This is your composer speaking: Simon Steen-Andersen
in conversation with Co de Kloet at New Music Conference 2023
Danish composer Simon Steen-Andersen loves to make musical collages. Composing with only clips of archive material or writing a libretto with well-known sentences from different operas: all his works come down to putting existing musical objects together and giving them a new meaning. He talked about it with Co de Kloet at New Music Conference 2023.
When confronted with your music, a whole new door opened for me after having been in the music and media business for about fifty years. What resonated instantly with me, was Trio.
‘It’s a 48-minute-long piece. It has two different storylines, two different parallel things happening and developing throughout the piece: the combination of three ensembles – orchestra, choir and big band – and their historic parallels on video.’
How did you negotiate rehearsal time for this?
‘There are three conductors and each of them has a click track. That’s the only way to coordinate. And since almost everything is built on excerpts or little snippets from one big TV archive of the SWR (German public broadcasting corporation, ed.), I could easily make ‘minus one tracks’: so each ensemble could play in the holes that were made for them. The moment you bring 150 people and three conductors together, things are moving very slowly. So you want to get as far ahead as possible. It wasn’t as difficult as I thought. The moment the people got an idea of the lines they are part of, it started fixing itself.’
How did you feel when you first heard it?
‘I had heard the music already because it’s just one big collage of clips from this archive. On stage, I was hoping for something else to occur. This feeling of time intervals, this time gap back to the archive material. I was very excited to hear if it worked as I hoped. And it worked even better. In certain moments I had the feeling that they were making chamber music across time and media. It was beautiful and sad in a way, like a song for the last remaining ghosts, the memories of these dead colleagues from the past. And also a monument for that whole construction, the radio orchestra that is slowly being dismantled, being filtered out. It happened here in The Netherlands, it’s the same in Denmark. But these orchestras have been so important since the Second World War, maybe especially in Germany where the radios were so strong in music. They all had an orchestra, a big band and a choir.’
Controversy and accountability
In the audience, the artistic director of November Music, Bert Palinckx, asks: ‘I was there then and I remember people found it also a bit controversial, they thought you abused the conductors in this way. Did you expect this?’
‘I always expect everything. When I dropped the piano [In his Piano Concerto, Steen-Anderson uses a piano that was dropped onto a concrete floor from a height of 8 metres], I prepared a speech in defence. What interests me the least is provocation. I try to stay within a certain area where if it’s not respectful it is at least done with love, fascination, and curiosity. Maybe some naivety too.’
‘Trio was so weird that it was also entertaining. It made people suspicious. It was just a confirmation of one of many automatic, inherited, seemingly paradoxes that we get from culture and teachers. One being something cannot be entertaining and radical and deep at the same time.’
Do you think it’s necessary for a composer to explain himself?
‘No. But I appreciate a show or piece of art that has a relation to things I know, with a connection to the real world. An explanation outside of the music doesn’t interest me much. My big thing would be to do any necessary explaining within the music. I don’t mind calling my works pedagogical, but a nicer way to say it is: ‘Simon has the intention of making word games, but he first teaches you the abc’.’
‘In the first five minutes of Trio I introduce the material, the distance in time, playing the same thing very pedagogically in the historic recording and live so you can really narrow in on the tiny differences in intonation and sound quality.’
About the broken piano
‘As for the piano, it was leaked against my wishes that we were going to smash it. People commented things such as: ‘Imagine some underfinanced primary school where they would have loved to play on this piano.’ That’s why I prepared this speech. I didn’t want to emphasize it, but it’s a no-name piano which was anyway going to the trash. We bought it for five euros and painted it before smashing it. It’s broken, but not destroyed, because afterwards it’s being played and it helps us to experience the unbroken, freshly tuned classical instrument in a different way.’
‘I still think it’s a worthy sacrifice to get to an even more important topic: the beauty and poetry of the imperfect. That’s important in classical music because we deal a lot with the perfect versions, the polished, perfect intonation, a freshly tuned Steinway.’
Meaning, audience and inspiration
You set out for performances not to be just audience, music, and listening, but you put it in a broader perspective. Can you dwell on that a little bit?
‘The piece that we performed this Saturday at November Music, Staged Night, is ten years old. It was the first time where I deliberately said: ‘Let me try and do all those things that I’ve been working with in composition for many years: staging, lighting, movement, etc. But remove the compositional aspect of it and pick only existing works.’ This idea of working with found objects, you can see it in a lot of my work. It all comes back to my interest not so much in the object itself, but in the experience you can get when you take something very familiar that we have certain expectations of and put it upside down, twist it, or change the light. And then we experience that object in a new way. It gets a new meaning, while still being very conscious about its original meaning.’
Don Giovanni’s Inferno
‘My latest work is an opera. It’s called Don Giovanni’s Inferno. It starts with the end scene of Don Giovanni. We follow him to hell, where he meets all the other damned characters from the whole opera repertoire, from 1600 to about 1940 when the copyrights kick in. It is a staging of 30 different operas, where all these characters from different times meet each other. I’m making the libretto with sentences from existing operas. They get a new meaning. It’s a radical way of collaging, staging and recycling.’
A question from the audience: ‘By whom are you inspired? Sgt. Pepper’s, Dalí, and Zappa?’
‘I’m inspired by everyone and no one. I don’t have any heroes. I like a lot of elements from different genres so I handpicked them. That became the way I compose. Much more important for me was negative inspiration. All the things that I saw and thought I shouldn’t do or should do differently. Always analyzing myself, this doesn’t work for me, how can I do it in a way that it does?’
‘Everything I do today I can trace back to my teens, playing with my Amiga 500 with very rough lo-fi samples badly cut and put together in a collage, mixing different genres, playing around imitating genres. Playing the guitar, listening to rock music, listening to Frank Zappa. I had a competition with friends who could make the most weird music with our Amiga 500. We sent around floppy disks with the mail, and they would blow my mind with something ridiculous, crazy, funny, absurd, grotesque. And then it was my turn to take it one step further, we just kept challenging each other. That’s basically what I still do.’
Another question from the audience: ‘Do you have a specific audience in mind when composing? Is it important to you that any of these references are known to the listener?’
‘I try to make it for me and everybody. Because I see myself as everybody in a way, I don’t listen in a very academic way, I can lose myself in the moment. When I watch my own pieces, I also get into it. As I said before, an explanation should be in the piece. Even if you didn’t see any of these operas. I think very few people don’t have certain expectations of this genre. I’m more close to non-opera fans. I think they get as least as much, because it is about this outside view, playing around with this genre of being put down, ridiculed, explained, freshened up, twisted.’
Photos of NMC by Claudia Hansen
Text by Stella Vrijmoed