Interview with Markus Trunk, 9th July 2003 (Part 1)

The Wellington pub, The Strand, London

Conversation with Markus Trunk 9th July 2003 The Wellington pub, The Strand, London

M: ...it is. But the nice thing is you watch it all happening, the pianist records um... records that line...

T: Just "nothing is real"? (Sings it)

M: It's the melody from "Strawberry Fields", yeah. I guess I don't know it well enough to know what it really is. It doesn't sound like a pop song.

T: It's just er... four notes.

M: So it's recorded onto DAT or whatever, that's basically the first half of the piece, that the pianist actually plays the piano, then he or she has to get up and rewind the tape, and then play it back through the teapot while operating the lid, and the er... the resonances you get are amazing, if you've got the right pot. If I remember right, Alvin [Lucier] actually sent a specific Chinese teapot through the mail. It was a long time ago but...

T: Well that would be nice to get a nice Chinese teapot through the post. I presume you'd have to pay for it.

M: (laughs) It's a cheap one, you know, I'm sure he bought it... T: Wholesale. A hundred... M: ...on Canal Street in New York or something. But they work well for this purpose.

T: So you um... I'm just trying to think about your... You studied with Alvin at Wesleyan?

M: Mhm. This is the second time I've gone back to Connecticut and not visited Middletown. Strange.

T: When was that though?

M: From '91 to '93.

T: I thought it was quite recently.

M: You think that's recent?

T: Well, in contemporary music terms it's brand new!

M: Imagine, I graduated from there ten years ago...

T: And what was that? You just studied composition?

M: No no, I got involved in all the other stuff they do. Mostly world music. They were sort of pioneers in that field. Um, back in the sixties they imported all these native musicians to teach their own music, rather than having Western scholars talk about it, though they've got that too. When I was there they had "real" Indonesian and Indian and Ghanaian and Japanese musicians teaching on their own terms, which was very different. There's often not much explaining going on. I did um some Carnatic rhythm, a drumming language that's called solkattu, it's South Indian - North Indian and South Indian classical music are two separate traditions - and er...

T: Did any of that inform your music?

M: Oh my God, of course you were going to ask that question. (laughs) It's so obvious isn't it.

T: What?

M: The question is obvious.

T: Yeah.

M: Um, well there's some direct way. Apart from writing pieces for gamelan ensemble, and later for steel band, without paying much attention to the musical traditions behind them... I've actually written a piece that employs rhythmic principles taken from solkattu. The notion that you have a fixed rhythmic cycle which stays the same all the way through, but then you overlay another rhythmic structure in various speeds, um sort of a rhythmic theme, and then you speed it up- you double the speed... um... i.e. halve the length, you do the same thing again and then again, first four cycles long, then two, then one, and each time the relationship between the two rhythmic layers changes completely.

T: Like um... (Very noisy police siren goes past)

M: No doppler effect.

T: No no, well it went around the corner, maybe we didn't hear it. Oh here comes the other one.

(Another siren goes past)

T: Only slightly.

M: Yeah. Why is that...?

T: It's very high isn't it? So anyway, what was it like studying with Alvin then? All my questions are gonna be leading questions.

M: There wasn't much teaching as such, but I guess you won't be surprised to hear that, you know what he's like.

T: Yeah but I mean I didn't study with him for three years.

M: Two.

T: Two years.

M: Two years... I think we had our weekly sessions. That was mostly because I came from Germany, I was fresh from Germany from the music academy and that's what I was used to, so I kept doing that. I don't know whether he would have pushed that. So I would go to his office and um, we would have a chat...

T: About what you'd done? Did he set you tasks?

M: If I'd done something he would look at it, but I was just writing whatever I was going to write anyway.

T: I remember he said to us "I don't know what to tell you guys, you all seem to know what you're doing."

M: Yeah, I mean that's just a... what's the term? A figure of speech. Yeah he hardly ever says anything directly. It's more through anecdotes or stories, or looking at something else. I don't have any specific memories about the lessons, about what was said. I mean there's maybe one thing about the piece "slightly ajar" which is the one piece of mine that's very directly influenced by him.

