Obst, Michael (*1955)
Michael Obst a professing traditionalist? Many of his compositions show up unmistakable music-historical references. Compositional allusions to Skryabin, Messiaen, Luciano Berio and Schumann, as well as borrowings from the stylistic vocabulary of jazz - as in the "Nachtstücke" for example - make it clear that Obst considers his compositions as part of a music-historical continuum which, beyond mere considerations of structure and concept, serves as a repertoire for his expressive musical idiom. (Hans Hubert Steins, MusikTexte Nr. 84)
|1955||Born in Frankfurt/Main|
|1973-1978||Studies music education in Mainz|
|1977-1982||Studies piano with Alfons and Aloys Kontarsky in Cologne|
|1979-1982||Active as composer at the Studio for Electronic Music of the Cologne Musikhochschule|
|1981-1986||Member of the Ensemble Modern as pianist|
|1986-1989||Works with Karlheinz Stockhausen as performer of electronic keyboard instruments|
|since 1996||Professor of composition and electronic music in Weimar|
|2010-2013||Visiting Professor of composition and dramatic arts in Vienna |
|Career||Invitations and work commissions from the Studios of Ghent (IPEM), Stockholm (EMS), Paris (IRCAM), Cologne (WDR) and Bourges (GmeB). Several awards at international competitions for electronic music. |
World premieres and first performances at festivals in Germany and abroad, including at the "10 Years of IRCAM/Paris" event in 1987, the 1987, 1989 and 1995 Donaueschinger Musiktage, the World Music Days in Cologne (1987) and Amsterdam (1989), the 1992 and 1995 "Musik im 20. Jahrhundert" in Saarbrücken, the 1992 Festival "Jeunes Compositeurs" in Paris and the 1996 Munich Biennale.
Pianist and composer, sculptor of electronic sounds and author of scores for acoustic instruments, undaunted creator of concert pieces and grand projects such as film scores and an opera - Michael Obst is a wizard of sounds with a refined sensibility and an incontestable know-how.
The path he has followed is anything but conventional. As a student of music education in Mainz, he met the renowned pianist Alfons Kontarsky and decided to pursue his studies with him and later with his brother Aloys Kontarsky, broadening his knowledge of the contemporary repertoire as a pianist. While studying piano in Cologne, he worked at the Electronic Music Studio of the Musikhochschule there, where he took his first steps in composition. These essays in the electro-acoustic domain soon bore fruit and gave rise to works ("metal drop music", "Ye-Na-Je", "Kristallwelt I", etc.) which were awarded prizes at such prestigious venues as the festivals of Bourges and Varese. The press perceived in these works "an instrumental thinking that is extraordinary in electronic music."
In 1981, Michael Obst helped found the Ensemble Modern, and served as the ensemble's pianist. Before long, the ensemble developed an agenda of intensive concertizing whereby it clearly placed the emphasis on premiering new works. This experience provided Obst with the musical knowledge which formed his true apprenticeship in instrumental composition: "Through my work as a pianist in the Ensemble Modern, I learned composition in all its most practical aspects (the basic notions of form and time, as well as of notation and instrumentation)."
In 1986, Obst decided to devote more of his time to writing music, and he gradually reduced his activities as a pianist. He became more and more interested in instrumental music, and the compositional thinking which he developed was directly influenced by his experience with electronic music: "I wanted to explore the possibilities of applying to musical instruments the expressive means developed in the field of electro-acoustics. That soon led me work on sound quality and to develop sound spectrums in my instrumental music, the movement of which could be compared to electro-acoustic concepts."
"Kristallwelt III", for example, was initially conceived as a work for tape; only later did Obst add the instrumental part which accompanies and enhances it. In "Nachtstücke", on the other hand, instrumental virtuosity is given pride of place, while the electronic sound simply extends it occasionally. There are now also purely acoustical works such as Fresko, Nuances and Miroirs.
