A Structure of Physicalities

Ahead of Trio Atem’s per­form­ance at Kings Place next week, I thought I would share this essay on the work which brought them to­gether: Helmut Lachenmann’s temA. It is a work that I ima­gine will have been a ref­er­ence point or at least in the backs of com­posers’ minds as they wrote for the won­derful Gavin, Nina and Alice and ex­plored the un­usual com­bin­a­tion of flute, voice and cello. It cer­tainly was for me.

If you do want to hear the work be­fore reading or — much better — coming to Kings Place on Monday, here is a re­cording by Boston’s Callithumpian Consort or I can re­com­mend the re­cording by Ensemble Phorminx on Wergo.

This is a long essay and maybe it will be of more use after hearing a per­form­ance in di­gesting the work, but here it is for better or worse.

Helmut Lachenmann’s temA

In many ways the music of Helmut Lachenmann eludes elu­cid­a­tion through verbal media. His in­tric­ately not­ated scores re­veal sur­pris­ingly little con­cerning the res­ulting sounds and struc­tures to even an ex­per­i­enced reader and his music fre­quently fails to convey its full im­pact on re­corded media, only op­er­ating fully func­tion­ally in the live per­form­ance for which it was con­ceived. Granted the latter has long been dis­cussed as a problem, es­pe­cially by aes­thet­i­cians of clas­sical and con­tem­porary music, but it is a problem to a greater ex­tent, very sorely felt in the case of Lachenmann’s music.[1] The reasons for these ap­par­ently in­com­plete trans­mis­sions (and con­versely the pre­sum­ably more cre­ative than usual com­ple­tion in per­form­ance of the in­struc­tions set down in the score) will be fur­ther dis­cussed below, but it must be pre­sumed that they lie some­where in the phys­ical as­pect of per­form­ance — a phys­ic­ality more vital to an audience’s per­cep­tion of the music than is the case with audio more or less tailored for mass pro­duced, and there­fore dis­em­bodied, media.

Given that even his own scores and care­fully pro­duced modern re­cord­ings do not ad­equately rep­resent Lachenmann’s com­plete artistic vision, what hope does an ana­lyt­ical essay or dia­gram have in even half de­scribing that performed-perceived ex­per­i­ence? The fol­lowing ana­lysis makes no claim to be helpful to those un­fa­miliar with temA as per­formed. Instead, it is an at­tempt to un­der­stand how the ef­fects of the work are achieved through a struc­tural dis­sec­tion of the sonic ele­ments, their nota­tion and their phys­ical im­plic­a­tions. It takes its lead from Matthias Hermann’s ana­lysis of Lachenmann’s first string quartet Gran Torso.[2] Though as thor­ough an ex­am­in­a­tion of per­form­ance tech­niques em­ployed as lies at the core of that ana­lysis is less helpful here given temA’s het­ero­gen­eous in­stru­ment­a­tion, a sim­ilar tack will be taken in terms of grasping the ‘con­crete’ sound-world em­ployed and the journey through it offered to the audi­ence by way of dra­matic trans­form­a­tions of the sound ma­terial. This method is par­tic­u­larly useful in ap­proaching the ele­ments of Lachenmann’s post-serial mu­sical lan­guage that break away from easily di­vis­ible hier­archies of pitch and rhythm and move to­wards what might be called timbral com­pos­i­tion, though the as­so­ci­ations that that term could sug­gest with Klangfarbenmelodie or other ‘col­ourful’ music is some­what mis­leading. Here the timbre is not a col­ouring of mu­sical ma­terial (har­monies and melodies, pitch sets and rhythmic rows per­haps), it is the mu­sical material.

Written in 1968, temA, for flute, voice and cello, is one of Lachenmann’s break-through works in terms of de­vel­oping his early aes­thetic ideas and style. Described vari­ously as marking ‘the be­gin­ning of Lachenmann’s ma­turity as a com­poser’ and ‘the first work to demon­strate Lachenmann’s ma­ture aes­thetic ideas and tech­niques’, it is also one of the first works in his output to have been per­formed reg­u­larly until the present day.[3] It has been re­corded twice; first in 1994 by mem­bers of Ensemble Recherche for the now de­funct Montaigne Auvidis label and in 2009 on a disc by Ensemble Phorminx for German con­tem­porary music label Wergo.[4]

