ROVNER: Mr. Darbellay, you are a well-known composer of great merit. You have many performances of your compositions in Europe and in other parts of the world. Where did you begin your activities as a composer, where and with whom did you study?
DARBELLAY: I have studied composition at the Bern Conservatory with Theo Hirsbrunner, who, in his turn, was a pupil of Boulez – this makes me a «grandson» of Boulez. I also studied with Spanish composer Cristobal Halffter and with Dimitri Terzakis. Then, I have attended master classes with Heinz Holliger and Klaus Huber, and courses of Pierre Boulez in Paris at the Sorbonne University, College de France and IRCAM. I have also attended courses with Edison Denisov in Luzern, where I was his assistant. In 1993, together with five other composers, who were students in Denisov's Luzern master classes, we have founded the “Lacroix” group of six composers.
ROVNER: Which composers have influenced you the most in your formative years?
DARBELLAY: The composers, who were the most influential in my musical development, were the French composers: Debussy, Messiaen and Boulez, as well as Russian composers Stravinsky and Denisov. Among the older composers, I could mention Beethoven and on the other side, Mozart and Schubert.
ROVNER: Could you tell us in greater detail about the “Lacroix” group of six composers, of which you are a member?
DARBELLAY: The group was formed somewhat by chance by the six composers, who attended Edison Denisov's master class in 1993. The courses took place in Chalet Lacroix, organized by the Hindemith Stiftung (Foundation) in Frankfurt, which organized the infrastructure of the place, where the master classes took place. Because Hindemith lived in Blonay, his testimony was to establish a music center in that setting with his royalty money. The six composers, who established the group were John Wolf Brennan (who is half Irish and half Swiss and lives in Ireland), Christian Henking, Michael Radanovics, Marianne Schroeder, Michael Schneider and myself. The group was essentially organized by Thuring (umlaut over u) Bram (umlaut over a), the director of the Luzern Conservatory, who was responsible for organizing the master classes with Denisov. He was the one who brought us together from the start. We continue to collaborate with him, and recently he invited us to Luzern, where we organized the concerts of the newly formed Russian-Swiss “Spectrum” Ensemble. After completing the master classes, we came up with the idea of organizing concerts at the Chalet Lacroix foundation. The first concert took place at the end of our courses in Luzern in September 1993. We thought of staying together, despite the fact that the aesthetics of all six of the composers of the group were entirely different. The music of Brennan and Radanovics is very much influenced by jazz – Brennan is also a jazz pianist, while Radanovics is a violinist. Marianne Schroeder is a pianist and a performer of contemporary music. Among her repertoire is the music of the American minimalist composers, John Cage, Scelsi, Stockhausen (his Klavierstucke) and Galina Ustvolskaya. She was personally acquainted with both Scelsi and Cage, and she frequently performed the music of Ustvolskaya together with Rohan de Saram, the cellist from the Arditti Quartet. Her music is influenced more by this aesthetics.
ROVNER: You are frequently involved in arranging concerts and working together with musicians and with composers in organizing musical events in different cities and different countries of Europe and, to a lesser degree, in America. Could you describe some of your activities in this field in greater detail?
DARBELLAY: When we, six composers, established ourselves as the “Lacroix” group, we arranged a few concerts together, first at the workshop in Luzern in September 1993, then in Moscow in May, 1995, at the “Alternativa” Festival, which at that time took place at the Composers' Union Building. After that, we had a concert in Moscow in November, 1996, in Dublin, Ireland in 1997 and in Blonay, Switzerland in 1997, the latter concert involved the Moscow Ensemble of Contemporary Music, directed by composer Yuri Kasparov. We also had a concert in memory of Edison Denisov, a “Gedenkkonzert” on December 3, 1997, in Luzern, for which we presented six compositions, one by each composer of the “Lacroix” group, and also compositions by Thuring (umlaut over u) Bram (umlaut over a) and Edison Denisov himself. We often invite other composers to participate in our concerts. We have invited Thuring (umlaut over u) Bram (umlaut over a) as well as composer from Luxembourg, Marcel Wengler, the director of the Luxembourg Society for New Music; the latter took part in a concert of ours in 1999 in Weggis, Switzerland, near Luzern. There was a concert performed by a soprano and a pianist, of music by the composers of our group, set to texts by Hans Arp, for which Wengler also wrote a two-minute song. In this concert we included music by Wengler as well as by another composer, Michael Baumgartner, who is also not an official member of our group.
