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Seen and Heard Concert Review



Transcendent(II) The music of Helmut Lachenmann: London Sinfonietta, Martyn Brabbins (conductor) Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 20 .11.2006 (AO)




Last year, Helmut Lachenmann was the buzz draw of the Huddersfield Festival. This year, the Royal College of Music has built upon that surge of interest with an in depth retrospective of his work. New music like Lachenmann's breaks down many of the preconceptions of what music “should” sound like or be played. It’s certainly not that easy to let go of fixed ideas once they’re ingrained. For instance: very much to his credit, Yo Yo Ma a few years ago tried to adapt to jazz and world music, but at first the weight of traditional conservatoire training hung heavily on him and audibly impeded his musical freedom.  What the RCM has done with this interesting series is much more than a composer portrait; it’s a long term investment. Perhaps these students, the musicians of the future, will find it quite natural to compose and play with the freedom and inventiveness that is the soul of new music.


Much has been made in the media of how “difficult” this composer is, but as he says himself, his music is “easy” if you approach it with the right frame of mind.  He describes it as “situational”, by which I think he means intuitive or impressionistic.  In the 1960’s revolutionaries of the 1960’s like Nono, Berio and Henze dreamed that music should accessed by “ordinary” listeners, whatever their culture or background.  Divesting oneself of preconceptions of what music “should” sound like was part of the process of escaping from form.  Using completely new sounds like industrial noise and new techniques further overturned the idea of “musical” music. In many ways, it’s easier to attune to these concepts without having been preconditioned by rigid formality. 


What Lachenmann said of Mouvement (-vor der Estarrung) (1984) is worth quoting in full as it’s so vivid.  The piece is “music of dead movements of lazy convulsions and pseudo-activity: it is a rubble of empty rhythms which already exhibit an inner paralysis that precedes outer paralysis – as a beetle lies struggling on its back, continuing to work with empty learned mechanisms, recognising at the same time its anatomy and uselessness and by doing so, seeking a trying new beginnings”.


What you hear is a series of sounds turning and shifting experimentally in no particular order. Most of the instruments are conventional, but played in an unconventional way.  Bows are drawn vertically against strings, and used to make strange crackling noises that seem to skitter wildly across the scale.  Trumpets are hit at the mouthpiece, to force air through, creating a hollow, flat gasp.   Indeed, many of the sounds are almost imperceptible but this is the intention.  If you don’t really listen, you won’t hear.  Sounds seem to scuttle across the stage as if startled by their own daring - there’s a lot of scraping and sawing. Bells sound like demented alarm clocks, set so shrilly that they are painful to listen to.   Nonetheless, whatever the composer may say, this is exciting music, vividly alive because you have no idea what should happen next.  You need to be alert, and he gives you plenty to be alert about.  He includes what he calls “non-alienated sounds” which sound vaguely familiar, like car horns or something that made me think of aircraft engines taking off.  It doesn’t matter “what” they are: they work as a kind of prod, just in case the listener gets complacent.


Concertini (2005) was premiered at the Lucerne Festival.  A friend who heard it when it was performed soon after in Frankfurt, told me he “couldn't find any conventional structures, but the music made me so high I wouldn't have recognized a sonata form if it had said hallo to me. “ In the intervening 22 years, the composer seems to be moving gradually towards a re-engagement with musical sounds. There are several short passages where all the strings together make forays into ensemble territory and then disintegrate into single units again.  The trombone blares into the piano as if it were some kind of giant muffler.  Brass players exhale and inhale, creating pure sounds from the air without going through their instruments at all. 


At forty five minutes, Concertini is twice as long as Mouvement, and needs some kind of direction. Lachenmann uses volume and speed to give an alternate shape to the piece.  Since tempi and sound levels are flexible, they aren’t as fixed as structural form, but function as a kind of exoskeleton, like the tissue that holds a prawn or a crab together – maybe the Carter-like scuttling noises are more apt than we realise!

What is really thrilling though, is not these tricks per se, because they aren’t new in themselves. What makes the piece work is the way it is put together.  Every musician here has to be technically accomplished enough to understand “why” the sounds are being created, not merely “how”. Musicianship isn’t just making sound but listening, and responding.  Lachenmann’s music must be even more exciting for musicians because it gives them authorship, in the sense that the tiniest nuance makes a difference. No one knows exactly what’s going to happen until it does, rather like a sophisticated team sport.  Of course all music is essentially like this, but playing Lachenmann must be an exhilarating adventure.  Brabbins and the London Sinfonietta players make it sound easy, because they are virtuosi, and used to cutting edge music. Less specialised performers might not achieve quite such results, but they’ll come away from the experience with, I hope, a heightened sense of possibilities “beyond” convention.   Like so many modern composers, Lachenmann also taps into the realm of non western, non notational music, where the lines between “composition” and performance are blurred. 


Deconstructing preconceptions is important, but so is direction.  Lachenmann is too good and too focussed on communication to descend into self indulgent subjectivity, but lesser imitators might.  That, perhaps is the danger of what he calls “situational” music, taken to an extreme.  Henze, among others, have denounced any trend towards “musica negativa”.   Lachenmann contrasts “situational” music with what he calls as “text” composers, among whom he counts no less than Boulez and Ferneyhough. I’m not sure what that means, except that it’s probably not that simple. If it means that some composers have complex intellectual depths, then why not? We need both.  It’s like comparing Beethoven with Schumann. 



Anne Ozorio



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)