Lachenmann has de­scribed temA, a single move­ment work lasting roughly a quarter of an hour, as ‘prob­ably one of the first com­pos­i­tions in which breathing is ex­plored as an acous­tic­ally me­di­ated en­er­getic pro­cess’.[5] The title plays on the German words ‘Atem’ (breath) and ‘Thema’ (theme), making it clear for even an audi­ence member without re­course to pro­gramme notes that the work’s theme is breath. Lachenmann has ac­know­ledged that others had ex­amined ‘the same phe­nomenon from various dif­ferent per­spect­ives’ (he men­tions Heinz Holliger, Vinko Globokar, Mauricio Kagel, Dieter Schnebel, and spe­cific­ally Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Hymnen and György Ligeti’s Aventures), though he sug­gests they came to such sim­ilar in­terests in­de­pend­ently of one an­other.[6] Lachenmann is right to re­cog­nise his pre­de­cessors and con­tem­por­aries. Writing at the same time as Lachenmann penned the quoted note on temA, István Anhalt also iden­ti­fied the trend for ‘new com­pos­i­tions for the voice that use it in ways other than ex­clus­ively in the usual singing mode’, in­cluding ‘such mar­ginal sounds as coughing, sighing [and] aud­ible breathing’, which bur­geoned from the mid-1950s on­wards, listing over 60 com­posers he be­lieved to be rep­res­ent­ative of the trend by the mid-1960s, a trend that per­haps con­firmed Roland Barthes’s be­lief that ‘the human voice is […] a site which es­capes all sci­ence, for there is no sci­ence which ex­hausts the voice’.[7]

There are re­l­at­ively few works in­volving voice in the au­thor­ised list of Lachenmann’s com­pos­i­tional output, which num­bers fifty-four works to date. Three works in­volving the voice, Consolation I, Consolation II and temA, stem from 1967 – 68, a time that might be iden­ti­fied as an in­ter­na­tional, in­tel­lec­tual crisis period, but also — and not ne­ces­sarily un­con­nec­tedly — a time that can be de­scribed as a period of vital de­vel­op­ment for Lachenmann the com­poser. After these years of in­tense en­gage­ment with the voice Lachenmann didn’t re­turn to it as a central focus of a work until the 1990s with „…zwei Gefühle…“, Musik mit Leonardo (1991−92), which in­cor­por­ates two speakers of frag­mented texts into a large en­semble, fol­lowed by his opera (or ‘music with im­ages’) Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern (1990−96). Though a few works in the in­ter­vening years do in­volve voice — not­ably Kontrakadenz (1970−71), which in­cor­por­ates some voices re­corded onto tape, and Salut für Caudwell (1977) in which the two guitar so­loists re­cite frag­mented texts that fore­shadow the speech of „…zwei Gefühle…“ — there is a no­tice­able de­fining, ex­ploring and ex­hausting of vocal pos­sib­il­ities in the three early works, which leads one to spec­u­late whether they were per­haps fun­da­mental to Lachenmann’s trans­ition into ma­turity as an in­stru­mental composer.

Piotr Grella-Możejko writes that ‘for dec­ades, the vocal me­dium served avant-garde com­posers in times of doubt and trial’, sug­gesting that when using a text it can ‘be con­sidered a car­rier of formal con­tinuity and unity, […] a skel­eton around which the flesh of the piece is built up’.[8] This thesis is ex­tremely con­vin­cing when ap­plied to the two Consolations. Both are small-scale choral works, the first for 12 voices and 4 per­cus­sion­ists and the second for 16 voices a capella, which set short texts rich in phon­etic res­on­ances — an ex­tract from ex­pres­sionist play­wright Ernst Toller’s Masse Mensch and an 8th-Century prayer, the Wessobrunner Gebet, re­spect­ively. Disassembling their re­spective texts through phon­etic ana­lysis that aims to re­veal an in­herent logic of sound con­struc­tion, the Consolations might be said to put into prac­tice the theory set out eight years earlier in a lec­ture Lachenmann wrote for his teacher and friend Luigi Nono to give at the Summer Courses for New Music in Darmstadt, which de­fends such dis­mant­ling of texts (cri­ti­cised by Stockhausen) with ref­er­ence to the his­tor­ical re­moval of se­mantic meaning from and phon­etic treat­ment of texts, with ex­amples from Gesualdo, Gabrieli, Bach and Mozart.[9] The text of Consolation II, a 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. While hardly re­volu­tionary — sim­ilar phon­etic treat­ment of texts had been in use for al­most a decade by Nono, Berio and Ligeti among others — the Consolations mark an im­portant per­sonal step­ping stone for Lachenmann to­wards temA and fur­ther on to­wards his ma­ture style. In par­tic­ular, the ‘in­stru­mental vo­cal­isa­tion and vocal in­stru­ment­al­isa­tion’ il­lus­trated both by the ending ‘t’ of Consolation II and the con­sistent at­tempts to bring vo­calist and per­cus­sionist son­ic­ally closer in Consolation I, would prove a vital re­source in the writing of temA.[10]

