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Fear of…? Essayistic Miniatures on Grido

Hans-Peter Jahn-Bossert Published online: 15 Sep 2010.

To cite this article: Hans-Peter Jahn-Bossert (2005) Fear of … ? Essayistic Miniatures on Grido , Contemporary Music Review, 24:1, 31-38, DOI: 10.1080/074944604200293583

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Contemporary Music Review Vol. 24, No. 1, February 2005, pp. 31 – 38

Music Review Vol. 24, No. 1, February 2005, pp. 31 – 38 Fear .? Essayistic Miniatures

Fear

.? Essayistic Miniatures on

Grido

Hans-Peter Jahn-Bossert (translated by Wieland Hoban)

My article focuses on one of Helmut Lachenmann’s most recent works, the third string quartet Grido. I discuss it in the manner of a discourse, placing it within the context of his previous two string quartets. I also allude to some possibilities regarding another meaning of the ambiguous title.

Keywords: Conventions; Listening; Munch; String Quartet; Techniques

For me, composing always means, if not solving a problem, then certainly confronting a trauma with fear/pleasure, and through such challenges to compositional technique—both felt and presumed—creating a sounding situation that is, if not new, then at least foreign to me, one in which I can lose myself and so rediscover myself all the more. This may sound very private, but this problem, this trauma each time embodies in a new manner the categorical question concerning the possibility of an authentic music in a situation where this notion seems collectively administrated and which has become questionable through its ubiquity and total availability in a civilisation flooded and saturated with music (a form of aurally-staged magic for household use) and dulled by the standardisation of professional service. This problem area and this questionable nature form parts of an unconsciously recognised and repressed reality; it is the outside of our own no less real—repressible, yet also recognizable—inner yearning for free spaces for the perceiving mind: for new music. (Helmut Lachenmann, 2002)

I

If we are now to turn to the long-obsolete discussion and speak of the established misunderstanding of the ‘denial of beauty’, then it must be said that any aesthetically founded compositional opposition to the conventional dead ends of composition loses effect with time, and—hurrying to keep in step—increasingly awakens new culinary needs among listeners as an alternative to the established existing phenomena. The unestablished also establishes itself, irreverently grinning back at the deniers once the substance for that establishment has boiled down within the

ISSN 0749-4467 (print)/ISSN 1477-2256 (online) ª 2005 Taylor & Francis Ltd DOI: 10.1080/074944604200293583

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32 H.-P. Jahn-Bossert (trans. W. Hoban)

work, beyond any trends or movements. The auditorium imagined and projected theoretically by Helmut Lachenmann time and again, which submits to the yoke of established conventions, is increasingly absent from the prisons of subscription concerts. Meanwhile—at least on the European continent—there are a large number of organisational enclaves in which Lachenmann is celebrated, honoured and admired in the way that, in the historical past of music, it was customary to celebrate, honour and admire composers. One can attribute this to inextinguishable admiration, or accept it and reach a differentiated comparison between the degrees of enthusiasm. Effusion, hypocrisy, show and sycophancy should be distinguished from acclaim, affection, joy and the resulting insight. It is enthusiasm, that ability that implodes in the tunnel of impressiveness, only later to explode in reflection. The audience’s eagerness cannot be explained away, especially as enthusiasm lives out and savours a passionate love of its object in the most vital form. The negation of such enthusiasm, and its misinterpretation as a demand made of music by specialised aural gourmets, would itself become a fossilised expectation. It would be odd, and at the same time terribly vain, if Lachenmann had not—in keeping with his experience— constantly rethought and transformed his own repeatedly postulated critiques of listening, his variety of theoretical standpoints and theses. ‘I want to be loved’—as Hans Werner Henze once maintained to Lachenmann in a discussion, to the approving laughter of the audience—does not apply to the neediness of the composer of Grido. But it is beyond doubt that his work calls to be grasped, questioned and understood during and after listening. The fact that, in the year 2004, the present now seems to look favourably on the untimely work of Lachenmann cannot, therefore, be attributed to miscomprehension among those perceiving it. The listeners of the present have progressed (at least that tiny portion of listeners recruited from the 2 per cent of culturally disposed individuals within the classical field in Germany—which could in fact be as many as 100,000 listeners). And they have done this also because they appreciate Helmut Lachenmann’s perspective on the social relevance of music and its reflex against its contradictions. With this appreciation and the insight offered by it, the mode of listening among this music’s listeners has changed. It is no betrayal of Helmut Lachenmann’s compositions if they cause the listener’s soul to shatter; if emotion, complete immersion and captivation initially render even the shrewdest of theorists speechless. This emotional or spiritual condition does not, in the reflected consciousness described above, consume music as a form of aural scone to accompany tea-time listening, but rather absorbs it in order for it to take effect in the only place it can: in the gardens of innocence, in the paradisiacal corridors of insight.

