Dieter Ammann : A synthesis of spontaneity and meticulous diligence


Dieter Ammann was born in Aarau (Aagau, Switzerland) in 1962 into a musical family. After graduating from high school he started his studies at the Academy for Music Education and Church Music in Lucerne. In addition, he spent several semesters at the Swiss Jazz School in Berne.

Following that, he began to perform in the field of improvised music and jazz. He played as sideman as well as with bands of his own, for example, at international festivals of Cologne, Willisau, Antwerp and Lugano. Through recordings and studio sessions he came in touch with artists like Eddie Harris and Udo Lindenberg.

Subsequently he studied theory and composition with Roland Moser and Detlev Müller-Siemens at the Musik Akademie Basel, followed by master classes with Wolfgang Rihm and Witold Lutoslawski.

His works for orchestra as well as his chamber music received various national and international prizes such as the Aargauer Kuratorium; the main prize at the international composers’ competition of the IBLA Foundation New York; a Franz Liszt scholarship of the Weimar Kulturstadt Europas Foundation; the first prize Young Composers in Europe (Leipzig); and the sponsorship award for composition of the Ernst von Siemens Musikstiftung (Munich). In 2010 he was composer in residence at the Lucerne Festival.

The artists who have interpreted his works for orchestra include Pierre Boulez, Jonathan Nott, Peter Rundel, Peter Hirsch and Jürg Henneberger. Dieter Ammann is professor of theory and composition at the Music Academy Lucerne and also holds a lectureship at the University of Arts in Berne.

[Mr. Ammann was suffering from a painful health issue at the time I contacted him and was unable to spend much time with the interview. However, he did answer two of the questions directly and provided previous interviews (in English) with responses related to the other questions.]


What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer?

My initial moment to become a composer was the request of the Ensemble Für Neue Musik Zürich to write a piece for them. Since then, the commissions never stopped and that‘s why I‘m still a composer.

For me, music is exactly the medium which doesn’t need to convey any content apart from itself. I therefore don’t take such stimuli as my starting point. What I attempt is to translate my acoustic concept into a form which is also meaningful, or at least stimulating, for others. These are always pure acoustic perceptions, inherent musical events.

Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work? Has this changed over time?

I would say, if there is a composer who had an influence on me, it is Ligeti because of his freedom in thinking and his handling of rhythm and pulses.  I also liked to listen to the Stravinsky of the first period and to Bartok (viz. the third and fourth string quartets).

How do you approach the question of “form” especially for longer works?

I must begin by saying that it is important to me to develop a personal style, naturally not in order to repeat oneself, but rather in order to find a way in one’s chosen direction. In “The Freedom of Speech“ (1995/96), this freedom was already on the agenda, although the title is also concerned with the death of my father. My first two pieces were still characterized by serial thinking, “Developments” (1993) and “piece for cello” (1994/1998). In the cello piece the pitches are still treated very strictly, however, I was already working intuitively both rhythmically and in instrumental color. And in its use of pitch, “Regard sur les traditions“ (1995) can also be easily explained. After that, it became more and more intuitive. Here for the first time, I have chosen a route which is sometimes laborious, of composing the introduction and developing what follows out of it.

Pierre Boulez described my music as a synthesis of seemingly improvised spontaneity and meticulous diligence of the compositional elaborateness and coined the term  “artistic reflected spontaneity”. This might be an explanation for the direct effect that my music is able to generate. But in my thinking as a composer I maintain the integrity of the traditional “Werkbegriff”, which excludes improvisational concepts.

Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you find that it inhibits your process? What other technology, if any, do you use?

[Using computers] one begins with the big structure and decides to add and take away here and there. My work is the opposite: it doesn’t go from the outside in, but starts with a basic idea, an idea of a sound, which is then fanned out and developed. For me that’s the honest path even if it takes a lot longer to create the work.

Please describe a recent work.

glut (written between winter 2014- spring 2016):

“A world whose inner glow, shaped into sound, drives towards the external.”

This is how Dieter Ammann describes his new orchestral work, composed as part of the Œuvres Suisses for the Tonhalle Orchestra and the Bern Symphony Orchestra. The title glut can be understood in both German and English and determines the program of the work. Translated, it means blaze, glow, fervor.

Dieter Ammann’s music is generally characterized by its open, energetic, surprising and communicative quality, and consistently through a high density, a refined, sophisticated texture.

“Even by my standards”, says Ammann, the new work is “characterized by an exceptionally high concentration of events. This concentration relates not only to what is heard simultaneously – that is the vertical – but also to the multitude and complexity of the processed concepts of sound, and therefore to the great diversity of textures which successively unfold in the course of the piece.”

The greatest possible diversity of musical material is used in order to illuminate the “machine of the orchestra” from various angles, and to realize the composer’s acoustic vision. What results is a constantly changing topography of sounding phenomena, held together dramaturgically firstly by references forwards and backwards to events, and secondly through ‘steady’ harmonic fields, some of which acquire the function of caesura because of their extended duration. Through this, they make the formal sequence more comprehensible, similar to the way that cadences assume this function in major-minor tonal music.

glut, this time in the sense of fervor, also becomes a metaphor for the process of composing: the title stands, according to Ammann “for the passion of researching in one place for months at a time, of burying yourself in the infinite mass of possible sounds, and so of stumbling into areas which were unknown to you before. There, only a slow, intuitive moving forward is possible in order to give shape to the imagined. At the same time, however, a music of this kind developing in every dimension, that is from the single note via complete passages to the overall form, must be examined and tested in its substance, which in turn requires a rational approach. Working on this piece, to maintain the contradiction, also therefore means to be on a journey in a world as a searcher, at the same time as you are its own creator.”

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