Despite their sim­il­ar­ities, temA bears sev­eral marked con­trasts with the Consolations. The simplest is the lack of pre-existing text. Instead of choosing a ‘skel­eton’ to flesh out, all the vo­cal­isa­tions — whether phon­et­ic­ally dis­in­teg­rated or se­mantic­ally in­tact — are written spe­cific­ally for cer­tain pas­sages and there­fore ‘do not have to be un­der­stood by the listeners since they serve to modify the ex­hal­a­tion in a spe­cific­ally con­ceived manner’.[11] As we shall see though, this ab­neg­a­tion of po­ten­tial se­mantic trans­mis­sion is not ne­ces­sarily en­tirely con­sistent and def­in­itely not hol­istic. The second dif­fer­ence between the Consolations and temA is an un­com­plic­ated but de­cisive ques­tion of in­stru­mental re­sources. The choral me­dium al­lowed for ex­tremely tex­tural text set­ting that opened up large aural spaces and en­vir­on­ments, whereas the con­straints of the solo voice re­lated via breath to the flute re­lated via line to the cello in temA, while be­ne­fiting from the re­duced dis­tance between voice and in­stru­ment ex­ploited in the Consolations, re­quire an eco­nomy of treat­ment and tight focus on sound qual­ities to achieve the sort of timbral co­he­sion ad­voc­ated in Lachenmann’s 1966 essay ‘Klangtypen der Neuen Musik’.[12] Grella-Możejko de­scribes this as ‘linear music at its most compromising’ — there is nothing to bind these three in­stru­ments to­gether ex­cept the very del­icate equating of sound-types to create the sort of timbral con­tinuum that would be­come fun­da­mental to many later works, es­pe­cially those scored for chamber en­sembles.[13] As it tran­spires, this al­lying of sound-types is not ex­clus­ively a matter of aligning sonic sim­il­ar­ities, but also of drawing par­al­lels between the ac­tions of the per­formers. This is a com­pos­i­tional ap­proach, which Lachenmann later verb­al­ised (and has since fre­quently re­stated) saying, ‘com­posing means building an in­stru­ment’.[14]

temA ex­plores the pos­sib­il­ities offered by mu­si­cians and their in­stru­ments not just in terms of sounds avail­able, but also in the phys­ical re­la­tion­ships these various methods of sound pro­duc­tion ex­hibit. For the first time, Lachenmann is able to make the per­formers’ phys­ical ef­fort the work’s theme both through its dir­ectly res­ultant sound and through the use of sound ma­terial that in­tim­ates par­tic­ular phys­ical pro­cesses. This may sound loftily the­or­et­ical, even fanciful, but it is in fact es­sen­tially vis­ceral. One of the para­doxes of mu­sical aes­thetics is how on the one hand, the de­vel­op­ment throughout the 19th-Century into the 20th of the be­lief that somehow music offered the most sub­lime of forms beyond phys­ic­ality — to the ex­tent that, to use Walter Pater’s oft-quoted axiom, ‘all art con­stantly as­pires to­wards the con­di­tion of music’ — led to a den­ig­ra­tion of the phys­ical ele­ment that is per­haps more ob­vi­ously present in cer­tain folk idioms; while on the other hand, the re­peated af­firm­a­tion, since the ad­vent of re­cording tech­niques and es­pe­cially elec­troacoustic music, that these ghosts of phys­ical per­form­ance are strongly lacking an ele­ment which can be no di­men­sion other than the phys­ical (no matter what claims are made for ‘aura’ or other such terms).[15] This lack of im­me­diacy or clear per­cept­ib­ility of the caus­ality of sounds and music has long been a weight on com­posers working with dis­em­bodied media. This paradox sug­gests that the phys­ical as­pect of per­form­ance cannot be so easily dis­missed as only a small or in­con­sequen­tial part of the mu­sical experience.

In at­tempting to high­light both the im­port­ance of a ges­ture as ‘an energy-motion tra­jectory which ex­cites the sounding body’ and the dif­fi­culty an elec­troacoustic com­poser faces in the lack of an (ob­serv­able) ‘agent’ to per­form the phys­ical coun­ter­parts to their music’s sounding ges­tures, Denis Smalley may give us a key to un­der­standing some­thing of Lachenmann’s thinking.[16] Lachenmann has de­scribed his music from the late six­ties on­wards as ‘mu­sique con­crète in­stru­mentale’, ad­apting Pierre Schaefer’s name for tape music using re­corded ‘con­crete’, i.e. real world, sounds as its com­pos­i­tional ma­terial, but ‘in­stead of using the mech­an­ical ac­tions of the everyday in­stru­ment­ally as mu­sical ele­ments, for me it was about re­cog­nising the in­stru­mental sound as a sign of its pro­duc­tion method’.[17] (Lachenmann was fa­miliar with studio tech­niques after working at the IPEM-Studio in Ghent in 1965, during which period he wrote his only solo tape work Szenario.)[18] In his 1983 com­mentary on temA, he ac­know­ledges the work as marking ‘the first step for me to­wards a “Musique con­crète in­stru­mentale”’. It is fit­ting then per­haps, given the direct line drawn by Lachenmann between early fixed media com­pos­i­tion and his own in­stru­mental music, that Smalley’s writing on elec­troacoustic prob­lem­atics de­scribes so clearly some of the fun­da­mentals of Lachenmann’s approach.

