Jun 17th 2017

Bergmann interview: Unlocking music from the unconscious mind

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

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. To subscribe to Facts and Arts' weekly newsletter, please click here.

To follow Facts & Arts' Editor, Olli Raade, on Twitter, please click here.

 




 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Music Reviews

Aug 6th 2020
EXTRACT: "For 60 minutes, my mind was clear, the air was clean and the sound heavenly. It was my honor and privilege to have been there."
Jul 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "Scarlatti sonatas are enjoying a popular surge in recent years, tempting pianists –Europeans, Americans, Asians -- to try to master their broad range. Margherita has some advice: “Don’t be afraid to slow down, to speed up, to play the truly singable melodies with a quasi-Romantic feeling.” "
Jul 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "The dizzying output of John Cage the musician, the poet, the writer, the thinker, the artist, was so prolific that one of his sidelines – his interests in wild mushrooms -- has been almost overlooked. A new a two-volume set of books, beautifully designed by Capucine Labarthe, packaged in an elegant slipcover, seeks to fill this gap."
Jul 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "In our chat by telephone, Paley spoke from his Paris apartment and asserted his belief that Rameau was “the greatest French composer ever. Pure genius and very special colors.” He acknowledges his extensive research into the period of Rameau’s life (1683-1764) in order to recreate the spirit of the time."
Jul 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "In A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and subsequent films, Morricone opted for an unprecedented fusion of archaic-sounding lines in the melody, reminiscent of medieval modal music. He intermixed this sound with contemporary pop touches (the Fender electric guitar), wordless choirs, unusual instruments (Jew’s harp, ocarinas, mariachi trumpets…) and ambient sounds (whip cracks, whistles, gunshot, coyote’s howls). He also infused scores with his trademark humour. This can be heard in the comedy western Il Mio Nome è Nessuno (My Name is Nobody, Tonino Valerii, 1973) where a toy trumpet toots bits of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries."
Jul 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: Are you collaborating with living composers? Answer: Yes, Scott Wollschleger sends me unfinished new works every month. Keeril Makan is working on a piano concerto. Melaine Dalibert has dedicated several recent works to me. There are more names on the horizon. But these are the three where I feel I can have a big impact on their careers, and all three write music that I feel born to play. That combination of things is important to me."
Jun 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: How do you see your musical mission today? Answer: My real passion in music is to resist popularity rankings and market forces. In my view, these currents impoverish our cultural richness........."
May 1st 2020
EXTRACT: Alessandro Deljavan: "I bought a former convent 40 kilometers from Pescara, in Villamagna. It's very important for me to breathe clean air and live as simply as possible. Life in a giant city full of cars and smog is hard for me to imagine. My perspective is always to live fully. My aspirations for the best musical experiences guides my decisions and over the past several years I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with some wonderful musicians—these experiences have brought me a sense of optimism for what might lie ahead.”
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Federico Mompou, the reclusive Catalonian composer whose calm, spare piano writing is currently enjoying a rebirth, might well look askance at any effort to pull him forward into modern mode. Such was never his genre but that’s precisely what one of his ardent admirers, pianist Maria Canyigueral, proposed to do. The result is her intriguing new CD, Avant-guarding Mompou."
Mar 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "In our interview, Prof. Réach says he cautions his students in Barcelona to approach the Variations with care, warning them “the path will be long and will require great patience”. He has personally overcome his fear of this “masterpiece of masterpieces”, having recorded them three times and performed them in about 15 countries a total of about 150 times."
Mar 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "The 88-key piano looks headed for a major transformation in the coming decades. The mechanism under the lid is based on a 130-year-old design and many specialists believe it is time to dispense with those delicate moving parts.  As innovative Australian piano builder Wayne Stuart says, “The piano has been crying out for a rethink for over a hundred years.” "
Mar 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: You have a Paris background. What do you bring to Granados to ensure Spanish flavor? Delicacy? Momentum? Singing and dancing undertones? Rubato?........Answer: First, I am profoundly European........."
Feb 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: You have said that you are plagued by doubts. Is this true?.........Answer: Of course I am plagued by doubts. This is part of the artist’s life. But I continue to work and perform. I have moments of depression but I try to transform these doubts into positives. Many artists have these doubts. Some don’t talk about it. But doubt is always there."
Jan 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "QUESTION: Wouldn’t young composers of today benefit from aligning themselves with a philosophical ethos in order to find their musical voice -- as opposed to trying merely to find their own voice by drawing on imagination or personal experience?.......... ANSWER: It’s an interesting question, but open to interpretation. My impulse is to answer yes. When young I did a tremendous amount of reading in the history of aesthetics, and as a result my sense of artist -- ethos, necessity, whatever -- is not limited to post-WWII influences. One result is that I’ve never had any patience for the late-20th-century idea that art is about “personal expression.” The ancient and more enduring view is that the artist expresses what is out there to be expressed. As T.S. Eliot admirably wrote, art is an escape from personality, not an expression of it. Likewise I’ve never warmed to the idea of “finding one’s voice,” which sounds to me too much like creating an instantly recognizable trademark style that will make your music easier to market commercially."
Jan 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "It has been a long journey I enjoy re-living as I take note this year of the great Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday. As a practicing music critic and journalist from American corn country, I call myself a hick hack but I experience meltdown at almost everything the great man wrote. How can one not love Beethoven?"
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Judith Juaregui, based in Madrid but peripatetic in her concertizing around Europe, is gaining an international audience of admirers, boosted by the brilliant pianistic colors of her Debussy, Liszt, Falla, Chopin and Mompou in her fifth CD, “Pour le Tombeau de Claude Debussy”, just out. This album was recorded at a recital in Vienna last year, her first foray into live recording, and she is  rather pleased with the result, which, she says in our interview (below), captured a “moment of honesty”. She left everything in, including the vigorous applause from the audience."
Dec 11th 2019
EXTRACTS: "The young tousle-haired pianist from the distant Minnesota, Reed Tetzloff, is building a performance career in the U.S. and Europe by steering a course through rare repertoire that is both challenging and attractive for the listener........In our email question-and-answer discussion he explains his priorities as a musician and his attraction to a wide range of repertoire."
Dec 9th 2019
Extract: "Then the house lights came up and the rest of us rushed out, relieved that it was all over."
Nov 15th 2019
Extract: "Question: Mompou was modest, yet one of his famous comments is similar to Handel’s remark that he was writing down what God dictated. Mompou said he did not think up music, he simply transmitted it. Answer: The Mompou’s idea about God was interesting. God was a great force that also could destroy his own creation, like a child who in a moment of joy treads on an ant without noticing. Mompou explained that, in his case, the music was not coming from inside to outside, but the opposite way, from outside to the inside, with him being the intermediary of this flow, as a kind of medium. Mompou felt embarrassed to be called on stage after a performance of his music. He was convinced that if the work was really good, it was not entirely created by himself. 
Oct 27th 2019
Composer Kyle Gann’s new book ‘The Arithmetic of Listening’ analyzes microtonality and makes a plea for the music fraternity to open its ears to the new directions possible. After 22 years of teaching at Bard College in the eastern United States, Gann has become a guru or godfather of new music, and continues to produce captivating compositions, as in his new two-CD album ‘Hyperchromatica’. His latest book analyzes and explains tuning theory. In this interview he asserts that new music that gets the attention of publishers and producers today is mostly “derivative crap”. The golden age of “downtown” music from 1960 to 2000 assembled “a bunch of escapees from the twin hells of academia and corporate commercialism”.