© Marco Borggreve
© Marco Borggreve

Sylvain Cambreling in Conversation

Mr. Cambreling, 2018 is a year of anniversaries for you. On July 2nd you celebrated your 70th birthday. And also with Klangforum you’ll be celebrating a special anniversary: for exactly 20 years now you’ve accompanied the ensemble as its first Guest Conductor. With just 24 musicians, some of whom you’ve known for more than 20 years, this makes for rather a close relationship. How do you feel about that?

My relationship with Klangforum is very special. I’m acquainted with the high quality of each musician. I also know their weak points, although in fact hardly any exist. And they know me equally well. So we have developed great trust in each other; and this is the best starting point if you want to make music together.

Klangforum is a participatory organisation; the ensemble takes its decisions collectively. As a conductor, how does one fit into such a system?

The task of the conductor is practically always the same: finding the right gestures for the ritualisation of a score. But of course with Klangforum I do this differently from what I do with a large symphony orchestra. For one thing, I don’t use a baton when I conduct the ensemble, because it’s a small group of musicians who don’t need my beats – or only rarely. They expect something different from a conductor. Therefore I adopt a different approach: we engage in a joint search. I don’t arrive with a solution, but perhaps with a suggestion. We give it a try, we discuss things and I learn from the musicians what they need.

When you think back to your joint beginnings, which of the projects do you remember most vividly?

I think the very first time we played some Messiaen. The integral recording of Barraqué’s oeuvre was another of our early projects – and a very important one. That was still in Peter Oswald’s time. Barraqué’s music really is rather weird, but I felt immediately how curious the musicians are – and this is true even today. This has made contact between us very easy, because I am also very curious. But – my God, what a challenge! This Barraqué is so difficult…

Did you have to convince the ensemble to embark on a recording of the complete works of this somewhat unwieldy music? It was probably predictable that this would not become a bestseller.

Yes, that was typical for Peter Oswald. He always tried to do what others wouldn’t. And this is something that Klangforum Wien has kept up, also under Sven Hartberger’s aegis. This is something I always found very attractive.

You have presented Klangforum with a lot of new repertoire. The ensemble in its turn has confronted you with a great number and diversity of world premières. More than you wished for? 

Together we have performed many, many first performances and of course one knows: not all of them are masterpieces. But it was always clear that we would work extremely seriously and that we would give every piece a chance. Perhaps it would be played only once; but whenever Klangforum performs a work it makes the most of it. I have always admired the ensemble for this approach. It is always truly committed and takes plenty of time. Occasionally it was quite tough, but I’ve told myself: This is fine, one can’t do this sort of thing everywhere; and it’s exciting work – especially when the contact with the composers is good.

The repertoire that you have worked on with Klangforum is very diverse. But I would say that over the past 20 years the ensemble has developed a kind of tonal identity, which has become a characteristic of the Klangforum “brand”. The reason for this is, first of all, the repertoire’s focus on “sound” which you introduced – starting with the music of Gérard Grisey.

Yes, we’ve played a lot of Grisey. This is difficult music, but the ensemble “got” it instantly. First we performed Partiels, then Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil. This was very emotional, because I knew Grisey very well and he had died just shortly before. We’d still had so many joint plans… Even today, it gets very emotional every time we play this piece. I knew precisely what kind of sound he had dreamed of and was able to achieve this with Klangforum. And for the ensemble this has become a proper language. It also influenced their interpretation of music which was created in the tradition of Grisey, by Marc André and others. The musicians always had a clear mental image of where this particular sound originates. To a certain extent, it has become a traditio with them.

The perfection with which the ensemble plays spectral music has established itself as a standard of quality. With this ongoing work on sound, you have therefore also influenced Klangforum in your turn. But it’s not just a product of perfection. How do you recognise the point when – in the interest of expression – one has to let go of the idea of perfection?

This depends entirely on the piece. What’s important is that we try to take the work’s side. When the piece has a message, we must convey ir with dedication. In a Mozart opera, on the other hand, absolute perfection is mandatory. With a complex ensemble piece one has to try to stay as close as possible to the text, even though one knows that total perfection cannot in fact be achieved. In such a case, transparency is the top priority. But what does perfection really mean? What is perfection in the case of Morton Feldman? You can play Morton Feldman perfectly at sight. But one can go completely wrong if one doesn’t achieve this certain “mystère”, this “fragilité”. So perfection means something different depending on each work. Each composer, each work, has to be treated differently and each music lived in a specific way.

