A talk with composer Flint Juventino Beppe
By Oddbjørn Fiskefjell
Beppe's latest album Remote Galaxy was Grammy-nominated for «Best Surround Sound Album» in 2015. In this interview, the composer answers questions not only about the album, but also about the composing process in general.
What is music?
That is indeed a philosophical question. In order to answer your question I have to use a philosophical parameter: music is for me communication that goes beyond the intellect and emotions. Paradoxically, one has to use one's arenas of intellect and emotions as a backdrop to the music when it is written down systematically – that is, so as to make it comprehensible for human beings.
The album Remote Galaxy has just been released. How do you feel about this?
It is a great honour and privilege to have worked with such extremely professional people, from the conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, to the soloists and the Philharmonia Orchestra. The post production period is always fascinating and interesting, and I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to work with the very serious and innovative record label 2L. Now that the album is out, I feel a little like letting a child out into the big world – now the album needs to stand on its own feet. I feel like I'm going from being the composer to becoming the manager of the album.
You have published a blog named «FJBlog» in which you are very outspoken about having Asperger's syndrome. Can you give us a glimpse of how your world looks? How does this condition shape your daily routines and your life in general?
I have to underline the fact that having Asperger's syndrome manifests itself uniquely from person to person. No Asperger is the same — we might have some cardinal traits in common, but having Asperger's can mean a million things. For me I think it has to do with creativity, predictability and vulnerability. Depending on how you see it, I am blessed or cursed with the task of being incessantly creative. And to me, one day is like one year, because a day is so full of raw impressions: enough to fill a whole year. I usually say that I was born without a filter that can help me sort out impressions or distinguish the minuscule details from the major events. Everything I register forces its way into my mind. I notice extreme details wherever I am: seeing a person from a great distance and following this person's movements, the way he has tied his shoe laces and how he tilts his head when he walks, and so on. Now, add all possible details from a busy city scene and you have the "perfect" Asperger snapshot. A neurotypical person can sift all these details and create a hierarchy that sorts out what it is necessary to pay attention to from what is not necessary. I can't. Perhaps it is no wonder that I get exhausted by the end of the day! Still, it is all these impressions together that make the music. Without this abundance of impressions, no music or artistic output would arise. But the impressions also contribute to a darker side of me – the things I cannot accept or understand, the things that bereave me of my peace of mind. My need for predictability often clashes with this completely open channel into my brain, and this collision creates a sort of a chaos. This hypersensitive vulnerability has forced me to shut out a lot of social activities and also unfortunately restricts me in the business-side of my life. These, then, are the two very mutually exclusive parts of me: the need for predictability and the force of unpredictable impressions. At the end of the day (or the year) this is what creates my person and my music, and I have accepted this condition as something I have to live with. There is no escape.
Earlier you have described the creative process in the following way: — It is really as simple as it is complicated: I breathe in what life has to offer and breathe out what I have to offer life. I have given up trying to grasp what actually happens in the process from impression to expression.
Would you like to explain this metaphor? I'm curious to know what happens inside of you when a new work comes to life.
Well, as stated above, the impressions I inhale (see, smell, taste, hear, feel) always find their place inside me and churn around until they either become, or don't become, a part of a new work. In any case what goes through me has to come out again, and the processed impressions often find their way out as music. That goes for both the beautiful and the terrible impressions I process. Still, I can reveal this much: there are certain impressions that have grandeur and euphoria about them, and these impressions always become music. How a new work comes to life? I just close my eyes and it starts playing. Maybe it's just the subconscious working with the impressions and flinging them back to me in the form of music.
It's kind of a mystery, and then again it isn't.
Do you deny, then, that there are any active and analytical aspects to your creative process?
