Philippe Schoeller’s Hermès V received its UK premiere at Southbank Centre as part of our 2017/18 Classical Season. Ahead of that performance, we caught up with the French composer to get his thoughts on inspiration, influence and working with Ensemble intercontemporain and Matthias Pintscher
Your work shares a programme with Pierre Boulez’s ...explosante-fixe… and Jonathan Harvey’s Bhakti. What would you say about these two pieces?
Masterpieces. There’s nothing more to say.
Or you could say that words are useless compared to the sensory experience of listening to, playing, and feeling this music which is simultaneously so light-hearted and so serious, an emotional space without limits.
What is it like to work with Ensemble Intercontemporain and Matthias Pintscher?
I think that I have never experienced such joy in my life as when we started to work on Hermès V for the premiere at the Philharmonie de Paris in June 2017.
I have such admiration for Matthias Pintscher, on par with the extreme privilege that I felt when sharing the piece with each musician of the Ensemble intercontemporain; sharing all the science, the joy and the intensity. The task was sometimes gruelling after resurfacing from working in solitude for 16 months. The ‘feel’ for the music that Matthias and all these musicians have is so natural, obvious, and wildly illuminating. Quite a way away from the image one has of the way new music is premiered today.
What would you say to someone who is about to hear your piece for the first time?
Thank you to all those present in this concert hall.
The performing arts are the future of our society because in a concert hall or a theatre, we all breathe the same air. We share the same space. We each live a different life within this shared reality. And music: imagined, constructed, and performed by living people, moulded with a love for an organic life. This is listening together.
When you decide on a topic, an idea, a subject, or a theme, what then happens to transform this into a piece of music? For example, Hermes; what attracted you to this character, and how did that lead you to compose your Hermes cycle?
That’s exactly the right word: deciding. But, personally, I only ‘decide’ if something within me decides. I’m unaware of that something, but I’m certain of it at the same time: a personal truth, an infallible and inexplicable intuition, which you only understand once you have started to respect and work at developing it. It’s often something extremely subtle, seemingly insignificant, but something that you are almost possessed by.
As for Hermes: with his multi-faceted nature, his many talents – but also his direct descendance from the original Olympian gods – the figure of Hermes appealed to me immediately. He spoke straightaway to my imagination as well as to my insanity and to my happiness. Once I had decided, I could immediately see the entirety of the cycle, its duration and the varied parts of the whole; voices, orchestral ensembles, electronics, a world of diverse energies that come as if from a ‘distant heart’ (at the very centre of the body). The use of space and the human voice is the motor and the common thread of this Hermes - movement in a space both dense in its energy and transparent in its timeframe.
How do your influences inform your work?
A few words come to mind when I consider all the artists, thinkers, poets and scientists that I have admired for decades: courage, energy, kindness, rigour and flexibility.
And so, if artistic endeavours must exist according to principles that are formed with meaningful words, I will tell you this ‘mental, physical and sensitive state’ that I try to adhere to every second of my life.
Interview by Mark Parker, translated by Rebecca Sharp