Miroslav Srnka, contemporary Czech composer

Miroslav Srnka: Anything new and unknown is bound to be suspicious

Since the fantastic success of his opera South Pole in Munich, Miroslav Srnka has undoubtedly become the most familiar face of the Czech contemporary music scene. Our interview, however, deals not so much with media fame as with the consequences it has had for the rest of his life. This is related to Srnka’s collaboration with the Czech Philharmonic, his shift from the privacy of composing into public life, and how the specifics of his situation influence solutions to compositional problems and creative questions in general.

The Czech Philharmonic will be playing your compositions move 01 and move 03 with the conductor Peter Eötvös, who will be performing his own work Jet Stream as well. Other works by living composers are also slowly finding their way into the repertoire. Do you perceive this as an isolated initiative or as a reflection of some more general trend?

The fact that we have to ask this question at all is its own answer. This means that we are still not up to the standards according to which orchestras operate at least in German- and French-speaking circles, and that is something to which we should also belong. At the same time I greatly appreciate that this is a notable tendency in the programmes of the Czech Philharmonic. The big series of commissions of works from Czech composers for Semyon Bychkov’s full tenure is something unprecedented. The people planning programming are becoming less afraid of the public, which includes more and more people who are interested in the cultural events of the present.

In November, your compositions will appear for the first time on a programme of the Czech Philharmonic, which is regarded as the leading Czech orchestra. Your works have already been played by top orchestras abroad. Before the performance of move 01 and move 03 by the Czech Philharmonic, do you feel joy or satisfaction – what does it feel like?

I’d say I feel “thrill”, because the Czech Philharmonic is now in top form. Satisfaction would only apply if a composer could in some way be “entitled” to be played by a particular performer or ensemble. And that cannot and must not be. It’s an honour when any performer takes an interest. In general, I’m overjoyed that orchestras that want to be regarded as first class are thinking more deeply about their standing place in society and also about their function and their obligations to music of the 21st century as a whole, and not just to the Classical and Romantic repertoire. That repertoire has been and will always be the reason for which orchestras were established, but for today’s modern institutions, this is no longer enough.

One sees clearly that modern concert halls like the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg are not built exclusively for the old repertoire; the expectation is that there will be various kinds of concerts and with a completely different kind of acoustics, which is accommodating for more than just Romantic music…

As music changes, the demands for a concert hall as such also change. In Prague, we do not yet have a concert hall that is not in an historical building. But now the culture scene at large and the city are beginning to realise this, and I’m really glad that some plans are taking shape. But what’s especially important to me is that they also take into consideration all of the functions that such a building must serve. It must be a dominant feature of the urban landscape and a step taken by the city into the world of modern architecture. A task like that can only be achieved with a maximum degree of courage and generosity. Smaller, poorer cities than Prague have done it, so the responsibility is great. The hall must have acoustics that are right for the standard repertoire of both old and new music, and it must be technologically equipped. Besides a large hall, smaller alternative spaces are required as well. Such a building should also be the home for some kind of contemporary music ensemble. But it clearly must be admitted that as of now, we do not have a single contemporary music ensemble that is a permanently established, full-time professional employer – and this is unheard of in a European context. So there is a danger that we will be building a concert hall that is new and beautiful, but we will be unable to staff it at the highest level of quality for all of the functions it should have. And the music of today is no longer just performed by instrumentalists – there’s improvisation, electronic music, and much more. It’s time to think about not only what kind of building we want in Prague, but also what kinds of ensembles and projects we will put in it and who will establish them. Contemporary music should not miss this unique opportunity to reach a European level of quality.

The list of your works includes three pieces with similar titles: move 01, move 02, and move 03. The Czech Philharmonic will be playing 01 and 03. Do these pieces not form a unified cycle?

I got my start like lots of other contemporary composers who typically get commissions for a short, one-movement orchestra work. This format is partially used as an alibi, so contemporary composers can be fit in alongside another, more accessible composition in the same half of a concert, and the requirement of playing contemporary music is dispensed with. This was the origin of the formal cliché of one-movement contemporary compositions lasting about fifteen minutes. Composers tend to have such an introductory work that is successful and appears on multiple programmes. At the beginning of my career, I also wrote such a piece. The title was Reading Lessons, and they played it in Heidelberg, in Vienna, and with the BBC Philharmonic. I wrote it with great enthusiasm, gratitude, and also naïveté, because it was only later that I realised that without reflection I had produced just such a clichéd one-movement composition. But then it also occurred to me that I would be faced with such assignments often, and that either I would have to forego writing them altogether, or I would have to find some kind of continuity. So I began creating a series of orchestral compositions titled moves. So far there are move 01–03, and I might add a move 04 soon. They form a sort of pool that you can choose from, but together they also form a loose whole. Peter Eötvös chose numbers one and three, and he placed one in each half of the programme. I didn’t discuss it with him at all. My moves are written for just this sort of freedom. For example, the pieces move 01 and move 02 were played in the order 02 – 01 at their premiere.

