The Inward Beauty of Helmut Lachenmann

In celebration of Helmut Lachenmann’s 75th birthday, University of Manchester new music ensemble Vaganza are presenting two concerts of his music this Friday. A free lunchtime concert will see Ad Solem Chamber Choir perform Lachenmann’s Consolation II alongside works by students, including Tom Coult and Joy Chou. The evening sees a more thorough examination of Lachenmann’s early music with performances of Trio fluido, Guero, Wiegenmusik and Notturno. To complete the focus, former student and scholar of Lachenmann Matthias Hermann, from the Musikhochschule Stuttgart, is giving a talk at 2pm on the Thursday on composition techniques in Notturno. That is followed at 4.15pm by a panel discussion and open forum on the importance of timbre as a structural parameter in contemporary music.

For those of you equipped with 2011 diaries, it is also worth noting that Lachenmann’s temA will be performed by Trio Atem (formed for that very work) on 17 March and the university’s string quartet in residence Quatuor Danel will be performing all three Lachenmann quartets between January and May. I will be talking with the Danels on that very topic on 20 January.

I was asked to write programme notes for the Lachenmann works being performed this Friday and thought it might be interesting to post them here, along with videos or recordings where available. However, this is music to which first-hand listening is essential, so I would urge you to get to the Martin Harris Centre later this week.

Concert 1 (1.10pm)

Consolation II, for 16 voices (1968)

The late ‘60s saw Lachenmann focus heavily on writing for voice, composing Consolations I and II (1967 and ’68 respectively) and the trio temA, for flute, voice and cello (1968), something he didn’t return to until the 1990s with his opera Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern (1990-96). It has been suggested that in periods of rapid development the physicality of the voice and the framework of a text have supported avant-garde composers in their experimentation. Arnold Schoenberg led the way with works such as Pierrot lunaire and the Vier Lieder für Gesang und Orchester at crucial points in his development, the same can be said of Anton Webern, and later Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berio and Luigi Nono all turned to the voice at turning points in their respective musical languages. The late ‘60s marks Lachenmann’s coming of age as a composer and the development of the first stage of his mature style, so perhaps it is no surprise that he found himself beginning to explore his newly coined idea of ‘musique concrète instrumentale’ with the help of singers.

Consolation II sets an eighth-century prayer known as the Wessobrunner Gebet and, in a fashion not uncommon for the 1960s, fragments the semantic material, leaving only the phonetic material exposed as the bare bones of the text. The prayer’s meditation on finding God in the nothingness before time is dissolved into a shuddering landscape of letters, hissing with a hollow wind, shivering with rolled ‘R’s, stuttering away into the nothingness where God can perhaps be found, ending on the ‘t’ of ‘Gott’, not sung but struck: two fingers coming together in a quiet clap.

Mir gestand der Sterblichen Staunen als Höchstes
Das Erde nicht war, noch oben Himmel
Noch Baum, noch irgend ein Berg nicht war
Noch die Sonne, nicht Licht war
Noch der Mond nicht leuchtete
Noch das gewaltige Meer
Da noch nirgends nichts war
An Enden und Wenden
Da war der eine allmächtige Gott

Mortal wonder as the greatest was confided in me
That there was neither the earth nor the heaven above
Nor was there any tree nor mountain
Neither the sun, nor any light
Nor the moon gleam
Nor the glorious sea.
When there was nothing
No ending and no limits
There was the One Almighty God

Concert 2 (7.30pm)

Trio fluido, for clarinet, viola and percussion (1966)

Though written six years after Lachenmann left Venice and full-time study with Luigi Nono, Trio fluido is still heavily influenced by Nono’s punctualist music. Rather than accepting this concept fully, it explores the various potential developments of and escapes from such point-to-point writing. In the course of the work the separated sequence of sounds is gradually both dissolved and paralysed, pushing the music at different points into the extreme world of sparse, separated gestures common in his music as well as a more continuous, cohesive texture of blown, bowed, rubbed and stroked sounds. The kind of gestural material that is increasingly vital in Lachenmann’s later music is foreshadowed in Trio fluido by a form of pitch gesture where instruments move through narrower and wider fields of pitch, and the elevated importance of instrumental techniques and physical gesture also foreshadow his more complete move away from pitch that began not long after this piece was completed.

