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The Inward Beauty of Helmut Lachenmann

Lachenmann at 75: Inward Beauty Poster

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.

[…] and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. […]

— T.S. Eliot, ‘East Coker’, Four Quartets

Composer Portrait: Nina Whiteman

With recent premieres by Dutch accordion duo TOEAC, Colinton Amateur Orchestral Society, Manchester Camerata and period instrument trio Spirituoso, 29-year-old composer Nina Whiteman has had a busy year, not mentioning performances as a vocalist with her flute, voice and cello group, Trio Atem, whose most recent performance was the premiere of graphic scores by artist Michael Mayhew at Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery and who make their London debut in April at Kings Place.

You can currently see and hear Nina’s recent Manchester Camerata commission, Windows on the Neva, over on medici.tv [link expired]. Scored for a single-stringed chamber orchestra, the work is an 8-minute reflection on the river Neva’s inexorable path through the city of St. Petersburg whose lucid textures and well-controlled pacing reveal a composer with a keen ear for both sound and drama. In the first of what will hopefully become an occasional series of encounters with musicians, Nina has kindly answered some questions about her music, practice and future plans, so read on to find out what makes her tick.


Chris Swithinbank: I realise that this is not a question that you probably consider every day, but let’s start at the beginning. What drew you to write music? Is it a vocation and if so, why?

Nina Whiteman: I think I was always inclined to being creative with sound. I remember starting piano lessons aged 5 or 6 and wanting to make my own music to play – these ‘compositions’ consisted of a series of note names (A E D C and so on) because I didn’t have any manuscript paper. I also wrote pieces for recorder, and my brilliant music teacher at middle school would invent a piano accompaniment for them. So, composing seemed to sit naturally alongside performing really.

Is it a vocation? I was always inclined towards creative activities, and felt from quite a young age that I would like a career in the arts where I could use my imagination. By my late teens/early twenties I’d composed quite a lot of pieces and knew deep down that composing was something vital to me.

CS: How much do extra-musical elements play a part in your composition process and how much could your works be said to have abstract origins?

NW: Natural phenomena, poetry, paintings, and places have all formed the basis of ideas for pieces in recent years. I like to look outside my art form for inspiration, and hopefully bring something innovative and interesting to my music and the audiences that hear it. My cycle of pieces for bass flute and various ensembles (The invention of clouds, The modifications of clouds, Night Shining) was inspired by scientific research into clouds that ranged in date from 1804 to the present. I really enjoyed working on this project because I learned a lot about the world in which I live and the sky I look at every day through my research processes.

As well as being a way of generating some initial ideas and binding everything together, these extra-musical elements may draw something out of me that I would not have thought of if I was working with abstract ideas alone. Some more abstract ideas come into play, but I’d say that the origins of my pieces are almost always from an external source of inspiration.

Gavin Osborn

Gavin Osborn performing from Michael Mayhew’s The Alchemy Collection

CS: With Trio Atem you recently worked with artist Michael Mayhew in realising a three-part performance of his visual work. This semi-improvised work presumably required a form of collaborative composition with flautist Gavin Osborn and cellist Alice Purton. How do you go about working in this way?

NW: Rehearsing for our performances of The Alchemy Collection was an interesting process, and as you suggest we spent a lot of time as a trio figuring out how to respond to Michael’s ideas and interpret his images. Each of the graphic scores had some written notes that either explained the sources of the shapes/lines in the images, or suggested principles for interpretation, or both. We worked closely with Michael in the initial stages of rehearsal, so a dialogue was set up between him and the trio and certain shapes began to mean particular sound characters to all four of us. For one of the pieces we worked out a series of structural signposts in order to travel to points of convergence as a trio that we felt were necessitated by the score. Listening to each other and being imaginative were probably the most important factors in a successful performance.

CS: To what extent does this type of collaborative work feedback on your ‘solo’ composition?

NW: It’s a kind of laboratory really: discovering the potential of instruments, and finding interesting textures, sound characters, and modes of interaction between sounding bodies can all feed into my own music.

CS: You wrote The modifications of clouds for your own group, Trio Atem. How important is this kind of direct collaboration with performers to you? Equally how does your own role as performer influence your work?

