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Joining the dots

Matthias Pintscher
The Herald Scotland

Matthias Pintscher joined the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra as a house conductor in 2010.

Last year the orchestra created a brand new role for him: artist-in-association. Not composer, not conductor; the point is, this artist does both. "I'm not here as an expert on contemporary music or the Baroque," he says. "I'm trying to connect the dots in between. Whether I'm conducting Brahms or Schoenberg or my own music – it's all the same. The BBC Scottish has given me the trust I need to explore. That's a very rare thing."

In person Pintscher is as precise and eloquent as the music he writes. The day of our interview he's arrived on a red-eye flight from New York and rehearsed for six hours, but he's still clean shaven and sharply dressed. "Meet at the stage door in four and a half minutes," he says after rehearsal; I get there in just under five and he's patiently waiting. Across the road he orders a glass of chilled white wine and speaks with the kind of Euro-American suave that makes me muddle my words.

This week and next Glasgow audiences have our first prolonged visit from Pintscher-the-artist; he conducts Stravinsky's Firebird (yesterday afternoon), Schoenberg's Erwartung (Monday afternoon) and, next Thursday, the premiere of his first BBC SSO commission, Ex Nihilo. It's an ideal showcase: "Every contemporary composer has some connection to Stravinsky," he says, "and to the Second Viennese School, for that matter. The dots between these concerts should be easy to connect."

Pintscher was born in 1971 in small town West Germany. He began playing the violin at nine and joined the local youth orchestra. "Being surrounded by the physical sound, learning how to blend into something bigger than myself - I was hooked," he says. He discovered the orchestra as his instrument and began to write, "cramming page after page with thousands of notes". At 18 Hans Werne Henze took him under his wing as a close friend; by 22 he had written three symphonies.

He had also, like Henze, left Germany for good. "Why?" He chooses his words carefully. "The country lacks a sense of joyfulness. By now, having lived away for so long, I've entirely stripped away my German roots." First he moved to London, then to Paris, where his music picked up a "strong French sensibility". But rather than laying down new roots he kept travelling. At heart, he says, he's a wayfarer.

Artistically the tactic seems to have worked. Pintscher's music refuses to be tied by nationality or stylistic dogma; his is a distinct voice with a distinct – and very successful – market on both sides of the Atlantic. His commissions come from the world's A-listers: Berlin, Vienna, Cleveland, ensemble modern, ensemble intercontemporain - And yet he says he doesn't write to please. "No stylistic school, no. Nor do I write for the sake of novelty. I hate the term avant-garde – too military. And anyway; avant quoi? What's the big fetish about being new? Maybe I'm inventing a crazy bassoon multi-phonic, or maybe somebody invented it yesterday in Japan. Who cares?"

In 2008 he moved to New York. "For love," he says, "and there I felt at home for the first time in my life." He lives in the Upper West Side, composes at a huge architect's desk overlooking the Hudson. "Water, sunlight and space - I spread out my manuscripts and can see the sonic paths I'm treading." He's within walking distance of the Lincoln Centre and an easy commute to teaching at New York University. At 40, he says, things are "very, very good".

He's also cunningly placed to indulge his other habit: contemporary art. "I collect it, sell it, am generally quite obsessive with it," he says. It strikes me that when Pintscher talks about music he uses almost exclusively visual terms – the link in his mind seems borderline synaesthetic. "Certainly there's a profound connection there," he agrees. "Many of my works have been strongly inspired by contemporary art."

For all his success and sophisticate cool, at times Pintscher is humble. He says he can't write a piano concerto; "I'm too aware of history – totally locked by my knowledge of what has been achieved by the great piano concertos. Plus my writing for the piano is lousy." He also admits that, though his music is famously detailed, he has spent the last five years striving for a simpler aesthetic. "Sound should capture a listener. Pop music does it all the time and we don't feel guilty to indulge and get emotional. Classical music should prompt the same response."

"It's why I love minimalism, which allows listeners to bring to it what they want. These days I'm trying to avoid writing anything too prescriptive. I want to invite people in – like leading them into a gallery then leaving them alone to absorb and respond in their own way."

"Ultimately I want to be more economical. It's a lifelong struggle, not something I've achieved yet. Often I look at new works, including my own, and wonder why there's so much on the page. The greatest moment in a huge piece can be the quietest, just two clarinets playing the same note while the rest of the orchestra is silent. It's about perspective, something that fascinates me. Yes, another thing stolen from visual arts."

Ex Nihilo has been advertised as a companion piece for Brahms's Third Symphony, but Pintscher lets us in on a secret. "I'll be honest: it's not. I have never accepted a commission that ties my music to one specific event. I'm proud to be able to say that. And I've never tailored a piece for specific musicians. My music is very precise, the notation is almost obsessively precise, but then I detach. I want to see how different performers bring it to life.

"A new piece is a statement about where I currently am. And currently I've been conducting a lot of Brahms. So if there's something that relates to Brahms 3 it's this: how the inner voices expand to fill the contours of the outer voices. Brahms is a master of inner voices."

Beyond that, Pinscher describes Ex Nihilo as a study of the "inner life of sound, how a form starts from nothing and unfolds in front of our ears. I wanted to show music in its rawest state; layers start to shape it then, once a solid form has emerged, the piece ends. That's why I chose the Latin name: something that comes from nothing."

Matthias Pintscher and the BBC SSO are at City Halls, Glasgow, on Monday afternoon and Thursday evening.