In conversation with JONATHAN HEPFER (Cologne, Germany - 2011)
Tell me about the environment you grew up in and your early musical experiences.
Well, there exists a small university in Northern Germany called Greifswald, near the Ostsee. Earlier, it was behind the iron curtain, the DDR, but now, of course, it is a part of Germany. There is a small university there. We have a tradition here in Germany that is a little bit like in the United States in which the oldest universities aren’t in the biggest cities – Hamburg, Berlin, München – but rather in smaller cities like Heidelberg, Tübingen, and Marburg. And our particular one of these universities was in Greifswald. Most of the university was very good. Greifswald was always excellent for medicine, in particular. And my father was studying at this university in 1932, when I came into the world.
So we lived in this small city, and there was a small Stadttheater there. But there wasn’t very much music. My mother told me later that there were church concerts at the local Evangelical church, but there was no symphonic music or anything like that.
But we were on the outskirts of the city, so mostly there were just big barracks with soldiers living there from the army. I don’t know which infantry regiment. And they, of course, had military music. And in the summers, every Sunday at ten in the morning, they played military music in the city’s marketplace. My father would take me there when I was around four or five years old. He would put me on his shoulders so that I could see the musicians. And they played marches and things like that. So, my earliest musical memories are actually military marches.
And according to my parents, although I myself don’t remember this, but I would say, "can we please go to the concerts! I want to go! There! There!" I wanted to see the snare drum, bass drum and cymbals being played! And so hearing military music was really my first musical experience. Charles Ives once said something similar about when he was a youngster.
And I always was fascinated by the snare drum. I would always say to my father "Trommel, Trommel, Trommel!" And so one day, my grandfather (Pappy) gave me a children's drum, and told me that you hold the sticks like this. And my parents would say to my grandfather, "you know, you're very clever, Pappy. But your drumming technique could use some work!" (Laughter)
I needed someone who could really show me how it was supposed to go. And my mother didn't have so much to do during that time, and she always had fun doing all kinds of crazy things, and so she found a piano teacher and asked him if he could help. He told her that he only played piano, but he had a friend who gave lessons to little kids on violin and guitar. But snare drum? At that time, there weren't yet amateur percussionists. It was different in Southern Germany back then, where each city had an amateur wind ensemble. There, it wouldn't have been so difficult to find someone to show me how to play snare drum.
So, my mother said, "okay, then I suppose I have to ask somebody from the military band." And from the concerts, she knew how the leader of the miliary band looked, and one day she saw him on the street and she stopped him and asked him! (Laughter) And then he told her to come meet her in his Sprechstunde (office hour) in the barracks, and we'll discuss what to do.
So she went, and when they met, he told her that the trumpet and clarinet players from the military band all had pupils around the town. One afternoon per week, they don't have any military service, and so as side jobs, they teach music lessons. I can send you our drummer.
And then came Officer Herr Hoffmann, and I had my first drum lesson. Together, we drummed on the table, "papa mama, papa mama" and so on. And my parents later told me that it was far too boring for me! These lessons couldn't hold my attention, but I wanted to learn.
And a good thing was that this teacher told my parents that we needed a real drum for our lessons. And so in 1938, Kolberg did not yet exist, but instead there was Pelzner, which doesn't exist anymore. But at that time, it was the only company that existed for this. It shipped tam tams and things like that to every opera house. And so my teacher knew somebody at Pelzner and wrote a postcard saying that he needed a small, not too expensive drum fit for a child, but it should be a real drum." And not long after, the drum arrived. And that was the beginning.
[Ask for photo of Caskel and his teacher with the drum]
A few years later, we moved from Greifswald to Berlin. I must have been about eleven at that time. There was a small orchestra in the school and I wanted to continue with music, so I took lessons with a percussionist from the Staatsoper Berlin. That was actually when I first came into contact with proper percussion, and naturally Heinrich Knauer's Trommelschule, which at that time was far too difficult for me. Somehow, somewhere deep in my mind, I have the memory that these were not very good lessons, which maybe subconsciously is the reason why I eventually wrote my own beginner snare drum book.
Anyway, my father never had anything to do with music, but my mother had a good ear. My maternal grandfather played trumpet in an amateur orchestra and also played piano very well. There are even a few small compositions by him. So, all of my musical abilities came from my mother's side of the family. Ja. Those are my earliest musical memories.
Did you also learn piano and singing?