T: It is isn't it. M: It's quite unique in a way, I've never really tried that again. I think it's quite successful, on its own terms, and er... Did you hear it at the Conway Hall?

T: No I just have a recording.

M: The recording...

T: Which is probably nowhere near...

M: Yeah well it is a spatial piece, it's about the acoustics of the space. In that sense it's very much like Alvin's pieces: the recordings are documents which sometimes are interesting in their own right, sometimes they are just documents. Um. What was I saying? Oh about that piece, because, it started out a lot messier than the recording you have.

T: With hundreds of notes?!

M: Oh, yeah! Lots of different sound sources. Because I think the way I started on it was er, the idea of a biographical piece, almost like Bluebeard's Castle, where behind every door is some treasured memory of something... I think it's actually an idea I had before I went to Wesleyan and er... it was more about this mixing up different musics, you know, maybe in an Ivesian way. It wasn't so much about the space. So the first Wesleyan performance had lots of different stuff everywhere- it had a celeste in it playing a...

T: Behind one of the doors.

M: Yeah, playing a motive from Bartok "Out of Doors" suite and er, another one had a tape of "Light My Fire" - The Doors, very unfunny pun.

T: (laughs) What, deliberately?

M: No, no, it was deliberate, yeah. Another one had a fiddle player, because we happened to study together, she played North American folk fiddle, and um, it was kind of droney, so that was sort of well suited. Another door had um... speech behind it. I chose three Japanese speakers so nobody could understand what they were saying, it was not about text as such but um...

T: The sound of speech.

M: Yeah. They really got into it, they were like arguing, very acrimoniously. But then I had a... Have I already mentioned the Hoover?

T: No.

M: That was sort of a constant, the most drone like noise. Oh, and an organ, um, in that hall they had a pipe organ backstage...

T: They had six doors in this place?

M: At least. No there were more, one guy was in the lavatory but he didn't actually produce a continuous sound, he only screamed really dramatically loudly at various points throughout the twelve minutes. And, on top of it all, I didn't just have the light coming through the doors from outside, um, I had somebody operating the lights in the hall as well so they went on and off at intervals. And, yeah, to cut a long story short, Alvin didn't like it! (laughs)

T: Why?

M: Because it was too distracting from the purely acoustical phenomenon.

T: Yeah it was more about what you put behind the doors.

M: Yeah, so most people would have been listening to the sounds themselves rather than how they're shaped by the space and the doors. So it took me, I don't know, three or four performances to arrive at that one-note version at the Conway Hall.

T: Where there's just nothing behind the doors?

M: Oh no, there were instruments. All playing the note C. And in different octaves so maybe it's not- still not radical enough.

T: Well it kind of makes a constancy for what's outside.

M: Yeah. No, no I think it's fine because um... all the er, higher octaves are... are part of the overtone series of whatever the lowest C is. It's really one sound.

T: And what about "Leaf", that's '92 or something isn't it?

M: That was written- that was the main piece in my "graduation recital".

T: Is that two pianos...

M: It is...

T: ...trombone and double-bass. That's right, I'm just remembering. Because um...

M: Yeah, it was... It was um, originally intended- the way the trombone and double-bass are similarly treated but different, I didn't originally want two pianos, one of them was supposed to be a harp really but I've never done that version.

T: Would you re-orchestrate it?

M: Sorry, I would...? I would. But er, I guess-

T: It's like that piano version "Leaflet", am I right? That's based on it.

M: Yeah, it's not exactly the same but... it's the same pitch sequence. Yeah, I think "Leaf" has only been done once since. Which is when I offered to do a harp version, I really wanted... They wanted the original version. This is not really interesting is it?

T: That's what everybody says.

M: Talking about different versions...?

T: That's what everyone says but it remains to be seen.

M: (laughs) That's the kind of stuff musicologists are interested in!

T: Well... But what I wanted to ask you though was all your um... That CD that you gave me, and that tape before the CD, all the different pieces, your music- your output is quite sort of varied, you know what I mean, you don't have er... It's not er... I mean your greatest hit is definitely the big orchestral piece. I was just speaking to lots of people who heard it, um... "On a Clear Day".