For me, music has always been as clear and plain as looking at a tree. I just close my eyes and the music is there as clearly as the memory of the tree. The creation of music might happen on a subconscious level: that the music comes from impressions. Whether this is an analytical aspect or not, I cannot answer. I haven't trained formally to become a composer. I didn't wake up one morning realising I wanted to become a composer. The awareness that I "receive" music came to me very early in life and I didn't quite know what to do with it, until I felt forced to find a way to get it out of my head. I have no formal schooling, and this is not because I don't respect people with education. It's more because the Asperger's syndrome comes with social limitations, and I have never fitted into the educational system, or into a conventional world as such. There are no external, extreme factors to explain my creativity. Some people might be tempted to suppose that trauma can prompt a creative force, but I don't recognise that as something that fits me. Symphonic works just create themselves in seconds, without my wanting it to happen. This takes place without any interference or analytical processes on my part. I just know what external impressions will make the music start playing. I never stop and ponder about a composition. I just write down what I hear, and try to handle my condition in a positive way. Maybe my "creative process" is 1 % work and 99 % something else?
Does the entire composition come to you at once, or do the tonal fragments, melodies and single instruments come together slowly and sequentially?
When the music starts playing inside my head it is fully orchestrated. Always. It's either the whole of the work or it's nothing. For instance, the entire orchestral work «Four Elements from Hedmark» Op.85 was made while sitting in a sauna. Obviously, I couldn't start writing there, but I have the ability to "click the pause button" and save a work for later. I can pick it up again when it is time to write it down. The job really is to decipher the different instruments from each other when I listen to the work playing in my head. That is basically what the hard work is about: transferring what I hear onto music manuscript paper. I often have several compositions in my head at the same time and I work with all compositions simultaneously. I never asked to become a composer or to make music, and to be honest I am not very fond of the writing process, since it entails a tremendous effort transferring what I have inside my head onto paper. Writing down music is a daunting task. It is an emotional journey which sometimes drains me completely: what I write down are expressions of grandeur, beauty and euphoria, but it is also anger, confusion, loss and sorrow – and I have to "re-visit" all of those emotional territories again when I write. The content of the works is sometimes extreme, so it is a relief to work with more than one composition at the same time, it makes for some variation, and I can escape into the other work if it gets too tough.
What makes the starting point or gestation of your music; an idea, a theme or an image?
Again, everything in life gives off such an endless crowd of impressions, so the process of making music becomes an endless one. These impressions, which I talked about earlier, are the root of my music.
Are stories or themes normally reflected or expressed in your works?
Not necessarily. If a work is given a title, it is only a clue for the listener, but the music needn't be about that clue specifically. The listener may well have another perception or experience of the music. So, no, my music is not programmatic in that sense.
The first movement of «Flute Concerto No.2» Op.80 is named «Alarm»; what alarm is set off?
Ah… well, initially the whole flute concerto can be seen as a computer game. But the alarm that goes off here is the experience of panic: a human being might be looking into eternity and breathing into a vacuum, and then there is a personal alarm that goes off when you feel that time is running out – much like trying to keep water in your hands. With the title I'm only planting an idea inside the listener. I never claim to have any answers as to how to perceive the music, I only suggest titles or ask some questions. I never assume to have the answer.
One may well claim that «Alarm» is potent, intense and occasionally dark. How do you yourself relate to death?
Death is a part of life. I can't grasp what this life-death entity really is, nor do I have any need to find out. I don't need an answer to be happy. I refuse to fabricate any solutions as to what happens after death or what death is. I will probably soon enough find out. But what I am very concerned about is that people feed each other fairy tales about what happens after death as a consolation or a soothing dogma. It is really a disaster how innocent children are being fed stories about heaven and hell. This is madness systematised. My music expresses this concern. Other than that, what can I do?
Do you notice any change in your level of consciousness while composing music?
No. There is nothing special about composing for me, so I guess I'm either constantly in a changed level of consciousness, or never.
Do you ever dream music?
Well, I sometimes find it difficult to distinguish between what is the dream-world and what is part of a fully awake experience. The line can sometimes be a bit blurry. But yes, I have dreamt music. One example is «Inner Seas» Op.16, which is entirely written from the memory of what I dreamt.
