Composer  Gerhard  Stäbler

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

Gerhard Stäbler was born on July 20, 1949, in the south German town of Wilhelmsdorf, close to Ravensburg. He studied composition with Nicolaus A. Huber in Detmold and Organ with Gerd Zacher in Essen. Since then, he has been living as an active freelance composer in the Rhine Ruhr area.

Stäbler is a renowned composer of music theatre, orchestra, chamber ensemble and solo work. Recent premieres have been with: the Borealis and Bergen International Festivals in Norway; Tanztheater Bremen for The Drift; Breslau’s ISCM World Music Days; Tokyo’s Music Documents 13; Festival Zeitgenuss and ZKM-Festival Piano Plus in Karlsruhe; Frankfurt’s HR Sinfonieorchester; Utopie Jetzt! Festival in Mülheim an der Ruhr; Theatre Ulm for Erlöst Albert E.; WDR Köln; Norske Opera Oslo for the youth opera Simon; Acht Brücken in Cologne, not to mention Dresden, the Muziekbiennale Niederrhein and Kiev.

stabler Early in 2017, the Philharmonic Orchestra Würzburg premiered his Concerto for Orchestra, Ausgewilderte Farben. In 2015, his music theatre work, The Colour, after HP Lovecraft, received its successful premiere at Mainfranken Theater Würzburg.

In recent years, he has toured extensively as a composer, teacher and performance artist with his partner, Kunsu Shim to Iceland, Japan, Korea, Norway, Portugal, the USA and South America. In October 2017 he is invited for several weeks to lead composition masterclasses at the University of Uruguay in Montevideo.

From 2000 to 2010, he and Shim directed EarPort, the Centre for Contemporary Music in Duisburg, elaborating their original concept of “PerformanceMusik”. Since 2012, both composers have been staging the project CAGE 100 for Tonhalle Düsseldorf, a series of “PerformanceKonzerte” in various museums in Düsseldorf, as well as the series Natürlich schön!, mixing traditional with contemporary music in Schloss Benrath, Düsseldorf. In October 2015, EarPort was relaunched as a centre for experimental synergies between art forms.

Since then, interdisciplinary events have included collaborations with Schlosstheater Moers (Frequenzen-Resonanzen), GROSSE Kunstausstellung NRW at Kunstpalast Düsseldorf (Donnerhall) and the Diocese of Würzburg (the four-part project IM GEGENÜBER, with premieres for choir and orchestra, chamber music and performance art). In 2017 he will give performance concerts in Trier (opening 17), Duisburg, Essen, Bergen (Norway), Würzburg, Dresden, at the Documenta Kassel, at the University of Music and Performing Arts Graz and at Prenninger Resonanzen (Austria).

Stäbler picked up on the theme of refugee politics in his dance piece ...auf dem Weg. Eine Entdeckungsreise, which went on to win the prize for best cultural children’s and youth project in 2015 from the State of Nordrhein Westfalen, as well as THE RAFT – DAS FLOSS, based on the book The Aesthetics of Resistance by Peter Weiss.

The list of publications about Stäbler’s acclaimed work was disseminated through Paul Attinello’s notable Gerhard Stäbler. live/the opposite/daring – music, graphic, concept, event (2015).

Alongside his work as composer, Stäbler curates and organises political projects designed to transcend boundaries. He conceived the Aktive Musik-Festivals with contemporary music and when the Ruhr area hosted ISCM’s World Music Days, he became its artistic director. He is continually setting up huge music projects in public and industrial spaces, such as: RuhrWorks in New York, 1989; las jornadas de arte contemporanea in Porto, Portugal, 1993; the International Architecture Exhibition (IBA), in the Ruhr area, of 1997 and 1999; WDR Fest, Landschaftspark, Duisburg, 2008; Andriivs’kyi Descent in Kiev City Centre, 2010, and 2011 with Kunsu Shim in Vilnius and the Philharmonie in Essen.

