It is with great pleasure that we announce the return of Stefano Gervasoni to Casa Ricordi. Beginning in 2018 we’ll be publishing his new compositions.
Stefano Gervasoni garnered international fame in the 1990s and went on to work with some of Europe’s leading musical institutions (ensembles and orchestras). He has also conducted master classes and lectures at major music academies and festivals in Austria, Germany, Japan, France, the United States and Brazil. He was composer-in-residence at the Conservatory in Lausanne, Switzerland; ESMUC in Barcelona; Toho University in Tokyo; and the Yellow Barn Summer Academy in Putney, Vermont (USA). He will be on the teaching staff at IRCAM’s Académie Manifeste for 2018 and 2019. He has taught composition at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse in Paris since 2006.
We recently had the chance to talk to Stefano Gervasoni, and here’s what he had to say.
Compared to the 1990s, when you first achieved success internationally, has today’s contemporary music scene changed? Can you tell us how you see things, based on your own experience?
It’s changed a lot. There are no more schools of thought, with composers forming coalitions, brought together by an esthetic credo that was ideologically binding; there are no more great masters, who were considered the leaders of those formations; there’s been the exponential rise in the number of composers, and artistic composition as a “western” cultural expression has spread far and wide, reaching practically the entire rest of the world, geographically speaking. This was following the advent of the Internet and the capillary nature of communications it ushered in (when I published my first music with Ricordi in 1987, the Internet as we know it did not yet exist); at the same time, we saw the diffusion of teaching composition at conservatories, academies and universities based on a global model, as it became more structured. The training of musicians able to tackle the technical challenges in contemporary music and understand all the motivation behind it has certainly been expanded, and the overall quality in professional training for musicians has improved.
The social role played by the composer has been diminished, but that is true for practically all intellectuals. The composer is no longer considered a great thinker, someone with a deep understanding of music and a special kind of intellectual possessed of the art of creation, who gives concrete expression to an idea. Today he is a mere tradesman, at the service of general divertissement, working in a more or less aulic fashion. Which is to say, at the service of the culture industry, which over the course of the 1990s just kept growing, with easily imaginable consequences. Two of these consequences seem particularly relevant: the necessity to in some way be a successful “product”; and having to rely on invasive marketing strategies that put “how much” ahead of “how”; where the quality of “saying” something, artistic creation’s need for the work of art, for culture, is undercut by the quality or even “quantity” tout court of the artist’s appearance.
I realize that developments like these make the work of a publisher all the more complicated. And I don’t want to come off as some kind of nihilist or prophet of doom. I’m an optimist by nature, and I think there’s widespread creativity among the new generations, and a longing for lots more research, which may be expressed in the guise of personal success, based on the models offered by the culture industry, which have become consolidated, with a focus on the idea – involuntarily? – of the semblance of the great artist. We shall see.
How much importance is placed on artistic genius today?
I think the focus is shifting, and rightly so, toward the single work, rather than on individual artistic genius. That’s what’s good – and should be further developed and taken into account – about the democratization of the culture industry, which is really driven by the Internet, globalization, and the structuring of professional artistic training (here I stress “professional” training, inasmuch as “basic” training still has a long way to go), which had become somewhat “aseptic” because it was overly concerned about the survival of an endangered species. To this day there are fine works coming out, solid, important, which touch the deepest and most mysterious recesses of the human soul, which unveil and open up new pathways of expression, forging artistically experienced emotions, spawning research, and the longing to say something and imagine that there will be even more opportunities to say something. But these things are tied in with the single work, and not necessarily artistic genius, which is always a driving force in infallible artists. History will have its say, but it’s useless, in these artificially mutated times, to go chasing the romantic myth of the artist as superhuman, whose creations must at all times be the absolute acme, especially when they are productive in hypertrophic terms. History will have its say: single works, one after the other, become part of a path and determine an artist’s profile. In the age of cultural marketing, establishing individual values a priori (along with providing shopping tips) is a vague concern.
Once again, I must say: In a situation like this, it must be awfully hard for music publishers to make choices for the future!
