Everybody Who “Destroys” a Wall With Graffiti Has to Be Supported: A Conversation with Sagardía, German Composer Interviewer: Mykhailo Chedryk; Corrector: Lesya Lantsuta Brannman

Sagardía. Foto by Stephanie Eley

Sagardía, a composer based in Berlin, is known for his multifaceted artistic experiences ranging from musical and theatrical performances to film scores, chamber experimental compositions, and popular music. In this interview, we will discuss the life of composers in Berlin,  grants and their influence on artistic exploration, relationships between drugs and music, and society’s need for contemporary composers.

— How would you introduce yourself to our readers?

I call myself Sagardía; this is my artistic name. I’m a composer and, recently, I’ve become a trained children’s educator. Both occupations take up most of my professional work time. In addition, I volunteer for different organizations like Initiative Neue Musik and Netzwerk Freies Musiktheater.

— May I ask you to share the story behind your artistic name? What are the roots of “Sagardía”?

Sagardía: Well, this is very interesting. My grandmother was from Chile, so I have Chilean and German roots. My grandmother’s name was Victoria Elena Melo Sagardia. This name originated from my grandmother’s paternal lineage, with her father being a Spanish Basque. Many years ago, when I was still studying, my grandmother told me that this name, Sagardía, was very rare and we should be proud of it. When my grandmother died some years ago, this name also died.

That is why I decided to take the name Sagardía as an artistic name. I only wanted just the name Sagardía, like Cher, Madonna, Tricky, or Moby. I did my own research on this name and found out that Sagardía means a cellar space where Basque cider is stored. My guess is that my ancestors were Basque cider producers. My own German civil name, Jens, is utterly boring to me, and I thought that perhaps a flamboyant artistic name would do the trick.

— In my conversations with different individuals about my works as a composer, I’ve been faced with questions why I choose to write “nerdy” music, which can be challenging to monetize. People often suggest exploring dance, film, or pop music, which seemingly offer greater financial rewards and opportunities. So, I’m curious: why do you compose contemporary music?

Sagardía: Well, I’m not sure if the entertainment industry offers more opportunities. Many years ago, I wrote a lot of pop music and the person I was working with was an amazing, and very talented musician. He was a composer, a professional cello player from the Mozarteum, and a lover of pop music. At some point, I shared my love for pop music with him. We wrote three pop music albums together and even negotiated with a music publisher who promised to get us into business.

But, that was a very difficult path. Additionally, artistic freedom is strongly limited in pop music in terms of what is functional and what is profitable. I don’t think the limitations imposed by pop music are something I consider as opportunities. You’re bound to strong capitalistic conditions of so-called free markets, and your obligation is to produce a product that can sell. This is something, in some ways, very dull to me.

The colleagues I know who have built up positions in pop music could tell you stories about how difficult it was to get into that business. It’s pictured in nicer colors than it is in reality. The new music or the experimental music always offers alternatives, both historically and aesthetically. There’s an intellectual sphere we share collectively that is strongly connected with independence and autonomy. Based on this environment, I changed my goal from aspiring to be a film composer to becoming a concert hall composer, with a focus on experimental music.


Still, in the world of contemporary music, it’s tough to earn a living just by composing. Competition is fierce, and there aren’t many jobs specifically for contemporary composers. Is it worth to pursue a career as a contemporary composer nowadays? Who really needs your music?

Sagardía: This is a very difficult question. How can I answer it? I think that in a technical and capitalistic world, most professions have an immidiate purpose. My idea is that art is not practical per se. I guess all professions connected with some form of autonomy art are risky to take, especially when it comes to the question of how you can build a sustainable life and a sustainable professional carreer. I think that composers have the right to deflect the question of who needs them.

I don’t care who needs me. Please. I would never ask this question of someone who works in agriculture. By the way, we have protests in Berlin now. All the people working in agriculture are protesting, blocking streets etc. Of course, I need to eat, but today, for example, I was asked to teach for someone who got sick. These are all very practical and functional moments. I found out in the last three years that music, theater, film, photography, painting, and the visual arts result from a very strong survival desire. We need art to survive, especially from the beginning of modern times.