The piece move 01 originated as a study for your opera South Pole. Do you create such “musical sketches” routinely?

I carry out some sort of musical task in each of my moves. At the same time, I’m making studies for operas that can also stand on their own as compositions – move 01 actually constitutes an interlude from Act II of South Pole. It takes a lot of experience to tighten up a big operatic form with large-scale resources. It’s an extraordinary responsibility when the audience will be spending an entire evening at the theatre with the music of a single composer. At the rate of composing one full-length work every few years, I need continuous stress testing and to learn how to work with new combinations of performers, time structures, orchestral details, etc.

What specific compositional tasks were you working on in move 01?

In move 01 I dealt with two specific problems. The first was what I call the “temperature of sound”. People often associate sound with temperature characteristics; one speaks of a cold or warm tone, for instance. I set out to hunt down the meanings of these associations. It was to my great satisfaction that about South Pole, critics said the orchestra was floating like a huge iceberg, and that was just what I wanted. There was supposed to be a sort of giant object with a cold sound, with the characters moving on it seeming to be absolutely tiny, and with detailed points of music that cannot match the size and scope of the sound going on behind them.

The second thing I was dealing with was the question of how to create a form with very few indentations structuring the gigantic monolith while maintaining energy that drives forwards. It was necessary to devise a kind of internal detail that would provide internal movement but that would not attract more attention than the rolling of the whole enormous thing.

Is the composition move 03 also a harbinger or part of some larger whole?

It is not related to any other project. To me, it’s a piece that, after South Pole, I needed to write for myself and to find a way to move on. So I dealt with the question of how to create a smooth but much more segmented form, which also consists of objects that are round in themselves. The characteristics that spread out over a very lengthy space in move 01 are suddenly gestures in move 03 that take a very short amount of time, but still entail orchestral largeness. I also began dealing with questions of fluid consonance and convoluted diatonic chords.

Czech composer Miroslav Srnka

Miroslav Srnka | Photo by Vojtěch Havlík

You didn’t need to deal with any other questions at that time?

To be honest, after South Pole, it was hard to take on any task at all and to pose a question. After the success of South Pole, the librettist Tom Holloway and I could have gotten started immediately on another work, but we were thinking it over for a long time. The important thing was to free ourselves of the deceptive illusions that come from the outside and from the temptation to try to repeat our success in the same way. So we decided that the next time we write something, it will be completely different in character – that we would go after a completely different format and size. We see very much eye to eye on this, because we do not deal with these things just as text and music or even just as individual pieces, but rather as a constant conversation between two friends. We have been exchanging e-mails constantly between Europe and Australia for nearly ten years now. So it is that our operas are something like a “by-product” of us deliberating together. For everything we do, we spend a really long time working on the foundation. And if we find that there are any cracks in it, first we look for ways to patch them up, because without doing that, we would not be able to get any further. Or else we even completely demolish the foundation. We’ve already done that several times.

Even before the premiere of South Pole in 2016, you said you work mainly abroad and just live here quietly, but two years ago you had the Czech premiere of your Piano Concerto at the Rudolfinum, your opera Make No Noise was played at Ostrava Days, and your harpsichord piece Triggering had its world premiere at the Prague festival Contempuls. Are you gradually leaving behind the safety of your home, the peace and quiet for work?

After South Pole, I realised the breadth of the media interest, and I understood that this also meant a wider responsibility. I spent a long time thinking about this, because a certain anonymity suited me, as it allowed me to just be in Prague and write. But then I said to myself that if I can afford it, I will spend part of my time and energy making the scene more visible as a whole. For giving up my “peace and quiet” for work, this was a more important decision than a one-off performance of my compositions. Being the jury chairman for the Czech Philharmonic competition or a member of the artistic council for the Prague Spring Festival means much more long-term commitments and much more responsible tasks. You can’t hide when doing that.

