Interview: Thomas Larcher

Thomas Larcher

Thomas Larcher - Credit: Archant

As his Radio 3 concerts are broadcast, Austrian composer Thomas Larcher about the similarities between rock climbing and playing the piano​

Thomas Larcher

Thomas Larcher - Credit: Archant

There are times when sport and music go together in unexpected ways, but never more so than in the case of the Austrian composer Thomas Larcher. Addicted to the mountains among which he grew up, he’s a passionate rock climber, and he likens that dangerous sport to playing the piano, on which he’s an acclaimed recitalist. “It’s all about concentration,” says this athletic 55-year-old cheerfully. “And about doing the right thing at the right time.”

In London to mark a series of concerts of his music on Radio 3, he’s also keen to sing the praises of his favourite part of London – Primrose Hill.

“Whenever I come to London I stay with my friends in Ainger Road. It is the most wonderful place in London: you can walk up to Primrose Hill, from which you can look down to the City – and looking down is very important for a mountain goat, which is what I am. And I can run for ages, down to the Zoo and Regent´s Park. It’s almost unbelievable to find such an oasis in the middle of London.”

And above all an oasis of civilisation.

“Primrose Hill is a closed little paradise, pretending that the world is a good one. There is the bookshop, Bibendum, there are all the other nice places (although my favourite place, Patisserie Lanka has moved elsewhere). Being in a big city like London makes you enjoy this bubble.

“And when you walk over the railway towards Chalk Farm Station, you dive into the moloch [the Canaanite god of child-sacrifice] of London again.”

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Everything he writes is in some way subversive, though his music is never rebarbatively atonal –sometimes it has Bartokian echoes, and sometimes echoes of the anarchic John Cage, of the meditative Toru Takemitsu, of Arvo Part’s tintinnabular mode, and of Morton Feldman’s subtle interplay between sound and silence.

Larcher’s teenage love of jazz also feeds into the mix.

He loves the piano, but dismisses most piano recitals as “little more than geriatric museum tours by candlelight”.

In his chamber piece for piano and strings Antennen, he neither touches the keys nor presses the pedals: instead he rubs the piano strings with massage-balls and stones, and he insists that for the effects to work, there needs to be rust on the strings.

His music demands extreme virtuosity, and possesses a watchmaker’s precision, yet it’s very instinctive, and very emotional.

And in its reliance on biting dissonances, cinematic cross-cuts, and startling shifts in volume, timbre and tone, it has a quicksilver quality.

On February 21 he leads a workshop for students at the Royal Academy of Music in Marylebone Road.

“As a composer,” he says, “you are all alone with your ideas, thoughts, and melodies, and it’s very unhealthy to stay in your own world all the time, never opening your doors and windows. I have never had a fixed position as a teacher, but I love doing workshops: it’s a welcome opportunity to meet young people and get to know other perspectives on life.

“But sometimes I think: Why are these young girls and boys not daring more, not searching for the unreachable?

“Why is there so much pragmatism, so much well-hidden fear? At moments like that I realize that I grew up in another time, and that I am an old fogey now…”

Meanwhile also on February 21 the BBC will broadcast his new ensemble work Insomnia, which as he describes it sounds very intriguing: “The ensemble behaves like a soloist, as ONE BODY which goes through the various stations of a night.

“At the end of the piece the insomnia has not been dispelled, and neither has it been assuaged, not even with the small “sleep phase” at the end.”