I took piano lessons in Berlin for a while, so I learned how to play some elementary things. I made progress, although I doubt I can really play Bach anymore. Learning piano was something quite enjoyable for me.
The problem was naturally that it was really wartime. In 1941, '42, I was away from Berlin, so I didn't have either percussion or piano lessons. In 1946, I came back to Berlin and returned to my percussion lessons, but didn't study piano anymore. In 1949, I went to Cologne to start studies at the Musikhoschule there. It was really tiny at that time. Only three hundred students or so. In the percussion class, there were exactly three students. (Laughter)
My audition for the Musikhochschule Köln was funny compared to what is expected of students nowadays. Surely, I would not have passed the entrance exam for the Musikhochschule now. The percussion instructor and the director of the Musikhochschule were at my exam, and the percussion instructor told me to play my snare drum, which I had brought along. I played a Knauer étude, but an easy one. And the school also had a dulcimer xylophone, so I played what everybody played at that time: Zirkus Renz. (Laughter) And after that, they said, "yes, okay. Lovely. You can study here." I also played a bit of piano, but it was completely elementary. But it did the trick back then.
What was your first experience with contemporary music? Certainly, Stockhausen belonged to a new generation of composers in Europe.
My first impression of contemporary music was that it sounded completely crazy, but also somehow beautiful. My first experience with this music was in the orchestra of the Hochschule. The funny thing was that I was only at this Hochschule for two weeks or so, and one of my percussionist colleagues told me that he couldn't play at his rehearsal the next morning, and he asked me if I could sub for him on timpani. I told him I had never played timpani, and he said, "oh, okay. Well, here is a low note, here is a high note." (Laughter)
The piece was the Violin Concerto of Max Bruch. And one of the movements began with a timpani solo! (Laughter) But I managed to play it, and the orchestra at the Hochschule wasn't very good anyway. The strings were not good enough. They became much better later when Max Rostahl, who was a famous violin teacher, came to teach. Automatically, the level of the orchestra became considerably higher. (Laughter) The strings played much with much more polish after he arrived. The winds and brass were not bad.
The director of the Musikhochschule was someone who before the Nazi era, in 1928 or so, was often published in newspaper articles. He was a critic and musicologist who focused on modern music by the name of Hans Mehrsmann. Modern music back then obviously meant composers like Bartók, Stravinsky and Hindemith. And in his music history course, he always wanted to find records of these composers and play examples for the class.
And the orchestra at the Hochschule played Hindemith's symphony from his opera Mathis der Mahler. And I played in this performance. I believe I played cymbals, if I'm not mistaken. And the experience impacted me very strongly. That was the first piece of modern classical music I had ever heard.
And then the Hochschule hired a new professor for cello named Mauritz Franck. He was the cellist from the same string quartet for which Paul Hindemith had been the violist. And in the early 1920's, this group gave many premieres of string quartets by Schönberg, Bartok, and of course Hindemith himself.
This professor put together a small chamber orchestra in order to play things like this, and he asked me if I would like to play percussion. And I continued to play in this group even after I graduated and wasn't a student anymore, but these pieces were simply a pleasure to take part in. And through this group, I also heard repertoire for which there was no percussion part, like Schönberg's Pierrot Lunaire.
And we played Hindemith's Kammermusik many times with that famous xylophone passage. And with this modest chamber orchestra, we were invited to the Courses for New Music in Darmstadt. In Darmstadt, we played that Hindemith piece and I don't know what else, and I recall that the famous music philosopher and author Theodor Adorno was in the audience. He had always previously written against Hindemith in his books. However, in this particular concert, where this funny little piece was performed, at the end he was applauding enthusiastically! (Laughter)
He said that this was the best thing that Hindemith had ever written (laughter), and that he was very happy that this music was being played with such gusto and temperament by the young musicians of Cologne. And that was where my real contact with modern music began, I believe in 1954.
And around that time, the Westdeutscherrundfunk made a concert series called "Musik der Zeit." These were generally concerts of chamber music, and I went to play with this same chamber ensemble from Cologne. And I stayed around to listen when we weren't playing because I wanted to hear more of this music than just what I knew from the chamber ensemble I had been playing with.
On this series, there were also pieces for orchestra with lots of percussion. There was a piece by a composer who is not often played anymore: Karl Amadeus Hartmann. The orchestra was GIGANTIC. Two timpanists, ten percussionists, who played xylophone, vibraphone, marimbaphone, tubular bells, snare drum, tom toms, dass drum, suspended cymbals tam tams. So, they needed many players for all of these instruments. And with this group, I started to play as an extra percussionist, and also to earn money. And at the same time, I got to play this kind of exciting new music.