But your membership on the jury for the Czech Philharmonic competition already began before South Pole. The competition was announced for the first time in 2014…

That was a curious situation. In 2013, Ensemble Intercontemporain came to Prague Spring to play my composition My Life without Me. At the press conference were Jiří Bělohlávek and Tomáš Hanus, who was conducting the performance. They asked me to bring along the score. Jiří Bělohlávek looked through it, and after the press conference he asked me: “Mr. Srnka, would you like to take part in the Czech Philharmonic competition?” I dared to answer that I was no longer entering such competitions, and he thought for a moment, then said “But wouldn’t you like to be on the jury?” After that, we had several long discussions about it, and that was when I first said to myself that this sort of thing has to be done the right way. We reworked the original idea for the competition, and eventually I became the chairman of the jury. At the time I assumed – and I was wrong, luckily – that it would be just a one-off affair that would not at all disrupt my “peace and quiet”.

As the chairman of the jury, you also gave a special prize to Slavomír Hořínka for A Pocket Guide to Bird Flight

In the first competition, composers sent in finished but still unperformed orchestral works anonymously. The jury awarded one main prize, but the music director and the jury chairman could each award a secondary prize of their own. Back then, we had no idea what kind of aesthetics and quality we would be faced with in terms of either the submitted compositions or within the jury, which would be meeting for the first time. Around here, we haven’t gotten very far in developing a tradition of getting people together who are willing to judge something without promoting their own “favourites”. The first annual competition was anonymous, so I had no idea who would be getting my prize. I was very surprised and honoured. Slavomír’s piece struck me as being the most sophisticated in terms of a new handling of the orchestra. With Jiří Bělohlávek, who did not live to see the second competition, we then decided that the competition should grow further, and that the principle of its format should be changed. So the next competition could not be anonymous.

The second time the Czech Philharmonic composition competition was held, you were a member of the jury for the first round. With you on the jury were two orchestra members, two directors of programming from other orchestras, and one composer – did you discuss together any parameters that were equally important for all of you, or were you mainly looking for compromises between completely different perspectives?

The second competition differed from the first one in that the competition was now in two rounds, each with a different jury. The contestants also did not have to submit finished orchestral works – they could send in any kind of piece for whatever instrumentation they regarded as most representative. This opened up the possibility for people to participate who did not yet have an orchestral work, or who did not want to show one off. We didn’t want to choose the compositions that would be the least problematic for everyone. Instead, we tried to choose clear individualities. And the various groups within the jury had different ideas about individuality, and that created the right kind of tension. I personally do not think it would be right for the work of composers to be judged only by other composers. It has to be more democratic, less confined to the bubble of the world of composers, and more open to the life of the orchestra.

Was it very difficult to arrive at such a result?

First we studied the compositions at home, and each of us made a preliminary selection. When we met in person, we had long rounds of discussion interspersed with anonymous voting on elimination. After repeating the process of dropping slips of paper into a box several times, we arrived at three compositions that advanced to the finals. The composers were then commissioned by the Czech Philharmonic to write brand new works that would be judged by a jury in the second round. I excluded myself from that jury, and just served as the moderator. I wanted completely different people to be making the decision there, to shield the competition from any hint of corruption. The members of the all-star jury for the second round were Chaya Czernowin, David Robertson, and Semyon Bychkov, all of whom are undeniably international authorities. In addition, none of them had a personal connection to any of the finalists.

How did you go about serving as moderator for the discussion among the jurors in the second round?

It’s hard to imagine three more different personalities: David Robertson is a conductor who specialises in contemporary music, Semyon Bychkov has been a music director of top orchestras, and Chaya Czernowin is an uncompromising composer and is greatly in demand as a teacher. Nonetheless, the result was clear, and as the moderator, I really did not have to do anything. No matter how one tallied their individual evaluations, the result was the same.

Czech composer Miroslav Srnka

Miroslav Srnka | Photo by Vojtěch Havlík

Today, how does one recognise a good composition, when functional harmony, counterpoint, and other rules from the classics no longer apply?

Mainly, you cannot think that only what you’re trying to do is good. I’ll try to explain this by taking a little detour. I have long refused to be a full-time composition teacher, mainly because people should not be teaching artistic disciplines as long as they still have any inner feelings of unfulfilled ambition or a need to compete. Once they are on their way, are enjoying it and are grateful for it, only then can they express their opinions to their younger colleagues. Only then can they relax and stop projecting themselves and their desires to promote or oppose something into their teaching. And it’s the same way with judging competitions.

