Clementine Gasser


Subversive classical avant-garde

Drifting between composition and improvisation
A mica Interview with Clementine Gasser

For the first time (in 2005) a woman received the Förderungspreis der Republik Österreich für Musik/Komposition (formerly called just the “State Award”) established in 1971 that has gone to the likes of Friedrich Cerha and Otto M. Zykan. On 13 June 2006 the award went to the Vienna-based Swiss cellist and composer Clementine Gasser, who has won acclaim for her projects involving, among others, the Jeunesse and the Vienna Burgtheater.

The award was presented to her for the 5-string cello solo piece “Reading through – Part III” performed by the composer. It is the third part of the seven-part suite “Suite for you” which is also featured on her CD PIONEER 23 (released under her own label WKM/Wilde Kammermusik). In its statement (for the category of ‘free forms of music/improvisation’) the jury speaks of a “strong, individual style … free of modernisms” and of “first-rate instrumental execution”. At the prize winners’ concert at the RadioKulturhaus on 13 June 2006 Gasser presented an extended version of her work with a sextet consisting of jazz and improvisation artists.


You yourself coined the term “subversive classical avant-garde“. Are you not falling somewhat between the chairs with your musical style positioned between classical, jazz, composition and improvisation?
No. The terms “subversion” and “avant-garde” cancel each other out. Both refer to related aspects and both strive for change. Using them in the same breath may seem contradictory. And this contradiction is explored in musical terms. I have recently heard a description purporting to express the core of my work: it said my composition principle was “… very compelling: … motifs strung together and in the process being condensed and mutated to create a very concentrated mood, always understandable but never predictable…” Initially I was taken aback but then I was able to realise that there was power and strength residing in ideas like “compulsion” and “fixation”: dynamism!

What does the title of your CD mean: PIONEER 23?
When different tendencies and approaches converge in the development of a piece of music, a “vast land” is created. I can draw from that if I challenge myself to be a pioneer. The number 23 (the digits add up to 5) is a reference to the 5th string of the cello. And the “5” also refers to the “golden section” where a kind of balance is created – even if there is tonal “dissonance”: when listening to so-called dissonant sounds one feels that there is a consonance resonating in the deepest core; or else, take overtone systems, where “the one” preconditions “the other”, where you could say the tension overarches or underpins the release and vice versa.

What was your development? You learned to play the cello, attended a conservatory  …
Right. I started playing the cello at six and first focused on the classical sphere, but a career as a chamber or orchestra musician would not have suited me really. Even then there was this impetuous-subversive element and my tendency towards experiments, towards New Music and jazz. But I have a great love for the classical repertoire, particularly for Baroque music. At 17 I took a break of several years. When I then rediscovered the cello I realised I wanted and “needed” to open up a new “field”. In Vienna at the conservatoire I looked into jazz. It was beneficial but only up to a certain point. My way of “exploring” things did not fit into the confines of classroom activities.

Despite the amplification the instrument remains what it is – a cello. Your listeners hear old and then again very advanced playing techniques, overtone play, they experience subtlety, stillness, and then again unrestrained aggression.
Letting loose in “aggression” provides a place also for subtlety. Confronting dualities, perhaps linking them together, creates a powerful intensity.

High volume levels, noise – would you like that?
When the heart is open for the music, the ears can take a lot! I love extreme volumes, they have a liberating effect, but I am not going there at any cost. Sometimes I use the ear plugs that organisers hand out to the audience; it depends on the concert and my mood.

In the sextet version the spectrum of the cello sound was extended by other instruments and there were improvised solos by the other musicians. What is the relationship between composition/improvisation?
At first I had wanted to fix the sound aspects and the temporal sequences more precisely, but then I decided to give more room to improvisation and to leave it to the individual musicians as to how they wanted to approach the material. This aspect of freedom and risk is a great concern of mine.

From which scenes do the musicians come that you frequently play with?
With respect to the sextet: Martin Ptak (trombone) and Markus Mayerhofer (guitar and electronics) are relatively firmly rooted in jazz and New Music, and they also have a trio with Christian Gonsior (saxophone): the trio is currently treating film scores. Pia Palme (sub basses, bass recorder and electronics) hails from classical music and New Music, but has long liberated herself from strict allegiance. I got into contact with the percussionist Erwin Schober – his strengths relate to drum’n’bass and “Balkan-Jazz” (“Fatima Spar & the Freedom Fries”) – through productions for festivals and other productions with Karin Beier (she will take over as head of Schauspiel Köln as of 2007). In addition, Schober is my percussion/drums partner at the Baudelaire production “Spleen de Paris”. I often work with Schober and Palme in a trio.

When performing in a group would you like to stick to your personal profile, to extend it to the group?
Of course in a group you have to extend things. There is flux on the one hand and structural aspects on the other, and the two are mutually challenging both when playing solo and in an ensemble. I would like to pursue the “oceanic principle” in the sense of working with “Dionysian suppleness”.

How did you manage to get performance opportunities?
Through PR and networking. My interest in literature and the Burgtheater in Vienna have also opened up further avenues of development.

You have worked with exciting themes and partners: Thomas Bernhard, Queneau, Schlingensief …
A lot of inspiration for my own projects has been drawn from my work for the Burgtheater. It also led to exciting co-operation projects with other organisers and clients such as the Jeunesse

… which gave you a commission for the Baudelaire project (Spleen de Paris, premiere in 2005) you conceived which will be performed at the Burgtheater Kasino as of November 2006 …
… that’s right. And before that there were commissions and stage appearances that included, to name just a few, “Joyce in Dublin” (“Rejoyce Dublin”), the Nibelungenfestspiele in Worms, the “Ars Poetica Bratislava”, a fascinating project with Wolfgang Mitterer ...

Was it important to have your own label?
It was important in as much as three CDs were released under WKM/Wilde Kammermusik. I have to do the entire process, the marketing and so on myself. I have recently started to consider offering the label as a platform to other musicians.

Is there a web site?
It is in the making.

Do you do everything yourself?
Yes. I will start looking more closely at the “management issue” if there should come a point when I am completely overwhelmed by commissions. Until then, I will do my own organisation and co-ordination.

Is Vienna an attractive prospect for you?
I have been living here for eleven-and-a-half years and it is my new home. Vienna is a wonderful city of culture and it has a very profound, multi-layered character. I do have the ambition, of course, of getting around more.

You have been invited to the composer’s forum in Mittersill.
The theme is “cult” and I am looking forward to meeting many musicians and composers, including Christoph Cech and Christof Dienz. There will be concerts, workshops, symposia, cinema and communication – music will be created in Mittersill and that fills me with great anticipation. I perceive a certain kinship in emotional and expressive terms in Cech’s music.

Do you think these forms of not-so-determined music between composition, jazz, and experiments are on the rise?


The mica-interview was conducted by Heinz Rögl
Information: Portrait Clementine Gasser hosted by Ursula Strubinsky
Austrian Broadcasting Corporation ORF/Ö1 Zeit-Ton, 26 june 2006, 11:05 p.m.
Furthermore on 23 may 06