We need art to understand under which conditions we can survive. Art is a way  of surviving for me and is as important as food. It is essential. If someone asked me who needed my music, I would answer everyone who wants to survive in a functional, technical, capitalistic, cold world that tends to process every aspect of life in an algorithm. Everybody needs us, artists.

That’s a compelling perspective. What about a specific idea of pursuing a career as a professional contemporary composer? Considering your earlier point about the necessity of artists for our survival, is there a meaningful purpose in being a contemporary composer? Unlike contemporary architects who construct buildings and shape cityscape for generations to come, what lasting impact do contemporary compositions offer? What would you say to a teenager interested in becoming a contemporary composer?

Sagardía: I would absolutely offer my support. Even if pursuing this path doesn’t lead to a professional career, I believe in fostering a creative outlet that reminds you that there’s always a creative alternative to situations that don’t necessarily demand creativity. That is, I think, very, very important to understand. Art is challenging in the way it forms our perceptions of how we connect to the world. Art is visualizing or expressing such perceptions.

I’m working with children, and they like to play. They like to build houses with Lego or whatever, but there are also moments when they want to make music. It’s about a simple desire to share a moment of expressing oneself in a unique way, something that is typically not encouraged in the everyday working life focused on meritocracy. You do that just in order to give a little fist bump to the stupid capitalistic world in which we live (ed. laughs).

Capitalism is a very strong system and I think it will always be there. People will always value capitalism’s strength as a way of building a comfortable life. However, it’s also dull, boring and always stays the same. What we do right now is something special. Even this interview is something very-very-very special as an alternative to everything else that is  happening for most of the day. We have to work properly, and we have just one way to go. No-no, in my opinion, everybody who “destroys” a wall with graffiti has to be supported (ed. laughs).


— Let’s reframe it as not destroying but rather enhancing that wall’s appearance in a unique way.

Yes, yes. An alternative way of expression (ed. laughs).

Having studied under Professor Huber, a renowned German composer, could you share the top three most valuable lessons you learned from him?

Sagardía: I’m still trying to live up to those expectations that he taught me.

First, Professor Nicolaus A. Huber advised me to read much more, read everything, and read philosophical works, which I did with my first boyfriend, a philosopher, here in Berlin. He was my philosophical mentor during almost six years of our relationship. He taught me to read all kinds of books and developed my strong passion and love for books. Reading is essential for me. Sometimes this results in being better at expressing ideas, which I want to bring to the field of experimental and new music.

The second valuable lesson was quite personal. Professor Huber advised me to maintain my musical style and strive to convey a political message through it. This resonated with me more as time passed. For example, in my music I used repetitions with a growing sense of aggression in them and he loved it.  Professor Huber also told me to keep my humor (ed. laughs). Once, I told him: “Mr. Huber, I would like to jump out of the window just to see your reaction”. He answered: “Yeah, keep that”.

Mr. Huber shared a valuable piece of advice with me during the last seminar before his retirement. He told this to all composers participating in the seminar: “Music has to do with feelings”. For a mathematical composer, like Huber, who hears music in numbers and in mathematical relations, this was a striking and surprising statement. In retrospect, I must say that this is a very strong part of Nikolaus Huber’s music. When somebody composes music, he or she has to make feelings understandable and accessible. You as a composer have to think about how to develop an idea  and a concept that gives access to complex feelings through the phenomenology of hearing.

In addition to your other endeavors, you’re also involved with an institution known as Initiative Neue Musik Berlin (INM). Could you elaborate on the role of this institution?

Sagardía: Yes, I’m a member of the board, guilty as charged (ed. laughs). But seriously, I’m proud of being on the board, and of the members trusting in me and all my other colleagues working on the board. The INM was established in 1991 and has been organizing and funding concerts of contemporary experimental music in Berlin since then. We represent the interests of our members who work in this area of music through the government of the city of Berlin.

We receive our annual budget from the Berlin Senate for Culture and run an annual funding programe where applications can be submitted. So far, the organization was able to fund entirely or partly around 35 to 45 concerts per year. We do a lot of other things, but this is something that we can talk about now.


Why is it important for a city or country to have such organizations?