ROVNER: You also work on a regular basis with a number of contemporary music ensembles, for which you help organize concerts in different cities and which perform your compositions, which you write for them. Tell us, which ensembles do you collaborate with on a regular basis.
DARBELLAY: I work with different contemporary music ensembles. First of all, there is the “Orion” Ensemble. This ensemble started out as the “Orion” Duo, consisting of my son Olivier Darbellay, who plays both on the horn and cello, and French saxophonist Marc Sieffert – the ensemble performs music for cello and saxophone duo as well as for horn and saxophone duo, as Olivier plays both instruments at alternate times. Around this duo, the “Orion” Ensemble is structured, the instrumentation of which is continuously fluctuating, since the duo frequently invites other instrumentalists – violinists, cellists, pianists and others – the addition of which transforms the “Orion” Duo into the “Orion” Ensemble. Then, there is a larger ensemble, the “Antipodes” Ensemble, founded and directed by my son, Olivier Darbellay. Two years ago, Moscow pianist Victor Yampolsky and myself have founded the Russian-Swiss “Spectrum” Ensemble, half of which consists of Moscow musicians and the other half of Swiss musicians. Sometimes the Swiss musicians go to Moscow to perform with the Russian musicians there, which they did for the ensemble's first concert there, in March, 1999, and sometimes the Russian musicians come to Switzerland to perform with the Swiss musicians, which happened in February, 2000. Now I also work with Ensemble “Accroche Note” in Strasbourg, which recently performed in Paris at the “Presences” Festival. I also performed with Ensemble Contrechamps, as well with other ensembles and orchestras. My orchestral pieces were recorded by the Stuttgart Radio Orchestra, the MDR (Mittel-Deutscher Rundfunk, i.e. Middle German Radio) Kammerphilharmonie, with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, directed by Vladimir Ponkin, and with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the latter performed my pieces three weeks ago, in September 2000. Since I have studied not only composition, but also conducting and clarinet at the Bern Conservatory, I sometimes participate in concerts either as a clarinetist or a conductor.
ROVNER: What can you tell us about your musical compositions, and the aesthetics of your musical language? Which compositions of yours give a good representation of some of these principles?
DARBELLAY: My aesthetics originates from the 12 tone, serial technique, but is not limited to the latter. Twelve-tone music has been my first contact with modern music – then, later on, I developed my own system of “central notes.” It could be one note, around which a composition is based, like my chamber composition “Ein Garten fur Orpheus” for horn, basset horn and string quartet, or my “A” for clarinet, violin and cello, or it could be a group of notes, like in my “Images Perdues” for cello and piano. Sometimes, it could even be a set of more complex aggregates, groups of five or six notes, which frequently recur like leitmotifs of Wagner or “central” or “basic chords,” as in my new orchestral piece, “Oyama”. I frequently use the technique of “microcanons,” which are successions of same notes, forming thematic or pitch units, recurring successively in various instruments, forming an intricate micro-polyphony, as well as an intense textural flourishes, which are in essence moving clusters. I use the technique in “Ein Garten fur Orpheus,” piling them around the “central notes,” as quick and texturally elaborate arabesques; as a result they form a pillar of sound, the basis of which are the “central notes.” I try to have a very clear and comprehensible type of formal development, with clearly discernible contrasts of texture and dynamic, as well as recognizable recurring pitch themes or textural units. I try to use accessible forms, like succession of fast-slow-fast in a one-movement piece. I often use very soft dynamics – ppp – juxtaposing them with louder dynamics for formal contrast. My orchestral piece, “Oyama,” starts like a volcano eruption, being extremely fast, loud, texturally dense and dramatic in mood in the beginning, gradually subsiding to slow, soft and texturally sparse and intricate music in the middle and ending loud and fast, like a volcano eruption. I use a sparing amount of extended techniques, which, though remaining as side features, being reserved for special dramatic effects, not as the central elements of composition, still fulfill an important dramatic role in my music. I try to use musical material in a very compact way, not spreading things around, and not having too wide or extended thematic material. When you write an orchestral piece, such as my “Oyama,” you have to choose the material very carefully, and make sure not to have too many elements or ideas used at a time, but to be able to use a small amount of material, which you could develop at length.