In ad­di­tion to Grella-Możejko’s con­ten­tion that the voice can provide sup­port to a com­poser in the pro­cess of de­vel­op­ment and ex­per­i­ment­a­tion due to its po­ten­tial for providing re­li­able struc­tural co­he­sion out­side of what might be termed, slightly mis­lead­ingly, the ‘purely mu­sical’ grammar of a work, there may be an­other good reason as to why Lachenmann chose the voice and the breath as the sub­ject of temA’s ex­per­i­ment­a­tion or why it tran­spired to lend it­self so well to the de­vel­op­ment he achieved with this work.[19] Smalley com­ments on the power of the voice in music, stating that ‘vocal pres­ence […] has direct human, phys­ical and there­fore psy­cho­lo­gical links’.[20] For Lachenmann these ‘phys­ical links’, which Smalley pro­poses sur­vive even the com­plete dis­em­bod­i­ment en­countered in elec­troacoustic music, may have proved useful in ex­plic­ating the phys­ical pro­cesses of sound pro­duc­tion that he wished to draw at­ten­tion to, our deep en­gage­ment with this cor­poreal en­ergy con­ver­sion aiding his aes­thetic intentions.

Though not an area of theory Lachenmann has ever dis­cussed in de­tail, there is an af­finity between his wish, based on post-Adornian con­cepts of ali­en­a­tion, to sub­vert tra­di­tional in­stru­mental per­form­ance tech­nique to re­veal the ef­fort of the mu­si­cian — symbol of the repressed ser­vant to the bour­geoisie, ordered in the 19th-Century con­certo tra­di­tion to com­plete feats of cruel agility and dif­fi­culty be­neath a façade of pain­less ease — and the the­ories of cor­por­eity of Marcel Merleau-Ponty.[21] Merleau-Ponty de­scribes the body as ‘a knot of living mean­ings’, an idea that lends cre­dence to the pos­sib­ility that the phys­ical ac­tions of mu­si­cians could be un­der­stood as a matrix of mean­ings bearing the po­ten­tial for their struc­tural per­cep­tion.[22] Particularly rel­evant for our un­der­standing of the phys­ical as­pect of Lachenmann’s work is the idea that ‘the meaning of a ges­ture in­ter­mingles with the struc­ture of the world that the ges­ture out­lines’ and that lin­guistic ges­tures ‘just rep­resent ways for the human body to cel­eb­rate the world and ul­ti­mately to live it’.[23] This also ties in with Lachenmann’s ad­vocacy of ‘music as ex­ist­en­tial ex­per­i­ence’.[24] The voice’s even­tual move­ment from spoken or sung bearer of ex­trinsic se­mantic con­tent to a sub­verted in­stru­ment, taking its place as part of a self-defining struc­tural grammar con­structing its own in­trinsic value, over the course of temA points as it were to Lachenmann’s sub­sequent, voice­less works, moving away from the Ur-vocalisation sup­posedly at the root of music’s in­cep­tion, away from music as mes­sage and music as speech, to­wards his aes­thetic ideal of music as a hol­istic ex­per­i­ence as af­fecting and mean­ing­less as walking through a land­scape in the rain.

All these many factors may have led Lachenmann to choose the in­stru­ments he did or may have be­ne­fitted him in ways he did not realise at the time, but nev­er­the­less there are some ser­ious hurdles to be over­come in cre­ating a work for these in­stru­ments. Some of these same prob­lems also present them­selves to the ana­lyst. In the ana­lysis of com­par­able works such as Pression (1969/70), for solo cello, and Gran Torso (1971/72), for string quartet, ex­tensive charts of the tech­niques em­ployed are used to draw con­vin­cing con­clu­sions about Lachenmann’s struc­ture of con­stantly evolving sound ma­ter­ials and phys­ical ac­tions.[25] The het­ero­gen­eous in­stru­ment­a­tion of temA pre­vents a simple ana­lysis of playing tech­niques as each in­stru­ment has its own spe­cific gamut of tra­di­tional and ex­tended tech­niques, which can of course bear various re­la­tion­ships to those of other in­stru­ments but are es­sen­tially dif­ferent. Thus, frus­trat­ingly given our es­tab­lish­ment of the im­port­ance of ges­ture and phys­ic­ality to the work’s con­cep­tion, the easiest way to carry out a survey of the work’s pro­gres­sion is to speak in terms of heard in­stead of per­formed, phys­ical similarities.

