»Der Komponist hat nichts zu sagen, er hat was zu schaffen«

Helmut Lachenmann in Stuttgart, 13.02.2009

The Neckar river running through Stuttgart.I was vis­iting Stuttgart, ho­metown of com­poser Helmut Lachenmann, to hear a con­cert of his music presented in the Stadtkirche of the suburb Bad-Canstatt. It seemed like a good omen when, at the head of the menu in the tra­di­tional Schwäbische Stube (I sup­pose this the local equi­valent of an American burger bar or an English tea shop) where we ate, I found a John Cage quotation:

I can’t un­der­stand why people are frightened of new ideas.
I’m frightened of the old ones.

Fantastic, even the dirndl–wearing wait­resses are fa­miliar with their avant-garde com­posers,’ I thought, tucking into creamy spätzle and rich pork (nothing too new there then, Stockhausen would have been disappointed).

Stuttgart is also the birth­place of G. W. F. Hegel and Max Horkheimer, es­tab­lishing its philo­soph­ical cre­den­tials, in a sense it is the home of dia­lect­ical thinking. To po­ten­tial Marxist chagrin how­ever, per­haps Stuttgart’s most famous products are cars, es­pe­cially those tending to­wards the lux­urious (both Porsche and Mercedes ori­ginate here). This is also the heart­land of Lutheranism and Labour move­ments –  Lachenmann the latest in a long line of up­right ‘L’s.

Bezirksrathaus Bad Cannstatt next door to the church where the  concert was held.On a cold evening I found the church hosting the con­cert early and slipped in­side out of the icy air. A few people had already gathered: a group of white-haired ladies and a couple of eager young fans. On stage sat Lachenmann deep in dis­cus­sion with Ewald Liska, a com­poser, singer and radio pro­ducer just two years Lachenmann’s ju­nior, who would in­ter­view the com­poser in between pieces during the con­cert. By the ad­vert­ised start time of 8 o’clock the church had filled, with an audi­ence of all ages spilling onto the bal­conies above – an en­thu­siasm per­haps ex­plained by the fact that this was, so to speak, a home crowd, but non­ethe­less an en­thu­siasm dif­fi­cult to ima­gine on English shores for Harrison Birtwistle or Robin Holloway, for ex­ample. Nor is Stuttgart a cul­tural desert. That evening Kristjan Järvi was con­ducting the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart in a pro­gramme of Bernstein, Rachmaninov and – as is the laud­able wont of German or­ches­tras – a premiere: a per­cus­sion con­certo en­titled Industrial by 43-year-old Moritz Eggert.

At 73, Lachenmann is an elder statesman of the avant-garde music scene. Since the death of Stockhausen, some see him as the de facto leader of new music in Germany, but he was never cut out for lead­er­ship. Lachenmann’s music is nothing if not sub­versive and the wry glint in his eye as he speaks hints at a deep-rooted wish to upset the amassed ap­ple­carts of the Western clas­sical tra­di­tion. However, this is never an aim­less drive to de­struc­tion but a keenly fo­cused and thor­oughly ana­lytic ex­am­in­a­tion of con­ven­tion and how it must change – how it can be res­cued from the ‘orgy of stu­pefac­tion’ that is the everyday. All very con­cep­tual, per­haps, but the music is beau­tiful and the trans­form­a­tions it sub­jects its listeners and per­formers to are un­deni­able, matched only by Lachenmann’s tech­nical bril­liance in building be­guiling and dra­matic struc­tures through pure pro­ces­sual trans­form­a­tions of sound material.

It is rare to see Lachenmann still per­form at the piano as he used to around the world, but in Stuttgart he gave a per­form­ance of Ein Kinderspiel [Child’s Play], seven short pieces for piano, which he premiered at the key­board in Toronto in 1982. They may be his among his simplest works, written for his daughter Akiko, but as he pointed out af­ter­wards, though child­like and often playful, they are often too tiring for chil­dren to per­form, and cer­tainly weren’t in­tended as ped­ago­gical ex­er­cises. They are thor­ough in­vest­ig­a­tions into the pos­sib­il­ities of piano res­on­ance (a realm he has ex­plored fur­ther in his mo­nu­mental Ausklang for piano and or­chestra) and he com­pared the piece with Morton Feldman’s The Viola in My Life. Ein Kinderspiel, he said, was ‘the piano in my life, and at a par­tic­ular time as well’ – the piece be­longs to a par­tic­ular period of ex­per­i­ment­a­tion with sound pos­sib­il­ities. His per­form­ance was crystal clear – quite an achieve­ment given the church acoustic – though he spoke later of the dif­fi­culties in making such dense pieces work in this acoustic. Ironically, only Glockenturm [Bell Tower] of the move­ments was really marred by the wet acoustic. The move­ment ex­ists more or less en­tirely in the varying res­on­ances that emerge from a chro­matic cluster that re­mains con­stant throughout, but by the time the cluster chord echoed away into the eaves, the altered res­on­ance had also flown its ivory nest.

