An Interview with Rudolf Komorous

John MacKay

JM: I'd like to ask you first of all about your upcoming concert in Vancouver - what pieces will be performed?1

RK: There will be three pieces - the first half will be music of John Rea and the other half will be my music. There will be a new piece which I wrote in late spring for small choir and it's on the poems of the most famous Chinese poetess, Li Ch'ing-Chao, who lived about 1100 A.D. I just took five of her works and called them the Li Ch'ing-Chao Madrigals.2 Then they will do the Quintet for Winds (Fumon manga),3 in which again I have made a few changes. So it's certainly not a new piece but it has never been played in this final version. Finally, they will do the Twenty Three Poems about Horses,4 the new version for nonet and narrator which was played last month, so it will be the second performance.

JM: One thing which has always intrigued me about your work, and about which I have always been curious, is whether you regard the different "versions" of your pieces as "transcriptions" , "re-workings" , or "re-orchestrations" . It is certainly interesting to see these works in different " guises" , some quite radically different, like the recent version of the Horses.

RK: It's difficult to say. I usually call them versions for the sake of labeling.

JM: But does one actually replace another?

RK: I really do think that one replaces another. In certain cases maybe it doesn't but only by a performer's wish not my own. I feel that there is a certain continuity working through the versions. For example, Twenty Three Poems... was a commissioned work for the New Music Society in Vancouver. The original version for string septet was actually premiered in Vancouver. They had the first version and now they will have this final one.

JM: So the "official" version is played as a nonet. Do you take back the earlier versions or do you leave them available for performance?

RK: In this case, I will leave the septet version because it is really quite different. I am not sure about the orchestral version. I always thought about it as a kind of unfinished piece. It needed more colors than the (original) strings. I tried the orchestral version but it was simply too heavy for the poetry. The ensemble is alright but it involves too many people. I finally settled on the nonet because it's a miniature orchestra and it is still chamber music but with the greater opportunities to be explored in its timbres.

 JM. In other pieces like "Vermillion Dust" ,5 the version with the soloist is an enhancement of the original and you regard it similarly, as the" find" version.

RK: Yes, there will be only one version of that work.

JM: I was looking at an earlier interview you did in "The Canadian Composer" .6 In it you mentioned some interesting things. At the time you were working in the electronic medium more than you are now. You made a remark about the importance of a closeness to the immediate environment for a composer. I was wondering if you would comment on the intervening years, the recent directions which have appeared as a result of having stayed and worked in Victoria and whether this has had a significant relationship to your work.

RK: The place where you live always influences you in certain ways. I don't think that it's really a paramount influence but there must be some. I think that no one can really escape it and Victoria is quite a distinct place - it certainly has its own atmosphere -down by the ocean and the nearness to nature which doesn't exist in the big city. There you have to drive a long way before you can see a real tree. In Victoria you don't even have to drive. I think there must be an influence. I feel that since I have come to Victoria, nature has started to play a role in my music. Before Victoria I was very much a city dweller, and had never really lived in a small town. It was, for me, a little bit new as was the ocean.

JM: There are other things which seem to have emerged in your recent works. The influence, or at least the use of, (medieval) Chinese poetry, for example, which seems to be used very consistently. I don't know if you had referenced it previously in your work. Do you think it has some sort of connection, either conscious or unconscious, with your current directions?

RK: Yes, I do. I think that there's a very strong feeling within it. After all I lived in China for two years, so I know to a certain extent what it's like. It's not just a view from afar. Even now with all the political changes, the history is still very much present there. Peking is still a city within walls as it was many centuries ago. I think that Chinese poets were among the top poets of any nation or race - especially those of the Tang dynasty. Later there were still a great number of extremely good poets. I don't want to badmouth our own poets, but I think that perhaps Charles Baudelaire was the only one who was on par with the best Chinese poets. It's just incredible how up to date that poetry is. It's probably very much like it would be written today because it was such a sophisticated society at that time. There are so many lines which have the same importance today because we are in similar situations. We have aeorplanes today, but it does not make much difference on a spiritual level. Their feelings were very much like our own. They were a very advanced civilization but they already had certain problems.

JM: It (the use of Chinese poetry) seems perhaps to have given rise to new sounds and intriguing formal ideas in your work, perhaps derived from the form of the text or the coloration of the text as in a work like "Vermillion Dust" . Do you see this as a traditional interchange in which musicians choose between sound and poetry? The Chinese poetry that you've undertaken however, seems to posses a deeper significance and few composers seem to have worked with it in the same way.

RK: I'm practically never influenced by Chinese music but what you are talking about is right; it comes from the substance of the things (the verse) not from the outside appearance.

