Claes Biehl

rarescale's Artistic Director, Carla Rees, talks to associate composer Claes Biehl
What is it that appeals to you about writing for the alto/ bass flute?
One thing that has always fascinated me about flutes is their ability to act as an extension of the performer. To me, the breath component of the flute sound serves as a symbol of the link between two archaic concepts: life and music. It is for this reason that, whenever I write for flutes, I tend to carefully differentiate the pitch and air ratio for each sound, thereby highlighting this particular characteristic of the instrumental sound. The use of air-pitch-ratio gradations is particularly effective on the lower flutes thus allowing for a variety of different timbres which can be combined with other techniques as well. This and the fact that there are still new things to discover and explore (in particular on the bass flute) make writing for the lower flutes very appealing to me.

What attracts you to rarescale as an ensemble?
I have been working with rarescale for almost eight years now (the past six years as their associate composer) and their ongoing dedication to promoting new music never ceases to amaze me. The fact that rarescale is an ensemble with flexible instrumentation (including electronics) allows for an unusually large amount of artistic freedom. This, their open-mindedness towards different aesthetics and styles, and their eagerness to explore new paths really make them a very attractive ensemble to write for.

Tell us a little about your experience of working with rarescale?
Writing a piece for rarescale means entering a close collaborative process. I have always been impressed with rarescale´s resourcefulness when it comes to making complicated things work; whether it´s about notational issues, finding a new multiphonic fingering or inventing new playing techniques: they almost always find a practical solution that helps me realize my ideas. In the (rare) event when something really doesn´t work at all, they´ll tell me so, but always in a nice way... There is no doubt that my collaboration with rarescale has made me a better composer.

Who are your main influences?
There are many: New Complexity, the French Spectral School, New Conceptualism...

Who inspires you?
Nature, art, my family, friends and colleagues – in theory, anything I encounter can inspire me. Sometimes inspiration can strike suddenly but on other occasions I have to painstakingly search for it. During the composition process, rational decisions based on extensive research and decisions based on intuition always go hand in hand, but it doesn´t necessarily have to be the intuitive element that starts off a composition.

What are your plans for the future?
I have a few projects coming up, mainly in the realm of multimedia art where I collaborate with authors, video artists, and actors. A couple of pieces I have recently written will have their premiere in Germany and the US in the near future. I hope to continue working in the field of multimedia art as I´m very interested in conceptual art and intermediate synthesis.

How do you see the role of new music in modern society?
One of the central constitutive premises of (contemporary) art music is the composer´s critical reflection of his/her relation to “the world”; another one is the continuous challenging of the boundaries of the term music itself. If the composer, after subjecting the current state of music and ”the world” to high levels of scrutiny, succeeds to communicate his/her findings through the artwork itself, then there is a chance for the work to be relevant beyond its short-lived entertainment value (naturally, it should feature some sonic qualities as well!). Since this way of thinking tends to yield provocative artworks which require audiences both capable and willing to actively and critically engage with them (which, unfortunately, many people were never taught how to do), a large amount of new music inevitably leads a niche existence in modern society. Finding suitable ways to attract larger audiences without abandoning the abovementioned artistic standards is one of the key challenges for all involved with contemporary music these days. In my opinion, the experiences obtained from actively engaging with potentially mind-broadening artworks are extremely rewarding and should therefore be shared with as many people as possible.

If you could sum your music up in three words, what would they be?
Structural – intense – fragile.

Is classical music dead?
I realize that there is a growing concern/pessimism about the future of classical music, some of which I share. I don´t believe it is dead (just yet). I do think though that the definition of classical music is currently changing/being obscured, so it is conceivable that one day classical music (as we now know it) might only exist in form of an archive that can be accessed like any other historical data, however, without possessing actual noteworthy relevance to modern life.

If you could choose three pieces of music that have had a big impact on your life or musical development, what would they be and why?
- Wagner, Tristan und Isolde; it still amazes me how Wagner accomplished to sustain such an incredibly high degree of musical intensity over the course of this large-scale work. Listening to Tristan is an exhausting yet massively rewarding experience.
- Debussy, Jeux; to me, Debussy´s ability to integrate all those exquisite sounds and textures in such an understated (“humble”) and seemingly effortless way epitomizes good taste. Jeux always reminds me of how elegant and refined music can be.
- Grisey, Les Espaces Acoustiques; these works opened up new musical horizons and thus had a profound impact on me as a composer.

Claes's website