Interview with Ehsan Khatibi
Premiere on 20th November 2015 in the context of the Concert for the Nations given by the symphony orchestra of the UdK Berlin with Harry Curtis, conductor, Marie Amamoto, piano, Mayu Tomotaki, violin, Chiara Enderle, cello
Ehsan Khatibi was born in Teheran in 1979.
You are currently a Master's student in Composition at the UdK Berlin. In the Concert for the Nations 2015 your latest composition for a large cast of musicians is being premiered. How much of a challenge did it present to compose for a full orchestra?
This composition is my first for a symphony orchestra to be premiered; one earlier composition has not yet been performed. It was therefore an immense challenge for me, above all because there are the three solo instruments as well. And this instrumentation is an entirely new experience for me. Of course, it is a classical piano trio with orchestra. The best-known composition with this instrumentation is surely Beethoven's so-called Triple Concerto. But I made a conscious decision not to classify my composition as a triple concerto and to call it “Assonance” for piano, violin, cello and orchestra.
“Assonance” is your first composition for the symphony orchestra of the UdK Berlin. How did it come about?
The Conducting and Composition Department of the UdK Berlin approached me. They already knew my work from a workshop for new compositions run together with members of the UdK Berlin's symphony orchestra. And so I was asked to use the instrumentation of the evening, preferably, and write a short orchestra piece. I decided to employ the three solo parts in my work as well, and I was permitted to do that. And so I have spent the whole summer on this composition.
What are the various phases of composition in your case, how does a new piece evolve?
A new composition can take shape in different ways. Usually, first I take some time for the conception of the new piece, collect the sound materials, allow myself to be inspired by compositional and sound ideas – sometimes I get an impulse from outside the world of music – and find a structure. That takes up a lot of time before I even begin noting down the musical ideas. That is also a process, during which the composition develops. Of course, each time it is different and new. I use the piano for some parts. But I cannot try out all the sounds I want to on the piano. For “Assonance”, for example, I also tried things on the violin and the cello, and even acquired a cello especially for that.
If it is possible, I really like to work in direct contact with those who will perform the new composition. They can advise me about the playing methods on their instruments and the possibilities that exist. It can also lead to real experimentation together. If that is possible, I am delighted – not only because of the musical outcome but also for me personally, as ultimately, composing is a very lonely activity. Collaboration with the performers is always a great experience. I see how the musicians handle my notes, coming from their differing contexts. I find that very interesting and uplifting.
To my delight, the soloists of the “Assonance” premiere were very enthusiastic about my score and found it exciting to work on. It seems that my composition will be a new challenge for the orchestra, hopefully one they are inspired by!
What relationship do you have personally to Beethoven's music? And what is the relationship between “Assonance” and Beethoven's “Triple Concerto”?
Alongside Bach, Beethoven is one of my musical role models, but there is also Mozart and many other composers from the western cultural sphere, as well as Iranian composing musicians. I got to know his music very early on, almost at the same time as classical Persian music, which I began to learn at the age of about nine, on the santur, the Persian dulcimer, and music theory – which I also concerned myself with at a relatively young age.
In this Concert for the Nations, Beethoven represents the focus of the very successful programme, supplemented by two new works relating to him. In regard to my composition I must warn the listeners not to be disappointed, at least if they are expecting to have no problem with immediate, clearly audible references to Beethoven, like obvious quotations. This is a completely new, independent composition of my own, which works with the essential ideas and materials of the “Triple Concerto” as a sound basis. That is how the metaphorical name “Assonance” came about. By contrast to what happens in Beethoven's “Triple Concerto”, the orchestra does not have a predominantly accompanying function. Here, too, it is a matter of communication. The piano begins as a solo. Later there are also solo parts for the second strings and others. In addition, I have broken the sound hierarchy of Beethoven's work. Virtuosity is not important to me, but the quality and intensity of the sounds. It is not a classical concerto, of course. It is all about the sound itself, about wandering sounds. There are clusters, impure pitches, noises, sounds that are difficult to describe, a lot of percussion work …
The santur is not a solo instrument in “Assonance”. What is your position on projects that combine the music of different cultures? Do you do that as well?
There are some very impressive culture-spanning, cross-culture projects, in music in particular. They are interesting and very exciting. But personally, I do not regard that as my assignment as an independent artist. I allow myself to be inspired and process sounds, both consciously and subconsciously. But I don't even really know how to categorize them. According to specific regions or traditions? I don't think in that way. In my compositions I process everything that interests me aesthetically and spurs me on musically, no matter where it comes from. So perhaps I do link materials from different worlds subconsciously, but not purposefully.
What is the aim of your creative work as a composer?
Composing is an encounter with the world, a way of communicating. I would like to express my concern with the globalized world through sound, and to develop my own language for this. And I don't just mean globalization as a concept, but also from my own personal experience, during my period in Asia with its close contacts e. g. to the West, and also here. Regions and their cultures do not exist for themselves in isolation, they are in a process of constant discussion and conflict with each other. For me, sounds – music – are means of communication. Fun is not the aim of composing or art in general, although you do have fun in practice. During every composition process I keep asking myself the fundamental and painful questions: What have I done up until now, where do I stand now, and what do I want to do now? That is quite decisive, and it happens before the sounds are organized. Without these thoughts, the piece that emerged would be different.
You have studied composition at the University of the Arts Teheran, then at the Robert Schumann College in Düsseldorf, and now at the UdK Berlin. What differences are there in the content of teaching, and what do they have in common? What impulses are you getting here?
In Iran the links between classical Persian music and one's own composition were important, and I liked that. It gave you a clear direction but consequently restricted you as well. There is, by the way, considerably more private teaching from important musical personalities, also in theory, counterpoint etc. They are not always professors at universities.
In Germany I have more obvious freedom in my studies and I am learning about many more, different aesthetic ways of thinking and musical styles. And I am getting some very valuable impulses from Prof. Elena Mendoza. She has shown me the compositional approaches, tendencies and themes of various composers, which I knew about, certainly, but with whom I have only concerned myself in more detail now. All this has inspired me immensely. She gives me very constructive feedback and suggests that I examine some very helpful works. Here, I am able to develop my own musical language. I am very grateful for that opportunity.
The composer spoke to Constanze Beger.