Karlheinz Essl

Fathers and Spaces

About the programming of my two portrait concerts
at the Salzburger Festival 1997

Deutsche Fassung

Karlheinz Essl in his sound installation Amazing Maze at the Mirabellgarten in Salzburg

Karlheinz Essl in his sound installation Amazing Maze at the Mirabellgarten in Salzburg
Photo: © 1997 by Marion Kalter

Salzburger Festspiele   In early 1994 Hans Landesmann and I first met in a Viennese café to talk about a composition assignment for the Salzburg festival. I was very pleased to hear that Dr. Landesmann not only invited me to write one piece for the festival but asked me to additionally write two full concert programs in which I was supposed to relate my own music to the music of my musical fathers.


A few days later the program for the concert was drawn up. This program, in conjunction with the ensemble Klangforum Wien, references my musical origins. It is not based on the classical "bourgeois" heritage, traditionally recalling "from Bach to Beethoven" (a knowledge I later had to acquire somewhat painstakingly), but is rooted in my preoccupation with improvisation and the experimental investigation into gothic music. What I still find particularly gripping with gothic music is its multi-layering (in its truly post-modern meaning): the fact that a rich substructure full of intrinsic meaning at various levels is hidden beneath the surface of sounds. It is this structure - as a kind of secret musical program - which conveys its sensual effect. The richness of this enigmatic network of relations is emphasized by the manner John Dunstable's Ballata O rosa bella (around 1440) was token up and further processed by other composers of his time.

While gripped by an examination into the sources, I discovered a great variety of paraphrases, intabulations and parodies from which I was eventually able to distill a composed realization. The early Karlheinz Stockhausen can probably be regarded as my most important compositional point of reference. His music already took hold of me when I was still an adolescent, at a time when my examinations of advanced Rock music made me venture into the electronic music of the 50s. Stockhausen's "Texte", the first two volumes of which I had already devoured during my school years, provided me with the theoretical superstructure which, at that time, I was far from comprehending in its full scope, but which I nevertheless found exceedingly fascinating. A performance of Stockhausen's "Kontra-Punkte" given by the Ensemble InterContemporain directed by Peter Eötvös, eventually confirmed me what I had been sensing for years: this music, often disqualified as austere and esoteric could be played in such a natural and obvious manner that it was able to reveal indeed Schubert-like expressive qualities.

John Cage, on the other hand, became important to me as an antipode, as a disturbing corrective to the rigid principles of order in its serial coinage. Like no other before him, he was able to stress the topicality of the dialectics of order and freedom and fulfill them compositionally. By the end of the 80s I was commissioned with the wonderful task of producing his "Music for..." for a "conversation concert" in the Vienna Konzerthaus. It was at this occasion that I got to meet John Cage personally and was honoured to be able to spend three unforgettable days with him, three days which had a lasting effect upon me. The "malgre lui"-interrelation of serial music, once criticized by Ligeti, is reversed in a striking manner in "Music for...": although this kind of music is based on chance operations and the individual voices are not coordinated with each other, an abundance of musical interrelations is created during the process of listening, an abundance which can truly captivate the listener.

Karlheinz Essl: Cross the Border (1994/95)
Performed by Klangforum Wien, dir. Johannes Kalitzke
Salzburg Festival, Portrait Concert Karlheinz Essl (7 Aug 1997)

Against these three fathers I juxtaposed two of my own pieces: Cross the Border (1994), dealing with multi-lingualism and the dialectics of the individual, the collective and the mass (one of my pre-eminent themes) and Déviation (1993), which draws its impulse from the tension between approach and disappearance, convergence and dispersion.

Karlheinz Essl: Déviation (1993)
Performed by Klangforum Wien, dir. Johannes Kalitzke
Salzburg Festival, Portrait Concert Karlheinz Essl (7 Aug 1997)


The programming of the second concert with the Ensemble Modern, however, extended over a period of several years. First I wanted to juxtapose my "fathers" against my "brothers and sisters", but was met with scepticism. So I had to put the cart before the horse by proceeding from my own music, in this particular case from a commissioned work written for the Great Hall of Salzburg's Mozarteum.

Its architectural peculiarities, with picture frame stage (proscenium) and encircling gallery, served as a guiding principle for ... wird sichtbar am Horizont (1996) ["... becomes visible on the horizon"]: an ensemble piece written for four sub-ensembles that were scattered across the place, consisting of one piano, two percussionists, three woodwinds and four strings. As in most of my music, I was trying to contemplate and analyse the concept of space in its multifarious implications, as an architectonic and metaphysical area, as space sound and sound space. Horizons should thematically be dealt with -- horizons on the one hand representing something unknown, alien, appearing in the distance, but which, on the other hand are supposed to be widened.

...wird sichtbar am Horizont (1996)
Recording of the world premier, performed by Ensemble Modern, Dir. Hans Zender
Mozarteum, Salzburg Festival 1997 (6 Aug 1997)

This thematic treatment not only arises from the mere interest in the acoustic phenomena alone: music in space unfolds to the audience in a new way and invites for active participation in the sound phenomenon. The listener, while actually experiencing the sound of the performance, becomes a creator while distilling his or her individual version of the composition from the ambiguous information in space. Creative listening thus becomes a reflection of our own faculty of perception and, on beyond that, it can point to possibilities for (the entity) world.

Also the composition Entsagung ["Renunciation"] for 4 musicians and 4 loudspeakers scattered in space, written in 1992/93 at IRCAM, takes this kind of treatment into account. Here it is the electronics aiding to create virtual spaces which transcend the inexpressible far from earth.

Entsagung (1991-1993) for flute, bass clarinet, piano, percussion and live-electronics
Klangforum Wien, Dir. Gerd Kühr

The other two works are also related to this principle: György Kurtag's Quasi una fantasia, contemplating and analyzing the phenomenon of space-sound in an extraordinary subtle way, and Giacinto Scelsi's Anahit, the complex and interwoven harmonics of which intentionally blur the dividing lines between the individual ensemble instruments and the solo violin to literally rip open new spaces.

To make the ultimate connection to the original idea of fathers, there are the orchestra pieces Op. 10 by Anton Webern, whose music at the Webern festival in 1983 has blessed me with a genuine Pauline conversion.

Sound installations

These two concerts are complemented with two sound installations which are intended to shed light onto another aspect of my work: the aspect of the so-called "real time composition", in which, in contrast to my other pieces, no elaborate scores have been reproduced. The music is created auto-poietically only at the moment of its actual sounding. Two of these sound environments, generated with the aid of computer programs, present themselves as music in public space: the Lexikon-Sonate (1992 ff) ["encyclopedic sonata"] installed inside the Kleines Festspielhaus -- a "work-in-progress" for computer-controlled piano -- is a treatment of the subject "CIaviermusik" (piano music) of my musical fathers Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Schoenberg, Boulez, Stockhausen, whereas Amazing Maze (1996 ff.) creates a multidimensional sound jungle in an overgrown tunnel of Salzburg's Mirabell gardens. Its sound material again refers to Entsagung and thus creates a relationship between concert hall (as a symbol of artificial artistic space) and park (as a symbol of tamed nature).

Translation: Roland Hofmann / R. Albert Falesch

In: "NEXT GENERATION - Karlheinz Essl", ed. by Margarethe Lasinger, Salzburger Festspiele 1997 (Salzburg 1997)

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Updated: 2 Jan 2020