The core of the evening’s pro­gramme was Lachenmann’s Second String Quartet Reigen se­liger Geister per­formed by the Lotus Quartet on a cross-shaped plat­form (no sym­bolism in­tended, I don’t think) in the centre aisle of the church, with the per­formers at the cross’ tips fa­cing each other. Lachenmann spoke of the quartet as the ‘gradual trans­form­a­tion from flautato playing to piz­zicato’, but a purely tech­nical ana­lysis cannot do justice to the spir­itual nature of this ‘at­tempt at com­pos­i­tion’. The opening pas­sages re­turn re­peatedly to the scordatura open strings of the in­stru­ments, which Lachenmann con­ceives more and more as a ‘super-instrument’ over the course of the work. This re­turn seems – des­pite the un­con­ven­tional tuning – to hint at more tuneful climes, per­haps purely through the open string timbre, which for most of the time is shrouded by breathy, overtone-laden bow strokes. This widens into an elec­tric glit­tering of har­monic glis­sandi that must be one of the single most beau­tiful pas­sages in music of the last 50 years. What fol­lows might be seen as the real drama, where dia­lect­ical pro­cesses are triggered and the trans­form­a­tion from bow to hand takes place. One-by-one the players de-tune their strings and lower their in­stru­ments to their knees to use what looked like old credit cards to strum the strings – a pas­sage in which Lachenmann treats the quartet as a ‘super-guitar’. The drama here is palp­able as the music’s heart­beat slows al­most to a stand­still and oc­ca­sional cracks and crunches break a tense si­lence. The creaking of pews and the dis­tant tolling of the church bells (which in fact seemed to serve only to heighten the at­mo­sphere) were made palp­able by the struggle to an­ti­cipate the next sound. Here, a story Lachenmann had told earlier about re­cording John Cage’s 4’33’’ with a class at the Pädagogische Hochschule in Ludwigsburg seemed to res­onate. He had asked stu­dents to per­form Cage’s piece and he re­corded this per­form­ance. This so­li­cited two re­ac­tions: first some would laugh at the si­lence, but then others began to listen. Once re­corded, he played the class the tape of the piece sev­eral times. Soon, they be­came aware of the sounds present in the si­lence and the logic that con­nected them be­came clear. The Ludwigsburg train would cres­cendo in and then out, there was the hum of traffic, all sounds that we sup­press from our con­scious per­cep­tion, but once re­corded and heard re­peatedly began to be real­ised as music.

Fortunately, Reigen se­liger Geister need not be listened to re­peatedly to work its magic. After ap­par­ently shat­tering at the listener’s feet, it gradu­ally re­as­sembles and glides up­wards with a gra­cious creaking be­fore van­ishing into a high breathing of vi­olin har­monics in an un­deni­ably af­fecting con­clu­sion. Sofia Gubaidulina has written about the spir­itual im­plic­a­tions of up­wards move­ment in music and has cat­egor­ized it as tech­nique in her own music for sym­bol­ising the move­ment to­wards heaven. She has even re­ferred to Lachenmann’s music when trying to ex­plain her own con­cep­tion of spir­itu­ality in music. Lachenmann’s re­li­gious be­liefs are some­thing he has not touched on in his ex­tensive writ­ings, though his early Marxist tend­en­cies and skilful avoid­ance of a ques­tion about church music from con­cert or­gan­iser Jörg Hannes Hahn sug­gest they are cer­tainly not straight­for­ward, but the sub­ject of the Second String Quartet does in­cor­porate spir­itual ele­ments  – the ‘se­liger Geister’ of the title – and in the church con­text it was hard to avoid a feeling that the work somehow re­vealed a tran­scend­ental journey.

