Lisa Streich: What she wants to hear

The swedish composer has shimmering, crystalline sounds in mind for the Elbphilharmonie. Thanks to a composition prize, she now has the chance to realise her ideas.

So close to the dream

When Lisa Streich first heard music played in the Elbphilharmonie Grand Hall, she knew at once that she would be able to realise some of her most delicate musical ideas here, shimmering, crystalline passages. She had been dreaming of composing for such transparent acoustics for a long time. On this March day, the chance to do so is within reach: the 35-year-old Swedish composer has made it to the final round of the Claussen-Simon Composition Prize, which is being awarded for the first time. The winner will receive a commission for a new work, which will then be given its prestigious first performance by the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra right here in the Grand Hall, as part of the new festival »Elbphilharmonie Visions« in February 2021.

Four finalists, one prize

Not long after, Lisa Streich finds herself standing in the spotlight on the conductor’s rostrum, with chief conductor Alan Gilbert next to her. His orchestra is to play the pieces submitted by the four finalists today, in order to decide the prizewinner. The competitors and the members of the jury are the only people in the auditorium. Streich explains to Gilbert and the orchestra in a gentle and friendly but decisive tone how she wants her piece »Segel« to be performed. Then the music flows through the room: sometimes sensuous and intense, sometimes tender, sometimes powerful, with quiet passages in between the sudden outbursts. It is a fresh-sounding style that we haven’t heard before, a sound one wants to hear more of. »Lisa Streich has her own voice«, says Alan Gilbert, who is also a member of the jury of course. »The musicians recognised the quality of her music at once, and thought the work was something special. But this is also a piece of music that doesn’t ›embrace‹ the listener immediately.«

»Sometimes there are complaints from ensembles or conductors.«

Leaving their learning behind them

Streich’s music has a tendency to sound lighter than it really is. And it often drives the interpreters out of their comfort zone. »Sometimes there are complaints from ensembles or conductors because they are forced to leave their academic learning behind them«, the composer says with a smile.

»But I want to stay organic. I see an ensemble as a sculpture, and when I’m writing I always have a vision of what it will look like at the end. Sometimes certain movements come into being automatically when the music is played, and in those cases I compose along choreographic lines. Sometimes the musicians are arranged in a different way from usual. And on other occasions the conductor needs to make the sound wander with the movements he makes: this goes beyond traditional conducting. I work with tonal contrasts a lot, which benefit additionally from the visual level. I think that also appeals to the audience. Contemporary music can hold out a hand to the listener, can’t it?«

Die Komponistin Lisa Streich mit weißer Jacke, schaut ins Licht
Lisa Streich © Manu Theobald

Creating space for associations

And that seems to apply in equal measure to the titles of her works: Lisa Streich often uses clear names like »Coat«, »Sugar« or, in this case, »Sail« – words that mean something to everyone. In the process, she deliberately chooses things that appear trivial, where ambiguity only emerges at a closer glance: »A coat, for example, can be many different things, not only an item of clothing, but also a kind of wrapping or layer, a source of warmth, a way of distancing oneself. With my choice of titles I try to create space for associations, but on a voluntary basis. They give the listener the chance to think further if he wants.«

Choosing beauty

»I write the kind of music that I want hear myself, music that I haven’t found anywhere else.«

After the cerebral decades dominated by the avant-garde, it’s a fairly recent phenomenon that contemporary music is interested in appealing to a wider public, or even wants to be enjoyable to listen to. Lisa Streich nods in agreement: »That’s true. When I was young, harmonies and chords were out of the question for me. I wanted to rub people up the wrong way, to be anti-establishment, anti-bourgeois, very academic in other words – and that’s exactly the attitude that is often bourgeois nowadays. At some point I realised that I can actually rub people up the wrong way much better with beauty!« So she decided not to go against the grain any longer: »It’s no fun, always thinking along negative lines. I want to write for something, not against it. In short, I write the kind of music that I want hear myself, music that I haven’t found anywhere else.« This was already her motivation when she started composing at the age of 13 or 14.

