Getting it Right?

Notes on notes in London

I was in London on Tuesday last week to at­tend Getting It Right? Performance prac­tices in con­tem­porary music, a day of talks and dis­cus­sions on per­form­ance, com­pos­i­tion and all the ways the two in­teract at LSO St Luke’s. Organised by Julian Anderson and Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the various speakers in­cluded Helmut Lachenmann, David Alberman, Michael Finnissy, Rolf Hind and Diego Masson, providing a variety of per­spect­ives on the chal­lenges of new music.

Keynote Speech: Helmut Lachenmann

Kicking off the day was Helmut Lachenmann, 75 this au­tumn and un­doubtedly one of the greatest pro­ponents of ex­tended tech­niques and new sounds. His talk com­bined tales of his own ex­per­i­ences as he struggled with players who faced ‘not only tech­nical but also psy­cho­lo­gical prob­lems’ with his un­usual sounds and some more ideology-driven ideas about how and why he feels com­pelled to im­ple­ment these tech­niques. He de­scribed his shun­ning of tape for ma­nu­script (and pen­ning the moniker of ‘mu­sique con­crète in­stru­mentale’), be­cause sound broad­cast by loud­speakers was ‘not so dan­gerous as it could be’, ‘you have only loud­speakers — like a pho­to­graph — this is a han­dicap’. He stressed throughout how­ever that

It’s not the problem to find new sounds […] The problem is to find a new way of listening and if you can find a new way of listening you can do it on [sic] C major, be­cause Palestrina once used it and later Richard Wagner — the same three notes.

This treat­ment of ex­tended tech­niques not as ‘effects’ — which is how they are often clas­si­fied in Anglophone circles — but as es­sen­tial ele­ments of the music, in­dic­ates the aim not for timbral in­flec­tion but for timbral com­pos­i­tion, in which the types of sound (‘Klangtypen’) can be used to build mu­sical struc­tures; timbres be­come the main mu­sical para­meter in­stead of pitches, which reigned su­preme in most earlier music. He main­tains his be­lief in the power of ten­sion and re­lease, dis­son­ance and con­son­ance, which he learnt in har­mony and coun­ter­point classes, but builds struc­tures through a very dif­ferent language:

It is so im­portant to me that: It’s [ex­tended tech­niques] not funny. It’s not ex­pres­sion­istic. It’s not a protest against so­ciety […] It is ro­mantic, a sort of dis­son­ance […] an­other pole to come back from to our centre.

He also touched on his be­lief that music can be di­vided into music as situ­ation and music as text. So, Bach and Boulez, among others, he classes as mu­sical texts that can be re-orchestrated and pre­serve their es­sen­tial ele­ments, whereas the opening of Beethoven 9 or the trem­olos in Bruckner 4 are situ­ations, the timbre of which are es­sen­tial to the mu­sical dis­course and must be pre­served. He spoke of aiming in his own music for such ‘met­eor­o­lo­gical situ­ations’. (I also heard him speak about this last year and wrote about it here.)

Whenever I see or hear Lachenmann speak, I am re­minded that this is a man of hu­mour and hu­mility, des­pite his fre­quent por­trayal as the dour spectre of the ultra-modernist European avant-garde. He joked about the Darmstadt Summer Courses as ‘a nice zoo full of exotic an­imals,’ that he was ‘a victim’ of the trend there for titles that de­scribed the com­pos­i­tional pro­cess (e.g. Kontakte, Zeitmaße, not to men­tion Xenakis’s ST/48,1 – 240162 and sim­ilar works) in his cello piece Pression (which is “about” pres­sure). He cares about the sounds he writes, but the ironies of his ca­reer are not lost on him. ‘I feel a bit heroic now,’ he quipped when dis­cussing the dis­rupted per­form­ances and dis­gruntled players he has faced. You can listen to his talk at the Slought Foundation from 2008 here to get a taste of what this man is like in person.

