Herbert Brün: Interviews

"... as to Percussion,"

Herbert Brun interviewed by Tom Siwe


What need brought you to include Percussion in your music?

Percussion and I, we met when I was eight years old, in Berlin, in my father's study which he had converted into a workshop for his experiments with a crazy new idea: Radio. Although he was, by profession, an engineer, he was a soft-spoken, mild-mannered, radically-thinking dreamer, who really believed that with the help of Radio it would be at last feasible to inform all the people in the world of the enormous potentials of the human mind, to kindly and gradually liberate all the people in the world of their errors, superstitions, inherited and obsolete creeds, their beliefs in more or less than human powers, demons and divinities and, last but not least, to free them of their self-enslaving obedience to what they had been told by crooks to be laws of human nature, to be laws of justice, to be laws of economy according to the merits of criminally-induced scarcity. So he dedicated his evenings to the idea of a popular, widely accessible radio network.

Occasionally he invited me to lend him a hand or two hands, literally to grab, hold, and not let go, dozens of loose ends of thin antenna-wire, which, connected somewhere in the room to something with a spool and a few tubes, and extending criss-cross under the ceiling and down the walls, still had to be connected to some metal rod at the window. Valiantly I stood and held and did not let go unless told to relinquish my grasp. Just as I feel today, sixty-five years old, I felt then the incomparable delight in being needed for something of which I know, whether I understand it or not, that it is important, necessary, and by someone very much wanted. Also, today, I assert that Radio can effectively implement my father's dream and that all he wanted has become at last feasible.

Only it wasn't and isn't done.

So I stood on a Sunday morning in the study clutching two wires, when the receiver, then called "detector", caught some music: "What's that?" I asked. "Rossini, The Thieving Magpie!" came the answer. "No, no," I said, "What is it?" A moment of silence, and then it came: "Snare drums." This soberly-uttered informative reply has remained, to this day, an active member of the set: "The Best Liked Answers I Was Given." My compositions, I hope, demonstrate it.

Among the stages of my relationship with percussion, this one I call "Simple, direct delight".

What else falls under "Simple, direct delight"?

Well, one experience that has nothing directly to do with percussion was my listening for the first time to the Prelude of Die Meistersinger by Wagner. I think I was twelve years old when I heard the main themes of the piece get together in the last section, all played at the same time and thus forming the climax of the composition. I did not understand, I could not analyze, had no terminology; certainly, I was just a good listener. The experience itself caught my attention. I asked innumerable questions about the piece: who wrote that? what did that? who made that? who played that? ---this I also call "Simple, direct delight".

These are experiences that can only be points of departure. They are no arguments for anything. They cannot be goals. We cannot magically conjure them up. We have to be aware only when they happen, and then store them somewhere where they might become fruitful. Often people tell me about their infatuation with a particular sound or instrument or a particular structure or something like that. I'm willing to listen to that provided it is not used as an argument in a logical chain of reasoning. Infatuation doesn't argue for anything. It is almost sacred, but it is there to be fruitful, not there to be argued with. Were I now to start a piece with snare drum, just like The Thieving Magpie, I would insult my experience and Rossini. Imitation is always an insult, mainly to the imitated.

This is one reason for new music.

You were born in Berlin and stayed there until...

1936. The last good moment to leave.

Before you left Berlin and moved to Israel, what other musical experiences do you remember?

In Berlin I started learning to play the piano. We had a piano at home, a baby grand, which at those times was a rarity in middle-class bourgeois homes. It had all the properties of a grand piano: I could lie underneath and listen to the reverberation, play with the pedals, and explore the sounds of wood. After a while, I got bored. But I had an uncle with a good memory who could play the piano. He was the bachelor amongst my uncles. So he went to the musicals in Berlin of which there were many. It was a great time for Lehar, Kalman, Strauss, Straus and the like. He used to go there on Saturday nights, and come on Sunday mornings for a second-breakfast coffee to my home and would sit at the piano and play the tunes he heard the night before, which impressed me very much. This was one of the productive inputs to my education. I wanted to be able to do that, too. He was very nice to me. He allowed me to sit next to him and showed me with one finger how one plays a tune, when it is a tune, why it is a tune, etc. This was encouraging. My father's sister, Aunt Trude, gave me my first piano lessons. That was also very helpful and I was not bad. I practiced, at least in the beginning. Later I became moody.