JM: Are you influenced, in your opinion, by musical surroundings as much as general cultural phenomena? I know you have had a strong interest in visual arts as well. If you were to enumerate things which seem to have a direct channel to your creative impulses, do purely musical ideas or other composers' works influence you as much as general esthetic ideas or those of visual arts?

RK: My main influence I think used to be visual arts. In my youth as a young composer, all my friends were painters or sculptors. We had a group in Prague and we worked very closely and I was influenced by them considerably more than by any music or any composer. I have to admit that I always found the painters more interesting than the composers! I think it's because the composers are always talking about the same things you do but the painters are talking about those things from a different angle. This is what makes it very interesting. I think my music was very little influenced from outside, at least since student years. I was of the generation which wrote like Stravinsky and half way through the school, we changed to more contemporary trends. But yes, paintings were what influenced me in terms of general esthetic directions and form; colors, too, but foremost is form because paintings are very instructive in this. The advantage of painting is that you can see the form in one single moment. In music it takes time - it's not traceable or visible.' This makes it difficult for students at the beginning. In visual arts it's simply there and one takes a few steps back to see what's in back, in front, to the left and middle. The form is basically the same as in music because it is a question of proportion. So I think that the paintings are a very good source for composers, especially young composers to learn about form; contrast, repeats, everything is there. There is just one art. Painting, poetry, and music are media or vehicles, nothing else. It doesn't mean, however, that what works in painting will work in music. One has to be very careful to stop at a certain moment because there are differences, but the real substance is the same. I wasn't influenced at the beginning by literature. For years and years, I didn't use words or text compositionally. I started doing this just a few years ago. They say that composers, when they start to get older, start writing vocal music. Perhaps its true.

JM: Would you mention particular painters to whom you were particularly close.

RK: I was very close to the Czech painters of the time. I was a member of the Smidra group and I was a rather close friend of Mikulas Medek who was regarded as the top painter of the generation. He died rather young some years ago. We would, of course, look very carefully at what was going on elsewhere. Jackson Pollock, I think was the painter who influenced me most.

JM: I wanted to ask if you could say a few words theoretically, about the Janeček system, a method of classifying and analyzing chords and pitch aggregates by interval content which you frequently use and teach. How do you relate such a system to musical situations and problems both personally and for students.

RK: First of all, I would say that in my opinion, the thorough knowledge of this or a similar system is an absolute must for everybody studying music. It is unfortunate that such a study is not a part of musical curricula at our universities. What students study at our schools is not harmony - it is applied harmony. A certain part of the whole available material is selected and then used in a certain way which is strictly connected with a certain style. The knowledge of such applications is necessary but first of all, students should study the material and its possibilities. For instance, we have the twelve equal tempered notes. What can we do with them? How many three, four, five (etc.) note groups can we construct? How do they differ from each other? What are their qualities? Janeček's work is not based on any stylistic application. It's a very thorough study of the material of the tempered chromatics, absolutely not connected with any style. This is why I find it so important, especially for composers.

JM: As a composer, do you use it pre-compositionally or retrospectively on what you have written perhaps rationalizing how you hear a particular chord or aggregate of tones?

RK: Nowadays I use my knowledge of that system mostly in unconscious ways. In some pieces, I have used it pre-compositionally. For example, the first version of 23 Poems About Horses (from 1978) is strictly based on a method which I used to call composition with groups." By knowing properties, let's say of five note groups, one can shape music in substantial ways. Janeček also studied the nature of dissonant intervals and therefore paid a great deal of attention to the arrangement of chords - what composers sometimes call " voicing". I think the main problem with twelve tone music and serial music is that the vertical sonorities are mostly arranged in rather haphazard ways. If you study complex sonorities, you find very soon that these groups have very similar qualities. Most of them have the same, or at least very similar dissonant characteristics, and so they have the tendency to sound very similar. If you don't voice them carefully, you will get what I call a "dumpling" . You hear all the chords simply as harsh sonorities. You cannot distinguish them. Even complex groups do have individual (harmonic) qualities, but we have to know how to bring them out in such a way that a chord has its own personality instead of being just one in a very large crowd in which you cannot distinguish one from another. This is really what is most important for me from my studies with Janeček. I studied with him in Prague but I can still find things (of interest) in his book7 - it's an eternal source of information for me.

JM: It seems to work in some pieces in isolated chords. In " Midnight Narcissus"8, the chord successions are disparate. There is something intriguing and similar about their inner resonance.