Playing Around: Performers and New Music

One of the rev­el­a­tions of the day was David Alberman. Second vi­ol­inist of the Arditti Sring Quartet from 1985 – 1994 and cur­rently leader of the second vi­olins in the LSO, Alberman is glor­i­ously direct, blending a fierce com­mit­ment to new music with a sar­castic wit that is well aware of the strong op­pos­i­tion such music often faces. With the Ardittis he premièred Lachenmann’s Second String Quartet ‘Reigen se­liger Geister’ and has written about Lachenmann’s ex­tended string tech­niques. His prag­matic ap­proach to per­form­ance was im­pressive as was the time he clearly puts into a piece. He showed a ver­sion of a Ferneyhough score in which he had stripped out all the rhythmic brackets and cal­cu­lated tempi for every group of notes to allow him to learn the speed of each small ges­ture (the pro­por­tions of the rhythmic brackets being es­sen­tially im­possible to feel or cal­cu­late in per­form­ance). He stressed the im­port­ance for a per­former of making their own mu­sical de­cisions even if they di­verge slightly from a lit­eral reading of the score — that you should never play some­thing in a way that you think is mu­sic­ally un­con­vin­cing. This might seem ob­vious, but it pre­vents the ‘Oh, it’s sup­posed to sound bad, so that’s fine’ at­ti­tude you some­times come across and re­minds per­formers that they bear a shared re­spons­ib­ility for the music with the composer.

Both pi­anist Rolf Hind and con­ductor (and some­time per­cus­sionist) Diego Masson en­joyed telling some of the more hu­morous an­ec­dotes from their lengthy ca­reers. Hind spoke about working with György Kurtág on the opening of …quasi una fantasia…, for piano and chamber en­semble, a des­cending C major scale marked ppppp, Largo and con Ped.:

Opening of György Kurtág, …quasi una fantasia… - piano part

It tran­spired that Kurtág was ac­tu­ally looking for what Hind con­sidered to be an mf, Andante, played legato with just a little pedal and Hind wondered whether per­haps there could be a di­ver­gence of per­ceived in­tensity and feeling, and ac­tual acous­tic­ally ac­curate de­scrip­tions — so this music should feel very quiet and slow, but achieving this does not ne­ces­sarily re­quire it to be very quiet and slow.

Kurtág has some­thing of a repu­ta­tion for being per­haps not the most po­lite of com­posers to­wards per­formers after per­form­ances and Hind re­called the best com­pli­ment he re­ceived after a per­form­ance of …quasi una fantasia…, ‘You played the opening so beau­ti­fully, why do you play the rest like a pig?’ and an­ec­dotes in a sim­ilar vein flowed from Diego Masson, who glee­fully re­membered his ex­per­i­ences in 1960s Paris. It should per­haps be more widely known that, ac­cording to Masson, Pierre Boulez sup­ple­mented his in­come during this period by playing a white piano in a Parisian strip club on a stage sur­rounded by naked women. I’m as­suming he wasn’t playing Structures Ia. Masson said that they would play any­where from money, whether it be modern music or radio jingles. He painted a some­what an­archic pic­ture of this time de­scribing a re­cording ses­sion for Luciano Berio’s Laborintus II in which the jazz im­pro­visa­tions roughly at the middle of the work were re­corded at 4 am as all the mu­si­cians were working in clubs until then and played clips from those ses­sions with Berio and Edoardo Sanguinetti (the lib­ret­tist) per­forming some of the texts. The work had to be cut in two to fit onto an LP. How was it done? Side 1 ended and Side 2 started with studio sounds, the back­ground chatter of people shouting pre-take, ‘Hey, pay at­ten­tion!’ etc. Perhaps a fore­runner of all those DIY-feel discs where you can hear the band chat­ting or joking be­fore or after songs and it was the idea of a studio hand who just happened to be sweeping up while they were dis­cussing the problem.