And it was for these concerts for that year that there was to be a new piece by a young composer named Stockhausen. The piece was to be called Gruppen for three orchestras. One could make this piece out of an enormous symphony orchestra, or one could combine three of these smaller chamber orchestras, such as the one I was playing in at the time. In each of the three orchestras, there were thirty players. And in each of these orchestras, there were four percussionists, so twelve in all. There was were cowbells, woodblocks, marimba, African slit drums, four tom toms, marimba, xylophone, vibraphone, and one person playing cymbals and tam tam.
And it was this through this performance in the Musikhochschule Köln with Professor Franck that Stockhausen and I got to know each other very well. And I hardly remember anymore, but I think we originally met while I was playing one of these extra parts in some orchestra around Cologne that Stockhausen approached me and said, "hello Herr Caskel, I believe we've met before somewhere. I would like to write for many different percussion instruments for my new orchestral piece. Could we perhaps discuss this sometime?" And he said that he wanted to write for tom toms. Not timpani, but something similar. Four would be ideal, just like a jazz drummer would have.
Stockhausen was in Paris, and he visited the enormous Musée de l'Homme, which is a museum for ethnology with wonderful, beautiful masks and drums from New Guinea and Africa and everywhere. And it was already there when the composers like Boulez, Stockhausen, Jolivet and so on were studying there in Paris. This generation. So there was great interest in whether or not one could perhaps use the Indonesian gongs that were in there.
And Stockhausen was interested in these African slit drums, which are not even intended to be used as musical instruments, but rather as signaling sounds. One player is on a hill and plays some pattern or figure. Two or three miles away, the next player hears the signal and relays it to the next player. And these slit drums interested Stockhausen as a DEEP version of the woodblock sound.
And we had a similar museum to the Musée de l'Homme here in Cologne. There were two men in 1890 who traveled the world and collected wonderful things everywhere. And they gave everything to the government of Cologne. The museum is called the Rautenstrauch-Jost Museum.
And by chance, I knew one of the people who worked at the museum, and I said to Stockhausen, "come on, let's telephone this man." His name was Herr Doktor Vollbrecht, and he was very nice and he said, "yes, please come by. We can arrange for the Westdeutscherrundfunk to borrow six such slit drums for the rehearsals and the concert. You just have to write in the program book 'African slit drums' graciously loaned by the Rautenstrauch-Jost Museum.'"
And after Gruppen received its premiere, Stockhausen proposed to the head of the Darmastätder Ferienkursen, which had a competition in one instrument every year - flute one year, violin the next, piano after that, etc..., always naturally for modern pieces - that they should have a percussion competition. And the organizer of the festival, Herr Doktor Steinecke said "how would we have a percussion competition? What are the participants supposed to play?" (Laughter) And Stockhausen agreed that he didn't know what they should play. And Herr Steinecke said to the young composer, "well, I guess you better write something, Herr Stockhausen."
And so he wrote Zyklus. (Laughter) He actually wrote it for exactly the same instruments that are used in Gruppen. The marimba, the vibraphone, the four tom toms, the snare drum, the African slit drum, the Indian bells, the triangle, the tam tam, the suspended cymbals, the cowbells - which Stockhausen discovered, incidentally.
By the Bodensee in Lindau, there was a factory that produced beautiful, big cowbells. But these weren't for music, but rather for COWS! (Laughter) This is still a tradition, when the cows come to the fields in the summer to graze. They wear these cowbells to keep bad, evil spirits away.
What was your rection the first time you saw the score to Zyklus?
Hmmm...I was not so happy. (Laughter)
How did you practice the piece?
Practicing from scratch was the most difficult thing. TODAY, one can show a student how it's done. A teacher can say, "watch out here," or "work on this page first." Then, at least, one can have a feeling with respect to how the piece should be approached. But back then, we didn't know any of that. I had to discover the piece for myself.
And everything had to be played with drumsticks. Suddenly, you had to play a triangle - ping! And I said to him, "Karlheinz," actually, wait a minute. At that point, we still addressed each other formally, so I would have said, "Herr Stockhausen." We addressed each other by our first names later. But I would tell him that I already have a wooden stick in each hand, and in order to get a good sound out of the triangle, you need a metal beater. Otherwise, you hear more of the sound of the wooden stick than the sound of the metal instrument that it is hitting.
