“All the compositional techniques you frequently use — form, melodies, how you write, what you write for — are challenged, somehow, because now you have more catalogue from which to choose. It’s not ‘new music’ — it’s very old — but it’s new to you.”Veronika Reutz Drobnic
Veronika Reutz Drobnic is a Croatia-born composer and performer currently based in Karlsruhe, Germany. Her compositional interests include graphic notation, exploring folk traditions, post-internet culture, and intermedial work, and she often performs her own works alongside ensembles. Veronika’s music has been performed in Germany, Croatia, Spain, Japan, Ukraine, and Canada, at events such as Impuls Festival, Novalis Festival, Festival Mixtur, and Suntory Hall Summer Festival. Veronika studied with Martin Schüttler and Jennifer Walshe at HMDK Stuttgart, and at Kunitachi College of Music in Tokyo, and she is currently pursuing her Master’s at HFM Karlsruhe. Veronika spoke to PRXLUDES about 3D notation, instrumental augmentation, her experiences in Tokyo, folk traditions, and more…
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Veronika! Thanks for joining me today. We’ve recently heard your premiere with Aslan Ensemble at Festival Mixtur in Barcelona, featuring a 3D graphic score — how did you come up with the idea of using 3D notation?
Veronika Reutz Drobnic: I’ve been doing something with graphic notation for a while, because I’ve been performing my pieces, as well. So my last [pieces] — ‘No. 2’ and ‘Ought it not to be possible to live differently?’ — they are both very graphical. I was creating graphic notation first by hand — for improvisation — and [initially], one side was exactly as the other, so the graphics were mirrored… But [then] I wanted to explore non-mirrored graphic notation. And then I was stuck. I was thinking “how can I do something more with graphic notation?” — everyone did it before, and I wanted to something [different] for Festival Mixtur.
So I was starting to look into John Cage scores — the ‘Concert for Piano’ — and I realised that this would look really cool if a camera was going around and through the score, if it was in 3D! I’ve wanted to do 3D animation for a while — when I was a kid, I wanted to be an animator — so I was like, let’s try it! It was really cool.
How did the score function with the players? Were they all reading from the same thing?
What they see are different motifs that move during the animation. There are two “worms” — I call them space worms — you know the toy worm on a string, and you can pull it along your finger? Something like that. They are moving very slowly, and then suddenly there are more than two — so players can choose what to follow. There are also some motifs with bubbles going up. So they can begin with two instruments and grow from there, or branch out… But also, everything is in space.
Hang on — the piece is set in space? -laughs- Is there any particular reason it’s set in space?
Yeah. I just like it. I’m a science fiction fan. -laughs-
I love it. How have you tended to use graphic notation, on a more general level?
Well, as an improvisation, for example. For the last two years, I’ve been experimenting with free and graphical improvisation, exploring how a different type of notation influences the resulting sound. For example, in ‘No. 2’, there are written-down parts of three instruments [while] three are improvising. This collision of free improvisation and strictly notated, tonal sounds is what interests me. How far I can go in improvisation and still make the sound fit the notated parts, is what I asked myself while composing ‘No. 2’.
What freedoms do you see graphic notation as giving you?
I wanted the musicians to be able to express themselves freely, so I don’t have control over some sounds. I felt like I had too much [control] while writing some compositions. And sometimes, when I rehearsed my scores, there were very creative musicians who were like “oh, maybe we could add this in there…”; and then I realised [that] maybe I should try experimenting with adding freedom of creativity and sound choice to selected musicians. But you cannot do this with everyone. I did this only when I knew I was playing with the ensemble, alongside someone else who was a good improviser — because otherwise, you can end up with something you don’t like at all… -laughs- And these diverse sound result possibilities are why I wanted to explore this connection of picture to sound.
Does your interest in graphic notation relate to your background and practice as a performer?
Well, [it’s] not a background. I do it as an amateur — so not a professional, definitely. I started [percussion] after composition, when I performed my own pieces and tried out stuff, and thought “oh, well I’m good at rhythm, maybe I can do something like this!” So what I do apart from composition is some percussion, but I wouldn’t do it professionally; but I also conduct my own stuff. And maybe I would do that professionally, because I like it. -laughs-
How do you see both of these practices, and the ways you’ve gone into percussion and conducting, impacting your practice?
I think the graphic notation is the biggest impact from [my] percussion practice. It was actually an accident how I got on stage. I mean, I was learning performance, but not [for] my pieces; but then one day, a percussionist that was supposed to play my piece ‘Why Smiling?’ thought that the performance was the day after, and she did not show up. So I played instead, and I was like “okay, I managed this quite well!” Not only that, but [both] my performance professor and my then-professor Jennifer Walshe told me that I have a good stage presence. So I thought maybe I should be doing something like that more often — so I started exploring both performance and conducting. I love being on stage. Sitting in the audience when somebody’s playing my piece, it’s like… I want to be up there, you know? -laughs-
Of course — it’s entirely different to be physically feeling the energy alongside the performers.
