Interview with Philippe Manoury

Composer in Residence 2023

Published: 06/08/2023

Your work «Anticipations» was first performed in Porto in December 2022. Due to the pandemic and the general strikes in Paris this year, concerts were postponed or did not take place at all. 

You decided to write a newer version - what did you change?

I haven't rewritten «Anticipations». The version that will be performed in Grafenegg is theoretically identical to the performance I gave in Porto. The emphasis is on «theoretically» because the elements of this work, in which the musicians move around the audience, must be adapted to the conditions of the Grafenegg venue. 

The architecture of this venue is very different from that of a classical concert hall. The placement and flow of movement of these mobile entities must therefore be rethought. 

But the score will be the same as in Porto. I will certainly have to realign the dynamics and some of the tempi to suit this concert venue. But these are the necessary measures for a work like this. It has to be adapted to different venues.

Philippe Manoury über «Anticipations»

© Grafenegg

What challenges are posed by performing in the open air? Does this affect ensemble formation and concentration?

I can only answer this question after I've listened to how the music sounds. The question of spacing between the individual groups is very important. In situations like this, you have to keep an open mind and not hesitate to change certain details in the score. 

Dynamics and tempi are categories that are highly relative to acoustic conditions. I have no doubt that I will have to change some elements in the score. For example, a group playing mezzo forte might have to play fortissimo because of being placed much further away. I expect a lot from these rehearsals, which will allow me to adapt the music so that it sounds the way I want it to in this location.

The concept of the «orchestre spatialisé» arose from the observation of social phenomena. What developments are you particularly focussed on at the moment?

For several years now, I have been interested in the question of renewing the symphony orchestra. I have come to the realisation that the orchestra has hardly changed over the course of history. 

Mahler's orchestra is much larger than Haydn's, but the structure, organisation, and grouping of the musicians are the same. This orchestra corresponds to a vision that emerged in the 18th century and developed in the 19th century. It is like a mirror image of society at the time. There are homogeneous families, some of which are more important than others. 

In all classical and romantic music, for example, the strings have a central and dominant role, while the brass (not to mention the percussion) are not given equal status. There is an immense body of literature that has produced masterpieces on this subject. But that is no reason to keep using the orchestra in the same way.

At what point does this idea and observation of social phenomena find its way into the music?

There is a school of thought nowadays that would like to establish a social structure in which responsibility is shared more than it is at present. They dream of a society in which neither the marginalisation nor the dominance of one group over another is practised. That may be utopian, but you don't get very far without Utopia. 

In a similar way, I would like to see a vision for the orchestra of the 21st century in which the instrumental groups share a certain amount of musical responsibility equally. This does not mean that everyone is equal all the time, but that instrumental groups take on a kind of «leadership» at different times, which is then transferred to other groups. 

Similarly, I don't think the hierarchy between first and second violins makes sense anymore. Of course, there are also levels and differences among the musicians - some have more experience than others. All of this can very well be rethought in the orchestra I have in mind. While I can very well accept a hierarchical difference within a group - just as in society, some members are more experienced than others - I would like to do away with the hierarchies between the groups.

In what sense does music serve as a mirror for social phenomena?

This is where the connection with my «Utopia» comes into play again! Art must stay «ahead» of society (not to use the somewhat overused term «avant-garde») and propose new world views. What else should we artists be good for? 

We should not simply be a mirror of what is already existing, but rather create a perspective of what we would like to see coming. Art music (classical or modern) currently suffers from a serious lack of appreciation. It has been upstaged by pop music, which can be heard everywhere in our social spaces (radio, television, media, shops, airports, railway stations, etc.). 

I see all so-called «classical» composers as great experimenters who composed something that didn't exist before. I feel that I was born within this tradition, and I don't want to deviate from this rule. Some contemporary art continues to take refuge in an ivory tower and, in turn, evokes a nostalgia in some artists that I consider life-threatening. So if music can anticipate a larger phenomenon, such as society and its many ramifications, it would fulfil its original role: to be a voice that says something that has not yet been said.

«So if music can anticipate a wider phenomenon, as is society with its many ramifications, it would fulfill its initial purpose: to be a voice that expresses something that has not yet been said.»

To what extent does «Anticipations» reflect social phenomena?