And he said that he had considered this, and therefore had built in extra time into the score so that one could structure the timing of the events as necessary in order to pick up or put down different kinds of beaters. One part of the score is fixed, and must be played strictly from left to right, or right to left, depending on the way one reads the score, and one part, one can choose freely when to play. This freedom allowed the player to play certain notes earlier or later than others, which helped facilitate stick changes, so that each instrument could be played with an appropriate mallet.
But the even bigger problem was something different. You know roughly how the score looks. It has, for example, a middle line. It has pitches from the marimbaphone, mostly glissandi indicating a starting pitch and a finishing pitch, and at what points in time the gesture begins and ends. And above that, he writes four cowbells, which make various phrases, and four tom toms and two cymbals.
And so I tried all of this, I made a glissando on marimba or vibraphone, and then a phrase for the cowbells, and then another glissando, and then a phrase for tom toms, and then two cymbals. And then I thought to myself, "this sounds dumb." There's nothing connecting the line of these separate phrases. Nothing sounded good. And I'm sure for these thirty seconds of music, I practiced for several hours, always trying different things.
I found every that every solution sounded uninteresting, and then I noticed something, if you combine the resonances of the various instrumental families, then things started to do come to life. You could, for example, play the cowbell phrase with one hand, while playing tom toms with the other. Ah! Finally, things were beginning to sound interesting.
This confusion of mine led me to discover that when you directly combine the instrumental families, or play certain figures immediately following each other, then the piece sounds far better. But until this realization, I was really wasting my time in the practice room. Day after day of work, and no real progress.
Even after I developed a satisfactory approach to learning the piece, I spent hours and hours, not practicing, but rearranging the open compositional materials just to make a decent version of piece. There are so many things in the piece that can sound lame unless you position them correctly, you know? Isolated.
Then, Stockhausen himself changed something. His original idea, as he explained it, was that he didn't want only isolated pitches, like in a normal piano piece, but dyads or perhaps various clusters. So pitches were supposed to transition into noises. Before that, only American composers had experimented with these techniques.
And so he asked himself how it would be possible to play clusters on mallet instruments. And hopla, we experimented and found a solution that allowed us to go further: instead of clusters, we used glissandi. (Plays downward glissando) It sounds a bit like a cluster, you see? Naturally, the problem was that the traditional upward glissando had a certain Vaudeville character. So, it seemed more like a polka for xylophone than something avant-garde. (Laughter)
Stockhausen noticed this, and he decided to change something. We added the accidentals to the glisses in both directions, so you don't only play a diatonic scale in either direction. There are also certain glissandi which are simply played hand-to-hand chromatically in one direction or the other. These tend to sound best with the pedal down on the vibraphone, so you hear the cluster in the resonance. And then there was also the possibility of combining the two types of glissandi.
This sliding glissandi were difficult for me, because in order to make sound when you gliss on the white keys, you have to have a certain pressure on the bars. If you do this on the black keys, the mallet often gets stuck. So, I had to learn to fix my hands at a certain height in order to produce smooth glissandi on both the white and black notes simultaneously, which was a really unpleasant feeling at first, but today is no big deal. At first, it didn't go very well! (Laughter) On the vibraphone, it was less difficult. So that's how we tried to add clusters into Zyklus. By making into chromatic glissandi.
It wasn't ideal. But it wasn't the practicing that was so difficult, but rather just coming up with a strategy of how to re-compose the piece so that you knew WHAT exactly you had to practice. That took an enormous amount of time.
So how on Earth were you able to practice Zyklus? I'm sure that in the '50's, it wasn't common for someone to have his own collection of the instruments needed to play that piece. And where were you able to work? Did you have your own practice studio?
Well, actually, I did. In the time before I played Gruppen, I earned money by playing in various radio orchestras, and at that time, I practiced a lot on an English method book for xylophone, and sometimes after rehearsals at the WDR, I would stay and practice marimba. But I knew I wanted my own. And at that time, there was only a small factory making xylophones and marimbas called Röhrig in Wuppertal. Their xylophones were very good, especially their older ones. They were from the 1930's and they still sound good today. They also had a lot of tubular bells. Older orchestra chimes are very often from Röhrig in Wuppertal.
And I called the factory one day to say that I would like to order a five-octave xylo-marimba, so that in this register, I could use hard mallets to practice xylophone, and in this register, I could use softer yarn mallets and practice marimba. And they said, "okay, we'll build you one." And every month, I would make a payment of three-hundred marks or so until it was paid for. And after that, I had a marimbaphone.
