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Interview with Manfred Werder

2005/1 seems to occupy a pivotal position in your catalogue, marking a shift away from performance towards simply listening or paying attention to the world.  Is this how you see it?  

Good point to start. I worked on the score of 2005/1 for almost two years, and I’d say that there were two concerns that took me such a long time:

first, I wanted to relinquish 'differential thinking' in the score itself regarding the classical parameters of sound, harmony, process etc.

and secondly, I wanted to propose a different musical practice that would break the dyad of performer and listener.

Of course both concerns had already been present in my work before - the first in, e.g., the performer series (1999-), and the second in ein klang und eine stille (1997/1998) and especially in the realisation practice of for one or a few performers (2001-)  ( ‘a lot of time / a few sounds / for itself / simple’) (This is documented on However, in those cases it seemed to be more an interpretative approach than a structural matter of fact written down in the score.  I can give as an example the realisation of for one or a few performers (2001-) in September 2004 in Monthey: during 48 hours, 3 musicians dispersed over the city in 3 specific outdoor locations realised the score, following a time structure that decided which musician would be present at what hour.  There were of course some sounds produced by the performers realising the score in front of an audience, but what really struck me was the interplay of absence and presence of a musician in a location.

On February 28th 2005 in Santiago de Chile, I started an ongoing actualisation project in a public space with 2005/1. I roamed the streets and looked for places to realise the score. In some locations my presence was immediately noticed, which then allowed a dynamic open situation, and in others it was rather a 'private act towards' the sounding of the world.  The crucial issue here is that it’s not at all about simply replacing the performer / listener dyad by the dyad of world and listener.  So, I think we should be extremely cautious when we describe our complex situation as musicians, since simplistic concepts and interpretations ultimately reveal teleological presumptions.

In August 2005 I made a first realisation of the score with the group incidental music in a gallery space, in Zürich. The four performers decided on their own when to appear and leave the space where they 'presented' an activity that would sound. However, these realisations remained difficult as regards the relinquishing of 'differential thinking', because -  especially in concert-like situations - we're so used to thinking in categories of difference and to precisely appointing these to a supposed quality of 'profoundness'.

So answering your question, I think there isn't an antagonism between the two situations you mentioned; it's rather about challenging both situations from scratch. I must say though that I find the sounding of the world exceedingly exciting, and I recognize what we call ‘music’ in a concert or from a CD as one rather specific section in it.  Basically I work on scores that would be capable of extending my sense of the sounding world, rather than on scores that I would inflect with my pre-existing view.

Can we back-pedal a bit and have you say a bit more about ‘relinquishing differential thinking’? The way your recent pieces challenge conventional thinking about music ‘from scratch’ – as you put it - is something that I find fascinating but also disconcerting.  Can you spell out more clearly exactly what it was that you wanted to challenge, and why?

I think that I became increasingly worried about the great effort that composers kept giving almost exclusively to the content of the music in terms of the above mentioned classical parameters, in a moment where, to put it briefly, 'other possible parameters' have powerfully emerged through the great transparency of their beautiful music.

I would argue that the more transparently a music is unfolding, the more important these 'other possible parameters' become, because what sense would this transparency have if not exactly in allowing something to occur that is external, and uncontrollable?

The transparency's beauty and hospitality would otherwise run the risk of becoming pretension.

So I could no longer neglect the 'outside the work', that is, everything which surrounds the presumed 'content' of compositional decisions: the reality of the venue, the reality of the person realising an activity, the reality of the musical encounter where something would occur beyond the seductive aesthetic power executed from within a highly framed centre. There's an interesting Badiou quote in this respect: “What ultimately interests me is the situational declination of the event, not the entrenchment or transcendence of the event itself”

Could we say then that a ‘situational declination of the event’, which would be something like a new sense of the reality's potential after the event's immediate dissolving, is far more important than the artwork itself, which precisely would in turn reaffirm that the artwork (without any structure towards transcendence) is so essentially important?

By 'relinquishing differential thinking' I wanted to propose mainly two things, both regarding the medium of the score and the performance practice:

first, that the level at which compositional strategies regarding the classical parameters of sound, harmony, process etc. basically operate their effectiveness, would not play any (prominent) role anymore,

and secondly, that any place and any time are equally perfect (perfect in their totality) regarding an actualisation of 2005/1.

Any place and any time would disclose what they disclose.

I guess I am still trying to come to terms with these propositions today, and in this sense you are right, 2005/1 has marked a shift.

* [In Bruno Bosteels, “Can Change Be Thought? A Dialogue with Alain Badiou”. Alain Badiou: Philosophy And Its Conditions. Ed. Gabriel Riera (Albany: StateUniversity of New York Press, 2005). pp. 237-261.]

