Bits I can remember from Saturday’s talk by Helmut Lachenmann

Thursday 28 October 2010

Composition is largely an act of constructing an instrument.


Emotion arises in the conflict between the structure of the music and the structure of the listener.


Growing up during The War, you would turn on the radio and hear an announcer valorising the dead of Stalingrad for their sacrifice in defense of the Fatherland, followed by Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. When the death of the Führer was announced it was followed by the Siegfrieds Tod. Music was used as a tool to remove thought. This was the millieu of the post-war avant-garde.


Favourite title is Morton Feldman’s The Viola in My Life.


“There are no electronics in my life.”


The piano doesn’t play the melody, the melody plays the piano.


Study with Nono was impossible. Everything was an imperialist relic of capitalist oppression. One note followed by another note was a melody, which was bourgeois. How could he work himself free from these strictures? [cf. Feldman telling his students he wanted to make composition impossible for them.]


Teaching about beauty in art to class of schoolchildren, he brought in a photograph of Gina Lollobrigida and a print of Albrecht Dürer’s mother and asked which was more beautiful. The class hesitated, unsure of what answer he wanted to hear. One girl whispered to her friend, “The ugly one’s more beautiful.”

Helmut Lachenmann at Southbank (part 2)

Wednesday 27 October 2010

(Sorry for the delay – it was a long dinner. Part one is here.)

That’s the problem when you take an immediate liking to something you don’t fully understand: as you find out more about it you’re likely to be disappointed, as the reality fails to tally with the happy imaginings you’ve projected into the gaps of your knowledge. I remember feeling a little underwhelmed when I was at the premiere of Grido, Lachenmann’s third string quartet, back in 2001. It sounded too much like yet another European intellectual, railing against the past while hopelessly entangled in it. Walter Benjamin’s destructive, cheerful character was in scant evidence. The rest of the concert included something by Wolfgang Rihm and Schoenberg’s 2nd quartet, the latter of which showed up the others as still relearning a lesson ninety years old.

I know he’s revised it a bit since then, but Grido sounded very different to my ears this time around. Perhaps the different context helped. As mentioned last time, Lachenmann spoke of how a new field of sounds, however abundant, inevitably becomes a sort of prison over time. Grido became an attempt by Lachenmann to escape from his own musical past, retaining his voice while allowing fuller, “proper” musical sounds into the music. Okay, he actually wrote it that way because Irvine Arditti wanted a louder piece (his arm gets tired, don’t you know).

Other people I know were dismayed by the most recent piece, Got Lost for soprano and piano. It’s a long but slight work, which requires Sarah Leonard to produce a range of clicks, hisses and gasps while singing a text pulverised into scattered phonemes – a panoply of classic techniques from the 60s avant-garde. Nevertheless, I admired the skillful interplay between the voice and piano, while others bemoaned it as a capitulation to the conservative forces of the Establishment.

The pianist, Rolf Hind, returned in his iridescent green shirt to perform Ausklang with a greatly embiggened London Sinfonietta. My favourite Lachenmann shares a quality with that of Luigi Nono’s late music, a sense of unstructured timelessness in which sounds appear, half-appear, and disappear as they do in life, seeking no external justification for their existence. (It was good to learn later that Lachenmann had indeed studied with Nono.) As a practical necessity, Ausklang requires more forthright gestures from the piano for it to be heard against the orchestra, however sibilantly they may play. At first, a series of disjointed, blocky sounds come from the piano, amidst occasional abortive runs at virtuosity. It feels like this could quickly become very tedious.

At nearly an hour long, Ausklang fortunately doesn’t seek to wear the listener down; rather it takes on a life of its own. The music rises up, falls back to a prolonged whisper, recedes to an almost intractable stasis before gradually recovering into animation – all while seeming part of one unbroken, organic process. The motivation for esacpe and the inertia of the orchestra’s apparatus are held in an unesay equilibrium. Under intense observation from the audience, the sense of an internal logic began to emerge. In the Royal Festival Hall, the audience listened with the same intensity as they had to that first quartet.

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.)

