Transcendent - The Music of Helmut Lachenmann
Royal College of Music London
In his keynote lecture at the Royal College of Music*, Ian Pace emphasised that a decade ago a Lachenmann Festival would have been unthinkable there (or, I dare venture, at most of UK's other Academies and Colleges).
And maybe it could not have been financed and put on without a far reaching publicity exercise, which included a jokey RCM video Lachenmann for Beginners, a part of the RCM's remit to address "access for all".
Approaching this festival with some resistance and scepticism, as an eclectic listener to most sorts of 'serious' music, I feel my reactions are best placed as an Article (I failed to recruit a contemporary music expert to do justice to this enterprise).
The schedules of music teaching institutions are, perhaps, a good barometer to catch trends on the wing? Will young musicians who have been in the company of Helmut Lachenmann for a week revert to conservatism, who knows?
As I write, I am still basking in memories of Trinity C M's pioneering Rzewski Festival, and keenly awaiting the recording of its world premiere of The Road (will there ever be another? And more recently, the same College's Early Music Department excelling in music by Praetorius and a wide range of delectable performances by smaller ensembles.
I approached Lachenmann again with trepidation, recalling early memories of his iconoclastic reinvention of music at a Huddersfield Festival in the '80s. Having now sampled a master class, a concert and a rehearsal of the biggest event of them all I have a tentative perspective (but must offset it with memories of a beautiful String Quartet at Lucerne - No.3).
Rehearsals of Grido for string quartet (Lachenmann helped by members of the Arditti Quartet) and of Kontrakadenz for huge orchestra, with a multitude of unusual percussion and normal orchestral instruments played in ways they were never meant to be (fronting all the squeaks and noises which students normally take great pains to eliminate) were completely bewildering, and not helped by sight of the scores. What emerged importantly was Lachenmann's insistence on accuracy of every written detail, be it tuning and intonation, dynamic levels to an extent that seemed impossible to attain (or for ordinary listeners to know whether it has been achieved or not) No effete pianissimos, and accents were to be sharp like rockets. Humiliating it was to be unable to hear the differences between the students' efforts and the Ardittis demonstrating how some passages ought to go...
Beauty is not the first word to come to mind about Lachenmann's earlier radical scores, but it was absolutely the right one for meeting again Pression for solo cello, which in Huddersfield affronted me with the wilful denial of everything that the cello represents. But under the sensitive hands of Gabriela Swallow - student artist featured in the RCM Autumn brochure; her picture above with Lachenmann by Hugo Glendinning - the sounds explored on the body of the instrument and from the strings (over and under them) were exqusite and hauntingly memorable. Without my having heard her produce more than a single "normal" bow stroke in Pression, she persuaded me that she is a fine musician and cellist (c.f. my similar certainty formed in a "blink" about violinist Mieko Kanno, whilst she was tuning her violin before a PLG debut recital).
Before it, students of RCM, with three members of London Sinfonietta, presented in the Purcell Room a composition for combined groups of strings, wind and brass that they had created during the week; a great success, drawing on Lachenmann's methods without sounding too entirely derivative - more "normal" sounds to offset the experimentation with his unconventional sounds. Workshop leader Fraser Trainer explained that they had not had time to give the piece a name, and sought suggestions. Drawing upon common practice at contemporary art exhibitions, mine would be UNTITLED after Lachenmann 2006.
Peter Grahame Woolf
A reader's comment: As someone who knew nothing about Lachenmann’s music a year ago, I – and many of my colleagues here – have had a genuinely exhilarating experience entering, and learning about, his soundworld. It’s been a pleasure that I will hold for life to have spent much time in his company lately, and to have learnt directly from him about the vital and indeed compound ideas which inspire his art.