Stäbler's decisive influence on the world of contemporary music is evidenced by many awards, including the Cornelius Cardew Memorial Prize, 1982 and the Duisburger Musikpreis, 2003. He has been awarded scholarships by the Japan Foundation, the Djerassi Foundation, California, the State of Niedersachsen and ZKM Karlsruhe. He has also been commissioned by Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik, Donaueschinger Musiktage, Musica Viva at Bavarian Radio and Festival Mouvement at Saarland Radio. He has been composer-in-residence at Three Two New York, Deutsche Oper am Rhein Düsseldorf-Duisburg, the Borealis Festival, Norway and Dias de Música Electroacústica, Portugal.

Stäbler’s music often departs from the norm, concocting compositional elements that break through the usual performance parameters, and so breaking down the conventional expectations of the public, whether by gesture or movement in space, by the sensation of light or scent, or by active interaction with the public. He’s always trying to awaken the inner power of fantasy, sensitising all our senses to the possibility of new, unexpected perceptions and patterns of thought. His ongoing, ever deeper collaborations with visual artists, videographers, writers and dancers is an essential element of his creativity.

--  From his official website  


Gerhard Stäbler was born 1949 in Wilhelmsdorf, near Ravensburg in southern Germany. In 1968 he enrolled in the composition program at the Nordwestdeutsche Musikakademie in Detmold and continued his education at the Folkwang-Hochschule in Essen, where he studied with Nicolaus A. Huber (composition) and Gerd Zacher (organ). Stäbler's music often transcends the conventional framework (and therefore the audiences expectations), be it through the use of gestures or movement in space, through lighting and olfactory stimulation, or an active integration of the audience- it is very important to him to stimulate the imagination, to sensitize the ears and other perceptory organs towards unexpected perceptoral and thought processes. This is also the origin of his interest in the interaction between composition and improvisation, which feeds off of the unique tension between performers during the pre-formed yet open musical moment - as to be seen in the graphical score Red on black (1986). He was awarded the Cornelius Cardew Memorial Prize for Fürs Vaterland.

--  From another source  


Stäbler was in Chicago as a guest of Northwestern University in 1993, and I arranged to meet him for an interview.  

As we sat down for the conversation, I showed him a couple of recordings which I had gotten to use on the radio . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Are these your first recordings?

Gerhard Stäbler:   Not really.  I had some records 1984 and ’85 on a label called pläne Verlag
, that’s in the Ruhr area of Germany.  The edition was made by a composers’ co-operative.

BD:   Are you pleased with the records that have been made of your music?  [Stäbler appears as the voice or organist on several of his recordings.]

GS:   So far, yes.  There were pieces which were written after 1981, and one piece written 1972, which was performed at Northwestern a couple of weeks ago.  That was the piece for eight screamers [Drüber... for eight active shouters, cello, synthesizer, and tape; premiered in Essen in 1973; incidentally, on the recording shown below, two of the shouters are Stäbler and his former organ teacher, Gerd Zacher!].


BD:   Tell me a little bit about your music now.  Do you come from any particular school or style?

GS:   I think my work is defined in two ways.  One way is avant garde musik.  I could think of influences by John Cage or Mauricio Kagel, also other famous names like Ligeti and Stockhausen.  I attended several courses given by them.  The other way is the music of the culture of the working class, and the names there would be Hans Eisler, or Kurt Weill.  Then, there was a development in the late
60s and 70s where I did a lot of performances myself of vocal compositions.  Also, I’m an organist, and I played a lot of old and new music, especially music from the Twentieth Century.  Beginning in the 70s, I founded a choir named Eisler-Chor, because his music was not very often played in the West during the 60s and 70sonly in East Germany, of course, but not in West Germany.  So there were two routes in the background of my work.  The last work I wrote the older style was Drüber, and that was in 1972.  After that, it tended to get more political after a while, and I wrote songs for street theater groups.  During the late 70s, I stopped composing, but kept on writing songs.

BD:   Why?

