A Composer whose Music is Inspired by His Undersea Adventures
Josef Heinzer and his life partner, Doris Maria Sigrist, live in Lenggenwil, a country village situated some 12.5 kilometers west of St. Gallen, Switzerland. Huge trees surround their house, one of which is a cedar that they brought back from a 1990 visit to Mount St. Helens. That tree is now over 18 feet tall. Heinzer has always considered plants to be his living companions and even as a child he couldn’t bear to pick flowers. The couple considers their rather wild garden to be their own nature reserve. Their home is situated about a half hour’s drive south of Lake Constance. If you drive about an hour to the southeast, you come to the Alpstein, a pleasant area for walking in the hills at the foot of Säntis, a mountain that is over 8,000 feet high. The borders of Germany, Austria, and even France are not far away.
Q: What made you decide to be a composer?
A: I never decided to be a composer. I became one by accident. Let me explain this in more detail. Sometimes on Sundays my father, who was a master carpenter with his own workshop, played Swiss folk music on his concert zither. As a child, I wanted to play the instrument too. He had a lot of sheet music, as well as a book, which taught me how to tune the zither and play many short pieces. In the book they used the treble clef for the melody and the bass clef for the accompaniment. In folk music, the treble clef is often used for the bass as well but it’s played an octave lower. My father didn’t help me. I loved the sound of the zither and I noticed that it was quite similar to that of a harpsichord. I got to like baroque music from listening to the radio. I particularly loved the great harpsichord music that I heard over the airwaves, and began to attend nearby organ concerts. Thus, I heard the music of Bach, Buxtehude, and other composers of that era, and I loved all of it very much. Once I found a piano piece by Busoni written in the style of Bach, which I wanted to play on the zither, but I found it to be impossible.
In our neighborhood there was a legally blind gardener who ground Newton telescope mirrors. When he had polished a mirror, he asked me to measure its parabolic shape by the Foucault method and he paid me for the service. When I saw that he had a piano I asked him if I could play it. Since I already knew the bass and treble clefs, I started to learn to play the piano on my own. Later, I was able to buy a piano for 50 francs. Since my father didn’t want to have a piano in our house, I put it in the workshop during the night with the help of a friend. Later, my father changed his mind and helped me to carry it into our living room. As soon as I was able to play simple piano pieces, I thought it would be more satisfying if we could include other instruments. I got the idea that my youngest brother should learn to play the violin and the older one should try the clarinet in order for us to be able to play together. I composed short pieces for these three instruments, but we three boys never succeeded in playing them. Later, I added a sonata for violin and piano, and a trio for violin, cello, and piano. Maybe that was when I became a composer. Since then, Doris, who is a professional cellist, has transcribed the violin part for cello and we have played that sonata together many times.
Q: What aspects of composition do you find most interesting?
A: At first, my main interest was in chamber music, but today I am most interested in composing orchestral works. I need the characteristic tone colors of both low and high instruments. An orchestra can be a wonderful instrument. As an autodidact, I have learned to compose on my own. I studied books about different instruments and orchestration. I also purchased scores of many of the great masters such as Beethoven, Schumann, Bruckner, Mahler, Sibelius, Hartmann, and Shostakovich. As a scientist, I am used to solving problems on my own. I like learning by doing. In beginning a composition, it can be helpful if you determine the length of a piece or movement in advance. Music is a kind of language and I often need some help from outside. A photo, a drawing, or words might translate my feelings into music. Sometimes those things don’t have the desired effect and nothing happens, but one shouldn’t give up. Just when you begin to think of something else, you may get a surprise. Suddenly something might appear that you were looking for. It may come on its own and it might not even be possible to force it out.
Q: What would you say are the most important influences on your music?
A: I have been influenced by Bruckner and Beethoven’s symphonies, as well as by the latter’s chamber music. One evening, I was deeply impressed by the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra’s performance of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony as conducted by Karl Böhm. I particularly liked the slow movement. When I mentioned to Doris that Beethoven, Bruckner, and Mahler had each written nine symphonies, she told me that if I wanted to compose nine symphonies I should begin now. At that time I was about 42 years old. I started right away by deciding what kind of instruments I needed, how many of each I wanted, my method of notation, and so on. I also read a lot of books about instrumentation.
Q: What new projects do you have planned?
A: At the moment, I am working on the second movement, the
, of my Eighth Symphony,
. The first movement, an
, is named “Jedey,” after a small village we often passed driving to the volcanoes known as San Antonio and Teneguía. From the road there is a wonderful view. One passes several old lava fields going down to the sea. In spring beautiful flowers grow along the road. The music of these two movements may be related to this description. I plan to add a
named “Teneguía” and a finale called “San Antonio.” Teneguía erupted on October 26, 1971, and is the youngest volcano on La Palma, a Canary Island. A huge explosion created San Antonio more than 3,000 years ago. A visitor center nearby shows videos of the Teneguía eruption and explains the volcanic and geological history of La Palma. At first I wanted to compose a Second String Quartet and the Eighth Symphony at the same time. That did not work out very well, however, so I decided to complete the symphony first and to look at the other work later.
Q: Do you compose most of your music at the Clavinova?
A: Composing something like a symphony is almost like writing a novel. You start from nothing. In a novel you might write about a house with a garden near a creek. Doris might then say that she already hears a frog. Objects such as a house, a garden, and a creek immediately created a new object: a frog. Writing a symphony or some other music might be somewhat similar. Even if one has some ideas about the tempo: slow, fast, rhythmic, or with long melodic lines; at the beginning there is nothing written in the score. Then there are ideas from the outside: a drawing, a photo, or some words. After thinking about what these pictures mean, I may find some music I can use while I improvise on the Clavinova or piano. I seldom make sketches. I leave everything open as long as possible.
Q: Do you simply let the music have its say and then impose a structure upon it?
A: If I begin a new composition or movement I ask myself: How long should it be? Which instruments should I use and how many do I want? Should the tempo be slow or fast? What should it contain? When I finally arrive at writing down a few music notes or a theme, I go to my computer and use my own program, ScoreEd4, to print out what I have written. Then I go back to the Clavinova or piano with the printed page or pages to check it. I correct it, improve it, and add new voices. To me, it is important that the beginning of the music leaves possibilities open for further development. When I cannot improve what I already have written, I go on with the music. Using ScoreEd4, I am able to edit and print my scores and produce all the necessary orchestra and chamber music parts. Sure, I think about what could happen in the music before I write it down, but I cannot say that I have the whole piece in my mind at first. For me it’s a creative process.
Q: Do you consider the audience when you’re working on a composition?
A: No, not really. Whatever I compose needs interpreters. Otherwise neither my music nor anybody else’s music reaches the audience and there won’t be any response. I like my music; otherwise I wouldn’t give it away. However, I don’t expect everyone else to like it. My most critical audience member is Doris, who is not only a cellist but also a very critical auditor. Most people are happy with popular music. Sometimes I like it too, but there are always some folks who want to listen to something that they don’t yet know. Often professional ensembles don’t include new music because they fear that their audience will stay away. However, if you are interested in listening to what is happening today, you have to go to concerts given by ensembles that specialize in contemporary music. I don’t expect that my music is accessible on one hearing. It may seem easy at first, but it needs repeated listening to be absorbed and understood. That’s common to both my new and my old music. A lot of my compositions are strongly influenced by my diving experiences. Two examples that describe the beauties under the sea in musical terms are: the second movement of my string quartet called
The Strait of Juan de Fuca
, which I wrote in 1990 and 1991 and the third movement of
for violin, cello, piano, percussion, and orchestra written in 1991 and 1992. Both movements are marked
. Volcanoes have also inspired some of my music. For instance they appear in the last movements of both my Piano Trio No. 1 from 1986 and my Piano Trio No. 2 from 1988 and 1989. Another volcano example is the last movement of my Symphony No. 4 written between 1995 and 1998.
Q: Is it difficult to integrate new music into the standard repertoire of an orchestra?
A: It shouldn’t be difficult but there are a lot of stumbling blocks. It may be that the conductor or the orchestra or both don’t like new music. A composer who is not already well known hasn’t any chance to popularize their new music. Concert organizers sometimes avoid new music because they fear the concert hall will only be half full or possibly almost empty. After all, organizing concerts is a business, too. The best compromise is to place a piece of new music at the beginning or in the middle of the program.
Q: How do you describe your music?
A: Well, I am not a composer who knows all the theory and styles from the Middle Ages up to today. I am not even able to describe my own music, except that it is mostly tonal and that the tonality is changing all the time. What I do avoid is mainstream music and the kind of music that one hears all day long. During my student days in Zurich I spent almost every evening at the Casa Bar where different groups played Dixieland jazz. I liked the fast pieces the most, but I don’t actually use jazz in my music.
Q: What music do you listen to for pleasure?
A: Doris plays cello and piano while I play piano and compose. We don’t have a working radio in our house, nor do we have television. Our car has a radio and on it we have a choice between two or three classical radio stations that sometimes play new music. For us, YouTube replaces both radio and television. On it you can find all kinds of music you never had heard before. When I was younger I often went to concerts where new music was presented. But nowadays I rather prefer to stay home and compose my own music.
Q: What new works are you planning?
A: First, I want to finish my Eighth Symphony. At the moment I am in the middle of the slow second movement. Two movements should complete the work. Doris wants to record the Cello Concerto that I composed for her in the ’80s. She already premiered it with the Brasov Philharmonic with Vlad Conta conducting on January 27, 2000. However, it is an early composition and I want to revise it before she records it.
Q: What is your advice for a young composer starting out?
A: Young composers should learn a second profession. For instance, they can be good pianists and earn their living at that, or they can choose an entirely different day job that brings in a reasonable amount of money. You cannot live from composing alone. Times are always difficult for both young and old composers, I think. Today, it seems to be even harder than usual because most people are filled up with mainstream popular music all day long. I think they are not used to listening to classical music any more, but maybe I am wrong.
Q: What would you like to achieve in the next 10 years?
A: Elliott Carter wrote the opera
during 1997 and 1998, when he was 90 years old. Would I compose an opera someday? I don’t know.
Piano Trios 1-3.
Mosaic No. 2. Mellerup
Lea Gabriela Heinzer (vn); Doris Maria Sigrist (vc); Susy Luthy (pn)
SWISS PAN 51 708 (67: 40)