Grand opening: interview with Richard Ayres

A creative musical architect with many interests and peculiar genealogies of inspiration, a composer whose artistic path began at the pumping site of contemporary music ideas, in Darmstadt, an individual whose ultimate joy is generated through learning about new things, and who has an imagined biography on his official website, published alongside the ‘serious’ ones – Richard Ayres, who will open the jubilee 2019 Biennale. On this occasion, he shared with us some thoughts on the piece he will premiere in Zagreb, on his form-creation process, as well as some personal insights on the question of extra-musical, and the stylistic choices he makes.

We are delighted to have you in Zagreb for this 30th jubilee edition of the Music Biennale Zagreb. What are your sentiments, expectations or findings about the Biennale Zagreb and Zagreb in general?

I have never been to Zagreb before, so I am very happy that I have been asked to play there, so soon after the premiere. Really, very happy and curious.

This year’s Biennale program will open with your multilayered piece The Garden. The work has been announced as “an irreverent and darkly comic tale” inspired by the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. Still, this search for the meaning in life nevertheless resonates as a strong now moment. What do you think?

I hope so. I try to focus on what is recurring throughout history rather than what separates historical periods. At the same time, I am a mega-nerd when it comes to learning about new things, especially technological developments. In the end, I try not to keep my experiences as a human being separate from my music. I like the comedy and tragedy and everything else to be a part of the musical experience. Maybe that makes it ‘current’ because I am in love with ‘now’. I don’t know.

How is this circular narrative or should I rather say – a plot – managed in the musical sense?

When constructing a theatrical piece, I first look for what I call ‘mythic forms’ of narrative. These are forms that are universally human and acultural. So, something like ‘going on a journey and collecting followers,’ or ‘entering a dark place,’ or ‘climbing higher and higher and having strange experiences.’ We can all imagine these situations wherever we live. These provide me with big chunks of the story. Then it is a matter of describing and populating the world in which the characters find themselves.

I am interested in knowing about the way the lyrics were set up for The Garden, as I have read it is a mishmash of various sources. In what way does this ‘linguistic synthesis’ correlate with the narrative itself?

First I thought about each following stage of the journey, and then either found a text that fitted it in the existing literature or I just wrote it myself. For example, I imagined the central character meeting a worm underground, and remembered a poem by Poe about the conquering worm. That poem was very theatrical and melodramatic in its imagery, so I decided to write a quasi-melodramatic piece of music. The character later arrives to Dante’s Inferno, so I thought I would try to write my very own early opera. I try not to restrict myself with stylistic worries.

The Garden has a pre-title of sorts – No. 50, as is customary in your marking system. Is there a special intention in giving your pieces numbers?

Well, at some point I got tired of adding unnecessary external meaning to pieces unless I really wanted to, so I stopped giving them music-specific titles. I agree with Jasper Johns that a title can be as powerful as a color in painting. A title can influence the way we listen to and interpret music. I decided that I would rather give pieces numbers unless the title was a part of the actual musical meaning. A number is still a title, but somehow seems generic enough to remain fairly neutral.


Interviewer: Martina Bratić