The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2017

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OCT 2017 Issue
Music In Conversation

MARC SABAT with Ondrej Vesely

Marc Sabat (born 1965) is a Canadian composer of Ukrainian descent living in Berlin since 1999. He is a pioneer in the field of contemporary just intonation music. Together with Wolfgang von Schweinitz he has also developed the Extended Helmholtz-Ellis JI Pitch Notation system. I first got to know Sabat through his music, specifically his composition Lying in the grass, river and clouds (2012), played at the Ostrava Days 2017 Festival of New and Experimental music. I found the music touching, resonating deeply in my innermusical world, and also original. Inspired, I approached Marc in person and I have now met a thoughtful,kind, humble, respectful artist.

Ondrej Vesely (Rail): What does it mean for you to create music? What keeps you doing that?

Marc Sabat: Well, for me the statement of John Cage is still quite relevant. He talked about music in terms of three parts: the practice of composition (organizing sounds, essentially); the process of performing, of realizing sounds; and the process of listening, and the most important of the three is listening.

I like to be free to listen; it is important for me to have a kind of open, concentrated listening. Therefore, I make music because I really enjoy listening to the sounds. Like everyone, I get interested in certain kinds of sounds; for example, for me, it might be subtle differences or relationships or interactions of tone I find I can hear. When I didn’t come across another kind of music that was exploring these sounds, I started to make it myself so I could hear what happens.

Rail: Do you consider contemporary music as an elitist culture or more an art production for everybody? What is the current situation according to you?

Sabat: I think music is accessible to anyone who is hearing, and also, in a way, goes even beyond sound; it is more basically experiencing time. Time is the thing that all music has in common, and we hear it usually through sound and vibrations. But then again, those vibrations form patterns when we get a rhythm or a tone; time-based parameters are folded into layers of sounds aggregating, for example what Jim [composer James Tenney] called a “clang.” Divisions of time, forming and dissolving.

In a sense, I believe that music is a kind of art form, and sometimes this is seen as separate from music that is purely made for pleasure, dancing, etc. But these are really interwoven. For example, fantastic folk music is underpinning a lot of so-called artistic music and a lot of so-called artistic music might simply be an exercise of privilege or appropriation, which does not speak then as music. 

But I would say that anyone who is open to listening might hopefully also be able to appreciate my music. I am more curious what somebody who is just an interested listener says about their direct experience than the analysis of somebody who knows all the technical details. But I do not necessarily think that my music will reach every person. Everyone is very different and it is true that some things are only for very small, special audiences, like some very particular type of food or a very special plant that does not grow everywhere.

Rail: What are the most important aspects of your own music?

Sabat: If something already exists and it is beautiful to hear it, sometimes it is beautiful to make variations. Then you have many variations, like when somebody has an omelet, but somebody has a way to make it with mushrooms, another one with a red pepper, and another one is a vegan version. Variation is interesting. It is a sort of diversity in an evolution. 

Then, another aspect: there are things which people have always imagined, written about, or theorized, but no one really heard as music. The music that I make works with just intonation, an approach to tones that many have written about since ancient Greek times. But only very few composers tried to write it down, to see what this sounds like, or maybe just wrote very small things, exercises or demonstrations. In the Renaissance, Benedetti and Doni; in the Baroque period, Tartini. More recently, there was a woman born in the 19th century, Elsie Hamilton, inspired by Kathleen Schlesinger. After her came Harry Partch, La Monte Young, Ben Johnston, James Tenney, Wolfgang von Schweinitz, and of course many others; in each decade of the 20th century some more composers are searching and sharing ways to musically explore the just intonation approach. This is how music grows. I recently started a list of just intonation composers on Facebook to try and find out more about the collective research going on today, all the young people.

Rail: Since when and why do you use just intonation? 

Sabat: I realized the sound of just tuning—experienced it on my violin, before I started to write and compose it. I started playing the violin—when I was five and by the time I was seven I was composing, writing little tunes, and taking lessons. 

On the violin, anyone eventually plays two strings together ,and when they play two notes at the same time they start to find out how they fit together, which is the old meaning of the word “armonia.” Because instinctively, they feel if it is “right” or “wrong,” consonant or dissonant. It is like two singers, and the logic of this kind of combination is completely different from the logic on the piano where the notes are given and you just press the key combinations.