Reluctance to be in the limelight

A career as a composer was not necessarily marked out for her. She didn’t grow up in a family of musicians, and there were no composer role models in sight. Her mother was an English teacher, and once put on the record of Bernstein’s »West Side Story« at home when she was preparing it for a lesson. Young Lisa heard the record, and from this moment on she absolutely wanted to make music herself. She learnt to play the violin and the piano, and later on added the organ. But she didn’t plan to study music at first, as she felt a little inhibited about being in the limelight.

»That was an eye-opener«

By the same token, for several years she had no intention whatsoever of making a career as a composer - until she went to Berlin aged 19. »That was an eye-opener. In Berlin I realised for the first time that there is such a thing as female composers. That’s something I didn’t know before: I had never had a score written by a woman in front of me at the piano. I genuinely believed that you have to be a man to compose music. Then I went to this concert, and they played a piece by one Rebecca Saunders – by a woman! Wow! I could hardly contain myself!«

»I genuinely believed that you have to be a man to compose music.«

Award-winning

The music world has long since taken an interest in Lisa Streich’s compositions. Her competition successes and the list of prestigious commissions speak for themselves: she has won the Villa Massimo Rome Prize, the Roche Young Commission of the Lucerne Festival, the Ernst von Siemens Composition Prize, and she has just written the obligatory commissioned piece for the 2021 ARD Music Competition – an honour previously accorded to leading contemporary composers like Wolfgang Rihm, Mauricio Kagel, Fazıl Say and the above-mentioned Rebecca Saunders.

Questionable questions

»It’s definitely a win for the music world when mothers compose.«

But even in the 21st century, Lisa Streich still finds herself facing at least one questionable question, namely: How does she manage to compose and be a mother at the same time? Ms Streich has even deliberately not mentioned her children on occasion, »to avoid people thinking: ›Oh well, in that case she doesn’t have time for composing anyway‹«. But in the meantime she has adopted a more self-confident and proactive attitude on this point: »I wrote my best works when the children had just been born – under these extreme conditions, despite the lack of sleep, at a time when every minute counts where you can actually work! I think you’re incredibly sensitive in this special phase, you have completely different receptors to hear and see the world around you. You find different contents flowing into the music; this is something very special that I try to make creative use of. Up to now, only a few pieces of music have been written in this unusual state. It’s definitely a win for the music world when mothers compose.«

»Work hard, live hard!«

Lisa Streich has been around a lot, attending one respected college of music after another. First Berlin, the city where anything was possible. Then Stockholm, where she had plenty of time to reflect. Next came Salzburg, where there was »really strict and stressful aural training on the one hand, and three hours of regular improvisation on the other. That was terrific!«. In Cologne she met her favourite teacher, Johannes Schöllhorn, who imparted much more than just music: general knowledge, literature and physics were also on the programme. And in Paris Ms Streich learnt that you can work like crazy without a lot of sleep: »Work hard, live hard.« She speaks four languages fluently: Swedish, German, French and English.

Composing between the sea and bed

Today, Lisa Streich lives on the Swedish island of Gotland. She says she always wanted to live by the sea as this is the perfect setting for her search for her inner ear. Her house is only 500 metres from the water’s edge, and she goes down there when she gets stuck with something she’s writing. The view of the ocean, she says, makes problems seem small and trivial, and a solution nearly always presents itself. For her day-to-day composing, however, she prefers a different location: her bed. »It’s just so cosy there. I like to begin and and the day composing. My head is completely free in the morning, and in the evening I fall asleep with music in my mind: things continue to turn over in my head while I sleep.« In these special hours between dusk and dawn she is currently working on her commission for the Claussen-Simon Composition Prize. And at the end of February 2021, the new work will have its first performance in the Elbphilharmonie.

Dorothee Kalbhenn, 9 Dec 2020

Anmerkung: Das Konzert hätte im Rahmen des Festivals »Elbphilharmonie Visions« stattgefunden und ist Corona-bedingt abgesagt. Die nächste Ausgabe findet im Frühjahr 2023 statt. 

Magazin »Visionen« liegt auf einem Flügel
© Philipp Seliger

This is an article from the Elbphilharmonie Magazine (issue 01/2021), which is published three times per year.

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