Thursday, November 3, 2011


November 4

Playing along to Sartre, Schygulla and Lucier.

American pianist and composer Eric Wubbels open this year’s Contempuls festival with a performance of Peter Ablinger’s Voices and Piano. Perhaps best-known as a member of the Wet Ink Ensemble, a New York collective devoted to creating and promoting contemporary music, Wubbels has performed extensively in the United States and Europe, and his pieces have been played at festivals around the world. Before leaving for Prague, Wubbels graciously agreed to answer a few questions via e-mail.

Of all the different types of music you could have chosen to pursue as a career, what prompted you to go into contemporary music?

Even when I was very young and playing the classical repertoire, I was always most attracted to music and sounds that were new and unfamiliar to me. I think I liked, for example, Scriabin and Messiaen before I liked Mozart and Haydn. Beyond that, as a composer, you have no choice but to be “contemporary.” And making a life in the international contemporary music scene has been extremely exciting and rewarding for me.

At Contempuls, you’ll be performing Peter Ablinger’s Voices and Piano, a cycle of short pieces he wrote as accompaniment for recorded statements by notable figures ranging from Jacques Brel to Orson Welles. How many of them will you be playing?

There is no standard set; the performer always selects a group of “voices” from the catalog. At this point, there are almost 40 pieces in the cycle, so it’s not possible to play them all in one concert. Ablinger seems to feel that an optimal version of the work includes 6-12 selections, with a mix of languages, types of figures (from the arts, politics, philosophy, etc.) and genders. In Prague Ill be playing nine selections, including [American jazz pianist] Cecil Taylor, Slovak poet and translator Mila Haugová, philosopher and author Jean-Paul Sartre, composer Morton Feldman, actress Hanna Schygulla and Valentina Tereshkova, the first female cosmonaut.

You’ll also be premiering a new segment featuring contemporary composer Alvin Lucier. How does it compare to the others?

Some of the pieces in the cycle have very simple piano parts, while others are extraordinarily virtuosic (to the point of impossibility!). In general, the more complex the piano part, the higher the “resolution” with which it represents the musical characteristics of the voice. The Cecil Taylor movement has maybe the highest resolution of any movement to date, while this new Alvin Lucier segment is perhaps the simplest – single notes, each with its own dynamic and registral placement, at a moderate tempo. It’s like a piano piece by Webern – compressed and essentialized, the Voices and Piano concept at its most distilled.

You say on your website that you “love these pieces.” What in particular do you find interesting or appealing about them?

They’re beautiful, original and captivating as pieces of music, and yet they have all of these other resonances, based on who’s speaking and what they’re saying. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, there is an extremely unusual aspect to them that I would call “scientific,” in that in listening to them, you come to understand (in a deep, experiential way) something that you hadn’t understood before. The comparison between speech and music in these pieces, while it seems obvious on some level, is executed with tremendous imagination, conceptual rigor and human feeling.

As someone who has worked on both sides of the Atlantic, have you found any significant differences between the contemporary music scenes in the U.S. and Europe?

Less and less, though there is perhaps more of a tradition in New York and the U.S. of “do it yourself” – that is, creating ensembles, venues and record labels, rather than relying on pre-existing ones to support you. In the past, it seemed that the grass was greener in Europe in terms of government funding, but that seems to be changing, too. In addition, the Internet has made “the audience” less of a localized thing – in my experience, you can find a sympathetic ear anywhere.

You performed at Contempuls in 2009. How are you feeling about coming back?

I’m very glad to be a part of this year’s Contempuls festival. And I can’t wait to get back to Prague – it’s a wonderful city! I’m also very excited to hear ensemble recherche play Lachenmann’s Allegro Sostenuto, which is a classic.

For more on Eric Wubbels:

To see him play a segment from the Voices and Piano cycle:

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