An Interview with Jakob Ullmann

By · Photography · Date 06/23/2016

I studied music theory with the composer and writer Jakob Ullmann in Basel, from 2011–2013. For this interview, we met him at his home in Naumburg, Germany, on a rainy Sunday. Books on new music lined the corridor; books on religion lined his study.

VAN: At one point, you used a professional biography that consisted mainly of the musical activities the East German state had declared you unfit for. Now you’ve started using a more standard one. Was there a reason for this change?

Jakob Ullmann: Yes. I’m not supposed to talk about my problems with the East Berlin Akademie der Künste [Academy of Arts]. I can’t prove what happened, since my file has disappeared, so I’m not supposed to talk about it in public.

Why were you in trouble with the state in the first place?

The first problem was that I refused the draft as a conscientious objector. The second accusation was defamation of the state. The third was passing information on with the intention of hurting East German interests—which was true, at least. Some friends and I had found out that there was a fire at a facility processing lignite coal near the border to Poland and Czechoslovakia, and the people living there hadn’t been evacuated. When people died from it, doctors wrote “heart attack” as the cause of death on official documents.

Then, there was membership in anti-state organization. At the time, when I was living in Dresden, the police would pick me up—every night, sometimes—and bam: in the cell, to the interrogation, with the Stasi. “What’s with this organization that you have,” they said. I said, I don’t have any organization. I said, You have me under 24-hour surveillance anyway.

You know, in East Berlin, I was able to get a telephone within six months, while other people waited 10 years without getting one. Because they wanted to listen in on my conversations. You could hear kind of a popping sound, because they were using stone-age technology, and you could say, Oh, it’s great that you’re here with us! Today’s technology has no sense of irony.

The fifth accusation they made was “anti-social behavior.” You could only be a composer if you were in the composers’ union, [which I wasn’t]. For a time, I made a living by selling pages of my scores to the director of a library, a remarkable man, who managed to get me all the scores I needed. At the time it was harder to get a copy machine than it was to get a Kalashnikov.

Did these experiences shape your music?

It was obvious what I couldn’t do. Every musician has a responsibility to make sure his music can’t become an instrument of propaganda. Maybe it’s true that any music can be abused—but what bothers me is the attitude that if any music can be used for evil ends, then it doesn’t matter what you write. If any music can be abused, and it doesn’t matter, then you might as well compose Carl Orff or Richard Strauss.

If an East German composer writes a symphonic work to support the oppressed farmers of Nicaragua, I don’t think it helps the farmers themselves. If you’ve got a hole in your roof you’ve got two options: either you write an epic poem about how terrible it is that the water’s dripping in and your ink is getting smudged; or you get on a ladder and you fix it.

I’m in favor of political action, but art shouldn’t be abused as part of it. Because that puts you in a position of defending bad art just because it has a good political statement. Or of judging art on its political merits. That just doesn’t work.

Jakob Ullmann, “Disappearing Musics”

Your pieces tend to be long and very soft. Is that because that makes them harder to misuse as propaganda?

I actually started composing like that after the Wall came down. My piece “Disappearing Musics,” which I wrote in 1989, was the turning point. I had been fascinated by hypercomplex music; I absolutely loved the way Brian Ferneyhough’s scores looked. Though I’ve tried to learn his “Seven Stars,” for organ, and always ended up chucking it across the room!

Then I wrote my piece “la Canción del ánGEL desaparecido” for the Donaueschingen Festival, where I ended up sort of by accident. The first version was basically impossible to play, the conductor didn’t want to do it, and I was very lukewarm on the simplified version and decided in the end to throw it out. And I thought, OK, maybe simple things could be interesting too—you would just need to listen. If you want to be able to listen, the music has to be soft. And the length came about because in soft music, you need time to adjust to it, around five to eight minutes. So it’s not a surprise that the pieces end up being around 45 minutes long.

Then I realized that when you write music that looks simple on paper, crazy things start happening. I did a piece for children where they had to hold a chord for 50 minutes. In groups of two, they had to hold a single note. On paper, it looks like it’s nothing at all. But of course it’s impossible. That sound of the two voices…listening to the one chord, you think it’s an incredible array of different chords, just depending on the way things line up.

Your father was active both in religion and in politics…

…his grandfather was murdered by the Nazis, and his other grandparents betrayed him to the Gestapo. He survived the Firebombing of Dresden by hiding out at the factory of the camera and bomber-sight manufacturer Zeiss Ikon, which the Royal Air Force barely damaged.

My very first memory is of my father being picked up by the East German police. He got his theological training here in Naumburg. Later he served briefly in the [German parliamentary body] Bundestag, and helped get the law making homosexuality illegal in unified Germany repealed.

And everything he wrote, he wrote by hand, with a pen. All of his articles are on my computer, because I typed them up for him.

Do you write your scores by hand?

Yes. When you work with [the computer notation programs] Sibelius or Finale, 80 percent of your compositional decisions have already been made for you. Making the score for me is like when a photographer—using an analog camera—bathes his negatives in the solution. It turns into something concrete when it’s on paper.

Ullmann, “Solo III” for organ

Since your father was a theologian—does belief, or religion, have a part in your work?

Of course. Part of that’s because I chose it, and part of it I didn’t choose. When I start first grade, after a couple of months all my classmates joined the [Free German Youth] Pioneers and got their blue shirts, and I didn’t participate. There was a flag ceremony. Everybody came, there were a thousand kids there. And they said: “Look, this is the enemy. This is what he looks like. He doesn’t believe in socialism and in human progress; he believes in idiotic superstitions, like God.” I was seven.  

The teachers were ambivalent. One of them had a job in tourism on the side, and he would send me on errands in the city, so that I would be out of school for four or five hours. I’m pretty sure that he was acting of his own accord.

My piece “Voice, Books and FIRE” is full of religious texts. But it’s like a temple to Aphrodite—you don’t have to be in an Aphrodite cult to visit it. They’re used like archeological artifacts. What they mean to me is completely irrelevant to everybody else.

It’s an interesting story: in one of my pieces, that came out on CD, school children were singing, and some of them were Muslim. And they realized that there were passages that used recitation from the Koran. So they asked their imam if they would be able to participate. He asked for some more information, and when he found out that there were instruments involved, he said that that couldn’t work: recitations from the Koran are to be done without instruments.

I wrote to him that I could understand his view very well, but that I had one counterargument: when the Koran is being recited in a mosque, then maybe a bird will sing or a car will drive by. That my instruments were more like metaphorical walls around the piece. And the imam accepted that.

You recently moved from Berlin back to Naumburg, where you grew up. How are you adjusting?

Well, there’s Naumburg, and then there are the people who live here. It’s kind of a neo-Nazi hotspot.

Have you had any interactions with them?

Oh yes, death threats and the whole package. My wife told me to go to the police, so I did. I went to the police station—back to the spot where, 44 years ago, I was arrested for the first time. ¶

Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.