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Lachenmann and Central European Noise

Con temor bivo
Koston Resonance/Eclats
Con temor bivo

Lachenmann and Central European Noise

14 December 2019 / William Anderson / On the Beat

Piano Studies at NYU Steinhardt

21st-Century Wanderers: Jonathan HARVEY / Helmut LACHENMANN
Manuel LAUFER, piano
Dorothea HAYLEY, soprano

Friday, December 13 at 8 pm
Black Box Theatre, 82 Washington Square East

I could not imagine better performances of these pieces. Manuel Laufer and Dorothea Hayley are highly skilled, passionate devotees of Harvey and Lachenmann, and their committment and love was evident throughout.

Below is a conversation that began with my responses to Lachenmann’s Got Lost (texts by Friedrich Nietzche, Fernando Pessoa) for soprano & piano.

Lachenmann is catching on the US. I was given the score of his guitar duo at Columbia U over ten years ago. Columbia is very much a node in the wormhole to Central European modernism.


Lachenmann has referred to his compositions as musique concrète instrumentale, implying a musical language that embraces the entire sound-world made accessible through unconventional playing techniques. According to the composer, this is music

in which the sound events are chosen and organized so that the manner in which they are generated is at least as important as the resultant acoustic qualities themselves. Consequently those qualities, such as timbre, volume, etc., do not produce sounds for their own sake, but describe or denote the concrete situation: listening, you hear the conditions under which a sound- or noise-action is carried out, you hear what materials and energies are involved and what resistance is encountered.[2]


Concerns about Lachenmann

Lachenmann creates wildly inventive “noise arcs”. I mention one very winning arc, below, the one that culminates in cheek-slapping.

–not always convinced by the way pitch met noise. Piano is especially tricky this way. It reeks of pitch. Because of the focus on noise, we care much, much more about pitch because we fear that we will forget what pitch can do. We fear our pitch muscles will atrophy.

–Can we say that pitch is asked to an answer unpitched gestures on those term? Does pitch pull punches to work with noise gestures? This leads to overwhelming cognitive dissonance in the brains of the pitch people.

–Noise did not always meet noise in a convincing manner. The plastic cup raked over the black keys, for example, came across as merely capricious. For noise connections we rely on a string of associations, often involving visual theater, even physical comedy. Lachenmann is redeemed by his sense of humor, but If we don’t catch the setup for his gags, those who feel *harmony-deprived* become even more splenetic.

–the music can please us with inventive, not merely convincing, strings associations in sound and gesture, but are we also sometimes called to take it like free improv–pure caprice? Are we called to abandon our expectation for rhetoric, dialectic, syntax and semantics?


The liminal space between pitch and noise is the only place of interest to many composers these days and one can see the historical inevitability of this without partaking.


I’m glad you said that. Do they talk about dialectic, about historical inevitability? Do they fall into Schoenberg’s Hegel traps? I’ve been concerned about that.

“Ich bin des Weltalls dunkler Raum.”

Christian Morgenstern:

Das Mondschaf

Das Mondschaf steht auf weiter Flur.
Es harrt und harrt der großen Schur.
Das Mondschaf.

Das Mondschaf rupft sich einen Halm
und geht dann heim auf seine Alm.
Das Mondschaf.

Das Mondschaf spricht zu sich im Traum:
“Ich bin des Weltalls dunkler Raum.”
Das Mondschaf.

Das Mondschaf liegt am Morgen tot.
Sein Leib ist weiß, die Sonn ist rot.
Das Mondschaf.


As far as I’ve seen Lachenmann ONLY talks about dialectic. Wish he’d just talk about the music.

Also, saw a performance by a group that does a lot of his music. They spent 10 minutes trying to explain dialectic to the audience.


I was afraid of that. This is a tricky subject. I’m sure Lachenmann’s dialectics are worth exploring, but of course his music must not rely on anything extrinsic to it.


I think there still is some historical narrative just resulting from looking for untilled ground. Perhaps the progress attributed to western and other classical or jazz music is more akin to capitalism’s deadly expansionism? Not progress so much as mission creep!


“Mission creep”–priceless, thanks, that’s a keeper. Music can go in any direction. It’s about desire. Techniques can progress. They can evolve and devolve. They can go sideways. Historical imperatives are circumscribed; they happen within a complex desire structure that is formed in part by what people got sick and tired of, in counterpoint, hopefully, with some fresh ideas about the way things might go. I believe this outlines a William Jamesian approach to value systems.


And no, I would think that they don’t generally think much about historical ‘progress’. But I think I have met some who do in the Teutonic countries: Germany and Sweden.


US music theory and history would do well to take a look at dialectic, without which sonata form could not exist, nor Baroque rhetoric. The German for what we call the first and second themes in a sonata are Satz and Gegenzatz (thesis and antithesis).


The philology of psychic inflation:

“Untilled ground” keeps one’s feet on the ground.
“Fulfilling history” is an ego trip.

Nevertheless, I will always defend Schoenberg, saying he deserved his ego trip. Revisionists are still trying to deflate the Schoenberg bubble. If Brahms experienced an inflation, I would sympathize completely. The jury is still out on Lachenann.