GS:   Because I got involved very much in political activities.  I organized demonstrations against Neo-Nazis, and helped workers who were on strike.

BD:   So you were trying to better the lot of mankind?

GS:   Yes, and it had a lot of influence in my work at that time
and not only then, but also afterwards, when I started again.  At the end of the 70s, I founded a cultural magazine called Linkskurve together with friends.  This magazine covered all kinds of culture, from music to film and literature.  We had money for that only for about five years [1979-84].  It was really good work, because I got involved in cultural things again more closely.  But then I found out I didn’t want to write about music, because, as a composer I had to try out things with a new perspective.  I saw a lot of things which I didn’t like from other composers.

stabler BD:   So you’d rather write your own music?

GS:   Yes, I wanted to try out what I really wanted to have, after this five-year period without composing concert music.

BD:   When you started writing again, did the ideas just come, or was there a backlog of ideas that you had been waiting to get out?

GS:   Yes, that was the situation.  It was like a dam, and it had to break.  I was ill after a while because I couldn’t try out what I wanted to express.  My profession was to be a composer, and then of course it was not easy to start again.  But then I started to think of different ways of composing.  For example, one was a piece which used texts from an ancient Chinese poem of the Shih-ching, and a text by Erich Mühsam on World War One
that’s a poem in a satirical wayand then a Brecht poem which was against the War [...fürs Vaterland, for instrumental ensemble, voice, and speaking chorus; premiered in London in 1982].

BD:   A specific war, or just war?

GS:   Just war.  The text addresses itself to the mothers, that they should tell their kids there are other things than killing each other.

BD:   In more than just the text, in the actual music, are your works political?

GS:   Let me tell you at first how I composed the piece.  This might be one kind of answer to your question.  I started to make musical sketches on these texts, and I asked several friends and ordinary people around me to listen to these sketches, and get into a conversation about the music I wanted to write.  I asked, for example, somebody who works with insurance.  Then I asked someone working at a steel factory to come and listen, and I asked my garbage truck driver.  He said he didn’t understand anything about music, but finally he came.  We talked a lot about music with all these different people, and I learned much more about their understanding of music than I thought before.  These discussions had a big influence on how I put together this piece.  Finally, many of them came to the concert, and afterwards they attended other new music concerts as well.  They got involved in discussions which took place after concerts, and they also defended my kind of music against very political students.  So, this was one approach.  Then I tried to find other ways to improve my skills in doing music.  For example, there was one piece Das Sichere ist nicht sicher [Security is not Secure, spiral rondo for flute, bassoon, horn, violin, cello, double bass, two percussionists, and tape (1982)
], which is based on the thoughts of Brecht and dialectical thinking.  I found a lot of patterns and a lot of developments in music which are, in my understanding, very political.  For example, I tried to compose a lot of developments which are put together in a dialectical sense.  I can give you an example.  I wrote a string quartet, and I got very concerned about the situation in Germany, which is very sticky, and all the musicians are talking about the center.  You have to be in the center, and exclude all the extremities and all other things which are not normal or usual.

BD:   Is this East Germany, or West Germany, or the unified country?

GS:   West Germany, and now even more with the unified country.  Then I thought of a situation how I can musically point out my point of view, and my standpoint.  Then I created a status quo within the four instruments of a string quartet, and I used open strings to begin with.  From that status quo, I created a piece which could be compared to four people who are sitting back to back, and looking in four different directions, as north, south, west and east.  They are not looking together in a center and getting stuck in a very small area.

BD:   So instead of focusing inward, they’re all focussing outward?

GS:   Yes, and so does the music.  I start with the status quo, with open strings which have been retuned in a certain way.

BD:   Oh, scordatura?

GS:   Yes.  Then, at the beginning I use only three or four open strings, which are centered in the middle section of the range of pitches a human being can hear.  That’s around A, G#, G in the middle section of a piano.  Then I added more and more open strings until everything, the whole status quo is there.

BD:   In big layers?

