The Arts

'I Feel as if I See Music'

Peter Eötvös has devoted his life to three major musical paths—teacher, composer, and conductor of contemporary works. Born in Transylvania, he studied composition in Budapest and conducting in Cologne. As a conductor, he is one of the best-known interpreters of 20th-century music.

Is it true that after close to 40 years, you’re moving home permanently to Budapest?
As with every statement, it’s only partly true. It’s just that from now on, I am going to try to spend my free time here. I guess that really means I’ll be composing here, or at least, moving my desk here.

Until now, some have said that since you don’t compose here, you really can’t be considered a Hungarian composer. Does this bother you?
I smile at this kind of thing. Whatever color my passport, wherever I live, the world knows me as a Hungarian musician. It’s true that there was a time in my life when I worked in Paris, having crossed over from Cologne, and at a Budapest concert, the posters said Peter Eötvös—France. Meanwhile, the French thought I was German. This back-and-forth life has begun to settle in recent years, and Budapest has taken me back; I felt it when they named me honorary citizen.

Basically your path began in the Kodály Music Academy, even if your career really took off in Cologne.
In Cologne as a scholarship student, I came into contact with technical facilities that were not within the realm of possibility in the Music Academy. In the realm of electronic music, I managed to begin creating sounds completely different from anything I had done before....My debut on the podium was with the Cologne Radio Symphony.

Since then, you’ve conducted your own works, but you’ve also tried to popularize those of other composers. Where does this kind of missionary zeal for contemporary music come from?
As a composer, I feel it’s natural that I conduct the music of my time. In the previous century, the ratio of play that old and new music got was much healthier than in the 20th century.

According to Adam Fischer, the problem with current classical music is that it has retreated to an ivory tower and doesn’t appeal to a larger audience. Do you feel this as well?
My opinion is different. I think audiences are open, and what they will accept can be guided. In Paris, for example, for five years we worked like dogs to get audiences into our concerts. And you can see that [in Paris] there is no problem with contemporary music. Of course, you need to give snapshots, allowing people to get used to the music, as I do before a public concert. On three consecutive nights, halls in Munich and Berlin were filled when I had an introductory evening before Philharmonic concerts. It was mainly 20th-century Hungarian composers on the program—from my own works, we played “Atlantis” in Berlin and “ZeroPoints” in Munich. For the last one, when I conducted in Leipzig, there were 1,600 people curious about the works—and me—on both nights.

In Stuttgart’s Liederhall, in the commentary-accompanied programs, you absorbing musical history that we followed between composers and yourself led the program. But do you know who the audience was, who it is that makes up the audience for classical music?
These programs were designed for a series-ticket-holding audience. In such series concert programs, contemporary and classical music both play a major role. As you saw, the Stuttgart audience that came to the 20th-century programs had bought the series pass because of the classical music. And it is a pleasure for me to see more and more young people. In Munich, for example, among the three series programs offered, the first was one specifically for young people; there were 1,500 people in the hall.

Also, in recent years the concept of the composer-in-residence has spread everywhere, which means that large orchestras will hire a composer for an entire season as an adviser who lives with the orchestra, attends rehearsals, and participates in planning. For myself, I am happy if composers are present at rehearsals and there is a direct relationship between composer and orchestra. At the beginning of my career, it meant so much to me that Pierre Boulez was there to listen to my problems.

Boulez also enjoys being on the podium, but you have turned your back on classical music to invest your energy almost entirely in contemporary composers. Was this a conscious decision?
Yes. To me this is like the relationship between history and politics. Politics consists of current events, while history is the source of exemplars. Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms are historical examples....While I practice contemporary music, if necessary, I can at any time touch again on Beethoven. My personal taste extends to all types of music, be it a 16th-century German Lowland choral piece, any kind of folk music, jazz, and pop, because it is really the “musical presence,” musical communication, that fascinates me.

If we hear an Eötvös piece, how can we recognize it?
Do I have my own voice? Of course. What really interests me is to compose music that can grip the listeners’ imagination, as if they were seeing a film. When I compose, I feel as if I see music. I feel that with “Atlantis” in 1996, I succeeded in making “visible music.” But the themes I deal with are important, since these also help define me. Like every painter, the composer chooses different themes, tones, and types of sound.

Has a sound emerged that defines the present age adequately?
I think the spirit of an age exists. Today’s world has a sound completely different from that of the 1950s, for example. The spirit of the age is created through the combined mutual influences of the arts, sciences, politics, and daily life. This process defines the ongoing emergence of sound as well. For example, after the big romantic period, percussion instruments began to gain stature, and then came electronic instruments. I consistently use electronics in my works. I envision sounds that can be made only electronically—with synthesizer or electric piano—and I mix them in with traditional instruments. But by using nontraditional numbers of traditional instruments, new ratios of sound can be created. If I reduce the number of strings, for example, then the winds, percussion, and electronics begin to dominate, while the string sound is still there as a reminder, appearing as “beauty” or “idyllic life.”

And how does the recognizably “Hungarian style” appear in your music? Is this why the dulcimer gets a leading role in “Atlantis,” while in other places the hurdy-gurdy or zither appears?
Brahms, Berlioz, and Erkel all used the “Hungarian-style” rhythm, but in an absolutely Hungarian setting, we can only talk about this happening with Bartók. And this doesn’t just rely on the rhythm, but on the typical relationships between notes. It is the mother tongue of the music of Hungarian composers. For the most part, we all feed off Bartók.

The characteristic “Hungarian sound” is very important in the world of Western music. I conduct a large number of Hungarian works in my concerts; besides Liszt, Bartók, and Kodály pieces, I often have Kurtág, Ligeti, and Szöllosy. In my own works, as in “Atlantis,” for example, in the end of each of the three movements, I use Székely [an ethnic group in Transylvania] music, which I use to warn that an old culture is endangered. The theme of “Atlantis” has to do with lost cultures, and the beautiful documentary by Pál Schiffer on the oppression of the culture of Transylvania provided the inspiration for it.

The use of the dulcimer was not unintentional. My dissertation piece was written for the dulcimer, because in the 1960s, it was considered a new instrument with a fresh sound. At that time, the dulcimer was associated with Kurtág, when he also was taken with it.

After many publishers—Ricordi, Salabert, Zenemukiadó—the German firm Schott is now releasing your works and is representing you legally as well. How has this been for you?
Today, the main task of publishers is not the publication of sheet music, but for example, the arranging of rights concerning operas, from the libretto to video, CD, DVD, and Internet rights. Take the libretto from my opera The Balcony, for example. It was based on a Jean Genet play, and it was a long time before an agreement on all the assorted details was reached between Schott and Genet’s publisher. Luckily, I didn’t have to take part in the negotiations, because these demand complicated legal expertise and have serious financial ramifications for decades. A battle is fought for every cent.

Since you bring up financial matters: Can an honorarium motivate you as well?
I know two kinds of musicians. One group lives for music, and the other lives from it. I’ll admit—though it’s probably suspected already—that I don’t live on my musician’s honorariums, but on my composing income. There are those who make a great deal of money and spend a great deal of money, because they make a lot happen around them. I try to do this as well, though a bit more modestly, as the amount I make depends on the operations of the Eötvös Institute [which he founded in 1991]. Anyway, there would be no use in keeping money to myself. It’s a bigger pleasure to support talented young composers and conductors through scholarships, because I never forget that I started out the same way at one time.