If you want to know what composers really think about their art, about the act of creating music, you might ask Bálint Varga.
Bálint spent more than forty years working in the music business and has published interviews with the likes of Lutosławski, Berio, Xenakis and his fellow Hungarian, György Kurtág. In 2011 he put together Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers which conductor Simon Rattle declared to be “necessary reading for all who care about the music of our time.”
His most recent collection of interviews, The Courage of Composers and the Tyranny of Taste, is perhaps his most intriguing. It looks at the courage needed to create something new in the face of audiences’ expectations, in the light of musical tradition, even under totalitarian regimes.
Anyone involved in any sort of creative endeavour will understand Unsuk Chin’s feeling that ‘the very nature of the process of composing…resembles a tightrope act between success and failure – no risk, no gain.” She describes several weeks of staring at a blank piece of paper followed by “sudden breakthroughs – none of which can really be foreseen” and notes that while composing was always complicated, it “seems even more so today, when no binding ‘grammar’ [for example, of functional tonality] exists anymore.”
Then there is the weight of the past, all those who have gone before and the work they produced. What is the point of creating something unless it says something that hasn’t already been said or at least says it in an individual way? The Israeli composer, Chaya Czernowin, mentions that when you write you “hear your teachers’ comments on this or that…[and] have in your head all the pieces you have heard in the past…You have to make a distinction between what others expect of you and what you want to do.”
Finally, there is the courage needed to write music that you know could put you in real danger – not just of ridicule or negative reviews, but imprisonment, banishment or worse. Here’s a chilling story told to Bálint Varga by Péter Eötvös:
The director of the Budapest Music Academy was Ferenc Szabó. He was not only a composer but had also been an officer in the Red Army and was tasked by the Russians to report any suspicious phenomenon in Hungarian cultural life…He was a dangerous man, with the power to have anyone imprisoned if he deemed that the person represented the artistic principles of Western culture.
In the course of one of my examinations at the Academy, I presented one of my compositions to Ferenc Szabó. On detecting in them rather suspect aesthetic principles, this man summoned my professor and questioned him about how and why he had permitted me to compose music of that kind. I never learned what actually happened at that conference – all I know is that on reaching home, Professor Viski’s heart stopped beating. Nobody could prove a direct link between the conference and Viski’s death, it might have been pure coincidence, but in my mind I have always suspected a connection between the two.
What does it mean to create under those circumstances, to fall out of favour with the authorities because your art shows Western tendencies? To be like Czech composer, Miloslav Kabeláč, who, presenting Varga with a number of his scores, suggested he carry them with the title pages turned inward so that nobody in the street could see his name?