Framing Your Voice, Part 2

I have encountered many personalities who have shaped the composer I am, but the most distinct memories are from my interactions with two very different composers during the summer of 1998 at Darmstadt: Helmut Lachenmann and György Kurtág.

Written By

Mara Gibson

I visited Darmstadt as an impressionable graduate student during the summer of 1998. I have encountered many personalities who have shaped the composer I am, but the most distinct memories from that trip came from my interactions with two very different composers: Helmut Lachenmann and György Kurtág.

Lachenmann vehemently told us (particularly the Americans, a.k.a. the “zombies”) to forget everything we had learned up to that point. He encouraged us to develop our own material independently of our teachers. He explained that we are part of a “North American syndrome” that potentially results in work without any “real artistic provocation, just frustrating and boring.” His musical outlook could be encapsulated in the following quote:

With conventional or unconventional sounds, the question is how to create a new, authentic musical situation. The problem isn’t to search for new sounds, but for a new way of listening, of perception. I don’t know if there are still new sounds, but what we need are new contexts.

Kurtág modeled his process of composing through his practice of music making. Unlike Lachenmann, Kurtág would not meet with students for composition lessons, but instead opened his instrumental coaching sessions and rehearsals to students. Hearing Kurtág and his wife, Marta, perform Játékok at Darmstadt, I felt both emotionally and technically charged. Játékok consists of eight volumes of miniature solo and four-hand piano pieces, which aim to recapture the spirit of child’s play. The scores are frequently graphic and abstract, and include extensive descriptions of his notation. The pieces are inventive, playful, and even stoic at moments. Below the surface of the music, the layering of quotation and the sense of quiet reminiscence serves to take the listener away from reality by creating something new and breathtakingly beautiful. Becoming acquainted with the score, as well as with the recording that includes Bach transcriptions interspersed between his pedagogical performance pieces, has been both individually rewarding and collectively meaningful. These are qualities I strive to achieve in my own work. The experience I had with the Kurtágs was definitely beyond words. Their methods, derived from a strange combination of escapism, invention, and beauty, epitomize the motivation I have for music.

After all these years, I have kept a letter on the bulletin board above my desk that Lachenmann mailed to me after my visit, to remind me of his lesson. Alongside the letter, I also preserve a photo from that same trip of Kurtág and Marta performing.

Mara Gibson Inspiration Board

Mara Gibson’s inspiration board

With increasingly sophisticated “composerly” opportunities coming my way throughout graduate school, some of my peers thought I was out of my mind continuing to teach children. I have recently come to understand that this is part of my passion–teaching at any and all levels keeps my own child-like fascination with music in check alongside the practical application of how to make that passion a reality. Since grad school, I have shared Játékok with students of all levels, including children, university-level music majors and non-majors, as well as professional composers and performers. The consistent message of this piece, as outlined in Kurtág’s forward, is to “tackle bravely even the most difficult task without being afraid of making mistakes: we should try to create valid proportions, unity and continuity out of the long and short values–just for our own pleasure!”

Personally, I feel that I have learned how to explain things to grown-ups by having to explain things to children. Likewise, children remind us how to be genuine. Through performance and composition, Kurtág helped me understand this critical balance.

Mountain Climbing Music

Young composer, age 6 – Mountain Climber

For example, this young composer was not afraid to express the more abstract characteristics of movement in the work above. While the instrumentation is unclear, the dynamics, contour, and motion all clearly articulate his feelings about what it might be like to climb a mountain. More mature students might approach this in a way less connected to the physical experience of mountain climbing, but this young composer approached the idea bravely. Intuition plays a role in inventiveness: both Lachenmann and Kurtág were onto something after all!

Kurtág’s kinesthetic relationship between playing and creating alongside Lachenmann’s dedication to the authenticity of sound resonate with me deeply. As a composer interested in collaboration, my teaching naturally encompasses a variety of musical skills, including composition, performance, theory, and history. I believe that without the merger of all these ingredients, the language of music is unbalanced and can potentially sway toward the overly intellectual or creatively unchallenged. In music education, instructors frequently separate these elements. However, as musicians, we draw on these various musical experiences in tandem, recognizing how each subject reinforces the other. To prepare students for the rigors of making music, I hope to encourage simultaneous thinking about the multiple aspects of music. Through the fusion of skill and creativity, the student (and teacher) gain insight, and can begin to discover that nothing is a truly “separate.” Performance, composition technique, historical context, and theoretical understanding are all vital in cultivating a creative and thoughtful musician. After all, as artists, we learn through doing.

Interacting with Kurtág and Lachenmann during a formative period in my life functioned as refreshing contrasting models for me as an emerging composer. Initially, Kurtág was Frost’s “gentle nudge” and Lachenmann was my “quail shot,” and with time, finding a complimentary balance between both composers was immensely beneficial. As a consequence, I frequently turn to both for inspiration, craft, and teaching. After all, as artists, young and old alike, we are life-long learners and, above all, we aim to sincerely communicate.