Boris Bergmann as composer and interpreter of his own piano compositions

An almost unique diversity characterizes the musical creativity of Boris Bergmann. Born in 1970, Bergmann is a composer of both “autonomous” art music as well as film music; he is a classically trained pianist as well as keyboardist and drummer in punk and metal bands, and electro and Rembetiko formations. This begins the challenge to be fair to such an overwhelmingly, multifaceted creative musical personality because this description suggests contrasts. However, in reality there is an obvious correlation, an inspirational network which exists between the apparently opposing aesthetic positions.

This “Hölder” album (which was what Hölderlin’s friends called him) combines piano compositions from 1998 to 2015. It spans a wide arc exemplifying, the development Bergmann has undergone as a composer and performer for his favorite instrument.

Martin Ullrich: This may be a bit of a rough typology, but in your approach as composer do you see yourself more constructive or intuitive?

Boris Bergmann: If anything, intuitive, although I cannot distinguish the two. I would say the material’s preparation is more intuitive and the composing process is constructive.

MU: That’s interesting! There are a number of composers, especially in the 20th and 21st centuries for which one would use the opposite description: the material’s preparation is constructive and the actual execution is intuitive.

BB: In Sonata No. 3 – the “Hölderlin Sonata” – for example, with which the album opens, it actually emanates from a point in the Hölderlin novel by Peter Härtling. Härtling describes Hölderlin as having improvised on flute and piano in his tower for hours. This idea simply fascinated me: how someone who wrote the brief, concise Scardanelli poems could simultaneously sit there and improvise for hours. This prompted me to record hours of my improvisation. After that, I listened to these recordings again and again for several weeks until I knew exactly what came when. Then I began cutting out passages and reassembled them in a new way without altering them. To that extent, I would say the material’s preparation was actually intuitive because in this case, it was improvised, the choices I made were intuitive but the subsequent assembly was a truly rational process.

MU: This process as a whole, as you have now described it, did you plan it from the start with these steps? Or did it quasi unfold intuitively, one step after the other?

BB: It also unfolded intuitively. At step one, I didn’t think about what I would do at step two.

—— This mentally seismographic element of Bergmann’s compositions, of central importance for the composer, is remarkably facilitated through the consistent use of recording engineering techniques.

BB: With this method, I see something that certainly differentiates us from earlier composers. First, there is the possibility to listen to existing improvisations again after an interval of two years. I then edit out certain passages and use digital technology to compose something new, combining them in the true sense of the word.

MU: And it’s interesting that you then transcribe your compositions, writing them down the classical way into musical notations. It’s conceivable that you might even produce a sound collage as a final product. But you do not do this; in the end it is musical text, as with Beethoven or Ravel. The recipient is not aware that a technological intermediate step was involved.

BB: Exactly – it’s actually a reverse transformation.

—— This is clearly an idiosyncrasy of Bergmann’s creative process: unconscious, spontaneous, improvisational elements and processes playing equally important roles with the rational treatment performed. This is then recombined using progressive technical means. None of this is presented with a special gesture; rather, it subsides into the background (or underground), in the final version of the compositions. The same applies to non-musical sources of inspiration, be they literary or private in nature.

MU: Can you say anything more about Hölderlin or Härtling?

BB: My improvisational sketches originated in 2009. During that time, I dealt with the Hyperion and the poems, especially the Scardanelli poems, and with the Härtling-Hölderlin book. Initially, I had no intention of composing anything.

MU: The score of the sonata gives 2011 as its date of origin.

BB: Yes, the first two movements were already largely finished in 2009, but I got off on the wrong foot with the final movement, so to speak. At first, I had an entirely different final movement, which was totally unsuitable. I did not work on the sonata in 2010. Finally, in 2011, I composed the new finale. That‘s why the entire sonata is dated 2011.

MU: And did the third movement not come into being through this quasi-improvisatory process?

BB: Yes, it did. I fell back on older improvisations and remained true to this process.

MU: Did other pieces on this album also originate from improvisation sources?

BB: To some extent the first piano sonata did. The first and partially the third movement were created that way.

—— The resulting 1998 Sonata is Bergmann’s first published composition. There is a clear difference from the third piano sonata through the rich use of jazz characteristics and the repetitive structures of a toccata. These run through almost all parts of the five-movement work. Bergmann’s performance experience as a drummer in rock and punk groups is incorporated unmistakably here. But as in the first sonata, there are intertextual references, which in turn are not implemented pretentiously; these have subliminally influenced the shape of the piece.

BB: In form, the sonata is based strongly on the Cello Sonata in C major by Benjamin Britten. During this period, I often played the cello sonata myself. With its form of five movements and their characteristics, it served as a kind of blueprint for me.

—— This reference point is also valuable in order to comprehend Bergmann’s relationship to tonality. In this regard his musical roots lie not so much in the Central European seriality, but rather in a broken tonality, in which tonal tracks alternate with free-tonal outbursts. In this context it is meaningful to ask to what extent the composing of “art music” in the definitive sense of the word is related to Bergmann’s production of film and pop music.

MU: Take the Poem No. 1 from 2012, although I would not think of it as film music. But did the bold use of atmosphere in this composition and the frugality of dissonance evolve a step further due to your accomplishments as a composer of film music?

BB: Absolutely. This influenced me in view of the fact that I again became accustomed to music with less dissonance through my composing of film music.

—— Both of the waltzes from 2010 and 2015 included in the album are celebratory compositions in the best sense of the word. They are dedicated to the Austrian actress Silvina Buchbauer, the composer’s longtime partner.

BB: This work was a lot of fun to do. You’re moving in a traditional environment and I was concerned to develop characters that evolve with humor by being enriched through dissonance. However, they still maintain their dignity and elegance. It’s fun to walk this fine line.

—— The album was performed completely on Bergmann’s private grand piano, a historic instrument from 1910. The composer appreciates the special timbre of the Schwechten piano as well as having complete control over the production process. This is only possible because he is independent of a recording studio. This is true for the present album as well as this album with piano pieces by Alexander Scriabin and which was produced around the same time. Alexander Scriabin is an important factor for Bergmann in his own self-image as a performer and composer.

MM: Is there some form of tension between your role as a composer and as an interpreter of your own works?

BB: Yes, absolutely, but really vice versa. Through my role as interpreter I develop more as a composer. For example, I no longer notate as many details in the score. Through my involvement with Alexander Scriabin, this realization has been further reinforced: that every written note of music is only one possible interpretation of many. If you listen to the historical recordings from Scriabin himself, it is especially glaring: he plays quite differently from what is written in the score – tempo changes and even notes, which have not been written down.

—— Boris Bergmann is a cross-border musician in the best sense – he actually transcends, dissolves and negates borders as they are conventionally drawn between interpretation, improvisation and composition. But this dissolution is not implemented with expansive, pretentious gestures but more as a matter of course and with an astute sensitivity for the relationship between tradition and innovation.



Interview and Text: Martin Ullrich, English translation by Jeffrey A. Coulas