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Musical squiggles and tumbling sounds

‘Before Christmas I got to hear my adoptive orchestra from King Edward Musical Society in full flow at their concert of Elgar and Duruflé, so it was with excitement that I prepared to kick off the New Year with my first workshop with the orchestra. The orchestra are busy preparing some tricky Bruckner and Strauss for their next concert at the start of March but we managed to find an hour in the schedule to workshop some of my initial ideas last Tuesday.’

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First Workshop with KEMS

Logos of organisations involved with Adopt a Composer: Sound and Music, PRS for Music Foundation, Making Music and King Edward Musical Society.

My first workshop with the orchestra of King Edward Musical Society is on Tuesday — 11.1.11! — and I’m looking forward to playing around with some semi-improvised experiments mixing traditional notation and graphical elements that will hopefully let us create some interesting coincidences and arrays of interacting lines. I will post something about how it goes over on the Adopt a Composer blog next week, but in the meantime why not read about the experiences so far of the other composers involved.

Happy New Year!

Here’s an anecdote to herald in 2011:

‘At one time Karlheinz [Stockhausen] and I would talk and exchange ideas. You know the story about the talk about singing? Well, he was writing a song for Cathy Berberian, who I later also wrote for, and he said, “if you were writing for a singer, would you write music, or would you write for the singer?” And I said, “I would write for the singer”, and he said, “well that’s the difference between us, because I would write music.” So then he wrote this song for Cathy, and he asked her to whistle. And she can’t whistle. So that’s the difference between us. Hmhmhmhm!’

— John Cage

FROM: Steve Sweeney Turner and John Cage, ‘John Cage’s Practical Utopias: John Cage in Conversation with Steve Sweeney Turner’, The Musical Times, cxxxi/1771 (September, 1990), p. 469.

2010: A Miscellany

As the end of the year approaches, here are some of the best things that I have read, seen and heard in the past twelve months.

Two major, large-scale performances this autumn made an impact on me. The London Sinfonietta’s concert of Lachenmann at the Southbank Centre in October was one. I already knew the monumental piano concerto Ausklang was something special, but the highlight that evening was Schreiben, a 25-minute orchestral work from 2003. Here’s the beginning of that performance recorded by Radio 3:

The other large-scale performance that is still burned into my memory came courtesy of musikFabrik and their performance of Rebecca Saunders’s CHROMA at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in November. A work of vast scope and many beautiful intricacies, I found myself deeply moved by the experience of wandering through that architectural sound. Here’s a short video from rehearsals at Huddersfield Town Hall featuring probably the creepiest of Saunders’s collection of music boxes — music boxes that together produce a kind of glittering, metallic rain:

On a smaller scale, I was very impressed by Punto rosso, the second string quartet by Brazilian composer Aurélio Edler Copês, performed by Quatuor Diotima at this year’s Centre Acanthes in Metz. Using live electronics to great effect, the work offers a rich and intensely colourful soundworld that unfolds to form a powerfully organic structure. Here’s an excerpt:

Going back to the beginning of the year: Amir Nizar Zuabi’s play I Am Yusuf And This Is My Brother, performed by Palestinian theatre group ShiberHur at the Young Vic in February, was poetic not only in its language but in its staging. Written around the upheaval visited upon a Palestinian village during the conflict in 1948, the footprints left in the dust on stage by the continually fleeing actors was as elegant a visual metaphor as the old man bearing the weight of an uprooted tree that he planted, watched grow, and does not wish to abandon. Here’s a short interview with the playwright from The Guardian:

Olafur Eliasson’s exhibition Innen Stadt Außen at the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin this summer was mind-blowing in its simplicity and effectiveness. I suppose that means it was efficient, but that seems a crude way of describing installations that created some seriously beautiful experiential situations such as these snapshots of lighting created with strobe light and flailing hose (this video’s from the Venice Architecture Biennale:

See also this piece of video art that lent the exhibition its name.

Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land - book cover

The death of Tony Judt in August left us without one of the most perceptive, calm and original thinkers on politics and history of recent times. As his motor neurone disease worsened, his output became all the more urgent and Ill Fares The Land, published in March, is an astonishingly clear-sighted and keenly argued book on the state and future of British and US politics. The paperback isn’t out until April, but if you’re still short of a Christmas present, this is well worth the hard cover it comes in. This quote, from towards the end of the book, is a brief and valuable axiom that is worth noting:

“If we remain grotesquely unequal, we shall lose all sense of fraternity: and fraternity, for all its fatuity as a political objective, turns out to be the necessary condition of politics itself.”

