, but it's just a really very typical way of working, which is completely un-Feldmaney.

M: Much more to do with Gerald and Chris and Tom Johnson, I mean, Tom would stop there, I think you know with the tunes, whereas- all those things are very- obviously these people are- If anything I suppose my music is more like- it's everything I've learnt from- and I love about all their music like thrown into a pot and hopefully what comes out is a bit of me too but that's the only way I can do it, I mean there's no point in trying to avoid it, I mean those are my influences. It's very hard. I remember Feldman talking about that at Darmstadt about the whole thing that people nowadays are- insist on the first thing is how can I be different so I can corner some corner of the market, some bit of the market, you know, "oh yeah he's the one that does, you know, er, one note piece"- He's the so-and-so, and that's- and I do get fed up with the- I know that it's Kevin that said that that style is a red herring and I do actually really firmly believe that. It's just a language, I mean, when I was in Germany in Stuttgart I got- one night I got attacked by a composer who was a student of Wolgang Rihm who heard this piece I wrote for two violins, which was a slight piece, five minute piece, violin- somebody asked me to do it and I wrote it in a day and it was a cute piece, but anyway, he let rip and he basically accused me of- what was the... it was kind of- I was being immoral for writing in what he called A minor, um, that I had a duty as a composer to- to what? it was very hard to get him to say what he meant, but basically this was too easy. He said you use hocketing techniques, and that's just nothing you know, what is the- and that old thing, the whole Darmstadt thing, what is the problem in your piece, like what is the problem, what's the dialectic. In Germany I was certainly always attacked for that kind of thing. And he was- it is a problem, and I think it is a problem in this country too, you immediately get dismissed as oh, you're part of the experimental thing, and you're not mainstream because you're not writing rather gestural atonal - if you can even be bothered to be that - music. Wishy-washy rhetorical music. Possibly well orchestrated, for effect, and you know unless you're part of that you're marginalised, I dunno how we got onto that, suddenly bitch about establishment.