Talking Heads: Thomas Larcher

Composer Thomas Larcher (above) talks with Arcana editor Ben Hogwood about his music, and what we can expect from his upcoming residency at the Aldeburgh International Festival

The 72nd Aldeburgh Festival begins this weekend, and there are three artists-in-residence: tenor Mark Padmore, soprano / conductor Barbara Hannigan and the Austrian composer Thomas Larcher.

Larcher’s music has received good coverage in the last decade in particular, with a number of recordings released on the ECM label, but this portrait of his output will make an even wider appraisal possible. With music ranging from solo piano right through to large orchestra, there will also be a chance to catch the second performance – and UK premiere – of his first opera, The Hunting Gun.

We start by talking of Larcher’s memories of the festival – or not, as the case may be! “Let me say I haven’t had any experiences so far!” he says cheerily. “I visited Aldeburgh a year ago at the planning stage for what’s happening now, but I’ve never played a concert there and I don’t think a piece by me has ever been played there. This year’s program all comes through my friendship with Roger Wright, who once commissioned a piece from me for the Proms (the Double Concerto for violin, cello and orchestra, performed by Viktoria Mullova and Matthew Barley). Since then we’ve been in touch, and he has always been very pleasant and friendly. I had the feeling that he is a person who speaks on one level, face to face with a composer, and not from the top down like a big promoter. I felt very much at home at the Proms because of that.”

There is a palpable excitement around the UK premiere of The Hunting Gun, which received very positive reviews from its premiere at the Bregenz Festival in Larcher’s home country Austria. He confirms the approach will be similar. “It will be the same staging as it was in Bregenz, and I know they have been working on the details. I think the main difference will be space. The hall is wonderful with a really good sound, whereas in Bregenz we were in a huge box, more or less. Everyone there said you will need amplification, as there was a lot of noise around from lights and fans. There was the possibility of amplification but we will see how it works out with the full orchestra. For example we didn’t have a pit in Bregenz, so we were all on the same level, but now the orchestra is down in the pit, which should make things feel more free. I hope it will be more intimate in the level of sound.”

Did working on a much larger composition bring out new properties in Larcher’s own writing? He considers the question. “On paper it is not such a big score. There are 19 or something players and a little choir, and the soloists. There are two elements I can mention, however. The first one is coming from the text (the opera is based on a Japanese novella from 1945). I find this little book by Yasushi Inoue (below) highly fascinating. I couldn’t start before I was really sure about how the text would evolve, how we could compress this quite complex novel into quite small pages of text, because I feel that operas – the texts are too long. My girlfriend Friederike Gösweiner, who is the librettist, has found a way to really keep the soul of this novel alive but still reduce it and condense it to something very precise and with very few words. I loved it. So already I could say some of the music had formed before I started.”

And the second element? “Something I had never done before was the integration of the chorus. The chorus is a hybrid thing, staging it as seated with the orchestra. It is a connection between the orchestra and the soloists, it is an amplifier of the soloists and they symbolise the echo room of the persons on stage, the psychological echo room. They have various functions which you can define or not define, but this whole mixture of the ensemble and the chorus proved to be highly interesting for me.”

A sizeable problem facing today’s composers is the difficulty in getting not just first but second performances of their works. To that end it must be very satisfying for Larcher having a sequel on which to rely relatively quickly after the first, and on such a major stage as Aldeburgh? “Yes, it’s really great. I can’t be thankful enough for having as an artist in residence. It’s a great festival and I think Roger has also with other people chosen an excellent solution for the music with Ryan Wigglesworth conducting. It’s all first rate and I’m very curious to hear it. The other day I heard it will also be on stage at Amsterdam as part of the Holland festival. Pierre Audi has invited me to be part of that.”

As a listener it can also be hard to get a second hearing for a new piece that you really want to hear again, so it is satisfying from that point of view also. “I think or I hope that I’m already contributing to changing the situation”, he says, “as I am getting slower and slower at writing! I will leave less pieces so that hopefully they will have half a chance to be played more often! I can’t speak for others but I think the amount of pieces being thrown out is enormous. Of course it is a frustration for composers when their pieces are not played again, and as we know a piece needs some time to grow, to develop and even to be corrected, the mistakes that everyone always makes. These chances don’t come too often. I cannot speak about this because I don’t have this experience, but that is such a lucky situation which is quite unique. I am very thankful to all my players, conductors and orchestras that program existing pieces. It is wonderful for me but should be that way for a lot more composers.”

This year’s Festival will offer a chance for listeners to take in another new Larcher work, the Movement for solo piano which will be played by Paul Lewis. “The Movement was the first piece I could really tackle after having written the opera,” he explains. “In a way I felt as though I was coming out of this huge tunnel, and the Movement was quite a liberation from that. I always have problems writing for piano because I used to be a concert pianist, and would play everything from J.S. Bach to Olga Neuwirth, and I played with so many conductors from Claudio Abbado to Frans Welser-Möst and Paavo Jarvi. Each time I wanted to write something for piano I thought why do I know this – oh no, it’s from Messiaen or Schoenberg, and I was revisiting music I had already played! I prepared the piano so that it became a new instrument for me, and it was more coverable than the well known natural sound. Here again I got myself into a state of going into a new piece and just writing for a ‘normal’ piano was so liberating, a very good experience for me.”

On the festival’s third day Paul Lewis will join Larcher and Mark Padmore for a concert including the Padmore Cycle, a collection of eleven pieces written for the tenor. Their partnership clearly holds a special place for Larcher. “That piece was very important for me and meaningful too. We really embraced the text, and it’s more about going for the text over the quality of the voice, it’s very important. The music meets something in me, but if the text is not right then it does not work. For me, writing for the voice is strongly connected with writing for Mark. For the Padmore Cycle, two friends who wrote the texts for it (Hans Aschenwald and Alois Hotschnig). I deliberately chose texts from these two writers close to me, and so I practically formed my own cycle. By choosing different things you show yourself by what you prefer and what you don’t want to be shown. The unifying force behind all that was Mark, and so it was excellent to write the piece with him. There are three versions of this piece already – the original one that will be heard at the festival, with piano – then there is another one with voice and piano trio and a third with voice and big orchestra.”

Larcher has often spoken of the importance of tonal music, though he shies away from what could be seen as more obvious clichés within his writing. Is that an approach he maintains? “Yes, although it has widened in a sense. If you go through film music it’s always so that the feel is tonal, major or minor, but the horror films have passages that are atonal, with the birds flying – passages that make you think of Hitchcock! In a way that is a shame, but it’s also a cliché with a reason. I think you have to be aware of that, and that you don’t fall into the trap of always over-using those clichés – for example in films they will think of using Arvo Pärt for a solemn scene and Ligeti for a horror trip. I have tried to explore something like multi-tonality and have different threads of tonal music interweaving, or even going on the other hand going to tonal regions when it’s a dramatic scene. I like to juxtapose different tonalities or patterns of chords to make those boundaries more flexible or accessible, and not stand still in those clichés. I think there are so many possibilities still, even though there are only 12 tones, to create new and interesting tonal material. I think we have not reached the end of the road, and I cannot tell how far I will go there but it’s definitely for me! I can’t say I don’t care about tonality or not tonality, but I try to find a way for having complexity in accessible audible forms.

Larcher will be at the Aldeburgh Festival for its duration, taking in the performances of his music all the way through to the Cello Concerto (Ouroboros) on Sunday 23 June with Alisa Weilerstein and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner. “By then I will be an Aldeburgh citizen, a resident of Snape!” he jokes.

Yet it seems The Hunting Gun will fit in very well with the festival, for its scale and plot alone. “Absolutely, with the beach as well! Maybe one day it should be staged in front of the atomic power station, which nobody mentions when speaking about Aldeburgh?! I learned about it when I saw pictures by David Lynch of this power plant, so maybe his interest says there should be something done there at that point.”

Sizewell B (n.b. this picture is not by David Lynch!)

Talk turns to music and culture outside of what we might call ‘classical’ music. “I mentioned David Lynch because there are some very powerful photographs of his with power plants on them, they are very dark – and I was amazed how much of the atmosphere he can display in his films, and how it could be transported into a single black and white picture. This I found quite strong. Regarding art, of course I do have a lot of friends. I grew up in Vienna where I studied more at the Art Academy than the Music Academy in my spare time, because it was far more vibrant, far more interesting, and there were nicer girls! I spent a lot of time there and it had some substantial influences. I painted a lot as a child. Even now I am a passionate photographer whenever I can be. Today everyone is a photographer of course but for me taking photos and scribbling things down shows me how I work as a musician also, with methods and writing. How you construct these things has different layers, and I see clearer with a photograph than when I sit in front of my music sheets.

Regarding the music I experienced from 15 there was a jazz club in the town where everyone played, from Pat Metheny to Chick Corea, and from Art Ensemble of Chicago (above) to Dino Saluzzi – all of the jazz greats. This was so liberating for me at the time, it was a way out of this really boring classical scene as I had experienced it in the region. There were a lot of frustrated musicians who were speaking of a big musical world outside of this region, but it didn’t happen here! Sitting frustrated in a teaching job, I couldn’t imagine there would be something like that living in music. When someone like the Art Ensemble comes to your town and delivers their show or Art Pepper and all of those players it was the greatest thing that could happen. A new world opened up to me and showed me this was life and not a prison!

Exposure to these arts surely helps when writing an opera? “Yes, although I obviously trust in the different crafts, so I wouldn’t be a multi-disciplined artist because I am simply not able to, and I am interested in what other people bring into the process. I really like to learn from other disciplines, and be open for what comes into your cosmos as well.”

As artist-in-residence at this year’s Aldeburgh International Festival, Thomas Larcher can look forward to a number of performances of his work, with the UK premiere of The Hunting Gun, the world premiere of Movement, A Padmore Cycle performed with its dedicatee and performances of string quartets and orchestral works. For full details visit the Aldeburgh Festival website. For more information on Thomas Larcher, you can visit his website

The playlist below gives an introduction to his music through available recordings:

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