RK: Yes, I am glad to hear that. Actually quite a number of people have noticed that. What you call the similar "inner resonance" of these chords, a very nice term indeed, is caused by the selection and then again by the way they are arranged. Complex chords are influenced very significantly by the arrangement of their major and minor triad components.

JM: I notice, not only in Victoria, but in other places as well, that younger students have not always kept track of the developments of the 1950's and 60's. Perhaps I feel this way because they were such a strong part of my own studies. In some ways, today's student may tend to experiment on things which had already been tried and on which they could be building. How do you regard the problems of continuity in current progressive aesthetic traditions as related to students' concerns at the university?

RK: They have to know and listen to a lot of music. Because, as you said, they would lose a lot of time doing things over - thinking that they have done something new when they really haven't. On an undergraduate level no one writes great original music, no one can. On the other hand, you can' see that beginners, even when they are using a basic language of a certain style of contemporary music which they like best, bring into the style something of their own. I think these things must be enriched, embellished, and developed. I think that in the teaching of young composers there are two tracks: there is the technical one, and the other is to take the fullest advantage of the (student) composer's own resources. For that reason, I never push students to write in this style or that style. I. strongly believe that, with the exception of some very free improvisational music, you can teach anyone in any style because the basics of composition are all the same and it doesn't matter if sounds like Brahms or if it sounds like Ligeti.

JM: I was wondering if you would comment on what you feel are the social concerns surrounding the composer in Canada, particularly on the West Coast, as compared to other places in which you have worked.

RK: It's a very broad question. I would say that one difference which creates certain difficulties here (and I would say that in the United States it is somewhat similar at least on the West Coast), is that if you are a composer, a good composer, let's say in Prague, by writing your music and having it performed, you are a part of the history of music. What you're doing is important. People like it or they don't, but it's a part of something which is of importance. Here we live very much in a vacuum. A very good piece can be played. But people simply go home and it doesn't matter in the slightest way. It's just one nice concert and they say "Oh, it's a nice piece" and that's it. I was in San Francisco a few years ago and met some composers who were saying precisely the same thing. San Francisco is a big city and a very cultural one, but they' had the same feeling. You don't ever have a feeling of that sort in Prague.

JM: It must give the composer more of a feeling of capability of reaching people. The effectiveness of a composer must be related to the critical instincts of his public so if the public has critical instincts, the composer has that much more to work with.

RK: There's a stronger impetus, it's easier to work there (in Prague). Here you feel that you work hard and it goes more or less nowhere as far as the outside world is concerned. It takes more will to do it and put it all together. For that reason I think that many young people who are very talented and have started will stop composing after leaving school.

JM: : For lack of social support?

RK: Yes, from a lack of demand, appreciation and understanding. Of course, as everybody knows, there is absolutely no money in it so it takes a lot of will. But I think that in general the situation is changing very rapidly for the better.

JM: Do you feel the academic roles have anything to do with this, in terms of the isolation of the university community?

RK: I have the feeling that it is not connected with the university at all. I actually feel that the university has never been isolated. I think it's just a part of the whole picture like anything else. In some cities, it (the cultural center) is the symphony orchestra and in some cities it's the university. I think the cultural influence of the universities on this continent is incredibly important because the universities do things which they don't in Europe because they simply don't have to. For example, if the University of Victoria faculty didn't play all their concerts, the musical life in Victoria would be cut by at least fifty percent! All this music is supplied to the community free by the university. This is not the case in Europe because professors at, for example, the Prague Academy, do not play in the academic concerts. It would be unheard of since there are so many other outlets. School is there just for teaching and the only ones who play there are the students. So I do not believe in the isolationist theory, the role of the universities in the cultural life of the country is very important, especially in the smaller communities.


    I A concert for the Vancouver New Music Society, September 29, 198S at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre.


 2(1985) for chamber chorus, poems by Li Ch'ing-Chao (1085-1151 A.D.), English version by C.H. Kwock and Vincent McHugh.


 3 (1981, rev. 1985) for flute, oboe, clarinet in A, bassoon, and French horn in F.


 4(1978, revised 1985) for a narrator and nonet (fl, ob, cl, bsn, hrn, vin, vla, vc, cb.) Poems of Li-Ho (790-816), English version by J.D. Frodsham.


 5(1980-1984) for baritone solo, mixed chorus and chamber orchestra. Poems of Li Shang-Yin (813-858 A.D.), English version by James J.Y. Liu.


    6 see The Canadian Composer, April, 1975.


    7 Janecek, Karel, Zakiady modern? harmonic (The Foundations of Modern Harmony) Prague, 1965.


    8 (1977) for alto flute, English horn, 'cello, piano and triangle.