Musicians who are encountering different tones by ear realize what is called just intonation, even if they do not know the name. Notes have different connections to each other in different combinations and tonalities, and this affects the intonation. You could explain it like harmonies, but you could also just say that it has to do with degrees of consonance and dissonance, which is what the combinations of sounds evoke. Not only the two sounds that you hear, but their interaction, the friction between them. That is one of the aspects of beauty in music, because it is revealing our inner perception working.

When I was living in Newfoundland, back in 1990, I decided I needed to get back into composing after some years of studying violin intensively. At the time I was also reading John Cage’s texts and Morton Feldman interviews, and digging into all the different kinds of contemporary music going on. For the most part, I did not like the sound of much so-called “new music.” It often seemed to me too much like sound effects music and frankly I still think it is a big problem today. The sound effect is not the substance of music, unless for example it transforms and becomes melodic or contrapuntal in a profound way, like Christian Wolff said once. The substance of music is sound itself and following the sound, not contrasts and novelties. That was important to me but I did not also want to do something like a copy of old music, some kind of “postmodern” or “neoromantic” [style]. I did not want to feel helpless and say: okay, so I will make something like film music, something which appeals to me like an old style. That approach is, in a way, not true because it is not an authentic expression of music, it is some sort of clever imitation. Of course, in each style there were some good composers, but still it is a difficult problem, right? 

By complete chance, browsing in the library I found the book by Harry Partch, Genesis of a Music (1946). He described the theory of just intonation very precisely. I mean with numbers and the proportions of frequencies, and even how it could then lead to many different ways of invention: tone systems, instruments, notations, music. His ideas resonated with what I had experienced, and soon in my early pieces (between 1993 and 1997) I was exploring microtonal harmonies combined with slow time and noise sounds. Then, as I realized I did not yet have a way to keep writing this material, I started exploring some other aspects, finding out about rhythm and a kind of surreal flow writing with normal notes. It took me about five years, researching the harmonic series intervals, but when I moved to Berlin and collaborated with Wolfgang von Schweinitz we found, together, a way to write these intervals down. Suddenly, it was possible to approach the sounds I heard on the violin, and flow from one to another without being locked into one tonality, and to write these progressions in a way [that] made sense to me. Those pieces were sounding new to me with sounds I really liked. 

Rail: How would you describe the reasons for using just intonation and its consequences on sounds to a ten-year-old musician just starting out?

Sabat: So, what does it mean for a young person? Well, it means that firstly, you are working with your ear and not just with a technique. So, it is quite intuitive. On the other hand, it means that the systems you learn, let’s say the chords or the harmony, cannot just come from the piano. It must come from all the sounds you can hear and perceive, from the voice and violin, etc. There is no right and wrong, only hearing. And then if you realize how the piano is just part of that and not the whole picture, then you have the possibility to open up the sound in that way. That is what I try to do.

Rail: When you compose music, do you follow the ideas sounding inside you and develop them then through compositional craft?

Sabat: No, not ideas. I do not think idea is such a good word according to how I perceive sounds. Sometimes it might be a structure, a shape, but mostly just a sound. Particularly sound that I would like to hear again and again. Then usually it is finding unfoldings of sounds, usually several layers, one interacting with the other, perhaps logically, but also free, like wandering into the forest paths—which you call a counterpoint in a classical way. When there is a sound and the other one changes in relation to it, that changes everything. Thus, you start to be sensitive to that. It is a combination of hearing things together and hearing things in sequence. What I am asking performers to do is to hear everything as a relationship to something else.

Rail: It is very unusual to put music scores online for free. Why do you do that?

Sabat: When somebody asks you to make a piece of music, it is also nice if they can find a way to pay you. So, you can live. And at least in the societies where I have been lucky to live and work—Canada and Germany—there is generous state support. Therefore, I feel supported by all the people who are paying the taxes. I am working for them. If you are asking for money again afterward, to me, it feels like not respecting that gift. 

Rail: How do you enjoy your free time?

Sabat: I like to ride my bike into the hills. 


Editor’s Note: Marc Sabat’s scores, sound files, videos, and writings, including the Extended Helmholtz-Ellis JI Pitch Notation, are available at


Ondrej Vesely

Ondrej Veselý is is a classical guitarist, arranger, writer, and occasional composer. He is devoted mainly to contemporary music and collaborates with a broad selection of living composers. He is the author of the book Music in music, dealing with the topic of polystylism in Eastern European music.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2017

All Issues