I might mention an event, a non-percussion event, which remained with me as a percussion event: the Scherzo Pizzicato Ostinato in Tchaikowsky's Fourth Symphony. I was nine or ten and taken to a concert. I got indescribably excited and counted it for a long time to my percussion experiences. This was percussion! I had to learn a lot in order to change that probably quite correct opinion to a more accurate but worse opinion.

Let's skip to 1936 and Israel. You arrived and started taking composition lessons from Stefan Wolpe.

Wolpe came later. At first I just took piano lessons from a piano teacher who knew all about playing Chopin but not much else. This didn't work. I became rebellious. Not out of resistance against Chopin but against the teaching of music focused on a composer, or a style. During this time I began what I call a two-channel experience: one channel for income, the other for learning. It was a time wherein experience seemed more important than productivity. I did not compose yet; I was very cautious. I wanted to do things; and in order to do things I needed to get acquainted with doing things. So I had to practice pieces, even pieces that I did not mean to play yet. Also, I began working in night clubs as a pianist. I played for fifteen years every night, and sometimes in the afternoons. There was still in evidence the heritage of the European metropolis, the "Five-o'clock Tea", where we played semi-classical arrangements; then after a break from seven until eight, we started to play for dance. A set usually began with a waltz, followed by a tango, and ended with a foxtrot.

Soon this changed rapidly. The influx of American jazz became immense. It already had invaded the European scene in the twenties, but was still controversial and had not yet become the everyday entertainment. By the end of the thirties, however, it was established. Also in Jerusalem. Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Jimmy Lunceford, and Artie Shaw, all that began to happen at that time, and we listened to the BBC overseas service which, after the outbreak of the war, was the only source of music we had. So I sat there in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, listening for the latest tune. Soldiers who had come from everywhere and who were stationed in Israel wanted to hear the tunes from home. We were the musicians, but they were always ahead of us and could ask for songs we never heard. That was good training and I became a good memorizer and successful improviser. In neither field did I lack success, applause, and a career as a rather highly paid, searched-for pianist in Israel. And it was at this time, during these activities, that I met percussion again.

In the band?

Yes. In the band, I played for years together with a young fellow, Freddy Dura, who today is a famous entertainer in Israel and who frequently tours Europe. At that time, he played percussion and sang. He possessed and nursed his "own" drum set and, of course, could talk endlessly about things before and after he bought them, a new cymbal, for instance, or a new drum. I mean, it filled his day, and it filled my day, too. But, even if I mock it occasionally, I could not stop the information. And so I entered the second stage of my relations with percussion, which I call "Getting Acquainted". By observation rather than action I found out what makes a percussionist happy, what makes him sour, where he might throw a tantrum and where he would become "molto expressivo" in a positive way. In the most unsystematic, yes, chaotic adolescence of awareness I stumbled towards some understanding of the percussionist's nervous system, and thus hit on many of the notions and concepts which now, forty-five years later, have been assembled at last and described in the systematic and stimulating representations written by Michael Udow, Malcolm Goldstein, and others.

I soon discovered that it is one thing to know what I'm listening to and quite something else to find out what I am listening for. And that I finally gained some respectable friends in the percussion world was because I found out what they're listening to and for. It does not yet mean that I write "good" music; but my scores for percussion are, at least, sensitive to the performer. Distinguishing between challenge and routine I learned how to anticipate where the player can relax, where he has to be tight, and how often I must allow the release of tension. I also have great fun imagining the rehearsals already while I'm writing the piece.

This was the "Getting Acquainted" period, and it is still, in some channel, going on, because things have changed and new things are coming up; there are new mixtures of sound in the world, some of them desirable.

"Simple, direct delight " was first. Then you added "Getting Acquainted". What next?

Next came the very long and complicated period which I like to call "Challenge and Theatre". Both words in this label refer to my now beginning activity as a composer. The word "Challenge" is to tell that I wanted to compose new music. And the word "Theatre" means that I also, at the same time, had to write functional music. From 1948 to 1963 I did both in parallel.

For this I wish you would give an explanation and, maybe, a few illustrating examples.

