Portrait Maria A. Niederberger August 2007


(....nur eines bis heute...)


(genaues Datum unbekannt)
(Ort: Tennessee, USA)

Interviewer: Lislot Frei, Bern
Titel: Composer Portrait — Komponistinnen–Portrait
Erscheinungsort: Faltblatt Pro Helvetia in der Reihe «contemporary swiss composers»: Maria A. Niederberger, erschienen 2000

Vorbemerkung: Das Interview wurde 1999 von Pro Helvetia in Auftrag gegeben. Die Journalistin Lislot Frei reiste zur Komponistin nach Tennessee und führte es in deutscher Sprache durch. Das Interview wurde für die Publikation durch Pro Helvetia ins Englische übersetzt. Zur Zeit ist die deutsche Fassung leider nicht erhältlich.

LF: There are various ways of doing a composer portrait. We have chosen the principle of the interview, starting from a question common to everybody: What do you feel when you confront a blank sheet of paper?

MAN: I am elated! I am most inspired when I write for performers that I know personally. In a quiet moment, I give my ideas free rein, allowing them to course through my head until one concept is more tangible than the rest. It is only at that point that the manuscript paper comes out. By the time I have something concrete to set down on paper, things are well on the way.

LF: You have been living in the United States as a Swiss expatriate for a quarter of a century now and studied composition there, too. What was your training like and in what tradition was it?

MAN: I received my basic musical training at the University of California, Davis. Initially, my intention was to study violin. It was not until I had completed a number of composition assignments in my theory classes that I decided to study composition. My professor Richard Swift supported me, became my mentor, wrote the necessary recommendations, and did any number of important things for me. His guidance was crucial to me – and the fact that he allowed me to work unhampered without being hypercritical when I took my first compositional steps. Our first topic was tonal music. In our courses, we put all theoretical concepts into practice, writing fugues, sonatas, variations, and performing the newly created works. Contrapuntal thought was especially important. After a two–year period covering tonality, we turned to the music of the twentieth century during the third year. Atonality and twelve-tone study received emphasis as the continuation of tonal language. Of course, we also explored various other new stylistic directions. At Brandeis and Harvard universities I concentrated on composition and theory for three years.

(zum Seitenanfang)

LF: What composers and works influenced you in particular?

MAN: That's a risky question, as I might not be able to come up with a complete list... But here is what comes to mind: Bartók’s string quartets, Boulez's ‘Le Marteau sans maître’, Schoenberg’s String Trio, Varèse’s ‘Octandre’, Carter’s string quartets, Beethoven’s late quartets, Bach, of course, and Schubert...

LF: Why ‘of course’ when you mention Bach?

MAN: Much of my musical training was grounded in Bach’s music – his polyphonic works in particular: inventions, canons and fugues... The genius, the intellectuality and musicality of a compositional process that bears the form in it from the beginning, made an immense impression on me. And polyphony has never disappeared from music, even though harmonic and formal premises have changed over time.

LF: A few of your early solo pieces are twelve–tone, but nonetheless they sound very expressive.

MAN: It is my philosophy that a piece of music should breathe. My professors Martin Boykan at Brandeis University and Donald Martino at Harvard used to demonstrate how innovative phrasing is the key to a lively composition. The concept of breath and phrasing is important, as it also brings the performer into the picture. A composer’s awareness of the performer’s reality must be a component of the compositional thought. At the beginning of my career as a composer, I often wrote very slowly. In my quest for expressiveness, I revised my sketches over and over again.

(zum Seitenanfang)

LF: It sounds as if you composed according to classical–modern principles. How great is the influence of aleatoric music, noise music, electronic music, John Cage, improvisation, or contemporary music theatre in your career as a composer?

MAN: I am fascinated by these developments. However, my preference so far has been a precise notation of the music that is to take place. One could compare aleatoric notation to the practice of unnotated ornaments during the baroque period. How did Bach handle ornaments? He took the time to write them out in detail, so that the musicians knew how to execute them properly. On the other hand, I do indeed love the new freedom of our generation of composers, and my work makes use of a great number of new ideas. In my «Piano Quintet», for example, I use floating rhythm and rhythmic modulation, where specific temporal relations smooth over tempo changes. Expanded sonorities are frequently present in my music as an expressive device, but not as an end in itself. In other words, I use sonorities that fit into the concept and framework of a composition. Since I am primarily interested in the creation of innovative pitch relationships, some trends are less relevant to my music than others.

LF: To what extent are you in touch with the European and Swiss music scene?

MAN: I make an effort to be as well informed as I can manage, but the geographical distance is obviously a handicap. I would certainly like to be more firmly integrated in the Swiss musical scene. Now and then, I get a commission from a Swiss ensemble, for instance from Opus Novum in Lucerne...

LF: That was for ‘Sonnenspur’?