Also, there is an alternative to the historicist attitude suggested by
–Borges & his *Menard*.
–or Lagerkvist’s Goat-God in *The Sybil*.
Everyone is “Weltalls dunkler Raum”–unique in time and space, merely aware of the poignancy of her time & place to different degrees.

And, on the subject of history & Hegel, I have a story about Babbitt, saved for last.

I am ok with circumscribed, contingent teleologies–untilled ground–discussions that keep feet on the ground.
Granted that, here’s an attempt to get at my feeling about the pitch/noise problem:

In *Got Lost*–

Opening pitches:
Voice–(vaguely)E–G–Piano, low C#—Piano: E (pizz)—low F#—high G# (pointing toward final A?)—D# (pizz), then up by semitones–E, F, F#—soft high notes—Gb major triad (:51 Bb–Db–Gb)—[C, Db 2x]–B(pizz)—voice whistles—low [D#, E]—very low soft pno—G# minor triad (B, D#, G#)—C(pizz)—C#(pizz)—-Voice, loud and high: G#–A(!), almost simultaneously in piano: A#-B(pizz) (introducing A for the first time, still no D)–pno: A(pizz)—C-B—E(pizz)—C#-D(!)—voice E-D#—@1:44: C#–D (!)

–2:33 rising gesture lands on C–
–blurs around C#-A#
–downward spiral ends on low, low A# @3:06
–vortex with repeated G#’s @3:22
–chromatic upward glisses @3:19

–a less chromatically dense upward gestures (chromatic gestures with gaps)
–a chromatic glissando.

That is an interesting contrast.

These gestures feel like pitch trying trying to stay in the gestural mode of noise. *Got Lost* will end with a pitch; pitch-as-noise, can we postulate a new world here of pre-pitch or proto-pitch? There is a pitch argument: we can see the pointing toward *A*. It’s a gentle argument. It gets stronger when the A-B; A-B ostinato is passed from voice to piano.

For contrast, look at the tradition from the pitch avante-gard of Bartok, Wolpe, Davidovsky, Koston, Greenbaum, where a phrase goes:

—blurry string landing on [0,1]—second string landing on [1,2]….
Jose Saldaña does this in his *Homenaje a Joe Pass* <–link
**If you love something,give it teeth by transposing it.

—blurry string landing on [0,1]—second string landing on [0,1,2]….
**If you love something, give it teeth by extending it.

Koston’s *Resonance/Eclats* or Dialogue for Two Pianos <–link

What a new ear might call, in a gloss, a *cluster* becomes a harmony-thing *with teeth*. That’s to say that the harmony latches onto us–become memorable.

**In post-tonal parlance, that cluster becomes an [01], a specific cluster.** This is also a very traditional thing to do: if you love something, transpose it.

The pitch people object to Lachenmann because his harmonies are toothless. They do not have staying power. No matter how dramatic.

In Got Lost there are landings and successions of landings, but they don’t talk to each other, they dont’ advance an argument. This is a feature of the style–a willful rejection of pitch taken as pitch, and in the process, putting aside much that pitch can do. I propose that we call it *proto-pitch*, and it is pitch on its way to being lost *as pitch*.


Perhaps a careful discussion about music unfolding in history is perfectly reasonable. And, consistent with the JM’s Frankfurt School comment, the inflations that come along with that unfolding seem to relate in a deep way with Western boom and bust, scorch and burn capitalism. We like it that way. That does not protect Lachenmann from being taken as a reductio ad absurdum.

Got Lost ends with……a *pitch* – a grand A!
By being starved of pitch *treated as pitch*, and teased a bit, for 24 minutes, that ending pitch comes across as an epiphany. He ends where others start!

Let’s grant that poetic victory. But anyone who loses patience along the way certainly deserves sympathy. Impatience will come from having such a great love for what pitch can do, and a feeing of great sadness, emptiness, and frustration with its absence.

Does the requisite sitzfleish come to those pre-dosed with a dialectical golden pill?

Is it a fair question to ask, does the requisite sitzfleish come more readily to those pre-dosed with a dialectical golden pill?


Counterpoint–not only line against line, but one kind of memorable event against or *in concert with* another kind of memorable event shores up the moment, overdetermines it. Pitch provides an abundance of opportunities for counterpoints of extraordinary events. This has something to do with motivation, without beginning to exhaust the subject of motivation.

Take Juan de Triana’s Con Temor Bivo <–link
–a classic example of *as above, so below*, in a quadruple whammy–

In measure 15, we hear, all at once:

–a Lydian inflection with the B natural displacing the previous Bbs, enhanced by
–the largest interval between bass and soprano that happens in the villancico (when the low A appears), enhanced by
–the horizontal A–B–C coinciding with the vertical A–B–C (one the second half of the second beat)
–a non-harmonic tone

One cannot take the Lydian move without the other elements. One can’t take the registral spread without the other elements, etc. This overdetermination of the moment gives it teeth. It also makes the players stretch that 2nd beat–it warps space-time.

