Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
In retrospect, my path seems like a series of coincidences, for which I am extremely thankful today.
I grew up in a small village where music didn’t play a big part. When I was about 7 years old, I encountered a saxophonist in a chapel at a fair, who commanded his instrument with such intoxicating enthusiasm. That was my first teacher, who was crucial in my development as a musician, because at first I didn’t want to learn to play the clarinet, I wanted to play saxophone – and specifically Jazz! However, my teacher convinced me to start out with the clarinet. So the relationship with my instrument didn’t begin with love at first sight, but instead grew and changed numerous times over the years.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
The biggest challenge for me was my first few years of university education – in my case, the study of clarinet at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. You’re thrown into a highly competitive and toxic environment, constantly exposed to new influences by authorities and don’t know yet what you want and what actually suits you. You’re confronted with existential fears that immensely impede your free play of music – creating a vicious circle. Yes, the beginning of professionalism was definitely the hardest for me.
As a composer, what are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians or ensembles?
Your own compositions are like your baby. It is the hardest and simultaneously the most beautiful thing to let them go and open them up to numerous interpretations. And sometimes you get pleasantly surprised by others’ interpretations of your own music, which are so much more beautiful than what you originally imagined.
Of which works are you most proud of?
“The Millennials Mass“ – though not because it’s compositionally my greatest work. I’m proud of it because I was able to convey contents, which are close to my heart. I literally dissected my own faith in this piece and learned a lot about myself through this process. Carl Rogers, the founder of person-centered psychotherapy once said: “What is most personal is most universal“. That is exactly what I experienced by writing and performing The Millennials Mass.
How would you characterise your compositional language/style?
I recently got a devastatingly bad review in a French magazine, that said that I don’t have a consistent compositional style. And they are right.
Every time I think I have found my compositional language in which I can express myself best, I get ambushed by a deep sadness, because it suddenly feels like I have to give up all the other musical languages. Maybe that’s my style. I think composing is like living, as soon as you think you’ve understood something, everything starts to collapse. It is the ongoing testing of the boundaries of my own comfort-zone that excites me.
As a composer, how do you work?
Everything depends on the willingness and openness to embrace new ideas. In order for me to get there, I need to free my mind, which is easiest when I’m alone in nature where there are no distractions. When I am able to switch off my head, the best ideas just start popping up. Every time this happens, I become aware of how ingenious our subconscious is in comparison to our consciousness. As soon as the first impulse appears it is like a playing field of possibilities you can combine and reconstruct until the completion of a piece.
Tell us more about The Millennials Mass… What was the inspiration behind this work and how did you conceive it?
I lost my religious faith because I had my conflicts with the Church and with it I also lost part of my basic trust in life – the kind of trust that catches you when you fall, because you can recognize a greater purpose behind it all. I don’t compose in order to pay my rent or to distinguish myself – my main motivation for composing is to confront my own conditionings through artistic expression. If you manage to combine self-reflection with productivity, I believe that is the most fulfilling state you can achieve as an artist.
As I said, I wanted to search for my lost basic trust and when the idea – to put my pursuit of faith into the form of a mass – popped into my head, I just knew: That’s it!
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?
I believe it’s important to create a comprehensive experience for the audience in which all senses are stimulated, not just the ears. For 7 years now, I have been the artistic director of a music festival whose purpose it is to mobilize new audiences through innovative concert formats. The dilemma therein is always the following: art forms like classical music require a different, more nuanced form of attention than, for instance, a Netflix series. Therefore, as a festival organizer, I have two options: I either extend the classical concert by creating a spectacle of sorts with pictures on the walls, videos, lights, dance, a DJ for the after-party and so on, or I try to reach that delicate subtle antenna of the listener and gently nudge it until it awakens. This second strategy, I believe only works, if I as a listener get the feeling that the art presented has something to do with me personally and affects me in a way that furthers my development as a human being. For the first option one mainly needs money and resources, for the second one patience and attentiveness.
As a musician, what is your definition of success in the world of classical music?
Success is a vague term. It’s more of an idea than a reality. Ultimately, there is the success for the ego and the success for the soul. If I as a clarinettist take on an artistically exciting challenge with a large salary, prestige and great musicians, I could still feel unsuccessful because I might not be able in this very moment to convey my true energy through the instrument – or vice versa. For me, real success might just be to find a good balance between those two kinds of success.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
The ability to welcome everything!
What is your most treasured possession?
The pursuit of the ability to welcome everything.
Christoph Zimper is a solo artist, chamber musician, professor for clarinet at the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna (MDW), composer of genre-transcending pieces, as well as artistic director of the Weißensee Klassik Festival. He studied clarinet as a concert discipline with Professor Johann Hindler at the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna and completed his studies with honors and the academic degree Magister artium in 2013.
He is the first-prize winner of numerous competitions in Austria and abroad, scholar of the Angelika Prokopp Private Foundation of the Wiener Philharmoniker and member of the Academy of the Münchner Philharmoniker under Lorin Maazel.
Photo credit: © Tim Cavadini