Interview by Esther Flückiger

(Translated from German by Rose-Marie Soncini)

In the East marked by the West, in the West marked by the East, composer Iris Szeghy, from Bratislava, Slovakia, sees herself somewhere in the middle. The interview took place in Zurich, Switzerland, in the summer of 2004.

Esther Flückiger: I know your work as a composer through your recordings, a concert and our lively correspondence. My first question concerns how you start a composition. What is your inspiration?

Iris Szeghy: I allow myself some time to think about the concept of the piece: its form, atmosphere, instrumentation, color. When these aspencs are clear for me. I start to search for the beginning: the first notes, harmonies and tone colors. Then I work for weeks, months on this piece, but at a certain point I start to think about the next composition. The process then repeats itself. For me, inspiration develops from different sources: the music itself or non- musical elements such as a work of art or literature, nature or something related to humanity or society. The source of my inspiration is rarely abstract; it is reflected in the work’s title or the commentary to the work.

E.F.: Your piano compositions and ensemble works with piano often use a prepared sound. What is the reason—perhaps your interest in improvisation?

I.S.: I am interested in the special color of the prepared piano—the special atmosphere this color creates. I like the piano to sound “different”; it provokes my imagination, but it doesn’t have much to do with improvisation.

E.F.: What is your opinion of improvisations in contemporary compositions?

I.S.: I like them very much, as long as they are tonally interesting and not too lengthy. You have probably noticed that I use brief, aleatory, free improvisation in a restricted context in almost every work, in one form or another. For me, it brings a desired freshness to the strict compositional process

E.F.: What does the sonority of a large orchestra mean for you?

I.S.: A large orchestra has a special type of sound similar to that of a prepared piano. The latter could be considered a micro cosmos, and the frill orchestra would be the macro cosmos—a picture of the world, the universe, where the most disparate elements would bond to each other. This fascinates me; the possibilities and combinations of tones, structures and expressions are inexhaustible.

E.F.: Many of your works have literary themes and titles. What is the source of your interest in the world of literature?

I.S.: The roots go back to my childhood and to my family’s appreciation of literature. I am generally interested in any form of art; the arts are not as different from one another as one would think. All artists work with the stylization of reality. They create in their works an imaginary, more beautiful and better world, even when they show the tragic, dark side of mankind. My first composition was inspired by a poem; I was 17 when I experienced for the first time the death of a person close to me, and that poem described my feelings and inspired me to set them to music. Through composition I discovered a new world that 1 could never leave.

E.F.: Is your use of the voice in your music based upon your interest in literature, or do you have a special predilection for the voice?

I.S.: Both. I use the voice because it is a special, wonderful instrument, a product of our bodies. In many pieces I have used the voice not as a literary reference but more as a symbol of humanity (e.g., in Story for voice and tape). On the other hand, I also like to combine words and music, either as a song or a spoken text in combination with music.

E.F.: Are you often inspired by music of the past and combine that music with new elements? 1 noticed that approach in the trio Musica folclorica (Hommage á Bartók). Could you explain the reason?

I.S.: I wish to create a dialog with the musical past, to incorporate the old sounds in new, and the new in the old. The musical past holds a great attraction for me, but only when it is used creatively in a contemporary work and doesn’t become a fetish. To be creative, to look for the correlation of “yesterday-today” is exciting.

E.F.: Do you think ethnic and social concerns should be part of a composer’s commitment?

I.S.: When a composition has a convincing artistic foundation, I find it inspiring, but the artistic value must take precedence over the social or political commitment. No external commitment will save a weak or mediocre work.

E.F.: What does it mean for you to transmit music? Do contemporary composers have a responsibility to the audience?

I.S.: For me, it is the sense of my life, my personal message. You word it very well—”to transmit music.” This wording implies that a composer takes the music from somewhere and then passes it on. She is an ambassador, but also a creator. Certainly, contemporary composers have a responsibility toward the audience; we write music for ourselves, but above all for others.

E.F.: Could you describe some characteristics of your style?

I.S.: I strive for a balance of emotion and construction, of micro and macro forms, and of new and old. Also, color, the fine engraving of the detail, and the frequent use of extra musical inspiration are important.

E.F.: I see a tendency toward religious background in your work. Am I wrong?

I.S.: Yes and no. Some of my works have a religious background, but 1 refuse to use the word “religious” because 1 don’t consider myself a religious person. Questions about God and the spiritual world are on my mind, and that is why I have used religious texts in a few works.

E.F.: You moved recently from Bratislava to Switzerland. Do you find much difference between the Slavic and the Swiss musical scene? If yes, how has it affected your creative work?

I.S.: In the circles in which I move in Switzerland, the musical language is quite uniform. In Eastern Europe new music is more liberal, and there are almost no stylistic rules. 1 seem to be a stranger in both worlds—in the East marked by the West, in the West marked by the East. I see myself somewhere in the middle. And the effect on my creative work? From an artistic perspective, for the moment, I don’t see any Swiss influence on my musical language.

E.F.: How does being a woman affect your work as a composer? Do you believe there is still discrimination?

I.S.: For a long time I devoted myself almost exclusively to music, but this changed two years ago when I married—-that is the reason I came to Switzerland. Fortunately, my husband strongly supports my work, and I can continue my previous musical life. The only discrimination I encounter occurs outside my home. Of course, by discrimination 1 don’t mean anything obvious; this is a subtle discrimination that is deeply rooted in the thinking and subconscious of both men and women. To attain her place in society, a woman has to be much better than a man. And how do I deal with these circumstances? Sometimes they are challenging, sometimes tiring.

E.F.: What is your opinion of the New Music scene? Who is at fault in the general disinterest: the performers, the composers or the means of transmission?

I.S.: The New Music scene has become more or less a ghetto situation. Until Crumb is programmed next to Beethoven, Huber next to Schumann, and Szeghy next to Mozart, contemporary music will remain “ghetto music.” And who is at fault? Everyone. The composers because the quality of their music doesn’t match the highest criteria; their music is often more for the eyes than the ears, and it sounds strange to the audience. The performers because they often panic in front of organizers and prefer to conform rather than express their own opinions. The organizers because they panic in front of the audience and prefer conformity to courage. The music teachers because they resist trying new methods. In all, the audience seems to me to be the most innocent; the audience expects what it is accustomed to hearing. It’s a vicious circle.

E.F.: Do you think contemporary music has a future?

I.S.: I am very sure something will survive.

E.F.: Who are the composers both present and past whom you prefer?

I.S.: Bach, Beethoven, Mussorgsky, Debussy, Janacek, Shostakovich, Schnittke, Crumb, Messiaen, Ligeti, Gubaydulina, Grisey. And I like folk music.

E.F.: Do you compose mostly on commission?

I.S.: Now, yes,but in the past I composed from inner need. Now I write only for certain performers and ensembles, or for a specific concert.

E.F.: What are your plans?

I.S.: At the moment I am working on Tableaux d’unparc for 10 musicians, a piece for violin and piano, and a new piece for string orchestra.

published in:

cling Klong No. 51, Spring 2004, published by the FrauenMusikForum Schweiz
VivaVoce No. 70, Spring 2005, published by the Frau und Musik, Internationaler Arbeitskreis e.V. Deutschland
Journal of the IAWM, Volume 11, No.2, 2005, published by the International Alliance for Women in Music, U.S.A.

Esther Flückiger is pianist, improviser and composer. She lives in Italy and Switzerland.