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Interview with Peter Michael von der Nahmer
Peter Michael von der Nahmer (“Mike”) is a composer and sound researcher based in New York City. He has written over 30 works for music theater and dance, and over 100 works for concert and film; many have received national/international awards, and been performed around the world.
Mike’s barrier-breaking, eclectic background explains his passion for music both as artistic expression and as a means to connect disparate cultures. His desire to be an agent of radical connection – to literally create harmony out of apparent dissonance – is his defining motivation. It also defines his work in music therapy, where he seeks to connect art and science.
What got you into music, and if you had not gotten into music what would you be doing today?
I started music at the age of 3, learning it with my grandmother. Around the age of 10 I got interested in composition and soon later started with music for bands. I soon ventured into classical music and finished my first opera in 10th grade and orchestral pieces afterwards.
At the same time I was also interested in medicine and how the mind works and so I was equally obsessed about music as I was about medicine. If my composition career wouldn’t have taken off quite early, I would be a medical doctor. As I have several degrees in composition UCLA and New York university and additional ones in music therapy/pain treatment and psychotherapy I continue to work in-between music and medicine. Currently I am developing several compositions for specific purposes in music medicine and the use of music to direct breathing.
What do you like to do when you are not playing music and how does that influence your creativity?
I have been working in-between music and science as well for a long time. Developing sound design for BMW, composing for Kenwood and I am currently working for the German Aerospace Center, developing new acoustic feedback for the future of air traffic control. I am interested in pretty every subject on this planet, and I am enjoying my current position particularly where I can come up with new ideas for using sound design and sonification in scientific project. So when I am not creating music I am engaging with other people about problems in the world and how to solve them.
How long has music been your career?
My professional career is about 20 years now.
Where are you based out of and how did that influence your music?
Since 2003 I have lived and worked in-between the US and Germany. Living several years in Los Angeles and from 2013-2020 in New York, working mainly as a composer for music theater, opera and the stage.
I am currently back in Germany while being artist in residence at the Orchard Project in New York, the SETI Institute in California and the Sound of Data residency in Luxembourg.
The place where you live always inspires in many ways what and how you do things related to your work. Art is depending on financial support and there are different opportunities in the US and in Germany.
Tell me about the best and worst shows you have played.
I am not working as a musicians and so there are no shows that I have played.
Tell me about your favorite venue to play at, and do you have any places you want to play that you have not already?
As a composer there are many venues where I would like to see my operas. The MET would be among those places. I really like working with big musical forces and nowadays there is less and less budget for new operas to be performed with a larger orchestra, but my music is always coming from the idea of big musical and with that emotional forces. For me the orchestra is another character that interacts with the characters on stage.
If you could play any show with any lineup, who would be on the ticket?
That doesn’t really relate to my work.
What is some advice that you would give to someone who is just getting into music?
Work hard and make good connections.
If you could go back in time and give yourself advice, what would it be?
I once had the opportunity to work for Hans Zimmer when I was a very young composer. I declined back then because I didn’t want to go back to making coffee and tea. Now I would say, well just get over that and do it, there might be a very rewarding future coming out of that.
Of your songs which one means the most to you and why?
While I do have songs my music really isn’t really only songs. I have composed music for films, dance, concert, opera, musical and other venues. I do have thought music theater and other pieces that I feel very proud of like my opera “20 Minuten” which was awarded the Berlin Opera Prize, or my music theater piece “Klangwandler” about a young high school kid struggling with fear and depression but with the ability to hear the inner soul of every being and thing around him or my opera “El Canguro” about the horrific child adoptions system in Guatemala. I am proud of those works because they all try to tell an important message and they each are very different in their approach to music theater.
What is the creative process for you, and what inspires you to write your music?
The creative process depends on the form of commission. If I am hired to compose a film score it usually starts by talking to the director and figuring out what the movie is about and where the music should come and what the music should express in each scene. In music theater I often have a long process with the writers in figuring out what the opera house wants, what we as writers want and how to connect those directions into one piece. I am particularly interested in pieces where I feel I don’t have all the answers, for example about a topic or in the way it connects different disciplines. I like to start in the unknown and learn new things with each project. If things would repeat I would get bored easily.
What kinds of messages do you like to get across in your music?
Engage with the music in whatever way you want. You can love it, you can hate but if its just there and doesn’t do anything with you I didn’t do a good job. I want my music to fill your mind with thoughts and your body with new visceral experiences.
Do you ever have disagreements when collaborating and how do you get past them?
Oh yes. When things mean something to you that quite often leads to some form of disagreements. The disagreement isn’t the problem because if you trust your collaborator and their experience, those different directions might also infuse your piece with new ideas and concepts. It’s only a problem if you and your collaborator don’t really want to engage with each other’s thoughts and ideas. Then you get stuck.
What are your plans for the future, and do you have anything that you want to spotlight that is coming up?
I will continue to work in-between music and science, developing new concepts for the future in using sound/music in many different forms. Ways we can’t even image yet. My biggest dream is the development of an acoustic representation of the mind that might help us in years to come to understand how the mind works.