Winner of the 2015 Composition Award: Peter Jakober

Write What You Love
Notes on Peter Jakober and his ambience
Lothar Knessl


“There’s this isolation in all fields of the music scene, and I hate it ...” says Peter Jakober, who would be pleased to see the back of it. He’d rather that there were no notion of hatred, no fences. Without them, but with affection instead, it would be possible to bring out exciting aspects in every young person. These are the things he tells me in his composing studio where he has lived for two years now. It’s a comfortable room with a wood-burning stove and nothing like Mahler’s little composing house with a lake on the doorstep. At least the Döbling indoor swimming pool is nearby. Jakober’s workplace is located just down the road from Hohe Warte (formerly synonymous with football, now the central station of the weather prophets), in Nusswaldgasse. What makes it so special is the so-called Zacherlfabrik, a former insecticide-producing factory, built in Oriental style: bordering on being Art Nouveau, a magnificent ceramic façade. Factory owner Johann Evangelist Zacherl imported the raw material for his product from Persia. The building complex, including the expansive stock of old trees that provide coolness in the adjacent garden, is a paradise of peace, a place for reflection. Jakober owes this abode to its art-loving owners, Veronika and Peter Zacherl, whom he met at a Klangforum Wien concert. At events and concerts, the priest and art historian Gustav Schörghofer is their “spiritus rector”.

Jakober feels comfortable in his new workspace. He’s an early bird. Open, emotional, unpretentious. He is capable of enjoying things and sharing that joy. He allows anger to subside quickly. And he’s well aware that a career as a composer also has its dark sides. “There’s always someone who excludes one person or another, someone who fights … that’s the way things are”, he says, trying to put up with it and remain true to himself. He plans whatever comes up, from one piece to the next, and considers it exhilarating. “I don’t have a great plan in terms of how life will go on. If I did, I’d only be scared.” Regardless of that, he’s a Hitchcock fan and likes to evoke tension and uncertainty.

It is, however, without any fear that he has immersed himself in his work that received the Erste Bank Composition Award and will premiere on 13 November 2015 during the WIEN MODERN festival: Substantie for ten instruments and live electronics. An ambitious goal, for substance means the essence of things, and, philosophically, the precondition of being, irrespective of anything else that exists. At the same time, it also refers to that which is available as a foundation. Jakober was inspired by Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), the son of Sephardim from the Iberian Peninsula. The Dutch philosopher understood substance as being “what is in itself and is conceived through itself”. In other words, the concept of substance “does not require the concept of another thing, from which it must be formed”. Spinoza concluded that substance is infinite and thus equal to God. The divine, the infinite that needs nothing else. Jakober was intrigued by Spinoza’s axiom: “Using the sentence as an introduction was an emotional decision rather than a rational one. This assertion is so beautiful, and I think it goes with my piece.” Hypothetically, we might deduce that music as a substance needs no other substance as it is conceived through itself in the cosmos of its sonority. So, lightly put, it also doesn’t need any verbal “introductions”. As a precautionary measure, Jakober formulates them anyway. Three layers of sound – in nuce, autonomous – are interconnected with alternating intensity. “A doomed attempt to remain independent within a system that […] seeks to make connections […].” The sonically soaring multiphonics of the woodwinds create micro-tonal shading. Five strings follow click-tracks and tinge the sound of the woodwinds. As is often the case with Jakober’s works – overlapping of tempo layers. And a tonally fragile, lone cymbal, accompanied, perhaps, by a thunder sheet – five months before the premiere yet to be decided. The gentle versus the mechanical. Touching and parting. Developed from a core of material that he is tempted to continue working with. In this sense, Substantie “emerged from other pieces”. During WIEN MODERN, the prize-winning work is flanked in a somewhat underexposed way: by nach Aussen for violin and live electronics, and ins andere übertragen, a work commissioned by the ensemble PHACE and composed in 2010.

Simultaneous sequences of various structures and sound layers, thus dissolution of grave rigidity; frequent use of live electronics to expand the soundscape (“the reference to the initial source should still remain audible”); the exemplary designing of sounds, or “stretching the space of sound”, as he once called it – these are the criteria that distinguish Jakober’s compositions. Since 2001, his oeuvre now comprises about fifty pieces, primarily for small ensembles, and occasionally, vocal and instrumental works that are original in the truest sense of the word and not particularly predestined for frequent performances. Quarter-tone accordion, zither, hammered dulcimer, flute, organ pipes. He is particularly fond of the latter due to their sound. “When you blow into them, you get a kind of shadow of pitches, a special spectrum of intruding noises. The sound of the flute, for example, is clearer than the one of organ pipes. I find that fascinating.” This is why the composer founded a Styrian organ pipe ensemble. That his friends participate is close to his heart, as they play his music in an admiringly intensive way. Characteristically, Jakober doesn’t waste any thoughts on whether his choice of instruments is convenient for a possible ensemble. Taking pleasure in his work has priority.

