A Decision Of The Ear: An Interview With Jakob Ullmann

Composer Jakob Ullmann, photo by Frank Brauer

By Eric Laska

Jakob Ullmann (b. 1958, Freiberg, East Germany) is a composer based between Naumburg and Basel. Though he formally studied sacred music and organ with the organist for the Dresden Cathedral, Hans-Jürgen Scholze, from 1979 to 1982, both the Protestant and Catholic Church forbade him to perform as an organist because of his refusal to serve in the National People’s Army of East Germany. Accused of defaming the state and passing on information with the intention of hurting East German interests, he was later barred from attending the Academie der Künste in East Berlin, which led him to study privately with composer Friedrich Goldmann. For most of his early career, Ullmann supported himself with a series of menial jobs while composing music in his spare time. Since 2008, Ullmann has been a professor of composition, notation, and music theory at the Musik-Academie Basel.

Recently, Ullmann’s oeuvre has been the subject of much scholarly and public interest in the field of contemporary music and sound. His initial reputation as a dissident and outsider composer has experienced an about-face since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Taking inspiration from esoteric sources like world religions and Greek mythology, he remains hypersensitive to the social and political environment within which he composes. His music tends to exist at the threshold of audibility liminal sound in a noisy world.

Müntzers stern (Müntzers star) was composed specifically for the Parisian bassoonist Dafne Vicente-Sandoval. On June 2nd, 2018, Vicente-Sandoval will perform the American premiere of the piece at Icebox Project Space in Philadelphia (tickets can be purchased here). In anticipation of the event, I asked Ullmann a few questions about the work and his compositional practice.


Eric Laska: Can you tell me a little about the inspiration for Müntzers stern?


Jakob Ullmann: In 2014 I was invited by the Musik-Akademie Basel – Hochschule für Musik to contribute a piece for the 150th anniversary of the institution. I hesitated at first because my impression was that my particular kind of music would not fit with the celebration of an anniversary. After I was granted the freedom to do a piece that could have a broader horizon beyond honoring the institution, I decided to compose a piece that is related in different ways with Basel and its history, especially with details of the Basel Münster building and its people.

The piece I wrote in 2014 and 2015 is called “steine . feuer . stern” (“stones . fire . star”) and is for ninety-five people with a duration of around 100 minutes. In order to incorporate different ideas and people from Basel´s history and make it easier to rehearse, I wrote the piece in a modular way: eight solo pieces, five duos, four trios, three pieces for five musicians, two for eight, one for thirteen and one for an ensemble of twenty-one.

One of the solo pieces is composed for bassoon and is related to the German protestant theologian Thomas Müntzer in two ways. First, Thomas Müntzer visited Basel some months prior to his execution after the Battle of Frankenhausen. He was  attempting to print his works and look for allies in his struggle for the peasants and his way of theological thinking and teaching which differed in fundamental ways from that of Martin Luther (for example, Müntzer fervently disagreed with Luther´s ardent anti-Semitism) and his followers in Wittenberg. Second, in the library of the University of Basel, one can find a handwritten copy of the carthusian songbook which was the property of Basel´s last monk Thomas Kress. Despite the fact that this book contains a lot of maledictions of Protestants (especially Luther), four special pages are included in the book in which Luther´s translation of medieval songs is written (without the name of the translator). The last of these four additional pages also contains a handwritten text of Thomas Müntzer´s translation of the hymn, “Conditor alme siderum” (“Gott, heilger Schöpfer aller Stern” – “God, holy creator of all stars”). I do not think that it is Müntzer´s own handwriting, but this tangible find was evidence of Müntzer´s visit to Basel and it enabled me to include the melody and Müntzer´s ideas into a special text in my piece.

So the bassoon-solo is based on the pitches of the melody (if you know the melody, you can follow it in the performance) and combined with a recording of Müntzer´s short tractate, “Vom getichten glawben” (“about the faith which is (only) imagination”). The soloist recorded the text twice, and both recordings are combined, so it´s not possible to really understand the text because the recording is soft and the language is from the 16th century.

The special techniques of playing bassoon pioneered by Dafne Vicente-Sandoval helped to realize a “perspective” to the melody of the hymn (and – in a way – to the tradition of western European music) which is similar to the treatment of the text.


EL: Dafne Vicente-Sandoval writes that the fragility of the harmonics she produces from the bassoon coupled with the playback of the recitation of Müntzer’s text into the space lends a distancing effect in both the physical qualities of the music and its affective reception. What is the role of listener perspective in performances of the work?


JU: For me, it is a central point in my work that the performer and the listener are both free to play and hear the music without backgrounds, environments, or other ideas outside of music. It is necessary for me that what happens in a performance is not closer to me than to the performer or the listener. The piece should become so alien to me that the performance is of sound and not of ideas or, even worse, ideology. The MUSIC (not my composition) shall become a witness to traditions, of sounds or cultural practices of the listener who is free to follow it, to agree with it, or to reject it. The decision should be a decision of the ear, but it is also important for me to embed traditions of faith, of culture, of thinking and acting in a time shaped by the political circumstances of oppression and wars that result in a great loss of cultural heritage.  There is also a predominant misconception that everything is or can be recorded with the help of technical, mostly electronic, means.

The listener is confronted with the fragility of memory so that they can reconstruct their own memories and their own traditions.

But – without doubt! – it is possible to hear too, to listen without further considerations…


EL: Many of your scores are hybrid in naturethey often include graphic and textual elements along with formal Western musical notation. Can you share a bit about your compositional process?


JU: Due to these strategies of “keeping things open” on the one hand but also acting in a respectful way with the messages and traditions incorporated in the pieces, I look for possibilities of writing, which help to alienate the piece from me as the “composer”. It should be clear enough but also create freedom for the performer and listener. So, very often in my scores traditional strategies of writing, which make it easier to rehearse, are combined with graphical elements or other means that allow the performer to give the performance his/her own physiognomy. There are a wide range of different “solutions” from the nearly complete graphical material of the solo pieces to the nearly traditional writing in the second string quartet, for instance.

The idea is that the listener should be able to identify the piece in the same way you can identify a person if you see them under different circumstances: better or worse conditions, young or old, and so on.

Müntzers stern appears to be notated in a quite traditional way – but this was possible because the special techniques of playing are not dominant in the notation. So the result which is to be heard in the performance is more “coined” by these notated techniques and creates a space of freedom for the performer as well as for the listener.


EL: What is the role of religion in your work?


JU: This is the most difficult question because it touches an area of intimacy, which will be hurt if expressed. Let me say that this background and foundation is essential for me for different reasons in my biography; I cannot work without these roots, but I know well enough how many cruelties, crimes, and disasters have been caused by religious thinking, religious opinions, and religious ideology. So it should be forbidden that performers or listeners are forced to agree with these roots. So, perhaps the best explanation is that the work I do is also witness to frequently lost messages which, in my view, should be preserved.


EL: Your oeuvre can be viewed as an exploration into the dynamism of pianissimo. Can you elaborate on the social and political reasons why you choose to employ this formal device?


JU: More and more pianissimo becomes a necessary condition for my life. There are so few places and circumstances for listening, so much noise wherever you are that I think it is necessary to create situations, at least with art, where the idea of listening can be realized. In a time when sounds from music are used as weapons and children’s songs are used for torture, for me, it is an irrefutable necessity to write pieces that one can hope are impossible to misuse for bad or cruel aims. I know very well that I cannot be sure that such misuse is impossible. But I should try to do my best.


Eric Laska is an artist/musician currently based in Philadelphia. He is founding editor of the online audio journal Lateral Addition.