Thinking about Music

A Conversation with Helmut Lachenmann on the Occasion of his 80th Birthday

The date is March 25, and Helmut Lachenmann has risen at six in the morning and travelled to Frankfurt by train in order to have the following conversation with Christian Hommel (CH) and Roland Diry (RD), and to rehearse the new version of ›Air‹ with Rumi Ogawa. It is shortly before 10 a.m. when he jogs up the stairs to our office in Schwedlerstraße, weighed down with a trekking backpack. The new version of ›Air‹ as well as a series of further key works by Helmut Lachenmann (HL) will be performed in several concerts by Ensemble Modern on the occasion of his 80th birthday at the festival ›cresc...2015 – Images of Sound‹ between November 26 and 29, 2015.

CH: Reading the text you wrote for the broadcast series ›Composers as Programmers‹ in 1979 about Nono, Webern, Mozart and Boulez, I suddenly realised that Mozart used musical by-products in the ›Gran Partita‹, which we will perform in November together with your ›Concertini‹: right at the beginning, for example, the cliché of the three chords which Handel, Gluck, the Mannheim composers, had already used 1000 times. Using contrasting procedures, he contravenes these clichés, thus breaking innovative ground. This continues through the entire seven movements. I am fascinated by the fact that you, rather than all the Mozart scholars before you, recognised this in this work. Similar procedures can be found in your own music.

HL: I believe that the Serenades presented Mozart with his field of experimentation for instrumental technique. In the variation movement, for example, he lays down the B-fl at major chord for an eternity, using horns to create a pedal point and clarinets whose arpeggios clash completely statically – that is the beginning of ›Rheingold‹! B-fl at major no longer works as the good old tonic with the usual secondary steps, but becomes a resounding force of nature. That is a situation, no longer a musical text. Mozart searched for and invariably found novelty in the dissonant areas of tonal harmony. He had long found the Tristan chord and more complex phenomena. Stated in trivial terms: such things just didn’t last as long with Mozart as they did with Wagner, they were less exposed, remained less conspicuous. How come everyone thinks that such discoveries, e.g. static fields of sound in one key, were invented by Beethoven? Many revolutionary achievements are falsely attributed to Beethoven.

HL: And yet a sound field, as for example the one in the beginning of Beethoven’s Ninth, must have had an enormous effect at the time. There is nothing like it in Mozart. I do not believe that Mozart was consciously trying to be innovative. He simply was, as a matter of fact, and in an incredibly congruent manner. The harmonic risks he took in his G minor Symphony, in the Jupiter Symphony and in his string quartets was simply »unpalatable to the Viennese«, as the Austrian Kaiser rightly remarked. At the time, the concept of art was not defended as emphatically as today: after all, there was also the art of cooking, of fencing, of writing; Ovid already knew the art of love; and composers were still service providers and entertainers, master craftsmen at their job. It was Beethoven who became the fi rst to stop composing to please; only in him did an autonomous concept of art become socially acceptable in music.

CH: Mankind recognises itself as creative. In his ›Philosophy of New Music‹, Adorno explains Beethoven’s quasi-Marxist modus operandi in which he uses simple elements (such as the theme of the Fifth Symphony), works it to the maximum and wrings all possible expressive directions from it. Mozart proved himself the pioneer of this in his ›Gran Partita‹.

HL: I see no connection with Marx there. No matter: nowhere did the concept of music change so radically within a few centuries as here, within our Western- oriented civilization. During the Middle Ages, at the time of Gregorian chant, there was no creatively triumphant »ego« in the sense that we would be familiar with; the human individual new itself only as part of the body of the church. Anyone using his own reason risked mortal danger. Anything resembling freedom, idealism, or »Man is free, though he be born in chains« (Schiller) was literally beyond imagination.

CH: Today we are allowed to enjoy all our liberties individually, but are we not actually back in mortal danger if we transcend the borders of the sanctioned zones of protection these liberties grant us? Anyone violating these borders is subject to control. I always thought your programmes that transcend epochs (such as ›Mouvement‹/›Gran Partita‹ and ›Staub‹/ Ninth Symphony) were such border violations?

HL: Borders are always opening and closing. At Beet - hoven’s time, or in the course of the early 19th century, the enlightened citizen also discovered his own lack of liberty. As Woyzeck says in Georg Büchner’s drama: »Man is an abyss!« Since Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Marx and Freud, we have known about the crisis of the individual, only so recently proud and enlightened. The church’s authority had been destroyed. The concept of magic had been loosened from its religious chains and achieved independence as an aesthetic fascination; it guaranteed a collective enchantment which remained essential elsewhere, not least in the concert hall. In Robert Musil’s ›The Man without Qualities‹, the ego recognises that »it« is a haphazard »basin« in which innumerable brooks flow together from all directions, and which settles for calling itself »ego«.

