Swiss composer Silvan Loher on his love of nature and ambitions for the future

IAM: Your latest album Night, Sleep, Death and the Stars features poems by Walt Whitman and Mascha Kaléko set to music. Why did you pick these two poets and how did their words inspire you?
Silvan Loher: These two have been my very favourite poets for a long time. Even though they are very different, I feel very close in spirit to both of them: Whitman with his all-embracing love for nature, his pantheism, his deep respect for the value of life and freedom; Kaléko, infinitely sensitive, vulnerable and honest, embracing the struggles and tragedy of everyday life. I feel like both of them touch a different part of my soul and in all the years of dealing with their poetry they have become something like spiritual friends of mine.

IAM: Is your approach different when composing music without text?
SL: Very different. When I write vocal music, the starting point is always the text and the music always embodies my interpretation of it. I always say that it’s more or less like when an actor recites a poem – my settings are my interpretation of these texts. I like that with music you can add subtle layers to the text, a subtext if you will. I always try to find the right “voice” for each poet I adapt.

I am pleased with how the album shows the two distinct approaches to these poets. Many of the Kaléko songs are partly inspired by cabaret songs, which is somewhat an obvious reference for these texts. Her language is eminently musical, so the verses called for a very melodic approach, in accordance with the sometimes seemingly lightheartedness of the texts. Of course, tragedy never lurks far around the corner in her poetry. Whitman called for a broader approach and these songs are more colourful lyrical piano pieces with an obbligato singing voice.

IAM: How did you come to find your own unique compositional voice and who motivated you along the way?
SL: My development was somewhat contrary to that of most of my colleagues. During my studies, I observed that many young composers are very sceptical of the so-called avant-garde and the developments in classical music in the second half of the 20th century – until they start their formal education, that is. Then, suddenly, they all begin to love this music – it’s almost like an academic brainwashing machine. Academia had the opposite effect on me: the more I dealt with contemporary music, and the more I got to know and understand it, the more I was convinced that this approach was completely wrong for me. As a result, it wasn’t easy to find my way, and I felt quite lonely.

As a young person, it is rather frightening when people of authority tell you day after day that what you strive for is of no interest whatsoever. But in the end, I think being on the outside was a lucky struggle for me, because it made me really listen to my inner voice and find out exactly what kind of music I hear internally, without letting someone else’s ideology ruin my individuality.

My biggest inspirations besides nature and poetry are the composers whom I love most: Brahms, Grieg, Geirr Tveitt, Debussy, Ravel, Janáček and Puccini.

Read the full interview in the June issue of International Arts Manager – out now!