Interview with Gregor Mayrhofer

Gregor Mayrhofer’s Oktett will be given its US premiere alongside Schubert’s Octet in F Major on March 10th and 11th. I caught him just after he attended a concert at the Berlin Philharmonie, where he is an assistant conductor to Sir Simon Rattle. No big deal.

Irene Kim: Hi Gregor! Thanks so much for taking the time out of your incredibly busy schedule to do this interview!

Gregor Mayrhofer: Yes, of course!! Thank you for taking the time to do this!

IK: Let’s start with a very general question. How did you get started in music?

GM: I grew up in a musical family; my father was a director at a music school, and my mother was and is teaching music, too. So we grew up with music all around us all the time. We always played or sang along with our parents. We had a piano among many other instruments in our living room, so from very early on, we learned that you could make sounds on this thing, that it wasn’t just a piece of furniture. Before I had my first official piano lesson, at age four or five, I was improvising childish cluster music. And so improvisation was really the origin for getting into composition. Later, I had lessons on piano, clarinet, violin, and other instruments. My first piece, which came about quite late at around fourteen years old, wasn’t even a real composition. It was an improvisation, which I played many, many times over until I memorized it, and then over the course of several weeks, I wrote it down, taking my time. Soon after, my brother and some friends said, “Hey, can we join you? Can you write some parts for us so we can play together?” Step by step, I began to think about how other instruments could work together to make a good sound.

IK: I know you have a brother, Raphael, with whom you perform sometimes. Is this the same brother that asked you to play together?

GM: It actually was my older brother back then in the original formation, along with my godfathers. And with this quartet from early on, I suddenly had the responsibility for deciding which pieces to play, who was going to arrange the pieces, and how we were going to rehearse them. So, in a way, this was the start of my conducting experience, by running the rehearsals for this group.

IK: What was the instrumentation of this ensemble?

GM: Piano, horn, contrabass, and euphonium. They were just the instruments that we happened to play! So, we definitely had to make an arrangement of every song we wanted to play, whether it was New York, New York, or Take Five. Then my younger brother joined as a percussionist, and we still play together as a duo called Imbrothersation, just piano and percussion. In every concert that we play now, we do two pieces where it is completely free, without any limitations, so we have no idea if it’ll end up as a jazz standard, a pop song, a completely weird experiment, or a contemporary-music-extended-technique orgy.

IK: Is that something you still do these days?

GM: Yes, our next concert is in June! These last months have been so busy, with my assistantship with Simon Rattle and finishing my children’s opera The Three Spinners for the Opera in Hannover. But I miss the improvisations with Imbrothersation so much.

IK: Let’s jump to the present moment. Tell us about what you’re doing with the Berlin Phil.                                                                                                                                         

GM: I’m allowed to assist Simon Rattle there, see all the rehearsals with the orchestra and sometimes conduct them when he wants to listen to the balance in the hall. It’s a position that is completely new. They do have the Karajan Academy, which is the education sector of the Phil, but this is usually for instrumentalists who have the opportunity to play alongside with members of the Berlin Phil in orchestra and chamber concerts. But now with this so-called “Sir Simon Rattle Scholarship,” he created a post for younger conductors to have a transitional education that is not in a university environment. It allows for the never-ending journey of learning to continue in this in-between period. It is the most incredible transition to be in. Every week, I go to all the rehearsals, of Simon’s and of other guest conductors. And there are projects of the Karajan Academy that I get to conduct as well. I am composing a piece for them right now, too.

IK: Do you get to work with Simon Rattle?

GM: I don’t get lessons in the traditional sense as one might receive at a university, but Simon is very generous with his time, and we might discuss philosophical things like what it means to conduct an organism like that orchestra or we talk about repertoire, rehearsal strategies, and the like.

IK: As a conductor, what do you think about our conductorless chamber orchestra?

GM: I think it’s fabulous.

IK: Great answer.

GM: Interestingly, I had a preparation session a month ago with the Karajan Academy; it was a concert with a solo violinist, and we were heading towards the direction of the orchestra playing more with the violinist, and without a conductor. And I was trying to think of what they would need to be playing without me anymore. I find that most of the time when we are conducting, this should be the main task of the rehearsal, to see what degree you can empower the orchestra members with the ability to listen more, react more, and shape things in a personal way that is beyond just notes, so that it has a meaning to them and to the audience. Of course, with a huge orchestra, especially with very few rehearsals, as is the case with most major orchestras, it is almost impossible not to have a conductor. But I find it very interesting to try the philosophy of making the conductor as useless as possible. I think conducting mainly means to guide other people to be the best version of themselves.

IK: Yes, I agree. Now, tell me about the commission, the link between Alois Lageder and the Scharoun Ensemble and how the Oktett came into being.

