Challenges and possibilities of lockdown for a contemporary composer – interview with Judit Varga

In the last three and a half years, I sometimes remembered my first Hungarian interview ever, with Hungarian composer Judit Varga who is based in Vienna. No surprise that the first few minutes of our Zoom discussion are about what has changed since then. That three years could be thirteen as well, Judit says, whose life is different now: she is now professor at the MDW University in Vienna, and she has received many exciting requests by Austrian and German institutions. 2019/2020 was her first semester as professor of multimedia and applied composing, but it was partly sabotaged by covid-19. How did composers’ life change in this extraordinary situation? What kind of possibilities and challenges are waiting for them? This is what I asked Judit Varga about.

How did the lockdown affect your work?

These were pretty interesting months. In early March, I almost finished a piece, only the last few notes were missing, when the virus came and changed our life. Just like our life narrowed down to our homes, the whole world arrived in my room. I felt to be surrounded by others all the time, and composing requires lonely, focussed work. So back then, in early March, I put down my pen and said: no matter how I saw the world a few weeks ago or so, I can’t continue that, as the world changed. I haven’t written any music during the quarantine.

What did I do then? My acquaintance Anna Novonty created a Hungarian Facebook site called ‘Livestreams during coronavirus’, so after the first shock, I helped her maintaining it. Here anyone could post cultural streams or videos without any genre restrictions, we only cared about the quality and the alignment with the rules: no politics, no profit. When it was the most active, it had around 120000 members with 60-70 new content per day. This needed a lot of energy, fortunately, and I not only gained musical experiences to my life, but also a lovely little community. And there was another project where I landed by accident, related to Kornél Fekete-Kovács and the Modern Art Orchestra. It is called Art of Virus and a kind of pyramid where we spread music the same way the virus is spreading. He started a theme of nine notes, gave to ten composers, and they had to write a short piece inspired by that. Then they wrote nine notes, gave to two other people, and so on. It is an exponential function, so the virus spreads very fast – now, in week ten, there should be 10230 pieces according to this principle. Of course, many composers got the musical virus but didn’t pass it on – as the real virus is also not spread by everyone. It was a great fun and the music I wrote there helped me out of the three-month-long artistic crisis.

Oddly enough, this period was ruled by my Hungarian connections. My professorship in Vienna that I got last autumn is like winning the lottery in my field. I was very honoured by the possibility, but I also knew that I therefore won’t be able to do too many things in Hungary. This is why I quit teaching at the Liszt Ferenc University of Music in Budapest. And there are all those Austrian and German works! Great things, like the film music for an episode of the popular series Tatort, seen and heard by millions. But I knew I have to reject many Hungary-related works. And how surprising: as the quarantine started and every meeting moved to the online space, it didn’t matter anymore where we actually are. So my Hungarian connections got stronger, as the above mentioned two projects prove.

How could you teach under such circumstances?

I taught online, but it was very hard. I’m a big fan of digital solutions, but still, even with online learning, we would need a real-life meeting at least once a month, and now this couldn’t happen. It was extremely difficult to motivate students like that, and it also didn’t help that deadlines and concert appointments disappeared as well. We didn’t have a semester ending concert which we will have later, but that won’t be the same. And you know, concerts can’t be organised from one week to another. Hard work of months or years had to be thrown out, and it was horrible for everyone in this sector, both mentally and financially.

I had an enormous luck with my professorship and my profession as composer – they both helped me out of bankruptcy. The worst thing that happened until now was a postponing of a film release with my music, as cinemas closed as well. We composers usually work in advance, so I don’t feel anything from the recession at the moment, not like a musician or an actor who had to leave the stage for months. A freelance artist could have lost all their income, and I’ve heard about small businesses that shut down, but even huge institutions are suffering hard. Even reopening is complicated: there are questions of whether they can work in the autumn, how many people can sit in the audience, whom they have to dismiss… We composers, I guess, will be affected by this next year when there will be less work due to income loss and postponed premieres. And we don’t even see the long-term damages yet.

Well, we don’t see where the world is going. What possibilities do you expect for composers?

I think we can say that there are two types of composers. One doesn’t let any outside influence in, and works only with their idea or artistic inspiration, not letting anyone to interfere with topics or deadlines. I also don’t like if someone tries to restrict my art, but otherwise I’m the other type, as I love specific, thematic requests. They surely will be played and, well, they are more sustainable financially. And as usual, I was looking for calls for applications and competitions, and I also encourage my students to dare to send in pieces. It is not easy to start a career as a composer, and I am where I am with constantly applying and competing back then, and many times winning as well.

Our profession is small and has its nodes, which is also visible in the calls and competitions. I guess it’s like with every expertise: after a few years in a field, one can look at a call and automatically say whether it’s for them or isn’t even worth applying. You know, those little nuances that are not explicitly written, but we still know. But now, Müpa launched a call which is so unique that nothing like this have might have ever happened in Hungary, and where genre diversity is a huge strength. One can apply with so many things, from orchestra piece to musical, so any kind of composer can be part of it.

What I also like is that there is no age limit. For most competitions, composers above 35 are not eligible, which is great because young people aren’t neglected, but otherwise, many people start to compose or have their first successes in their forties. I had several students at the University of Music in Budapest who finished their studies in their late thirties. They also deserve a chance to start their careers but mostly they can’t compete, so the Müpa call is also great for them. Or there are colleagues who are experienced already, but didn’t get enough chances lately to write music, so they have less works. So Hungary will surely win a lot with this great call for music.

What do you think, how will contemporary music change with the current situation? Will digitalisation and the forced democratisation of arts bring it to people who haven’t known it yet?

That’s a very exciting question. The Facebook group on live streams was also a good experience in this regards, as I noticed from the start that there is no contemporary music among streams and videos. Sometimes I started such watch parties, even when I could have been the only one to listen to the music. I posted contemporary music at least once a week, like from the Ensemble Modern in Frankfurt, and observed how people react.

More and more people arrived, just random audience, not experts. They wrote opinions how interesting and strange this music is. As it was live, I could answer questions and write some intriguing details. Some people might have quit, but others thanked in the end for the chance of getting to know something new. I also noticed that more traditional, popular genres couldn’t keep the interest for too long. The first ones had a huge audience, but after the second or third week, they were followed by half or even less people. But contemporary music never gave what they expected, so it never got boring.

I think that music has started to democratise long ago anyway, the virus might only speed it up or put it in the spotlight. The problem with the current situation is that spontaneous free music making, singing, creating art can’t last for a long time, as artists and performers also have to make their living, especially in all the economic damage caused by the virus. But I’m positive that the future is digital, and there must be some compromise to put art online and still sustain the artists. As we see, consumption patterns change as well: we don’t buy storage media anymore but subscribe to online libraries where one can find endless works for a fix monthly price – however, I have to make it clear that music on streaming providers bring more money to the provider itself, not so much for the artists.

There will be difficulties, sure, but I’m still waiting for where this all leads. Contemporary art always reflects on current times, and those are now shaped by the internet. It surely will affect contemporary music, as it might be made for online presence, but also the artistic process can be influenced by the consequences, impressions, personality-shaping effects of the internet. So no matter where we are going now, there will be contemporary music, and it will strive for quitting comfort zones and getting new musical impressions.

Here you can find the website of Judit Varga.