Thoroughly Good Q&A: Composer Moritz Eggert

I listened to ‘Number Nine VII: Mass’ for the first time the other day. Is sounded like tremendous fun. How does my impression of it relate to your intent when you were writing the piece?

That came about from a funny incident with a good friend of mine in a concert. He didn’t know anything about classical music. He was looking at it from an entirely different perspective. Of course there were lots of breaks in the music when the players weren’t doing very much. He was shocked at the end. All these people are paying for their tickets why are the musicians not playing all the time? I thought that was a really funny observation. I went on to explain to him what he’d seen and why the musicians weren’t playing all the time. That’s when I thought it would be an interesting challenge to write music in which everyone had to play all the time.

It sounds like you want to have fun when you’re writing

I’m not sure its necessarily about my own fun. I think it’s my obligation as a composer to not bore my listeners and also to involve everything that is present in life. If you look at Mozart or Beethoven they thought that everything that had a place in life had a place in music. This is what makes their music so great. I think as a composer it’s really something very difficult to achieve to be entertaining and say something that it is important.

Can you recall when you’ve received a negative feedback on your work? What was the quality of that feedback and how did you do handle it?

I think that the worst thing that can happen to a composer after a performance is a member of the audience can say “that was really interesting.” Interesting really means ‘it was really boring’. I can handle extreme reaction and extreme affirmation too. But if people are really hating something I think that’s a better reaction because something happened. There was a lot of music I listened to as a kid that I thought was horrible and I reacted against – Mahler is a good example. That strong reaction turned into extreme admiration ater in my life.   I know that sometimes that extreme reaction are sometimes necessary so that later you can love something. I think an extreme reaction is more important than being neutral about it.

Can you recall what music you found boring?

Yes of course. I got bored listening ot endless performances of Bach preludes and f ugues as a kid. Everybody has these experiences. Not everyone likes Shakespeare when its presented to you in school but they later grow to love it. It’s the same thing.

But I’ve felt very often that I’ve got very bored now in some contemporary concerts. I feel that some composers wear their intent on their sleeves and its more like presenting how clever they are rather than presenting music which is fascinating or inspiring or of honest artistic expression rather than something written to impressive their peers.

I’m struck by how speak of your sense of responsibility to the audience

I’m not trying to satisfy them. That would be the wrong word. When I compose I constantly try to put myself in the shoes of someone listening to my music for the first time. I try to find something that can be decoded by anybody. I often use theatrical or humorous elements or discernible melodies. That’s important to me because I know that I get very bored easily so I don’t want the audience to get bored. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to do something that challenges the audience – creatively that wouldn’t interest me.

To what extent do people like me – journalists – hamper composers of new music by being constantly obsessed by explaining context? I wonder whether that’s an assumption on my part or whether you experience that tension too.

It’s an interesting tension. I’ve had bad reviews and good reviews. But I’m not someone who thinks critics are always wrong and I’m right. It’s a necessary discourse. I can understand how if someone is experiencing something new that theres a gut reaction against it. If that person is intelligent enough and honest enough to reflect on how ideas and feelings change over time, that’s an interesting and valid process. I think we need people judging our work from outside. Critics write about our work from a knowing perspective. But we need people who aren’t experts writing about our work too. It’s a mix of things.

That sounds like a mature and grown up and sensible outlook, and is something I really admire and would probably like to be a little more like. But I wonder whether you’ve always thought that way.

Of course not. There has been horrible despair. I remember there was an opera that was really dear to me and people were really down on it. But then you know, it got a second chance. The same critics who ripped it apart the first time around, wrote about it in far more positive ways second time around. In the end you have to have an honesty to yourself. You cannot change who you are. It might not be the right strategy to write to satisfy the person who previously dismissed your work as crap. In the end I have to be authentic to my own musical language. You have to find what it is you believe in and then you have to stick to it. I firmly believe that.

I get that. But is there a way people write about contemporary music needs to change?

If a reviewer is fair then it can also be very critical. Sometimes it feels like writing is not always fair. That’s where the constant bickering between critics and composers comes about. Of course , this can be debated endlessly. I feel that if everyone treats it fairly then people can accept criticism. I think too that if we could return to how music was written about in the 19th century. If you read these old reviews they’re always very personal. The reviewer used to write about their experience about being there. A personal view is far easier to take if they hated the music than a review that merely states ‘It was awful.’

Can you describe for me how you hear the world around you?

I can only answer that I try to hear the world around me – I try to hear the complete musical world. That’s only an ideal. The world is so complex and I’m not an expert on all music. What I do with my students is to play music that we would otherwise listen to. Everything that I hear in music has a role in what I do. Influencing – I don’t mean I imitate it. I amalgamate it.

When you’re teaching composition students do you notice the same motivation that you had when you were younger?

They’re all very different. Some of them you have to break because they gush out music. Others you have to kick them a bit to get writing. I think the motivation is basically the same. I would hope that they are composing because of the love of composing. Sometimes you meet some students who are doing it because they think it’s a cool thing to do. Fundamentally though, they need to have something to say. Once they are honest about this and they really do it for the music I think that the motivation is alright. It’s the aesthetical discussion which is important – that’s what is constantly changing. That’s where I benefit from discussing and quarrelling with them about aesthetics and style.

How have those kinds of discussions changed since you were a student?

It’s far less dogmatic. I studied in London and its nothing like the dogmatism that was present in German. The Avant-Garde school was very big and very insistent in Germany when I was growing up. Sometimes the discussions were very heated. Its changed now because music styles have opened up. But at the same time some of the urgency is lost. I find that people gravitate to particular groups and stick to those groups and not seek out more. I find that problematic. In the 80s we were more insecure so we were trying to find our own way more.  I think an artist has to constantly rethink what it is that they do and are.

Muzak and Number Nine VII: Masse was premiered and recorded by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and conducted by David Robertson in April 2018. It’s now available on Spotify and Idagio

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