Sarah Nemtsov: music for immersive experience

sandris murins
25 composers
Published in
6 min readOct 2, 2019


I chose to interview Sarah Nemtsov for my first blogpost because I am impressed by her affective musical language that combines elements from both classical and contemporary music avantgarde. She won several prizes* and scholarships**. She was teaching composition at the Musikhochschule Cologne and at the University of Haifa, Israel.

What is a good musical composition for you?

It is very important for me to have an immersive experience while I am listening to music. A state of mind in which all my attention is fully drawn into the music I am listening to, when I am not thinking about how it is written, even though I could kind of analyse (or “scan” the music simultaneously), but my body and mind are experiencing the musical effect. And this experience does not necessarily depend on whether I like the piece or not.

As a composer I am trying to build this immersive experience into my music, thus I am considering music here as poly- or multi-dimensional concepts. This is utopian of course. As Derrida says: The only possibility of an invention is the invention of the impossible.

Technically I try to knit together the horizontal with the vertical in music and confront it with other (external) ideas. The horizontal — where for me it is important to create some wave, path or trajectory that develops within the musical composition, that has a direction, if not an aim, a process and a ‘time’, and the vertical — which is events, hitting the horizontal (sometimes brutally, even destroying it, sometimes soft, sometimes corresponding, in equal temper so to say). I try to create many different networks, textures or grids. All to gain more “depth” in sound and/or structure. Like musical material based on (often micro tonal) scales and complementary chords or distilling micro structures from the macro structure or vice versa. This one may not discover on the surface, but I think it has an effect on the piece and the listener.

copyright by Camille Blake

What is your process of composing?

It is an intrapersonal communication process. I usually start with collecting ideas in my sketchbook. These could be abstract ideas, sounds, instrumentation, drawings etc. Through collecting, musical material starts to emerge within me. I listen to that inner voice, I question and challenge it until I feel like starting (or I really have to start) composing. The actual writing process might be quite fast when I know exactly what I want to write. But then it is also interesting how the piece changes and sometimes is “trying to escape” when writing or takes another direction. Actually, the moments of drifts are maybe the most interesting (at least for me, not sure about the musicians or the audience…), when concepts “explode” and new ideas pop up and I reach a new place.

How has your music evolved in the last ten years?

Ten or fifteen years ago, I was more focused on the details of my musical material and the general form and structure of my compositions were much more fragmented. As a result, although I wrote long pieces, it was quite difficult for me to do so. In contrast nowadays, I am more drawn to creating some paths, directions, I have more patience, or perseverance for bigger formats and longer time spans.

My music and aesthetics underwent several changes so far (and I hope that more will come). I may identify some triggering events. One of them was listening to all 555 sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti (performed by Scott Ross on harpsichord). It changed my perspective on music and time(s) quite a lot. Nono’s “Fragmente — Stille, an Diotima” was another. Another significant event was when I became a mother, this new role empowered me as woman and as a composer as well. I became more radical in my life and in my music. And I met excellent musical mentors, who taught me both to be keen and challenge my musical intuition and trust my inner deepest musical voice. Actually, there are so many great inspiring people I met and I am grateful.

How does technology impact your work?

I use quite a lot of technology in my daily life (as almost everyone I guess). I like and I appreciate it. But writing music is kind of an intimate, “naked”, rather archaic and an embodied process for me. So I am writing with pencil on paper. And I have a feeling that technology can steal from me some enjoyment of momentum of musical creation. So even if a new piece involves samples for instance, when composing I only try to imagine them and I create them with my software when the piece is done. Otherwise it would be too concrete and could kill the “vision”. Thus, I am trying to use software as late as possible. There are many electronic compositions, devices, sounds or concepts I find intriguing, exciting and inspiring. As a composer I want to use technologies only if it makes sense musically or dramaturgically, if it is necessary more than a “cool thing” on its own.

What are the main features of the 21st. century music?

The first, openness and fragmentation of the new music scene. Our community is less dogmatic on particular styles, schools, and formats and it fragments into smaller sub-communities with weaker intersections. The second, transdisciplinarity mode of experimentation, we as composer experiment a lot with new formats in new collaborations with other genres of art, like visual art, dance, performance, video etc. The third, I am not sure about that, but sometimes I feel the music becomes more and more noisy, maybe it’s simply because composers are using so much extended techniques and electronics in their works, as if there’s is a constant white noise filter everywhere. The fourth, there is some tendency of self-reference — music about music etc., sometimes humoristic, sometimes ironic. To me it gets more interesting when reference systems have wider circles. The fifth I can think of now, more focus on curating — which leads to interesting combinations, new perspectives, concentration and communication. On the other hand, the musical experience sometimes gets “shaped” or “preformatted” (manipulated or even biased) by curating programs, festivals and concerts (under a specific motto eg, etc).

copyright by Neda Navaee

Will there be any new music listeners after 20 years?

I believe that the music audience won’t disappear and there will be listeners in 20 years as well. I think our community, like concert organizers and maybe even composers focus too much on how to attract “Berlin Philharmonic” audience. Where I believe that potential new music audience could be found in art galleries, art schools, creative communities, schools and electronic music clubs as well. I feel that we are witnessing bigger scale of a historic transformation, where consumption of academic music transforms from signalling social status towards creative inquiry. It just takes time.

What would you suggest to young composers?

I would suggest younger to build their base. It means both to write even if you do not have commissions and to trust and develop your own musical voice. Next suggestion to be brave and follow your biggest musical dreams. And, finally, to be patient and persistent because to build a career takes time.

Finally question from my friend Francois Sarhan — What is the role of the new music in the society?

I believe art and new music particularly not only has a role as intellectual, aesthetical or sensual stimulation or challenge, and a concert of course is more than gathering people together to collectively listen, to make new ties and to share ideas. We can communicate emotions, intellectual ideas, scientific researches and other significant messages through music. But to me the exciting and important thing is, that the arts create a free, vast and surprising space, like a fold in spacetime, a wormhole, where questions arise, where answers (if) are vague. There is a unique freedom of thought — and therefore responsibility given to the individual. Which is a base of democracy.

My selection of music of Sarah Nemtsov


Website of Sarah Nemtsov website:

Soundcloud channel of Sarah Nemtsov:

Youtube Channel of Sarah Nemtsov

*German Music Authors Prize, Busoni Composition Prize, Oldenburg Composition Prize for Contemporary Music, and international RicordiLAB composition competition

**German National Merit Foundation, Aribert Reimann Foundation, Berlin Senate, or Foundation Zurueckgeben