Bergmann interview: Unlocking music from the unconscious mind

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator, International Piano and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 17.06.2017


A classical-trained German pianist working in a range of musical disciplines has just launched his most audacious experiment yet – an original piano sonata consisting almost entirely of creations from his unconscious mind. Boris Bergmann’s “Hölder/Scriabin Night Sessions” (SAMM 0152) is a powerful statement from the dark recesses of his brain. He calls it “a successful experiment”. I agree. The result is explosive.

In the context of free jazz, contemporary improvisation or various studio mixes, Bergmann seems to have taken musical freedom further and in a fresh new direction. “It just happened,” he tells me. “I had no intention of composing anything. My conscious mind wasn’t involved.”

Trained at the legendary Darmstadt Academy of Music, home of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, among many others, he rebelled against the “dogmatism” of new music and struck out on his own. Now an inveterate improviser, he recorded several hours of himself at the keyboard with no clear purpose in mind.

Two years later, he replayed some of the tapes and was surprised at what he found. Selecting the more promising passages, he wrote transitions and expanded some parts, leaving original bits intact. He edited out some passages and used digital technology to “compose something new, combining them in the true sense of the word”.

Some tracks are from this experiment and others are traditionally notated. In addition, the two-CD set includes 38 minutes of Preludes by Scriabin, the composer who has inspired him most deeply. All the pieces were performed on his personal antique Schwechten grand piano, which he prefers for its special timbre.

Boris Bergmann

Bergmann has found satisfaction everywhere in his range of classical and popular activities. I asked him what he gets out of playing drums in a rock band. He calls it “an ecstatic experience” Some piano works come close to the physicality of drumming, he says, such as the toccata in Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin” or the “precipitato” finale of Prokofiev`s sonata No. 7.

He never left the Darmstadt orbit completely. Even today he says he derives “indescribable joy” from works by Stockhausen, Varese, Ligeti, Zimmermann and others.

In an extended series of emails, Bergman submitted to an interview about the creative process, his broad musical tastes, his love of Scriabin and the crossover effects of different modes of music.


Michael Johnson: Your career has bounced from classical training to ‘new music’ to punk and metal rock, to jazz and back to classical. Have you settled on one mode?

Boris Bergmann: No, I have not settled on one mode. Different styles of music still fascinate me.

Q. What are you doing now?

A. Currently I am writing my Piano Sonata No. 4 and am also studying some pieces by Scriabin and Prokofiev for my repertoire.


Q. The compositional methods of your Sonata No. 3 “Hölderlin” are, I believe, unique, editing your taped improvisations. John Cage also spliced bits of tape together, Schoenberg worked with tape, and others have found their voice in this medium. Were you building on the history of these experiments?

A. No, I was not. During my time in Frankfurt and Darmstadt I heard about tape experiments of Stockhausen and others. I might have listened to some of Cage’s works during my studies.


Q. You seem to have tried to capture some of the musical fragments lodged  in your unconscious mind. Was that your aim?

A. Ultimately, this was exactly the aim, to capture creations of the unconscious mind. The second aim was to combine these creations into a consistent musical form. I had accumulated several hours of improvisational material, most of it not particularly interesting. But certain passages revealed a style or a musical language that I couldn´t identify as deliberate or preexisting in my works. It just happened. My conscious mind wasn´t involved. These moments could be considered expressions of the unconscious mind. From this perspective, I look at the sonata as a successful experiment.


Q. Tell me about the process. How fresh did your improvisations sound after the two-year interval? Did you have any memory of having played them, or was it more like some "other person" had made the recordings?

A. I have no exact memory of playing them. I remember the place and the circumstances. I was reading the Peter Härtling book on the poet Hölderlin. After two years the music sounded really fresh, so I thought it could be worth developing further. But it was not like another person, it was more like being surprised, what I heard on those tapes. There were many hours of intuitive work, many hours of difficult transcription from tape, note by note, and there were hours of listening to material half asleep. I worked on the sonata in 2009 and then again in 2011, when the finale originated.


Q. How much additional editing was required to complete the sonata? Did you have to write transitions, modulations, rearrange the pieces or develop ideas?

A. In the editing process I barely expanded the original material but in the first and third movements I transposed some parts. The third repetition of the rondo theme (movement 3) shows a variation of the accompaniment of the left hand.  Everything else is transcribed note by note from the improvisations.