The accordion, commonly known as a “Ziehharmonika”, is also available in Styrian tuning, but that’s not what Jakober makes use of, although he’s Styrian himself. Born in Kaindorf (incorporated into Leibnitz in 2015), where his parents still live, he grew up some ten kilometres southwest of it, in Heimschuh. A true citizen of Sulmtal – a strange countryside in its transition from wine to pumpkin cultivation (and, besides, the area of origin of a great, endangered chicken breed). He remained friends with schoolmates who all now live in Vienna. The home ties were broken. “An incredibly conservative place”, he says. It bothers him that, despite a culture budget, it would be impossible in this region to achieve what other rural areas have, thanks to the commitment of small groups of people – that is, playing the likes of John Cage and Alvin Lucier. And he’s appalled by the Styrian election result of June 2015. In 2010, he received the Dobrowolski composition scholarship from the Province of Styria. Upon winning it, the former mayor of Heimschuh merely said that Jakober should go down to the town hall to explain what it was that he actually did, rather than saying “great that you got it”, the composer explains. This reflects the questionable status of music education and knowledge in Austria, which is propagated as a land of music.

Jakober studied at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Graz. He graduated with distinction in 2006 and could call himself “Master in Composition and Musical Theatre” but doesn’t “because it sounds strange”. His teachers were Gerd Kühr and Georg Friedrich Haas. Jakober doesn’t come from the classical tradition. “I wasn’t very interested in an education with too much theory. Bach, of course. But does one really have to spend a whole year on counterpoint? What am I supposed to do with it?” So he set out in search of his own path, self-doubts included. Then he heard pieces by Haas, thought they were great. And the teacher Haas gave him the crucial encouragement. “He said something rather simple: ‘Do what you love.’ For that I’m deeply grateful to him, and that’s what I do as best as I can.” He calls a spade a spade.

Jakober’s compositions, however, are conceived in his mind and, in between, perhaps from a gut feeling. The results are often surprising. For example, the 2010 piece Puls 4, für 35 Röhren, a commissioned work for the musikprotokoll at steirischer herbst, a festival that gives the unconventional a chance. On the roof of the University of Technology in Graz, the conceptual artist Constantin Luser set up his interactive sculpture “Molecular Organ”, formally developed from a still-undiscovered molecule. Fourteen trumpets, fourteen trombones and seven tubas, all picturesquely built without valves and positioned in a circle. The players face the centre; the music kind of undulates. It evokes distant memories of Fifty-Eight for 58 wind players, John Cage’s last work, which premiered in 1992 in the arcade courtyard of the Landhaushof in Graz as part of musikprotokoll.

Jakober takes the minutely written, impressive large-format score of Puls 4 from a shelf – a stack of loose sheets. (In his studio, by the way, one isn’t buried between piles of sheet music.) Proportional notation. “A pretty classical score.” Dots at the upper edge mark the quarter notes. What is written right beneath sounds at the same time, and then again doesn’t, due to the tempo shifts in the individual parts. So, no traditional tutti. Deliberately intended blurring. Prime-number relations form structures, but step out of line. Jakober’s drafts show that he appreciates mathematics. The constant in his work is the composed inconstant. What’s so attractive about it? “Man penetrates the mechanical. That makes the whole thing come alive.” On the one hand, there’s the element of the machine-like, imposing certain actions on people. Assembly line works. Or musicians who are practically at the mercy of click-tracks. On the other hand, “it’s precisely the deviations from it, not being in time, playing with it, that music is all about” to Jakober and has priority in his thoughts. He breaks up a common tempo and tries to approximately find common ground again. “But when I compose, I’m not a mathematician.”