II

There is scarcely a more thoughtless statement than ‘everything is a question of time’, because everything that seeks to stand apart from the manner in which a given time can understand and experience it becomes a part of the subsequent time vocabulary

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Contemporary Music Review 33

of things that ‘came too late’. No truth-content can escape from its usability, its effect or its potential for wilful appropriation. In this manner, the work conceived for a quite different purpose in time loses the directionality intended by the composer. Everything that is fixed and directed is bent towards the one and only end of availability and thus becomes fundamentally comprehensible for the general public. Art lags behind the times. But this disconsolate word of comfort does not aid the work in its radical relevance. Never again will it wipe clean with such uncomprehended violence the nerves of the abused listeners as it did at the moment of its sonic inception.

III

The accusation levelled at contemporary music time and again that it draws its significance primarily—or often even solely—from its theoretical-analytical offshoots is a grave prejudice and reveals ignorance in the face of the wealth offered by a

comprehensive conquest of the work

sentiments, but also with the coordinative laboratory of the intellect. In all fields one finds social change being reflected upon. None of those who seeks to understand the complexity of the modern world still desires to trivialise, with obtuse repression, real disasters as inevitable and willed by God. Thinking about thinking forms part of the inventory of an educated person. It belongs to the hearing of what is heard. In this sense, verbal reflection on composition is not intended as a substitute for the work, but rather as its interpretation. The fact that analysts are extremely varied in quality is a truism—in all fields, one should add, also in those of psychotherapeutic couch treatment or research into the future. In this sense, the quality of a significant composition can indeed correspond to the quality of the analysis, but it need not do so. There are analyses, however, that in their quirkiness reject all academic routine and instead follow the intuition provoked by the object of analysis. With the countless analyses of Helmut Lachenmann’s music, one finds a style of reflection and interpretation becoming established that subserviently follows the composer’s own terms, squandering the chance for precisely what he aims for: an independent confrontation of the works with one’s own individual intellectual apparatus. It is only rarely that the perspective on the work is of a surprising, non- conformist nature. Musicologists, too, are afraid to assert their competence against the schools of nomenclature.

not only with our ears, the capillaries of our

IV

The scrupulous inventions that are Lachenmann’s works have one thing in common:

they all have the same birthing pains. There is no work that was not born under the burden of compulsive despair. Part of this ritual of doubt is the shock that arises upon re-encountering one’s own vocabulary, or the irrational longing for that finally conquered newness, written in the same way, yet differently, or all forms of

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34 H.-P. Jahn-Bossert (trans. W. Hoban)

distraction. Probably the most well known of these—and the one that Lachenmann least denies, as he lives and constantly reclaims it—is that of the supervisor of musicians learning his works. He follows every string quartet, every clarinettist, pianist, indeed every conductor learning a Lachenmann score for the first time, convinced that he is indispensable for the realisation of his works. The playing techniques and their transcription in the scores require the mediator—this one man who knows how it should be done. Through this banality of supervision, the composer loses the most precious thing he has: time for composing. All the same, these corrective measures are taken by the composer to produce remarkable results. There is hardly a body of work that is frequently played as sloppily and imprecisely as

Lachenmann’s. The supervision of rehearsals does not gain its compulsive aspect through a psychotic contingency; it is rather the carelessness of performers that leads

to the compulsions and the inscriptions that form the notation. Other rituals of distraction are maintained when the former are not required:

compulsions to respond to letters, contributions to colloquia, essays for particularly obstinate supplicants, telephone conversations in which this unselfish, generous man can on occasions lament for hours about those rituals that he sees through, and which cause him to despair when he seeks to discard them. Now, such publications of an accompanying process before, during and after composing are not to be attributed to

a despicable prying into the private sphere. No: the composer lives them and

postulates them as the most natural thing in the world, within the social space surrounding him. In this sense, studying a work also requires a personal study. It helps to understand better the tragedy between the composer’s work and his painful unease at his own creation. After all, not a single work—since Kontrakadenz (Lachenmann was unknown before it)—was to be accepted by its creator during its compositional process and after the first performance. The birth of a work was—and is—first of all always accompanied by a character assassination of the newborn.