Q. What do you mean by transposition in this context? Examples?

A. Working with the original material, I used transposition (semitone and octave), repetition and -- in movement No. 3 -- variation of left hand accompaniment. Furthermore I doubled some notes (octaves, thirds) as kind of "orchestration changes" and I used a variation of a short right hand melody in one transition of the 3rd movement. But in this rondo movement there is another transition I had to expand its length. Two bars were composed especially for this transition. This detail just came back to my mind today as I answered your question. I wrote this piece quite a long while ago.


Q. The use of magnetic tape clips is nothing new but I believe you are the first to reconstruct your unconscious improvisations into a coherent sonata structure. Is this true?"

A: I can´t say for certain. It was not my aim to be the first. My aim was to create an authentic and personal style. Of course it’s exciting to be the first person to do this or that, no question. But am I original, am I the first? I just try to focus on creating and developing a personal and authentic style.


Q. Did you rely on improvisational tapes for all the pieces on this CD?

A. No, I didn´t use improvisational tapes for all pieces on the CD – only Sonata No. 3, Poem No. 1 and the first movement of Sonata No. 1. And the very beginning of the third movement is based on improvisational techniques, too.


Q. I enjoyed your “Holderlin” Sonata tremendously. How have your fellow musicians reacted to your splicing techniques? As a short-cut? A work of genius? Or is it just you being economical with your creative output (wasting nothing)?

A. As for my fellow musicians, their reactions are quite positive in general. But not many of them ask specific questions about the compositional techniques.


Q. You call your new CD “Scriabin Night Sessions”. Are you a nocturnal composer?

A. Yes and no. When recording the Hölder/Scriabin pieces I was filming with a video camera simultaneously. The plan was to make a video of a couple of the Preludes. The room had to be darkened, because the altering daylight was too difficult to handle. So I spent three days in a dark room with a tiny light, just enough for the camera. I realized that I played differently in the twilight somehow. And I frequently spend nights altering natural sounds with the use of plug-ins, combining them with beats that I play or program by myself. Together with my partner Silvina Buchbauer, who is an actress and a singer, we adapt programs to old German chansons by Friedrich Hollaender, Edmund Nick, Kreisler and others.


Q. Besides being an accomplished pianist, you are also a punk rock and metal drummer. What artistic satisfaction do you find in groups such as Kahn of Finland, Wild Style Lion or Asimetri Apili compared to the piano works of Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky?

A. Rock drumming is an ecstatic experience. It´s like dancing with the instrument. Every hit evolves from a motion of the whole body. Some piano works come close to this feeling, for example Ravel´s Toccata or the “precipitato” finale of Prokofiev`s sonata No. 7. (Here is Glenn Gould giving it the percussive treatment:)



Q. What is your involvement with Indian music? Is it the raga scales and compositional rules that attracted you? The sound of the sitar?

A. Yoga is an important part of my life. Classical Indian music has fascinated me since my first journey to the subcontinent in 1994. These rhythms and tunes sound strange and yet familiar to me at the same time.


Q. How have you applied raga sounds in your compositions? Are you still under that spell?

A. I never used Indian rules or techniques in my music deliberately. But there might be an unconscious influence. I have considered writing a piano piece in a kind of subjective Indian style, but that`s all still up in the air.


Q. You studied at the famous Darmstadt Academy of Music. Did you learn about the greats such as Stockhausen, Webern and Berg there? What did you absorb from their work?

A. Yes, I learned about the works of Webern, Stockhausen, Varese, Ligeti, Zimmermann and many others. I was captivated by Schönberg´s “Farben”, Zimmermann´s “Photoptosis”, Holliger`s “Winter 3” and Feldman´s “For Bunita Marcus”. The beauty of these masterworks brought indescribable joy to me, the pure possibility of creating something like this was ecstatic. 

Zimmermann’s Photoptosis is performed here:



Q. Did you pick up the compositional skills to work in that atonal mode?

A. Yes, it was useful for developing skills, but the analysis of these works was disillusioning. The score didn´t reveal the music´s secret. Today, I believe what I learned from this experience was not a certain style or technique or a knowledge about form. Rather a sense of color and form.


Q. You have said that at one point you withdrew from ‘new music’ because of dogmatism. What did you mean by that?

A. The new music scene as I knew it in those days strictly avoided the use of traditional harmony, rhythm and melody. It was taboo to use major and minor, except as quotation or in an ironical context. On the contrary I really loved to use all these “forbidden” elements and combine them with more abstract sounds and advanced techniques.