Was it easier for a young composer to get his or her works played at international festivals and concert series back in the 1990s?
I think it’s easier today. As I was saying, professional training has improved and become widespread, and the European and worldwide educational system offers aspiring young artists lots of opportunities. What is more difficult today is getting people to understand your own original creativity. The ideological schematism of the avant-garde has been replaced by the filters of fashion, or neutrality (or dimness) of a system that offers a lot and “democratizes” by crushing the desire to record the musical “language” you want, with your own personality in it. There may be something artificial to it, but it’s something you have in common with others, which you share.
Sometimes young composers need a mentor. How important a role does a mentor play? Did you have any mentors? Can you tell us about your own experience?
Having a mentor is really important. Someone who shows you the way, but makes no impositions. It’s a person who opens a door, who coaxes you over a ditch (or an abyss). He takes risks and assumes the responsibility for any mistakes. But a mentor isn’t a soccer coach, who, if he makes a mistake (and can he be the only one?), is fired. My first mentor was Luigi Nono, he got me started when I was seventeen. But I never studied under him. Then came Helmut Lachenmann, who took up where Nono left off and inscribed it for posterity. Academically speaking, I was never his pupil either, but my relationship with him has always been, and still is, rife with critical stimulation. Gérard Grisey also taught me a lot – to seek out my own “elsewhere”, outside of this world but inside me, and take on responsibility for it. Among my actual teachers, Niccolò Castiglioni taught me about the “transgression of simplicity” with respect to the “complexity” of the avant-garde, which at that time was still ruling the roost, and the importance of poetic thought over a purely technical vision responsible for “progress” in musical language.
You’ve always taught composition, and you teach at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse, in Paris. What advice would you have for any young musician who’s completed studies in composition and wants to break into the world of contemporary music?
What I’m currently working on, and where I’ve got to intensify my efforts in consideration of “global” events that we’re all subject to, is a focus on getting people to understand the difference between composition and sound design. I mean that composition, in whatever way you conceive it (from performances to installations, from the perfectly written piece to be performed in the classic mode by professional musicians capable of sensitivity, to multimedia, web art and more), is not the creation of an “original” (heavily in quotes) sound, or a new pitch, or a “touch of fresh air”. It’s all about creating a new relationship with history. Better yet, a new relationship between history and nature. Music is a phenomenon that lies somewhere between hearing and listening. Music is steeped in the ways that mankind, over time, has sought to express himself through sound, which is a longing that cannot be suppressed (I myself am prisoner to that longing). And the memory of those ways can’t be suppressed, either. As history and technology advance, the more we teachers – as transmitters of knowledge – must feel the obligation to reveal and explain history. In universal terms, you see the expression of creative desires that are pressing and extreme, which at the same time make use of the best available technology at any given moment, and become eternal. History has the capacity, the ability to condition and direct the future. Past, present and future are inseparable, but that’s not what today’s marketing wants you to think when it foists the latest genius, the new Bach or today’s sensation on you. They simplify our relationship with history to the point of blotting it out entirely.
Can you tell us something about any new projects you have in the works?
This February 22 the Münchener Kammerorchester will be performing the world premiere of In die Luft geschrieben
, for mezzosoprano, harp, celesta, percussion and strings.
In die Luft geschrieben
(“Writing in the Air”) is a vocal cycle of thirty-three lieder based on thirty-three epitaphs written by Nelly Sachs, from 1943 to 1946, dedicated to real people who went missing as a result of the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis.
My compositions are mostly vocals-oriented, even when they’re for instrumentalists or electronic music, or installations, like the recent www – web wall whispers, which I did together with Marco Liuni, based on the Giuseppe Caccavale mural Segni per la Speranza (“Signs for Hope”). It was commissioned by the Spinola Banna Foundation for the Arts. My work is going to be reflecting that more and more.
As for works in progress, I’m putting together a symphony choir and electronic music for IRCAM, and another work for choir and orchestra. I’m also working on a theatrical project based on the idea of Schumann’s innere Stimme. Among past composers, he always shined a light for me, along with Monteverdi and Schubert, to name a couple more.