Working backwards through summer: the Proms, part 1

Monday 16 September 2013

I was excessively busy with boring workaday stuff this summer, but I did get to see a few shows besides the LCMF. This year’s Proms season was sadly of the festival these days: the most interesting concert started at 10 on a Monday night, a Birtwistle premiere on a Monday afternoon.

The programming of Helmut Lachenmann’s Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied as an opener for the Mahler Fifth was such a welcome surprise that it’s almost churlish to pass comment that this was the first time this 33-year old piece has been played in the UK. Almost. I’ve always carried in my head the idea that there are two Lachenmanns: one who writes music which suffers from the intrusion of high concepts and philosophical temporising on the decline of Western culture, and another whose music transcends didactic underpinnings to present the listener with an elemental, unknowable sound-world that may be terrifying or sublime. I prefer the latter and always considered Tanzsuite as the prime example of the former.

In the recordings I’ve heard the piece always struck me as scratchy and thin, unusually monotonous. The music seemed to be a prisoner of its structural conceit and strained in places to fill that structure out. In person, however, the sound was much fuller, richer and varied. This was largely in part to the performers: the inevitable Arditti Quartet and, better still, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Nott. It wasn’t just the physical presence of the orchestra which brought the piece to life; the interpretation was committed, compelling, and built a dramatic narrative throughout the piece that had previously sounded like a rote recitation through the “suite of dances”.

I remember being able to hear some traces of the actual dance rhythms and the German anthem, or at least their pulverised remnants, in the recordings. No luck spotting any of the tunes that night: perhaps that’s the consequence of having an orchestra which fully inhabited the work without needing to rely on the programmatic aspects as a crutch. Perhaps I just haven’t been listening. I don’t expect to hear it played better.

Even more surprising was the response of the punters in the Albert Hall. I expected most of them were there for the Mahler after interval, and waited for large patches of the audience to offer the half-heartedly polite applause which is the British music lover at its most scathing. It was wonderful to hear instead almost universal enthusiasm, loud and prolonged, followed even more incredibly by wild cheers as Lachenmann himself descended from the loggia to the stage. Seems like it wasn’t just me who was won over.

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.)