ROVNER: How did you decide to meet Edison Denisov and to attend his master classes in Luzern? Were you acquainted with him prior to the master classes, or were you just familiar with his music?
DARBELLAY: I did not know Denisov personally, before the master classes in Luzern, though I was familiar with his music and had great admiration for it. I saw the announcement about his master classes, and thought that this would be an excellent opportunity for me to meet with him and to study. The course lasted for three weeks altogether: one week passed in Luzern, the second week passed in Blonay and the third week passed, once again, in Luzern. Altogether, there were three years that Denisov gave courses in these venues, 1989, 1991 and 1993, and I attended all three of them. Denisov gave us the opportunity to work with the Moscow Ensemble for Contemporary Music. The first concert, where this ensemble performed compositions by all six composers of the “Lacroix” group, was in May, 1995, at a concert of the “Alternativa” Festival. We collaborated with Kasparov's ensemble, when I came to Moscow in late November, 1996. We have also worked extensively with Moscow pianist, Victor Yampolsky, who previously was the pianist in Kasparov's ensemble. In 1996, we carried out a project with the Rachmaninoff Trio, a piano trio founded by Yampolsky, which included violinist Mikhail Tsinman and cellist Natalia Savinova, by recording a CD, called “Groupe Lacroix,” with the Creative Works Records firm (catalogue number CW1030). The CD included compositions for either the complete piano trio or solos and duets for the instruments falling into the category, written by all six composers of the “Lacroix” group, myself included (my piece was “Empreintes” for piano trio), as well as Denisov's Variations on a theme by Schubert for cello and piano. The Moscow Ensemble of Contemporary Music came to Blonay, Switzerland in 1997, and performed music by the Lacroix composers, and we also had a concert with them in Dresden, organized by the Mittel-Deutscher Rundfunk.
ROVNER: In addition to Russian musicians, you have very good connections with musicians and musical groups in what used to be East Germany. What musicians have you worked with and what kinds of activities were you able to carry out with them?
DARBELLAY: Lately I had a lot of success in establishing many connections and good working relations with numerous orchestras and ensembles in the “Neue Bundeslander” (former East Germany; literally “new federal lands”). I have worked a lot with the Mittel-Deutscher Rundfunk. I wrote my piece “Ein Garten fur Orpheus” for a performance in Dessau in 1996. My composition “Incantu” for horn and orchestra was performed in Plauen, my “Cantus” for horn and organ was performed in 1993 in Altenburg and my “Pranam no. 4” for cello and orchestra was performed in Halle in November, 1995, with the MDR Orchestra with Siegfried Palm. My “Ode Breve” for saxophone, violin and cello was performed in Halle in 1998, while my “Ondes Fugitives” was performed in Plauen in 1999. In the 2000-2001, there will be the first East German performance of my “Oyama” in the Gewandhaus by the MDR Symphony Orchestra.
ROVNER: In your composing and concert-organizing career, you must have had many opportunities to meet and work with many esteemed composers, especially from the older generation. Who were some of the composers that you had a chance to study, work or collaborate with?
