Ahead of the performance of “Petra” with Marianne Schroeder and Stefan Tcherepnin, this interview was conducted by phone on January 30, 2017. It is included in the upcoming Blank Forms MAGAZINE.
PETRA: Conversation with Marianne Schroeder, Stefan Tcherepnin, and Lawrence Kumpf
Maryanne Amacher’s 1991 piece Petra was originally commissioned for the ICSM World Music Days in Boswil. Written for two pianos, Petra is a unique example of Amacher’s late work, which tended to focus exclusively on large-scale electronic installation. Her approach to Petra is a direct extension of her working methodologies for electronic compositions. This spring, Blank Forms will present Petra for the first time in New York, with Marianne Schroeder, who originally performed the piece alongside Amacher in 1991, and Stefan Tcherepnin, who performed it alongside Schroeder in 2012 at Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin. Like much of Amacher’s work, a performance of Petra is not as straightforward as it might appear—there is no definitive score but rather a series of fragments and working notes left to be deciphered. Tcherepnin and I conducted a conversation with Marianne Schroeder over the phone to discuss her recollections of working with Amacher on the piece and possible strategies to approaching a performance of Petra. —Lawrence Kumpf
Marianne Schroeder: The problem—this is the problem with Maryanne [Amacher]: I guess that we spoke more on the telephone back then, so it’s hard for me to remember everything. Yesterday I looked for several hours to find some letters or something, but I couldn’t find any.
Lawrence Kumpf: When did you first meet?
MS: Well, we spoke on the phone originally. I wanted to ask her if she could write a trio for us, after I saw and listened to her incredible installation in Berlin in ’85 (I think it was in ’85). I’m not sure how much we spoke when she was writing Petra.
LK: That installation was The Music Rooms part of her Music for Sound Joined Rooms series at DAAD gallery? And is this where you meet Maryanne for the first time?
MS: Yes, yes! You’re right! I had heard about her of course. Werner Uehlinger from Hat Hut Records talked to me about her. He had visited her in Kingston several years before we met. I was in Berlin at that time with my husband, and Maryanne had her installation there. It was the best installation I have ever heard! [laughs] That is the truth!
LK: Yeah, I was reading a little bit of the correspondence that she had with Max Nyffeler, the director of New Music Days, where Petra premiered—and as you mentioned, the piece you originally asked her to write was supposed to be the trio for piano, cello and percussion with you Robyn Schulkowsky, and Frances-Marie Uitti, correct?
MS: Yes, for a long time she said she would write a trio for Frances, Robyn, and me.
LK: So that was your original proposition to her, and then as she was thinking about it she came and visited you in Switzerland—in November or December of 1990—and visited the church at Boswil where the performance was eventually going to take place?
MS: Yes. You’re right, we had been in Boswil in the church together. She was very excited about the space and the architecture, and so was I. After this she started to correspond with Max about the piece that would become Petra. I was there with Christian Wolff, Dieter Schnebel, and others in a competition for composers that Klaus Huber founded when she came.
LK: And then, from what I can glean from her correspondence with Nyffeler, she had just read Greg Bear’s Petra. I guess, according to these letters, the piece she eventually wrote was inspired by the short story as well as her visit to Boswil. But she also mentions an experience you had—and I think this occurred on a visit to the church—that you had this vivid sense of re-experiencing your first piano lesson when you both visited the church?
MS: Isn’t that wonderful? [laughs] No, I can’t remember. My first piano lesson was in a village also like Boswil, a small village. That was similar. She came to Boswil maybe four or five days before the festival and then we worked together on the piece. We both had been very, very nervous. She was not used to writing musical notes—and I was nervous to play with her. [laughs] I thought, maybe I’m not able.
LK: It’s interesting that you inspired her to write notated music again. She hadn’t written any notated music since ’64 or ’65. So this would’ve been the first piece she attempted to write since then—and then a few years after this performance, Kronos Quartet commissioned a string quartet that she ultimately never finished. Were you aware that she hadn’t written music like this since the mid-’60s?
LK: What were your expectations in asking her to write a piece for you?
MS: [laughs] I just felt that she was such a great musician. Maybe I was a little bit ambitious. I thought, “She’s alone, she’s in the world, she’s alone—we should make use of her.” At the time I was in a very fruitful collaboration with Robyn Schulkowsky. We had wonderful concerts together, a really wonderful time playing together and improvising and with Frances too, though we didn’t improvise; we played Galina Ustvolskaya and Giacinto Scelsi. The three of us all met in Darmstadt, which is where we played as a trio the first time—and it just went so well. So I thought the three of us would be the right musicians to play Maryanne’s music. But I must say I was very shy and I felt—I couldn’t believe Maryanne’s installation, it was so strong! I was familiar with Cage; I had played Etudes Australes, and I was very close with him during that time. Maybe that helped me. But Maryanne, she was alone in the world. Such a music, such a music.
Stefan Tcherepnin: Do you remember when we were working on Petra in Berlin, how the materials we were working from—how the score was so fragmented and out of order that we had to reassemble it according to your memory, but also according to the recordings which existed from the performance in 1991?