"Challenge and Theatre" are juxtaposed in the following ways: "Challenge" means to write music that doesn't exist yet, therefore, also, music that I don't like yet, because I cannot possibly like music that doesn't exist yet. Note, however, the importance of the word "yet". A composer writes music that he doesn't like yet just because it doesn't exist yet. It is foolish to say: "I write a piece I like". That piece is not needed. The piece I like someone else probably wrote already. In "Theatre", it's different. I'm asked to use my skills, my experience, my affection for all musical periods, in conjuring up some traces of past musics, with a bit of proportional shrinkage, so that it may fit into the moments for which it is used. It should not take over, nor would it be mere trivial background. All this holds true only if I have a theater director with brains.

Back in Munich, after my return to Europe in 1955, writing theatre music made my income, and I had an ingenious director. I was very, very lucky. During the six years, 1956 until 1962, I made fourteen plays with him.

What was his name?

Fritz Kortner. He was a famous actor in the "glorious twenties" in Germany, then emigrated, even earlier than I, and finally came to the U.S. to Los Angeles, where he worked in Hollywood as an actor and writer. In 1948, he returned to Germany, but as a director. He still also acted, but put more and more weight toward directing plays.

Who was your audience during the fifties?

It was a young audience that was tired of the continuous desire to make up for their parents' sins; on the other hand, that audience didn't consider those crimes a subject of controversy. Of course it had been terrible and it was terrible and they had not been taught anything. They had been mistreated and things of great value had been withheld from them. So they came and sat and said "give me, give me". They demanded a high level of controversial and thoughtful theatre. The German theatre is state supported. There's a state theatre and a state opera in many cities. The actors are employed by these institutes for seasons and for years. If a theatre decides to do a play by Brecht, then it does get its 35 or 50 subscription performances, no matter what the reviewers write about it. Thus, depending on the mental level of the theatre bosses, the administration and the artistic directors, and the dramaturgist and the hired personnel, you may get either lousy performance or high level experimentation and aggressive artistic offering; but it will be protected and supported and performed.

With no one else but Kortner, for instance, and only under such circumstances, could it have come to the first electronic music being used in the German theatre. Kortner had undertaken to direct one of the most respected plays of the German cultural establishment: Faust by Goethe. At that time (1956) I was his composer. We were to rehearse for four months. At one of the first rehearsals, I told him about a concert of electronic music I had attended a few days before. It was the first electronic music concert in the official concert hall of Munich, the Herkules Saal. The program contained the first harvest of the electronic music studio in Cologne, pieces by Stockhausen, Koenig, Pousseur, and others. I reported how impressed I was, and asked Kortner whether he would have time to listen to some of that music. He said yes and asked why. I told him that we should at least discuss whether that kind of music might not be suitable for some of the metaphysical scenes of the play; in particular, since in those scenes Goethe hides his most aggressive criticism of his time's philosophy and literature. I thought that he, Kortner, should at least know of this kind of music, and that I, of course, would be very interested if the theatre could find its way to finance my trip to Cologne and the production there of some music for Faust. So the next day Kortner heard the Gesang der Junglinge by Stockhausen and Klangfiguren by Koenig. He was impressed and only asked whether I could integrate this music in such a way that it not be labeled a gimmick. It happened.

Kortner was also a theatre director who knew, when he ordered a march, that he wanted a march that was not just any old march, but rather a self-reflective, even self-conscious march, a march that demonstrates its awareness of its strutting macho ridiculousness.

Did you still play piano in these productions?

I played a piano once in a piece by Max Frisch, a Swiss politically-radical writer. One theme of the play was the gradual transformation of a folk song into a national anthem, slowly, by variations, according to its function in society. On its way from the cozily folkish to the murderously patriotic, it once also appeared disguised as a popular swing hit in a nightclub scene, and there I played the pianist.

You wrote usually for small theatre orchestra?

Once I had a whole symphony orchestra, but usually the budget only permitted ensembles of up to ten people. One percussionist. No marimba. Sometimes we had a xylophone, occasionally a pretty clumsy kind of vibraphone, and lots of drums. The German musicians were good on drums. They knew how to deal with drums and timpani. With cymbals they had problems. Too much noise, too little nuance.

And what happened in 1962?