Guero — Study for Piano (1970)

Between 1968 and ’70, Lachenmann developed a more defined version of his language to describe which he coined the phrase ‘musique concrète instrumentale’. Having spent time during 1965 at the electronic music studios of the University of Ghent and written his only purely electronic piece Szenario, Lachenmann borrowed tape music pioneer Pierre Schaefer’s term ‘musique concrète’ meaning music constructed with concrete sound recordings rather than abstract notated structures and formulated a compositional approach that treated instruments and performed gestures as concrete physical instances, the energy of whose performance formed the structure of a work.

While developing this idea he wrote a series of solo studies that include Guero as well as Pression, for cello, and Dal niente, for clarinet. Each of these studies take as their starting point a thorough exploration of the instrument’s acoustic possibilities — inspired by a collection of short piano pieces by Alfons Kontarsky — and proceeds to build structures that reveal the mechanisms of performance. In his programme note, Lachenmann describes Guero as a ‘six-manual variant of the eponymous Latin American instrument’. The piece moves from the vertical surfaces of the white keys, to their horizontal surfaces, via the black keys into the piano, playing the pegs and finally the strings. An extreme example of Lachenmann’s concept of rejection — in which all familiar aspects of traditional instrumental technique are avoided — Guero is an attempt to build structure not from existing formulas but from the ground up, taking the concrete, rippling sound of the fingernails along the keys as its basic material.

Wiegenmusik [Cradle music], for piano (1963)

Trained originally as a classical pianist and still performing, Helmut Lachenmann has always had an important compositional relationship with the piano, having written a dozen solo, chamber and concertante works for the instrument. One of the earliest works still included in the official Lachenmann catalogue, Wiegenmusik is an early example of Lachenmann’s particular interest in stasis as a musical phenomenon. Unlike the repetitive stasis of Steve Reich or the weightless stasis of Morton Feldman, Lachenmann uses sparse textures to induce an atmosphere of tension and draw attention to small, precise, richly detailed sounds. Later works such as the Second String Quartet ‘Reigen seliger Geister’ (1989) or Mouvement (— vor der Erstarrung) (1982-84), for ensemble — which makes its theme (the shift from movement to paralysis) evident in its title — both take this concept to logical extremes. Consolation II and Notturno, both of which are performed tonight, also make use of this type of writing. In Wiegenmusik, Lachenmann takes a gentle approach, drawing on the idea of a child falling asleep as the work gradually falls into stillness. Like his earlier pieces for piano, Fünf Variationen über ein Thema von Franz Schubert (1956) and Echo Andante (1962), Wiegenmusik still treats the piano in a relatively traditional fashion. As you have heard, by 1970 with Guero Lachenmann was finding an altogether different way of making sound with a piano.

Notturno, for small orchestra with cello solo (1966-68)

Helmut Lachenmann writes of Notturno that it is ‘a meeting point for two different aesthetics: one older, which treats sound as the result and expression of abstract organisation concepts, and one newer, in which all organisation should serve a concrete and direct acoustic reality.’ The cello writing is close to the solo cello work Pression written the following year — for the same cellist, Italo Gomez — and mainly takes the latter approach, exploring the acoustic potential of the cello approached not as a traditional instrument but as a multifaceted sounding body.

Despite the extended solo passage that makes up the core of the work, the cello’s role is not so much as traditional soloist accompanied by a subservient orchestra but as a kind of leader and opener of doors, drawing the ensemble into different worlds and uncovering new perspectives. In a sense, the work is for a meta cello or extended cello as the ensemble all contribute to a unified sound, led and derived from the cello proper, a powerful realisation of Lachenmann’s suggestion that ‘composing means building an instrument’ and an intriguing take on the concertante tradition.

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