GD: It seems your initial encounter with György Ligeti was a happy turning point. It came during a stylistically undefined phase for you, one marked by trauma, no less. Are there compositional styles you feel were most fruitful during this phase? And have you had the opportunity to advise younger composers as Ligeti advised you?
UC: Ligeti’s teaching was completely unconventional. At that point, he was betraying his faith in the avant-garde. We listened to everything imaginable—ancient music, “classical” music, jazz, a lot of non-European traditional music, modern outsiders, of course his own music, but nothing avant-garde, in fact—it was a very tough school, because it demanded both technical perfection and originality. New scores were analyzed in detail by Ligeti during the group classes, and sometimes thrown into the wastepaper basket by him in person. But he was also hard on himself, and we can only take our hats off to him for discovering completely new stylistic ideas for himself at the age of sixty and, in my opinion, making another qualitative leap. Ligeti was a difficult person, but that was a good thing because it made the obligatory killing-of-the father much easier. Where I’m concerned, I’ve repeatedly given masterclasses for composers. For ten years, I’ve regularly organized masterclasses in Korea in the context of my New Music series, and in the context of what we call “reading sessions” I also give selected younger composers the chance to do more work with guest conductors such as Peter Eötvös, François- Xavier Roth, Susanna Mälkki, and others. This involvement in practical work is incredibly important and often a big shock for composition students. But a professorship has never appealed to me, and I’ve turned down several offers.
GD: Good training is indispensable in a technical profession like composition— in literature I’m not so sure. But does it also require a close teacher-pupil relationship like you find in the visual arts?
UC: That’s a very hard question. In principle, I’m of the opinion that you can’t teach composing. On the other hand, of course, there’s a whole lot of technical things that you just have to learn on your own. Many major composers have struggled with academic teaching. A teacher-pupil relationship can be a good thing, but only if it has a time-limit, and there is enough tolerance for disagreements and space for the pupil's development. If you think of the legendary professors of composition of the twentieth century, in my view Messiaen is a good example of allowing the pupil to do something very much their own: when you think of the famous pupils—like Xenakis, Boulez, Stockhausen, Grisey, George Benjamin, Murail—they’ve all done something of their own that actually didn’t have much to do with Messiaen. But the master had opened their eyes, and that’s the best thing you can say about a teacher. In the Schoenberg school, on the other hand, I think it’s a problem that the influence of the Supreme Father was so extremely overdetermining, even though of course Berg and Webern were geniuses, and the less well-known Roberto Gerhard managed to do something of his own as well.
GD: Ligeti’s music was important to you from the very start, because as you once said you were able to “grasp” it from the first—unlike some over-conceptualized serial endeavors. I understand very clearly what you mean, and yet I always hesitate to use concepts like “graspability” or “comprehensibility”—first of all because these are difficult to objectify, and secondly, because they quickly assume a reactionary aftertaste, as if you could deliberately take your listeners into account. What does graspability mean in your own work?
UC: Of course, you shouldn’t take your listeners into account. There’s the rather tired metaphor of sending messages in a bottle: you’re not composing for yourself or for a particular audience, but of course there is communication with an imaginary audience. The problem with over-conceptualization consists in the fact that in some circumstances something that looks wonderfully logical and complex on paper can sound less complex and more random when actually performed. That was the problem with the extreme serialism of the 1950s: eventually the results sounded less differentiated than those that could be achieved through aleatory practice. Even Adorno criticised this and said quite correctly that the ear must always listen actively to the resulting material. Joseph Brodsky once said that poetry was a highly formal art whose forms had always been invented and used by others, and that he had no option but to pour new words into those old forms. In a sense, of course that also applies to music—the idea that you can suddenly create a tabula rasa and change all the grammar and semantics is naive at best. That was also the problem with Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system: an important invention, no question, and an invention which he pursued dutifully and with clarity, and I also understand the historical moment that gave rise to it, but at the same time it was also a random invention that has little to do with music, and was ultimately coined only in light of the situation of German music. I should say in passing that I agree with the young Boulez, that Schoenberg applied the invention very inconsistently, and that his pupil Webern was its great master. But at the same time there were so many different paths: Debussy and Stravinsky revolutionized music no less, and perhaps even much more.