GS:   In layers, yes.  Then, we have a situation which is known more and more, and inside this situation new things are born and are growing.  For example, I used harmonics of the middle section of two open strings to play as attacks to the open strings at the beginning.  So, you don’t know them at the beginning.  You have a structure with an attack with some pitches, and a long-held note with an open string.  This attack is composed from harmonics from the middle sections between two open strings.  At the end, the attack of the open strings is getting more and more centered in that particular pitch, which is between two open strings.  I created a new status quo, if you like, and also some other things which are growing inside these sections.  The long-held notes are more and more divided in the middle rhythmically.  Finally, when we reach the middle section of the open string, the middle is rhythmically divided into bars as this remains.

BD:   All this that you’re talking about is the structure of the music, and how it’s all put together.  Do you expect the audience to understand all of this, or do you want the audience to simply hear the end result?

GS:   Of course they hear the end result.

BD:   Do you expect more?

GS:   I know that a lot of untrained people follow these things, but not as I describe them with very particular music words and terms.  But I have played this piece on tape very often to different kinds of people, and they describe the same procedures, and the same processes very clearly with other words than I do.

BD:   So, the structure is apparent?

GS:   Yes.  There is a status quo which changes all the time, and that’s what I think is important, and that’s what the people get, as well.  There are always changes, and you have to be aware what is going on underneath, and what is growing, and becoming important.

BD:   Because of all this discussion, what do you feel is the purpose of either your music, or music in general?

GS:   Music is one of the human expressions, as literature is, novels, poems, or paintings, and music is a very important field in that cultural section because you can say very different things at the same time.

BD:   Many different things?

GS:   Many different things at the same time.  You can show how things are changing as I described, and I notice that with old music and contemporary music as well.  That’s very important for me.  You also have different things going on at the same time which, if you try to hear them, clears your mind as well.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you’re working with a piece, do you have all these structures and ideas before you begin writing, or do some of the structures and ideas evolve as the piece is being written?

stabler GS:   I have some ideas to start with, but I don’t have all things at once.  It comes with working on a piece, and it needs also time for developing.  It’s not a process of improvising something.  If I play music just at once, I will get a certain kind of music which is already defined before and prepared.  But if I compose, that’s a different situation.  You get some ideas, and I do sketches, or write sketches every time where I am, and gather thoughts about different pieces.  Then I collect all these sketches and focus them on a theme.  Some are useful, and some are not useful.  Then, after collecting all these sketches, I work on the theme, and during this process a lot of new ideas come up.  Then there’s the final time writing down the score, which, for me, is to concentrate all the collected material.

BD:   When you have the final score written down, how do you know when it’s done, when it’s finished, when to stop tinkering with it and making adjustments?

GS:   Most of the time, the piece for me is done with having written it down.  I do some corrections afterwards, but only very minor things.

BD:   So, it actually comes out full-blown and complete?

GS:   Yes, I think so.  If I do corrections, they are really marginal.  I really would rather write a new piece instead of re-writing another one.  I work mostly a long time to compose a piece, and maybe two thirds of composing a piece is preparation, and one third is writing down the piece.  I try to put as much as possible into a piece at that time when I write it down.  Then, for me it’s better to think again of other conceptions, and maybe to work on a similar theme.  But I would rather like to do a new piece if I don’t like the old one.

BD:   Do you expect a lot of interpretation on the part of performers?

GS:   That’s very different, because I have pieces based on graphical scores, as well as pieces which are completely fixed.  Being completely fixed means as much freedom as a player has with Beethoven string quartet.

BD:   More freedom than just tempo indications?

GS:   [Thinks a moment]  No, I describe everything very clearly if I want to fix a score.  But there are different steps because there’s a need for a different kind of music.  So, I have graphical scores which give everybody a lot of freedom.  I only describe how the processes could be, and you get some images from the graphs.  On one, I used a price code.

BD:   Oh, the UPC [Universal Product Code] bar-code?