ST: And now, I don’t know if you had a chance to see it, but since then we’ve discovered a whole new packet of materials which includes these same score materials with Maryanne’s notes and her handwriting, with more direction—how things were meant to be played. It’s interesting now that you mention Ustvolskaya, because I saw in one small passage that Amacher wrote down some transcription of a melody labeled as Ustvolskaya, with no other explanation. There’s even some mention of Scelsi in her notes, and I was wondering if you remember that, or if you had discussed any of that music with her before—if that was somehow informing or inspiring or something.
MS: She said that she very much admired Scelsi’s music to me several times. She met him once in Rome. I don’t know when exactly it was, but it was at the time Scelsi was dying—around 1988. At the time I was very close with him, but now it seems very far away. Maybe I felt like I was on another planet when working with him. I meet Scelsi in ’85, but in ’84 we spoke on the telephone and he said I must immediately come to Rome. I went the following year in the summer, from Berlin, and spent some time working with him. He told me I should stay in his house two years, but not at that time because I had so many of my own concerts and shouldn’t interrupt my career. Now I would like to take those two years to learn all his music, [laughs] to learn it until the end. But I played when we were together there. I would always have to ask him to play. If I hadn’t asked that, he would never say to me, “Now we play.” He didn’t like to work, so it was always a big effort to get him over to the piano. He was very special. He liked just to be. Sometimes he let me listen to his own improvisations. And then we stopped working together, but we telephoned often. Every week he called me, on Saturday evening mostly—he called me and then we talked together and I had dreams of him. [laughs] In my dreams he said to me, “Play this music, play that, that is good for you.” [laughs] We had a very special communication.
LK: Did you have much conversation with Maryanne about her approach writing Petra? As I understand the piece, it appears she’s composing through a midi computer and printing out the transcriptions—so maybe she’s starting the process working in an improvised fashion, having all that material printed out, and then going back and cutting pieces up and re-pasting it together. We’ve found sections of the scores cut and pasted together that correspond to the live recording from ’91.
ST: I think she’s approaching it in the same way that she composed her electronic music. In this case, rather than pre-recorded material that’s run through various processing techniques and filtering and phasing, that might be the human aspect—and instead of loudspeakers, you have the soundboard piano. So actually, maybe the pianos are like two speakers, and what the pianist is actually performing is blocks of material. This is like how Maryanne would select sections from one performance to the next, so that the same piece would sound entirely different depending on the space in which it was performed.
MS: I must say that one of my problems is to really understand good English, and with her, that was not so easy. [laughs] Her voice was a little bit inside, you know? She spoke for herself a little bit, no?
ST: Yeah, she understood herself. [laughs]
MS: Yes. And to play, when we play together, that worked well—but when we talked I think maybe I did not understand most parts. But we had no problem playing.
ST: What allowed me to feel like I could enter into the piece, was the experience of having played piano with Maryanne before and understanding that it’s not the same kind of space that we experience in just a day-to-day, normal experience of playing. To get deeper inside the notes or underneath the notes and behind them and really go into the sound in a very emotional way. I didn’t, then, feel so much pressure that my technique isn’t so good or anything, but more to find an entry point to this kind of sonic world that Maryanne occupied.
LK: In one of the notes that I have from her, she talks about this idea of wanting to make Petra a dramatic work. This would have been very much in line with her thinking at the time and her interest in episodic forms like soap operas and comic books; it also connected in some sense to her unrealized simulcast opera Intelligent Life. In one of her letters, she talks about wanting to create a set that would incorporate television and video, digital visual material, color, lights, objects, and costumes. And of course, Petra itself is based on this great story by Greg Bear about gargoyles coming to life and breeding with humans in post-apocalyptic Notre Dame. Even though her work as we hear it now—as pure sound—is extremely abstract, there is this desire on her part to frame it in this episodic or narrative fashion or even use that to inspire the pieces creation. I’m just wondering if you and Maryanne had that conversation, or if that came across in any ways when you were working with her on the piece?
MS: That is absolutely possible, but I was so bad at English. I think, now when you say that, it sounds so familiar. She must have talked about that, she must have.
ST: I wonder if this could be a way of making sense of the score fragments, and maybe it’s how she made the arrangement she composed for the performance—the original performance—in some way reflect the narrative of the story. We can always get more and more out of investigating her notes to this piece, and find if there were some extra elements to it that she had intended. But I think it’s endless, the labyrinth of material into which we can always go deeper and deeper.
MS: You have some ideas?
ST: I have some ideas. But also, just, looking at the score, and playing certain passages of it—it gives me more ideas.
ST: A lot more ideas.
MS: That is what happened to me too.
MS: It’s in the music, no?
MS: It’s fantastic, it’s fantastic! In the music!
ST: I think we can find it in the music. [laughs]
MS: We could!
ST: Maybe the answer is in the music. [laughs]
ST: Yeah, I think it’s about finding all of the different versions. I think that’s the only way to approach it.
MS: We should work on it! Then we can find the answer, no? With the material.
ST: Yeah, I found that through all of the notation being limited, when you listen to the recordings that were made, you can hear all of these intertwining melodies and kind of counterpoint also, between the two pianos—it’s difficult sometimes to distinguish between piano one and piano two. But sometimes I was under the impression that one of the pianos is creating a kind of vapor, or some kind of dense cloud, and that the melodies and harmonies and even rhythmic figuring from the one piano are then immersing themselves in this cloud, and then it sort of swirls around and generates new—or different melodies begin to emerge out of it. At least that’s what it sounds like.