Yeah. And contribute, as well. I think that also helped me a lot with writing, because now I realise “oh, this is too fast”, or “this doesn’t work”, or “this works really well” — because I can imagine it better in my head, as if I was really playing. I think that my composition abilities got better and freer, because of it; I’m no longer thinking in just the terms of notation, I also think “this could be better improvised”, or [using] more free notation. The conducting helps, as well, because I know that I can write something rhythmically challenging, and I can do the conducting myself — so that I don’t have to be afraid [of having to] write easier.
As you mentioned you studied with Jennifer Walshe — would you consider your work to be new discipline, or adjacent to it?
Maybe, maybe. I’m not sure, actually, but I’m doing to write this down and think about it. I don’t see myself as being a part of any movement — not yet, anyway. What I’m trying to do with my pieces is just [that] every piece is different, and new, and exploring something that I haven’t done before. For now, I’m not focusing on putting myself in a box, or doing something I already did. I want to be free in what I write. Maybe that’s not good for business, but I like it. -laughs-
What would you consider to be at the forefront of your compositional research?
I think that it is, for one: finding different forms of notation, and developing sound from said notation. And right now, [I’m interested in] augmenting instruments with all kinds of electronics — but not [just] digital, I also do analog. I don’t know if you know the Bela Board? It’s a kind of processor where you can put sensors for practically anything — analog or digital sensors — for light, touch, sound… whatever you want. There are no limits. So you can put that in the composition, as well. For now, I’m widening my perspective on what composition is. But also, the performance is very much in the centre: untraditional ways of performing, not only for me, but for other players. I’m not focusing on myself that much [now] — I’ve played so many concerts that should chill out for a few months… -laughs-
Also, how different cultural aspects affect the sound of a culture’s music inspires me. I love to travel; I love to listen to folk music and incorporate [that] in my pieces. That can also be tied with performance, because many folk songs and dances are performative — so it all fits in how to widen the perspective of traditional “classical music” performance, and classical notation.
It’s interesting you bring up folk traditions — you’ve travelled quite a lot, living in Croatia, Tokyo, and now Karlsruhe. How has living in all these different places, and osmosing their music environment, impacted the way you compose?
For example, The newest piece I’m writing that is inspired by travel is ‘Yakan’ for orchestra. I finished it just now; it’s my first time writing for orchestra. What inspired me for it is not just the folk [music], but also the soundscape of different places I have lived in. This [piece] is about Tokyo, because it’s the freshest; what I use there as inspiration is an aura of how the soundscape of this city changes so fast. For example, you can be in Harajuku; you go through the main street and it’s extremely loud — everything is neon pink, screaming advertisements — you get overwhelmed really quickly. And then I walked three minutes [away]… and I was, in three minutes, in complete silence, in a huge shrine where someone was playing Japanese folk music. So this is what I’m writing about in this piece; [going from] extremely loud, to this quiet folk material.
How did living in Tokyo, and being surrounded by that culture, affect the conception of the piece?
I played a lot of Japanese instruments when I was in Tokyo — the shō, koto, shamisen, and so on. It changes the way I think about Western instruments, because it sounds so different. And the method of making sound is different too! The instruments look and feel much different to Western ones. I tried to get that [sound] in my piece from a harp; but the koto is a very different kind of harp, even though it still is a harp.
Working with Japanese instruments also changed [my] thinking about structure. I was playing in a gagaku ensemble — and what happens there is that it is very fluid. There are four groups of people: percussion, the shō — which you have to warm up before you play it, because it’s so fragile — ryūteki, and hichiriki. Everyone is playing, somehow, in their own pace; it’s absolutely chaotic if played in schools by amateurs, but in can be very calming if played properly, as well. It’s interesting how something that’s not “horizontally” stiff can be so welded together. I think that in my next pieces, I will definitely work on not having a horizontal lineup of harmonies and rhythms so much.
Did you compose much for Japanese instruments, as well?
I did write for the instruments themselves. I wrote for the ryūteki, which ended up becoming my piece ‘Grace’ for solo clarinet. This piece was inspired by a gagaku movement that’s kind of never-ending — it goes and goes, and you can repeat [as many] times you want — it’s very calm and repetitive, but then gets absolutely insane. But now, I’m planning to write something inspired by gagaku for the biennale in Zagreb. I actually bought the Japanese flute and hichiriki — I have them with me — so I can also play them.
There’s an element of discovery to that; what we consider “classical repertoire” to be.
What we learn in classical repertoire is just white men. -laughs- So to be able to listen to female composers, female Japanese composers… the way they think about new music is so interesting. In Croatia, it’s different, in Spain it’s [also] different. Everywhere you go, it’s so different: there are so many different scales and instruments. All the compositional techniques you frequently use — form, melodies, how you write, what you write for — are challenged, somehow, because now you have more catalogue from which to choose. It’s not “new music” — it’s very old — but it’s new to you.