GS:   The bar symbol, yes.  I copied them and enlarged them, and diminished them, and put them together for a piece called Hart auf Hart, or in English I would say Red and Black, because I used two colors.  You mainly get horizontal bar lines and vertical bar lines.  You can use them as a rhythmical structure if you look at them in a vertical way, or you get sound, kept sounds, sustained sounds by looking at them horizontally.  I also wrote quite a few pieces which are formally fixed very clearly, so you’ve got a certain time for the whole piece, and certain sections for the whole piece.  I defined what is going on inside each piece, but the performer has to create his own version on certain musical material.  For example, there is a set for pitches, and for density I drew curves like you get with computers.

BD:   Oh, like sine waves?

GS:   Yes.  All the musical parameters are defined by curves, and these curves in one piece are derived from a very interesting aria by Henry Purcell from the opera King Arthur, where the Cold Genius [sung by the Bass] is singing to Cupid about the winter.  He wants to stay in winter, and he would rather freeze than to get a life.  If you analyze the music, you can find the melodies are opening themselves throughout the aria towards the arioso of Cupid.  I took all these lines of the melodies from Purcell to get them for the definition of the musical parameters of my piece.  It is not an exact quotation, but a structural quotation.  This gives a lot of freedom for to the players, but maybe they have to re-compose the piece themselves, like Bach proposes with his Puzzle Canon.

stabler BD:   So you find that the performers are really collaborators with you?

GS:   Yes.

BD:   Now you’re here in Chicago at Northwestern University.  Are you working with both composers and performers?

GS:   Mostly with composers.

BD:   What advice do you have for the young composer coming along today?

GS:   I would advise them to open their eyes and ears at first, and at least be looking around the closest neighborhood.  But the most important thing is that a composer should look around the world and see what is going on, and feel their responsibility for their particular musical work.  This is very important, because there’s so much music going on which keeps the minds and the brains glued, and the most important thing for a composer is to open his or her mind in any way possible.  This has to be done at each point where they are living, either here in the U.S., or in Europe, or wherever.

BD:   Are you looking for composers all over the world to be part of a global community?

GS:   I think this already happens because the links between composers are quite close, especially when you see the exchange between Europe and America.  Here, I met a composer from Uganda, and I was very lucky with that.  I’m very interested how composers are dealing with their tradition, specifically in this case, the tradition in Africa and their folk music tradition, and the influence from the outer world.  I have also a lot of contacts with composers in the Far East, and Australia, and the other parts of the world.  I find that very important.  I would also advise composers to not only compose, but also think of performing, or organizing performances of their pieces so as to create alternative concerts.  That way they can have their music presented, and be independent of institutions, because the institutions are very fixed on certain programs.  You only hear a certain kind of program with a very limited part of the old music, and a very limited part of contemporary music.  Composers have to create other centers where they present their ideas and their work.

At this point, we stopped for a moment to take care of some technical issues, and I asked him his birth-date, which is July 20, 1949, so he was about to turn forty-four.

BD:   Are you at the point in your career where you want and expect to be?

GS:   [Thinks a moment]  That’s a hard question because I don’t really think of a certain kind of career.  I’ve been very lucky to be a freelance working composer.  I only teach part time, and I love to teach in certain periods of time because the exchange with students is wonderful.  But I also love to be free after a while, because I still have too much to learn.  I want to look around, and I don’t want to get settled
as I see a lot of other colleagues of mine in Germany doing.  They get a job at a university, and they teach, and then their pieces are becoming academic.

BD:   They’re in a rut?

GS:   Yes, and I hope I can stay as a freelancer as long as possible.

BD:   Good.  I wish you lots of continued success.  I’m glad that you’ve come to Northwestern.

GS:   I would like to come back again because it was a good experience.

BD:   Thank you for the conversation.  I appreciate it.

GS:   Thank you.


© 1993 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Evanston, Illinois, on March 12, 1993.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1999.  This transcription was made in 2019, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.