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Conversation with Stephan Marc Schneider

"I want to create"

- Questions for Stephan Marc Schneider

The world premiere of your ballet music "Bernarda Alba's House" based upon a subject by Federico Garcia Lorca last year was a great success. Was this a commissioned work?

Schneider: Yes, but that came totally out of the blue. The choreographer Ralph Drnen rang me up and asked if I wanted to write the music for Bernarda Alba's House. He had seen my opera "Kalkwerk-Frikassee" in Hamburg and had the feeling that I could write suitable music for this subject.

Isn't this genre even more tied to traditional patterns than opera?

Schneider: I don't think so, but even if that were the case it wouldn't be so bad. Dancers, like singers, or all those who have to do with the stage, grow up with the great pieces of their field, and these do have a strong influence.

What rules must a composer of new ballet music observe, in your opinion?

Schneider: Well, rules are there to be broken. For me, it was important to imagine the situation, almost like in a film - the dancers, the movement, the mood - and then to compose music that would not overwhelm this scene, but leave it a certain freedom. I treat the stage almost like a solo instrument; something else is added to my music and one must bear this in mind.

New pieces for dance theatre are rather rare. Usually old pieces are danced to new libretti. Is it "out" to write ballet music?

Schneider: I believe that is because ballet is treated rather like a second-class-citizen in our performance institutions. Probably ballet or dance theatre have a different audience, an audience which is naturally more interested in dance and movement than in music. But that is the symbiosis. And I can only advise every musician to do something with dance. The most moving moment in my life as a composer was when I saw the first stage rehearsal of Bernarda; the music came from a recording, there was no light but there was scenery - that really gave me goose-bumps.

What challenges does the ballet genre offer a young composer fifty years after Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" and "Cinderella?"

Schneider: To write pieces that are performed just as often as these two.

What role does psychology play - subversive influence with musical means in your work?

Schneider: Each of my pieces has a dramaturgical form that considers or plays with certain expectations or sensations on the part of the listener. This sounds a bit calculated, but the whole thing is an internal process. If it is based on literary material or texture, for example, I have feelings towards this material. But these are usually not clear; they are ambivalent or multi-layered. Sometimes they only scratch the surface, sometimes they reach deeper levels; I create out of this, without wanting to show any congruencies. I create. It is difficult to describe this process, but it has a great deal to do with psychology.

Were there also verbal exchanges with the choreographer when you wrote "Bernarda Alba's House," or even interventions on his part?

Schneider: Yes, of course we developed the dramaturgy together, then I began with the music. Ralf had concrete ideas about the mood of the piece. He wanted the music to create a certain heat and pressure that would be present during the entire piece. I also had these feelings when I read Bernarda.

At the premiere of "Bernarda Alba's House" the fact that your music fused with the plot, formally speaking, was especially praised. Was that your intention, or did you want to irritate, alienate or shock the audience during some parts?

Schneider: Yes, that was my intention. The plot is already shocking and above all unequivocal. With this material it was important for music and stage to form a unity, in order to impart the statement made by Lorca's drama.

After your opera "Kalkwerk" and the Lorca ballet, you have definitively given proof of your talent for scenic music. Are there plans for more stage works?

Schneider: Yes, I still have many ideas for stage works, including an operatic idea that is very close to my heart, but at the moment I'm really on to ballet; I would really like to do another ballet.

You are originally a guitarist. Do you use the instrument when composing, as others use the piano?

Schneider: Well, I am originally a composer. Already before I could play the guitar properly, I tried writing pieces for the band I sang in. But I do in fact use the guitar when composing, but also my voice, the piano, my head, pencils, paper ... whatever is of use. I am also interested in computers and electronics and would like to develop myself further in this area.

One of your new guitar pieces is entitled "Je suis encore un chene." What does that mean? Is this a piece of programme music?

Schneider: Yes, you could call it programme music; the title is taken from a fable by Anouilh based on the fable "Le chene et le roseau" of La Fontaine. I am very attracted to literary subjects, whether prose, poetry or drama. As a youth I always wanted to be a writer - a writer or a rock star. The fable of Anouilh ends with the opposite of the moral of the La Fontaine fable; this idea alone already fascinated me and inspired me to write the piece. I am very interested in observing the reverse side, the contradiction, in shedding light on things from a different perspective. Moreover, I found the fable very emotionally moving.

What is missing in the repertoire of new guitar music, and what can you contribute to it?

Schneider: Established composers must also write pieces for the guitar, and composers should seriously come to terms with the instrument. But I do at any rate believe, in all modesty, that "Je suis encore un chene" is an important contribution to the new guitar repertoire.

Is it difficult for a guitarist to imagine orchestral colours and apply these to compositions?

Schneider: I am a composer, and my great passion is imagining the sound of instruments. But I don't believe that imagining orchestral colours is more difficult for a guitarist than for a timpanist, for example. Although I do somewhat envy orchestral instrumentalists who sit in the middle of the sound, at the source, so to speak.

You studied composition with Ulrich Leyendecker. What was the most valuable thing that he imparted to you?

Schneider: He furthered my talent, gave me confidence as an artistic personality. Beyond that, he taught me craftsmanship. Studying with him was unbelievably important for me and my development, not only in the artistic area. There are many aspects for which I am very grateful to him. He gave me the feeling that my artistic path was the right one.

Does he still criticise the latest works of his ex-pupil today?

Schneider: Yes, when I ask him to. Actually, I always show him or play him my new pieces. Ulrich usually goes to the concert when larger works of his pupils or ex-pupils are performed.

What will the future bring? Do you have anything special in mind? Is there anything to report about a new work?

Schneider: Yes, first of all my piece "Lamentations" for steel drums and countertenor will be premiered in Frankfurt in February, then in June there will be new Lieder for soprano and piano. Also in June there will be a portrait concert and workshop at the Music Academy in Mannheim, and I might write a new piece for that. Then there are also all these ideas for stage works, they will all become great masterpieces....