Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
Playing the piano and organ, early on I started to improvise my own things, and when I was 11 I started to write down the music to elaborate my ideas a little better. I was and am still very moved by paintings and literature, but for me music was the most appropriate way for me to express my feelings.
For many years I kept my music secret as one writes a personal diary, but I never stopped composing since my childhood, and having worked for 2 decades as an orchestra Artistic Director with so many wonderful players, conductors and soloists, I realized how much our scores can be only a reduction of our music. It is only when what is written moves and inspires a performer that music really comes to life.
Today I am most thankful to my closest friends and first performers, as well as to my publisher Durand, who have encouraged me to give my music this chance to really come to life.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer ?
Above all, meeting Pierre Boulez, whose courses and concerts I was lucky to be able to follow when I was a teenager (and whom I also invited to conduct the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in his own music, Schönberg, Berg, Webern, Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky: what an inspiring mind and generous artist, inviting you to always learn and think more, so as to develop your own voice.
I was also most lucky to work in masterclasses with Magnus Lindberg, George Benjamin, Philippe Manoury and Tristan Murail, who are now in their early 60s and all started their careers working at IRCAM [the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music], with the Ensemble Intercontemporain at Boulez’s invitation, but whose musicks are just so different from each other. Also, the musician friends of the same generation – Marc-André Dalbavie, Kaija Saariaho, Pascal Dusapin, Michael Jarrell, Unsuk Chin, Ivan Fedele, Philippe Schoeller or Augusta Read-Thomas – who are all so dear to me. I find it fascinating that the history of music has reached such a point today, where so many different personalities can hatch at the same time.
Two other wonderful people whom I was lucky to work with as a presenter have also had a strong impact on my understanding of the music-making: Peter Eötvös and Esa-Pekka Salonen – two very differen conductor-composers, but whose art, ethic and passion are equally fascinating and most touching to me.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
One could think it a frustration to wait so long before hearing my music performed, but no, I think I really needed time before admitting that what sounded too intimate to me can also be heard by others, and of course also to feel I have achieved a certain point in what I was trying to build, even if the quest will likely remain unfinished.
The challenge was of course to make the first concerts happen, but it has been made incredibly easy for me by the very wonderful performers and presenters who have already premiered 17 of my scores in last 5 years, with the fantastic support of my publisher Durand and recording label Alpha Classics.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
Of course one could worry about the level of expectation of the commissioner and wonder if the given timetable is sufficient to complete your score on time, but so far I have been lucky to preserve a margin of safety in my planning, as most of the works which have been performed in recent years had been composed several years before.
The pleasure of knowing that your piece will soon be performed and heard is very stimulating, and the commission gives you the opportunity to focus more on your composition work, which I can particularly appreciate today.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
What is fantastic is when the performer has so clearly assimilated the score that he can bring the very essence of the music to life through his own emotions.
For many years I composed with a rather abstract idea of how my music could sound, as I was not thinking to hear it otherwise than in my head. Today I am lucky to know who will play my music, and I feel immersed in the sound and manner of the performers when I sit at my desk. Composing a flute concerto for Emmanuel Pahud or a new work for Christian Tetzlaff has certainly influenced my inner ear and idea of what I wanted and could write.
Of which works are you most proud?
Not proud, but the recent flute concerto “Memento vivere” and String quartet “Harmonieuses Dissonances” mean a lot to me. And among the older scores, I have chosen to publish only the ones which still make enough sense to me.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
The ethic is to build something clear, but never too obvious, so that your mind can travel as in dreams, while following a real but not trivial or motoric development. I hope to stimulate the listener’s curiosity to hear more, but that they can also unconsciously feel that my language has its own inner logic, and be confident that, letting go and hearing, the journey will lead them somewhere.
To achieve this, I have developed my own system of 18 harmonic modes and scales, and generated a set of different kinds of arpeggios applying to each of them, which I like to deal with tools inherited from the old counterpoint and serial music techniques, choosing for each piece a specific material, or by browsing my entire system.
So one could say that my style is a synthesis between modal and serial music, and it even does not exclude some tonal chords or spectral harmonies when they can make sense – that is to say, inherited from the whole history of music after the so rich twentieth century.
How do you work?
Daily, from the morning to early afternoon, at my desk on paper with my pencil and eraser. I also elaborate some basic material with the IRCAM OpenMusic software, and my piano is not far away, but the real composing process must be done in silence on paper. I am a slow composer, probably because I used not to have enough time to compose everything in a row, and I like that sedimentation process which only time can bring to my work.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
There are so many amazing composers in music history: may be J. S. Bach sounds just at the core of everything, but can you really forget about Monteverdi, Schütz, Purcell and Vivaldi before him? Or Handel at least for his Messiah? And choose between Haydn and Mozart in the classical time? Or between Beethoven and Schubert latest string quartets and piano sonatas? Or Chopin, Schumann and Brahms piano music…? I can’t, and what is amazing is that the number of really convincing composers is on exponential growth since the 19th century. At the start of the 20th century, we would already like to name at least a dozen of key composers of the same generation, starting with Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Schönberg, Sibelius, Berg, Webern, Varèse, Bartok, Prokofiev… and today, you would like to name dozens if not hundreds of composers, as the world has become larger and more open minded, and so many artists have found their true voices on all continents.
This is the real miracle of the constant development of classical music, becoming richer in its diversity, and why it is really worth exploring, even if you do not have any idea about “contemporary music”, because music does not need any prior knowledge to move you. And there will be nothing wrong if some musicks do not move you: it is just like meeting with new people, only some will become friends or important people to discuss regularly with, but you will be so happy to have met them!
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
This very strange feeling to hear your own soul speak when listening to a performance of your music, and to perceive that the audience is also moved around you!
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Wether you are a composer or a performer, never stop questioning what is the meaning of your art, what you wish to express and how best to make it audible, and never stop opening your ears to new sounds and interpretations, because whether you like them or not, it will broaden your horizons and sharpen your own choices.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Where on earth does not really matter, but who with is what really matters – hopefully with my dear wife and family.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Having something to give and be open to receive.
What is your present state of mind?
Thankful, hoping we can all overcome the virus threat with renewed faith and passion for life and love, and waiting for further concerts when possible; hopefully soon for my String quartet with Les Dissonances, Fenêtres simultanées sur la ville for 18 musicians with conductor Pierre Bleuse and the Lemanic Modern Ensemble in Geneva and with the Tokyo Sinfonietta in Japan, and Memento Emmanuaile for Emmanuel Pahud, all scheduled for the coming months – or whenever we can sound again in concert.
I am so glad for the release on Alpha Classics of my second Chamber Music CD featuring the marvellous Christian Tetzlaff, Alexander Vorontsov, Delphine Haidan, Pierre Génisson, soloists of Ensemble intercontemporain and Quartet Les Dissonances; hoping you will enjoy listening to these works.
And very moved to be composing at the moment a new orchestral co-commission for my beloved Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and the Gürzenich Orchester, to be premiered in June 2021 with conductor Mikko Franck in Paris, and in the autumn 2021 with François-Xavier Roth in Köln!
Composer Eric Montalbetti was born in 1968, and lives and works in Paris. His music is published by Durand.
New Chamber music CD “Harmonieuses Dissonances” featuring Christian Tetzlaff, Alexander Vorontsov, Delphine Haidan, Pierre Génisson, soloists of the Ensemble intercontemporain and Quartet Les Dissonances, is released digitally on 17 April 2020 by Alpha Classics (and on CD as soon as factories and shops can re-open). More information
(Artist picture: © Georg Witteler)