In these last days, I have been privileged to become acquainted with composer Martin Torp. Based in Berlin, he is an active freelancer who, in addition to composing, has also been active in several other areas such as music performance and art. As an artist he has had numerous successful solo exhibitions throughout Germany, and his music can be heard on CD labels such as Deutsche Grammophon, Hastedt and more. Over the past decades, his compositions have been performed in many different countries. His all-inclusive passion for the arts, makes him an extremely interesting man with many great insights about the past, present, and future of our creative world. Please enjoy reading more about his thoughts regarding his perception of classical music, as well as insight into his admirable career in the interview below.
1) Can you tell us about the autodidactic study of composition? Describe this process.
My studies were not purely autodidactic. My first piano teacher taught me a good deal of harmonic theory, and as a student of church music I received several years of training in harmony, counterpoint and form. The curriculum included exercises in the old style, for example choral harmony in Palestrina style or fugal compositions in Bach’s manner; in addition works by composers like Bartok or Messiaen were analyzed. Nonetheless, I like to see myself today as an autodidactic composer. Because since the beginning of the twentieth century no single period style has existed, and every composer must, or should, develop his or her own personal style. And this is exactly what I have done autodidactically through learning by doing – that is, through the study of countless works from all epochs of music history, above all by listening and by studying scores; in addition I had, for a time, a strong interest in non-European cultures, jazz and rock music. Aside from that, through extensive reading and listening I gained a lot of important knowledge about the art of instrumentation – a subject that has always fascinated me, since I consider the orchestra to be the ideal instrument – above all others. In total it took me nearly ten years to perfect the technique and the stylistic sense one needs in order to take on large formats like the symphony or the oratorio.
2) Do you consider that your compositional style has changed dramatically since you first started to compose, or has it kept all its essential characteristics?
When I began composing seriously I was still fascinated by composers like Varese and Stockhausen – though even then I had a strong preference for consonance in sound and thus was drawn most of all to the neotonal music of, say, Alan Hovhaness or Steve Reich. It wasn’t until the mid 1990’s however that I developed enough courage to openly stand up for the basic elements of music: that is, for tonal harmony, singable melody and pulsating rhythm. For the cultural powers that be and the vast majority of composers here in Germany these elements are, even today, generally considered taboo. So it takes courage, if you live here, to oppose this establishment. In any case, if you are a tonal composer here in Germany you need a lot of endurance and a high level of frustration-tolerance.
Martin Torp: Sinfonie Nr. 4 („Sinfonie des Lichts“)
Martin Torp: Sinfonie Nr. 5 („Reformations-Sinfonie“)
5) Your PSALM 90 "Herr, Du bist unsere Zuflucht" is a wonderful example of a large scale work that possesses amazing colors. It is very rich harmonically and texturally. At the same time the instrumentation is very peculiar: 0. 0. 2. 2 - 0. 2. 3. 0 – 2 Schlagz. - Str.. Why do you prefer certain instruments to others for such orchestration?
This cantata was written on commission for a concert together with Mozart’s Requiem (Süßmayr version). The length and instrumentation were to be adapted to this famous work. I enlarged Mozart’s complement only slightly through the addition of a second percussionist. Adding vibraphone, tubular bells and tam-tam gives the work a lot more color – as can be heard fairly well in the Youtube video of the first performance.
6) Can you name several composer's who formed your musical taste and preferences?
My musical "household god“ has always been Johann Sebastian Bach. His “Art of the Fugue” is for me the greatest of all musical works. Bach’s counterpoint was a constant model and inspiration for me. But imitating this baroque style was never an option; the production of stylistic copies is, to be sure, a good exercise, but it’s not really creative composition. Bruckner’s symphonies have always preoccupied and fascinated me intensely, ever since I first heard them at the age of fourteen. They aroused my interest in the orchestra and in symphonic music. For a time I was also in love with the symphonies of Beethoven and Schubert, later also with those of Mahler, Shostakovich and Vaughan Williams. Among the composers of the twentieth century Alan Hovhaness has enjoyed my special affection – ever since a radio broadcast in the late 80’s made me aware of this original pioneer of transculturalism. Among more recent composers I admire the minimalists Reich and Glass as well as the neotonal “spiritualists” Pärt, Tavener and Gorecki.
Martin Torp: PSALM 90 "Herr, Du bist unsre Zuflucht"
7) Many contemporary classical composers have begun to use computers not only as a tool, but also as an "instrument" in the genre Computer Music. What is your opinion on that?
I use the computer simply as a kind of typewriter for musical notes, but not for actual composition. This I do as always with pencil and paper, usually at the piano. Pure computer music, but also electronic music in general doesn’t interest me as a composer – simply due to the limited nature of the sound which computers and electronics produce. Electronic sounds do not have a natural overtone spectrum and inner life. For me, they are in a way soulless.
