Benjamin Kobler: You started composing at an early age. When was that and where are you coming from musically?
Sarah Nemtsov: I started writing down little melodies and stuff like that when I was 8. I would say that from the age of about 13 it became more serious, that I also had the desire to become a composer. I also wanted to be an instrumentalist and I did that for a while, first playing the recorder and then switching to the oboe when I was 14. I then actually wanted to become an oboist and composer directly, had that in mind and pursued that – without thinking about whether I would have great success with it. Actually, it was like how others want to become a fireman or an astronaut at an even younger age. I had the feeling that I had to follow this path. But then I kept meeting people who encouraged and supported me. That was just great luck – they were very important people, even before I started studying. They didn’t say, ‘Oh, you’re crazy.’ My music teacher in high school, for example, who gave me my first orchestra assignment for the school orchestra when I was 15. Or my mother, who was a freelance artist and lived a bit utopian herself. So I didn’t care that it was actually so difficult.
BK: What was it like when the school orchestra played that first orchestral commission?
SN: Yes, that was crazy. I played in it myself, too. You think of something and then it sounds so similar, but something also sounds completely different. In the end, it’s still like that today. That is then the learning, the process, the experience that you have to think more carefully. As far as the vision is concerned, sometimes it goes more in the direction of failure, sometimes it is more successful, sometimes even more than perhaps hoped for. It’s very gratifying, and at the same time, somehow every premiere is always a kind of shock.
BK: So on the one hand it’s gratifying when something succeeds, and on the other hand, when things don’t work out, do you get angry about it or does that motivate you more?
SN: Yes, I am quite harsh with myself. Sometimes it’s the case that, for example, certain passages or moments in a work may work well on the outside and are more or less successful, but for me they don’t work out formally or in terms of structure. I then take very careful note of that. I usually don’t make major revisions to a piece. I prefer to let it go and try to take up this experience for myself for a next piece. Sometimes the assessment changes, too. I may find the same piece successful one time and terrible the other. I am not always at one with myself in my judgment. And that has nothing at all to do with the performers or the audience. It’s really a thing between me and myself.
BK: Why do you react differently?
SN: It has to do with what interests me at the moment. I may have just gotten away from something compositionally, renewed myself, and actually can’t listen to something at all. I find it terribly boring and think, ‘Oh, what have you done there again.’ But then when I look at that piece again two or three years later, I sometimes have enough distance to say, ‘Oh, that might have been all right.’ But in between, I’ve had to inwardly reject it first. That happens to me quite often. It’s an important process to move on. And I think it also has to do with the fact that on the one hand there are aspects that concern only one piece, and on the other hand there are phases in which certain things interest me across compositions, certain themes, playing techniques, sounds, structures. It’s like a terrain in which I research and which also grows. But then sometimes I have to pull myself out of it by force, so to speak, and go somewhere else.
BK: I’d like to ask you about one of your chamber pieces that we produced during the lockdown. In the duo WOLVES for oboe and prepared piano, there are a few violent moments that are also theatrically highlighted. For example, the oboist cuts his reed. Can you talk about how that came about and why that seemed to be necessary for you?
SN: Yes, the piece is really a bit brutal. But it’s not just aggressive, it’s also tender. It was commissioned by my former oboe professor Burkhard Glaetzner in 2012. I studied with him and then freelanced as an oboist for about two years. Then, with a cut, I decided to stop playing the oboe and focus only on composition. I wrote my first major opera. Later Burkhard Glaetzner gave me this commission as a farewell to his teaching at the UdK. That in itself is a difficult commission: to write a piece for someone as a farewell. He was not only my second oboe professor, but already important for me for the decision for the instrument itself. As a child, we had CDs with Vivaldi concertos in his interpretation, and I found that so incredibly beautiful that I simply wanted to play the oboe. That’s why he was an important figure for me as a child. It’s actually impossible, but I wanted to put all of that into this piece plus my own relationship to this instrument. So there are these different levels that the oboe goes through, also different registers, different colors. And then there’s the first cut on the reed, which makes the sound brighter and more unpredictable, and then the second cut, which makes any sound impossible and there’s just the air noise. That’s a theatrical gesture, of course, but it also does something to the sound.
BK: And in another duo we also produced: White Eyes Erased, for drumset and keyboard, there are also visual elements, like slides projected on a screen. What connection do those have with the sounds, what’s the significance of that?
SN: That’s a piece I distilled from a large ensemble piece. I’ve had that happen a few times, which is maybe because things still continue to accompany me, or I layer so much that you can then dig it all up again individually. The keyboard has 88 samples and almost every key is linked to an image. I deliberately assigned some images to certain sounds, a mixture on the one hand of images of my mother, who was a painter, and on the other hand there are photo projections that are a bit jumbled and in terms of aesthetics look like your own cell phone pictures that you scroll through, sort of unordered: some walls, film stills of Maya Deren and Freaks, images of Cage looking for mushrooms, because there are also a few Cage quotes in the samples, but everything totally bent and electronically alienated, you can’t really tell. There are also snippets from the band Animal Collective. It’s a wild mix, and in the same way the samples are a wild mix that gets messed up.
BK: One more question about the new piece you got the commission from us for. You were talking earlier about fields you’re tilling. Are you also in something like that right now that could feed into the piece?
SN: For quite a long time, the theatrical was important with me; 2010 to 2019, that was always of importance and showed up in certain pieces. And then somehow I got tired of it. I think also during Corona I had the feeling, enough now. I have to get out of there. During the time of Corona, a lot has changed for all of us. I was lucky enough to continue to have assignments. So I couldn’t complain. But it still did something to me. In a way, I may have come back more to a core. I wrote a quintet for the ensemble intercontemporain, KETER, during that time. That means crown, so like corona, but it also has other meanings, for example, for the Holy Book: ketarim are little crowns, decorations of the Hebrew letters when the Torah is written. There is also a spiritual meaning of keter: as the highest sephira of the Kabbalistic tree. When I composed this quartet, I felt, here is actually something that I am just beginning. That sometimes happens with me, that I have pieces where I think, I’m now going into an area here, I’m opening a door and behind it is a corridor and more doors are waiting… Actually there should be several pieces. Based on KETER, I now want to write a cycle for fall 2023 that deals with the space in between, the gap, the possibilities and also the contradiction between writing and interpretation, physis and psyche. There are to be three pieces. In addition to the first one, two others are to be created, a second quintet and a large ensemble work for you, which will bring together different thoughts.
I’m looking forward to it, because I’ve always listened to Musikfabrik from a distance for years, watched it and experienced some concerts and heard recordings. That was very inspiring for me. For example, Liza Lim, Tree of Codes. I found that impressive, but also many other things have remained alive and important in my memory. Then there was our first collaboration in 2020, very shortly before the Lockdown came, and finally the Lockdowntapes. During that time, that was something very special. First of all, that anything took place at all. A comforting and encouraging project from you. And then to feel, even though we couldn’t rehearse together at all, that the music had reached you. For me, these are three totally beautiful recordings, with great liveliness and intimacy, which is otherwise not so easy to produce in this medium. I look forward to the real meetings and our collaboration in the time to come.