And then there was a jazz vibraphonist and arranger named Herr Becker, who wasn't playing anymore. He had an old vibraphone which he sold to me for cheap.
The way I got my vibraphone is a crazy story. When you look in books on instrumentation, like the famous one by Berlioz up until modern times, where percussion instruments are included, and it tells you things like what the lowest note a flute can play is, and which trills are more or less difficult on the instrument, you also find the vibraphone. And it is meant to tell you which notes are on the vibraphone, so you don't write notes that don't exist on the instrument. And in every book, you find different descriptions.
The vibraphone was invented around 1925 or so, when somebody asked what would happen if we made a marimbaphone, but we gave it metal bars. Somewhere, I still have an ancient catalogue where it is even listed as a "metal marimba!" (Laughter) It wasn't originally called vibraphone! And the factories obviously experimented. One factory made the instrument a little higher, the other a little lower. And there was an old vibraphone that was bigger than the ones we commonly play today. It went past the F down to a C. But you don't see these anymore today. (Laughter) And it was clear that in the register below C, the instrument didn't sound good anymore with normal vibraphone mallets. You had to switch to very soft beaters in order for those notes to sound good. So the factories eventually removed those notes.
I believe that one of these instruments still exists in the conservatoire in Paris. And Boulez wrote his Marteau sans maître for this instrument in the first edition. There are several notes from that register still in the score. But then during his first trip to the United States, he noticed that every other vibraphone in the world only went from F to F. And so he changed the score to fit this range. In the first published edition, everything was already changed. But I still have the old manuscript version of the score where those notes are still in it. It's very difficult to read!
By the way, I always played Zyklus from the manuscript, which was written on A3 paper. It was so beautiful, the way Stockhausen wrote everything by hand. I still have it. I never played from the engraved copy. (Laughter) Because it is incredibly clearly written. One can see everything very easily. I also played Kagel's Match from two cellists and percussionist from Kagel's hand-written manuscript. He wrote the piece on relatively large paper, and it's quite easy to read. Then a professional engraver entered the equation and put everything from that score into black ink for the published edition. And Kagel's handwriting is also much easier to read than his engraved editions! The proportions are clearer, and one can read the score much more intuitively from Kagel's handwriting than from the published edition.
But with respect to whether I had a place to practice, through a total coincidence, I lived with my parents in Cologne. Close to the university, a friend heard of a family that had a house that used to be a brewery. And there, they had very deep cellars, which was where they kept the barrels with the beer. And my friend asked me whether I might be interested in using this space as a practice room. And so I went immediately and asked if I could rent this cellar. And this became my studio. It was not expensive.
As I said, I already had a marimba, and then when Zyklus was written, I thought, "okay, now I have to buy some tom toms and something like timbales," so that I had four drums. And I bought those things myself.
I was able to find a gong because at that time, Cologne had several galleries that specialized in modern art, as well as various art from around the world. African masks and things like that. And in the window of one of these shops, there was a beautiful Asian gong, which I bought for Zyklus.
Then I had to ask myself how it would be possible to make make a stand which you can fold like a cymbal stand, but which is heavy enough to carry this heavy gong? And so I went to Kaufhof or Karstadt and found these small tables that are for taking in your car if you were to go camping or on a picnic. These tables had folding legs which were very stable, and so I bought two of them and removed the tables, but kept the heavy folding legs. They were actually even better than Kolberg. They pack up so quickly - zschoup! (Laughter)
So then I went to a Schloßer and showed him something I had designed, and asked him if he could make it for me. He said yes. He used pipes that were actually meant for plumbing for the rest for the stand. Then he welded it together. Then I went to another company that was able to make the stand chrome. And that's how the original gong stand from 1958 for Zyklus came to be. Today, the chrome has started to rust a bit, but otherwise it's still in good shape. It's still completely useable. And as I said, you can really hang a very heavy gong on it. I made a stand for the tam tam too, but that one was lighter, because my tam tam was a little Chinese instrument, which was not as heavy as my gong.
After I had this stand, then I could really practice in my studio. When I was finally prepared, Stockhausen came to that room, and that was where I played my first version of the piece for him.
Stockhausen had a reputation for being a difficult person to work with. What was your experience with him? How did Stockhausen decide that you were going to be his "official" percussionist?
