One recent afternoon, I met up with the German-born, New York-based composer and conductor Matthias Pintscher at a Berlin seafood restaurant. He wore a v-neck t-shirt, and after twice asking the waiter whether the oysters were 100 percent safe to eat, ordered nine of them for us to share, along with a glass of white wine. Rehearsal, for a concert the next day with Ensemble Intercontemporain at the Pierre Boulez Saal, wasn’t planned until the evening, he said.

As well as being the Music Director of Ensemble Intercontemporain and a professor of composition at Juilliard, Pintscher is the Principal Conductor of the Lucerne Festival Academy, an institution that was closely associated with Pierre Boulez during his lifetime. (The Lucerne Festival is a media partner of VAN Magazine.) On June 17, Pintscher led Ensemble Intercontemporain in Boulez’s “…explosante-fixe…” During the applause, he held up his score to the audience, looked towards the ceiling to indicate Boulez’s namesake hall, then put his right fist to his heart.

Matthias Pintscher • Photo © Felix Broede
Matthias Pintscher • Photo © Felix Broede

VAN: You were close with Pierre Boulez.

Matthias Pintscher: He was like a father—that’s a lot more than close. We really became friends.

How did you guys meet?

We met in Lucerne 15 or 16 years ago, when I was a young composer. It was a lunch set up by the festival director, Michael Haefliger. And I was really nervous. Because what if he asked, “So, what are you doing? Why are you doing it this way? How are you generating your harmonies, why are you orchestrating like that?”

You thought he would ask you questions like that over lunch?

Well, because that’s what your image is, [he’s] the one who’s so precise, like Ravel. There’s always an objective: why this is in that place. He would come toward the [musical] objects by determining the form first. And I’m the opposite: I follow my instincts, I try to find my form after finding the objects. So I was really scared that I wouldn’t have answers, and that this would disappoint him.

What did you end up talking about?

We talked about Jean-Luc Godard, film noir, Francis Bacon, Paul Klee, a lot about Patrice Chéreau. And we gossiped. Pierre loved to gossip, in the most sophisticated way.

YouTube video

Pierre Boulez, “Répons”; Matthias Pintscher (Conductor), Ensemble Intercontemporain

Many people, like Gérard Grisey, were completely shut out of the Parisian musical scene because of Boulez. Why do you think you had such a different, positive experience of him as a person?

Well, it’s always like, “Boulez was so restrictive and opinionated.” Yes, clearly he was, but he was mellowing down to a point. [Though] he never lost his sharpness and precision. He had no mercy if someone took the easy way. Even the late Boulez, when he was really weak, when someone was lazy or showing that he was not investing 100 percent of his willpower and creativity, it drove him nuts.

With everything else he was just super sweet. I remember, I saw him when he was conducting “Parsifal” in Bayreuth. And during the intermissions I sat with him in his room, and I brought him candied ginger with chocolate, which I made myself. He had—not only a sweet tooth, but really a weakness for everything ginger [laughs]. And we’d only talk about life, and friends, and the arts. He was adorable. I cooked my first ossobuco in Baden-Baden with him and his partner. That is my Pierre Boulez.

Articles like this, straight to your inbox

Success! You're on the list.

What was it like when he died?

It was really very particular. I’ve had a guest post with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Glasgow, for many years, it’s an orchestra that I really adore. I had been teaching at the Carnegie Hall Academy, coaching some kids on a piece of mine and a string quartet by Boulez. I was also wearing a Pierre Boulez t-shirt, which the Lucerne Festival has produced that year—it’s cute, wonderful travel gear. Then I went straight to the airport and [took the] one direct flight from New York to Glasgow which gets in an hour and a half before rehearsal starts.

That night Pierre passed away. And I landed in Glasgow, and my phone turned on but didn’t log into the network. So I walked into rehearsal, and we’re rehearsing the “Parsifal” Overture. “Parsifal” is the important work for Pierre. And I walked out, [cheerfully], “Morning!” And everyone looked at me, completely devastated. And I said, “What’s wrong?” No one said anything. I was the only one in the room who had no idea that Pierre Boulez has passed away, because my phone wouldn’t turn on.