*Extracts from Ian Pace's lecture at RCM 16/11/2006, ‘AGAINST HABIT, FOR LISTENING':-
- - If there is one characteristic I would say runs throughout Lachenmann's diverse output, it is to do with the rejection of habitual and passive modes of listening, by producing work that it is impossible to engage with in such a manner. From the earliest works of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Lachenmann explored and developed what were generally perceived as marginalized aspects of instrumental sonority, especially to do with timbre and resonance. Lachenmann had developed a highly sophisticated musical language in which, most radically in the early works, a wide range of unusual instrumental sonorities, produced by extended performing techniques, were drawn into a highly intricate and even quasi-symphonic musical argument. Whilst the sonic surface of such works was quite unlike anything that had ever been produced before, the approach to musical structure as exists in time was arguably more rooted in ‘tradition', specifically the dialectical tradition of the Austro-German tradition
- - Lachenmann employs dialectical contrasts on many levels nowhere more radically than in what I believe to be the greatest of his earlier works, the first string quartet Gran Torso . If I play you the first few minutes, you hear very strong contrasts between hushed, extremely delicate sonorities on the edge of perception with strident fortissimo interspersions, long, minutely changing, sustained pitches and timbres set alongside short staccato sounds, a pair of quite wrenched attacks in quick succession in the cello and viola ‘answered' by a creeping pair of quieter sounds from the first violin in a way that parallels a classical antecedent-consequent relationship, and all the activity set against long silences. Lachenmann's early music especially situates itself at a profound distance from the sonic world associated with reified beauty and aestheticism, not (and this is one of the greatest misunderstandings) in order to simply hold a mirror up to an existing cultural wasteland nor, as has been claimed, to represent a musical ‘military hospital'. That would itself run the risk of becoming simply ‘an alien and “dissonant” shock, as an object of masochistic fascination for an audience whose attachment to traditional harmony remained unaffected' . The comfortable world of bourgeois culture can handle and absorb easy ‘shock' tactics, and indeed then pat itself on the back for its tolerance; what Lachenmann is doing is altogether more profound. He is taking sonorities marginalized or at least underemployed in yesteryear and employing dialectical structural processes in order to create new types of experience from these, in a way that can certainly be ‘beautiful', at least in my opinion.
- - Conventionally played and conventionally pitched sonorities are very much the exception rather than the rule in this work; most of the sounds emanate from bowing every part of the strings and the rest of the instrument other than that which is customary. The first violin is bowing exclusively on the back of their instrument for the first two pages, whilst the others bow in various places around the fingerboard, only occasionally moving towards the ‘normal' area of the strings, as well as venturing further towards the bridge and tailpiece. And this is not unusual amongst Lachenmann's works of this period – some of you will have heard Pression and Guero earlier today and will know what I mean by this. - - the very unusual nature of the ways in which such sounds are physically produced from the instruments itself becomes a foregrounded aspect of the music in live performance (and I believe the theatrical aspect of Lachenmann's works to be utterly fundamental, in a way that is lost in recordings).
- - In aesthetic terms, such concepts as ‘beauty' and ‘taste' are viewed by certain types of self-styled aesthetes as ahistorical objective entities, upon which they have a monopoly in terms of discernment. This often goes hand in hand with their own class or educational background, making out as if their own inherited, learned and particular notions of ‘taste' are universal absolutes. This is reification pure and simple. Lachenmann's work, on the other hand, as well as many of his writings, opposes reified notions of the ‘beautiful', the ‘musical' and so on. An objectified concept of the ‘beautiful' is both anti-historical and anti-subjective.
- - Lachenmann's early music especially situates itself at a profound distance from the sonic world associated with reified beauty and aestheticism, not (and this is one of the greatest misunderstandings) in order to simply hold a mirror up to an existing cultural wasteland or as has been said, a musical ‘military hospital'. That would itself run the risk of becoming simply ‘an alien and “dissonant” shock, as an object of masochistic fascination for an audience whose attachment to traditional harmony remained unaffected' . The comfortable world of bourgeois culture can handle and absorb easy ‘shock' tactics, and indeed then pat itself on the back for its tolerance; what Lachenmann is doing is altogether more profound. He is taking sonorities marginalized or at least underemployed in yesteryear and employing dialectical structural processes in order to create new types of experience from these, in a way that can certainly be ‘beautiful', at least in my opinion.