CH: To what extent has the »ego« adapted to this experience?

HL: I have observed that our Western-oriented, culture-conscious democracy is dominated by three values providing orientation to the majority: growth, security and fun. In our fun-seeking society, art has become the »Sunday parlour« of the entertainment industry. Instead, the original idea was that it would help us transcend the limitations, to make us, as I rightfully like to say, not »hörig« (in thrall to something) but »hellhörig« (attentive). Around the turn into the 20th century at the latest, composers – and not only they – noticed, even recognized, the voicelessness of the socialised subject. After two horrible wars, which were neither the fi rst nor the only to rip the bourgeois mask from society and prove Büchner’s dictum of man as an »abyss«, the younger composers in Darmstadt no longer talked about expression. They sensed and recognized that they had nothing to say, but something to make, to create, to construct, to seek, to discover. Music written from such a creatively overcome speechlessness eludes any expressive repertoire. Bearing witness to creative lust and energy, it tends to be »cheerful«. »Cheerfulness« seems to me an attitude beyond any subjective emotionality.

CH: In your string quartet ›Reigen seliger Geister‹, once again you invoke the ghosts who quote themselves and each other. You recharge the music with magic. And later, in the ›Concertini‹, you quote your own material, e.g. from ›Grido‹.

HL: It never seemed so to me. Subconsciously I still live with the term »musique concrète instrumentale «, meaning that I do not think of magic when I compose, but of the game of energies that are physically perceived. The first pieces I composed with this aspect in mind were called »Pression« or »temA« – indicating how the concept of music that they aimed to define might be articulated. This led me to alienate the available sounds in order to shed a light on their production. God knows I was neither the fi rst nor the only one to alienate instrumental sounds. However, my goal in this endeavour was neither surrealist fun nor expressionist shock; instead, I was fully serious, in my rather sober way. One might say that I had fun being serious. I was happy, and in ›Air‹ and ›Kontrakadenz‹ I believed that I had found my garden of paradise in which I might reap material for my next hundred works. However, no sooner had I started working on ›Gran Torso‹ and ›Fassade‹ than I felt my paradise to be a prison. To me, composing means »thinking about music« and »building an instrument«. And thinking, says Ernst Bloch, means transgression. Whatever your paradise may be: the forbidden apple must be found and must be swallowed, with all consequences. CH: How salubrious was the apple Nono handed you?

HL: During the time I spent in Venice with Nono, from 1958 to 1960, I didn’t hear a single note I had composed – nothing. There was no ensemble far and wide, no instruments. Nono himself heard nothing of what he composed. In 1963 I went to Cologne, spent four months in Stockhausen’s courses tinkering with his ›Plus-Minus‹ and learning a lot, taking percussion lessons there with Christoph Caskel, performing Schnebel’s ›Glossolalie‹ for Aloys Kontarsky and Cage’s ›Wintermusic‹ and ›Vexations‹ for Frederic Rzewski. There, I also met Henri Pousseur, who came in one morning – we were about twelve composers, Makoto Shinohara, Johannes Fritsch, Michael von Biel among them – and said to me: »Quick, tell me an acoustic event.« My answer: »Hoof beats.« »And you?« Somebody else said: »The beginning of Beethoven’s Ninth.« So Pousseur said: »Each of you will now take the next hour to design a precise scale which starts at one end with hoof beats and ends with the beginning of the Ninth Sym - phony.« That was a real challenge to our sluggish imagination, a kind of gymnastics for creativity. Ever since, I have known: any sound can form part of an infinite number of scales, each time with a different function and in a different light, a point in which an infinite number of lines meet. It is not about creating sounds that are somehow new or shocking, after all – instead, the point is to create and re-create contexts that will re-illuminate whatever sound there may be. If someone scratches a bow across a string instrument and starts talking about the »Lachenmann style« or the »Lachenmann school«, I want to throw up.

CH: Many concert-goers enjoy your works, you have many fans. When we started in the 1980s, New Music was not as well-administered and wide-spread as today, and therefore it did have ear-opening, provocative subversion going for it.