For some reason I remain a fairly infrequent cinema-goer, but Giorgos Lanthimos’s Kynodontas (Dogtooth) was a shocking and alienating experience that had some fellow members of the audience laughing in discomfort and others sitting stiff with tension. Werner Herzog’s latest, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, struck a pleasingly inane note in its treatment of a classic cinema situation: the hostage stand-off. The sound of Washington Phillips’s ‘I Am Born To Preach The Gospel’ emanating from a tinny radio over a long shot of gathered policemen, weapons cocked, (when at this point the audience already realises that the hostages are a pair of pet flamingoes), render this cliché gloriously ridiculous. On a much lighter note, Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar’s Panique au village (A Town Called Panic) had all ages reeling at its slapstick, claymation comedy:

Joanna Newsom, Have One On Me [album cover]

Finally, the runaway album of the year in terms of how often I piped it into my ears, was Joanna Newsom’s Have One on Me. Managing somehow to follow up the twee coarseness of The Milk-Eyed Mender and the breadth and scope of Ys with a triple album of tight songs that demonstrate a noticeably stronger and more mature voice, Newsom proves herself to be an undeniably masterful musician.

And that’s all for this year. Here’s to new sights and sounds in 2011.

The Inward Beauty of Helmut Lachenmann

Lachenmann at 75: Inward Beauty Poster

In celebration of Helmut Lachenmann’s 75th birthday, University of Manchester new music ensemble Vaganza are presenting two concerts of his music this Friday. A free lunchtime concert will see Ad Solem Chamber Choir perform Lachenmann’s Consolation II alongside works by students, including Tom Coult and Joy Chou. The evening sees a more thorough examination of Lachenmann’s early music with performances of Trio fluido, Guero, Wiegenmusik and Notturno. To complete the focus, former student and scholar of Lachenmann Matthias Hermann, from the Musikhochschule Stuttgart, is giving a talk at 2pm on the Thursday on composition techniques in Notturno. That is followed at 4.15pm by a panel discussion and open forum on the importance of timbre as a structural parameter in contemporary music.

For those of you equipped with 2011 diaries, it is also worth noting that Lachenmann’s temA will be performed by Trio Atem (formed for that very work) on 17 March and the university’s string quartet in residence Quatuor Danel will be performing all three Lachenmann quartets between January and May. I will be talking with the Danels on that very topic on 20 January.

I was asked to write programme notes for the Lachenmann works being performed this Friday and thought it might be interesting to post them here, along with videos or recordings where available. However, this is music to which first-hand listening is essential, so I would urge you to get to the Martin Harris Centre later this week.

Concert 1 (1.10pm)

Consolation II, for 16 voices (1968)

The late ‘60s saw Lachenmann focus heavily on writing for voice, composing Consolations I and II (1967 and ’68 respectively) and the trio temA, for flute, voice and cello (1968), something he didn’t return to until the 1990s with his opera Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern (1990-96). It has been suggested that in periods of rapid development the physicality of the voice and the framework of a text have supported avant-garde composers in their experimentation. Arnold Schoenberg led the way with works such as Pierrot lunaire and the Vier Lieder für Gesang und Orchester at crucial points in his development, the same can be said of Anton Webern, and later Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berio and Luigi Nono all turned to the voice at turning points in their respective musical languages. The late ‘60s marks Lachenmann’s coming of age as a composer and the development of the first stage of his mature style, so perhaps it is no surprise that he found himself beginning to explore his newly coined idea of ‘musique concrète instrumentale’ with the help of singers.

Consolation II sets an eighth-century prayer known as the Wessobrunner Gebet and, in a fashion not uncommon for the 1960s, fragments the semantic material, leaving only the phonetic material exposed as the bare bones of the text. The prayer’s 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.

