»Once I know it doesn't work, I want to do it«

Dutch composer Thom Willems predominantly composes music for ballet. Since 1985, he has been collaborating with choreographer William Forsythe, both working on over 65 pieces together. In 1991, they premiered The Second Detail which is now staged as part of our triple bill, Balanchine | Forsythe | Siegal at Staatsoper Unter den Linden in May and June. After soundcheck, we asked the composer to give us an interview.

How did you come in contact with electronic music?

I was studying in Den Haag with Jan Boerman and Dick Raaijmakers who were at the forefront of electronic music there. Actually that was before the start of electronic music, we used tape loops and Moog synthesizers. All the stuff with computers emerged in the mid-1980s. The Second Detail, for instance, is one of the first pieces composed with a computer – on an Atari back then.

That means, you actually programmed the music for The Second Detail?

Yes, I wrote the score on a computer and then linked it to sounds.

How did your collaboration with William Forsythe begin?

He started out at the Nederlands Dans Theater back then. I was a student and saw his pieces. I tried to get in contact with him and said: »I'd like to participate in what you're doing. Let's work something out.« And we did.

Since then, you have been composing for ballets.

It just happened – and I couldn't escape anymore [laughs]. Suddenly I was part of the world of ballet, and I have remained ever since. It was never a real choice. However, I found the world of ballet exciting and modern. I found classical modern music quite outdated in comparison to ballet which was young. It was a better fit.

How did you both work together on The Second Detail?

Every piece is different. At the time of The Second Detail, I provided him with music. In the evening, I sent the latest mix to the National Ballet Canada in Toronto via Lufthansa. You could hand over the tapes to the pilot at the check-in counter, and someone from the ballet picked them up at the Lufthansa counter in Toronto.

So, the music wasn't finished beforehand?

I sent suggestions to Toronto, and then Billy was on board or not – most of the time, he was on board. And then, I continued working on them. With The Second Detail it was like that. We also worked on pieces for which he first finished the choreography, and then I delivered the music. Or we were all in a great studio where we played live while he was rehearsing. There are many ways of collaborating. Of course, we talked about what it should be, our ideas, in advance. And that's how you start.

And what was the concept behind The Second Detail?

We don't talk about pieces conceptually. We talk about ideas, and we do that while eating dinner. It's as simple as that. And after two hours, during dessert, it's done [laughs]. There were no concrete instructions. You work on a repertoire. What piece came before; what comes next. The big piece that came before was In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. And In the Middle starts with a »bang« and a rhythm. Half an hour later, there's another »bang« and the rhythm stops. With The Second Detail, the idea was to create multiple different tracks in contrast to In the Middle.

Can you tell us something about the structure of The Second Detail?

It consists of four pieces. The first piece repeatedly starts anew, like a switch. I really like the principle of a switch: on-off-on-off. I had listened to too much Dumbarton Oaks by Stravinsky, and you hear that in the second piece [laughs]: the instrumentation, the rhythm, the phrasing of the rhythm. With pop music, it is easy to count to four. However, I don't find that appealing. I rather count to five. The third piece is an experiment to shift and phrase simple pop music counting to four in such a way that its rhythm becomes intangible. It was meant to be an intelligent form of pop music. Only if you listen closely, you hear the bass on two. If you follow that, you can also count to four. It was basically about segmenting the beat itself. And the fourth music: The Second Detail is actually part of a big performance which includes The Loss of Small Detail with The Second Detail being the first and Loss the second part. In Loss, there's a melody that I like a lot. I played around with this melody to find a connection to Loss.

What were the challenges working with William Forsythe?

If you work together with someone for 30 years, you have to constantly reinvent yourself. Offering the same idea to Forsythe twice isn't an option. And that was the big challenge, but it was also a great joy. You have to stay alert.

Have your composition methods changed with technological developments in the past 30 years?

Yes, it has. However, I'm not a tech freak. But I'm good at finding out what gadgets can't do. Then I like it. Once I know it doesn't work, I want to do it. A computer is simply a device, a tool, nothing more.

It's still something different than cutting tape by hand, isn't it?

I find quicker solutions on the computer, and the result is immediately there. So, you can react quicker, and that's an advantage. There are composer who can't work that way. I find it more difficult to write a score for orchestra.

How is your relationship with Forsythe today?

I withdrew a little. After 30 years, I wanted to take  a little break. I'm more involved with gardening than with composing. I have a very big garden.

But you surely must have ideas?

Yes, always. Give me material, and I create a piece. However, I just found a fantastic house, and right now I'm busy getting it in shape. But it's the same attitude. Give me material, and I create something. But new pieces... You know, we have broken all the rules for 30 years without any intentions, but that's how it went. And when I'd start working on a composition now, I'd ask myself: »What, now? Do I have to?«

At which venue does your music sound best?

There are 70 companies dancing these pieces. I don't know which venue is better or worse. There are many venues that have their own acoustics. Those are more difficult. I prefer to build a room instead of tearing it down. That's almost impossible to do.

Interview: Michael Hoh