No, no. It wasn't like that. It was too early. It was just that he knew no other one! (Laughter) I think I need to frame my answer a little bit.
In the late '50's in Cologne, there were two timpanists and percussionists from the opera here. And these were traditional orchestra musicians who specialized in Verdi, Brahms and Beethoven. They really didn't want to play modern music. And of these percussionists, there was nobody who would make the extra effort to practice difficult marimba or vibraphone parts.
Then there were the musicians from the WDR. If, for example, the Opera house in Cologne played an opera with timpani and four percussionists, but they had only three percussionists, they would need to hire two extra percussionists. In such instances, someone from the Düsseldorf Opera might come play, pick up his honorarium and drive back to Düsseldorf. It was very practical, since Cologne, Düsseldorf, Bonn, Duisburg and Essen are all so close geographically. With a car, it only takes half an hour to get between these cities.
And one could always find great extra percussionists from other orchestras, especially percussionists from the radio symphony orchestras, which had mostly morning rehearsals. Sometimes, if they had a recording coming up, they would also rehearse in the afternoons, but they didn't have very many open concerts. Their evenings were always free. And so the percussionists in this orchestra would always play as extras in Essen or Duisburg, etcetera.
They made a lot of additional money with these side jobs, and so they didn't want to deal with extra rehearsals with a chamber orchestra devoted to difficult modern music. And Stockhausen knew that. They weren't interested in music like his. There was only one person in this part of Germany who said, "yes, I can do that." And that was Herr Caskel. There was nobody else! (Laughter) So that was it. The others weren't interested! And Stockhausen knew that the other percussionists in the area never had any time.
Something almost nobody knows is that the piece Kontakte for electronic sounds, piano and percussion was originally conceived for electonics, pianist, and three percussionists, not one. The percussionists were supposed to be like a stereo sound, with left, middle and right channels. Piano in the center. So that was how Stockhausen started with the piece. I still have the first few pages with the three percussion parts. (Laughter)
And we rehearsed the first few pages of this version with two colleagues from the Cologne radio symphony orchestra: Herr Behr, Herr Rockströh, and me. And after the rehearsal, we attempted to schedule our next rehearsal. And this one said, "oh I can't then because I'm playing in Düsseldorf" or "I can't make that time because I have a concert in Essen." They had no time! (Laughter) Only I had time.
So then Stockhausen flew into a rage. He canceled the piece and called me and said, "Herr Caskel," - or maybe he said "Christoph" at that point - I don't know anymore. "I've thought this over, and I'd like to change the piece. I would like for the pianist to play certain instruments like cowbells and various percussion sounds, so that we can keep this stereo effect. But there will only be ONE percussionist. Would you be interested in playing this?" And I said "okay," but he already knew that I would say yes before hand. The others were too difficult to track down reliably. There was nobody around but Herr Caskel! I just happened to be available.
During the years that you were touring Zyklus, how did you prepare for each performance? Did your version change over the years? I know that Max Neuhaus used to try to improvise his way through the score spontaneously.
One very nice thing I should mention about Zyklus, by the way, was that during the years when we were touring the piece frequently, I kept developing my interpretation of the piece, rearranging its elements. I would be dissatisfied with this or that passage and work to improve the piece. Every concert, there was something new, so that by the end of our years of touring, the version was very beautiful, and quite different to my original performance.
I never improvised my performances of Zyklus. I always prepared my version in advance. People would always ask me why I didn't prefer to make many different versions of Zyklus, so that I could choose freely during the concert. And I would answer that I never wanted to do that, which I suppose I should try to explain, because it's a good question.
Something I find amazing is that you made all of these choices without any type of career model. Did you ever worry about earning a livelihood from playing these strange pieces?
You know, I lived for a very long time with my parents. I lived with them until I got married, and that was when I was thirty-eight! So, actually, I lived with my parents, and they always told me, "do what you want, and you can live here, and eat and drink. I didn't always earn enough to make a living otherwise.
But by the time I got married and moved out of their house in 1970, Stockhausen had so many invitations, so I earned enough money from those engagements. Radio stations were always calling and asking, "can you make this or that date?" We always played the same program: Zyklus, Refrain, Kontakte. We played in Heidelberg, the Tage für Neue Musik in München, something in Stockholm. And at the same time came similar invitations for a program of Kagel's music. THEN things were beautiful financially.