Given the theme of breath, it is un­sur­prising that ac­tual human breath, phys­ic­ally re­lated phe­nomena such as the flautist’s breath mod­i­fied by the ex­ternal body of the flute and acous­tic­ally re­lated phe­nomena such as the pitch­less breath-tone of the cellist’s bow-hair on the wood of the in­stru­ment body are sys­tem­at­ic­ally com­bined. This provides the pos­sib­ility for a mu­sical dis­course that can move from breath — pure, mod­i­fied or ar­ti­fi­cial — to pitch, via the gradual evol­u­tion of timbre from, for ex­ample, the vocalist’s pi­an­is­simo in­haled breathing (b. 41), to pitch­less arco on the side of the body, on the bridge and on the tail-piece of the cello (bb. 43, 45 & 47 re­spect­ively), to a sul tasto pi­an­is­simo A high up the cello’s G-string and a breathy pi­an­is­simo E-flat in the flute (bb. 48 – 49), which cul­min­ates in a pure, sung D of the vo­calist (bb. 49 – 50) which then it­self is passed on for yet fur­ther de­vel­op­ment. Though the trans­itions are usu­ally more com­plex ag­greg­ates of this type of pro­cess, sim­il­arly straight­for­ward trans­itions between pitched and un­pitched ma­terial can be found in the ‘flute solo’ of b. 64 and in the move­ment from an un­pitched breathing (of the group as a whole) to pitch and back in bb. 159 – 168.

These sec­tions con­taining long, un­dis­turbed breaths form the work’s key resting points. The in­haled breathing re­peated ad lib­itum by the vo­calist in b. 41 — which Rainer Nonnenmann de­scribes as a ‘Schlafkadenz’ (sleep ca­denza), high­lighting some­what iron­ic­ally the sub­ver­sion of tra­di­tional so­loistic re­sources — brings the work’s first point of stasis, but is also in many ways the work’s true point of de­par­ture.[26] The work opens with a gasp and the first thirty or so bars are poin­til­list, filled with short ges­tures, clicks, sol­itary al­lo­phones, more gasps and the dis­tinct feeling that the audi­ence has been ushered in to ex­per­i­ence a pro­cess that had already begun be­fore they ar­rived. In b. 22, the vo­calist is in­structed that ‘all in­haled pro­cesses from here until b. 41 form a re­lated series, the design of which should be de­term­ined by the con­cep­tion of someone sleeping’. Bars 29 – 36 con­sequently begin with sim­ilar in­haled ges­tures, fore­shad­owing the ar­rival and stasis ex­per­i­enced in b. 41, while still sur­rounded by the varie­gated net­work of rap­idly trans­forming short ges­tures and phrases in the flute and cello es­tab­lished at the work’s be­gin­ning. Having come through these forty bars of ‘fore­play’ we ar­rive at the gentle in­hal­a­tions of the ‘sleep ca­denza’. While static in the sense of re­peating the same ma­terial, this bar is ex­em­plary of the po­ten­tial for drama through phys­ic­ality. The act of breathing is in­grained in our ex­per­i­ence of being, such that its fun­da­mental rules of reg­ular in­hal­a­tion fol­lowed by ex­hal­a­tion fol­lowed by in­hal­a­tion can form a uni­versal play of ex­pect­a­tion. The re­peated in­hal­a­tions of the sleep ca­denza without the an­ti­cip­ated in­ter­vening cor­res­ponding ex­hal­a­tions cause a build up of ten­sion and ex­pect­a­tion to such an ex­tent that the even­tual molto calmo ex­hal­a­tion of the fol­lowing bar can take on a weight that be­lies its quiet sim­pli­city, acting as the gentle push which sets Lachenmann’s in­stru­ment rolling, re-starting the pro­cess of con­stant evol­u­tion, which gradu­ally builds through bb. 43 – 66.

The pier­cing shriek, which en­genders a stream of vi­ol­ently rapid fig­ur­a­tions in flute and cello in b. 67, and the clearly aud­ible word ‘Luft’ (air) two bars later are prob­ably the clearest de­lin­eators for the listener of the next sub­stan­tial struc­tural pas­sage. Not until b. 79 does Lachenmann in­clude the in­struc­tion ‘mur­mured dia­logue between flautist and vo­calist’, but from b. 69 on­wards half-comprehensible snatches of se­mantic­ally de­cipher­able speech start to ap­pear. As ob­served above, the per­form­ance notes in­struct that the texts ‘do not have to be un­der­stood by the listeners since they serve to modify the ex­hal­a­tion in a spe­cially con­ceived manner’, which in­deed they do, but they nev­er­the­less re­main par­tially com­pre­hens­ible and more im­port­antly, at least to German-speaking audi­ences, highly per­tinent in com­menting on the is­sues raised in the pro­cess of their own per­form­ance. The first in this series of se­mantic­ally rel­evant, self-referential texts is the pre­vi­ously men­tioned ex­clam­a­tion of ‘Luft’ in b. 69. This ref­er­ence to air clearly ties in with the stated theme of the com­pos­i­tion. After this the fol­lowing vocal ma­terial is to be found in bb. 70 – 102:

temA vocal material bb. 70-102

Nonnenmann high­lights the in­ten­tional se­lec­tion of phrases in this pas­sage to ‘modify the ex­hal­a­tion in a spe­cific manner’, for ex­ample ‘je­doch bloß nicht gleiCH’, which con­tains the hard ch, [x], which even­tu­ally con­sumes the text in b. 83.[27] Such a sound could be de­con­structed as an ex­haled [x] with dis­turb­ances in its onset or as a spoken phrase, which gets stuck on a re­cur­ring phoneme. This same tech­nique can be found in most of the other text frag­ments used in this pas­sage. Nonnenmann also sug­gests that the use of frag­mented, phon­et­ic­ally suit­able but par­tially com­pre­hens­ible vocal ma­terial is a skilful ruse aimed at ‘sparking the at­ten­tion and curi­osity of the listener’, who is trained to listen out for mean­ingful speech by their everyday ex­per­i­ences.[28] Thus, the listener can be drawn into the mu­sical pro­cess and their in­creased at­tent­ive­ness sub­verted to draw their at­ten­tion to the sonic de­vel­op­ment in pro­gress. This half-understood pas­sage also seems to re­flect Borges’s sug­ges­tion that the ‘im­min­ence of a rev­el­a­tion which does not occur is, per­haps the aes­thetic phe­nomenon’.[29] This is em­phas­ised by the final frag­ment ‘wissen Sie diese Texte ließen siCH’, a com­bin­a­tion rich in the con­sonant [s] and a play between the [ɘ], [ɨ] and [i] vowel sounds, which car­ries the sug­ges­tion that the audi­ence are about to dis­cover what ex­actly the se­mantic­ally dis­con­tinuous dia­logue is all about — ‘did you know these texts were…’ — but is cut short by the flautist’s (phon­et­ic­ally re­lated) ‘PST’ to which Nonnenmann has at­trib­uted the ironic in­ter­pret­a­tion that at the one point where ‘an ap­par­ently plaus­ible com­mu­nic­ative in­ter­ac­tion between flute and voice’ is achieved, the dia­logue breaks down, pre­cluding the ap­par­ently im­manent rev­el­a­tion of whatever it is that lies be­hind the present events.[30]

The held si­lence that fol­lows the flute’s in­ter­rup­tion of the voice gives way to a rat­tling, quad­ruple for­tis­simo in the cello and the music moves from the dia­logue passage’s gen­er­ally not par­tic­u­larly loud and never par­tic­u­larly ex­treme ex­e­cu­tion (since its screamed ini­ti­ation in b. 67) to the Agitato/Feroce pas­sages which provide the work it’s en­er­getic core with a whirl­wind of tremolandi, rapid scales, volatile swells of dy­namics and sounds that ex­ploit the ex­tremes of phys­ical pres­sure in all three in­stru­ments. This pas­sage draws its en­ergy from the ominous drone of bb. 108 – 114 marked ‘calmo ed in­tensivo’, during which the music seems to be gath­ering breath. In a way these bars echo the ‘sleep ca­denza’ in their near stasis, which builds up an ex­pect­a­tion of re­lease. ‘Ponderous’ fpp ac­cents in the cello count out time rather like the in­haled breaths that went be­fore and for the first time Lachenmann em­ploys what might be a fa­miliar, old-fashioned tech­nique in the use of a pedal point G in the cello, fore­shad­owed in bb. 97 – 100 and held and rear­tic­u­lated throughout the thirty-two crotchet beats of bb. 108 – 112 until its dis­sol­u­tion in a gust of har­monics (b. 113), which launches the on­slaught of ex­panding ges­tures that drives the music to near breaking point in b. 147.

The rapid al­ter­a­tions of dy­namic in bb. 120 – 124 and the build up of spiralling, tremolando scales in bb. 135 – 146 are as much as any­thing else a wave of phys­ical vi­ol­ence, which seems to be force­fully drag­ging the voice away from its nat­ural methods of sound pro­duc­tion — an as­sault pro­tested by cries of ‘HALT!’ (stop) and ‘BITTE’ (please) — and to­wards an ali­en­ating array of sounds cre­ated by put­ting ex­cess pres­sure through the vocal mech­anism. This res­ults in the breaking apart of the con­tinuous mu­sical fabric in b. 147 as the cello’s ex­cess pres­sure on the strings between bridge and tail­piece brings a screeching halt to pro­ceed­ings leaving the voice seem­ingly ‘stuck’, only able to manage the oc­ca­sional croak. The ex­tremity of these ac­tions and their im­pact are a source of pride for Lachenmann who be­lieves their shock value lies not in the ‘de­form­a­tion of the sound, as such ‘dis­as­so­ci­ation’ was widely tol­er­ated as a hu­morous, Dadaist or ex­pres­sionist ele­ment’, but in the logic of their con­taining form.[31] Having shattered the lin­earity pushed to ex­tremes in the Agitato/Feroce pas­sages, Lachenmann man­ages to gradu­ally re­as­semble a semb­lance of co­her­ence with a re­turn to nat­ural breath and its in­stru­mental vari­ants in bb. 159 – 168, but this soon gives way once more to highly pres­sur­ised pro­cesses and as the wood of the cello’s bow is pressed through the bow-hair against the instrument’s body causing a sound strongly re­min­is­cent of cracking wood the music seems to grind to halt for good (b. 179). Once more we are ‘stuck’.[32]