Sagardía: We have to understand that composers working in this field need stable funding in order to create works that have alternative, progressive ideas of what music is all about. There are a lot of composers who trespass from the field of independent music to the institutionalized forms of big orchestras and operas. Most of them started here, built up a sustainable workflow, and then transitioned to the more institutionalized world.

However, they might have created most of their ideas in this free space, and this space must be preserved. The INM works every year to ask for government money, for tax money to ensure that this field is funded by the government. If it is not funded by the government, all the composers might decide not to think about music differently, and most of them might go to industry. We know what industry is doing.

They want to create a product, to sell a product, make a product profitable, to create a community of clients, they want to bind you to the product and make commercials out of it. In the end, you’re just a cow, and they suck out milk until the end of your life. Sometimes, I think it is that simple. (ed. laughs). It’s a big fight and a big challenge, but we are loud, and we are insisting. That is why the organization has been successful so far, and has been able to keep up the work for over 30-35 years.

It is worth mentioning that INM sees itself not solely as the grant entity for music projects we deem important but also as an advisory body. When government officials approach us, expressing support for music but unsure of how to align it with free market principles and convince taxpayers of its value, we step in to explain, provide information, and advocate for the importance of this niche “nerdy” music.

— Can you share what challenges INM faces?

Sagardía: There are many challenges. For the first time, we introduced minimum fees for composers and instrumentalists within our funding programme. We collaborate with institutions that try hard to maintain affordable rehearsal and work spaces, which have recently become very expensive.

INM participates in shared scholarship programmes which, for example, support some composers, artists, and cultural mentors from Ukraine who moved to Germany when the Russian assault against Ukraine broke out. These are critical areas and challenges that INM faces. We constantly push politicians to do more. Ensuring that artists are compensated appropriately, and their work is valued accordingly is crucial.

Can we share the secret? What is the minimum fee?

Sagardía: I think it’s now 285 euros for a working day (ed. brutto). The challenge is to make it 350 this year, and 390 next year. The final goal is to have a minimum fee between 450 and 650 euros in order for composers to have an affordable life. This is what individuals make as self-employed entrepreneurs for instance.

INM offered to discuss this with the political establishment in Berlin. At some point, some politicians approached us requesting specific figures as a basis for legislation. Subsequently, when the law was enacted, we had to align our funding programmes accordingly and strongly advocate against paying artists below the established minimum fee. This is the real hard fieldwork of INM.


I’ve read that between 2014 and 2016, nearly 800 contemporary and experimental concerts were held exclusively in Berlin annually. This indicates that there is a sizable community of artists based in the city, particularly in the field of contemporary music. Given the limited capacity to support artists, I recall discussions with colleagues from another country about their grant programmes. They shared their approach, basically technical reviews that are conducted to ensure compliance with requirements, followed by winners being selected through a lottery system. While this isn’t the only way applications are evaluated, and considering the oversaturation of the market in Berlin, do you believe that grant allocations, regardless of their structure, resemble a lottery? Are some artists being paid because they’re luckier than others?

Sagardía: That is a very difficult question. It’s always a fight of ideas and philosophical statements. I think it’s less a lottery and more a negotiation. Some may express strong preferences for certain artists but, ultimately, it’s about reaching a consensus within the jury. They might advocate for feminist artists, non-binary artists; one may recall about heteronormative artists insisting that they should not disappear, and so on. In Germany, we still have strong regulations and written rules are strongly followed by the juries.

It is important to understand that there might be a situation when Sagardía’s application has been accepted three years in a row and, even if his fourth idea is better than the years before, the jury might not want to give him funding again because he has already been funded three times in a row. I understand that because I’m not the only one who has good conceptual ideas or a vibrant autonomy. There are a lot of people with lots of good ideas. So, with limited funding resources, which are still bigger than in some other countries, the jury members have to face the challenge of giving everybody an equal opportunity. I don’t want to be a member of the jury; it must be totally horrible.

Germany allocates approximately 3.7% of its household income on culture, ranking it second in the EU after Denmark, as reported by Creatives Unite. Considering that Germany has an average larger household income compared to Denmark’s, one may argue that Germany might be ranked first in actual monetary terms. Why should the German government prioritize supporting art initiatives?