And, of course, I had already been teaching regularly at the children's school several afternoons every week when all of these pieces from Stockhausen and Kagel came about, and that was a bit difficult to manage, with all of the touring. I was originally paid lesson by lesson, which meant that if I said yes to concert tours, I lost money from my job as a teacher. So, eventually, I sat down with the director of this school, and we worked out a contract that gave me an assured monthly salary. That would have been 1972. Then, I was really on my feet financially. But before that, it more or less worked out only with the concerts.
During this time, churches in Cologne also had money for church concerts. So, churches would sometimes call and ask if you were available to play a Christmas oratorio by Bach, or something like that. Musicians from all across Cologne came to play these. There was a dress rehearsal and a concert, and then you would be paid two hundred Marks or so. Those concerts were helpful, financially.
But in about 1965, as I said before, Stockhausen kept getting invited all over the place, and he always wanted to put Zyklus, Refrain and Kontakte on the program, often alongside a few of the Klavierstücke. In those days, I was able to live off of my work as a contemporary percussionist alone.
Tell me about working with Lachenmann.
I made Lachenmann's acquaintance in 1964 or '65, I believe. At that time, Stockhausen hat started a music school in a Gymnasium in Cologne. The city of Cologne decided to give Stockhausen the funds for this school. And he wanted to make something like the Darmstadt courses for new music there. He wanted to do this every year, but after two years, the money disappeared, and so the courses stopped. It must have been from 1965-67 or so. Later on, this idea evolved into the Stockhausen seminar in Kürten.
And during one of these courses, there was a young composer who wanted to participate named Helmut Lachenmann. And we came into contact because he said that he wanted to make a piece for chamber orchestra. Maybe ten players or so, with a percussionist who would have many instruments and sound colors. He wanted to have a set-up like Zyklus. And I was there and I told him that in the context of a chamber orchestra piece - especially one with the difficult rhythms and meters that he wrote - one would need a conductor, like Le marteau sans maître, and so this idea for the set-up wouldn't work in terms of sight-lines.
Instead, I told him to make an open, rectangular set-up, instead of a closed circular one like in Zyklus, so that the percussionist could always have eye contact with the conductor. I showed him where the music stand should be placed in front of each instrument. And we made a sketch of how the instruments could be laid out, with the long instruments - marimba and vibraphone - parallel, and then toms, bongos, kettledrum, temple blocks, cymbals and so forth in between. Like a three-sided rectangle. The kettledrum was used primarily for glissandi, like in Bartók.
The chamber orchestra piece was never completed, but the set-up we designed together became the blueprint for Lachenmann's solo piece Intérieur I. I didn't premiere it. Michael Ranta did that in New Mexico. I played it maybe five days later in Europe, maybe at Darmstadt? I can't remember anymore. I'm very old! (Laughter)
Did you ever come into contact with Max Neuhaus or David Tudor?
I had a lot of contact with David Tudor. I met Tudor in 1956 or around then. The Darmstadt Summer Courses had invited John Cage and David Tudor that year in order to lecture. Cage, at that time, was lecturing about chance music. With dice. And they were making music for two pianos, also with preparations. And it certainly polarized the audiences. There was a lot of booing, but also a lot of applause. And I was sitting with my colleague Aloys Kontarsky, with whom I was playing a lot in those days, and we clapped as loudly as we could!
And I was totally fascinated by Cage's work. I went into one of the rooms where the courses took place, and there sat Tudor with two teapots, one full and one empty. And he was practicing! I observed him as he poured water from one to the other, always trying to figure out how to make it sound the most beautiful. And I found that wonderful.
And the people in Darmstadt noticed what a great pianist Tudor was, and I believe that immediately afterward, they hired him to teach the piano class. And in his courses, he taught a lot about Cage's music, in which he was playing with various types of metal and soft felt timpani beaters inside the piano, which sounded great when the pedal was held down. The way he concentrated close to the beater was something that impressed me very deeply, and since then, I've always tried to imitate. Tudor was a percussionist who played piano.
I was so fascinated at the time by Tudor that I said to myself, "if I have a son, he will be named David." Because of David Tudor. And I did exactly that. My son David now lives in Mannheim. He's a businessman. He studied economics. But I don't think that he knows that he is named after David Tudor. (Laughter) I don't think I've ever told that to anybody!
But I have to say that the thing I admired most about Tudor was his sense of concentration on the sound he was producing. He would search for the best spot to hit something, and then find the spot where the instrument sounded the most beautiful. I can't really describe exactly what I found so great about his approach, but it was something I felt from watching him. Only Tudor played like that.