- - I recall, when working with Helmut on Serynade , spending at least an hour working on getting the right type of sound when scraping a nail across a low string of the piano, and from what I hear about the workshops on the string quartets earlier this week, the demands made there were no less fastidious! Is this simply a way of allowing reified notions of the ‘beautiful' in by the back door? I do not believe so, because these aspects of sonic quality are to be measured not merely according to ahistorical notions of ‘beauty' which happen to be applied to new types of sounds, but are fundamentally predicated upon the particular context and meaning thus generated; as such this type of ‘beauty' defines itself most fundamentally in opposition to the arbitrary . So there can certainly be harshness or even violence present within such a construction of the ‘beautiful', but in such a way that it can play a part in a wider musical argument. It is the totality of the work (which itself may be fragmentary, as I will comment on further), to be viewed in terms of categories of the ‘beautiful', rather than simply some of its individual details. Lachenmann is in no sense denying the importance of emotion in music, just questioning the value of second-hand, unmediated, collective emotions expressed passively through the reified tropes of already-existing music. .
- - In works from the 1980s - - Lachenmann integrates aspects of a tonal vocabulary (sometimes as simple as triadic chords) to an increasing degree (though some such elements can be found in his earliest works as well) and various types of gestures, even hackneyed ones such as particular types of runs, but always in a dialogue with other quite opposed musical elements, in such a way as to portray each in a different light and, to my ears, show new possibilities in the materials over and above their reified meanings.
- - If I am to say that Lachenmann's music has a fragmentary and incomplete nature, I mean that as a positive virtue, not in any sense a critique. And this is a quality that can be found in a large amount of earlier music, whether in the enigmatic late piano pieces of Liszt, in Schumann's many fragmentary, literary-inspired works or in late quartets and piano sonatas of Beethoven.
(Arditti Quartet at Lucerne 2002)- - After an interminably austere 38 min 'Fragment' (sic) by Nono, a composer to whom I am rarely able to relate, the Arditti Quartet dazzled, overwhelmingly, with Helmut Lachenmann's Grido (2001/2002). In his programme essay Lachenmann does not discuss the new quartet, but talks of the 'fear and pleasure' of composing and his compulsion to find 'inner spaces for a new music'. Having thought he had 'dealt with' the of quartet writing in his first and second quartets, he surprised himself - 'the ordinary becomes strange again when the creative will becomes engaged and we are blind and dumb'. Knowing only a portion of Lachenmann's output and how he tends to negate and avoid traditional ways of making instruments sound, I was intrigued by how carefully the Ardittis tuned before beginning. That this had not been superfluous soon became clear in a half hour's continuous, eventful and uniquely euphonious celebration of what Lachenmann seems to have conceived, and reinvented as is his way - a single instrument with limitless timbral possibilities mediated by eight hands and twenty digits, bringing forth a cornucopia of beautiful sounds. If the string quartet cycle by the Canadian R Murray Schafer was my latest discovery of music composed at the end of the last century for this inexhaustible medium, Lachenmann's No.3 (The Cry) is the one to represent it in the new - - -
Modern art (in the widest sense) sets out to ask fundamental questions; these questions make problematic the relationship between nature and representation. As the much-quoted but still useful Formalist expression runs ‘Art makes the strange familiar and the familiar strange.' - - Lachenmann's inheritance is straight from standard modernism. He was a pupil of Luigi Nono; his project is expressly to deconstruct music into sounds, then reconstruct those sounds; innovating in terms of unusual uses of instruments, and the incorporation of extraneous sounds into an integrated aural world. Music, for him, is the totality of that sound world (it might include the noise of fans or the central heating, which he experiences as also beautiful). Lachenmann is from a philosophical background of materialism, of the Frankfurt School. He builds from the ground up.