MAN: Exactly. I was also asked to compose ‘Images’ in 1997 for Passages Européens. The Ensemble Avant–Garde from Minsk performed the work in Boswil in the same year. Another commission came in 1985, from the FrauenMusikForum Switzerland for ‘Inferences’.

LF: How does the composing scene in the United States differ from the European one?

MAN: There is a great difference. I have the impression that European composers, building on an ancient, fairly linear and stable tradition, allow themselves to work experimentally, that they even have a mandate to do so. In the United States, a broad range of styles and trends comes into play. The reason is perhaps the vastness of the country and the isolation of the regions from one another. But most importantly, since the United States provides a new home for immigrants from all continents, the preservation of familiar musical patterns and the amalgamation of the familiar with the new are ways of reconciling past with present and bringing old and new ideas to bear. The native customs of many immigrant composers inform and influence their creative output in one way or another.

(zum Seitenanfang)

LF: And that makes for greater tolerance?

MAN: That depends very much on the person. Since composition requres a high level of specialization, it often results in thinking in specific modes. In other words, there is always a danger of dismissing what is foreign to one’s own system of thought.

LF: Listening to your works, I notice a striking sense of form, a strong feeling of proportion and a crystal-clear transparency of texture.

MAN: Absolutely. Since I consider the temporal development of a composition crucial, I structure the elapsing time very carefully, using contrasts or harmonic shifts, for example. I accent, build or subside. Like a sculptor, I create depth and height and bring dimension into the music that the listener is able to follow.

LF: In the last few years I’ve occasionally heard a distinct suggestion of tonality in your music... where does it come from?

MAN: Really? That is a surprise... I aim at creating a variety of sounds with different densities of dissonance. The fact that I might use a triad in a composition reminds listeners of tonality. Tonality is a complete system of relations; a single triad does not constitute tonality yet. The new harmonic language of the twentieth century had to be very distinct, at the outset, from older practices and implications: no triads, no octaves and little consonance. But strict rules tend to loosen over time, and I have found ways of employing triads in atonal contexts. During my studies, when I was introduced to the old precept that no octaves were to be employed, I thought to myself that this was somewhat illogical, as octaves are always present as overtones. I wanted to find ways of employing them in a new harmonic context as well.

(zum Seitenanfang)

LF: In its stylistic layering, ‘Images’ reminds me of Charles Ives.

MAN: I certainly was not thinking of Ives, though I do appreciate his music. What I wanted to achieve was a melding of various levels of instrumental activity. The trumpet plays an important solo role, then the brass and woodwind ensembles create new idiosyncrasies; finally, the piano asserts its own personality. At times, duplicated, simultaneously sounding patterns create an event, while at others, opposing lines converge in polyphonic densification.

LF: In your compositions for ensemble, you display a preference for certain instrumental combinations. Woodwinds, strings, plus percussion, and oftentimes piano.

MAN: I like orchestral forces. It is unfortunate that contemporary composers rarely get a chance to write for orchestra today. My ensembles include instrumental families, which enables me to work with orchestral colours, at least on a minuscule scale. As to percussion: I feel fortunate that the twentieth century has made a myriad of new percussion instruments from all over the world available. Opus Novum features two outstanding percussionists, Erwin Bucher and Michael Erni. Naturally, I took advantage of their expertise in ‘Sonnenspur’.

LF: Have you had an opportunity to write for large orchestra so far?

MAN: I have composed a short piece called ‘Towards the Sound of River Aa’. As of today, it has not yet been performed, because the scoring exceeds the possibilities of a small orchestra. Even though I realize that today’s smaller ensembles are an economic and, in some instances, a stylistic response to our times, I would like to be able to go beyond these artificial boundaries and explore the orchestral realm as well. Since most orchestras are struggling for financial survival today, they lean towards an established repertoire rather than invite a composer’s collaboration. This creates a vicious circle that restricts the repertoire.

LF: Do you regard yourself as Swiss or American?

MAN: I am Swiss with permanent resident status in the USA; however, I am not an American citizen. My life has made me a citizen of the world. In the United States, I lack certain aspects of Swiss life and, in return, in Switzerland I miss certain provisions of my American life. One thing is clear: no immigrant ever forgets his or her native land. The United States has offered me many great opportunities. I am able to work here as a professor, and of course, twenty–five years are a long time.

LF: You have been teaching at East Tennessee State University since the autumn of 1999 and have a vey busy schedule. Do you find time to compose?

MAN: I prioritize my time and composition is definitely one of my most important daily activities. But it is only in summer and during semester breaks that I get plenty of time for composition. Naturally, I ask myself whether I am not teaching too much, and I yearn for an extended period of time to dedicate solely to composition. the United States has a composer–in–residence programme. This model could be expanded...

LF: You mean, to cover an entire season?

MAN: Why not spend half a year as a composer–in–residence with a symphony orchestra, experiment with different ideas and get to know the musicians? It would be a great way of honing a composer’s skills. An open–minded orchestra might seriously entertain such an idea.

(zum Seitenanfang)