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15 Questions to Amos Elkana

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
I'm fine. Thank you. I am currently an artist in residence at the Montalvo Center for the Arts in California. I was invited for three months to work here with my collaborators Sommer Ulrickson (a choreographer) and Alexander Polzin (a visual artist).

What's on your schedule right now?
I am very busy, juggling between eight projects that are in different stages of completion. With my collaborators here at Montalvo, I am working on a music/dance performance piece that is titled "After Hamlet". In this piece we explore the famous play from a completely new angle. We begin our version of the piece where the original one ends and we tell the story as if looking back on it. We try to make the story comprehensible through music and movement without using the text, except where we think it is absolutely essential. Another project that I am working on is also in collaboration with Alexander Polzin. Polzin has done a series of 99 paintings based on the W.H.Auden poem "The Age of Anxiety". For the exhibition opening in New York (Goethe Institute, April 6th 2006), I am composing 99 one minute pieces of  electronic music, one for each painting. Another project I am working on is a Piano piece for Gyorgy Kurtag's 80th birthday. This piece was commissioned by Stiftung Schloss Neuhardenberg for the festival in honor of Kurtag's birthday that will take place on June 10th and 11th at Neuhardenberg near Berlin.  Some of the other projects I am currently working on: A piece for Electric Guitar and Electronics for my grandmother's 100th (!) birthday celebration; A chamber concerto for 15 instruments; A piece for Cello and Electronics after a poem by Ann Lauterbach titled "Midsummer Night"; A string trio and a piece for Countertenor, Bass and Piano that is based on Harold Pinter's wonderful play "The New World Order".

What's your view on the music scene at present? Is there a crisis?

Of course there is a crisis. The most performed works today are by composers who have been dead for at least 200 years! The deep crisis of art music that is recorded, broadcast and performed today is that the ratio between old and new music is completely the opposite of what it should be. Can you imagine going into a book store only to find a couple of new books while all the rest are books that have been written 200 or 300 years ago? Or reading Goethe or Jane Austen over and over again and not being open to a new book by the likes of José Saramago or Amos Oz?
Artistic directors who want to entertain the public, who think that they should give us "old favourites" instead of exposing the public to the fascinating breadth of new ideas and creativity that goes on today are on one side of the problem. On the other side of this problem stand music "conservatives" that are afraid of new music. And yet on another side of the problem is the lack of sufficient funding for living art. I don't believe that there is a crisis in the art itself. There is a wonderful wealth of creativity that is going on today. A searching artist is not a sign of a crisis but quite the opposite. If we thought we have all the answers and a correct way of doing art then we would have a true crisis.

What does the term „new" mean to you in connection with music?
For me "new music" means that music which is composed at this time and that mirrors and comments on the world that we live in today. Music which is experimental in nature, original and that tries to find new possibilities and pathways.


How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?
Composition is the art. Sound is the material. Composing is the art of organizing, shaping and transforming sound.

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
There is a big difference between improvising and composing. Good improvising is the ability to execute musical ideas at the spur of the moment while trying to maintain a coherent continuation between one idea and the next and to develop these ideas in an interesting way. In improvising there is room for "errors". The interesting thing is what one does with those "errors", how "errors" become only embellishments for a skillful improviser. Improvisers are performers. They posses the technical ability to translate the stream of ideas that pop into their head immediately onto their instrument. Composition, on the other hand, is the meticulous and often long task of inventing musical ideas, working on them until achieving perfection. Like a diamond cutter that keeps polishing his diamond and keeps looking at it under the light until the point that it is perfect. There is no room for "errors". A composer works on his music until it is absolutely the way he wants it to be and that can take a very long time. Composition is not about casual conversation it's more like writing a book.

How would you define the term "interpretation"?

