The SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg was the first orchestra to do a piece of mine abroad, which was in 1982, when they performed Ringed by the Flat Horizon. This is an orchestra with such a history; it’s been the most important orchestra for the contemporary composer for the past seventy years. Now, I knew, was my last opportunity to work with them, and I instantly said yes.
The programmes partly came about also because in 2013 I did some concerts with the Ensemble intercontemporain, and included on that tour were the SWR Vokalensemble from Stuttgart, who really were a revelation to me. I’d never heard choral singing – if you can call it that – of such beauty. I really wanted to work with them again.
So we came up with these two pieces for choir and orchestra, Boulez’s Cummings ist der Dichter and Ligeti’s Clocks and Clouds. They also wanted to have a piece of mine, and it seemed obvious to make that Ringed by the Flat Horizon, since the orchestra had performed it all those years before. The Haas, limited approximations was the orchestra’s suggestion, and Winrich Hopp’s, and I was very happy to do it, because it’s a very spectacular piece – extraordinarily spectacular, with its six pianos in different tunings. Ringed by the Flat Horizon is thirty-five years old, and it’s very hard for me to connect to it now, compositionally. But as a performer, yes, I enjoy doing it. I was eighteen to nineteen when I wrote it, so it was a very big experience for me: my first piece for a large orchestra. Clocks and Clouds is such a beautiful piece. Of course, there are a lot of beautiful pieces by Ligeti, but in some ways this is his most beautiful – so beautiful that afterwards I think he felt a bit guilty about having written it.
Both these pieces, the Boulez and the Ligeti, come from the beginning of the 1970s, and they’re both skyscapes, or landscapes, with drones and female voices, very beautiful, made out of mixtures of instruments and voices – and they’re both rather zen. The Boulez in its first past is more scattered, more abrupt, but it settles into this fantastically calm, serene atmosphere with artificial bird songs. It’s very close to my heart.
Haas’s music I don’t know so well, but his work interests me. The harmony is very inventive, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it works. The whole piece is one of those extreme ideas. I’ve conducted for Musica Viva before – that was at the Herkulessaal – and the place was absolutely full, for a programme consisting of Ligeti’s Lontano, Messiaen’s Réveil des oiseaux, the world première of Tristan Murail’s piano concerto, and my own Palimpsests. It’s a wonderful audience in Munich, totally silent and receptive. I think this is one of those places – Basel is another – where there is a strong audience for contemporary music.