So we played “Parsifal,” and it was not happening. Which never happens with that orchestra. Everyone was staring at me; I felt like I was on “Candid Camera” or something. So I said, “Listen, let’s take a break and have coffee, and work more on ‘Parsifal.’ ” And I walked out, and the first clarinet stopped me and said, “Matthias, we are so sorry.” With tears in his eyes. I was like, “It’s OK. We’ll work on the intonation after the break.”

And he said, “You don’t know what happened?” And I went to my dressing room, and my phone had basically exploded, because it had turned on in the meantime. And that’s how I learned about the passing of my father.   

YouTube video

On the Lucerne Festival’s Memorial Concert for Pierre Boulez. 

What was going through your head when you were conducting “Parsifal” after the break?

Nothing—just to work. That’s exactly what Pierre always did.

What’s more fun: conducting or composing?

The combination. Of course, conducting is fun in the sense that it’s always with people, it’s a lot more physical and social. You can’t force anything out of the players, you can only try to make the message that you’re trying to convey as clear and as strong as possible so that the right thing comes out. And then you leave it there and the next time you want to get even closer, have even more collective perception. It’s a beautiful thing, to activate every single element of that huge apparatus [of the orchestra].

There are moments when everyone in the hall knows, “That was something extraordinary.” It’s the one thing that we’re all longing for, I guess, to make that happen. In most of the cases it does not, but it keeps us motivated, it keeps us dreaming about wanting that again. Addiction is maybe a little too strong [a word], but you want that moment of the extraordinary, [when] all of a sudden the conductor disappears, the people breath together, and produce that one chord that says it all.

The way you’re talking about it, it sounds like the conducting is actually more fun, but you have to do the composing to get to those extraordinary moments.

Yeah, because by composing, you provide material that you believe in to do the very same thing—I’m about to make quite a powerful statement—as a Beethoven Symphony. You’re dreaming of one day writing something that has the same universal space that people can live inside. It’s such a cliché, Mahler, Beethoven, but if you play a Mahler or a Beethoven Symphony it’s pretty obvious that something very powerful is speaking.

Personally, I dream of that very same thing: that one day I’ll write a piece that allows the same kind of open-mindedness that people can use to find something about themselves.

Have you gotten there yet?

No. I think it’s a lifelong search.

Maybe in moments or in fragments?

Yes. There are moments especially in the last three works I’ve written. In my Second Violin Concerto, my Second Cello Concerto, and a shorter cycle of songs for baritone and orchestra, there’s some understanding that complexity needs space if you want to perceive it. I understand now more, through the conducting, that you need to allow time for material to unfold.

Matthias Pintscher, “un despertar” for cello and orchestra; Alisa Weilerstein (Cello), François-Xavier Roth (Conductor), Boston Symphony Orchestra

That’s a very Grisey-ish thing to say.

It is a very Grisey-ish thing to say. You love my Grisey my friend [laughs]. I love it too.

That’s true, I’m a huge Grisey fan.

What are your favorite works?

“Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil,” “Les espaces acoustiques,” and “Vortex Temporum.” How about you?

Same. One, two, three.

The violinist Leila Josefowicz said in an interview with VAN that all composers should learn to conduct so that they can hear their music played. Do you think that’s true?

I wouldn’t impose it, but clearly it’s a huge advantage to be a writer who works with the orchestra, so that has some consequences in your writing. Because you’re always so tempted to put things on the page that look fancy.

Why do you think that is?

Looking fancy on the page helps to convince [people] before the piece is played. But there are very few composers who get to the point…whatever you put on the paper should be 100 percent connected to your ear. The computer, which can generate, transform, transpose, push, squeeze, extend, and even create material for you, does not take our art form further.

I still write with pencil on paper, very old fashion, and then people computer-print it for me. I would not be able to put something on the page without hearing 100 percent of it in my inner ear. And that’s so different from lots of young musicians. They write something and say, “Oh, that line could go to English horn, or not.” That’s not how it should work; or how I work. I form, sculpt, shape something, with my inner instruments, and once it’s ready to go I put it on the page.

