Route Principale 160, CH-1791 Courtaman (Switzerland),
tel. + fax: (+41) 26/684.18.65, E-mail : laurent.mettraux(at)bluewin.ch
Luis de Pablo has written that you have clearly gone your own particular way, and that your love for the grand phrase, for rhetoric in the noblest sense of the term, as well as your whole musical deportment associate you with 'enlightened romanticism' and general independence of mind.
I would add certain specific features, like my search for an interior and meditative music, as if one were retreating into oneself or looking for a music that strives to use 'classified' chords in a non-tonal context or to evoke contrasts by the simplest possible means (and that doesn't mean the most simplistic ones).
Another essential aspect of your musical thinking is your relation to time.
With a very slow tempo and the frequent use of ties, making it possible to get away from a strict metrical system, an atemporal space is created that may appear static but, like nature, is teeming with life. By taking this and stripping it down to the essentials, but leaving enough elements to keep the listener's attention alert (without an overabundance of events that would thereby become devalued) and concentrating on slow and progressive changes, one's hearing is awakened and the ear opens up to relations of sound that the slowness of tempo makes it possible to rediscover. This aspect is one of my main centres of interest in composing: being atemporal, without tempo, or if you will, keeping on this side of a tempo. But this rhythmical aim is of course subject to the imperatives of melody or changes in harmony undertaken in order to unify everything (unless there's an intentional dichotomy). Disengaging from delimited and definite time allows great flexibility with respect to the musical gestures and an unlimited number of nuances in the compositional discourse. This flexibility can also be regained when, after freeing oneself from time and the ideas that are bound up with it, at least in Western culture, you suddenly see the fundamental unity between past, present and future. That's why it doesn't disturb me at all to rediscover musical gestures that may derive from former centuries. There's no particular attachment to the past, present or future, nor is there a reference, in the sense of 'traditionalists' or 'innovators' (who, though called 'innovators', are compelled to refer to a past anyway). At any rate, as far as I'm concerned, every work of music (even from the Middle Ages) is contemporary. By the simple fact of being performed right now, it's alive.
In this immense musical literature, are there any composers who have had a particular influence on you?
Basically all the more or less important composers from the Middle Ages down to our own times, as well as music from other traditions (China, Japan, India, Iraq, and so on). I've found inspiration in an extremely vast pool of sound, even though certain affinities can be more easily detected at first hearing.
And there's also your great affinity with marginal composers.
Along with the composers most often referred to in the history of music, there is a multitude of other ones, some of whom are extremely interesting but who have either been obscured by a reductionist viewpoint in the history of music or else are somehow out of sync with dominant musical ideologies. In the former case, I'm thinking, for example, of Ohana or Scelsi, who have long been unrecognized and are only now being rediscovered.
What do you mean by 'a reductionist viewpoint in the history of music'?
This is the viewpoint of a certain school of historicism derived from Hegel that believes in constant progress. But there are numerous contradictions: already in the fact that many only think of technical progress, without considering that the essential element of music is the spirit that underlies it. An oft-cited example is that Ars Antiqua was succeeded by Ars Nova; yet after Ars Nova and Ars Subtilior, the music of Dunstable appeared. Moreover, from an expressive viewpoint you cannot claim that, with respect to expression, the music of the seventeenth century has been surpassed by the music of our own time. And anyway, interest in other musical traditions capable of being just as sophisticated as the Western tradition opens our eyes to the fact that the relation to time and to history can be experienced in a different way. A certain arrogant 'Eurocentrism' that looks down on other cultures and the contempt incurred by certain composers who have been, or are still, judged insufficiently 'modernistic' or insufficiently 'traditional' seem to me to be the expression of subjective opinions that do not take account of the intrinsic value of a given work or musical tradition.
Isn't it difficult to affirm a true personality as a composer when you have to 'digest' so many different musical influences?
It's true that it needs a strong artistic personality to take up all these materials and use them as elements in the service of musical inspiration and not as tricks or shortcuts to make up for the lack of imagination. What's interesting about the contemporary period is that, on the one hand, an enormous number of new terrains have been opened up and cleared during the twentieth century (though a review of recordings produced reveals the immense fields of music that have been neglected). On the other hand, we're now living in a pivotal period: following a traditionalistic academicism that would not hear of anything 'modern', and the new academicism of a certain avant-garde fringe that wouldn't tolerate any use of materials regarded as passé, there's now a trend towards more reasonable, less totalitarian viewpoints.