Q. So you were rebelling, breaking the mold?

A. Yes -- the day I realized I was censoring myself, there was no other way but to withdraw from new music. Film music was the métier where everything was possible in the range from simple melodies to clusters. This experience and my move to Berlin altered my mind, and I was able to compose new music again .But I preferred to label it “modern classical music”.


Q. Your new CD includes your Poem No. 1, a piece reminiscent of Cage’s “In a Landscape” and some of Arvo Pärt’s work. Coincidence or influence?

A. This is hard to say. I chose an English title because the mood felt “American” somehow. The technique I used was the deliberate montage of improvisational sketches. The main harmonic movement is from F-sharp minor to D minor.  Melancholy and the feeling of being lost in the city are dominating emotions. At this moment I am listening to Cage´s “In a Landscape”. It is also a calm, weightless piece. Coincidence or influence? It could be both.


Q. In your Sonata No. 1, first movement, presto, the line is overtly jazzy. What influences did you feel in composing this movement?

A. This sonata is from 1998. As I remember, important influences were Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor.


Q. You are a performer and a composer. Does one activity feed into the other? How?

A. As a performer I rely on my experience as a composer: the most difficult part in writing a score is to determine the tempi and dynamics. Sometimes it seems that there could be more than one solution, whereas you can´t write “forte” and “piano” at the same place of the score. For this reason I believe, that a spontaneous freedom in interpretation is essential.


Q. Your interpretations of Scriabin’s Preludes strike me as quiet and almost feathery. What is the connection between your compositions and Scriabin Preludes that you have packaged together here?  I find the connection hard to understand.


A. First I have to say that Scriabin influenced me more than any other composer.

The first attempts to write my own music were just cheap Scriabin imitations.

At some point I realized that I had to find not only my own musical language, but also a different content or substance, a different topic somehow. As a consequence, I had to put Scriabin`s music aside for many years, not only literally but also emotionally. The way forward led from Debussy, Ravel, Brahms, Beethoven, Jazz, Rock, Freejazz, Electronic Music, Hip Hop and Drum´n’Bass to House Music and back. The connecting element seems to be extrinsic, but from my perspective there is a logic, a natural connection between these two CDs.


Q. In your Ostinato movement of Sonata No. 1 and elsewhere you make great use of repetition. How does this work musically? How is a listener supposed to think of it without getting bored?

A. Repetitions can be meditative, they can be groovy, but they can also be insistent or even manic. The Ostinato movement marks a turning point in the composition. The character of the first two movements is playful, unburdened and childlike. The concealment and friendliness of the adagio marks no break, even if there is a melancholy foreshadowing. But the last two movements reveal a seriousness, a brutality and an adulthood, which is a new color in the Sonata.


Q. How satisfying is your film music activity? Do you enjoy the discipline of matching music to specific scenes in the film? Prokofiev made it an art form, learning to time his sequences perfectly to fit the scenes.

A. I think my process is much simpler than it might have been in Prokofiev`s time. Very few parts of a film score are composed today without watching the film during composing. But I never know if the music works until I have seen it together with the movie. It´s quite a mystery. The moving pictures become a part of the score. Therefore my compositions for film are more spare than my other work.


Q. Why do these restrictions apply especially to film tracks?

A. First, I like film music which doesn`t attract the attention, if you barely take notice of the music while watching the movie. There are exceptions, the main title theme or passages without dialogue, of course. Second, in my perception the music has to leave a certain space. And this space is filled by the pictures, being cut in their own rhythm. If the music is overloaded it disturbs the pictures.


Q. Are you traveling now to perform at recitals? Are you focusing on the classical and romantic masterworks?

A. Yes, the plan is to play concerts, performing the music of the album live.

I am organizing everything by myself, therefore I have to plan in the long term.

I hope to start playing live end of this year and into 2018.


Q. Where do you find the most receptive audiences for your own compositions? In what demographic?

A. For my own compositions I expect to find the most receptive audiences in places where new music or experimental music is performed frequently. The only piece of this album I performed before was Sonata No 1. It was at a festival in Berlin. The audience was between 25-45.


Q. Where is your market?

A. The CD is available in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Streaming on Spotify and download (iTunes, Amazon Music) are global.


Q. How satisfied are you with your career progression? Where do you want to be professionally in five or ten years?

A. Things could develop faster. But I´m not impatient. In five or ten years I would like to hear my work played by other interpreters.

Below an excerpt from "Scriabin Night Sessions":

For Boris Bergmann's web site, please click here.

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