Your repertoire with Klangforum is enormous. But this only represents a fragment of your work as conductor. Until not long ago, you were GMD at the Staatsoper Stuttgart; in the 2018/19 season you will take over the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra. There aren’t many conductors who are equally at home in the realms of opera, symphonic works and ensemble music, with a repertoire ranging from Monteverdi to the present day. How do you manage this?

That’s the way I am. It’s in my nature. I have always needed this, always. And I still need it, even at 70. It’s a question of interest. One has to be very interested, very curious. And one can’t be lazy! It’s really a LOT of work.


© Marco Borggreve
© Marco Borggreve


Does the ongoing work with the ensemble also have an impact on your orchestral work?

It is like chamber music, to be played by the musicians of an orchestra. Of course it’s also a good thing if large ensembles perform chamber music. But when you play a lot of new music, you learn to listen differently, much more subtly – more subtly as far as intonation and dynamics are concerned. In new music, the dynamic ranges from 5 p to 5 f; in the symphonic repertoire this doesn’t happen very often. But it is very useful, because one learns to move in quite different realms. In new music one can repeatedly encounter the term “hardly audible”. If you can manage this with a large ensemble – great! Or the finesse of a perfectly intoned chord in A major – you can learn this if you play a lot of new music.

You also develop a keener awareness of the colour of sound and of the colour-mix.

Of course. But you must have fun with this. This doesn’t happen automatically. One really has to do a lot of hard work.

You have performed new music for more than 40 years and were a close witness to its development since the 1970s. Do the current developments in music give you cause to feel optimistic for the future?

This is not a question that one should ask oneself. I don’t have any concept of “progress”. There is only this: first, this arises, then that, and finally that... They say that there are no longer any schools. This is perhaps not entirely correct. At least we have different typologies, but of course, this cannot be compared to the 1970s. In the 1970s, we still had post-surrealism and only towards the end of the 1980s it became acceptable again to compose “beautiful” sounds. It was no longer a disgrace! And now, everything starts to be very eclectic. I have to admit that I don’t know today’s very young composers that well, but I don’t encounter personalities like the old monsters such as Lachenmann, Ligeti or Kurtag. In the generation prior to this, people existed who had a clear musical language. Nowadays, it seems to me, everything is increasingly eclectic. I’m under the impression that today people want to become great composers very speedily. 

Many young composers primarily work with multi-media. What do you think about that? 

It is quite natural that this is prevalent today; but I have very little personal relationship with it. I am still completely at home in the world of music which is printed on paper. Also, I’m not interested in crossover. Or work with the new media…I observe, curiously, from a distance; some things I find quite interesting, but I don’t get into this. I am still a person who doesn’t own a computer, I don’t have a laptop; I have nothing.

But you do have a mobile phone?

I own a mobile phone, but I can’t send any text messages. Here, too, I prefer to work on paper. I think it’s great when new things are developed, but this is really for others – if only because I simply don’t have the time.

Is there any period in the 40 years that you worked in new music of which you’d say: this was my favourite time?

Yes. But that isn’t necessarily anything to do with music. Four years ago, I lost my friend, Gérard Mortier. My best times were with him. Our collaboration, our joint adventures in Brussels and Salzburg – it was crazy! The Ruhrtriennale – that was something completely new. Paris was dire. Madrid could have been marvellous, but it got wrecked. All of this, taken together, was simply wonderful. But I also have very many great memories of my work with Klangforum; this relationship was and still is part of what for me is most important and beautiful.

What takes you to Hamburg now? And to the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra? I thought you no longer wanted to work as GMD.

That’s correct. I no longer wanted to be responsible for things that don’t have anything directly to do with me. I told myself: I still work in opera, perhaps one production a year, but only under optimal conditions; instead I would like to conduct more concerts, because I have this very large repertoire and I’d like to make use of it. Hamburg fell to me – first of all for personal reasons; I was a close personal friend of Jeffrey Tate’s and when he suddenly died in June 2017 it was a great shock. I wanted to do something for the orchestra; so I took over the last programme that Jeffrey had planned. And then I experienced a downright firework with the orchestra! They really are excellent musicians; we will realise some great programmes together; I’m absolutely committed. This is a new start for me, with a new audience that I need to convince. But so far, this has worked well, wherever I was. However, I hope that I’ll also be able to continue making music with Klangforum Wien.

—The conversation with Sylvain Cambreling was conducted by Barbara Eckle in July 2018.

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