M: Oh, right.

T: Lots of people heard it and mentioned to me as well, and said "oh Markus, you wrote that great piece, it was fantastic!? and...

M: I actually still get feedback about "Slightly Ajar".

T: Really? From the Conway Hall performance?

M: From the people who were there. I suppose it works very well within a regular new music programme. It's theatrical in a way.

T: It is quite theatrical isn't it.

M: With the light coming in through the doors. It's interesting that you say um... You think my output is varied which is not the way I think of it.

T: Well, sure, of course.

M: I sometimes think I'm stuck in this er, sort of minimal, reduced er, vein...

T: Vain? .... Oh, "vein". (laughs) I thought it was just another adjective, "vain".

M: Oh no. ...vein - full stop. (laughs) Yeah but you're probably thinking I guess I've tried other things like er, "Spelling Lesson" which is partly humourous.

T: Yeah, which I haven't actually heard but it's something else that people mention to me.

M: Or that piece that's based on South Indian rhythms which hasn't been...

T: What's that? What is that? Do I have a recording?

M: No it hasn't been performed. Yet. It's called "Du-gun" which is an Indian term.

T: You're gonna have to spell that for me later.

M: (laughs) "Dyoo-gunn". No it's "doo-ghun", D-U-G-U-N.

T: Oh. For?

M: Well, that's a bit of a problem.

T: Unspecified instruments.

M: Yeah yeah, only the ranges are specified but it can't really be done by wind instruments sensibly because there's nowhere to breathe. String instruments is not ideal either because there are lots of big fast leaps, it's just gonna sound horrible intonation-wise, so I have actually reverted to specifying an instrumentation. I think it's vibraphone and accordion- and maybe a bass clarinet, playing the part that's not as fast. Maybe. But that one sounds a bit like Nancarrow. Because it's very fast and it's sort of polyphonic, which is very unusual for me. And it's sort of tonal in a... there's harmony, it's very chromatic, in sort of a Max Reger way, it's chromatic and almost modulating into er, around the circle of keys.

T: So is it always a kind of a extra-musical thing that kicks you off writing a piece?

M: Like?

T: Well just like that- well, not...

M: "On a clear Day"?

T: Yeah, "On a clear Day" and also just what you've just described isn't extra-musical, it's a rhythmic idea, but some other idea that's kind of kick-starting you, or informing what you're doing at that time.

M: Actually I think it's the exception, the extra-musical thing. Is that true? Yeah... I think I usually start out with er... just looking at an instrumentation. The instruments I've thought of or that are there... (pause) No I am just checking what I said in my mind against various pieces.

T: Well, like "On a Clear Day", um, a whole orchestra. Did you immediately think I want to do something like that, because it's a very immediate piece, very kind of just like... striking, you know, there's no nonsense, there it is and then it stops. And you know it takes no prisoners, you either get it or you don't, and in that BBC recording I was sitting next to this guy who completely didn't get it. He wasn't interested at all.

M: That must have been terribly boring.

T: It was just one of those instances where he says "well I don't like these pieces where nothing happens" and I said "well, yeah, fine..." Nothing didn't happen!

M: But I understand that reaction.

T: Yeah of course, exactly.

M: But I guess it doesn't help telling somebody who seems to take offence like that... that it takes you just as long arriving at nothing happening as it takes somebody else to arrive at a lot of things happening... too much happening...

T: Is that the way that you work then, you boil things down?

M: Often works like that, yeah. That I pare down and throw things out, and get rid of whole parameters. Um. Certainly. I suppose my thinking is very um- what's the word... phenomenological. I wanna hear the phenomenon itself so usually any kind of um, compositional device- traditional compositional device is just distracting. Any... any "Tonsatz". There's no- I'm not sure there's a word in English for that.

T: What is it? Tone-

M: It's a subject if you study music in Germany, it's one of the subjects. It teaches you how to set something. So it's a combination of harmony and counterpoint I suppose. And you do it for several semesters. And um... I often try to find an equivalent but um, maybe it's a very German idea that there's a... that you can teach how to set music properly! Yeah, "tone-setting". That's all it is. That's the literal translation.