NW: The modifications of clouds is based on a piece that I wrote for Gavin Osborn called The invention of clouds, which I developed with the help of some experimentation sessions with Gavin: I would take him some music, he would play it, I’d make changes, we’d talk about how it could go further/be more interesting. So when I came to write The modifications of clouds, I had some clear ideas of where to take the flute writing. The ‘cello part for this piece wasn’t subject to as much collaborative work, but knowing Alice’s capabilities and approach to performing certainly helped me to write it, and I didn’t need to worry about it being unplayable! As for the voice part in that piece (which was written for me), I was able to sing to myself whilst writing it, and of course knew the voice I was writing for pretty well.

Being a performer as well as a composer is really exciting. I know how it feels to perform music, which I think informs my notation in particular, and I’ve learned to play a number of instruments, so have a great sense of the physical demands I’m placing on the performer.

CS: How do you conceive of sound in your work?

NW: This relates to the extra-musical origins of my ideas discussed earlier. Most recently I’ve been drawing on a lot of visual stimuli to generate sound materials: in my piece for Manchester Camerata Windows on the Neva I took a number of old maps of St. Petersburg and traced the line of the river onto a grid of notes/pitches. I was then able to manipulate these raw materials to draw out particular sound characters by making choices about orchestration, pitch centres, and tempo, for example. As well as making all these graphs and plotting sequences of notes, I responded to imagery in poems describing the city by Anna Akhmatova, where I was relying more directly on my sonic imagination – hearing a timbral quality in my mind and finding a way to create it with the instruments available.

CS: Composition can be a solitary activity. How and where do you spend your writing time? Do you have specific rituals, habits or spaces that stimulate the creative process?

NW: Attics. I compose most of my music in two spaces: the attic in my house, and the roof space in the studio I share with my partner. It’s a complete coincidence that they’re both in the roof, but I rather like the proximity to the sky and the strange angles, and feel both spaces enable me to imagine freely.

And I drink lots of tea (especially when stuck).

And I like to draw plans on huge pieces of paper, and then scribble things on them.

Nina Whiteman

Nina Whiteman (Photo © Nik Morris & Late Music)

CS: What projects are in the pipeline for you?

NW: I’m composing a piece for viola and ‘cello for Quatuor Danel, who are string quartet in residence at The University of Manchester. My provisional title is Waggle Dances and I’m researching the activity of honey bees (specifically the dances performed by bees to lead others in the hive towards good food sources). The premiere will take place alongside Lachenmann’s second String Quartet on 17 February as part of the university’s free lunchtime concert series.

CS: What excites you about being an artist today?

NW: The standard of music making in the UK is very high, and I think there are lots of performers and composers of exceptional ability, so there’s a buzz about my profession and a lot of people with real enthusiasm instigating musical events and happenings.

I feel both fortunate and daunted to live in a world where technology is such an essential part of our lives: I’ve worked with electronics for a number of pieces and can also see that technology could play more of a role in my compositional processes, so I feel the 21st century is an exciting place to be in that sense.

I’m also really enjoying working in the community and in education on one-off projects or through regular teaching. It’s so important to stay connected with people around you, particularly as composers spend a lot of time on their own!

Points of Contact: MANTIS Fall Festival 2010

The biannual MANTIS Festival at the University of Manchester presents fixed media works and works with live electronics, performing these over a large sound diffusion system that comprises around 40 loudspeakers. The concerts over the Halloween weekend showcased the work of students at the university, that of invited guest composers and included the first collaboration between MANTIS and the university’s newly appointed Contemporary Ensemble in Residence Psappha.

MANTIS sound diffusion system

As often at these festivals, it was student works that stood out. The droning, carelessly assembled ambience of Dominique Bassal’s festival-opening portrait concert on Friday night was quickly overshadowed by the work of students at the NOVARS Research Centre that displayed varied but consistently crafted approaches. It is not often that people laugh at the wit of electroacoustic music, but Donal Sarsfield’s Of Noise Alone achieves this with a little gentle subversion. The work takes the sound of applause and clapping as its source material and, as the audience put their hands together, the piece seemed to reignite acoustically, briefly illuminating something faintly ridiculous about the ritual of performance and applause.

Irma Catalina Álvarez’s Windslley Street achieves a remarkable steadiness and long-breathed form as numerous, seemingly autonomous little mechanisms each follow their own gradual development. In stark contrast to the tendency for a ‘whizz bang’, causal language, this work’s quietude and repetition manages to never seem repetitious while never breaking from a sense of steady progression.