In 1962 I took a trip through the United States, about which I've talked in Perspectives of New Music. And then, in 1963, I was invited to a position at the University of Illinois. Thus began radical experimentation. At that time, to compose with computers was radical experimentation. I had given myself the assignment to write a computer program that would contain in its logic and probabilities some idiosyncrasies related to previous idiosyncrasies of my compositional style. This resulted in Sonoriferous Loops (1964) and Non Sequitur VI (1966). In both pieces I think you can detect typical little turns that remind you of the way I would write a string quartet or trio, for instance. That doesn't mean that I'm stuck to a style. All I wanted to prove is that I can program it. Thus any composer could retort to an accusation from the press, could retort justifiably, that what the press hears in a computer composition is just as much the composer's private decision-making as it would have been had he used a quill! Those two pieces document that satisfactorily. The fact that both pieces contain multiple percussion is a trace of the coincidence, at that time in the University of Illinois, of advanced computers with one of the most outstanding percussion departments around. It's worth mentioning that the World's first computer composition with live musicians, Lejaren Hiller's Computer Cantata, was conducted at its first performance by Jack McKenzie, then the head of the University of Illinois' percussion department. In such an environment, experimentation simply included computers as well as percussionists.

At this time, I had my first inkling that it is advantageous to work on new music with young students rather than with members of the faculty. This was, for the faculty, more radical than experimental. For the students it was more experimental than radical. I have maintained that over the years, and in all the programs I have offered---now over a hundred---the performers are ninety percent students. Occasionally I had extraordinary support from the faculty and that was delightful. But I did not always have the problem of asking very busy people to have time for a rehearsal or two. And I also didn't have to deal with the jokes of the profession and the status-vulnerabilities. With students, I have other problems, but they are educational problems which can be dealt with, such as: "Aha! Here we have that case where..." Try to do this with a faculty member.

Of course some of those students you have worked with then, now are successful performers: Mike Udow, Al Otte, Al O'Connor, to name just a few of the percussionists.

And Bill Youhass. I think I have all those friends in the field because they participated in my pieces, not only in the performance, but also by answering my innumerable questions while I was still writing the score.

This brings us, I think, to the three solo percussion pieces, Plot, Touch and Go, Stalks and Trees and Drops and Clouds.

Yes, indeed. For convenience I call the three pieces Plot, TAG and SATADAC. Let me explain all three pieces as a set of three different propositions of my getting "behind" the percussionist instead of staying "in front" of him. Usually I am the receiver. That is, I write a piece, go to a concert or to a rehearsal, and there he is and gives it back to me and there I am, in front of him. I sit there facing the percussionist doing his or her thing to some score, or to me, or to whatever. I say, "thank you very much", or "that was very nice", or "you did a really great job", or make any of those kind of remarks. They are nice, these remarks, but dull and indistinct. They never really say what I find I would like them to say. So I decided, instead of paying compliments after the performance, I'll make any compliments before the performance by writing these three pieces, that can only be played by percussion, and in which there would be no musical considerations except those intimately connected to the life and thought of the percussionist, and would deal with existing problems as if they had been invented right now, for the first time.

I had my image of a percussionist's development and growth, and thought I could write three pieces in which three aspects of that life and thought could be the subject matter of composition. The three main items were: Connections, Tools, Timbres. Plot is about connections. About a person who confronts lots of kitchen ware, an arsenal of discrete surfaces that all, with a very few exceptions, have to be attacked, and who still would like to produce, for instance, a legato. Plot plays with this particular aspect. Plot stands and falls with the ingenuity of the performer in addressing himself to this particular problem: how to get from here to there without leaping, with a minimum of contrast and a maximum of transformation: Thus, the requirement of Plot is an understanding between the performer and myself, a conspiracy: we two will now make appear, to our audience, the impression that the percussion instruments are built inside one another, so that we can get from one to another by creeping inside, although in real space they may still be standing widely apart. What can be done to generate this make-believe, this prestidigitatorial trick, so that the listener sits in the presence of connections, intended continuities? The piece therefore shows various degrees of difficulty: there are several combinations that seem rather easy, to be suddenly followed by a practically impossible requirement.