Interpretation of music is the act of deciding how to execute a piece of music. A score is just a set of instructions, it can be very detailed or not at all but it's always up to the performer to decide exactly what is the correct way for him or her to interpret the music. I don't believe there is only one way to interpret a piece of music. Once technique is not an obstacle, there is no wrong or right way just different views and sensibilities. I hope there is no "Bach" looking down from heaven on a performance of his piece thinking "that was a wrong interpretation" but "that was not the way I would have done it, yet it is valid".

Harmony? Dissonance? The freedom to choose both, none or just one?
I don't see a contradiction between these two terms. Harmony in a strictly musical context, is the vertical aspect of a composition – harmony can be dissonant or consonant, keeping in mind that these terms are relative. Creating or achieving Harmony in it's wider context is a matter of achieving balance.

A lot of people feel that some of the radical experiments of modern compositions can no longer be qualified as "music". Would you draw a border – and if so, where?
I would say that as long the experiment deals with sound (or the lack of it) it may be qualified as music. Personally It's not so interesting for me to discuss if something is music or not since that is just a label. I would be very interested to know, however, why and how a work of art has influenced an audience. Did they like it? Did they hate it? Were they indifferent? Some of those radical experiments you talk about are extremely interesting and evocative and that's fascinating to me. I don't care about labels.

Are "serious" and "popular" really two different types of music or just empty words without a meaning?
Well, look at it this way perhaps: "serious" means that the foremost attention of the artist was on the work itself and how to make it unique and interesting while "popular" might mean that the major concern of the artist was that the piece become popular and "successful". As a composer I would imagine that if my intention was that my music become popular, I would do things quite differently. I would take into account what's "in", I would try not to disturb, I would try to entertain. Obviously, this way of thinking is not appealing to me.

Do you feel an artist has a certain duty towards anyone but himself? Or to put it differently: Should art have a political/social or any other aspect apart from a personal sensation?
In today's 'on-line' world anyone can be heard, almost any one can influence the thoughts and actions of a society. The artist is no longer in the position that because he has an audience he has the potential to influence more. A work of art has to be explicit in order to convey a socio-political idea. An abstract work, on the other hand, can and often does inspire totally opposite ideas and feelings within two different people. An artist, just like anyone else, has a duty not to harm he's fellow human beings. The truth is that by being an artist you allow yourself to explore your inner world in a deep and unique way. Whether you have a socio-political agenda or not, creating art drives you to search deeply inside yourself, one cannot escape that. I don't think it's a matter of should or should not having a socio-political aspect in one's work. I would not create art work that explicitly promote ideas that I do not believe in and, on the other hand, I certainly would create works that promote ideas that I do believe in. Why should an artist behave any different from any one else? If I believe in a certain cause I let it be known whether through my art, or by talking about it, or participating in a demonstration.

True or false: People need to be educated about  music, before they can really appreciate it.
By exposing little children to contemporary and sometimes difficult works of art I have learned that any one can appreciate it. I have seen kids who were fascinated by listening to new music without understanding how it was done. Perhaps an educated person can appreciate some aspects of a work that some one else can't. It does not mean however that he is more affected by it.

True or false: The cultural subsidies doled out by governments are being sent to the wrong kind of people and institutions.
Some institutions rightfully receive subsidy and are doing their best to work with what they get while some others are doing a terrible job. The disturbing fact is that there is not enough subsidy for the arts in general. Except for giving more to the arts, governments should strongly support the creation of new works by young artists. To be a young artist today requires, most of the time, having to act like a beggar. It is unthinkable for a young artist to be able to make a living by doing art. This situation can and should be different. By recognizing the importance of art and it's impact on the society. Many words have been written to show why art is important but if one needs additional convincing one should just look at the research that has been done about the effect that art has on the development of children.

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?
My main attention would be to provide the opportunity for excellent but unknown living composers to be heard. They may be of any age, place or aesthetic direction. To that program I might add masterpieces by old and new composers that fit the theme of the festival.

Many artists dream of a "magnum opus". Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?
Sorry no. I don't dream of a "magnum opus". I have dreams about being able to compose music for the rest of my life...

Concert Music
Dance Music
Works 1992-1996

Amos Elkana

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