An acclaimed pianist working at the newest edge of contemporary music, Sebastian Berweck was kind enough to support my project from its planning stages. In its present state, my research explores the changing cultural relationship of immigrant musicians to the contemporary repertoire as a result of leaving their places of origin to pursue a career in Germany. In this light I thought it equally necessary to speak with musicians native to Germany, in order to gain their perspective on the German new music environment as our common milieu. After a blustery walk through Kreuzberg last month, Sebastian and I talked about just that.
J: Let’s start with a short history of German music according to you from the past twenty years or so.
S: My perspective is that when Neue Musik started after the war, it was explicitly anti-fascistic, so it was cool right away. It still had a lot of traction in society in the fifties and sixties, and then pretty much lost it in the seventies and eighties. The papers wouldn’t write about it anymore. It became merely a style. It was not really new anymore and didn’t have the same revolutionary impetus... So I would think that in the mid 90’s new music was really at a complete low....
I think this has changed only in the last ten years. The first time I was at Darmstadt in 2000, all the teachers would play concerts...in the Neue Musik style: Berio’s Sequenzas and the avant-garde style, which had become already then in my eyes a bit old; a style without much grounding in the society that we live in.... I think since then a new generation of composers has risen, who are pop informed and come from the pop scene, and who think that new music is only a style among others and that we do have to compete with other stuff.... I feel that now more young composers (young I would say goes through the mid forties) try to be more in society, and [their work is] in a way more political in its attempt to be in society.
J: How is the performance of contemporary music a political act?
S: I don’t see what I do as a political act. When I sometimes say that I’m just a performer, people give me a score and then I play it and there’s not much of myself in it, people say that I do more than that. In a way I do see myself as the vehicle of the ideas of a composer. I do have a very strong opinion of what I like, what I think is good music, and what needs to be played now. I try to broaden the perspective of the people at the concert. When I play in a small city for people who don’t listen often to contemporary music, I make a completely different program than a program I would play in Berlin for people who know [contemporary music]. I cannot play the same program for the first bunch of people because it would be too much, so I try to show them what’s happening in music, [address] them as they are and show them some perspective....
I don’t see playing contemporary music as a demonstration of my political view. I don’t think that people know it afterwards. I would like to show them how interesting this is, and what a funny world this is, and that it’s just as fun as when you go to a contemporary art exhibition.It’s a fun thing, which is the opposite of political.
J: How has the political climate in Germany influenced your career?
S: There’s less and less money. When I started playing twenty years ago, it was after the fall of the wall, and before that there was the clash of the systems, and that was very played out in East an West Germany. All the radio stations put a lot of money in contemporary music and the states did a lot for contemporary music, and it’s just declined and declined. Money is just running away from us!Contemporary music was also not good at promoting itself. They always felt that they were cool and it doesn’t matter if nobody’s listening, because what they do is political. I don’t see it as anti-fascistic anymore. It’s art what we do, and we’re in a big art market, and we have to prove that what we do is relevant...
The kind of music that I play is not for the masses, there’s nobody coming anyway. It’s really our own circle where we do our own thing. One could see that per se as political but I don’t. I do it because for me it is fun and I try and convince other people that this is a nice way to do art. I do not see it as taking myself out of the capitalist system. If you know that you’re not going to become famous and want to just keep doing what you’re doing, that can make you quite free.
J: What is the role of contemporary music in society?
S: It’s an art practice. And that’s ok; It does not have to be more than just art. I do like when it is more rooted in my daily life, when it gives me a new perspective on what I do. At the Venice Biennale you see some nice pictures and you see other stuff that deals with how we live. It’s an art practice and we need it as a society. I do have the feeling that contemporary music, as opposed to other practices, feels the need to be useful.That it should be critical of society, or that it should have a philosophical foundation. You read many texts by composers about their music, and they are trying to be philosophical texts. I don’t think you have to defend what you’re doing. If you think enough and have a crazy idea, that’s enough.
With well over 200 world premieres to his name, Sebastian Berweck is one of the most
sought-after pianists for experimental contemporary music. He is known for his energetic
interpretations of unusual repertoire in- and outside the piano as well as working with
electronics. Sebastian Berweck holds a PhD from the University of Huddersfield, is a