Indispensible is a sense of humor of the higher kind. In the above mentioned conspiratorial understanding between composer and performer, this higher sense of humor is the furthest away from mockery or cynicism. "Conspiratorial" means that we all get together and celebrate a temporary make-believe. This level of sense of humor, I have to warn you, is not easily achieved and often not permitted. We are usually caught up short even before we get there. With percussionists, however, I never had that problem: after the first moments of initiation they caught on and I didn't have any further worries. That was Plot, written for and first understood by Michael Ranta.

With Touch and Go, I planned another game. That is where Al O'Connor was so influential. He patiently and carefully opened my eyes and ears to a lot of things: he demonstrated to me that it is not a trivial nuance to decide whether one uses the wrist in playing, or the whole arm, or even more, the whole body, or whether one throws something. And how all that can be composed and very carefully executed. He helped me to the observation of how surfaces really are only one universe. That the beaters, the mallets, the sticks, the activators are a wholly different universe which speaks its particular language and mixes its language with the languages of the surfaces. Consequently, it occurred to me to write a piece of determined activators but anonymous surfaces floating freely in space; and that became TAG.

I've worked with several students on TAG and am inclined to conceive of it also as a kind of theatre piece. Did you intend that?

You are accurate and correct in your observation. If what you, the percussionist, have in your hands is the "speaking" part of the piece then this may well turn TAG into a "theatre piece". You seem guided and pulled by the things in your hands. It doesn't look any longer as if you play on one or the other instrument. What you have in your hands, the "speaking" part lures you to move now over there, now over here, and here and there you may even have conflicts of conscience because, according to your professional training, you are compelled to use sticks you shouldn't on this surface found here.But the composer said so and you agreed to play the piece: there you stand uncouthly wielding your timpani beater toward a triangle! That could be ridiculous. However, if it is performed, not just tolerated or suffered, if the performer grandly takes his big timpani beater to the triangle and treats his motion with intent, then, of course, it turns into a visual event mixing itself with the sound, the result, now, of this movement. That was the idea for TAG. Al O'Connor performed it first for me in the big ballroom of the Illini Union building. Along the width of the wide space he arranged everything he could think of and needed. We, the audience, were sitting fairly far from him and saw and heard him dancing along his architecture, carefully aiming or widely throwing things, elegantly performing the floating of the sticks, the mallets, and the various devices he had in his hands, sometimes six at a time, over the instruments and---most seductively---through and across the silences. I was delighted.

The third piece was written for Bill Youhass. I called it Stalks and Trees and Drops and Clouds (SATADAC). The four words in this title are, for me, a long poem reduced to its indispensible minimum, and are, furthermore, matched by the symbols I had the computer command the plotter to draw. The experiment of this composition shows some analogy to the experiment of Plot. Just as I try, in Plot, to juxtapose natural discreteness with artificial continuity, so I try in SATADAC to juxtapose natural dryness and natural reverberation with artificial dryness and artificial reverberation. In my earlier pieces, Sonoriferous Loops and Non-Sequitur VI, I still obediently heeded the natural self-descriptions of the instruments. After that, and under the influence of increasing knowledge about percussion, I became interested in non-trivial contradiction and in explicit invitations to performers as creative problem solvers. This interest and these invitations I have made most explicit in the prefaces to Plot, TAG, and SATADAC. Each of these scores comes accompanied by a letter to the performer wherein I tell what I mean, what it is supposed to mean, and why I wish for impractical connections, for mallet-oriented acrobatics, for "reverberating" wood and "dry" bells, and on what grounds I dare to assume that the "problems" which I composed have a highly respectful relevance to ongoing concerns of the percussionist in his life and thought.

From where did you get the idea that increased requirements, increased difficulties, and practically unsolvable problems would be taken as compliments by percussionists? And how did this idea fare when you first showed the pieces around, before they looked so nice in the later publication?

When I had this idea I felt neither impish nor malicious. I want percussion to be just sophisticated enough to at least meet one requirement: it must bounce against the not yet feasible and not just be comfortably efficient, with the feasible. That was the idea; that's what I meant earlier: that instead of being in front of the percussionist I wanted to be behind him, not leading him on, but backing him on. I wanted to support the percussionist in a role that is even greater, more important, than the role given him at the moment. I am quite satisfied I did that and I can talk about it. I see some friends in the profession who will know that this is a great compliment to them, even if I can't get everybody to know that. The proof is, whoever played the pieces has remained my friend.