And that it would seem would be that, were it not for a small re­sur­rec­tion and in the con­text of an ex­tended, un­fa­miliar sound-world of ali­en­ated per­form­ance tech­niques it is a greater mir­acle for its con­tent. The final nine bars rep­resent in some way the eman­cip­a­tion of the full and warm in­stru­mental tone from its ex­hausted fa­mili­arity through the rig­orous ex­am­in­a­tion of the phys­ical ob­jects — human bodies, flute and cello — that work to pro­duce it. This ‘coda can­tabile’ marked as ‘sempre dol­cis­simo quasi lontano’ seems to exist beyond the rest of the work in time but also seem­ingly in the phys­ical dimension.

Before we con­clude our ex­am­in­a­tion we should turn briefly to the pitched ele­ments. It is not worth­while car­rying out a thor­ough pitch ana­lysis for temA in this con­text as pitch re­la­tion­ships bear more or less no struc­tural im­port­ance in com­par­ison with con­trast and de­vel­op­ment of timbral and phys­ical as­pects. In the places where they do form part of the clear fabric of the work, such as the above­men­tioned G-pedal, they are de­term­ined by the phys­ical char­ac­ter­istics of the sounding bodies — the G for ex­ample is chosen for its prop­er­ties as an open string with the flex­ib­ility to swell with bow pres­sure. Elsewhere pitch is often used in rapid fig­ur­a­tions more as a ges­tural ele­ment than as a melodic or har­monic idea (e.g. bb. 67 – 68 or bb. 143 – 146). Where longer lines do meet and form what might tenu­ously be de­scribed as har­monic in­stances they are usu­ally rich in minor seconds and often form longer-term pro­gres­sions that are ef­fect­ively slow ges­tures in pitch space. For ex­ample the fol­lowing pitch con­tent from bb. 48 – 55:

temA pitch example: Eb, D, Db, E, F, D

Given the above dis­cus­sion, the fol­lowing ap­prox­imate struc­tural schema might be pro­posed based on the idea that there are co­herent areas of activity in­ter­spersed with more ob­vi­ously trans­itional or dir­ec­tional ma­terial, all of which can be de­scribed in terms of the phys­ical pro­cesses re­lated to the voice that they act out or evoke:

bb. 1 – 28 Introduction
bb. 28 – 40 trans­ition
b. 41 ‘Sleep Cadenza’
bb. 42 – 67 trans­ition
bb. 68 – 102 Dialogue
bb. 103 – 112 gath­ering breath
bb. 113 – 146 Agitato/Feroce (Scream)
bb. 147 – 158 Paralysis I
bb. 159 – 168 Instrumental Breath
bb. 169 – 178 trans­ition
b. 179 Paralysis II
bb. 180 – 188 ‘Coda can­tabile’

This schema sug­gests various in­ter­pret­a­tions. A tra­di­tional idea of climax would sug­gest that the gradual pro­gres­sion to a climax of en­ergy and ef­fort at the end of the Agitato/Feroce pas­sage in­dic­ates that this point is the core of the work, to carry on our cor­poreal meta­phor, it is the work’s navel. It seems a con­vin­cing ar­gu­ment that what oc­curs from b. 147 on­wards is, to raise the spectre of caus­ality, heard as a direct con­sequence of the ag­gregate of en­ergy, ef­fort and pres­sure that pre­ceded it and that the over­load of these in the Agitato/Feroce pas­sage vi­ol­ently forced open the sur­face of music it­self causing usu­ally hidden real­ities to re­veal them­selves. Perhaps this is a fanciful con­clu­sion, but it seems to be the only ex­plan­a­tion for the very def­inite oth­er­ness ac­quired by the plain, hummed con­cluding bars — the modi­fic­a­tion of per­cep­tion through struc­tural rigour.


[1] See, for classic ex­amples, Theodor Adorno, ‘The Curves of the Needle’ (1927) or ‘The Form of the Phonograph Record’ (1934) in Essays on Music (ed. Richard Leppert, trans. Susan Gillespie), Berkeley, 2002; or for a more re­cent dis­cus­sion John Mowitt, ‘The sound of music in the era of its elec­tronic re­pro­du­cib­ility’ in Music and Society: The politics of com­pos­i­tion, per­form­ance and re­cep­tion (eds. Richard Leppert and Susan McClary), Cambridge, 1987, pp. 173 – 197.

