Immediately recognizable in Greek-French composer Georges Aperghis’s works are moments of startling, absurd and often witty theater. In his famous “Récitations” for solo female voice, sensual incantations expand and contract, pyramid-like, on the page and in time; “Les guetteurs de sons” (for three percussionists) delights in the play of sound, movement, and expectation created by the rising and falling of an arm above a drum. But Aperghis, 78, is a master of timbre, color, and shape even when his works include no explicitly composed theatrical elements. Take the blend between solo instrument and strings at the end of his “Concert pour accordéon”; the “Fuzzy Trio,” in which fragments of tonal material are stripped of context, like Classical artworks stolen from a museum and placed in an thief’s attic; or the bracing, acidic timbral mixture of spoken and sung language in the “Wölfli-Kantata.” Aperghis’s music is new music with lowercase letters. It’s rare to find a composer so prolific and yet so immune to the clichés of contemporary composition.
Aperghis’s latest work, a music-theater piece titled “Die Erdfabrik” (“The Earth Factory”), runs from August 11 to August 20 at the Ruhrtriennale Festival in western Germany, with the performances taking place in Duisburg. Using texts by the contemporary French author Jean-Christophe Bailly and the German Romantic poet (and occasional composer) Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, the piece aims to explore the geological processes behind coal formation, processes humans learned to harness and which now threaten our existence on this planet. I spoke with Aperghis before rehearsal in Duisburg in a mixture of French and English.
VAN: Your new work “Erdfabrik” has text by the author Jean-Christophe Bailly. Did he give you a “libretto” for the work?
Georges Aperghis: No, I began with the music and images. I thought of mines, caves, caverns, tunnels. I began working on the sounds: drops of water, little hammers… All of a sudden I decided to find someone to work with. I’d known Jean-Christophe before, and it turned out that he had visited mines in France, Germany, and England. He had the background.
We never really spoke about the form of the text. But he wrote some things, and he told me to just take what I wanted. There was no order, he wrote independent pages [of text]. And I distributed them in the music. It wasn’t a closed thing like a script or a libretto, they were suggestions to be inscribed in the music.
As the composer, you chose the dramaturgy and the form of the work?
Yes. In the performance, the music shapes everything.
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Did receiving the text affect what sounds you chose for the piece?
Yes, because once the composition started taking on a form, there were other sounds that came to me that I wouldn’t have thought of if I didn’t have the text. Furthermore, Jean-Christophe gave me the poems of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, which are fantastic. I didn’t know them at all. She was a friend of Robert and Clara Schumann. Her poems are very sonorous, they have so much noise in them. And that inspired me a lot as well.
In one gorgeous line that fits Aperghis’s subject, von Droste-Hülshoff’s narrator describes “pulling herself into the pores of the earth.”
You are currently in rehearsals for “Die Erdfabrik.” Do you still change sounds in the piece at this stage?
Yes, but now the piece is almost finished. This morning I changed the placement of a text. I put it closer to the end, I think it’s better. But now it’s time to work on the performance.
What has the rehearsal process been like?
We’ve been working on the music for four days. There are many details to practice. There are five performers who play without a conductor, they have a visual click track. Right now, we’re putting together the ensemble, the singer, and the video. We’ll start at the middle of the performance and go to the end, doing as much as possible with the video. And then we’ll start over and over. We’ll start at the beginning of the performance later on. I prefer starting in the middle.
You’re known as a composer of works for music theater, but listening to your non-theatrical pieces, I also think you have a strong ear for sound. Do you find yourself pushed into the role of a music-theater composer?
For me it’s the same thing. These days, we like to put things into categories. Before, the same composer would write string quartets, piano sonatas, oratorios, operas. And everybody was happy with that. For me, music is everywhere. With or without theater, it’s the same for me. My music always has theater. I don’t think about it, but I’m sure it’s there: everybody tells me that.
Yes, I think so. But I hear classical music the same way. If you hear a Beethoven string quartet, there’s a dramaturgy inside it: You have people who speak to one another or oppose one another. An idea comes and changes. It’s like life.
Your “Récitations” has been recorded on CD at least three times. Would you say it’s your most popular piece?
Yes, but I don’t know why. I’m happy that people like it. The reaction was immediate, when we performed it at the Festival d’Avignon in 1982. People were crazy about it.
Are audiences’ reactions important to you?
I like it when the audience is happy, I like to give good energy to the audience. Beyond that… I’m too old to care now. When you’re very young you [care more]. Because you don’t know where you are: You know what you want, but you don’t know if you’ll be able to communicate it. It’s like creating a new language; you have to see if other people understand something.
Do you know where you are now?
Because when you’re young you can go wherever you want. Now I’m continuing my problems: harmonic problems, melodic problems. I have a lot of problems.
In “Die Erdfabrik,” there are many strange colors. It’s a lot of work to find the right combinations. There’s a trumpet that doesn’t sound like a trumpet, the bass and the percussion have a lot of soft sounds. All together it’s like an organism.
It’s a longer process. And I’m continuing. After this, I have a piece for orchestra. I have to resolve problems of counterpoint, of harmony, of the combinations of instruments.
Have you started that piece?
Before I came here, I made some sketches. But they are no good. I was too tired and I was anticipating coming here, so my brain was here. [Laughs.] So I’ll have to start later, at the end of August.
In an interview with VAN five years ago, you said you compose all day, every day. Is that still true?
Don’t you get tired?
No. I have my best moments when I’m composing.
How much coffee do you drink?
I drink coffee all the time. [Laughs.] I used to smoke Italian cigars all day, but I stopped. They started making me feel bad. That was eight years ago.
Did you work as much when you were younger?
Not as much, because I had my children, my wife. [Aperghis’s wife, actress Édith Scob, died in 2019—Ed.] And now I am quite alone. My children are in their 50s. My granddaughter, Jeanne Aperghis, is working on the video for this project, she’s 23. So for me music is everything now.
Do you listen to music by other composers while you’re composing—on the same day, for example?
Yes, occasionally: Classical music. I play Beethoven’s piano sonatas and listen to his quartets. I have Mozart and Beethoven facsimile scores. I dream about them. You can see how they go in one direction and then jump to another idea. Mozart is more immediate; Beethoven prepared carefully. In his notebooks, there are a lot of different ideas on the same page, even for different pieces. It’s like a puzzle: Everything finds [its place], everything is developed. It’s inspiring to feel their processes and to approach their way of thinking. ¶
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