And that’s clearly connected to me being practical with the orchestra. People need to sightread as much as they can. Of course it looks super fancy if the tempo is [quarter note equals] 72.7 or something, but in the end it’s completely frustrating and a turn off, because there’s no human being who can deliver 72.7.

I disagree that you have to hear everything you write in your inner ear before it goes on the page. Isn’t trying brand new things out—where you don’t know if they are going to sound amazing or disappointing—what brings the work forward?

Not for me. I’m not experimenting, I’m not in a laboratory. I don’t use a world class orchestra to experiment, and then confess that it’s partly a failure or a disappointment. That’s not what I believe in. In the end we’re surgeons.

Wait, really?

Yeah. You experiment before in a different field. But when you make a decision and you provide something for an orchestra—I mean, the orchestra is a very conservative art form. It’s always been like that.

No, there is no room for experiments. You don’t change your dynamics, your tempi, or put fermatas in just because you forgot that there’s so much resonance in the space that you need to breath before you [continue]. You don’t write all of this [music] and then take half of it out because you notice it’s too big, too complex, too thick.

But what if the piece sounds better with the fermata, say, and it’s easy for the musicians to realize—isn’t that better for the audience in the end?

Absolutely: if something needs correcting, adapting, or adjusting, then OK. I mean, that’s what we do every day when we perform Beethoven, Mahler, Bruckner, or Ligeti. Otherwise you could put a metronome in front of an orchestra or use a clicktrack. You respond to the moment, and sometimes you put in the fermata. And if you have that rapport with an orchestra, they’re even with you and no one moves on to early because the moment has created that: “Oh, maybe it would make a lot of sense to wait here on the fourth beat.” That’s what music is, what makes it extremely beautiful.

But not necessarily in writing. I think there’s a responsibility to…

…live with what you wrote, even if you’re not happy with it?

I’ve never really revised pieces. I’ve left things unaccomplished, all the time, obviously—I’m not saying that I write perfect scores, not at all. But I would rather, when things didn’t turn out how I would have wanted—and it’s never details of orchestration, it’s always the form, like, “Damnit, there was 40 seconds too much of that”—I would rather not touch it and learn from it and import it into my next challenge.

It’s a personal choice. Very unlike Boulez, who would always be willing to go back and revise.

You’ve been an advocate for the music of the American composer Jay Schwartz.

I have the highest admiration for what he does as an artist. At a time when everything looks fancy on the page, [in his scores] nothing looks fancy, and out comes a music that is, on a human level, so profound, deep, heartfelt, and at the same time smart and constructed. I’ve gotten unbelievable musical results from his music with all kinds of different formations: the most conservative orchestras, the most specialized small groups, they all at some point recognize the genius, greatness, and modesty of what he does.

At the same time, he’s obsessed with how it has to be, he would never move an inch to the left or to the right. For me, he’s a Schubert of our time.

Jay Schwartz, “Delta – Music for Orchestra IV”; Matthias Pintscher (Conductor), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

I’ve sometimes heard this idea that composers need to be in an emotional state when they write. Do you compose when you’re experiencing strong feelings?

Never. There are no tears when you’re writing. Before or after, maybe, but not during. You’re searching. For me it’s like Japanese calligraphy. All the inspiration and preparation goes towards the moment when you dunk your brush into the ink, and you execute the stroke, the sign, the gesture. Maybe you prepare two days or 20 years for it. But you can’t alter it. It’s done. And it represents some sort of perfection. Even if there’s only a hint of perfection in that gesture, it’s valid.

What is perspective? I had this with a very dear friend of mine, an old lady, who passed a couple years ago. Her dream was to go with me to the Basque coast, and just feel the ocean. And she sat next to me and held my hand and said, “Matthias, do you know that we have a different horizon?” And I said, “What do you mean? It’s the same.” “No, because you’re not me. You’re sitting next to me, we’re a meter apart.” That made me think: it would be the same horizon, because we feel it the same way, look at it the same way. But it’s not. And that is my motivation to be alert.

It’s like that Joseph Conrad line: “We live, as we dream—alone.”

Yes. ¶

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.

2 replies on “Stroke, Sign, Gesture”

Comments are closed.