Sagardía: I do not have a strong opinion on this. Historically speaking, Germany did not have the best cultural influence in the world when it came to the 20th century. The generations before us started two world wars and lost both of them, causing huge damage to the cultural and historical identity of Germany. So it’s good to hear that Germany is spending so much money relative to other countries. I believe that one of the many strengths of this country is its ability to organize activities in a highly sustainable manner. We don’t want to start a third world war. So maybe we are good at culture (ed. laughs).

If I recall correctly, in Denmark artists who have had consistent activities for three years are eligible to receive a monthly fee automatically. This country has an idea of culture that is much more progressive than we have in Germany.

I had a scholarship in Paris many years ago and I was very surprised to notice that when you talk about your work as an artist in coffee shops or at meetings and gatherings, you are regarded as someone special. They do not regard you as: “…oh, you’re an artist; you must be poor”. For the French society, an artist is someone with the highest achievement in life. Denmark must have understood this in a similar way. They love their artists, I guess. I think Germany has the attitude: we need these artists somewhat (ed. laughs).


— Let’s talk about your own artistic career. I know that in your works you often explore themes related to addiction, particularly drug addiction. Could you please elaborate on why this topic holds significance for you?

Sagardía: It has been the main topic of my work as a composer in the past three years. Upon arriving in Berlin in 2007, within two or three years I immersed myself in the gay scene and experienced sexual liberation, as I had previously felt very frustrated as a gay man. Drugs helped me to express myself sexually in a way that was not possible previously. I would have loved to have had more support from my family. Then, maybe I would not have come into this drug problem. I was addicted to synthetic drugs for maybe eight years.

In 2019, I went to rehab because I wanted to be able to compose again. For me, taking drugs was not inspirational and I was not able to compose music. So, I had to find a way out of my addiction to be able to write music again. Through an organization that helps addicted people I went to rehab for six months, learned a lot about myself and got out of the addiction. Later, I resumed writing music. I studied with amazing composers, and had lots of great scholarships in my life. That’s why the addiction was a disastrous experience.

The experience of the therapy and rehab was so strong and intense that I could not get it out of my musical way of thinking. I decided to confront it because the first unconscious bad decision in my life was to suppress my gay side. The second unconscious thing was getting into addiction. I did not want any unconscious behaviors to happen to me again. That is why I decided to have a very conscious approach to addiction and find ideas and relationships between music and addiction. In the last three years, I found out a lot about such relationships.

— How do you approach incorporating this topic into your music? It’s relatively straightforward to envision how addiction can be portrayed through visual arts or theater, with tangible mediums and scenarios. Music presents a more abstract platform with pitches and timbre. What is your process for translating this theme into a musical context?

Sagardía: The first thing I tried to find out was how I can deal with feelings. I had to learn to be aware that most of my reactions when I was criticized, for example, were showing anger and sadness, of which I have very strong connections. I tried to write a composition that dealt with those two feelings. How do you express anger and how do you express sadness with the abstract sounds of experimental music?

First, I had to answer the question of what semantics in new music means. This wasn’t a typical approach of responding to a question with simple associations like “this is the sound of anger” or “this is the sound of sadness”. No! My answer was that the semantics of new music is very complex. When you understand this, it is possible to build up a whole other way of dealing with music.

At the end, I wrote a composition for a bass clarinet, which expresses the way how people deal with me when I’m angry and sad at the same time. They understand that there’s a mingle of strong emotions and some people who want to give me a hug in order to comfort me in my sadness are unable to approach me because, at the same time, I’m angry. On the other hand, people who try to understand why I’m angry cannot deal with it because they feel that I’m very vulnerable in my sadness. I realized that my friends and close ones were constantly overwhelmed by my feelings. I tried to find a structure that expressed and dealt with my overwhelming feelings.

Also, I did research and found out that music and drugs operate in similar brain regions. So this was really, WHAT? For an addict, taking drugs is a way to cope with life, a strategy for surviving. People who take drugs are not people who desire to be dead. IT’S EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE! They want to survive and that’s why they take drugs. They strive to survive because they find it challenging to thrive in a life where every day feels like a constant struggle for existence.

