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Composer Portraits: Johannes Maria Staud

When I start on a composition, I feel myself a bit like Ulysses in the Odyssey: I have the feeling of embarking on a voyage without knowing too much what shore I am steering toward. 

                                                                                                  -Johannes Maria Staud


Born in 1974 in Innsbruck, in the Austrian Tyrol, Johannes Maria Staud began his conservatory studies in Vienna with Michael Jarrell, going on from there to take a master’s degree in Berlin under Hanspeter Kyburz. He also attended courses run by Brian Ferneyhough and Alois Piňos. By the time he completed his studies in 2001, he was already set on his path, with several finely accomplished works behind him and a contract with Universal Edition. His earliest published piece, Bewegungen (1996), an eight-minute solo piano composition, is fully characteristic right from its start, with a chord that is at once luminous and charged, impelling onward motion. A commission from the leading Austrian new-music group, Klangforum Wien, resulted in the defining work of his early years, A Map is not the Territory (2001), born of thinking about how abstractions – maps, ideas, musical scores – relate to reality.  This is music quick, alive, and magical – and fully characteristic in showing that philosophical speculations, and their expression in other art forms (poetry, visual art), can generate new worlds of sonority and energy.

Staud was still in his twenties when he started work on his first opera, in collaboration with the leading German poet Durs Grünbein: Berenice, after the story by Edgar Allan Poe. This had its first performance at Heidelberg in 2005, just a few months after the premiere of its composer’s first major symphonic piece, Apeiron, which he wrote for Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. For the following year’s Salzburg Festival, he produced Segue for cello and orchestra, which startlingly sets out from a Mozart draft, and startlingly moves on elsewhere.

An engagement with a solo instrument from the deeper past, in One Movement and Five Miniatures for harpsichord with live electronics and three instrumental groups (2006-09), had the paradoxical effect of taking Staud a step forward, into a soundscape of tighter, pulsed gestures, avatars of eeriness, within an expectant atmosphere of noises and sustained sounds. This music of slower awakenings he pursued in, for example, On Comparative Meteorology (2008-10), the product of a residency with the Cleveland Orchestra. Robust dynamism would generally come back, but now with a sense more of impending catastrophe than exuberance. From another residency, with the Dresden Staatskapelle (2010-11), came Tondo, a potentially infinite passacaglia.

Pieces for symphony orchestra or ensemble have continued to arrive almost annually, but so have compositions for less regular resources, sometimes – and unusually – forming themselves around spoken poetry, as in Le Voyage (2011-12), after Baudelaire, scored for actor, vocal sextet, four instruments, and electronics. Working on this piece at IRCAM, Staud became fascinated by new harmonic possibilities raised by a very precise and particular use of microtonal tunings. A whole new phase in his work was opened, represented this evening by the works that close each half of the program. Among other recent endeavors, he and Grünbein created a second opera together, Die Antilope (2013-14), and are at work on a third, Die Weiden, slated for the Vienna State Opera in December next year.


Sydenham Music for flute, viola, and harp (2007)

Staud wrote this seven-minute piece for a first performance in England, at the Aldeburgh Festival, and found a topic with an English connection, as he explains in his note:

“When Camille Pissarro first came to London in 1870, he was fleeing the Franco-Prussian War and was living in the Crystal Palace area. One of his most beautiful pictures of this time is “The Avenue, Sydenham” of 1871, which can be found in the National Gallery in London. This work depicts a scene on Lawrie Park Avenue that is little changed today, even if there are no horse-drawn carriages any more. It conveys the atmosphere of an early spring day, with oak trees coming into leaf against a soft blue sky.

44 years later, in 1915, three years before his death, Claude Debussy composed his penultimate piece, the Sonata for flute, viola and harp. This work is strangely muted and fragile, yet its bright instrumentation seems to be the epitome of musical impressionism to me, a swan song for a whole era. It is one of Debussy’s most enigmatic and fascinating compositions, about which he said: ‘This is really melancholic. I don’t know if one should laugh or cry. Maybe both at the same time.’

What unites these works for me is the ambiguity between fragility and brightness, precision and blurred lines, melancholy and optimism, pastoral interest and a rational mind. If one believes in synaesthesia (I am not sure if I do), Pissarro’s canvas would surely sound like Debussy’s sonata (and vice versa)….

After living in Sydenham myself for two and a half years (and tracing Pissarro’s footsteps through Lawrie Park Avenue at least twice a week on my way to Crystal Palace park), I finally felt that it was time to pay tribute to this inspiring suburban area of London in which I have composed quite a few works, most of them orchestral. This time I did an unusual thing, for I chose this most tender instrumentation and tried to write a thoroughly quiet and fragile piece. As it happens, I could not completely do justice to this intention, as a stirring sonority disturbing the apparent idyll forced itself finally and suddenly to the surface.