8) Do you consider your music to be contemporary and/or modern?
Yes, I do – but not in the sense of a narrow concept of modernism propagated by “progressive” ideologists like Adorno or Boulez. As I just said, I have always rejected stylistic copies and the anachronistic repetition of old models. I find this simply uncreative and unworthy of a real composer. Amusingly enough, after performances of my music people have often come up to praise me and said, in a relieved tone of voice, “Your music isn’t so modern at all.”
9) Can you name few contemporary composers whose music you consider worth listening to?
In addition to the ones already mentioned the following names occur to me spontaneously: Rautavaara, Finzi, Poulenc, John Adams and the Germans Nikolaus Schapfl, Leo Spies, Karl Höller and Gerhard Frommel.
10) Among famous composers, whom do you like the least?
For years now the same few contemporary German composers have repeatedly been categorized as especially “great”: Wolfgang Rihm, Helmut Lachenmann and Aribert Reimann. I do not share this opinion.
Martin Torp: Reflections, Nos. 1-3
11) What is your opinion on John Cage's statement "I have nothing to say and I'm saying it."?
That’s a typical pseudo-Zen statement by Cage. To this I can only say: He who has nothing to say should just keep quiet. If Cage had really believed this he should have just washed his hands of the whole business and like Marcel Duchamp given up the fabrication of art and spent his time playing chess. Nonetheless, I don’t find Cage completely unlikeable. The philosophy of the Zen master Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki obviously made a big impression on him, but in my opinion he never understood it completely.
12) Should composers be able to perform their own music well? (on the instrument which they play)
No, I don’t think that’s necessary. Wagner, for example, was a lousy pianist, but he composed fantastic orchestral music at the piano. In the same way, a composer of orchestral works needn’t be a good conductor. Of course it is always helpful and good if composers are accomplished instrumentalists or conductors – if only for material reasons.
Martin Torp: Sonate for Cello and Piano - 3rd. Movement
13) How would you describe what a masterpiece is? Name a particular masterpiece that affected you in some way?
A masterpiece should be flawlessly crafted and at the same time original and reflective of its own times. In addition, it should be able to bear direct comparison to generally recognized masterpieces of the past. As one particularly beautiful masterpiece from the twentieth century I would like to mention the second symphony (“Mysterious Mountain”) of Alan Hovhaness. The double fugue in the second movement is an especially outstanding piece of music – both in terms of its workmanship and its musical effect.
14) Can music exist without musicians playing it?
Yes, certainly. There are examples of numerous works by Viktor Ullmann, Pavel Haas or Alexandre Tansman that were first performed decades after the composers were dead. To be actually experienced, of course, music must be performed – provided that the performances are good enough to bring the music to life.
15) Is it possible to destroy a masterpiece with a mediocre performance?
If a masterpiece is truly strong and vital, even a mediocre performance will enable an audience to sense this. But if the performance is really poor, a gross distortion, the composition can become unrecognizable and, in the worst case, complete nonsense. The masterpiece itself will, of course not be destroyed. At any time it can be revived to splendid effect through a good performance.
(translated from the German by Henry A. Smith)
For more information, please visit the website of Mr. Torp
3) Much of your music is what people call "sacred music". Do you consider your belief to be your main inspiration?
I am the descendent of a long line of theologians in my family, but at the age of fifteen I lost the Christian faith that had, so to speak, been “laid in my cradle”. For a time I was interested in Marxism, but have gradually come – via detours through Zen-Buddhism, Hindu mantra-meditation and finally an intensive study of Islam – back to Christianity. Today I see myself once again as a definite, believing Christian – though more in an overall, spiritual sense and not in terms of traditional church dogma. Now, however, I can write “Christian music” again with real conviction. For some eight years now, due to a growing demand, I have been working almost exclusively on commission. And since most of my commissions are for spiritual works, my oeuvre catalog has become weighted in this direction. Nonetheless, I have composed a large number of pieces without any connection to religious themes.
4) Your piano cycle "Reflections" has its unique voice in piano literature. What are the main aspects (characteristics) of the piano as an instrument that you had in mind when writing this work?
In 2008 I composed the cycle “Still-Leben” for piano consisting of 16 meditative miniatures. The listener reactions were so good that, a year later, I decided to write another cycle long enough to fill a concert program or a CD – to be exact: 64 miniatures, i.e. 4 x 16. For the work to fit on a CD, each piece had to be very short. So it came down to maximizing compression while maintaining a consistent mood and “entertainment value”. Judging from the positive audience reactions I seem to have succeeded at this.