Some music is speech,’ Lachenmann later said, ‘Bach, Schoenberg or Boulez for ex­ample,’ but he would rather create music where what was im­portant was ‘ob­ser­va­tion’, where there was ‘no text, but a situ­ation, al­most a met­eor­o­lo­gical situ­ation’. He spoke of the string quartet as a ‘walk, where the land­scape gradu­ally changes’ as we move through it and then sud­denly ‘the mo­ment comes where one stands still, where one really hears the land­scape for the first time’. This mo­ment in Reigen se­liger Geister he pin­points as the gentle scratch-tone bowing that leads up­wards and out of the piece (bb. 366 – 384). Lachenmann defines this as a mo­ment that oc­curs in most of his works where the mu­sical ma­terial falls into a nat­ural quasi-ostinato. He be­lieves this mo­ment is reached through a dia­lect­ical, al­most or­ganic pro­cess where the ma­terial works through its im­plic­a­tions to­wards a more or less in­ev­it­able resting point (like an ordered ther­mo­dy­namic system finding its way back to its nat­ural dis­order). Despite this con­cep­tion, the pro­cess is never ob­vious nor does the music be­tray its even­tual des­tin­a­tion; it is only on ar­rival that we per­ceive the ori­gins of our journey as leading in­ev­it­ably to this point. Perhaps this is a bad case of post hoc, ergo pr­opter hoc in the mind of the listener, but the ef­fect is un­deni­able. Lachenmann main­tains that without the pre­ceding music these states would be non­sensical, like a tree, devoid of ground to grow from, floating in the air. Despite all its convention-flipping sounds, the music does pos­sess an al­most Beethovenian logic. It is the musical-syntactical ne­ces­sity of each and every sound that binds the work to­gether and it is this that makes us hear music, not a scat­tering of strange ef­fects for the ear’s de­lect­a­tion. In a fashion sim­ilar to that of mu­sique con­crète, sounds are lib­er­ated in an egal­it­arian system where no one sonic at­tribute is given auto­matic pref­er­ence (as pitch is in tonal sys­tems); sounds are treated as in­di­vis­ible en­tities, whose com­pon­ents are dis­tin­guish­able in ana­lysis, but to the ear func­tion atom­ic­ally. The music lies in the al­chemy, turning lead to gold.

The final two pieces of the evening’s pro­gramme were Consolation I and Consolation II, two small-scale choral works from 1967 and 1968, per­formed with pan­ache by singers from the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst Stuttgart. Contemporary with some of Luciano Berio’s ex­per­i­ments in phon­etics, both these works demon­strate an in­terest in dis­as­sembling their re­spective texts through phon­etic ana­lysis that aims to re­veal an in­herent logic of sound con­struc­tion. Consolation II is par­tic­u­larly ef­fective in its set­ting of an 8th Century prayer, the Wessobrunner Gebet:

Mir gestand der Sterblichen Staunen als Höchstes
Das Erde nicht war, noch oben Himmel
Noch Baum, noch ir­gend ein Berg nicht war
Noch die Sonne, nicht Licht war
Noch der Mond nicht leuchtete
Noch das ge­waltige Meer
Da noch nir­gends nichts war
An Enden und Wenden
Da war der eine all­mächtige Gott

This med­it­a­tion on finding God in the noth­ing­ness be­fore time is dis­solved into a shud­dering land­scape of let­ters, hissing with a hollow wind, shiv­ering with rolled ‘R’s, stut­tering away into the noth­ing­ness where God can per­haps be found, ending on the ‘t’ of ‘Gott’, not sung but struck: two fin­gers coming to­gether in a quiet clap.

Quiet, as­sured end­ings. No thun­der­claps (though thun­derous ap­plause). Bombast neg­ated. Convention chal­lenged. Where to next? ‘Composition it­self,’ reads Lachenmann’s pro­gramme note, ‘as a form of human seeking, is flight […] a flight straight into the lion’s den. And therein lies the only way out.’

The Schlossgarten in the centre of Stuttgart, which contains the State Opera House.

This entry was written by Chris, posted on Monday, 16 February 2009 at 10:54 pm, filed under Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Microbiography

    Chris Swithinbank is a British-Dutch com­poser who works with both acoustic in­stru­ments and elec­tronic sounds. He is cur­rently a stu­dent at Harvard University with Chaya Czernowin.
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