Taking drugs is a tragic strategy for surviving. If some people think that life is not worth living without music, then, to some extent, it explains why a country creates institutions like opera houses, concert halls, orchestras, music schools, museums, and cinema. They operate within the realm of concepts that lack practical significance yet remain crucial for a survival strategy. This is my research and the context of the discourse that I’m creating right now. Do you want to understand why I took drugs? Do you want to understand why I write music? Well, music and drugs operate in the same neurobiological areas.


— Could you share a few projects you’ve worked on that have left you feeling particularly proud?

Sagardía: I’m very happy that I was able to make a project in 2022 named Wie klingt Sucht? (ed. How Does Addiction Sound?) This was a concert with five compositions of mine which I wrote based on my research on the relationships between addiction and music. It was a collaboration with Ensemble Adapter and, during the concert, I was interviewed by a friend who asked me how this music came about.

The second big project was the Biology of Desire, a lecture concert that I held in the Nemtsov&Nemtsov gallery, together with Duo Interconnections. They performed four pieces of mine.  One was a piece for harp and percussion, which has become very dear to me, one of the best things I have written in recent years.

The third project, scheduled for this year, involves composing a piece for the Maulwerker ensemble featuring six voices, electroacoustics, and percussion. It is set to be performed in September. This composition will delve into my emotions surrounding the loss of several friends in recent years. I was unable to properly commemorate them due to my addiction at the time. A couple of days ago, a dear friend of mine, a talented cellist whom I’ve known for 25 years, passed away. This is going to be a big and important composition in the memory of these people and it’s the way I will honor my friends.


My sincere condolences for your losses.

Sagardía: Thank you. My friend was a well-known American cellist, composer, educator, and a big guy in the scene. 

There is one last important thing that I want to share with the readers. The Initiative Neue Musik and I personally, (being in a relationship with a Ukrainian person, my partner is from Kyiv), tried to help and support with the best of our abilities Ukrainian people who moved to Germany during this terrible Russian war against Ukraine. We stand with you. I visited Kyiv three times and am very happy to be part of your culture through my relationships. I hope for the best for you, for your country, and will try to do everything in my power in the coming years to support Ukrainians.

Read also:

Is Performer a Digger with a Shovel?: A Conversation with Danish Accordionist Andreas Borregaard

In difficult times, it’s easier to sit in front of TV and do nothing – Israeli conductor Gaddiel Dombrowner

Gondwana Records: New Minimalism, or How Jazz Continues Its Transformation Through Time and Space

About the Author

The Claquers is a Ukrainian online magazine devoted to classical music that unites a group of music critics with the mission to foster a critical conversation about art music in Ukraine and beyond. The Claquers organization was founded in June 2020 by musicologist Stas Nevmerzhytskyi and three colleagues: musicologist Dzvenyslava Safian, music theorist Liza Sirenko, and cultural critic Oleksandr Ostrovskyi.

The publication’s provocative name suggests the context in which The Claquers was conceived. After two previous generations of proactive critics who had careers in education and cultural promotion, classical music criticism was limited to either positive reviews or no reviews at all. A fresh and uncensored eye on events in classical music life in Ukraine was needed to shake up the musical community and complete the country’s classical music ecosystem.

Unlike in western Europe and North America, art music audiences in Ukraine are much younger. The collective of writers with The Claquers is also young, and has taken on the task of explaining to these new listeners why a long tradition of classical music in Ukraine exists, and how it became a part of today’s cultural life. As a group The Claquers considers its main goals: to educate about contemporary classical Ukrainian music, to build bridges with popular culture by publishing about diverse musical genres and other arts (such as music in literature or in film), to expand the critical tools of music criticism with audio podcasts, and to cultivate audiences abroad via an English version of the website.

The Claquers was made possible by generous funding that enabled its establishment and is sustained by the generosity of donors on Patreon. This singular and engaged Ukrainian online hub devoted to classical music continues to engage people in this music and invite new authors.

Stas Nevmerzhytskyi (ФОП Станіслав Невмержицький), individual proprietor

The registration number of the taxpayer's registration card, or the series and number of the passport:

Location of a individual proprietor:
Ukraine, 04212, Kyiv city, TYMOSHENKA STREET, building 2K, room 302

Date and number of entry in the Unified State Register of Legal Entities, individual proprietor and public organizations:
10/16/2020, 2000690010002052048


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