Do you have a philosophy when it comes to playing percussion?
It is important to me that each note that is written in a score is played in an a way that seems intentional. If there is a fortissimo note next to a pianissimo note, one is not more important than the other. The loud note requires a loud gesture, and the soft note requires its own gesture with an equal amount of intensity and focus. That is important to me.
I saw a version of Zyklus on the internet recently by a young musician. And he played the notes of the piece very well, but there was one thing that bothered me: when he closed the hi-hat with his foot, the action was not connected with his sound; he performed the action, but it lacked intention. When I played Zyklus, I placed two hi-hat in my set up - one open and one closed - in order to solve this problem.
A critic once wrote something about me. He wrote a review that I played Zyklus very well, and that it seemed as though EVERY NOTE had a purpose, an expressive value. That one heard sounds that were nearly silent, and then, BANG! (Laughter) And many people told me that it was very beautiful to watch me play, because every motion, every action really meant something. But I didn't do this consciously. It was just how I played! It's just how I am! (Laughter)
It seems to me that you've articulated the reason that I was interested doing these interviews in the first place. It seems to me that as successive generations play pieces like Zyklus or Intérieur I, they play more and more precisely, but with less and less sense of the spirit of the piece. So, what you end up seeing is a sort of hollow interpretation of the piece. The pieces are played today, but they don't "speak" like they used to.
Do you have any advice for the new generations of percussionists? What do you think is most important to you in our profession? In our art form?
That's a good question. Let me think for a moment. (Pauses) I have two things I'd like to say.
First, when a young percussionist learns many instruments, he or she should be aware that in learning one instrument, he simultaneously develops his ability on another instrument. For instance, learning snare drum helps with playing mallet instruments, and learning timpani teaches one something new about snare drum and so on. One can develop a much broader range of sound colors on instruments by working insightfully in this way. This is important because unlike most traditional orchestral music, a lot of contemporary solo and chamber music (like the pieces of Stockhausen and Lachenmann) switches between different types of instruments very quickly. It's important to be able to adapt and apply your skills from one instrument to the next fluidly. All of the techniques needed to play the many instruments we are expected to have mastered as percussionists ultimately reinforce each other.
Second, I think the thing I notice most often when I work with young percussionists nowadays is that they aren't connected enough with the subtext of musical notation, and so they often lose the character of what a composer is after. Young percussionists should learn to use their bodies in a way that communicates what they are trying to express musically, so that the audience can understand something about the FEEL of the music. Sound and gesture have to be connected in order to show the deeper meaning in a given piece of music.
Not long ago, I was coaching a student at the Musikhochschule Köln who was working on Lachenmann's Intérieur I. And there was a spot in the music where the student tried to make a one-handed roll on one of the tom toms. And his one-handed roll was performed technically very well, but it didn't have the right character musically. So, it was correct in a functional sense, but incorrect in a musical sense, because he hadn't made a coherent connection from the previous musical figure, and the musical gesture seemed disconnected from Lachenmann's aesthetic. This tremolo needed the gravity and character of a robust timpani roll, not a one-handed marimba roll. The one-handed roll had no weight to it, you see? So I advised him to use two mallets to play this roll with the character of a timpani roll, like in Brahms or so. And the character of the phrase changed completely.
The light cymbal playing in this piece, for example, needs to have the same care that one gives the cymbal excerpt from the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto. One should be able to make these types of associations in modern music. It connects it to the past. One should have the impression that even in Lachenmann or Stockhausen, a little bit of traditional music can still be found under the surface.
Even in a piece like Stockhausen's Gruppen for three orchestras, which is one of the most advanced serial pieces ever written, at one point, a trumpet suddenly plays some sort of heroic theme. And even though the intervals are those of twelve-tone music, the sound still conjures military music, or Beethoven's Fidelio. And Stockhausen spoke about that from time to time. There is a piece for chamber ensemble by Stockhausen called Kreuzspiel, where there are three percussionists. One plays bass drum, one plays gong, and the other plays congas. In the rehearsals, it occurred to Stockhausen suddenly that the conga part was actually meant to be a kind of dance, a bit, maybe, like a tango or something like that. And a young musician needs to develop a feeling for things like this, if he or she is going to bring music to life. Older music needs to be present in modern music, even if it is buried somewhere deep inside the music.
Anyway, that's what I think is important for the future of young percussionists! (Laughter) Anything more than that, I don't know! (Laughter)