HL: I will not stop people from liking my music. Some people love the fact that I keep denying and refusing, but others consider me a cowardly traitor to my own cause. No matter. It’s better when a musician or music-lover charges me with the accusation: »What you are doing is not even music.« Now that is a true compliment! Not music? Then what is it? It is a time-space in which my stubborn head is effective, by dealing in its own, not entirely unthinking manner with the resounding elements. When I was elected Fellow of the Royal College of Music, the College President, Prince Charles, said to me: »Your music is so diffi cult to understand.« I, however, was prepared for that, and so I quoted freely from Shakespeare’s ›Hamlet‹: »There is a method in my madness.«

CH: Luckily, our audience has this willingness for adventures!

RD: I have one question about the associations with literature and art which you access so quickly in a conversation such as ours: are you the composer who hears novelty, the unheard-of – like Leonardo in ›...zwei Gefühle...‹? And what is the meaning of the »second feeling«, your connection with all that exists?

HL: As somebody who has grown up and works within our European musical life, I know that I am still referenced by what I once called the aesthetic machinery, i.e. the overall entity of all the technical and logistical institutions, including those of performance practice, which serve and influence musical life. This includes the living presence of our musical tradition, and of course its underlying predispositions which influence us aesthetically – underneath the surface, these are still tonally oriented. There is no sound in the world which does not subordinate itself to those predispositions, to our Euro-centrically deformed ear: every sound in the concert hall is consonant or dissonant. Even if a cow farts on the podium, that is an aesthetic event. Everything we perceive as an acoustic message within the field of music acquires a latent, involuntary and very often certainly unwelcome tonal or atonal – that is the same thing – reference. However, there are other correlations of cause and effect, for example what I call aura. When I hear a classical trumpet, I am accosted by the military aura of a fanfare. When I hear the bells of an animal herd, I might think of the mountains, of idylls beyond the reach of civilisation. In Mahler’s case, they have a transcendental function.

CH: In Nono’s case, they break the idyll, even making it inimical.

HL: You think? Nono loved bells. But Nono is another chapter entirely; Nono was an amateur in the eyes of the Darmstadt composers of his time. He shamelessly took advantage of the immediate magic and aura of a homogeneous group of instruments in his compositions – mind you, I did not say that he used them. He wrote a piece for six sopranos with one solo soprano. At the same time, a soprano voice signified a woman to him, a female voice with its whole maternal, erotic, poetic-sensual aura (which he idealised). Nono was a radical structuralist, and at the same time he allowed the means he started with to retain their original aura: he didn’t break it – on the contrary, he recharged it with new expressivity.

RD: I am interested in your primal instincts as a musician. What did you absorb as an active musician, what influenced you especially, what and how do you structure, and where do you give free reign to your imagination?

HL: I no longer know – I have forgotten or repressed it! I experience myself – and my fellow human beings – as a part and product of my bourgeois upbringing, and at the same time as a creature with a spiritual capability, i.e. also a responsibility towards the spirit, on a path between birth and death. My need to realise my potential and my creative curiosity seek to discover their innovative possibilities within the exploration of the phenomenon we call music. That also has to do with a certain appetite for adventure – creating something which is ultimately in harmony with itself and also expands my horizon. It is an intuitive and intellectual, almost a sporting game. Inspired by Morton Feldman’s wonderful work title ›The Viola in My Life‹, I think of »the music in my life«, meaning that I want to turn this tradition-soaked concept of music which weighs me down into a concept of music that I can control, and see what happens to me in the process. Of course I aim for my own enthusiasm and that of my fellow humans, i.e. I wish to remind them incidentally of our spiritual capability, our ability to open up. To generate enthusiasm in others also means to be enthusiastic oneself and vice versa, and that also means happiness.

RD: We performed the world premieres of ›Zwei Gefühle‹ and ›Concertini‹ as well as the new version of ›Accanto‹, in which you reduced the instrumentation without touching the substance of the piece. What about ›Air‹, the new version of which we will premiere at »cresc...«? What aspects have been changed?

HL: Once again, there was no change, no substantial alteration. ›Air‹ was my first orchestral piece indebted to the concept of »musique concrète«. I have revised the piece once before, enriching it with experiences I had in the meantime, i.e. the concept of »shadow«. The entire treatment of the physical aspect of sound requires a more or less latent dramaturgy during the process of composing. Sounds have a fate. At the moment where I start interfering again, I have to be careful. It is like the Loriot sketch where he painstakingly tries to straighten out one picture on the wall, and the resulting chain reaction ultimately leaves the entire furniture in shreds. In the case of ›Accanto‹, I only changed the string parts, in ›Air‹ I also altered the wind parts.

RD: I imagine you holding up a stronger spotlight to a body, and this results in more focused images.

HL: Yes, I simply hope that the re-instrumentation of ›Air‹ results in a more transparent sound. I am more curious about this new version than anything else.