DARBELLAY: In 1992, I have had a commission to write a piece for cello and chamber ensemble in connection with the musical legacy of Giacinto Scelsi, which was subsequently performed in the same year in Perugia, Italy, by the Quaderni Perugini di Musica Contemporanea. The director of this ensemble gave a commission to write a piece, the main conception of which would stem from a musical composition by Scelsi's composition “Pranam no. 2” – as a result I wrote a piece, called “Pranam no. 3”. Around the same time, in 1992, there was a John Cage Festival in Perugia, where I was one of the performers in Cage's “Music Walk,” in which we had to recite texts and play radio transistors. I had a chance to meet Cage at the festival, and I gave him a book, called “Letters of Exchange between Boulez and Cage,” in which he signed his autograph, so I was lucky to receive such a unique testimony from him, just before he died. Later, that year, I took the book to Paris, where I went to study with Boulez. In November 1992 I gave him the same book to sign, which he also signed, writing “apres John, et encore vivant” (after John and still alive). The main topic of the book was the interrelation between Boulez's total serialism and Cage's aleatory music. Earlier on, I also worked with Hungarian composer, Gyorgy Kurtag, whom I met in Bern at a master class which he gave there. I played for him a recording of my trio for three basset horns, called “Glanum”. He was very surprised at the timbre of the instrument, since he said that he never had the chance to hear the instrument before. He expressed a wish to write a piece for the instrument. Siegfried Palm, who was also present in Bern at the time, dissuaded me from relying on Kurtag to write the piece, saying that the latter would promise to write such a piece but would never do so, since it takes such a long time for him to write any piece that he plans to. Nevertheless, in 1991, he did keep his promise and sent me a piece for two basset horns and two pianos, of which I organized a performance in Witten at the “Chamber Music Days of Witten,” organized by the West-Deutscher Rundfunk (West German Radio).
ROVNER: In addition to being a composer, clarinetist, conductor and an enthusiastic organizer of contemporary music concerts, you are also an active participant in a national composers' organization, namely the Swiss section of the ISCM (International Society of Contemporary Music), of which you are the president. Have you been the first president of the Swiss section of ISCM or did it exist before? Did you participate in many “World Music Days” Festivals in previous years, and were you able to ensure the presence of other Swiss composers in the previous festivals?
DARBELLAY: Before I became the president of the ISCM, there was no unified Swiss section. There were only regional sections from different parts of Switzerland – one from Bern, one from Basle, one from Zurich. We decided to unite them into one and to establish a unified Swiss section of ISCM in 1995. The first time when I attended the “World Music Days” Festival was in Stockholm, Sweden in 1994. Since then I attended all the subsequent festivals: Essen in 1995, Copenhagen in 1996, Manchester in 1998, Bucharest in 1999 and the present on in Luxembourg in 2000. The only festival, where I could not attend was in Seoul, Korea in 1997. The first time that I had a piece performed at one of these festivals, was last year, in 1999, in Bucharest, where my piece “A la recherche” for flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, double-bass, percussion and piano was performed very successfully and was well met by the other participants of the festival and by the audience. This year my piece “Ein Garten fur Orpheus” was performed by the “Antipodes” Ensemble, and that went along very successfully too. This year, I was one of four Swiss composers, whose music had been performed at the festival.
ROVNER: What other notable performances did you have of your music in major festivals during the last few years? Will you be expecting any additional performances of your music in the upcoming future?
DARBELLAY: I have had a number of pieces performed in Paris at the “Presences” Festival. Four times I had performances with Radio France. In 1989 my Cello Concerto was performed there with soloist Anssi Karttunen from Finland – it was at that time that I had the very lucky chance to meet Messiaen personally. In 1990 a piece of mine was performed at a concert of Radio France, devoted to the music of Frank Martin, featuring Swiss composers, and in 1996, when Ensemble Contrechamps performed the trio «La» or “A” for clarinet, violin and cello (which also used a tuning fork). Finally, I received a commission from Radio France to write another trio – for bass clarinet, cello and piano, which was performed in February, 2000, by the “Accroche Notes” Ensemble. Next year, in April 2001, I am supposed to have a premiere in Bern by the “Accroche Notes” Ensemble of a new piece for six instruments, featuring the Pierrot ensemble – flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano – plus percussion instruments. In August of next year, 2001, there is supposed to be a performance of a piece for four horns and orchestra in Bern, in Croatia at the Dubrownik Festival and in France. In August my new trio for violin, horn and piano is expected to be performed in Australia.