An Interview with Sarah Nemtsov

By · Photography © Neda Navaee · Date 10/13/2016

On a cold Monday morning, the German composer Sarah Nemtsov met up with me in our Berlin office for an interview. Yesterday, Ricordi Berlin formally announced the three winners of its composition competition RicordiLab: Nemtsov, Shiori Usui, and Steffen Wick. (The advisory board consisted of Liza Lim, Kristjan Järvi, Gillian Moore, and Dr. Clemens Trautmann.) As Ricordi’s media partner for the competition, VAN was able to sneak the conversation in a little early. We spoke over coffee about distraction, structural hurdles for women composers, and why she doesn’t miss making oboe reeds.

VAN: Congratulations on being one of three RicordiLab winners! How will this change things?

Sarah Nemtsov: On the most basic level, it’ll mean that I’ll have more support for larger works: on preparing the materials on the one hand, and organization more generally on the other. There are always so many things that have to be discussed: you’ve got to be in touch with the musicians…Ricordi will help organize further performances, all the promotion stuff. I won’t have to do all of that myself. These kind of things eat me up. And I’m not good at them, it’s probably not in my nature. I was never the kind of person who sent scores to ensembles and asked them, “Would you like to play my piece?” Right now I’m somewhat overwhelmed by all the organization I have to do, because I want to be composing instead.

Of course, it’s an honor to be chosen for this. It’s an affirmation for my work. It gives a good push, to find out about something like this.

Are you able to have separate times for composing and administration, or do you find yourself mixing them up?

I’m able to separate them. Right now I’m working on an opera, and I’ve been ignoring my phone and my emails, too. People have been getting a little impatient. But it simply wouldn’t work otherwise. It’s too much of a distraction. So I turn my phone on silent and get back to everybody at night or on weekends.

I have to set clear priorities. And that benefits my composing, but for the other facets of the artistic existence—which exist, too—maybe it’s not so great. I’m grateful to have a partner in Ricordi, so that I don’t feel quite as alone with all the things I need to take care of.

While the competition was ongoing, Ricordi tweeted, “Female composers: where are you? Up to now, mostly men applied to” Some people criticized this, arguing that the requirements for the competition—composers had to submit a full, recorded orchestral piece and a work for large ensemble, alongside smaller pieces—put structural barriers up in the way of female composers.

Yes, I heard about that. I actually didn’t apply myself until fairly late; but that was because I didn’t get organized until right before the deadline, not because I was reacting to the call for female composers. But I can empathize with the critique of the competition requirements, the orchestra piece or the large-scale things.

More generally, I’m feeling pretty positive about things right now. I have the feeling that there’s a certain awareness of these issues. People are discussing them. I didn’t go to Darmstadt this year, but I know there was a lot going on. And I have the feeling that curators and festivals are keeping an eye on their programming, more than they used to even a short time ago. So we’re going in the right direction. But still, if you look at orchestras and their new music programming, it’s scandalous how little they do. I’m not saying that we need a quota, but there are far too few female composers on those programs.

So in that context I can understand what people were criticizing, because the requirements were simply impossible to meet, for some women. Even if they would otherwise have had all the right qualities in their work. And it doesn’t have anything to do with how good they are; it has more to do with these structures, which need to be completely reworked. But I think that Ricordi definitely recognizes that now, too. It was their first call for scores, after all.

So you work with microtones, right?

Yes, a lot actually. Though I don’t work with them like a Spectralist would. It depends on the context: but I really do use a lot of microtones, and a lot of detuning. It also depends on the piece. For a long time, I thought about them as a kind of ornamentation. If you have a line, you can use them so that the spaces in between are perceived differently. They can be shadings of the notes, or they can also be used to create new intervals.

Sarah Nemtsov, “Journal”; Ensemble LUX:NM

Do we hear those differences when it’s a fast moving line?

Yeah, we do. I mean, Middle Eastern music is the best example. There’s such a sophisticated differentiation going on, and you experience that. I’ve studied it a lot for my own writing.

On the other hand, recently I’ve been working a lot more with harmonies. I hear them in my head, and I know how I want them, but like I said, I don’t think about them in the spectral sense. It’s not like I’m calculating out the different overtone spectra and putting in plus-or-minus however many Cents.

It doesn’t sound like that’s what you’re doing.

Exactly. I’m trying to find my harmonic voice, and I’m looking in all kinds of different places.

So how would you describe your harmonic voice so far?

It’s hard to say. I am interested in harmony, and have been for a long time. What I don’t like is the retro approach, where people tend to fall back into a kind of pseudo tonality. That doesn’t speak to me. And that often goes along with another thing, which I also find problematic: using gestures that sound Romantic, but the pitches are atonal. That’s something I’m really not interested in.

My interest in harmony comes more from the fact that I am absolutely crazy about Renaissance and Baroque music—and polyphony. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had the feeling that it’s something I need; I have to listen to it to purify my soul. Bach’s name always comes up, but there are a lot of other composers too. I couldn’t imagine existing without listening to that music. It’s exhilarating.

I’m also fascinated by this fast harmonic modulation it has—all of the things that go into that, it’s fascinating. But at the same time, it’s so abstract. It’s unpretentious harmony, it’s very exacting, and yet deeply emotional.