The latest and longest work by Sam Salem, Dead Poets, further explores his interest in using a specific city or place as the acoustic ‘subject’ of a work with a 20-minute, 4-part reflection on New York. Perhaps Morton Feldman’s title ‘The viola in my life’ — much loved by Helmut Lachenmann — should be adapted to this kind of work. Far from being a portrait or documentary of New York this work is perhaps ‘New York in my life’. Again wit was in evidence as the story of a tramp unfolds to end with his sorry protagonist being told to ‘Go fuck yourself’. Some remarkable, ominous sounds taken of the wind howling through the shuttered and derelict fairground rides of Coney Island complemented more familiar sounds like subway trains in what seemed an altogether darker work than its excellent predecessor Public Bodies.

As well as other student works by Oliver Carman, Mark Pilkington, Josh Kopeček and Richard Scott, we were given the chance to hear El Espejo de Alicia by 47-year-old Chilean composer Federico Schumacher. Subject of a — by all accounts excellent — portrait concert at this year’s Festival Acousmatique International in Brussels, Schumacher is not someone I had come across before, but this work was crisp, delicate and tender, exhibiting both the technical precision we’ve come to expect of this music and — more unusually — an ear for affecting and musical ideas. A lot of his music, including El Espejo de Alicia, is available for free as mp3s here. I’d recommend a listen.

Live Wires: Psappha & MadLab

Psappha Logo

The Sunday gave us a chance to hear MANTIS’s large rig of loudspeakers pitted against the live instruments of Psappha’s Tim Williams and Richard Casey in three works for percussion and piano with electronics. Manuella Blackburn’s Cajon and Joao Pedro Oliveira’s Maelstrom are both accomplished works — the former for the eponymous cajon and the latter for cimbalom — but they were hugely (and perhaps unsurprisingly) overshadowed by Stockhausen’s Kontakte. I heard Kontakte performed by Nicolas Hodges and Colin Currie at the Proms in 2008 and found myself rather irritated by it — unlike my reaction to Gruppen, which was exhilarating — but on Sunday the work’s incredible, ineffable logic and scope really drove home how short-sighted or simplistic much music for instruments and electronics is. There is at no point a straightforward concept of interaction to grasp hold of. Rather, the three parts — piano, percussion and electronics — are allowed to circle each other, finding points of contact and drifting apart in a shower of sounds. This is no soundworld piece, it embraces countless sounds — with the pianist equipped with a percussion set-up almost as large as that of the percussionist — and all the sounds coexist unsegregated. It is hard to specify how this work holds together. There is something still very contemporary about the construction of meta-instruments out of collections of percussion so that a single gesture can begin on a guero and end in wind chimes, giving those sounds an organic, physical logic that somehow transmits to the acoustic. Casey and Williams’s performance was gripping to the last and it was exciting to hear so clearly how important this music is.

MadLab logo

Sunday evening brought the usual relaxed finale to the festival, this time relocated from Nexus Art Café to Manchester Digital Laboratory (MadLab). After a series of fixed media and audiovisual works, we moved onto live performances with the circuit-bending of Rodrigo Constanzo and Mauricio Pauly, followed by the synth and video efforts of Mark Pilkington and Thomas Bjelkeborn. Reflecting MadLab’s remit of promoting community discussion and sharing technical expertise, the evening ended with a preview screening of a rough cut of Ricardo Climent’s documentary film VIP Lounges Are For ALL about S.LOW Projekt, which he ran in Berlin this summer and I wrote about here. A simultaneously humorous and serious look at the paradox of working in both academic ‘centres of excellence’ and ‘low’ arenas in Berlin’s can-do arts scene, the film poses questions about the quality of artwork and what constitutes value as well as giving an insight as to how this somewhat ad hoc, improvised festival that involved around 40 different artists ran. Here’s an excerpt to finish off with:

I’ve been adopted!

Logos of organisations involved with Adopt a Composer: Sound and Music, PRS for Music Foundation, Making Music and King Edward Musical Society.

I’m very excited to be able to announce that this year I will be taking part in the Adopt a Composer scheme, funded by the PRS for Music Foundation and run by Sound and Music, in association with Making Music. The scheme pairs up composers with amateur ensembles to collaborate on new music and I am delighted that I will be working with the orchestra of King Edward Musical Society in Macclesfield.

In the coming months I will be getting to know the orchestra and working with conductor Tony Houghton and my composition mentor for the project, David Horne. This collaborative process will result in a performance on Saturday 18 June 2011 at St Michael and All Angels Church, part of the Macclesfield Barnaby Festival and the celebration of the 750th anniversary of the town’s royal charter. It will be my first work for orchestra, an exciting learning process — quite possibly for the orchestra as much as for me — and I’m looking forward to it immensely.

Macclesfield Barnaby Festival

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