Jakob Ullmann on working with John Cage, noise and quietude

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With his wealth of experience and knowledge, Jakob Ullmann is hardly a newcomer to the music scene. Yet he has been chosen for SHAPE as someone whose oeuvre undoubtedly deserves attention. Born in 1958 in Freiberg, Germany, Ullmann studied church music and currently teaches composition and music theory in Basel. His compositions hover on the liminal, championing the effects of quietude rather than brashness, leaving space for subtleties of sound and hearing. Some of his works include: A Catalogue of Sounds (2005), Voice, Books and FIRE 3 (2008), or Komposition Für Streichquartett / Komposition Für Violine / Disappearing Musics (1996). Among others, he has worked with American composer John Cage. Jakob Ullmann was nominated for SHAPE by Skanu Mežs Festival.

After failing to find a silent café – understandable in the loud, bustling Berlin area of Kreuzberg – we ended up talking surrounded by non-descript muzak on mainstream radio.

Jakob Ullmann: People are afraid of empty spaces, so they have to switch on the radio. With my music I’ve often had the experience that people become really angry, because it’s difficult to listen to it.

Do you think that the world has become more noisy?

The noise changes. In the great cities of the Roman Era they had rules, like we do for traffic nowadays, governing the movement of chariots through towns. Chariots were only allowed during certain hours because their iron wheels were too loud on the cobblestone streets. The kind of noise was quite different, the level of intensity/volume differed, as in the Baroque era and the 19th century. We have much more background noise now. The peaks must become higher to stand out from background noise. You can hear it very well, for instance, if you hear two birds in the city. According to recent research on this topic, city birds cannot communicate with birds from the countryside because of the level of loudness the former are accustomed to in cities. I have a nightingale close to my room in Basel, and I’m angry every single night because one would expect a nightingale to sing in a sophisticated manner, but that’s not the case. She makes such simple and loud sounds (in order to be heard in the city). This suggests the amount by which the base level of noise increases. Also emergency cars and firefighters have increased the amplitude of their sirens by ten decibels now.

Even in music these days, either in production or at concerts, loudness has become a paradigm. A lot of people do not know how to deal with silence.

I think it is also because they want to have a real physical experience of sound. This body experience requires a special energy and you need a certain level of amplitude to achieve this. If it doesn’t happen, they do not feel anything because ears do not work this way. After my Praha piece was presented to schoolchildren, two boys aged 16 and 17 came up to me and wanted appraisal for staying for “an hour of almost nothing”, for them it was like a marathon. Fifty minutes without looking at their mobile phones… For them it was an absolutely strange experience, and they did not know how to deal with it because they learnt that you have to sit still at a concert. On the other hand, they tried to fight against this experience, and if you are doing this for 50 minutes, it’s really hard.

What is the relationship between silence and noise in your work?

For me it is a very good possibility to make the walls around the music a little bit thinner. We had a performance of Voice, Books and FIRE, and one of the most important players in this piece was the bird outside the church. You can hear it on the recording, as you can a distant airplane at an airport. Praha is an exception, since it includes some electronics. Normally, there are no electronics at all, the stranger sounds are produced by people or instruments. In my experience, when people try to explore the possibilities of instruments and their voices, the results are much more interesting. I try to achieve this special result with electronics because it is a result of what I have done. And if people, the musicians, do it, it is not the result of what I have done but it is their own research, and this is what I’m interested in. It’s like playing cards. If everybody has to show you their hand, you will win every game. But it’s not interesting. It’s interesting only if you don’t see the cards. For me it’s important to have a situation with a lot of parameters that I cannot predict.

A reciprocal interpretation.

I like to work with people, not machines. You can discuss things with people, you can work with them. You cannot discuss anything with machines, you can switch them on and off.

You studied church music. If you live in big cities, an empty church is like an oasis of silence.