From this point of view, I have invoked the figure of the «whistle blower» in «Anticipations». A group outside the venue plays different music to that played on stage. It expresses a different voice. This group will then approach and continue to play around the audience. From this point on, they will influence the on-stage ensemble a little more. Finally, they will join the orchestra and lead it into a finale that represents the culmination of their influence. 

The metaphor is that of a mobile group confronting a fixed group. Mobility is seen as a threat to a fixed order, but little by little it gains ground and finally convinces the other group to follow this initially strange path. It's a bit like when some people warn the whole of society of a coming danger that nobody seems to see. In my example, this step leads to a positive ending, which unfortunately is not often the case in society. 

This is also the meaning of the title «Anticipations». It is the first piece in a cycle, the last part of which I am just starting to compose. That will be called «Presence» and will be premiered in Tokyo in August 2024. 

How do you see your role as a mentor and what would you like to convey to the participants of the composer-conductor workshop Ink Still Wet?

The most important thing is to help them realise their plans. It's not about influencing them in my own aesthetic. That would lead nowhere. First of all, it is necessary to understand exactly what the composers want to express - even if sometimes I might not share their views - and to do everything I can to help them achieve this goal. Aside from purely technical issues, I can point out problems that they sometimes encounter unconsciously and show them that they should draw different conclusions from them.

© Sonja Stangl

I think that's the only intelligent way to teach composition. These are all musicians who have their own experiences, who have their own ideas, and I am only there to help make them flourish and realise them. I know very well that a musical idea can emerge from what is very personal, and that every composer is unique. 

I think I will continue to suggest changes during rehearsals, just as I do with my own music. Then they are free to accept or reject them. I hope I can be useful to them and inspire them to give their best.

How does your own training and experience affect your relationship with budding composers today?

I was also once a young composer, and I well remember how I could be inspired by older composers, but also how keen I was to remain independent, at times almost impervious to the different styles available to me. In France in the 1970s, on the one hand, there was musique concrète, which evolved out of Pierre Schaeffer's class, and on the other, the beginnings of musique spectrale with Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail, whose teacher was Olivier Messiaen, a master of great influence at the time. Although I admire all these personalities to varying degrees, I have nevertheless distanced myself from each of them. 

So I understand very well that young composers today want to keep their distance and not follow the same path as me. Independence is crucial in the early days of a composer's life. Nevertheless, I will show them various aspects of my work in the hope that it will make them think. Not to imitate me, of course, but to make them think about questions they may not have asked themselves before.

Kurzportrait Philippe Manoury

© Grafenegg

What is the approach you will take in these four weeks?

These composers will conduct their own pieces themselves. That is quite a challenge, but it will be very interesting to see how they communicate their music to the orchestra musicians. This has nothing to do with actual compositional talent. I know many famous composers who I imagine would not have felt very comfortable in this position, such as Debussy, Ravel, Berg, Messiaen, Dutilleux, Xenakis, Nono or Lachenmann. 

Fortunately, Brad Lubman is there to guide them. As for me, I will endeavour to be pragmatic. There's not much time for rehearsals and what they write has to be realised. So I may have to suggest modifications, especially in terms of balance, which is always the big question when you start composing for orchestra.

Brad Lubman
Brad Lubman © Stephanie Berger

What were the decisive events that influenced your development as a composer?

I think one of the most formative encounters was with Karlheinz Stockhausen in the 1970s. I never worked with him or took a single course with him, but his example was strong enough to convince me of the correctness of the direction I wanted to take. He showed me, for example, that one and the same person could compose for orchestra and electronics, whereas in France things were completely separate. In a way, he gave electronic music its patent of nobility, and I have continued his work by applying it to computer science and real time*. 

I was also lucky enough to be around for the birth of Ircam [Institut de recherche et coordination acoustique/musique] in Paris and to see computer music being built before my eyes. I contributed a lot to this myself. I met the mathematician Miller Puckette, with whom we laid the foundations, so to speak, for the world of real time. We had to invent everything because almost nothing existed at the time. We were very much supported in this work by Pierre Boulez, who looked at it all with great interest. So after Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez's Ircam and Miller Puckette's technical inventions were very formative for my career at the end of my youth.

