Thomas Daniel Schlee’s 60th birthday
His forthcoming 60th birthday on 26 october is marked by numerous performances of his compositions, including the Austrian premiere of Spes unica op. 72 by the RSO Vienna under Cornelius Meister on 19.10.2017 in the Konzerthaus Wien, and the first performance of his Suite op. 82 on 24.10.2017 in the Musikverein Vienna as well as Bis by the Bamberg Symphony under Manfred Honeck on 18. and 19.11.2017.
“Thomas Daniel Schlee is an open spirit and a cultured man. He loves music passionately. He is an outstanding organist and an extremely gifted composer. His works reflect a high intellectual striving and a true originality with regard to their ‘écriture’ and sound colours.” Olivier Messiaen gave his former pupil Thomas Daniel Schlee this brilliant endorsement. On the occasion of his forthcoming 60th birthday on 26 October, Schlee, who can look back over a rich and varied career as a composer, organist, musicologist and culture manager, answered some questions from Michael Töpel on his compositional work for “[t]akte”. His brilliant answers document the fact that Messiaen described what Schlee would become with absolute accuracy in his early assessment.
[t]akte: The creative process of invention precedes the manual process of notating music – now and then both might develop almost in parallel. The temporal discrepancy between the speed of writing and the performance tempo is one of the characteristics of the metier. You have said something extremely positive about your compositional work: “I write only for my own pleasure.” What is striking is the fact that “pleasure” is regarded as the opposite of “work”. What exactly does this pleasure give you?
Thomas Daniel Schlee: It is simply the process of work which generates the pleasure. “What intoxication”, Jean Françaix proclaimed, describing the privilege granted to the creative artist of being allowed to write on a blank sheet. And this pleasure is renewed in composing with, and in, each note which accrues to the created work. Certainly this is often a sweet torture, for who wants to count the number of decisions which are necessary to arrive at the “telos”, or end, of the work, as Paul Hofhaimer notated at the last bars of his compositions? But it is precisely that wrestling in the most intimate silence which gives our existence an expressive quality which transcends us.
Music is a profoundly communicative medium or phenomenon. It is evident that the pleasure in your music communicates to the interpreters and ultimately to audiences – and not only in the works where the title alone readily suggests this, such as in the Overture “Musik für ein Fest” or in the wonderful fairy tale “Der Esel Hesékiël” for narrator and orchestra, written for children and adults. How can something like that succeed?
Nobody can make him or herself into a genius, but he or she is free – even in our time too – to use the merging of knowledge which we have from the enormous resources of beauty handed down to us, and the instinct and the acuity of our ears, without imposing any artificial limitation. And it seems to me that it is good to write for the musicians, to give them tasks which correspond with their art, which they are happy to take up, and the interpretation of which in performance leads to an emotionally rewarding result.
Composing means deciding. Is it also this terrain of relative freedom which gives you pleasure as a writer – despite all the challenges of the task, when it is subsequently about making public what has been created in this sphere and rooting it there?
Before every beginning the ocean of possible decisions is frightening. Only the gradually emerging limitation creates the work, and with it constantly new, but intentionally precisely calculated areas of freedom open up. To bring this to a cultivated state is our task. But we composers have no further influence over how this harvest is then used, even if in certain ways it will endure.
For an outsider, the first information about a new work is its title. This can provide the main idea, the form of presentation, the intended connotations or can even be enigmatic. At what stage of composing do you find the titles of your works? Can they form a kind of “mantra” for you during the creative process, or more a kind of entry point beyond which you form the musical space?
For me titles often mean poetic entrances through which you enter a specific space. Genre titles (sonata, symphony) oblige us to interact with masterpieces – and that still represents a very attractive challenge which can be answered through identification or contradiction. After all, we are not alone! Or, we search for a diversion away from the main routes and follow an as yet hidden path which shows us the magic of a title. In our hands we hold the keys to the doors in Bluebeard’s castle ...Some portals of historic theatre and concert buildings bear the inscription: “Truth, goodness, beauty”. Have these become noble and outdated ideals?The foolish present, which carelessly discards such ideals! But you need to know that beauty can be an abyss; nevertheless, it is what is striven for in all art. It is good when it is capable of becoming a comprehensible discourse, and then it becomes the truth.