Music - Art and Culture

Hans Jocher: “Music has shaped my life.”

Manuela Kerer: “I like my compositions to reflect my roots.”

7 minutes

Hans Jocher

Multi-instrumentalist Hans Jocher was born on the Frötscherhof farm in Obermellaun/Meluno di Sopra in 1933. He learnt to play his first instrument – the zither – at the age of 11. This was quickly followed by the flute, guitar and many other instruments, with over 23 now in his repertoire. As a young boy, he sang in the church choir, played in the church orchestra and trained to be a band conductor. He completed his teacher training in Meran/Merano and worked as a primary school teacher in St. Andrä/S. Andrea until his retirement. He has conducted a number of orchestras and choirs, including the mixed choir at his teacher training college and a girls’ choir at the Kloster der Englischen Fräulein school. He has appeared as a musician in numerous films and stage plays, and still likes to sing folk music for locals and visitors to this day.

Manuela Kerer

Composer Manuela Kerer was born in Brixen in 1980. She studied violin and composition at the Tyrolean State Conservatory at the same time as reading law and psychology at the University of Innsbruck, subsequently gaining PhDs in both subjects. In her contemporary music compositions, Manuela places immense value on exploring and pushing the boundaries of musical expression and on using unusual instruments. Her other areas of focus include musical theatre and opera. Her most recent opera is TOTEIS, which premiered with a chamber orchestra in Vienna in September 2020 and premieres with a symphony orchestra in Bolzano/Bozen in March 2021. Manuela also composes for ensembles such as Kaleidoskop Berlin and Klangforum Wien. She has received numerous awards, including the Austrian State Grant for Composition and the Walther von der Vogelweide prize.

Mr Jocher, how many instruments can you play?

Hans Jocher: I’m honestly not sure anymore. The last time I counted, I made it 23, but I’m sure it’s more than that by now. From the violin, harp, dulcimer and zither to the bagpipes, jaw harp, flute, hurdy-gurdy and trumpet, it’s a long list!

Manuela Kerer: 23 – that’s really impressive!

What instrument did you start with?

Hans Jocher: A zither given to me by one of my uncles in 1944. It must be around 160 years old now, but I still play it today. A precursor of the zither is the Raffele. It’s a traditional instrument around these parts, and I can be seen playing it in numerous films from the seventies set in Tyrol.

Manuela Kerer: There is also a Raffele in my opera TOTEIS.

Your first zither has an interesting history, doesn’t it? Something to do with an American bomber, I believe.

Hans Jocher: Yes, that’s right. The zither was missing its tuning key and the rings you use to pluck the strings. Objects like these were very hard to come by at the time. On 29 December 1944, an American bomber was shot down above Mellaun/Meluno – one of the wings landed not far from here in the forest and the other ended up on higher ground beneath Kreuztal, while the fuselage fell into a farmer’s garden. The smaller parts were strewn about everywhere. From the debris, I was able to pick up the metal I needed to make the rings and tuning key, and I wound together strings out of various wires. My future father-in-law was actually the one to rescue the pilot from the forest, more than likely saving him from freezing to death. He set out with his dog and hunting rifle and spent half a day looking for him. But when he found him, the pilot was unarmed and was probably more afraid than his rescuer. The pilot has since passed away, but we are still in contact with his family and they come to visit us regularly.

What attracted you both to music?

Hans Jocher: Music has been a huge part of my life since I was a small child. We used to have a gramophone in our living room – one of those huge, box-shaped ones – and I liked to stand in front of it as a small boy and pretend to be a conductor.

Manuela Kerer: The first instrument I learnt to play was the hammered dulcimer, a widely played instrument in the German-speaking Alps. I began my lessons at the same time as my sister started to play the zither. I was only four years old at the time and couldn’t read a single note, but I wanted to learn an instrument as well. So the teacher painted colours on the strings and the sheets of music. I later switched to the violin, while my siblings all began to play wind instruments, which are much more typical in South Tyrol/Südtirol.

Hans Jocher: Wind instruments were a later addition for me too. My brother learnt the clarinet but didn’t want to walk to his lessons in the evening through the dark forest on his own, so I went along with him. The conductor of the village band must have noticed my enthusiasm for music and handed me a flute. From then on, I was allowed to learn as well. This was 1945 – and just a year later, I started to play in the band. At that time, people played music everywhere. I even used to take my instruments with me into the field. I sent the horses off to plough on their own, while I stood nearby with my piccolo. And while sheepherding, I used to take my clarinet, flugelhorn or even my small home-made zither with me. Later, the band leader picked me for the church choir, gave me violin lessons and sent me on a conductor course – all of this happened before my 13th or 14th birthday.

Despite all this, you never chose to pursue music as your main profession. Why was this?

Hans Jocher: No, I actually always wanted to be a teacher, especially because of my primary school teacher, who I really looked up to. Whilst completing my teacher training in Meran/Merano, I had the chance to learn the organ as well as the piano and music theory. Music was always a huge part of my life and even helped me when I was drafted into the military service...

Tell us more!

Hans Jocher: I was called up in the middle of my training and told that I’d have to move away from Meran. But the military band leader was looking for a trumpeter, and a colleague recommended me. This meant I didn’t have to go away.