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

Mortal wonder as the greatest was confided in me
That there was neither the earth nor the heaven above
Nor was there any tree nor mountain
Neither the sun, nor any light
Nor the moon gleam
Nor the glorious sea.
When there was nothing
No ending and no limits
There was the One Almighty God

Concert 2 (7.30pm)

Trio fluido, for clarinet, viola and percussion (1966)

Though written six years after Lachenmann left Venice and full-time study with Luigi Nono, Trio fluido is still heavily influenced by Nono’s punctualist music. Rather than accepting this concept fully, it explores the various potential developments of and escapes from such point-to-point writing. In the course of the work the separated sequence of sounds is gradually both dissolved and paralysed, pushing the music at different points into the extreme world of sparse, separated gestures common in his music as well as a more continuous, cohesive texture of blown, bowed, rubbed and stroked sounds. The kind of gestural material that is increasingly vital in Lachenmann’s later music is foreshadowed in Trio fluido by a form of pitch gesture where instruments move through narrower and wider fields of pitch, and the elevated importance of instrumental techniques and physical gesture also foreshadow his more complete move away from pitch that began not long after this piece was completed.

Guero — Study for Piano (1970)

Between 1968 and ’70, Lachenmann developed a more defined version of his language to describe which he coined the phrase ‘musique concrète instrumentale’. Having spent time during 1965 at the electronic music studios of the University of Ghent and written his only purely electronic piece Szenario, Lachenmann borrowed tape music pioneer Pierre Schaefer’s term ‘musique concrète’ meaning music constructed with concrete sound recordings rather than abstract notated structures and formulated a compositional approach that treated instruments and performed gestures as concrete physical instances, the energy of whose performance formed the structure of a work.

While developing this idea he wrote a series of solo studies that include Guero as well as Pression, for cello, and Dal niente, for clarinet. Each of these studies take as their starting point a thorough exploration of the instrument’s acoustic possibilities — inspired by a collection of short piano pieces by Alfons Kontarsky — and proceeds to build structures that reveal the mechanisms of performance. In his programme note, Lachenmann describes Guero as a ‘six-manual variant of the eponymous Latin American instrument’. The piece moves from the vertical surfaces of the white keys, to their horizontal surfaces, via the black keys into the piano, playing the pegs and finally the strings. An extreme example of Lachenmann’s concept of rejection — in which all familiar aspects of traditional instrumental technique are avoided — Guero is an attempt to build structure not from existing formulas but from the ground up, taking the concrete, rippling sound of the fingernails along the keys as its basic material.

Wiegenmusik [Cradle music], for piano (1963)

Trained originally as a classical pianist and still performing, Helmut Lachenmann has always had an important compositional relationship with the piano, having written a dozen solo, chamber and concertante works for the instrument. One of the earliest works still included in the official Lachenmann catalogue, Wiegenmusik is an early example of Lachenmann’s particular interest in stasis as a musical phenomenon. Unlike the repetitive stasis of Steve Reich or the weightless stasis of Morton Feldman, Lachenmann uses sparse textures to induce an atmosphere of tension and draw attention to small, precise, richly detailed sounds. Later works such as the Second String Quartet ‘Reigen seliger Geister’ (1989) or Mouvement (— vor der Erstarrung) (1982-84), for ensemble — which makes its theme (the shift from movement to paralysis) evident in its title — both take this concept to logical extremes. Consolation II and Notturno, both of which are performed tonight, also make use of this type of writing. In Wiegenmusik, Lachenmann takes a gentle approach, drawing on the idea of a child falling asleep as the work gradually falls into stillness. Like his earlier pieces for piano, Fünf Variationen über ein Thema von Franz Schubert (1956) and Echo Andante (1962), Wiegenmusik still treats the piano in a relatively traditional fashion. As you have heard, by 1970 with Guero Lachenmann was finding an altogether different way of making sound with a piano.

Notturno, for small orchestra with cello solo (1966-68)

Helmut Lachenmann writes of Notturno that it is ‘a meeting point for two different aesthetics: one older, which treats sound as the result and expression of abstract organisation concepts, and one newer, in which all organisation should serve a concrete and direct acoustic reality.’ The cello writing is close to the solo cello work Pression written the following year — for the same cellist, Italo Gomez — and mainly takes the latter approach, exploring the acoustic potential of the cello approached not as a traditional instrument but as a multifaceted sounding body.

Despite the extended solo passage that makes up the core of the work, the cello’s role is not so much as traditional soloist accompanied by a subservient orchestra but as a kind of leader and opener of doors, drawing the ensemble into different worlds and uncovering new perspectives. In a sense, the work is for a meta cello or extended cello as the ensemble all contribute to a unified sound, led and derived from the cello proper, a powerful realisation of Lachenmann’s suggestion that ‘composing means building an instrument’ and an intriguing take on the concertante tradition.

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