Black Moon for solo bass clarinet (1998)

“I was impressed,” Staud writes, “and fascinated by Louis Malle’s film of the same title (1975) - the way he applied the principles of ‘écriture automatique’ of the early surrealists (Breton, Soupault) to cinematography. As a result, he did completely without logical strands of plot and used instead chains of ideas in free association (fragile, introverted scenes are followed unexpectedly by nightmarish, upsetting passages). I attempted to translate the basic atmosphere (or rather, the feelings the film evoked in me) into musical gestures.

Of all the instruments, the character of the bass clarinet appeared to me to be best suited for that purpose - with its manifold registers, timbres and possibilities (from velvety restraint right up to the virtuosic-aggressive). However, soon enough I developed the process further based on purely musical considerations, whereby the idea of linking small cells and developing them in an associative manner continued to play an important role.

Black Moon was composed in the spring of 1998 on a commission from the Province of Tyrol and is dedicated to Ernesto Molinari.”


Wheat, not oats, dear. I’m afraid. for seven players (2015)

If Sydenham Music conjures sunlit suburbia, this piece may suggest much more the shadows of mystery and menace in the city. Once again, there are connections with the work of other artists – in particular, this time, not a painter or a composer or a film director but a poet, Elizabeth Bishop, from whose ‘Letter to N. Y.’ Staud takes a joky line as his title. The poet has just likened the city’s buildings to growing wheat, not the oats that her addressee might have sown.

Writing for the three woodwinds, three strings, and percussionist of ensemble recherche, Staud favors soft sonorities, low in register as in volume, with the flutist and clarinettist playing bass versions of their instruments, incremental glissandos frequent, and the instrumental sound often misted with quiet vocal exhalations. Yet the harmony is as sharp and effective as usual, both in the moment and in supporting a slow movement that plays for ten minutes or so.

Summonses out of Edgard Varèse are recalled, but from another, distant era. The noise in the streets is not the rush of traffic but the padding of sleepwalkers. The state is one of an alert drowsiness.


Towards a Brighter Hue for solo violin (2004)

Staud wrote this nine-minute solo for the annual competition run by German radio. His own note follows:

“I composed this piece between June and September 2004, having completed my music-theater work Berenice. After a short introduction, there arrives a brief motif of markedly rhythmic character that is played in the opera by the contrabass clarinet. It recurs in the violin piece but is developed there in a wholly different – and much more dramatic – manner. It goes without saying that the reason why different conclusions have been drawn from that nucleus lies in the specific features of and possibilities inherent in the violin.

After the first two thirds of the piece, marked largely by intense forward drive, there comes a closing section where microintervals are introduced; the music becomes more introverted and the colors lighten up.

The work is dedicated to Annette Bik and Ernst Kovacic in gratitude for their advice, and was inspired by wooden sculptures by the British artist David Nash, which I discovered at an exhibition at Tate St. Ives.”

Par ici! for ensemble (2011-12)

In 2011-12, Staud was in Paris, working at IRCAM on Le Voyage. Baudelaire’s evocation of a journey by sea, full of promise and mystery, came to fit not only his specific musical intentions for this piece but also his mood at the time, discovering new archipelagos of harmony by sprinkling regular pitches with exactly detuned ones. Par ici!, which plays for about twelve minutes, came out of that project as a piece for the full Ensemble InterContemporain, taking its title from the same Baudelaire poem, whose opening stands at the head of the score:


Nous nous embarquerons sur la mer des Ténèbres                               
Avec le cœur joyeux d’un jeune passager.                        
Entendez-vous ces voix, charmantes et funèbres,           
Qui chantent: « Par ici! vous qui voulez manger               
Le Lotus parfumé! c’est ici qu’on vendange                      
Les fruits miraculeux dont votre cœur a faim;        

[We shall set sail upon the sea of Dark
With happy heart like someone young aboard.
These voices do you hear, alluring-black,
That sing: “This way if you would like to feed
On scented Lotus! this is where to find
The fruits miraculous you hunger for…]         

Staud has said how Baudelaire’s image of disembodied voices overlaps with his feeling of a composition calling to him as he sets out to work, and with his sense, too, of the obligation to discover new territory. Here, in the first part of the piece, marked “delicate and enticing,” the starting point is a tritone flattened by a quarter-tone. Twelve notes, spread across almost the full range of the piano keyboard, are raised by a quarter-tone on the ensemble piano, and these retunings are used also in the writing for the other instruments, excepting only the vibraphone and glockenspiel. “Retuned pitches are not perceived as ‘wrong notes,’” the composer points out, “but as integral components of a microtonal conception of harmony.”

Gradually the music continues its search, by way of sustained notes and glissandos, solo passages, flickerings, and gatherings up into the highest register. Quarter-tone oscillation in the trumpet announces the music’s entry into its second part, where fast music, “wild and brittle,” alternates with slow, “sonorous and restrained.” There comes a crisis, followed by memories.

Program Notes and Baudelaire translation by Paul Griffiths