Ms Kerer, you also use unusual instruments in your compositions.

Manuela Kerer: The subject I’m writing about always inspires my choice of instruments and although I write contemporary music, I like my compositions to reflect my roots. For example, I play the Raffele in a piece where you really wouldn’t expect it! But I use traditional instruments, too. I’ve played the piano for years and learnt the double bass whilst at music school. And yes, I’ve also been known to use very strange instruments like egg slicers or electric toothbrushes on occasion!

When composing music and working with musicians, how important is it to be able to play several instruments and to understand all the ways in which they can be used?

Manuela Kerer: It’s definitely a huge help. Knowing my way around a violin so well is especially important when composing particularly complex passages. If a musician tells me that they can’t do something with their instrument, I can show them how it’s done. This surprises them and builds trust.

What has influenced your style of music?

Manuela Kerer: Growing up, my house seemed so peaceful. I remember always hearing the low murmur of the radio or TV in many of my friends’ houses. But it wasn’t like that at home. This definitely shaped me as much as my parents’ household goods shop, where I practically grew up. It was here that I discovered the egg slicers I’ve already mentioned. But what I recall most clearly are the huge bundles of newspapers we used to wrap china in and the rustling they used to make. Another sound I associate with this time is the clinking noise the glass or china would make when we tapped on it to check it was intact.

Besides using unusual instruments in your compositions, you also create music with somewhat unusual themes. For example, you’ve written music inspired by articles in the Italian Penal Code and by your home town of Brixen/Bressanone. Can you describe what Brixen sounds like?

Manuela Kerer: It has a very diverse sound, which is both quiet and loud and includes a variety of people’s voices. And since it is an episcopal town, the cathedral bells are also a part of it. Unfortunately, contemporary classical music usually only reaches a very small audience, and there are often more people on the stage than in front of it. This is why I made a conscious decision to premiere the piece somewhere I knew there would be a lot of people, and so I arranged for it to be performed at the opening of Brixen’s Altstadtfest town festival. I believe that many people don’t realise what they are missing out on. Music is also a matter of habit, as something you’ve grown up with sounds very different to something you listen to for the first time. Sadly, the radio has made our tastes very one-sided.

And what does the Italian Penal Code sound like?

Manuela Kerer: It contains some very curious laws, such as the parts concerning public obscenities or bigamy. I was quite bold with my representation of bigamy, as I started off with two voices and then added more and more into the mix. In the section on public obscenities, the string players had to put earplugs between their strings during one part – new music is often about tweaking and extending an instrument’s scope so that you can keep breaking even more new ground.

How much of your music is inspired by South Tyrol and how much by London or New York, where you have also spent a lot of time?

Manuela Kerer: My music is partly influenced by my roots, which – as is also the case with Hans – lie in genuine folk music and not in the popular, folk-like genre derived from it, which nowadays is sadly all too often mistaken for the real thing. Later at school, I began to study art music by the likes of Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven and, to name a more modern composer, Alban Berg. All of these musicians have also used elements of folk music because this formed part of their roots as well. Having said that, travel, other musical cultures and foreign instruments shape you just as much. Moral influences are also important, in the sense that music is and must be political and is always a reflection of society.

In addition to studying the violin and composition, you have also studied and even gained PhDs in both psychology and law. Where do these wide-ranging interests stem from?

Manuela Kerer: I believe that fundamentally everyone has a broad range of interests, and I’m no exception. Initially, I thought to myself that I’d just complete the first section of the course and that I wouldn’t have time to get any further due to all my other commitments. This relaxed attitude definitely helped me, especially when it came to getting through the difficult law degree. I also find that psychology and law complement composing very well and have enriched my compositions.

Can you each tell us about a special moment in your musical careers?

Manuela Kerer: One of my stand-out memories also has to do with Brixen. During the town’s first Water Light Festival in 2017, I set up five grand pianos on the peninsula at the confluence of the Eisack and Rienz rivers in preparation for a series of sunrise concerts at 5:00am. We were warned that hardly anyone was expected to come at that hour, so we were absolutely astonished when the first concert attracted an audience of 800. On top of this, the special location and the chance to spend a morning in such beautiful natural surroundings made it a truly memorable event.

Hans Jocher: Music has been such a huge part of my life that it has given me many special moments. I’ve travelled to so many countries and have met musicians from all around the world. And we’ve had so many come here to us. One particular memory I cherish is meeting musicians from Japan and watching them play the zither.

What projects are you both working on at present?

Manuela Kerer: I’m primarily focusing on my opera TOTEIS, which is about the life of Viktoria Savs, who disguised herself as a man so she could serve in the First World War. She was later glorified as a heroine by the Nazis and died a lonely death in Salzburg in 1979. She was someone who tried to get close to leading members of the Nazi party and subsequently never dissociated herself from her past life.

Hans Jocher: I have a lot of music left in me. I still perform in various local hotels and one of the first questions regulars often ask when they arrive is whether Hans will be playing again.

Text: Ariane Löbert
Pictures: Michael Pezzei
Date of publication: 2020

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