[2] Matthias Hermann, Musik des 20. Jahrhunderts: Weiterentwicklung des Serialismus, Reaktionen auf den Serialismus, Aleatorik und Offene Form, Postserielle Konzepte, (Materialien zur Musiktheorie, Heft 4), Stuttgart, 2002, pp. 134 – 152.

[3] Piotr Grella-Możejko, ‘Helmut Lachenmann — Style, Sound, Text’ in Contemporary Music Review, xxiv/1 (2005), p. 71 and Pace, ‘Positive or Negative 1’, The Musical Times, cxxxix/1859 (Jan., 1998), p. 10.

[4] Montaigne Auvidis MO 782023 and Wergo WER 6682 2.

[5] Helmut Lachenmann, ‘Werkkommentar zu temA’ (1983) in Musik als ex­ist­en­ti­elle Erfahrung: Schriften 1966 – 1995, Wiesbaden (Breitkopf & Härtl), 2004, p. 378.

[6] Ibid.

[7] István Anhalt, Alternative Voices: Essays on Contemporary Vocal and Choral Composition, Toronto, 1984, pp. 3 & 6; and Roland Barthes, The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art and Representation, New York, 1985, p. 278.

[8] Grella-Możejko, Op. cit., p. 63 – 64.

[9] Lachenmann, ‘Text — Musik — Gesang’ (1960) in Musik als ex­ist­en­ti­elle Erfahrung, pp. 317 – 28.

[10] Grella-Możejko, Op. cit., p. 66.

[11] Lachenmann, temA, Performance Notes.

[12] Lachenmann, Musik als ex­ist­en­ti­elle Erfahrung, pp. 1 – 20.

[13] Grella-Możejko, Op. cit., p. 69.

[14] Lachenmann, ‘Über das Komponieren’ (1986) in Musik als ex­ist­en­ti­elle Erfahrung, p. 77.

[15] Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, 1873, repr., ed. Adam Phillips, Oxford, 1986, p. 86.

[16] Denis Smalley, ‘Spectromorphology: ex­plaining sound-shapes’ in Organised Sound, ii/2 (1997), p. 111.

[17] Lachenmann, ‘Paradiese auf Zeit’ (1993) in Musik als ex­ist­en­ti­elle Erfahrung, p. 211.

[18] Lachenmann, ‘Selbstportrait 1975’ in Musik als ex­ist­en­ti­elle Erfahrung, p. 153.

[19] Grella-Możejko, Op. cit., p. 64.

[20] Smalley, Op. cit., pp. 110 – 11.

[21] For a typ­ic­ally com­bative and un­usu­ally suc­cinct ar­gu­ment for the artist’s duty to con­front all that is so­cially com­fort­able, ac­cepted and ex­pected, see Lachenmann, ‘Über Tradition’ in Musik als ex­ist­en­ti­elle Erfahrung, p. 339.

[22] Marcel Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, 1945, p. 177, as cited in Lewis, ‘Merleau-Ponty and the phe­nomen­o­logy of lan­guage’, Yale French Studies, No. 36/37 (1966), p. 20.

[23] Ibid. pp. 217 – 218 cited in Lewis, Op. cit., pp. 29 – 30.

[24] Lachenmann, ‘Musik als ex­ist­en­ti­elle Erfahrung’ (1993) in Musik als Existentielle Erfahrung, p. 226.

[25] Hans-Peter Jahn, ‘Pression: Einige Bemerkungen zur Komposition Helmut Lachenmanns und zu den in­ter­pret­a­tion­s­tech­nis­chen Bedingungen’ in Musik-Konzepte 61/62: Helmut Lachenmann (eds. Heinz-Klaus Metzger and Rainer Riehn), Munich, 1988, pp. 42 – 47; and Hermann, Op. cit., pp. 134 – 47.

[26] Karl Rainer Nonnenmann, ‘Auftakt der „in­stru­mentalen mu­sique con­crète“: Helmut Lachenmanns „temA“ von 1968’ in MusikTexte, lxvii-lxviii (January, 1997), p. 108.

[27] Ibid., p. 109.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Wall and the Books’ in Labyrinths, Harmondsworth, 1970, p. 223.

[30] Nonnenmann, Op. cit., p. 110.

[31] Lachenmann, ‘Werkkommentar zu temA’ in Musik als ex­ist­en­ti­elle Erfahrung, p. 378.

[32] Being stuck or frozen is a fre­quent phe­nomenon in Lachenmann’s later com­pos­i­tions. Both Salut für Caudwell (1977) and his Second String Quartet ‘Reigen se­liger Geister’ (1989) fea­ture pas­sages of widely spaced ac­cented at­tacks that threaten to col­lapse into mo­tion­less­ness, while Mouvement (— vor der Erstarrung) (1982/84) makes such freezing still (Erstarrung) its ex­plicit theme.

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  • 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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