*In electronic music, real-time describes the capacity to produce music directly, without prior recording. The music you hear is calculated «at the moment you hear it». This means that it can be interactive and can be changed by instrumentalists and is no longer rigid like the older music on magnetic tape.

Where do you find your inspiration, and can you describe your compositional process?

Inspiration is an unfathomable realm. It can come from an improvisation at the piano, from listening to other music, or even from a thought that pops up without me knowing why. It can also come from dissatisfaction because I haven't pushed an idea far enough in a previous work. I spend five to six hours a day composing. Sometimes it's like doing sport. You have to warm up and then you make progress because your head is full of music. One idea leads to another, and so on. The most difficult thing for me is not having ideas, but expressing them well.

«I hear «inwardly» the music that I notate on paper, and that is what particularly fuels my imagination.»
Philippe Manoury

I work with two different but complementary tools: one is the orchestra, the other is real-time electronics. For over thirty years I have been trying to unite these two instruments into one compositional process. When I compose for the orchestra, my imagination is fully inhabited by centuries of music, a repertoire that ranges from early music to the present day. I hear «inwardly» the music that I notate on paper, and that is what particularly fuels my imagination. 

When I compose synthetic music, it's completely different: I don't have much history behind me (just a very recent one) and I have to experiment a lot, directly with a computer. It's a raw material that I have to mould, much like a sculptor in the old days would take a block of marble and make a shape out of it. Only I don't know this sound a priori. It reveals itself in the course of the work.

It is not possible for me to hear this music «mentally» before I compose it. But when these two approaches come together - for example in a composition for orchestra and electronics - they must speak in a coherent way. The audience doesn't know how the whole thing has been composed, and that's not important. What they need is to hear that the orchestra and electronics can speak with one voice. This is fundamental to my compositional process.

What is the idea behind «Fanfare»?

I developed «Ouverture pour un festival» following a commission. You hear a solo trombone, then a horn, then a trumpet, as if they were invitations to take part in a festival about to begin. 

The audience will realise that the sounds are coming from all sides and will gradually be immersed in them. After a competition between musicians on stage and others distributed around the audience, everyone will gather on stage for a finale that I hope will be «festive». I hope this will put the audience in a good mood for the festival.

Is there a connection to the traditional fanfare?

In a way, yes. A fanfare is a piece in which brass and percussion play a dominant role. I wanted to retain the mood of joy and excitement that you find in traditional fanfares, but change the form and placement of the musicians.

This idea of spatial fragmentation is also a way for me to prepare the audience for «Anticipations», a work in which the musicians are not in placed conventionally and the space plays a crucial role.

What connection is there to Grafenegg, and was there any inspiration that came from this place where the contemporary and the traditional mix?

I didn't think about that when I composed this fanfare, but I think about it a lot from a different perspective. Mixing the contemporary and the traditional is the best thing there is. All too often festivals specialise and make people come not to discover new things, but to enjoy things they already know.

«Mixing the contemporary and the traditional is the best thing there is.»
Philippe Manoury

I'm thinking not only of the traditional audience of classical or baroque concerts who don't know the music of their time, but also the audience of contemporary or current music that has lost all connection to the culture of the past. 

As Faulkner wrote, «The past is never dead. It's not even past». One should listen to the music of the past as if it were a contemporary creation - which it was in its time - reflecting all its freshness, and the music of the present as an extension of this musical culture that has been so rich for centuries. To want to separate them is to bury them. The past speaks in the present and vice versa.

How did you find Grafenegg on your first visit?

I must emphasise the superb preparation that took place for this work. We spent three days with the young composers beforehand to guide them in the best possible direction when finalising their compositions. 

There were also very fruitful meetings between these composers and representatives of each orchestral family. I have found these musicians to be extremely helpful and full of enthusiasm, which is an excellent starting point.

I think that the approach practised in Grafenegg is one of the best there is. If you take the time to allow these young composers to develop their ideas, things will gradually blossom. It must be said that this place is enchanting. Nature is present, there are animals here, the space is inviting. 

I have worked at several composition academies and sometimes it feels like assembly line work. Too many composers, too little time, too few rehearsals... In Grafenegg, time is given free rein in favour of creation. I really like that.

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