Program notes- Lachenmann, Zimmermann and the League of King David

Heather OÕDonnell

 

 

Helmut Lachenmann (1935) was born to a protestant pastor family in Stuttgart. 

One characteristic of his music is a continuous occupation with what Wolfgang Rihm calls a "grinding away of the familiar".  His musicality is thoroughly permeated by tradition, as shown by his body of works that includes over a dozen pieces written for the most tradition-laden of western art music's institutions- the symphony orchestra, as well as an opera and several concerti.  At the same time, and seemingly paradoxically, he is the creator of some of the most radically new works written today.  A composer who has achieved an expression that is in its essence progressive, he transcends any mannerist "newness" that several other composers of avant-guard music fell prey to- as Lachenmann calls it, "a coquettish pseudo-radicalism" intended merely to shock, tickle, or scandalize concert audiences.

            Lachenmann's music offers the potential to sharpen the perception of a listener by challenging very basic assumptions about the nature of music and how we experience sound. He developed a vocabulary for instrumental sounds that were previously discarded or suppressed in order to conform with a rather settled and predefined notion of what a "beautiful tone" is.  He masterfully uses the unwieldy mechanics of an instrument (e.g. scrape-sounds on strings or clicking-noises on woodwinds), sounds that are always present in the process of instrumental sound production, but covered up with great effort by classically trained musicians..  Such use of normally discarded sonic material can be compared to someone wandering through a scrap yard to salvage objects that, with closer observation, radiate beauty, a kind of beauty, though, that may not be in keeping with conventional notions. . 

Lachenmann takes these forgotten or neglected sounds and arranges them in such a way as to shine a new perspective on them, liberating them from their previous status as unwanted sonic residue.  This process should not only be understood as a metaphorical act of salvation. Lachenmann's music also emanates a sensous and aesthetic enjoyment of and fascination with sound in-and-of itself, as well as playful and burlesquely humorous sides.

Lachenmann's Serynade, with its 30-minute length, is to date his most extensive work for solo piano written for his wife, the pianist Yukiko Sugawara. The "Y" in the title is a reference to her first name.  It is a piece that challenges one very basic tenant in piano physics - that a tone produced from a piano cannot be altered or manipulated after the attack, as it always immediately enters into a process of decay.  Lachenmann uses the extensive resonance capabilities of the piano to affect the tones after they have been struck, making a large part of the music "inbetween the tones", so to speak.  He does this by using silently depressed keys that open the strings for responsive resonance, or by unconventional usage of the pedals.  One can

imagine two planes of perception in this piece: on the one hand, the stark reality of the forceful block chords, the pounded clusters and angular figurations - pronounced acts of instrumental sound production; and on the other, the "ghost resonances" emerging from these attacks, producing an alternate world of lingering memory, hidden references, fragile lightness, and ethereal beauty.

 

Walter Zimmermann was born 1949 in rural Franconia. 

His most pronounced musical influences come from American music, namely John Cage and Morton Feldman.  Zimmermann notes, "I tried to combine Cage and Feldman within me, so to speak: the Cage of the matrices and chance systems, and Feldman's lyricism". Zimmermann refers to a myriad of extra- musical influences in his work ranging from writers from antiquity (Plato, St. Augustine, Lucretius) through Meister Eckart's surrendering of the self, to Noam Chomsky's theory of generative grammar and Shunryu Suzuki's book "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind".

One important element in Zimmermann's work is a fascination with numbers and systems, matrixes and magic squares.  Zimmermann once stated, "Magic squares have rows of numbers that are seemingly all muddled up, but which in reality have an inner order beyond the insight of the composer...  These magic squares yield certain pitch groupings, which really come to you from the outside, which aren't produced in one's inner self.  This is probably what one calls 'automaton': that there exists a self-regenerating machine, which is almost something natural in itself, something one is confronted with, and something into which one then intervenes." In this way of limiting the traps and temptations of unbridled self-expression, a poetics of purity and allegory emerges in the music of Walter Zimmermann. 

Desert imagery is a recurrent theme in Zimmermann's works, going back to a collection of interviews with American composers he conducted in 1975. This collection was entitled "Desert Plants" (referring to the difficult cultural climate in the U.S. for contemporary composers who nevertheless found ways to flourish).  In WŸstenwanderung (Desert Journey) the desert is a metaphor for an empty and unstable internal state, as expressed by a text of the 17th Century German poet and visionary Angelus Silesius that appears in the preface to ZimmermannÕs score:

            Wo ist mein Auffenthalt?                   Where is my resting place?

            Wo ich und Du nicht stehen.  Where you and I are not.

            Wo ist mein letztes End?                    Where is my last end?

            in welches ich sol gehen?     to which I should go?

            Da wo man keines findt.                   Where nothing can be found.

            Wo sol ich dann nun hin?       Where should I go now?

            Ich musz noch Ÿber Gott                   I must seek out God

            in eine WŸste ziehn.               in the wilderness.

 

The piece (in the composerÕs words), "depicts the creation of the world soul according to PlatoÕs Timaeus, getting increasingly complicated and collapsing from its own complexity,

which has become machine-like."  The piece begins serenely. Matrices of harmonic fields are interwoven, fluctuating gently so as to avoid the dominance of one field over another.  The textures accumulate and become increasingly complex like a tangle of vines.  At a key point the pianist quotes Nietzsche:

            Die WŸste wŠchst.                 The desert grows.

            WehÕ dem, der WŸste birgt.  Woe to the one who holds a desert in himself.

 

At this point the complexity of structures start to self-destruct, like a fantastically malfunctioning machine, imparting an awe and fascination on the onlooker.  Zimmermann, uncharacteristically, makes virtuostic demands on the player that verge on the impossible, "These excessive demands match the prescribed path: a path that goes astray, into a desert that one has to overcome".

The breakdown culminates in the shouting of a text (in German translation) of Ezra Pound :  RE USURA : I was out of focus, taking a symptom for a cause. The cause is AVARICE.