V

Comparing Lachenmann’s three string quartets with one another, one finds a process

in which the sounding-out of sonic material, the fields in which perforated sounds

are subjected to continuous transformation, are gradually neglected in favour of ‘coming home’ to the unimpaired sound or tone. Whereas the mere title of Gran Torso already conveys its compositional message, and the abused material is collated and reassembled to form one colossal torso, and whereas the title of Reigen seliger Geister alludes ironically to Christoph Willibald von Gluck’s work of the same name and to the lost idyll of joyful bliss, and in compositional terms explores consistently the effects of an arpeggiating Aeolian harp overtonality, as well as an intervallic randomness resulting from an arbitrary scordatura, in the sonic mists and in the aggregate state of white noise, it is music that speaks out in Grido. For the first time

since his earliest compositions—and the last time in temA—we find once more a work by Helmut Lachenmann involving the confrontation between the undistorted

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Contemporary Music Review 35

tone (where the strings are allowed to vibrate freely) and the multitude of noises explored and refined to perfection over many years, with the larger part consisting of natural sounds. And this is what is new in Lachenmann’s string quartets: in Grido, there is such an interplay of intervallic constellations that one can speak of a harmonic principle.

I thought I had overcome the string quartet trauma with these two works, especially after dealing with this formation almost exactly between the two in 1980 in my Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied, a sort of concerto for string quartet and orchestra. And now? What does Robinson Crusoe do once he thinks he has conquered his (his?) island? Does he settle down once more, return to a pleasant middle-class lifestyle in the ambiance of his choice? Should he tear down what he has erected himself, should he leave his nest? What does the eternal wanderer do once he has found paths through even the roughest of terrain?

He exposes himself and writes his Third String Quartet. Because the self-satisfied

air is deceptive: nothing has been

all to a goal. Because this goal is nowhere but here, where the familiar becomes foreign once more through its friction with the creative will – and we are deaf and

dumb. (Lachenmann, 2002)

Paths in art lead nowhere, least of

The vocabulary he uses when composing for strings consists of a variety of harmonic and harmonic-like effects and their counterpart, an archive of sound variants produced through bow pressure, as well as chains of 16th or 32nd notes racing through the pitch space, or different positions of the bow upon the strings. In Grido, Helmut Lachenmann expands this vocabulary through archaisms from music history:

through endlessly repetitive chains of notes, through centres that could be interpreted harmonically as a result of their clearly defined consonant quality, and through chords comprising stacked fourths and fifths, which—particularly in the last third of the piece—come to supplant all other effects. One can interpret this installing of familiar chordal elements within an unconventional string quartet development as a move forward into the hinterland, into the reservations of its origin—a return to the forsaken with new insight. Yet from the perspective of those who receive the lost one again, the one they have recovered has become incomprehensible. The more intensely he seeks to make himself understood, the more foreign he becomes to them, despite speaking no other language than their own. His language is full of the wealth of one who has acquired his own riches abroad. ‘Blind and dumb’, they recognise their lost son as a lost son, not as one transformed and regained. This way of looking at Grido confronts the observer with the test of insight.

VI

The accusation that Lachenmann’s progress has led him into the dead-end of eclecticism is both ugly and stupid, as it regards the traditional phenomena he has incorporated in isolation, not within their context. It is precisely the use of the

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36 H.-P. Jahn-Bossert (trans. W. Hoban)

familiar that makes the familiar a mystery in these surroundings. Lachenmann makes use of these resources in a provocatively alien manner. The repetitions in Grido, for example, seem endless. Even at the end, the viola continues almost inaudibly the pulsations of the repetitive, accompanying triplet sixteenths on a single note that previously—in dialogical, even polyphonic layering—occupied a considerable space in all instruments. The ghastly stylistic device here becomes a revelation because it is presented by a composer who never resorted to such measures in any of his previous works. Or another conventionalised compositional device: the use of such intervals as thirds, fourths, fifths or octaves. But how those intervals are reinvented here within a long, protracted song of farewell! Often they are microtonally inflected, or removed from their footing through glissandi. The way in which they are coloured and placed above, against or after one another is of an ‘entirely new species’. Once found, the pitches in this score often remain unchanged for a long time. Hearing the manner in which the movements between the pitches of the four instruments take place, it seems as if Helmut Lachenmann is recalling the colossal torsos of Luigi Nono. Only here, in Grido, these sounds that linger on a single pitch are enlivened through sonic colorations and stereotypical rhythmicisations.

