Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers

By Laki, Péter | Notes, June 2012 | Go to article overview
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Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers


Laki, Péter, Notes


Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers. By Bálint András Varga. (Eastman Studies in Music.) Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2011. [xiv, 333p. ISBN 9781580463799. $49.95.] Illustrations, index.

Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers has been almost thirty years in the making. The author, Bálint András Varga, spent his entire career promoting the music of contemporary composers, first at Editio Musica Budapest, and later at Universal in Vienna. His work brought him into contact with many of the most prominent composers of the last half-century. Although not a trained musicologist, his devotion to music, his keen ear and intelligence, as well as his flawless command of the English language have made him one of the most sensitive and successful advocates for new music in recent times. His book-length conversations with Witold Lutoslawski, Luciano Berio, Iannis Xenakis and György Kurtág (Witold Lutoslawski [London: Chester Music, 1976]; Luciano Berio: Two Interviews [London: Boyars, 1985]; Conversations with Iannis Xenakis [London: Faber & Faber, 1996]; György Kurtág: Three Interviews and Ligeti Homages [Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2009]) are models of insight and empathy. The present project- putting the same three questions to as many composers as possible-has occupied him since the early 1980s, and the first version of the volume under review was published in Hungarian exactly a quarter of a century ago. At that time, 82 composers were included; in the American edition, Varga eliminated 21 of these and added 4 new ones, arriving at a new total of 65. Prior to the publication of the book's new incarnation, Varga gave his interviewees a chance to revise or update their answers, and quite a few of them availed themselves of the opportunity. The result is a fascinating panorama of many issues central to music in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and a testament to the wide range of aesthetic positions held by composers today. (György Kurtág's answers to the three questions were already included in the Kurtág interview book referenced above.)

The questions have to do, respectively, with any particular pieces of music that changed the composers' creative lives; their responsiveness to sounds of the everyday environment; and their views on personal style versus self-repetition. They are excellent questions, sufficiently focused to give the book its thematic unity, yet broad enough to allow the composers to discuss their music on their own terms.

The answers vary widely not only in their content but also in their length and depth. Some composers provided very brief, oneparagraph responses while others contributed many pages. Some, with whom Varga has enjoyed a closer professional contact, are obviously more comfortable with the interviewer than others. The author describes his connections to the composers in introductory paragraphs inserted before each interview; here we may learn how the meetings came about. Varga also offers thumbnail sketches of his impressions of composers' personalities, freely admitting if he was unable to get close to a certain composer, either personally or musically.

Out of the 65 composers, 10 are from Varga's native Hungary, and 10 from the United States; the remaining 45 represent 14 more countries. There is only one woman-Sofia Gubaidulina-among the 65. A full 40%, or 26 composers, have passed away since the interviews were made, which gives the volume a certain retrospective character. (Milton Babbitt and Emil Petrovics died since the book was published.) Chronologically, the interviewees represent the entire span of the twentieth and the early twenty-first century: the oldest composer in the volume is Wladimir Vogel, born in 1896; the youngest, Johannes Maria Staud, born in 1974.

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