Piyawat Louillarpprasert’s composition “Tremble” unfolded as an almost literal translation of its title. The strings tapped col legno battuto, the woodwinds played rapid hairpin swells, single notes were articulated repeatedly and passed throughout the ensemble. At one point, the conductor compared a section to a “rainforest in Thailand.”

It was August 25, a sunny morning. I was visiting the Composer Seminar of the Lucerne Festival. Rehearsals took place in a stuffy room at the Conservatory of Music. Besides Louillarprasert’s work, I heard “Immigrant,” by Victor Coltea, and a composition by Josep Planells.

Observing the three composers as the ensemble worked out details of articulation, dynamics, and intonation, I wondered: what was the right way for them to behave in rehearsal? I remembered my fellow composition students swapping stories about needing to show the musicians who’s boss, ideally by pointing out a wrong note in the middle of a complex texture, before they took you seriously. Despite the bravado, this usually didn’t happen. Like many young composers, Louillarpprasert stayed mostly quiet. A musician said to him, “I know what you’re asking for, I just don’t think I can really do it,” and he accepted without trying to rebut her. (Though that comment is still better than the response to a request I once heard in an airline bureaucracy: “We don’t understand what you want but it’s not possible.”) At one point, the conductor, the percussionist, and the composer engaged in a three-way discussion about the articulation of a passage played with brushes. Wolfgang Rihm, the composer and mentor at the Seminar, got involved briefly, telling Louillarpprassert, “I’m your lawyer now.” The musicians wanted to move on; instead, they rehearsed the passage again in detail. I started this interview off by asking Rihm about that moment.

VAN: To what extent can you help young composers in their interactions with musicians in the ensemble?

Wolfgang Rihm: It’s limited, of course. In [Louillarpprassert’s] case, I realized that he was trying to express something that otherwise would have been forgotten in the course of the rehearsal. That’s why I stepped in there. Sometimes young composers are too shy and they don’t articulate their thoughts, and other times they interrupt while too many other things are going on. If you’re a composer yourself, then you’ll know that some people are just naturally talented and quickly get a handle on the situation. Others can be just as talented, but more reserved, and they don’t always share the knowledge they have—there’s something careful about them. Sometimes whether you put yourself right out there or stay in the background depends on the culture you come from, too.

Those kinds of interactions take practice.

Of course they do. I remember, when I started working with musicians, around the ages of 18, 19, 20, I was barely capable of saying anything to them! And you never know if what you want to say is even going to be right.

At the rehearsals I saw for the Composer Seminar, the focus was mostly on small details. What can young composers learn—aesthetically and artistically, rather than technically—from this process?

Detail work is the most important kind. That’s what makes a rehearsal a rehearsal—not doing a run through and then saying, See you at the concert. This idea of the virtuoso conductor doesn’t get you anywhere. It just leads to sloppiness, to use Gustav Mahler’s words. Detail work makes it possible for the musicians, and the composer, to grasp the essence of the piece. The core of the essence, even: the way it’s built, the way it’s shaped. As a young composer—and now, as an old composer. [Laughs.] It was always of utmost importance for me to work on details in rehearsal, so that I could make decisions that affected the whole later on.

There’s no point in playing it by ear, letting the performers improvise the details. The ability to improvise is something that lies within us, it’s the substance of what you need when you approach a work—the foundation of everything. But it has nothing to do with the realization of a work. Any realization comes from the exactitude of the details. You have to be able to improvise, but the piece doesn’t.

At times it seemed to me like the composers weren’t sure how a certain nuance should be played. Do you expect them to have a concrete vision from the first rehearsal, or should they be able to decide after they’ve heard it?

Take Gustav Mahler for example: after every rehearsal of a movement from one of his symphonies, he’d go back and change practically everything. Even the masters—you can recognize them by the fact that they’re constantly working on the details. That’s something where a lot of concertgoers have the wrong idea, I think.

Details are what make the whole come together. They’re not just a necessary evil or a kind of bureaucratic paper-pushing beneath the musical phrase. They are what makes the music breathe. If you look at a Mozart score, you’ll notice how exact his articulations are. The breath results from the precision of the details, not from leaving things open-ended. To repeat: open-endedness is an attitude. You have to have that. But detail work is what makes it possible. When you happen to be rehearsing a piece that’s never been performed before, and you say, Let’s go back and try another dynamic, in order to realize your idea—that shows that you’re aware of the problems that come up. That’s just the flip side of a composer’s craft, don’t you think? And so the best people have suggestions at their fingertips. Many young composers don’t have that. But a young composer with a certain mastery of craft will have ideas of what to try, so that a given detail becomes an essential part of the whole.