Once you get to that state, you also are better able to make a distinction about the extent to which a composer is doing something that is truly their and theirs alone, and for me, that’s the main criterion. I have to see that someone is clearly going after some idea or vision and is capable of blocking the desire just to “be like something”. Once you stop wanting to write some kind of music and you start writing only what you have been given, the quality of your work goes up. And this does not depend upon style. Then as a juror, you can enjoy being a total musical omnivore. I don’t believe in the existence of anything like a predominant style or originality. Music is the success of specific persons and pieces that have managed to achieve clarity of form and the courage and sincerity to be themselves, and we then subconsciously regard them as original. In this sense, originality is the result of such courage and sincerity. It cannot be achieved through ambition or by design. Because everyone is different, in this way it naturally occurs that every composer creates something that no one else could have done. Also for this reason, it is impossible for one to be completely one’s self when writing in an imitated style. For example, Arvo Pärt’s tintinnabuli appeared like a seemingly anachronistic element, but the result was absolutely original and his own. So when jurors witness just such courage, sincerity, clarity, and vision, from this emerges a set of original qualities that are not dependent upon any style.

So composers can evaluate the work of their colleagues at the moment when they free themselves from their own methods and aesthetics. But why is it, then, that new music irritates audiences who are not composers and who need not free themselves from anything?

Everything that is new and unknown is bound to be seen as something suspicious. After all, this is a fundamental problem with today’s worldwide political situation. With audiences, it’s a question of “expectations and disappointment”, as [the humorous Czech fictional character] Cimrman put it, and also a question of distrust. Concert music demands that they be silent even if the music does not speak to them. In an art gallery, when people pass by a picture that does not speak to them, they just keep on walking. But with music, you have to spend time, or else make everyone sitting in your row get up, so you disturb others by leaving. It’s a question of today’s impatience and also of the key to listening to something that doesn’t meet my initial expectations. It’s terribly interesting that all of us are able now and then to disengage ourselves from our urgent duties, but we’re unable to disengage from our expectations even for a minute in the concert hall. For this reason, the contemporary music scene bends over backwards to open up to audiences by inventing new forms of concerts, adding intermissions, and offering a more relaxed time, something to drink and so on.

A number of years ago, you said you would no longer write programme notes for your compositions. But for Overheating, for example, which was premiered in 2018 by the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Susanna Mälkki, you did write a note for the programme – did you change your mind, or were you talked into it?

They talked me into it. I’m not consistent about it, and that inconsistency bothers me. I’m looking for a solution. At the festival Salzburg Dialogues in 2017, I was the “featured composer”, so they played my pieces throughout festival, and we prepared the dramaturgy for the whole programme including the programme brochure. At the time, I went through all of the texts for my compositions from the past ten years and revised quite a lot, and I also quoted them and made metacommentary, and what I found out was that this gives an overall picture that helps people get past their impatience when perceiving music and helps them find their own point of entry. In a perfect world, I shouldn’t be the one doing that; instead it should be the authors of the programmes who offer people these kinds of aids. Once I, as the composer, make a statement about a work, I am prejudicing the work’s interpretation. As the composer Petr Bakla puts it, I’m making the composition more interesting than it really is. Now, however, written commentary about compositions has unfortunately become expected as a matter of course. In Killing Commendatore, Murakami says: “If that painting wants to say something, then best to let it speak. Let metaphors be metaphors, a code a code, a sieve a sieve.” And authors don’t write the commentary on the covers of their books, either, and nobody thinks twice about this. Better times are coming, however, because a few people who have been following what I’m doing for a while now have written various texts that say everything better than I would myself. At the same time, they spare my works from any hint of my wanting to manipulate them in some direction.

So you just want to reach your audiences with music – not with messages or other meanings?

The title of a composition is the only permanent thing through which composers can communicate with their listeners unless they are otherwise in direct contact with them. The title should be enough. For one of my compositions, it was written right in my contract that I had to supply commentary, but I didn’t notice that before signing it. So I just wrote one short sentence, and that was enough. A title or subtitle might do just as well. It should also be enough for me to programme a composition where I want it to belong socially or politically. Independently of each other, the presenters of the first performances contacted me, inquiring in a suspicious tone about whether that one sentence really was everything – they felt as if they might not have received part of the e-mail… If I want to say something more, I have to work it directly into the composition. And this is what I did in my last composition: Speed of Truth for clarinet, choir, and orchestra.

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