“Sometimes I feel like a chef”

A conversation with Oscar Jockel

(Photo: Peter Adamik)

Oscar Jockel doesn’t like to be categorised. He is successful as both a composer and conductor; he has a French mobile phone number, an old house in a remote Austrian mountain village and, now also a flat in Berlin. He assists chief conductor Kirill Petrenko at the Berliner Philharmoniker. For the past two years, he has held a conducting fellowship at the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Karajan Akademie, and is now premiering his new work paths in the sky with them.

Mr Jockel, what are you exactly – a composing conductor or a conducting composer?

Oh, I get asked that all the time! I’m neither. Or both at once. In any case, I couldn’t be just a composer or just a conductor. I love to immerse myself in the scores of the great composers of the last 500 years and bring them to life. And then again, I like to forget them all, listen to myself and try to find my very own sounds. This ambivalence is also reflected in my own life: I need the solitude of Bretstein, a medieval mountain village in Styria with just five houses, where I can watch the clouds over the Alps and compose from dawn to dusk for several weeks at a time. No mobile phone reception. And then I’m drawn back to the city, to the company of people, where I can surround myself with culture.

How did you end up in this village, of all places? Did you just happen to pass by on holiday?

You don’t just happen to pass by there! Bretstein is at the end of the road in a valley basin, in the middle of the mountains. In fact, I saw an ad on the French version of eBay. The congregation had been trying to sell the old rectory for 30 years. So I was able to fulfil a lifelong dream.

Back to the music: Anyone looking at your list of works would notice the original, evocative titles, often combined with unusual instrumentation. luft und fleisch (air and flesh) for musicians and dancers, dark wood for 21 bass clarinets, leuchtende erdbeere auf staubiger wiese (bright strawberry on dusty meadow). How do they come about?

Well, first of all, poetic titles are important to me. Not just orchestral piece No. 5 or something. I think they have the effect of Japanese haikus: although they seem very concrete at first glance, they contain several levels, and they open up unexpected associative dimensions. But mainly, they are a result of my way of working. I don’t just start writing on any given day and see what comes to mind. First there is a sound in my head, from which follows a conceptual idea, an overarching thought, which ultimately has an effect on every single note. For this to work, I have to spend a lot of time on preliminary considerations, structural plans, sketches. This can take years. Then I try to articulate this fundamental idea in a title, to “condense” it, as it were, in poetry.

What can you tell us about paths in the sky?

The orchestra is divided into five groups, which are placed in different galleries in the auditorium. All musicians follow their very own path – through the piece, but also literally through the ascending rows of seats of the Philharmonie. When you hear the title, you could also think of completely different things -  of spiritual paths in life, of condensation trails from aeroplanes, or simply of falling leaves. It doesn’t really matter. Just as everyone in the audience has an extremely individual listening experience because of the way that the players move through the space, the meaning of the title will also be individual for everyone.

And how would you describe the music?

Basically, sounds interest me far more than rhythms or melodies. I have the idea of a certain sound, and I try to recreate it in music. Sometimes I feel like a chef who has a final product in mind, but no recipe for it yet. First, I have to choose the right ingredients – that is, the sound material, the instrumentation – then the mixing ratio and the method of preparation. The creation, the actual writing down of the notes, usually happens very quickly.

How does such a musical recipe look?

I often try to create the greatest possible variety with very reduced musical material. Like Giacinto Scelsi, who wrote four pieces in 1959 that make do with only a single note. Or like Josquin Desprez around 1500 with his mensuration canons, in which all the individual vocal lines are all based on the same phrase of Gregorian chant. I like to use those canon techniques, too. Certain tonal sequences or patterns are repeated, but the voices are staggered and not necessarily in the same tempo. This creates a very complex sound texture with intricate layering. I really enjoy using intellectually-constructed sets of rules to create a particular sonic experience. Like a cloud that is indefinable at first sight, but unique, floating by.

Does it help with composition to be able to imagine the performance scenario as a conductor?

Yes, of course. But still, I try to free myself from that. I want to follow my basic idea and my own sound conception and not just write down a bunch of clichés that I know will work well.

Speaking of conducting, you have worked with some of the greatest conductors of our time – Kirill Petrenko, Sir Simon Rattle, Andris Nelsons, Paavo Järvi. What was the most important insight?

What they all have in common is that they have a very thoughtful and at the same time very emotional approach to music. But each of them is a different individual, and that’s a good thing. Since we play the same pieces over and over again in the classical world, they have to sound fresh and different every time. Otherwise classical music will die.

The interview was conducted by Clemens Matuschek.

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