“99 percent of the day, we are in the thinking mode,” Peter Ablinger tells me across a table in the lobby of our hotel in Bergen. “And in opposition to that, if we decide now to be silent for a few seconds. Just…” His voice drifts off and he raises his eyebrows in anticipation. For a moment, it is as if the outside world comes rushing in. All the odd ambient sounds of the hotel lobby become a sort of composition, much as John Cage heard the wind and the rain and the people walking as a composition at the Maverick Concert Hall in 1952. “It’s immediately a radio play or something,” Ablinger says. “We’re in another space completely. There’s no thought at all, just these footsteps, a car, a clink of cups. It’s just music. Immediately!”

We had both come to the rain-soaked Norwegian city for the annual Borealis Festival of experimental music. His latest work, an epic 70 minute piece for live electronics, sinfonietta, two speaking parts, plus guitarist Stian Westerhus, was to be premiered that night. In many ways, the piece was typical of the Austrian composer’s oeuvre: bringing together white noise and total silence, a dialogue between orchestral timbres and natural sounds, with a playful, allusive use of language, all combined in a manner that was richly conceptual yet deeply embedded in the physical act of listening.

Born in 1959 in Schwanenstadt in rural Austria, Ablinger studied first graphic design, then jazz, before training in composition. Over the last few decades, he has become one of Europe’s most respected and influential composers. He has been a guest conductor for Klangforum Wien, and a visiting lecturer in Graz, Darmstadt, Hamburg, and Prague. A resident of Berlin since 1982, he was elected to the city’s Academy of Fine Arts in 2012.

Self portraits (1979) • Illustration Peter Ablinger 
Self portraits (1979)Illustration Peter Ablinger 

VAN: Often your music will feature passages where traditional, orchestral instruments are made to imitate natural sounds, through a close analysis of—for instance—the changing frequencies in a field recording. It struck me that this approach harks back to a very old idea of music’s function, in Aristotle’s Poetics where he talks about music as mimesis.

Peter Ablinger: I hadn’t thought about Aristotle, but, sure, the wish to approach at least elements of reality is certainly an important one. I was also aware of the mimesis idea on another level. The first time I came up with this idea—it was not yet a precise idea but let’s say, a desire—I was still a jazz musician, so let’s say in the late ‘70s. I saw a photorealist painting for the first time, probably in Vienna, at a modern art gallery. So this made me think, what would this concept mean for music? Taking a photograph of something and bringing it back to the traditional medium of oil on canvas. I knew this was an important thing, but I didn’t know how to do it. At least it led me to make my first field recordings. Because the starting point was clear: where they start with a photograph, I need to start with a phonograph.

Peter Ablinger, “A Letter from Schoenberg,” from “Quadraturen 3.”

You often speak of “phonorealism.”

Yes. Phonorealism. But I didn’t know how to go further. I improvised a little bit with the recordings, but it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. And then maybe around 18 years later, in the mid-‘90s, when I got in touch with modern digital techniques in the Freiburg studio [for electronic music], I immediately knew how to do it.

So what was it that appealed to you about photorealistic painting in the first place? It’s an odd genre in a way: by some modernist conceptions, it almost seems redundant in advance. What for you was the fascination with this painting?

I don’t know exactly. The first thing would be the possibility of having a tool to approach reality. And if I could name something that goes through all the different concepts I follow in my work, it’s probably something you’d call illusionary, a desire for the now. We are here. The room is just a room, the people are just people. So even if I’m working with field recordings, I never do field recordings of exciting places. I only do really normal things, everyday surroundings. Only this interests me. Not something very specific where you have to travel and wait until midnight or whatever. Just these things which surround us all the time—but which we miss.

So it’s not a question of defamiliarization or alienation, of making the familiar feel strange—it’s something else?

It’s…it’s probably the opposite.

Strörfaktor (2010), Peter Ablinger
Strörfaktor (2010), Peter Ablinger

You mentioned that you used to be a jazz musician. So when did you start playing jazz, how did that come about?

The second of my sisters is 10 years older than me. She’s a sculptor, and was my first mentor. Every time she came home, she’d run up to me and say, “What new things did you make? Show me your new drawing! Show me your new composition! Show me your new poems!” And she gave me my first jazz LPs. I came from a very small town where you didn’t have such things. I started to try to copy what I heard and was playing jazz-like things at the age of 13, 14. And by 15, 16, I was in Linz in Austria, studying graphic arts for a while. One day I was in a music store and tried a Fender Rhodes keyboard, and another keyboardist heard me and invited me to join his band.

So I joined a band which had different influences, but with a lot of rock and jazz elements. The lead guitarist was a huge Frank Zappa fan. It was the mid-‘70s, you know—all these things were really in at the time, Billy Cobham, Chick Corea. Then after two years of graphic arts studies, I understood that all my thinking was directed towards music and not visual art. It’s inspired a lot by visual art, but it always goes from visual art to music and never in the other direction. So I realized I had to study music.

At that time, Graz in Austria was the first city in Europe to have jazz at a university level. So my friend, a percussionist from Linz, and I also went to Graz, and started to do that. After a year I still didn’t have much knowledge. I didn’t even know that something like new music existed. I’d never heard of Arnold Schoenberg. But at the end of that year I heard a concert with Cecil Taylor. This is the thing that I would say was the turning point in my development. It changed my life.

Peter Ablinger, “Drei Minuten für Orchestra,” III. Altar

This was in Graz?

It was outside Graz, at a small festival somewhere, shortly before summer vacation. Before, I practiced piano every day for 12 hours. But then I suddenly stopped and started thinking—or started just looking into the air. Then after a few days, I went to the piano and tried to touch it in a different way, but just for a few minutes, and then went away. Next day, a bit more, and so on. I developed a sort of language, inspired by Cecil Taylor. Then I composed several pieces, I founded a sextet with other students, and together we made this program with my pieces and had some concerts and a tour.

And when school started again in the autumn, I didn’t go to my main teacher anymore, the jazz piano teacher, because I knew he couldn’t tell me anything I wanted now. He was too traditional. I just didn’t go anymore. But I also had a classical piano teacher, and I said to him, “I won’t do that stuff anymore, you know, Mozart’s Sonatas and Bach’s Inventions. I’m done with that.” And he reacted well. He gave me Schoenberg’s Three Pieces, Op. 11 or something. That was what I needed. I took all these chords and implanted them into my improvisations. Then after a while of not going to my main teacher, he waved me into his room and, after making one last attempt to bring me back to the right track, realizing it was hopeless, finally he said, “You know, I have a brother. Maybe you should go to him. He’s a composer.” So I went to his brother. And this became my first—informal—composition teacher.

The oldest of your pieces in your catalogue now is the first of the “Weiss/Weisslich” pieces with the ascending and descending piano scales, which is already quite a stark, conceptual piece in some respects. How do you get from Cecil Taylor and Schoenberg to this much more pared back, formal approach to composition?

For me, it’s not so very difficult. For example, the opening piece of the set we did in the sextet was a piece called “Crescendo.” And it was nothing but that. Just a pure crescendo to the maximum we could. The goal was to reach this full maximum, until a degree of density—not like individual voices screaming and so on—but almost like a static density, a waterfall, plain white noise, white on white, like Malevich’s white square.

I can imagine that some people might say your compositions aren’t music at all. So what is your definition of music?

Hmm…I’m not so interested in a definition. Because it would feel like a limitation. It’s more interesting to cross limits. To say, this cup is music. And then you start thinking, “Why? Is it possible? Or is it just a joke? Is there a glimmer of a possibility that this could be music?” It’s a beginning. You’re not quite sure, which is more interesting. ¶