Helmut Lachenmann at Southbank (part 1)

Monday 25 October 2010

We still don’t really get Helmut Lachenmann, do we? OK, you all understand him but I don’t – sorry about the journalist’s “we”. He has one of the most distinctive voices of the post-war European avant-garde, but it’s difficult working out exactly what that voice is saying.

Lachenmann is famous for his extensive use of extended playing techniques in his music – sometimes almost to the exclusion of any “normal” sounds. This makes him a rather obvious marker for the designated cutting-edge of European concert hall music. His apparent disregard for convention can easily be perceived as nihilism, but this perception is tempered by the delicacy of the sounds he coaxes from his instruments. The word ‘sussurus’ could have been invented just to describe a recurring texture in his music, created by stringed instruments brushed with the wood of the bow, or unpitched air blown through the brass. Nevertheless, he can still divide even the most culturally sophisticated audience.

He was in town over the weekend for a short series of concerts commemorating his 75th birthday. The highlights were the first and last pieces played. Hearing Gran Torso, his first string quartet, performed live was a revelatory experience. It was so quiet! Long passages of hushed, almost inaudible wisps of sound blended together as the Arditti Quartet made minute gestures over various parts of their instruments. I was in the fourth row and was straining to hear; god knows what the people up the back of the Queen Elizabeth Hall made of it.

What were we listening to? Or, what were we listening for? It would be easy to say that this music is an attempt at negation of musical tradition, an understandable position for a post-war German artist to take. In an interview after the concert, Lachenmann returned several times to the idea of escape, although he didn’t name it as such. He spoke of how a new field of sounds, however abundant, inevitably becomes a sort of prison over time. Gran Torso is an attempt at escape from, not a negation of, tradition.

The long, still section in the middle of the piece cannot help but suggest the sound of breathing – as natural and as imperceptible. I may hear it as a vindication of John Cage’s aesthetic of imitating nature’s manner of operation; you may hear it is the irresolvable impasse of attempts to escape tradition through the means of the very embodiment of that tradition. Part of the problem may be that when listening to Lachenmann, we hear what we want to hear.

(Continued tomorrow – my casserole’s ready. UPDATE: Part two.)