I noticed that the composers mostly discussed dynamics and volume with the ensemble, rather than pitch, rhythm, or articulation. Why is that?

It probably has to do with the fact that these things have a significant effect on a performance’s plasticity. The relative dynamics within an ensemble are something that I have to correct a lot in rehearsals too. I’ll notice that I’ve emphasized one group too much and that it’s outplaying another; but I’ll want the listener to hear the different layers. You either have to change the dynamics, or tell the musicians where to come forward and where to hang back. Which is basically something that classical conductors do in every rehearsal. These days, say a group is rehearsing a Haydn Symphony, it’s not like the conductor will just beat time throughout—they’ll work on the details, too.

I used to go to a lot of rehearsals with Abbado. And I used to hear Celibidache rehearse. Whenever I had the chance, I went to their rehearsals and I learned how to work with different phenomena of sound. That’s why the dynamics often prove decisive: they shape the plasticity of what I’d the call the sound object.

In interviews, you often speak of your need to protect your time from extramusical responsibilities. In the era of the smartphone, is it possible to teach this to young composers?

I don’t want to teach it. For people who feel like they want to protect their composing time, I’ll stand by their side and encourage them to do so. For people who don’t want to, I’m not going to force them. There are plenty of composers out there who blossom when they’re under pressure. Some live as virtuoso performers, as conductors, as concert presenters, and I think that’s wonderful.

For me that would be problematic, though. I’ve always suffered when people take my time away from me. I’m suffering now, but I’m suffering happily—does that make sense?

Do the composers of the Seminar have things in common with one another musically?

The great thing is that in the broadest sense I’m seeing a generation of individuals. They’re not all following a dogma. It’s something I find very satisfying. Ever since I started teaching, I’ve always tried to make it clear to each person that they need find their individuality, and not adhere to any kind of aesthetic ideology. Aesthetic ideologies, aesthetic norms, and aesthetic conventions are there to be questioned. Become the person you are inside. It’s an old saying, but it’s actually my pedagogical ideal.

You had one week of individual lessons with the participants of the Composer Seminar. How much can you achieve in such a short span of time?

Here’s what it’s like. First of all, we’re together for more than a week: there are the rehearsals, and in the first week it was mostly about getting to know one another. Each person had an hour and a half. Each of the 12—it sounds so biblical—had time to do a presentation. Some people presented their theoretical thinking. Some played their music and talked about their lives. Others took one piece and discussed the way it was made. Still others talked about plans they hadn’t realized yet. So it was very different from person to person.

And then we had individual encounters, private lessons, if you want to call them that. They took place in the afternoons, and I was able to have more or less personal conversations with each student. Some people react to that kind of thing right away, and others need more time. It’s always different. That confirms what I’ve experienced at the Conservatory in Karlsruhe, where I teach. There are only individuals, and that’s good news.

It used to be different: I always felt that there was this phalanx of people who were all doing the exact same thing. Obviously, that kind of person doesn’t want to come study with me. I attract the kind of people who are trying to find themselves. [Laughs.]

Do you know the feeling of disappointment when a section doesn’t come out sounding as you’d planned?

Yes. I know that from my own work. In all kinds of ways. Sometimes in rehearsal we’ll be working on a detail—here we are, back to talking about details—and there will only be a couple instruments and I’m thinking, This is fantastic. But then unfortunately the other instruments join in again, and the detail disappears. Or, I’ll want something with pressure, with a kind of underlying violence, and I’ll realize that I’m only halfway there. Things like that—I know them well.

I don’t know though, I mean, composition is something that has to do with the empiricism of experience. It’s not something where there’s a theory that helps you make decisions. It’s a new experience every time. What’s right in this hall today could be wrong tomorrow. Performers of classical music know that, too.

Of the pieces that were performed on August 27 in Lucerne, some you had only known through the scores that applicants sent in. Were there any major surprises in how they sounded?

Really major surprises in terms of, “Ouch, that sounds terrible, I thought that would be better,” or, “Amazing, that looked terrible on the page and sounded…” No, that didn’t happen. [Laughs.] But I was trying to make sure that every detail supported the perception of the composers as individuals. If I noticed that a music was based on accented attacks, than I tried to work on that aspect with him or her. And if I noticed that another piece was all about the flow of the line, the way it revealed itself, that I tried to focus on that too.

I’m not a conductor, but in this case I was a kind of mentor, a figure in the background. And that’s a good thing. ¶

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… has been an editor at VAN since 2015. He’s the author of The Life and Music of Gérard Grisey: Delirium and Form (Boydell & Brewer), and his journalism has appeared in The Baffler, the New York...