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One of the virtues of Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers is that Varga – a Hungarian music publisher of many years’ experience – restricts himself to asking about composers’ work and working methods. There are no questions on the role and usefulness of the composer in society (which risk putting the respondents on the defensive), nor, say, on the composers’ approaches to teaching composition.

Instead, each question, put to a range of composers including very many major figures in late 20th-century music, deals with the question of influence. Did any work or musical experience have a decisive effect on your compositional direction? Is your music affected by the sounds of the outside world? To what extent do you have an individual style and how is this different from self-repetition?

Varga’s methodology is far from scientific. Some composers responded simply to written questions. Others provided answers face-to-face and could expand on their statements when prompted by the author. Moreover, this edition is a reworking of an earlier (1986) Hungarian publication. In preparing it Varga went back to ask composers whether their answers still stood. Some replied with additional information; others, being unwilling or dead, did not.

Consequently, the responses vary greatly in length and complexity, as do Varga’s neatly expressed introductions explaining the circumstances of each interview. But if this seems to mean short changing some composers, that is not the impression left with the reader. If anything the variety, together with the lucidity of the responses, makes for a more engaging read.

Neither is it detrimental to the project that there are, doubtless for reasons beyond Varga’s control, gaps among the names – he regrets the absence of Messiaen; other obvious absentees include Adams, Glass, Pärt, Ustvolskaya, Sallinen, Donatoni, Goehr, George Benjamin. some of these show up in a separate chapter (originally a separate project) providing drawings that attempt to depict their music graphically. The idea is pinched from Robert Craft’s book of conversations with Stravinsky, but it adds a pleasingly visual coda to one of the more thought-provoking books on modern music.

TOBY DELLER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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