Building Beauty

The final Q&A ses­sion of the af­ter­noon touched, among other things, on what beauty is or means to com­posers and mu­si­cians today. Lachenmann wrote about beauty as far back as 1976, but his thinking has al­ways been in­flu­enced by Adorno and truly con­cerns the aes­thetic rather than the beau­tiful, cri­ti­cising Boulez and other avant-garde com­posers for turning away from thinking about such things. At St Luke’s it was clear that the lin­guistic com­plic­a­tions of moving from German to English may have hampered his ideas coming across. ‘I like beau­ti­ness [sic] … but art is an­other thing,’ he said, but it seemed his un­der­standing of ‘beauty’ per­haps equated better to ‘pret­ti­ness’ as he went on to de­scribe Ennio Morricone and Henry Mancini as beau­tiful. Instead, ‘ex­pres­sion arises from the fric­tion between the struc­ture of a piece and the struc­ture of ourselves.’ However, he did feel that the concept of beauty was helpful in working with mu­si­cians on his music, as per­suading a per­former to try and play a scratch or a dis­tor­tion ‘beau­ti­fully’ chimed with their learnt prac­tice of cre­ating a beau­tiful tone. It fits with mu­si­cians’ ideas of the ideal or per­fect sound, which they aim for when prac­tising and playing.

Due to con­tinuing fall-out from the Icelandic Ashpocalypse, the string quartet due to per­form Lachenmann’s Third String Quartet, ‘Grido’, were lacking a cel­list and we were treated in­stead to a public mas­ter­class on the work. In some ways ‘Grido’ is the most tra­di­tional of Lachenmann’s three quar­tets, but it nev­er­the­less poses chal­lenges to the per­former. David Alberman had de­scribed it earlier in the day as ‘a cathedral made up of bricks of sound, each brick of which leads into the next’ and it is this con­nec­tion from sound to sound that is so es­sen­tial to a suc­cessful per­form­ance. For some it may have been slightly un­com­fort­able to watch Lachenmann focus on one sound for minutes on end, asking the players to re­peat tiny ges­tures until they pre­cisely fitted to­gether, but it is this painstaking work which makes a good per­form­ance of these pieces truly powerful and without which they very quickly fall down. It also drives home the im­port­ance to Lachenmann’s music of his own work with mu­si­cians. During his time in London he was working in small groups with players from the LSO who are per­forming his 2004 work for string or­chestra, Double (Grido II), in June and one won­ders how his music might sur­vive once he is no longer able to be at re­hearsals to ex­plain these de­tails. One hopes that com­mitted players, like David Alberman, might be able to pass on their ex­per­i­ences, al­lowing the sounds and, more im­port­antly, the mu­sic­ality pos­sible with such sounds to pass into standard per­form­ance prac­tice, but it must be a fear that the know­ledge, if it re­mains un­doc­u­mented, might be lost. That fear is pre­sum­ably why one holds con­fer­ences on con­tem­porary music prac­tice — to help spread know­ledge of how and why to play this music. Musicians who have a true fa­mili­arity with this rep­er­toire are few and far between and for every member of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, JACK or Arditti quar­tets, there are twenty traditionally-minded or­ches­tral mu­si­cians. I hope and be­lieve this is chan­ging in con­ser­vatoires around the world, but only time can tell. In the mean­time, those who care about this music have to en­sure that it has every chance to speak for it­self through high-standard per­form­ances and com­mu­nic­ative playing. This music shouldn’t be sold as dif­fi­cult or dif­ferent, but as ex­citing and ad­ven­turous. And beau­tiful. For that is what it is.

This entry was written by Chris, posted on Monday, 3 May 2010 at 4:04 pm, filed under Musings and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Microbiography

    Chris Swithinbank is a British-Dutch com­poser who works with both acoustic in­stru­ments and elec­tronic sounds. He is cur­rently a stu­dent at Harvard University with Chaya Czernowin.
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