Please Mister Please CV

Thursday 21 October 2010

Donnie & The Outcasts, “Big Fat Alaskan” (1965).
(2’16”, 5.19 MB, mp3)

Tuning Update

Thursday 21 October 2010

I think I’ve settled on a tuning system for my Bionic Ear Institute piece. It’s a tricky thing. I’m trying to build up pitches based on overtones of a fundamental frequency. Each electrode in a cochlear implant is designed to respond to only a certain bandwidth of frequencies. The range of bandwidths used mean that certain parts of the scale will be received and interpreted differently, depending on which octave you play in.

Luckily, Robin Fox has sent me an implant simulator, which I am now using to test out different harmonies and combinations. Of course, the interaction of overtones with the cochlear implant becomes more complex still when differentiating between different instrumental timbres.

I think I made some music last night.

Saturday 16 October 2010

I’m not sure. I’m supposed to be working on this piece for the Bionic Ear Institute, but it always seems to be the case that when I work on one piece, I soon get sidetracked into starting another piece. This second piece will usually get finished first.

This time, the second piece was left behind while I started a third piece. I got some way into making this third piece when I broke off. Sometimes you come up with a few pretty sounds when preparing your material and you want to stop, afraid that they’ll get lost in the composition. I’m listening again now to the source material I prepared last night and I don’t want to do any of the things I had planned for it.

Morton Feldman said “material reigns supreme” and boasted that he kept “construction” in his music to a minimum, but this is an oversimplification of his technique: he also criticised music for not being composition, just wallowing in timbre. The material he allowed into his music was kept under strict control.

Particularly because I work with computers and electronics, I always have a question in the back of my head: “Is this too easy?” Listening to it I wonder if it’s too obvious, in its material and its construction. I think it has an effect on the listener but I’m not sure if that’s because it’s relying on some old, familiar trick. Since I’ve mentioned Feldman, I’ll also bring up his question, “Is music art?” Another one of his questions: when is a piece finished?

I was trying to make art, and by stopping now I’m not sure if I’ve made art or just achieved an amusing effect. It seems wrong to go any further with it. This is one of those pieces I have to set aside and listen to now and again until I can get some perspective on it, either to see through its superficial appeal or recognise the strength in its apparent simplicity.

Robert Poss, “Settings”

Tuesday 12 October 2010

I love receiving swag, and I’ve been listening to so much capital-A Arty Stuff lately, so I was happy to get hold of a copy of Robert Poss’ new CD, “Settings”. My knowledge of Poss’ music didn’t go much beyond him being that bloke from the Band of Susans who I’ve heard play Phill Niblock’s music, so the neat photo of pedal porn on the front cover was encouraging.

This album’s subtitled “Music For Dance, Film, Fashion and Industry”, but it’s more than just a grab-bag of background music for completists. The fourteen tracks build up into a varied and substantial body of music with some unexpected twists and turns.

You might get that Brian Eno Music for Films vibe over the first few tracks: relatively short pieces of sustained guitars and rin gongs made for Alexandra Beller/Dances. If you’re anticipating a collection of more-or-less variegated slabs of guitar drone, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the shifts in tone and style, such as the chiming guitar patterns in “Concordance”, which reappear later as a sinister set of interlocking piano loops in the darker “Border Piano Walk”. Brooding, atmospheric guitar-based tracks like “Inverness” are contrasted by the tumbling reverse samples that make up “Trio (excerpt)” and the undulating flute from which “Stare Decisis” builds.

I could do without the brief intrusions of tablas at a couple of points, and some of the synth patches used grate in one or two places, but that’s probably just me being a snob. The thing is, the more elaborate and ambitious pieces such as “Tourniquet Revisited” confirm what I already had come to believe, that I’m listening to fully-formed music by a serious composer, not just some muso noodling around (or droning on, in this case) to fill out the time.

Occasionally in the past I’ve struggled with the critical distinction so casually made between Proper Composition – which usually means stuff played in concert halls – and music like on Poss’ CD. (The reviews section of The Wire magazine helpfully illustrates this distinction in reverse, sequestering certain discs in a subsection headed “Modern Composition”.) Listening to this album reminded me why I usually conclude that attempts to rationalise this distinction are futile.

Please Mister Please CIV

Sunday 10 October 2010

Anthony Gnazzo, “First Things First” (1975).
(1’00”, 1.35 MB, mp3)

This sukkah’s coming down

Sunday 10 October 2010

Well it’s about time! I presume they save the wood for next year.