What is your relationship to sleep?
Oh… extremely tense. I do not fall asleep easily. I find it hard to let go of the control that comes with being awake. Sleep is a lot about daring to let go of the known and conscious world and just drift into the unconscious. Maybe it's because I have Asperger's syndrome that I am a control freak, but I do not like letting go of the control I feel I have when I'm awake. I sometimes have very violent and lifelike nightmares, and these can put me off balance for days.
What are your greatest sources of inspiration?
Encountering what I call grandeur will activate music in my head immediately: beauty, grace, innocence and fantastic scenery are all things that are beyond my aesthetic comprehension and may end up as music. Another reflection that spurs music within me is the knowledge that death probably is only a matter of "when". Death will probably eventually get to us all. That is comforting, in a way. And this is also something that is an underlying motivator for the music; so I guess death is an inspiration. I look back at all the titles of my works and I have discovered that they clearly reflect the subconscious processing of the impressions I have taken in. For example, «Monster Inside», which is a part of my third piano concerto: I think that the "monster inside" actually is the dark forces, or impressions, I have absorbed, which force their way out as a musical expression. Don't get me wrong, I don't need to experience something tragic in order to create art – I don't care much the "suffering artist" imagery – but impressions are the soul base for my creations, and music is my main language and I guess it has always been this way. Another example of how death might prompt music is the loss of the dear collie Lady Bessie: «Lost in September» Op.17 is a result of the sorrow and pain I felt when death came close.
Do you have any favourite composers?
If I hear music, and say to myself, "That's the work of a genius!" then that composer is automatically a favourite. Composers of genius hold up a mirror and let the world see into them. If I am to give examples of composers I feel couldn't "help" being gifted, I think Beethoven, Mussorgsky and Mozart would top that list. Of modern composers, I believe that Ralph Carmichael, Mons Leidvin Takle, Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney all have genius inside them. As mentioned before, I think that timelessness does not just mean that music written 200 years ago is relevant today, but also that music written today would be relevant 200 years ago.
What is it you really like best?
I really like grandeur, personal freedom and also not being able to answer the great philosophical questions about life and death. The alternative is "having all the answers" and that is, basically, to accept religion and to acquiesce in being controlled by politics. That is the complete opposite of what I like.
What do you dislike?
As stated in my answer to your previous question, I really detest the controlling mechanisms of politics and religion – all the cruel mind games that are played to make people follow a specific credo. Mind games based on bigotry completely block personal freedom and the ability to think independently. I really loathe these moralising mechanisms.
What do you think has shaped you as a composer?
I don't think I have changed as a composer since Opus 1, and I don't see why I should have. I am still breathing with the same lungs. I think it would be wrong to say that something has really shaped me as a composer. I cannot "build" music, or become inspired by a certain musical style or mood: I just let the music channel through me. That is the way it works for me, whether I like it or not. When the music is written down on paper, I am satisfied. Then the work becomes a part of the world around me. Being a composer is not, for me, about maturing artistically or developing in any direction. Age and development mean nothing really: I am living at the age of zero and dying at the age of x. And what is between I cannot change. I call the art I make "fingerprints", because they do represent my musical or artistic version of the impressions I have inhaled. I see these fingerprints as my lifesavers because they help me articulate what I experience, and they relieve some of my inner pressure. These musical fingerprints are also based on my underlying wish for universal and personal freedom for every living creature on this earth.
— For me, music has always been as clear and plain as looking at a tree. I just close my eyes and the music is there as clearly as the memory of the tree. The creation of music might happen on a subconscious level: that the music comes from impressions. Whether this is an analytical aspect or not, I cannot answer.
Flint Juventino Beppe
Remote Galaxy – Flint Juventino Beppe
Emily Beynon, flute
Mark van de Wiel, clarinet
Ralph Rousseau, viola da gamba
Cat. No. 2L-100-PABD | 2L-100-LP