I think in new music—and I mean, there are a lot of fantastic exceptions to this—but there’s an aesthetic…one that uses pitches the entire time, but it doesn’t actually matter which ones. There’s something gray about it.

So what I’m really looking for is a way to have modulation, without falling back into tonality.

In an interview last year, you mentioned briefly that a piece of yours was booed at a concert. What did that feel like?

It was a very intense moment, I have to say, going on stage and hearing those boos. But at the same time, it was actually a really good experience, in a strange way. Because, more than ever, I knew what I wanted, and why I wanted it, in music. It was a learning experience.

So there were actually two concerts. Joana Mallwitz, who had been appointed music director in Erfurt, was really excited to begin there and do more new music. And the residency is still going on—I was the first one, and I think the others who came after me had an easier time. So the subscribers simply weren’t open to it. The next evening, Joana gave a little talk before the piece, and asked them to give it more of a chance, which I thought was interesting.

There were bravos, too. And at the second concert, especially, it turned into a real commotion, bravos and boos, trying to outdo each other. After the fact, apparently, audience members wrote to the theater and were apologizing for the behavior of the others. A clarinetist told me he hadn’t seen anything like it in 20 years, and he was happy that there was a least some excitement. Still, it wasn’t easy.

Soon after, I started a project called MEKOMOT, where we performed in synagogues. The audiences were not familiar with new music at all, or even classical music—we were in very small towns. And we tried to get them to come to the concerts. They listened to five pieces of really intense new music. And I realized, context is a great way of getting through to people. We planned the concerts so that they would have stories, which people could grab on to. We changed the conversation. And there were so many positive reactions, people were touched, and really excited about this music which was so unfamiliar to them. It was really very uplifting.

I’m not sure, but I have the feeling that if you have a subscription concert, and you kind of have one piece of new music as an alibi, that’s not connected to anything…I mean, I’m not going to say that I understand the people who were booing. First of all, it was totally ignorant of them. They showed no respect to me as a composer, which is one thing, but they weren’t respectful of the musicians who were playing, the theater, and the world. We’re not in the 19th century anymore. We’ve moved on. The concert hall shouldn’t be a museum, it should be an active place.

Did you ever consider changing the piece itself, or did you realize right away that it had to do with the way it was presented?

I didn’t even think the piece could be seen as so provocative. Part of the concept was that the conductor plays a mini synthesizer and a toy piano—it was written especially for her, because she’s also an excellent pianist—and there were sampled string sounds on the synthesizers. For me, it was a statement on how orchestras are being forced together, and the pressure to save money on culture. So it’s a piece where the orchestra switches between playing freely and being conducted.

But the other problem was that there wasn’t enough time for rehearsal. That’s a pretty common problem with orchestras; and there simply wasn’t enough time for some places.

Sarah Nemtsov, “drummed variation”; Matthias Engler (no drumset), Gunnhildur Einarsdóttir (kaoss pad)

I think audiences can feel if a piece hasn’t been rehearsed enough, even if they wouldn’t be able to point to specific places.

Yes, that’s for sure. It was an ambitious piece, and there just wasn’t quite enough time.

Another thing that was discussed in the interview from last year, which was with three other composers, was the question of whether opera should be “relevant.” The idea of a “ISIS opera” came up…

Well, it was pretty absurd: I really had to hold my tongue there, but I’m actually working on an “ISIS opera” right now [laughs]! If you can really call it that. It’s for the Theater Halle, and I’ve been working on it like crazy. But that’s just the thing. There is a plot, but it’s just a small fraction of the whole. The libretto is just one element of the whole opera.

So the story centers around a German girl who decided to go to Syria and join ISIS when she was 15. She was a very sheltered child, and you think, “How did that even happen?” Our idea was to tackle the topic of radicalization. What’s so fascinating about radical movements, how these ideologies attract followers, and how people go from thinking about something to actually carrying it out. And then the question of whether she could ever have gone back.

That was our starting point. I’ve been working with the librettist Dirk Laucke, who mostly writes plays and does a lot of political theater. He developed a story about two girls who go to Syria together. But there are a few different plot threads. For example, there are three journalists, who are staying at the outer borders of Europe and waiting for refugees—they’re going through a moral dilemma. At the same time, they’re a sort of representation for the entire cultural industry, which is commenting on this topic. Because what’s also absurd is trying to talk about these issues within our cosy little scene.

How do you go about researching a story like this, and did you feel like you needed to see, say, the Turkish-Syrian border for yourself?

I’d prefer to only talk about that very generally. I’ve had contact [with refugees] and taken part in campaigns. I’ve been doing more than just reading; I’ve met people who are from there.

It sounds like you’re dealing with these issues on a more abstract level in your opera then you are in your life.

Yes, exactly.
Sarah Nemtsov, “Wolves”; 

You studied oboe at conservatory. Oboists spend so much time making reeds. Do you miss this kind of hands-on work?

That is the absolute last thing I miss [laughs]! I hated it. I’d just be swearing the whole time. I have a piece, “Wolves,” from 2012, for oboe and piano, which I wrote for my former oboe teacher. I prepared the piano with all of that reed-making equipment, including the planing machine, which was on the low strings, and which I also turned on. It sounds like a percussion instrument. And at the same time, the oboist cuts the reed twice during the piece. The first time it makes the sound production unpredictable, and then all you hear is air. For things like that, you need to be patient, and I’m more of an impatient person. ¶