Is new music deeper than before

New Music Festival : Weird notes are not enough

The clarinetist and composer Jörg Widmann was the only one to give a full solo concert at the Berlin Festival for New Music. Exhausted but happy and satisfied, the interpreter and composer Gerhard Winkler embrace after the elaborate rehearsal of Black Mirrors III. With this piece for clarinet and interactive live electronics, numerous finely differentiated, technical settings have to be adjusted. After Widmann briefly played one of his own works, the four and a half hours of rehearsal are over. In a side room of the church, the artist with the attentive blue eyes takes time for our interview.

You started composing at the age of six, how did it all start for you?

I learned the clarinet back then and have always improvised at home. And the next day I was annoyed that I couldn't remember the beautiful spots that had occurred to me before. So it came about that I wanted to write it down, and that's how I got my first, well, “composition lesson” sounds so grandiose. I just wrote down in notes what I had just improvised. At that time I also thought that composing meant writing down what was improvised. It wasn't until much later that I found out, painfully but also with relish, that it means much more.

What were those things then? What did you improvise there?

One of my first compositions was “Waltz in F major”, very simple, also tonal things, so there weren't any weird notes. At some point that wasn't enough for me. Since the sound has changed. Something I just thought about again during the rehearsal is that a lot of things come from trying things out for me. My own piece with the flap noises is something that you would not think of as a pure desk felon. Air noises, too, all come from experimentation.

I've never heard anything like this before. But where does that come from? Is it because you find the things you already know boring? And just want to try something new?

So, I'm someone who really appreciates the great music that already exists, including from the past centuries. And precisely because I love it so much, we have to go further. I could only copy something as well as what has already been written. In addition there is a childlike urge; when I stand backstage as a musician, the concert is about to start and a horn player makes a squeaking noise on his horn, then I say: “Stop! How do you do that exactly? ”A lot of things that I write down in my own compositions come from this childlike amazement.

These things that I play in my solo recital are also perversely difficult and artistic, in part. And some things, like the flap or air noises, are part of it. It's a wind instrument, why suppress it and not add it to the music? Sometimes I practice without air, and that interests me because then suddenly the clarinet becomes a drum kit, a completely new instrument.

Is that why you are so interested in the clarinet?

I think she is particularly versatile. (yawns) Oh, sorry. I've been rehearsing for almost four and a half hours now, it's so incredibly exhausting. And for me it is so that I always get physically tired immediately. So, the versatility Even in classical music, the range is unique. On the one hand I can be a high soprano and on the other hand a low baritone. This is different from other wind instruments. I really love the low register of the flute, but it's very quiet. It is the other way around with the oboe. Anything is possible with the clarinet. Although difficult too. In the piece that Wolfgang Rihm wrote for me, for example, the starting note should come out of nowhere. And that at a height that is hard to get even in fortissimo. Now I could go up to the composer and say: “Man, that's impossible”, but I'm someone who is attracted by exactly that! I have to experiment and don't get any further with the moves that I have learned. But I'm getting to know my instrument anew. I might add a couple of flaps that aren't normally used. And then the sound may still not come. But - no risk, no fun. (laughs)

I've never heard music like this before, even with the other musicians here at the festival, sometimes they played the notes that totally rattled or something.

Yes exactly! For example, when you blow a trumpet for the first time, such notes come too. That means: it is in the nature of the instrument! These rattling sounds, too, the overblowing. These are so-called "multiphonics", multiple sounds. Then I play the low note and the overtones are added, which resonate anyway, but I force them, I want to get them out. That sounds like an elephant cry at times.

This is also in the program book ...

Exactly! With this one Danse Africaine I want that to sound naturalistic. There are also very subtle sounds where you suddenly hear two tones and wonder where the second clarinet is. (laughs)

Is that also your goal of getting tones out of your clarinet that are not necessarily beautiful, but that have never been heard before?

I think that's very important. Richard Wagner once said: "Children, create new things". So, don't imitate what others have already discovered. And then there is someone who has really revolutionized music, that is Arnold Schönberg. It was important to him to understand it in the literal sense of the word. Well, I have to know the other side very well in order to be able to make this upheaval, so to speak. And both poles are important to me. Everything I do today sounds completely new, but it's not in a vacuum. It builds on what already exists. I was inspired by a wide variety of styles. You're always on the lookout, and IF you find something really new, you're happy.

If you want to exhaust everything technically, don't you lose sight of the content?

I think that's a danger, yes. But it is the other way around, if I rest on what I have already done or what has already existed in history, then it becomes epigonal. Both are a huge danger, for every composer and for every artist. And that's never something you can be too sure of. You sometimes think that after a concert: “Yes, now I was close!” And then you hear the recording two years later and are totally disappointed. Or you are at a piece and think: “Yes, that's exactly what I want to do.” After a few days I feel bad again and I am dissatisfied again. I would really like to be very satisfied for a few days, but nature has at least arranged for me in such a way that I get incredibly restless and unhappy. Theater people know it too, who have been waiting for a premiere for weeks. And then it's over and you fall into a hole. And you notice that it is gnawing at you, this mechanism inside starts up again. And that is something very terrible, but also something totally beautiful.

How are your pieces created? Do you play at home and write down what you thought was cool? Or do you have the whole piece in mind before you write it down?

I think that's a very good question, and that was also a real problem for me, because at some point I thought that if I write for clarinet as a composer, yes, only write what is comfortable. Such pieces, which you heard in rehearsal and which are mine, could not be written at all if you did not play yourself. I try out a lot, but I always suspect that I am not writing something out of convenience. For a while this caused a real crisis for me to write for the clarinet. Everyone always thought that it had to be particularly easy for me. The Fantasy for Clarinet, which I also play today, was created 20 years ago and then this second piece in 2013. The Shadow dances consist of three parts and I hope that the idea is in the foreground and not the effect. One of them sounds like it was played underwater. I had this idea and I have to find the effects to redeem what I was given as an idea.

This is a contribution from our youth editorial team "Schreiberling". Become our friends at or follow us at

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