Have you managed to channel your Croatian heritage in your work, as well?
I did not — because somehow, Croatia has never been a “home country” to me. I’ve felt more at home in Germany, actually. -laughs- The openness to new ideas is much better [in Germany]. In Croatia, the style of composition can be much more traditionalist, and in my time there, I faced a lot of chauvinism against women. I don’t know if you know this, but according to new estimates there are more people with Croatian roots outside of Croatia than inside of Croatia…
I didn’t know that!
Because many people feel like this, I think. Many of us grew thinking “I’m European, I like making money properly and enjoying my life, and being open to new stuff…” — however, this country does not go with this at all, and somehow everyone just moves out. -laughs- Unfortunately, there is not much awareness about Croatian traditions at all in Croatia. You can find yodeling [and] the dirndl everywhere here [in Germany] — it’s very much present at many festivals and events — however in Croatia, you rarely find an open folklore group. However, this is changing due to the efforts of artists to present and conserve Croatian culture. So I don’t feel like it’s my “home” home. What I feel a part of, though, is this community of Croatian expats. In Tokyo, there’s like 300 of us, which is amazing — and I’ve met people in Germany, too — but none of us want to go back, and that’s really sad.
Would writing about your heritage be something you’d be interested in doing in the future?
Why not? I’ve been working on my connection to the country, as well — I’m working [as] the social media manager of the Novalis Festival — but also, I’ve been loving the nature here. Especially because I’ve been coming back to go to the mountains of Velebit… and that’s very inspiring. That’s one part of Croatia that I really like. And I’d love to play Croatian traditional music — because it’s sometimes hard to get to that, with not many people left teaching it. That is why I would compose something both about Croatian nature and with Croatian folk influences.
“All the compositional techniques you frequently use are challenged, somehow, because now you have more catalogue from which to choose.” Veronika Reutz Drobnic, in conversation with PRXLUDESTweet
Tell me a bit about your interest in the augmentation of instruments — what kinds of projects are you working on as part of that interest?
Right now, I have two pieces I am writing. The first one is mostly digital, programmed in MaxMSP, for an instrument called sylphyo. It’s not a traditional clarinet; you can play it normally, of course, but it also has sliders and sensors of [different] movements. You can do a lot, like mapping elevation, breath control or rotation to different effects.
On the other hand, I’m writing an electroacoustic bassoon piece. I’ll most likely buy another bassoon bocal — you can put holes in it, and put some microphones or sensors, which you can connect to either a pedalboard or to a computer directly. I also thought [of] some touch sensors; as you play the bassoon, where your hands go can [trigger] sensors and stuff like that. I’m still in the beginning phase, but that’s what I’m thinking of doing; some kind of mixture of an instrument, amplification, and sensors.
Are these pieces that you plan to perform yourself?
Not the bassoon. I cannot play it. -laughs- But for the other piece, I have a clarinettist, and I’ll be doing the live electronics. I will be onstage for my next pieces though — for the biennale, for the gagaku piece, and as well as a large ensemble piece next year for Baden-Baden Stadttheater.
Tell me about your upcoming piece for Baden-Baden — is that also in a similar vein to the large-scale works we discussed before?
That is a different thing. It’s similar, though — I’m starting from the similar material for it, so it’s gonna branch out into two compositions, but it’s not the same. It’s an ensemble piece for multiple instruments. It was already played by the European Recording Orchestra, where I got a recording slot; but that’s only a really short snippet. So for the whole length, I’ll be applying to multiple competitions [for it].
The piece I’m writing for orchestra is working as a trailer for this piece — it’s very short, 2-5 minutes depending on the version — and it will be an entrance to the composition for Baden-Baden Stadttheater. For them, I’ll have the full length — of 20 minutes+ — where it will be much more in-depth exploring the soundscapes of Tokyo.
What other projects do you have coming up?
So I’m writing these two “augmented instrument” pieces for clarinet and bassoon — although the bassoon [piece] is coming in September next year. I have a clarinet and piano piece, as well, that was commissioned for a CD in Croatia. I’ll be exploring sonata form, and how it can be used in a new music environment. And there’s a project for hörspiel — an artistic collaborative podcast — with another university in Karlsruhe that I’ll be doing, although it’s very much in the beginning stages. There’s a huge amount of projects that are now starting. Right now, I’ve finished most of the things [I was doing] — so now I am throwing myself into the new projects.
Another thing I’ve been doing is reworking already existing pieces. I wrote a piece called ‘A Day in the Diary of a Fly’ — which is inspired by a piece by Béla Bartók, from his ‘Mikrokosmos’ — that I’ve redone into a 15 minute long piece for six vocalists, where the vocalists represent flies. They’re buzzing around, they get stuck in a spider web, they’re in trouble… stuff like that. It’s the first programmatic piece I wrote, and I like it a lot; it will be performed in Karlsruhe in January. That will be fun.
More of Veronika’s work can be found at: