I met the composer Yair Klartag in 2011, when I moved into an apartment he was renting in the Swiss city of Basel. We studied composition there together under Georg Friedrich Haas. Even then, his music seemed lightyears ahead in its beauty—“a hard word,” he says—and sophistication. Recently, we met up in the VAN office to discuss more formally some topics that have continue to pop up in our conversations over the last several years.

VAN: Your music contains things that I haven’t really heard together before, like microtonal chords with theatrical speech or screaming. How do you arrive at your sound world?

Yair Klartag: I haven’t used theatrical elements for a while now. In general I’d say that I was never really interested in material, in sounds. It’s a byproduct of what I want to do.

Which is?

[Laughs.] Yeah, it’s hard to say it in three words. It’s something that has to do with expression and freedom. I’m obsessed with figuring out what I want to do. I think a lot of it is just a basic human need. When I see my niece and my nephew playing and inventing stories, I’m like, “That’s actually what I’m doing too.” I have the feeling that I need to push something from my inner world outside. I’m constantly trying to figure out what it means for me to express myself.

Yair Klartag, “Nothing to Express”; Mivos Quartet and Nadav Lev (Electric Guitar)

When you say you’re not interested in material, what do you mean?

The concept of musical material, of separating various parameters of music, is a very common thing, post-Lachenmann or Scelsi. For different periods in music history, there have been certain parameters that were the main focus. There was a time when rhythm was in focus; a super long time when it was harmony; a time when it was orchestration. I find it really hard to separate them. I’m really not interested in generating materials, then organizing them. It’s sort of an ideological thing, but in the end you just have vibrations in the air, and the separations for harmony and rhythm, material and form, aren’t really interesting for me.

How did you get into composing in the first place?

It was kind of random. I come from a super non-musical family. We never had music in our house, which is really weird.

You have no memory of hearing music in your house?

Nothing. When we were in the car and we would hear a song, my parents would switch to a channel where there was talking. Even in my extended family, no one’s an artist, everyone’s basically an engineer or a scientist. But we got a really shitty synthesizer that looked like an organ, with the two manuals and the pedals, and my sister learned to play on it. And then my parents were like, “You should try it too,” so in fifth grade I started playing it. I’d play Madonna songs with the melody and the chords written with, like, the letter C for C Major. Then in middle school, a friend and I joined the music class, so that we could meet people. At the end of the year everyone left, except this one girl I was really into, and so I stayed longer.

Still, even by high school, it was more of a hobby, and weirdly enough I wasn’t really into music. I didn’t listen to much music—even as a child, I remember watching cartoons, there would be the music at the beginning and I would just wait for it to be over, because it was so boring. But in high school I had a really amazing teacher who taught composition, and he gave us these incredible assignments.

What were the assignments?

For one, he showed us what a ostinato was, gave us a few examples, then told us to do something with an ostinato. It was very open-ended. And somehow it was really great for me. I remember thinking about those assignments a lot. I think this is still what I like about writing music: you choose what to fill your thoughts with. You choose not to only think about the dishes and how you’ll have money in five years. You choose to spend a lot of your thinking time with figuring out these super abstract things, solving problems that are completely esoteric and have nothing to do with anything.

Does that make you happy, or is it more that it occupies your mind?

It gives things meaning. And yeah, it makes me happy, in a general way. It’s a hard thing to say.

What were your early pieces like?

I wrote quite a lot pieces then without knowing anything, and for many years afterwards that was very useful for me—that I had this point of reference, saying, This is what I wrote when I didn’t know anything. I didn’t even know what a tonic and a dominant were back then. But there was a sort of authenticity about it.

You know, we always doubt how authentic we really are. In 2017 we have to be self-conscious, self aware, and aware that we are aware. So it was useful for me to say about something, “OK, I wasn’t aware of this, and I didn’t do it because I wanted it to be modern and avant-garde enough.”

Yair Klartag, “Con Forza Di Gravità”; Münchener Kammerorchester

What’s changed since then in your music?

I’ve changed a lot. My awareness of things grew. I learned about polishing pieces, and professional things, which I was always fight against. When I write I have the constant feeling that I have to choose between writing what I feel and writing a good piece. It’s very romantic—we all want to believe that we just have to do what we want. But it’s not the reality. If you have the childish desire to do something with the sound, it’s usually not going to be good, that’s the sad truth. It wouldn’t hold together; it needs certain things that people call quality—some kind of balance. And those things are kind of a bummer. [Laughs.]

My old teacher in Tel Aviv, Ruben Seroussi, said once that harmony is the “theory of dosages.” You need to balance everything in music. And I think there’s a lot of truth in that. Even if I write a piece that’s just scratching on the table, I still have a lot to learn from Beethoven.

I feel like once every month or so, when we hang out, you start to question the meaning of writing music. Where does that come from?

I think it’s human. It was really important to my father that [my siblings and I] doubt everything. He literally said that to us. He said that that is what smart people do. And I think it makes sense in a way, and it’s still there: being aware, being aware that you are aware. I try to be honest with myself—and if you’re honest with yourself you have doubts sometimes. We’re doing something hard.

If I had to say what I’m doing in my music, I’d say that I’m trying to live peacefully with doubt. The way I write music and the way I live—with every piece of material, I’ll throw it away at some point. I don’t have a piece that starts with a certain sound or material and just delves into it. A few of my teachers have told me that I’m not good at being, I’m always doing. I have a tendency to create these clear compositional trajectories and then break them, and I think that has to do with my self-doubt. In music and in real life, it’s hard for me to make a statement where I say, “OK, this is how it is.” I really don’t want people to hear my music and say, “He’s the guy who does this.”

What are your own favorite pieces from your work?

I wrote a piece just when I got to Basel, which really represented the idea of freedom and doing whatever I wanted. It was for huge orchestra, called “Background Music for Fundraising Event.” I think it’s still the most important piece that I wrote. It starts with the orchestra musicians narrating texts that I collected from Amnesty International and other things like that of human suffering from different events around the world. You have this sense of the musicians reading these texts, which are horrible, but then they aren’t being heard, because there are so many other musicians reciting other texts. They start to play; the texture grows gradually, to a huge climax, with lots of chords that I like; and then it breaks. This is the first half of the piece—it has kind of a childish social criticism that I wouldn’t do now.

But then in the middle, I was like, “Who am I kidding?” So it turns into a criticism of myself. After the climax breaks, there is a part where the orchestra applauds the audience. And then just one person speaks at a time, so you can hear it. But it’s gibberish. You can listen to a texture of experiences and think you know what’s there; but when it’s just one voice, you understand that you cannot understand. You can’t really communicate these things. And then there is a moment where they all scream, “This art is quite useless.”

Yair Klartag, “Background Music For Fundraising Event”; TIMF Festival Orchestra

Practitioners of classical music specifically and the arts in general are often in the position right now of justifying their existence. How does this square with the idea of art being useless?

Well, in the piece, this quotation is from the introduction of The Picture of Dorian Gray, where Oscar Wilde cites Bertrand Russell saying “All art is quite useless.” I wanted to express a kind of helplessness. I had learned that you can express everything in music. But you just can’t. So it was very liberating to realize that. Those are the limits of the medium.

On the political side of the question—it’s hard for me. I’m not a good art politician, maybe. I don’t know if I have the ability to say why governments should spend money on art. Why should one type of art get money and not another? These questions are complicated. I like it when there’s art around. But it’s hard to say, if the government has a billion dollars lying around, whether that should go to art or towards curing cancer.

Talking about “Background Music for Fundraising Event,” you mentioned using “chords you like.” What chords are those?

I have a very limited palette of chords that I like. There’s a lot of major and minor. In my mind, the major chord has to do with overtones, and the minor chord has to do with distorting that. Also, for many years, I’ve been obsessed with a chord that’s two fifths with a minor second between them. The first track on Radiohead’s “Kid A,” “Everything In Its Right Place,” starts with that chord. I’d overlap overtone chords with that chord. Nothing special.

I really love big orchestra sounds, and I always use them, in every piece, even if it’s for a small formation. I love them, but I’m really afraid of them. I always break them. It’s almost a habit that’s a cliché of myself.

Why are you afraid of those sounds?

There is something about them that relates to a sort of very aggressive masculinity. With certain German Late Romantic music, even Brahms sometimes, the feelings are larger than life. The emotions are too extreme. They go far beyond the levels of happiness and sadness that normal humans feel. It scares me.

Is it because they aren’t being used in a self aware way?

There’s something in this big orchestra sound that represents something really bad politically—sort of Fascism. That connection has been made in history, obviously. I wonder why I love those sounds.  ¶

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.