GM: The logistics of the commission began when I stepped in for Pablo Heras-Casado when he couldn’t conduct Ensemble Intercontemporain one night about a year ago. Then I was at a festival in Austria with the Ensemble and the director of the festival realized that I was also a composer. He asked if I would like to write something for the Scharoun Ensemble for a special project there. Alois Lageder is an owner of a vineyard; he’s a very generous and fantastic person who is making excellent high-class organic wines and tries to get rid of all the chemical stuff that brings the environment out of balance. He has a lot of philosophical thoughts on the balance of nature and the balance of life. One example is that the balance of life isn’t only about making money, but also the balance of doing your job well, and sharing that success with others. In his case, he supports a lot of artists. He gave me this commission with the “condition” that I go to his vineyard to see how he works. We had many wonderful conversations, and he gave me the opportunity to compose my piece there, which is the most beautiful place you can imagine: in the middle of the northern Italian Alps, in between the lakes, in the middle of the vineyards. It is completely calm and you can go to the winery where Alois shows you around and tells you about the wine and the whole philosophy by which he works and lives.

It was so interesting to be there, particularly because I found that between the process of making wine and composing and conducting there are so many similarities. There is this duality between knowing hard physical facts and intuition. For example, in making wine, you have to know that if you put more of this acid, or it is two degrees warmer, then the results will differ. And it’s the same way in conducting and composing, you have to know how to give a certain kind of upbeat, know about tempi, frequencies, instrumentation, and the like—you have know how all of these things work. But then there is the other part that is much more intuitive. I was so surprised about how many things you can’t physically influence with a certain security in wine making. You just have to develop a certain intuition for a million different factors. Alois might say this summer we had more sun, so it was more dry, so the wine needs to be kept for a month longer, things like that. It’s always a bit of a gamble, an intuition game. And this is so similar with composition, because while it has so much to do with organizing the notes, it’s also so fragile. You never know when inspiration will hit or if you’re able to form an original idea. We had many of these conversations, all the questions about life, about material and non-material things.

And now we are getting closer to the core concept of the Oktett. We very often think in three categories: this is a human, this is an animal, and this is a plant. We give certain rights to humans—unfortunately, still not to all of them. The animals have less, not too many rights, since humans eat them, and because of it, animals suffer at times. And with plants, we treat them basically just like materials; we don’t really consider them to have rights or feelings. But by seeing how Alois works and how he treats his work, I found that this transition between the three categories, from inanimate objects like a stone to humans is very gradual. Something like wine, what we consider just as nourriture, or drink, is actually a living thing, since there are living organisms in there that react to things like temperature and time. For example, Alois noticed a funny thing: even though the wine inside the barrels are completely isolated from the outside environment—so there’s no air going in or anything—the wine changes when it becomes close to springtime. He doesn’t know how that happens; it can’t be the temperature because a consistent temperature is maintained inside the caves, and it can’t be the air because it is completely isolated. But the moment it becomes spring and the flowers come up, the wine changes! So the question for me was: how can I do a similar thing with sound, to let it develop from some abstract combination of sound-“materials” to a cultivated and expressive or emotional music. In nature, this would be something like a tree growing from single materials, water and a rock or soil, and the tree recombines these elements and multiplies them to grow itself. In my piece, it begins with more or less one “dead” note in the shadow, then it begins to shake, like cells or microbes that are growing and moving around. Slowly, the sound develops into different notes and harmonic movements, and it grows until you have a very concrete cultivated thing, like the melody in the horn. In both nature and sound, as soon as you recognize the final object (in our case, the musical motive) coming forth from single elements, you can connect with it emotionally. In a place where there is just earth and water, but then suddenly a flower comes out of it, or a human growing out of it, it becomes emotional content.

The last aspect of the piece that I want to talk about is something that I have been finding fascinating: greed.  I am often so surprised and shocked, why apparently it is so hard for humans to find a good, modest and healthy balance. Very often the ones who already have a lot still want more, no matter whether its power, money or knowledge. Probably it comes from nature in a way; nature always grows without limits, until the resources are depleted, and then usually finds a balance. The piece similarly often grows to loud passages, where the sound oversaturates more and more to a point, where it can’t grow any more—it explodes, decays and suddenly changes its structure completely, becoming the fertile ground for something new starting to grow.

IK: That’s intense.

GM: Yes. Nature is in a way a quite extreme thing where it always goes through the whole cycle of death and new life. Hopefully we are intelligent enough as humans, to think more about finding this balance, before we completely destroy our own environment.

IK: Yes. Speaking of which, will you be coming out to California, the paradoxical land of great environmental advances and blankets of smog?

GM: I would love to. I was so happy when I found out that Kaleidoscope will be playing the Lageder Oktett! But then I realized that we have Parsifal rehearsals during that time with Simon Rattle, so I won’t be able to be there. But I hope very much to come see and hear you live one day in the future!

IK: No worries, we’ll have a recording for you! Thanks so much for your time, Gregor!

GM: You’re very welcome!


Irene Kim