So your recent scores are clearly underpinned by a particular philosophy or ongoing process of critical thinking, one which, as I’ve said, I find at once inspiring and troubling.  However, it seems to me that the scores’ openness – and 2005/1 is a good example  – means that they can be interpreted in an infinity of different ways, some of which may ignore or even go completely against the grain of your thinking.  So, for example,  in theory a studio recording of either a pop song or a neo-classical quartet – both of which do apply ‘differential thinking’ in relation to harmony, structure etc. - could be presented as actualisations of 2005/1, even though they wouldn’t be engaging with your underlying ideas at all. Is this a problem? Are there, or could there be, realisations of 2005/1 that you felt were ‘invalid’?  Or, to put it differently, are there limits to the ways in which you feel that musicians should approach the piece even though nothing to this effect is specified in the score?

There are various important issues here.

First, 'any place and any time are equally perfect (perfect in their totality)' does not mean that just 'anything goes'.  It's always about engaging with a score. Thus, looking into the potentials of a score (and this applies to any score), I’d propose that what doesn’t appear in the score should not appear in a realisation except as its actual world, or if you like, its 'contextual material / conditions'.

The actual world of a score could be the occurrence of a situation where there's no outside the work. (The above mentioned 'highly framed centre' reminds me of a powerful religion that provokes endless problems that are the problems of capitalism as well).  Where there is no outside the work, we could encounter the actual world through a music that is transparent. And what if this were simply enough?

So, then, what could 'a pop song presented as an actualisation of 2005/1’ mean?

I can well imagine pop or classical music being part of an actualisation of 2005/1. Actually this is something that occasionally happens. We have had crack-trafficking being framed in a project last year in Santiago de Chile. That's not significant except that it has happened and not been staged. In your proposition a hypothetical content appears detached from a more integral situation that might in the end be capable of making sense.

Furthermore, it’s not at all about exploring specific places and times; places and times just offer what they are. Of course I have preferences, everybody has preferences, but don't they operate on a fundamentally different level?

The way I’d hope to see the world is essentially connected with particular conceptual sets. However the world often discloses a different reality which forces me to adjust or extend my view of the conceptual set. Preferences populate the world as phenomena, they sound lower or higher, shorter or longer etc.

Finally, the score operates on a level of the implicit that, I would assert, reflects the entire generic process of a realisation. If I had any reservations regarding a realisation, I would locate them in this area.

So if I understand right, for you 2005/1 would ideally be a simple framing of one corner / moment of the world as it unfolds, without any dramatic or organisational structure being imposed upon it; a framing which allows what you’ve called ‘the sounding of the world’ to take place in as transparent or unmediated a way as is possible.  Is that right?


Moving on to the particular realisations of 2005/1 that the invited musicians submitted for this project, while I’m pretty sure that all of them are aware of your thinking, it seems that some of the musicians were less obedient than others in the way that they realised the score.  Several of the recordings (especially Németh, anteroom and Davis) include ‘differential’ aspects of performance and / or composition that move sometimes far away from an unmediated presentation of ‘the sounding world’.  For me these (deliberate?) mis-readings of the thinking underlying the score create an additional level of interest and tension which I enjoy, however perverse they may be.  What did you make of this aspect of the project?

Let me first say that 'obedient' isn't a word I can relate to.

In my scores I'm looking for a certain economy of language which I think has become more evident in recent years with projects such as the found sentences or found words. It's a different economy of language that doesn't operate frontally.

Language is not a function of frontal and explicit communication and has far more to do with locating oneself in an environment than with communicating whatever contents to others. Thus, as I reject a frontal or explicit communication, the entire complex of a score's potentiality arises differently. So, I can't relate either to what you've called "mis-readings".

I would say that the score keeps being the referential instance, even if I personally realise the score now and then, or propose a certain reading. This reading is my way of dealing with the score; however, there are certainly others.

A generic process both highly depends on and affects its actual world, and we can add that the worlds of the involved musicians are considerably divergent.

So, I do welcome what a generic process discloses, and of course we can always analyse or deconstruct the powers and dynamics of such a process, but this would need to be done with great care.

Another aspect of the realisations that I’d like to ask about is the degree of difficulty that several of the musicians experienced in achieving a recorded realisation of the piece. Some of them refer to this in the short texts they wrote to accompany their realisations, and more than half of the musicians missed the initial deadline.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with musicians having to struggle to complete a project, but I wonder whether you feel that this is characteristic of your pieces?

You're surely right in alluding to the fact that this difficulty is a characteristic of my work in general, and obviously, it's a difficulty I'm also struggling with. I think it's due to the way I organise my work: I try to separate a compositional reflection from a performative practice, in order to make sure that the former isn't compromised by the latter's constraints.

I also locate this difficulty in my aim of actualising in music our bond to place and time.