He prefers short titles, instrumentation beyond the norm. Ab for zither trio, tendentiously sound-distorting; Dort (commissioned by Klangforum Wien); rastern for flute, clarinet and accordion; Stehende Zeit for soprano, lute and viola da gamba (featuring Eva Reiter, prize-winner of the 2016 Erste Bank Composition Award; title and instruments evoke music history associations, but the libretto is based on a narration by a young refugee); in Stille for nine organ pipes, choir, flute, quarter-tone accordion, strings and live electronics – all these combined stimulate Jakober’s imagination. Commissioned by Christian Scheib to compose a piece for four guitars for the 2007 musikprotokoll meant that Jakober was thrown in at the deep end; he had expected something else. But he soon realised, “The instrument absolutely suits my style, the way I write.” In the meantime, triften for guitar quartet has been performed several times. And recently, in September, a work for guitar and live electronics received its premiere at the Ultima Festival in Oslo. Can he do without electronics? “Of course! It’s a challenge – currently in the case of the Klaviertrio for the Haydn Festival in Eisenstadt.” The premiere is on 28 November, aptly with the title “Stürmisch” (“Stormy”) and without any clicks.

On occasion, there should also be some fun because contemporary music has too little humour. So, time to do something about it, “where you lose track of certain things” [laughs]. Jakober did so in Dingen [“Things”], a work oscillating between concert and performance that premiered in Vienna’s Tanzquartier as part of WIEN MODERN in 2013. The focus was on the chordophone, an enormous, roughly six-meter-long instrument originating from present-day Ethiopia, documented only by a few people, among them the French archaeologists Caillié and Cailliaud, through sketches excavated in 1835. Along with the choreographer and musician Paul Wenninger, Jakober reconstructed the chordophone in a modern way, and it was ceremoniously played by two musicians. The strings protruding from the conical sound box are equipped with pickups and set into motion by hammering and bowing, adding a specific, gentle overtone constellation to the basic sound. “Great”, Jakober comments on how this somehow sneaks in. The names of the researchers and locations are real, but everything else is fiction. A hoax. Humour through the backdoor. Jakober enjoyed working on this project.

Naturally, that alone doesn’t guarantee a livelihood. Most composers need another string to their bow. Jakober writes music for colleagues, primarily for Georg Friedrich Haas. Currently, he’s working on the piano arrangement of the latter’s opera Morgen und Abend. A truly delicate task, as everyone who knows Haas’s scores confirms. Although Jakober composes in a completely different way, he’s very happy to “occupy myself with Haas, his chords. Partly, it’s almost a childlike joy”. Is it possible, then, that he’s interested in spectral and overtone structures himself? “They may appear every now and then, but I generally don’t use them in my compositions. In that field Haas is the boss.”

Unburdened by income worries, he spent a year (2011–2012) as a fellow at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, an international artist-in-residence programme, generously supported by the German state government of Baden-Württemberg. A wonderful experience, but also rather restrictive and, over time, too artificial for Jakober’s liking. He missed his “normal” environment. “I need that; it’s the way I grew up. At Solitude everything revolved around art, art and art again [laughs].” The Academy, however, also organises concerts, and works by Jakober were performed, most importantly in/visibile for speaker, organ pipe, violin and live electronics; libretto by Wolfgang Hofer (“quasi un monologo circulare”). Wagner’s Lohengrin serves as a backdrop, but the piece is closer to Salvatore Sciarrino’s Lohengrin (Azione invisibile), a monodrama with the dreaming Elsa alone on the stage. Jakober is situated somewhere between these two poles: “I’m a Sciarrino admirer, but I also have to say that I find Wagner’s E flat major parts that go on for several minutes extremely fascinating. Wow!” What he’s referring to here is not the hovering A major of Lohengrin, but the 136 bars of the Rheingold prelude, a vibrating sound plane, and a premonition of mass structures that became relevant around 1960. in/visibile has evolved to the point of becoming music theatre. That’s what Hofer and Jakober are working on. The goal is to lead Elsa out of her permanent, psychological distress. “She’s visited by historical personalities and afterwards you don’t know whether it’s still her or already someone else.” Do the changing situations in this game have an impact on the woman’s character, her frame of mind? “We’d like to pass this question on to the audience. For a change, it’s up to them to decide whether she’s suffering or not.” Henri Pousseur’s Votre Faust (1969) beckons from afar. There, the audience decides, using white or black balls, how the story ends. Hofer’s first libretto version for Jakober’s music theatre piece already exists, interpolated are quotations by Celan and from Ingeborg Bachmann’s letters. It includes a sentence, the consequence of which is supposed to bring an end to Elsa’s instability: “Deep inside it must ultimately be possible to complete the you.” A task that Peter Jakober will probably find easier to accomplish – and, hopefully, also the completion of this project.

This essay is based on a conversation with the composer on 3 June 2015.