T: It sounds quite academic.

M: Yeah, exactly. There you learn what you have to do in order to make "sound" sound like music, so it's got all the proper ingredients.

T: So sound is not allowed to just be.

M: No, of course not.

T: Is that what sort of led you to Wesleyan? Or how did you end up there then?

M: Um, through- well all I knew was that I wanted to study abroad because I thought I had lived in Germany for thirty years and um, it was just not... it was not on! So I was casting around for people to study with. One of them was Christian Wolff, I had an exchange with him, um... James Tenney... I mean, Walter Zimmermann advised me at that time because he was my teacher then. So that's a bit how... Earlier I'd thought about going to Krakow and study... I mean I was more interested in the place. That was to study with Boguslav Schaeffer. Is that a name you recognise?

T: Schaeffer?

M: Schaeffer, not the French one. But no, he actually teaches mostly in Salzburg anyway. I'd done a course with him. Um, one other was... um... I 'm rusty you see, I don't talk about music much so the most obvious terminology and names of people, it just doesn't come to me. Gyorgy Kurtag! That's what I was looking for... With him as well as with Christian Wolff the problem was that they don't teach composition formally so it would have meant enrolling onto some other course.

T: And going through the back door.

M: So I think it was Kunsu Shim who had a tape of Alvin's music and I thought "that sounds very reasonable!? (laughs)

T: So you knew Kunsu Shim at that time?

M: Oh yeah. I met him a few years before that, yeah. And I thought "oh that looks just right for me, that sounds really different", without perhaps understanding it all that well. Not sure I- I must have come across him in Zimmermann's seminars but maybe it was just one piece, probably "I Am Sitting In a Room". That was all I knew. And then er... Alvin happened to be on a DAAD scholarship- not scholarship but residency, in Berlin, so I went to Berlin and met him and er... I was lucky to get a DAAD scholarship myself. At least for the first year. Then I went. First time I was on an airplane.

T: Oh wow. And you had to learn English.

M: Oh yeah. I mean I had some vocabulary from school but no colloquial English and certainly no colloquial American. Those first few weeks and months were very intense.

T: Yeah I'm sure, yeah. How long were you with Zimmermann before?

M: Er, just a year. But an important year. I suppose in my mind it almost equals the time I studied with Spahlinger which was... yeah, probably four years, and the time I spent with Zimmermann...

T: When were you with Spahlinger? Before Zimmermann?

M: Yeah. And then Spahlinger left for Freiburg and was basically replaced by Zimmermann.

T: They had different forms of teaching?

M: Totally different, yeah. Shall I illustrate?

T: Yeah, why not.

M: Well Mathias actually set weekly exercises and stuff. It was a bit like "Tonsatz"! I mean very good exercises, um... So I would go home and write them and I was quite good at them, so he had something to pore over at the next lesson, and he would pore over it for ten minutes. Incredibly meticulous.

T: Hmm, like a crossword puzzle.

M: Not necessarily. He would often read all sorts of things into it I hadn't even thought of. And er, he would give a clear verdict. That was very good but stifling in a way. It took me almost two years to come up with a piece, which was actually developed from one of the exercises. And er, so in those four years I think I maybe wrote two pieces. Ten minutes of music. (laughs) And that's very typical really of him, I think, it's a bit like his own way of working, incredibly self-critical. And then Walter comes in and he brings with him this whole wagon-load of music and he just throws it at us, without too much analysis. Mostly American experimental stuff. The most outlandish kind of music. And he would take us everywhere to concerts, you know, the world premiere of- the posthumous world premiere of a Feldman piece in Cologne, four or five hours long, "Violin and String Quartet", and we would like, all ten of us, stay overnight at er... that... another name that won't come to me... um... (pause)

T: Would you like another drink?

M: (laughs) That might help. (pause)

T: Right, I'll go and get something else to drink, I'll pause this. M: Ok. That'll save some- (Cut)