VII

The company in which Helmut Lachenmann produces his scores can only be imagined. From the sketches that he sometimes shows his friends while composing (many others are open to public view in the Paul Sacher Stiftung), it is apparent that the compositions go through a multitude of variants in the composer’s sketch-skull before they are ultimately notated. Time grids encounter chord blocks, instrumental techniques proceed within a very short time through those sound mutations that are then differentiated according to their constitution. Harmonic ligatures become repeating textures, these in turn yield tremoli, which finally change into delicately unfolding sound perforations. The sketches assemble within a very small space, something which later, through internal divisions, may suggest parts, but together forms a whole, as a rule lasting over half an hour (with a few exceptions, only instrumental studies fall short of this duration). What is still highly compressed in the sketches fans out upon concretion. In the sketches one can also witness a struggle with the familiar treatment of self-discovered instrumental tricks. The rejection of such dead ends, resistance against one’s own ideas, resigned concessions to the prison walls behind which one’s own creativity does its time.

VIII

The scream irrefutably connotes the expression of a being energetically discharging itself unsemantically and situationally. Screaming demands attention. It can occur in a state of pain, of the last available defence, of joy, of communication, of horror, or of

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Contemporary Music Review 37

cynicism. In Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream (1893), the terrible fear of a new age confronts the viewer through the gaping mouth of the individual covering its ears on the bridge. Both the water and the sky flow uncontrolled through the world. Stanisław Przybyszewski, the first to write on the picture, reached a most apt formulation in 1894: ‘He paints in the way that only a naked individuality can see, one whose eyes have been turned inward, away from the world of phenomena. His landscapes have been seen within the soul, perhaps as images of a Platonic ana´mnesis; his shapes betray a musical, a rhythmic sensibility, his clouds resemble a spectrographic muddle of colours.’ Did Lachenmann have this picture in mind? If so, then the entire sound world of Grido would practically be the opposite of this world-famous painting. The piece’s light undercoat, the radiance of tangible overtone cascades, the contemplative extended passages refer to something other than this scream of Munch’s. 1 But what is it that is screaming in this score? Is this question not a priori an idiotic one in the face of Lachenmann’s taste for codes and his linguistic playfulness? I would nonetheless like to tread upon shaky ground. Because the scream turned inward, that is to say the implosion of an effect, could be of help. Who is not familiar with false pleasantries in the face of the stupidity of modest creatures, followed by self-hatred for one’s own cowardice, for not having exploded or taught them a lesson, for not having been furiously honest! Strangulations of one’s own immediacy? Preventions of the creativity flowing forth? A bourgeois restriction of openness at the cost of stomach ulcers or remorseful injuries inflicted upon one’s own soul? Behind the face of radiance, the joy of four string instruments at one with each other and casting fifths in all directions, we find concealed an introverted outburst, a highly explosive mixture of insight, spitefulness and arrogance, because lingering on static sounds is, beside the aspect of progressive stasis, also a tarrying, a hesitation, uncertainty (‘What in heaven’s name shall I do now’?). Near the end of Grido, within the coda (m. 530) there is a single appearance of something that could perhaps allude to this scream: an fff of the harshest kind amidst wispy, delicate recollections of all the materials used in Grido. This crunched fff is a residue of sonic reality that is employed with varying frequency and material-related centrality in both Gran Torso and Reigen seliger Geister: the noise attack ignited by increased bow pressure behind the bridge. Here in Grido, the scream is that of an incongruous effect, culled from previous works and surfacing here almost as a quotation. It is thus a foreign entity among the newly foreign. Evoking both horror and inscribed beauty in the wrong place. What ingenuity: to cite from one’s own work in such a manner that the citation grins in the listener’s ear like the panic- stricken figure from Munch’s painting! Are such discoveries a result of ‘blind- and dumbness’? Or does Helmut Lachenmann perhaps underestimate the surroundings accompanying his work? I have no answer to this. Not least because I too demand these text miniatures of myself with great uncertainty, defiance and devotion, in order to discover something

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38 H.-P. Jahn-Bossert (trans. W. Hoban)

even if it strikes the work’s creator as leading merely into

one of the many dead ends. Nonetheless: the honesty and openness exuded by the composer must be repaid in kind. Eye for eye, fear for fear, risk for risk, love for love.

that will take me further

Note

[1] Editor’s note: The author is here referring to the meaning of the Italian word grido, which could be cry, scream, shout, etc. The title of Lachenmann’s string quartet is an acronym of the then-members of the Arditti String Quartet: Graeme Jennings, Rohan de Saram, Irvine Arditti, and DOv Scheindlin.

Reference

Lachenmann, H. (2002). In Kulturant der Stadt Witten (Ed.), Programmbuch der Wittener Tage Fu¨r neue Kammermusik (p. 53). Saarbru¨cken: Pfan-Verlag.