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October 14, 2011 8:35 pm
Thomas Larcher is full of surprises. This Austrian pianist and composer – who is about to take up parallel year-long residencies in Vienna and Salzburg, and whose music will be celebrated next month at London’s Wigmore Hall – has a passion for rock-climbing and a “mania” for creating tiny rubber sculptures. And though he’s a modernist composer, he has no time for the post-Schoenberg new-music brigade. “These young composers with their ‘new’ noises are all composing the same thing,” he says dismissively.
Now 48, he may compose works that are classed as avant-garde but they are short, accessibly tonal and easy on the ear. The novelty of his style lies in the tricks he plays with textures and layers and patterns; it lies in his explorations of the no-man’s-land between sound and silence, and his love of springing a surprise.
Some of his works celebrate the expressive beauty of a simple melodic line but when he plays the piano part in his chamber piece Antennen (Antennae) he neither touches the keys nor presses the pedals. Instead he rubs the piano strings with massage balls and stones: the strings must be old, with a bit of rust, he says, otherwise the effects won’t work. And there’s no score: he sends instructions via e-mail to his fellow players and the piece lasts as long as it lasts, which he admits poses problems for those who have to calculate his royalties.
But game-playing with “prepared” pianos is only important to him insofar as it allows him to create a world: his soprano and trio piece My Illness is the Medicine I Need was inspired by photo reportage from psychiatric hospitals and is as haunting as its title suggests. When he describes his music, as in the programme for his Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra, which Viktoria Mullova and Matthew Barley premiered at this year’s BBC Proms, his words suggest architecture in sound.
Yet his first Proms appearance, in 2008, was humbly traditional – as pianist for Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time – and it was as a pianist that he launched himself in the early 1980s. Pianism had been his first ambition and in the small Tyrolean town of Schwaz, where he grew up, he was regarded as a prodigy. By the time he was six he was accompanying his mother in Schubert songs and when he chanced to hear that peerless Chopinist Nikita Magaloff was giving a recital in Innsbruck he realised what kind of pianist he wanted to become. After a spell at the Tiroler Landeskonservatorium in Innsbruck he progressed to the Academy of Music and the Performing Arts in Vienna, which he hated (“a monstrosity of speechlessness and lack of communication”), although the three-year analytical immersion in Beethoven’s piano sonatas that he received there has informed his compositional thinking ever since.
He emerged capable of giving a world-class performance of Beethoven’s Emperor concerto but soon began to realise that he was not what he calls “a podium animal”. “I felt I should use my skills to promote new music and I began to play a lot of it,” he says.
Then, in a way that surprised him as much as it surprised everyone else, he found himself running a festival. He had wanted to try out a work in public before recording it but had failed to get a booking, so he decided to create his own festival in Schwaz as a vehicle, with himself as resident pianist. By the time he relinquished his directorship of the Klangspuren Festival of Contemporary Music in 2003, to spend more time composing, it had become an important fixture in the European concert calendar.
Larcher may still be immersed in avant-gardism but he hates the rigidly intellectualised music of Schoenberg and his successors’ blind subservience to Pierre Boulez. And he differentiates between Schoenberg and Beethoven in an interesting way.
“The difference lies not in whether their music is tonal or atonal but in the speed of things going on. Listening to Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony is like standing on a railway platform and a train comes past and disappears – fffftt! – too fast to see. But Beethoven’s rhythmic models and structures are placed so carefully that you really can follow the journey.”
The avant-garde’s big mistake, he says, is to assume that everyone must create a new musical language and that if they employ traditional techniques they have to justify and explain why. “These people say that since every kind of technique has now been tried, they represent the end of musical history. OK, but welcome to the psychiatric clinic, then. Whether it’s in London or Berlin or Vienna, the same orthodoxy is being imposed. They can’t see that there’s life outside their negative, restrictive thing.”
Most of them, he adds, are not performers. “But I immediately know, as a performer of new music, when people are alert and when they are getting bored.”
Much also depends on the context in which the new music is heard. “If a four-hour Morton Feldman quartet is performed in a concert hall, you start thinking after 90 minutes ‘Well, I really have to go to the loo’. And after two and a half hours it’s martyrdom. But if you’re listening to the recording at home, while lying in bed and smoking some dope, it can be great.
“I write for normal concert situations, where people know the concentrated classical way of listening, in a language they understand. Sometimes I hurry my audience along but then I let them relax, as a theatre director would. And I think tonally. After all, my whole youth was spent with Bach and Mozart and Schubert.”
He believes he can discover more new things by looking back to what they did than by insisting on looking “forward”.
Larcher always carries a musical sketch-book and he composes on paper – his scores look beautiful – rather than with the aid of Sibelius software. This brings us to something strange. “I have developed a mania,” he says suddenly. “I am now as much a sculptor as a composer. I am always erasing things on my scores and with the resulting bits of rubber I make tiny balls, which I collect.”
Each work produces about 150 balls, which he puts into a box and distributes to friends. Like Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds? “Yes, but mine are more beautiful, because of their colour variations.” Later in the day I get an e-mail with a picture of a rubber mosaic pretty enough for Tate Modern.
Rock-climbing is Larcher’s other extra-curricular passion and in that, he says, fear is part of the game. “But for me it’s just the same as playing the piano. It’s about concentration and doing the right thing at the right moment. Once you are up, you don’t know what you were thinking about as you climbed – you were so absorbed, just as you are on stage.”
The mountains of the Austrian Tyrol, where he has lived all his life, also give him something else: “In certain valleys you are in an arena of sound and I draw on this for my music. The cowbells, the rushing water, the cracking of a tree in the wind – and what’s between the sounds as well, the great silences. It may be a romantic cliché to talk about the music of nature but for me it’s nothing less than the truth.”
Thomas Larcher Day, November 12, Wigmore Hall, London
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