In a certain way I propose this to be 'enough', however 'lateral' such a music might sound.

Sometimes I wonder whether this evokes something like an apocalyptic tone in the sense of an end of history of music-making or expression. Of course I completely disagree with such a view.

I wonder whether this desire to situate your music in the particular time and place of its realisation renders problematic any attempt to represent your music in a recording, as any recording is inevitably taking it away from that immediate context?   I think that one of the things I wanted to explore when we set up this project was to what extent a work like 2005/1 can be realised at all in a recording.  The musicians were explicitly asked to produce an audio object ‘that was suitable for repeated playings’, but this runs against the grain of the piece in many ways. Do you think that this was part of the reason for the difficulties some of the musicians experienced, and what is your attitude to recordings of your recent music in general?

For me now, any recording is not simply a representation of musical content or immediate context but always potentially evidence of relating anew to place and time.

I'm aware that our experiences of place and time are essentially very layered, meaning that a bond to place and time may be a somewhat narrowing statement.

A 'repeated playing’ is always exposed to time, and thus always offers such evidence.

Can't we say that in recent years strategies have been increasingly developed that realise the potentials of the playback listening situation as a way of both 'transferring sound' and actualising our bond to place and time?

It seems to me that there's still too much of a simplistic or dualistic view on this, focusing rather on their respective ends; that is, either a result-oriented object as pure content (supposedly featuring mere quality), or an apparent void as interactive trigger (supposedly featuring mere concept).   

But the realities of our practice and their rendering through different media have become far more complex and abundantly layered, and we would really need to look most carefully, if not to say speculatively, at the implications and potential trajectories of the decisions involved in a work.  

Also, the potential trajectories of a work - that is, its capacity to be mediated - are always heterogeneous and contradictory, depending so much on the dynamics of a speculative reading and the framing of that work by others as well as the author. I would say that these dynamics are what I'm interested in above all.

This could be my answer to your question regarding my attitude to recordings of my recent music in general, and I would say it's also true regarding my attitude to 'concert realisations' or 'more lateral' projects.

Finally, the ‘difficulties’ you mention might reveal a still very limited view we have of 'recording' in general.

So, I think that the realisations of 2005/1 for this project offer great insight into these dynamics.

Isn’t the ‘bond to time and place’ what people are often seeking to untie with music?   Many people walk around wearing headphones as if they’re trying to create their own bubble and remove themselves from the perceptual realities of their environment. Similarly most recordings are made in insulated studio spaces that minimise the actual context and try to situate the music on an ideal, abstracted plane.  Is that a tendency, and an attitude to music, that frustrates you?  

I can perfectly understand your comment, however, isn't it to a certain extent governed by a problematic moral undertone? The world is a machine, and I guess we all have various overlapping and contradictory strategies to keep functioning within this machine.

What we can see is that there's no outside this machine that creates ever new dependencies on facilities. A world conquered for facilities, has human history ever been much different?

However, I'm convinced that there are still possibilities for making real decisions, and that it’s better to embrace these possibilities gladly and courageously if we have the chance.

Much of your recent practice inevitably recalls aspects of Cage’s thinking, for example his famous statement that ‘music is all around us; if only we have ears, there would be no need for concert halls.’ Do you see yourself as working within a post-Cageian tradition, or are you more combative with regard to his legacy?

To be honest, right now I can't say much about John Cage.  I think that even today it's still difficult to realise in music the reaches of the ideas in his writings, and I'm convinced he also was aware of this.  And the reaches of these ideas remain a real challenge.

I feel that it’s generally difficult to realise ideas in music.  Music is a poor, clumsy and unreliable vehicle in that respect; ideas just don’t stick to it. Whereas I feel that any sound always already contains within it a sensual aspect, so that music cannot help but have a strong emotional pull.  But I imagine that you might see things differently….?

Actually, I didn't want to play music off against ideas, nor the converse.

Take the quote you mentioned about music being all around us: I'm sure Cage realised this statement personally in his daily life, but finally he turned back again towards works such as Etudes Australes or Freeman Etudes, pieces which require both virtuosity and an exceptional acoustic, as well as works for orchestra that were played in concert halls.

Happily he did, but one could at least ask: Why?

Ideas often collide with reality, and I think this isn’t because reality is more complex (ideas are reality as well) but rather because we have a narrowing concept of ideas. Aren't ideas a practice?

We're so stiff in terms of language, in which ideas are expressed, that we only see functions and objectives.

Music seems to be more immediate, it is something like pure reality, or pure condition (including humans interacting as a part of this), neither of which are very pure intrinsically, but rather abundant and transparent.

I suppose music and ideas occur at once.








manfred werder



Texts: (in German)

Will Montgomery: 5 Ways of Looking at Manfred Werder

in Wolf Notes #3,