Neither The Drift Nor The Sky At Night

Thursday 7 October 2010

How long do these sukkahs stay up for? Wikipedia tells me “a week” but my neighbours on both sides have had theirs in the backyard for nearly a month now. Maybe they’re following some secret, extra-pious rule like the Vatican do by waiting until February to clear away their nativity tat.

Barely cognisant of my own religion, let alone anyone else’s, I was intrigued when the neighbours started constructing what appeared to be a large plywood box on their back lawn. For a few days I imagined that Scott Walker was about to start recording a new album in my street, or that the local kids who play in the yard were about to be saturated with orgones. No-one had ever told me that the Jewish religion obliges its followers to perform annual DIY.

You’ll have noticed the railings above the roof, showing that the local sukkahs have been adapted to suit British conditions: a tarpaulin can easily be drawn over the traditional branches covering the roof, to keep out the rain. This also explained the unusual addition permanently attached to the shed on the other next-door neighbours’ house.

When I first moved in I noticed the translucent roof mounted on pulleys and assumed the residents were keen amateur astronomers, who kept a telescope handy for backyard stargazing. Nope. Another retractable roof to keep the branches dry. Although it does seem a bit like cheating to have a permanent lean-to on your house and just chuck some branches on top when sukkot rolls around each year for Instant Sukkah.

Please Mister Please CIII

Friday 1 October 2010

Stefan Wolpe, “Second Piece for Violin Alone” (1966). Curtis Macomber, violin.
(2’58” 4.20 MB, mp3)

Please Mister Please

Wednesday 29 September 2010

will return on Friday. Along with more new content.

Mail Bag: an urgent request

Tuesday 28 September 2010

In my email today:

Subject: Urgently Needed

Good Day,

My name is Kelvin Mcdowells,I would like to make an inquiry based on your products. Do you carry Piano in stock for sales?

Hang on, I’ll just check under the bed…. Nope. I used to have one, but I couldn’t sneak it out past my landlady when I moved.

If you do, can you kindly get back at me as soon as possible and let me know the price ranges availability for the Piano.Also please advise the type of Piano that you do have when you don’t have what i am requesting What type of credit cards do you accept for all orders Looking forward to hear back from you as soon as possible.

Best Regards,

I’ll get back at you,you nugatory nincompoop.Also please see below some of the many wonderful pianos I have when I don’t have any pianos Please send bacon.

Otherwise, try getting in touch with this guy.

These are not the minimalists you’re looking for.

Saturday 25 September 2010

So I was listening to music last night and this question popped into my head, how come all the minimalists pussied out? Of course I immediately realised this was the wrong question, but it was wrong for more than one reason.

The most obvious reason, natch, is that there are minimalists and there are minimalists. I don’t want to get into an argument about who’s a True Scotsman, but minimalism is an unusual musical influence in as much as the label can be applied fairly accurately to more than three people and the most famous examples aren’t necessarily the most representative. This leads to the other reason: when I gratuitously accused all these many fine composers of the nebulous crime of pussying out, I was thinking of the Big Famous Minimalists. You know, the ones with movie soundtracks and orchestra commissions and tasteful album covers*.

Okay, so maybe these Big Famous Minimalists are really just sloppy old-fashioned romantics with more taste than imagination when it comes to matters of harmony and rhythm. In which case, the question becomes how the hell did these boring old farts manage to write some amazingly cool music for a few years back in the 70s? Those old Glass and Reich pieces sound at least as extraordinary today as when they first appeared, not least because they were produced by the same tedious fusspots who churn out pricey aural wallpaper today.

What I’m really trying to say here is that I’m surprised at how my perception of Terry Riley has changed over the years. When I was young and arrogant I thought less of his music ‘cos he seemed a bit woolly-minded (his website doesn’t help) and too interested in aimlessly noodling around. Now I’m old and dismissive I notice that while his sometime peers got respectable and boring, he’s still noodling away – with a better sense of adventure, formal rigour and musicianship than the Movie Music guys.

I guess the old hippie ethos of being true to yourself can pay off if you stick to it, and there’s something to be said for repetition.

* Unless you’re Philip Glass.

“I want to believe the beautiful lies the past spreads out like a feast.”

Thursday 23 September 2010