But whether using electronic sounds or orchestral instruments, Obst always crystallizes from them a fundamentally "material" idea, linked to the sound material itself. This material is subjected to a virtuoso treatment from which a particularly pronounced emotional power ensues. It is thus not by chance that he admits a profound admiration for Luciano Berio: "Berio's music from the 60s and 70s had a strong influence on me. I detected an Italian conception of sound, lighter and less intellectual than in German music, and based on know-how mingled with lightness and the pleasure of the gesture. This instrumental gesture is also of crucial importance to my music."
In 1991, Obst began tackling projects of a larger scale, beginning with the music for the uncut version (lasting nearly five hours) of Fritz Lang's celebrated film "Dr. Mabuse". This silent film of 1922, both mythical and monstrous in its dramatic tension and its description of an era in turmoil, required a special musical treatment: "The way in which the story is presented in the film involves such different levels - from comedy and crime to violence and even physical manipulation, and including evocations of cabarets and gambling halls - that I had to try to achieve in my work a structure analogous to that of the film." The musical result is rich, ranging from musical illustration to shifting perspectives to psychological commentary. For Obst, it was clear that he was creating "an interpretation of the film some 80 years later".
Composing such complex music of lengthy duration allowed Obst an experience of musical time which cannot be acquired by composing pieces of more "normal" dimensions. This enabled him to develop two other major works: "Diaphonia" (1994) for orchestra (commissioned by the Donaueschingen Festival) and "Solaris", his first opera, premiered at the Munich Biennale in 1996. These two works also provide the best examples of Obst's synthesis - an "ars combinandi" - of electro-acoustic techniques and instrumental ensemble, of theatrical concepts and the exploration of virtual space through electronics, of the concept of form and the necessity of dramatic tension. "Diaphonia" seems to be a successful attempt at establishing a relationship between, on the one hand, the perception of harmony and spectrums (including the use of new sound transformation technologies) and, on the other, a formal framework which stakes out an appealing, though not binding, path through a soundly constructed architecture. Since the orchestral groups are spread out among the audience, Obst thus creates a strong interaction between space and musical time.
Finally, Solaris represents a kind of intersection of his work for the cinema, his orchestral pieces and his stage works. From Stanislav Lem's short story, Obst drew a psychological drama in which the relationships between the characters trapped inside a spaceship are more important than the visionary and futuristic elements usually associated with science fiction. Once again, it is the cinema which provided him with the rhythm of his operatic writing: "I learned a great deal about all aspects of movement and action, dramaturgical development and timing in the libretto and in the music by watching many films, since films are, in a way, operas. A good film gives you a feeling of satisfaction; it offers a multiple impression of a complex situation. And a good opera should be able to do this too, but in real time."
Here, then, is the basic and all too often neglected difference between film and opera, which should constitute the groundwork of a composition. Whereas cinema has developed various means of editing, cutting and creating special effects, opera can do nothing but place the emphasis on the "here and now" of the event. However, the possibilities offered today by live electronics allow the extension of temporal and spatial projections of the sound beyond the stage: "In opera today, music provides a means of using all the resources developed by the cinema, all these virtual levels of meaning, and of bringing them back into the theater. This gives music a new and obviously very important role."
Eric De Visscher (1996)
(Translation: Roger Clément)
De nouveau critère pour apprécier la musique électroacoustique, in: Esthétique et musique électroacoustique, Paris 1996
Neue Musik(-festival)?, in: Programmheft Donaueschinger Musiktage 1996, S. 35-36
Writings on Michael Obst (Selection)
Häusler, Josef: Ein Berliozianer: Michael Obst, in: Spiegel der neuen Musik: Donaueschingen. Chronik - Tendenzen - Werkbesprechungen, Kassel/Stuttgart 1996, S. 388
Spangemacher, Friedrich: Über Michael Obst / On Michael Obst, in: Komponistenprospekt Michael Obst (Breitkopf & Härtel), Wiesbaden 1987, S. 5-8
Steins, Hans Hubert: Expressive Musiksprache. Der Komponist Michael Obst, in: MusikTexte 84, Juni 2000, S. 17-21