Sarah Nemtsov: modulations that tell something and lead through different rooms

Sarah Nemtsov (née Reuter) was born in Oldenburg, Germany in 1980. Her mother was the painter Elisabeth Naomi Reuter. In 1987, Nemtsov got her first music lessons, around the same time she began writing her first compositions. Between 1989 and 1993 she participated in numerous concerts and recordings of the REIL TRIO as a recorder player. At the age of 14 she started playing the oboe.

Since 1998 she studied composition at the Hanover Hochschule for Music and Theatre with Nigel Osborne as a “young student”. In 2000 she began with her regular studies at the same institution with Johannes Schoellhorn (composition) and Klaus Becker (oboe). Since 2003 she studied oboe with Burkhard Glaetzner (Berlin). After her graduation in both disciplines in 2005, she began with her post-graduate studies in composition with Walter Zimmermann at the Berlin University of the Arts (Meisterschueler exam with distinction).

Her catalogue with over 100 compositions shows a wide variety of genres – from instrumental solo to orchestra, opera, electronic music and film. In her unique musical language she combines different influences, from Renaissance and Baroque music to jazz and rock. The intensity of her music is also created through the reference to other arts and extra-musical content. This includes political and social issues.

For Sarah Nemtsov, literature (Edmond Jabès, Jacques Derrida, Paul Celan, Walter Benjamin, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, W.G. Sebald, Mirko Bonné or Ron Winkler ) plays an important role as a source of inspiration; it serves her in terms of content as well as formally, in her compositional technique as a conceptual stimulation for her own constant innovation. Often in the combination and contrast of audio and visual moments, at the borders of music theater, she explores new forms of musical presence. Her most recent works are exploring simultaneous and chaotic forms, in search of an “urban sound in music”, a sensual complexity, also involving electronics (and her fascination for analog effects processors – as with her chamber music cycle “ZIMMER” or “white wide eye”“). Several works are engaging with and addressing political topics and social aspects (some more subtle, some more directly – as for instance her opera “Sacrifice”, or video works / collaborations “RED” and “Mountain & Maiden”).

In 2015 Sarah Nemtsov founded a gallery and concert venue in Berlin together with her husband Jascha Nemtsov – “Raum für Kunst und Diskurs”. Also she initiated (as artistic director and composer) the project “Mekomot” 2015-2016 – a concert tour with contemporary music and old Jewish liturgical chants through abandoned synagogues in Germany and Poland.

What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer?
When I was a child I played the recorder and quite early I participated in concerts by my teacher who had a baroque trio. She was an extraordinary person and musician. What she taught me was, and is, important to me beyond the recorder – for my composition – until today.

Also what was really important – the harpsichord player, who was very old, a bit awkward with a humpback, but he played beautifully. Before the concerts there was often a bit of stress and occasionally some fights, but when he was starting to tune his instrument everything calmed down. I loved this moment and I loved the tuning (and detuning!) still today.
Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work?  Has this changed over time?

Yes, my teachers were important: Johannes Schöllhorn, Walter Zimmermann, Nigel Osborne.  They taught me to question myself, to analyze, but also to trust (which is probably the hardest). Chaya Czernowin, whom I admire and with whom I took only a few lessons as part of a course – but these were essential, they changed me. There were, and are, many influential and important composers (here could follow a long list) – but not only composers of contemporary music. There are other creative musicians of other musical genres influencing me and other artists of completely different genres (visual arts, literature, photography, theatre, film, etc). I try to be as open as possible. And it’s also important to find out what you don’t like. This can be influential as well.
How do you approach the question of “form” especially for longer works?
First I try to envision it – I usually make many sketches including words, descriptions and some kind of graphic “scribbling” – imagery for what I want – where it goes to, what I want to confront the piece (and myself) with. In my twenties and beginning of thirties I used to write very fragmented. I was interested in all those splinters that is our reality made of, a sometimes loose, strange, absurd collection of moments. But in fact, maybe I was avoiding longer forms. But later and now this is actually “calling” me, I am very interested in it, but it’s difficult. You need to stretch boundaries, challenge yourself. I am often telling myself: try more, be courageous, trust the material, be patient (impatience is really one of my greatest weaknesses! I am terribly impatient, perseverant, but impatient). Harmony is important for me to create a form for longer works – I am looking for harmonic progressions, modulations that tell something and lead through different rooms, so to speak.
Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a any software for composing, if so, do you find that it inhibits your process?  What other technology, if any, do you use?
A bit I described above. I like early mornings and I like to work hard in general. I need quiet, especially when I am starting with a new piece. I am writing with my hand and try to imagine everything as good as I can. I love to be in exchange with musicians to try out things together, but then, when I write I need to be alone. Even if I write electronic music – soundfiles for sample keyboard for instance, I first only imagine it and write the notes like in coding. Only when the piece is finished I use computer programs to create the actual soundfiles. I don’t use much software, I have my ears (also for frequency analysis, I think it’s good to have active ears …). For a long time I had a love for analogue effect devices, synths, etc., but I am more and more interested in electronic music and also possibilities of programming, so this might change soon…
Please describe a recent work and provide a link to an audio clip.
Seven Colours from 2018 is an important work for me – it was the first piece I composed after my mother died. My mother – Elisabeth Naomi Reuter – was a painter.

I composed five movements – all are connected (attacca: so it’s one piece) – as a musical approach to colours that were important to my mother and had a special meaning. However, since I am not synesthetic it is a subjective and associative approach.

I umber, burnt sienna
II raw sienna, ochre
III sepia
IV carbon black
V caput mortuum

My mother liked cloudy, raw, “broken” colours and had developed certain techniques in her drawings by placing hatchings against each other, very fine and let colours with other colours “break” (as she called it), layers upon layers to add depth. Often at the end she went over the whole sheet of paper with a hard pencil and imperceptibly put a veil over it, often also on watercolors. In her oil paintings she worked with subtle glazes. In the last years of her life and creativity, she worked intensely, creating more than 100 paintings and drawings, focusing on the human being (whereas in her early work one would hardly find people, but many insects and bugs).

After 2014, she used oilsticks and chalks in her oil paintings to create outlines and contrasts and her paintings appeared (intentionally) more “incomplete”, open. She died of cancer in November 2017. She was and is a great inspiration for me as an artist, woman, mother, person.

Seven Colours is a very personal work (at the same time very strictly conceived and structured!). While I was composing, I had to dismantle my mother’s apartment and studio at the same time. Colours in hands. Pictures, even unfinished. I found a piece of paper on which she had noted: Three things overcome death: courage, memory, love.

 Another one is “running.out of tune” from 2013 for two harpsichords – one well-tempered, the other meantone tempered – I think it is clear why this is important as well.

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