Interviews Interview with Péter Eötvös

Péter Eötvös is one of the most significant contemporary composers, not only in Hungary but  internationally as well. His works are regularly performed in the world's most prestigious concert and theater halls, while he also actively works with the Péter Eötvös Foundation, based in BMC, to educate young composers and conductors.

Your philosophy as a composer and opera composer is mostly theatrical, based on characters and plot. Where does this come from? Do you think of yourself as a storyteller?

I started composing theater music and film music very early on. Already my first childhood compositions, which I wrote at the age of 7-8, were related to stories: one was based on The Jungle Book and starred Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the other was titled Afternoon of an Old Teddy Bear, undoubtedly inspired by Debussy. When I was 10 years old, I wrote a cantata based on the poem The Mother of Mathias by János Arany, which I was lucky enough to play and sing for György Ligeti – I still had a soprano voice at the time. So I have been interested in creating situations since I was a child.

Speaking of your childhood: what was the first experience that prompted you to write your own music?

My mother was a piano teacher at the music school in Miskolc, and since she was also the school principal, we had a typewriter. The machine played a very important role in my youth as it enchanted me with its beautiful font. It was so appealing that I learned to type sooner than by learned writing by hand. This caused me problems later when I started school  because I formed the letters the way I saw them on the typewriter. At one point, my passion for graphical signs connected to music when, around the age of four, I noticed the sheet music while my mother practiced. The five lines and the small dumplings. Then one day I drew the five lines on a piece of paper, drew dumplings into it, and my mother said, "Come on, I'll show you what you wrote on the piano." It was amazing that the dumplings I drew had an exact location on the instrument. My mother said to me, "This note was composed by you". The realization came, “I am a composer then?" So I’ve been a composer since then, and being a composer has been natural to me ever since.

Do you also see human characters in musical instruments?

Of course, that's the whole thing. The physical capabilities of the instrument determine its character, and the image of the instrument can be related to people. For example, the violin for me will always be Dénes Kovács, the former rector of the Liszt Academy of Music, whom I heard as a child at the music school where my mother taught. He played Beethoven's Romance, and from then on I made an equal sign in my head between Beethoven, Dénes Kovács and the violin. The oboe was personified for me by Tibor Szeszler. Brass players look completely different from string players, so childhood instrumental choice is somehow related to both physique and spiritual character. Therefore, it is very important to show children as many instruments as possible around the age of six. My mother did this very cleverly because when I was six I played the flute for a year and then tried the cello, violin, piano and also played percussion for a longer period of time. Learning about the many different instruments moved into a kind of group thinking as their tonal differences began to preoccupy me. This culminated in film music writing, where the tone is very important due to the proximity of the microphone. My in-depth knowledge of musical instruments was based on these nearby microphone positions. For flutes, for example, we placed the microphone close to the nozzle, and so we got an airy sound, and later, during concert performances, I was always looking for that tone. From here, my passion for live electronics was just one step away, starting at the age of twenty. At the time, it was much more interesting for me to scan the sound with a microphone than to handle the existing, traditional orchestral sound. Life, on the other hand, brought it so much that I started conducting and from then on I dropped into another world. Live electronics have been replaced by symphonic thinking, but in fact it still lives on in me as an internal conflict: I am very sorry that there has been no fusion between electronic music and classical music in either sound or musical thinking. The electronics went pop, and the symphonic music took great care to filter as little effect as possible from this direction.

What’s more, the instruments or electronic tones I composed for at the time have disappeared in the meantime. I eliminated this by trying to mix out the tone I experienced in electronics with acoustic instruments – just like a painter who knows exactly how to create a certain color from six other colors. For example, I mixed the sound of a piano and a vibraphone to get the tone I had previously recorded for my opera The Three Sisters. This led to the development of my fusion philosophy.


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