The decision to study church music was made because there was no other possibility. I could have studied theology but I was not interested in forcing other people to believe in something. Church music was the only option and I practised a lot in my youth on a very nice organ built in Bach’s time. It was the last instrument that Bach played. I think that my music is very much influenced by long-lasting chords and sounds and also the sound delay in churches. Furthermore, in churches you also hear things from the outside. You have this special kind of silence because you feel that outside is outside. I realised this last summer in Paris. There was a presentation of Son Imaginaire III in a Parisian church close to the Centre Pompidou. We were worried that it would get too noisy as there were a lot of restaurants in the area. When we spoke about the performance date, we did not realise that it coincided with the World Football Championships. You can imagine what happened in the streets during this time. Nevertheless, it was very clear that it happened outside. You could hear this very soft music in the church despite the fact that it was loud out there.

You also had some interaction with John Cage, whose piece, 4’33, is also about silence and its absence. You have worked with Cage, can you talk about it?

The encounter with Cage was one of the most important moments in my life because I had been very fond of his music in the past. The generation that could have made up my teachers in East Germany really hated Cage. They considered him an American funnyman, an epitome of bad American “unculture”… You had to fight against them, as you have to fight against your parents. I was interested in Cage’s pieces and when I got to know him personally I realised that I had misunderstood him and his work because I did not know how much he was influenced by this very practical American sense of how to do things.We exchanged letters and I found out that his scores and pieces give details of what is to be done, and that these actions are explained very well.

You have to carefully follow very carefully what he writes in his introductions or instructions, in order to materialise the piece, because only then you will have this special situation in an environment where anything can happen. I understood this better when I was in Kyoto, in the famous rock garden of the Ryoanji temple. When you sit down you will see this stone garden, then a wall, and behind it, mountains. It is another kind of relation of the inside and the outside. This wall is very important because it makes clear what is inside, but on the other hand it makes the outside a part of this inner environment. This inside/outside relation is very important if you perform Cage pieces.

In your own pieces, how much freedom of interpretation do you give to the musicians?

Think about it as a river. If you have a river, you can have two situations. You can have the normal European situation when the river flows in between two walls of stone or concrete, and between these two walls, anything can happen. Or you have a real river, with no walls on either side, but you have this middle line and if you go away from this middle line, the results you will arrive at are less and less predictable. I prefer this situation. I do not give clear limitations, but I hope that this attraction of the middle line will be strong enough to prevent or avoid exceptions. If you have heavy rain, the river gets much bigger, and then in the summer, it’s the opposite. You cannot predict this. In any case, the river will start at this point, and will come to the sea at another point. I like it more if I give no clear borderlines.

Do you remember a particular situation where you were surprised by the interpretation?

I have to admit that I’m astonished that I haven’t been surprised more. There are some outstanding situations, where I was surprised in a good way. If you think about Disappearing Musics, you have scores for various sections, which are only related by a clock. It is also composed in a way such that musicians cannot interact in a normal way. In the first performance, what I composed was not a real unison, but a near unison. The piano had the same pitches and almost the same time (as the other instruments). I was surprised that it really worked. Despite the fact that the piano plays, you lose orientation. The piece is normally in thirteen pitches. But in the end, you do not know where you are, you get lost in the landscape of pitches, you lose ground. I was surprised and glad that it worked, but I never had this situation when I told people what to play.

Were you also sometimes hugely dissatisfied with a performance?

That is a very difficult question. I realised that with my pieces, it is very difficult to reach good results without rehearsing for a very long time. It is not related to the amount of hours per se, but the outcome is much better if they start a year or half a year beforehand, then stop for six months, and then meet again. I have the impression that those pieces of mine which are 20-30 years old are now performed much better than they were at the time they were first presented. Perhaps something has changed in music and musicians are now much better able to perform things I wrote twenty, thirty years ago.

What is your impression of the young musical generation?

I think not all, but some musicians now, are very interested in finding out what happens with these kinds of scores and music. These are people who do a lot of modern music, people who do not work in the realm of contemporary music at all, or those who come from totally unfamiliar music areas, such as the improvisational scene, free jazz, etc. I think this is also related to the search for things outside of the contemporary music mainstream. You have a lot of festival music with 20-minute performances which are well done, with sufficient handicraft, but at the end of it, you think “ok, it wasn’t so bad, but why do it again”. I think musicians want to get a little bit away from this situation and arrive at new or different experiences.