What's your own attitude to the two forms of academicism you've just mentioned?
I agree with those who say that one form of academicism is just as bad as another. As far as I'm concerned, I don't differentiate between the materials one uses, as long as they have their place in the work being composed. I don't feel drawn by any academicism or any 'return to' recent or bygone nostalgias. A sincere artist can be very radical in his positions, but he will never be academic.
If everything is possible, then it also and certainly implies choice and therefore renouncement.
Music itself can dictate its choices, and I've had the experience of having to forgo composing a movement that I had initially planned on, because at the point I had arrived at in that particular work, it seemed out of the question to add anything further. The unconscious element plays a great part in composing music, and you often feel, more than you are able to explain, what is most appropriate to write down at a given stage of the work. The musical journey can be quite varied, but there's always a kind of compass that shows me the direction I must go in continuing the work. I've also often had the experience of beginning the first measures of a piece, then letting it rest for a few days or even weeks. When I take it up again, the piece can be finished sooner, thanks to the work of the unconscious.
The notion of enjoyment has often been played down by some contemporary musical circles, as if it were a matter of making a concession to the public.
Except for the ones you write for yourself, musical works are intended to be received by a listening audience. This is the composer's big responsibility; after all, if someone offers you his time, then in exchange the music he or she hears must convey something. If it were just a matter of enjoyment in the most superficial sense of the term, the trade would be poor and insignificant, which is not the case when the pleasure is the result of something deeper. So you mustn't only aim at the simple enjoyment of the listener.
Could you define precisely what it is, in your opinion, that music is supposed to - or could - bring to the listener?
Ideally, the listener should feel the action of the music liberating him (or her) from what inhibits his being, enabling him to face himself, with his negative tensions now eased and at peace. Before reaching that point of course, an inner path must be traversed that will depend as much on what blocks the individual as on the capacity of the different kinds of music he listens to, to penetrate the forces of his unconscious.
Is this the way music can be therapy for the soul?
Therapy for the body, too; a good part of our physical ailments are the expression of psychosomatic disorders. Escape music (syrupy melodies, demagogic harmonies or primary rhythmic pulsations evoking the mother's heartbeat felt by the foetus) don't let the listener grow within himself. On the other hand, music that has a surface aggressiveness or expresses only gratuitous violence can scarcely carry any further meaning; it's only mindless stomping. It destabilizes rather than reaching the depths of your being. To be capable of reaching deeper levels of the soul and the human spirit, every note or gesture of the music must be a carrier of meaning and be intensely experienced by the composer, who can then truly be said to speak 'from heart to heart'. So you mustn't compose anything that doesn't come from an inner necessity; otherwise the composition is empty.
Do you personally have the listener in view when you compose?
To think of several listeners, or even one, can be a source of a psychological block. In any case, if the composer has something profound and balanced to communicate, his music will reflect it (unless of course there's a technical incapacity). To add on one's intentions in the course of composing is more an obstacle than a help. It's only after the piece is finished, during its performance, that you see the reactions of the listeners. Before that, it's pointless to worry especially about this. But there can be interesting surprises, like the Japanese interpreter who found parallels between one of my works and the music of Japanese Nô theatre, although I wasn't aware of this when I composed it. Depending on his or her culture or preferences, when listening to a musical composition, a listener may feel addressed by one aspect or another, in other words, he may latch on to a given reference that he perceives or thinks he has perceived. This is part of the intrinsic richness of a work of music, one that is capable of offering something to widely different individuals. This has made me realize that my music is appreciated as much in Argentina as in Russia, India or Canada, for example.
It would seem at first glance that you have a particular affinity for certain instruments.
I must say that I'm interested in all instruments, including those that are hardly ever used (including Renaissance and Baroque instruments as well as non-European ones), but their use depends on the commissions I receive. In fact, it often happens that a performer who has commissioned a work is so satisfied that he orders another one soon afterwards. That's the reason why certain instruments currently seem to be preferred in my catalogue. That said, when I write for a particular instrument, I'm aware of (almost) all its possibilities, including contemporary techniques. This doesn't mean that when I compose a work I resort to everything I've ever learned, like a student. But there are potentialities I draw from, according to what the music demands.
Interview of Laurent Mettraux, realized by Philippe Schilder (Lausanne) January 2001.