The difficulty of the pieces filters out all those players who don't understand your idea and thus would refuse to put in the time needed to put in to prepare a reasonable performance of the works. You might, however, attract some who would use your score pages as charts for improvisation, even though you made it clear in your instructions that you do no want this.

Yes, I do not want any vandalism. I did not write prefaces and letters just as performing notes. They are affectionately meant to be personal letters.

"at loose ends: is one of your most successful percussion works, for percussion quartet (written for the Blackearth Percussion Group) and piano. Can you tell me something about it?

The title gives a hint. Even today (and here we come slowly into the nearness of socio-political considerations that you know I am interested in), even today percussion is used in our social context widely and broadly and most openly, either as a drug with the help of "the beat", or, with the help of incessantly peaking "voices", as a mindless pseudo-turn-on for climaxes. This has to be understood as a general statement where only the multitude of examples justifies my speaking. Would there be less evidence I would be exaggerating. But there isn't. That I said "even today" expresses my hope in the percussion world, where many know better than to subscribe voluntarily to rotten ideas. However, for the sake of income, social function, for either believed in or erroneously adopted convictions, many talented and quite able percussionists have to spend their lives as servants of the drug beat and the pseudo-climax. And I am not talking about chemicals. I also, just as many others, would like the world to look different, but, every time I open my mouth to describe a better society, I get stuck in a language of the rotten, the only language, unfortunately, that sells.

In writing "at loose ends:, I intended, instead of complaining, to compose my cheerful admission of being stuck and at loose ends, in preference to trying frantically to conform to the best spot in an undesirable society. I only say that such thinking and behavior would be desirable; I do not claim I am always on the right side. I am not modest, and I do commit errors, and sometimes I am very proud of them when they are imaginative enough. The point was to write a piece in which, just as in daily life, every idea I bring forth is endangered: if it is endangered by being an old idea, I did not elaborate on it; if it is a clever gimmick, I had it drastically deteriorate; if it is a study in new sound or in new sounds, I made it last too long, let it creep in sponsored by our beautiful little celesta, our glockenspiel, until it multiplied like rabbits, until the too-long lasting new sound curtain rose over a colony of rabbits, mainly glockenspiel-rabbits. I also have a catchy folk dance in the piece, which is, of course, not a catchy folk dance, and it has all the makings of something popular, and it is very catchy. But then I immediately show that it fails under any serious treatment, and only becomes an exercise. In 'at loose ends:, of course, all that I called its failures are my triumphs of having being able to bring off what I wanted. So it is not to be construed as being a piece of bad trips and bad places. It is, rather, my reflection on the powerlessness of the "stuck" against a system which is, to the best knowledge of practically everybody, undesirable for humans.

Early on in this century, in the 1930's, Varese, Chavez, Cage and others wrote, with anticipation, about the coming of the electronic age. I remember going to electronic music concerts in the early 60's, where we sat and looked at two speakers. It seemed that the most successful works for the listening audience were those few electronic pieces which included a live performer or more than one musician, with tape playback. More Dust with Percussion is for three percussionists and tape, and is presently on tour with the Cincinnati Percussion Group. Do you feel it is more successful in that form rather than just tape, as in More Dust, alone? Why do you think we have not had a deluge of works for tape and live performers over the past 25 years?

This is a provocative question, and brings out the worst in me: here I let drop all modesty. To write a piece in which a reasonably well-made computer composition joins a reasonably well-made percussion composition is difficult; the conditions are forbidding. You have to know how to do it. It requires more than just the idea of doing it. You also have to have a couple of musical ideas. What I'm trying to say is so banal: you have to be a good composer. I am a good composer. I brought off More Dust with Percussion because I have been thoughtful and shy of sacrificing a computer piece to a mere idea of launching it. Far more vain and thoughtful than quite a number of composers who are far more ambitious than I am. This done and said, I can again retreat meekly into civilized behavior. There are probably more pieces in the world where live performers mix their talents with electronics of every kind, than you think. Only that the results, too often, were disappointing. Partly, the pieces were ill-devised.

The whole proposition would change immediately if an instrumental group would form itself having among its members at least one composer, competent with computer and electronic studio techniques, and a technical director who knows all about how music is to function in spaces, be it with speakers, visuals, films, or slides, etc. We are still waiting for the technological musician and the musical technologist.


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