Ladislav Kupkovic

Dictionary entry for Contemporary Composers, St James Press London 1992

Ladislav Kupkovic worked until 1970 in Czechoslovakia as a conductor, violinist and as a composer for film and television. His commitment to new music led him to found the Hubda Dneska Ensemble (Music of Today) and his own music away from the professional demands of film and television was strongly related to the music of the European avant-garde centred around Stockhausen. Indeed Kupkovic conducted the first performance of Stockhausen’s Mixtur and is the work’s dedicatee. In 1969 he spent some time in Berlin on a DAAD fellowship and settled in Germany shortly after. Ironically his work moved in a direction completely at odds with the musical climate of his adopted country reaching a point where his music is baffling to many of his contemporaries. This is because his music became not only tonal but tonal in a startling way.

Several of his earlier works had involved experimental forms of performance similar in concept to the environmental works of John Cage (pieces such as Cage’s Music Circus, HPSCHD, or the indeterminate works of the 1950’s where pieces could be played simultaneously) These “Wandelkonzert” involved programming pieces of varying lengths for different times and spaces within an overall time-scheme. Music für das Ruhrfestspielhaus (1970) involved 40 players who took over the Ruhr Festival Playhouse for 3 hours, while Klanginvasion auf Bonn (1971) used 150 musicians who were located in different parts of the city, playing a range of music - much of it by Kupkovic - within a 12 hour period.

Some of the items within these performances were what Kupkovic calls Präparrete Textewhere he isolated parts of existing works ( by Brahms, Mozart, Beethoven, Bach) which are barely audible in the original music, for example the second violin or viola. This was an early example of an interest in deconstruction and reconstitution that was to prove important for him in making the transition from being an atonal composer, to being the most “emphatically tonal” composer active today. In 1968 he wrote a short piece for violin and accordion, Morceau de Genre, in which he subjected short extracts from a violin piece by Elgar to obsessive repetition of short phrases to make an extremely witty and occasionally (for the unsympathetic listener) irritating work. From this point onwards there was an immense shift in his music. For a time his tonal works coexisted with atonal works, but by the mid-1970’s all his work was tonal and he became extraordinarily prolific. His work became not only tonal but tonal within the confines of particular classical models and, indeed, it can frequently be difficult to know whether a work is by Kupkovic or, for example, Mozart. The earliest works in this new style often had a satirical edge but little by little this defence mechanism was dropped to reveal himself not only as a superb craftsman, but also as a composer who believed in tonal approaches from previous eras, while inhabiting the present.

In 1979 he gave a talk at the Music Symposium, Graz Musikprotokoll on the given them of “New Simplicity”. He began his talk by outlining his own evolved position. For him two things seemed to be wrong with the assumption behind the symposium: “1. Present day music is not evolving from the complex to the simple, but from the atonal to the tonal. 2. Atonal does not mean complicated, and tonal does not mean simple.” What Kupkovic does, in essence, is to get rid of the concept of “avant-garde”. As he points out, neither Bach nor Mozart were avantgardist and he wishes to remove the adjective completely. His own music is brilliantly well-written and is curiously disturbing and it is not merely anachronistic. There is a sense of peering into the past through a distorting lens that manages to reveal a clear picture, but a picture that never existed until the lens was put in place. The closest equivalent in literature would be Borges’ imaginary author Pierre Menard who single-handedly re-writes the Don Quixote of Cervantes, but not by copying, nor by pastiche or mimicry, but entirely as a new and original piece of writing.