Because of the emphasis on noise, to the exclusion of pitch, Lachenmann’s introduction of new timbres can come across as utterly capricious, which is to say, unmotivated, underdetermined. The plastic cup raked over the black keys, for example. Counterpoint is insurance against the splenetic curmudgeon in the audience who is prepared to be unimpressed with whimsy. I’ll go one further–it is music’s job to please the splenetic. Much harder to achieve that without pitch.

It’s music’s job to overcome spleen.

The bad old modernists would exercise incredible creativity to introduce the 5th business–the tricky timbre–in a way that makes it not only believable, but unforgettable and inevitable.

An example–the way Rolf Yttrehus introduces the tenor banjo in Plectrum Spectrum <–link
Or the riotous piccolo entrance.


You do know that there is more than one view of the dialectic. The Hegelian must inevitably result in progress. Bakunin thought otherwise, that the result was inevitably random. He was a nihilist. So is Lachenmann, from what I can see.


That is indispensable dialectical nuance. Is your criticism more severe than what I’m cautiously outlining?


I think so.


We agree that Lachenmann deserves arguing with. We also fear emphasis on noise is causing our hard won arsenal of pitch tricks to atrophy.


There’s also the anecdote about Samuel Johnson. He was asked his view of Bishop Berkeley’s Idealism. He then kicked a stone, hard, and said “I refute it thus.”

I need to think about it a bit more. But I do agree with Scott Johnson that some kind of fruitful intercourse between “serious” and “popular” is absolutely necessary for the health of both, contra Adorno.

The Euro scene is a bit like the Aztecs feeding nothing but flowers to the Spaniard’s horse, thinking it was a god, and thus starving it.

The Euro scene is a bit like the Aztecs feeding nothing but flowers to the Spaniard’s horse, thinking it was a god, and thus starving it.


I did read somewhere that Bakunin and Wagner considered with glee the destruction by fire of great European cities. (Like in Gotterdämmerung, I guess)


Compare with the destruction of Amsterdam by fierce winds in Gustav Meyrink’s Das grüne Gesicht. (I think Das grüne Gesicht is as fun as Der Golem.) With a Christian slant: the winds at the beginning of Chesterton’s Manalive. It’s also a Gospel meme. Burn it all down!


In fariness, along the way in Got Lost, physical rhythms emerged. I think we all were grateful, because, again, we had been deprived. And pitches emerged. I remember major seconds passing from the voice to the piano?


That was charming, alluringly simple. We would not be surprised to find it in minimalist work, and it was in counterpoint with toungue clicks. I find it culminates in the cheek slaps over a rather impressively long arc, and therefore we can say the major seconds *do something*–they give birth or metamorphose. And this arc points to the climactic A ending.

The texts were great fun, but they came to bear upon the piece indirectly. The texts were pulverized into phonemes–phonemenized. Hegelian phonemenology! We need to explore Lachenmann in his own words. I will work on translations.

Christopher Swithinbank

“……while Lachenmann’s music is anything but dogmatic, his aesthetic conclusions and ensuing compositional approach were - at least initially - undeniably formed by ideology.” –Christopher Swithinbank

We do not trust Christopher Swithinbank, but we should explore the question.

Related–Jay Eckhardt collapses many (a bewildering Baroque perfusion, of) pitches on top of each other and removes them slowly throughout the piece. At a certain point, his decreasing density brushes past the *bourgeois threshold* and sounds briefly like good old fashioned music… Likewise, I have to credit Eckhardt with an original poetic conceit, but anyone who loses patience along the way has my sympathy.

Lachenmann and Eckhardt are both special cases of the minimalism tendancy.

Menachem Zur gave a talk at Sarah Lawrence a few decades ago. He recounted Mario Davidovsky’s vision for pitchless music. Zur took up the project, but Mario abandoned it. Mario’s rhythmic and orchestrational devices were numerous and would have made for very compelling noise music, I think. The best example is perhpas his sharp attack in a percussive force masking the al niente sustaining tone. These devices all work so much better with pitch and all that pitch can do, on multiple time scales. Noise can do more, I suspect, with multiple time scales–a sustaining voice noise, for example.

The Babbitt story:

I return to this story often.

Before James Levine’s 90th birthday concert for Babbitt, the two had a conversation on stage. Following the conversation, I opened the concert with Neil Farrell and Babbitt’s fabulous Cavalier Settings.

Levine said something like, yours is the main line of Western Musical development. He knew it was not politically correct to say that.

Babbitt said, “We cannot speak in those terms.” Babbitt had that beaten out of him by Ben Boretz, and others.

Levine was telling Babbitt:

“Du bist des Weltalls dunkler Raum.”
Babbitt did not take the bait.


Remember the comment made by Paul Lansky <—link
Lansky said when he began to pulverize text into phonemes, he had to radically simplify other musical elements.


Right, Idle Chatter <–link
is a great example.

And this relates to your comment about Scott Johnson and the healthy exchange between pop and non-pop. Idle Chatter is unthinkable without exactly that cross-fertilization. Also, note that Lansky has a record on Bang on a Can’s Cantaloupe Records….. Lansky is the great cross over Princetonian. The EU scene, on the other hand, is hermetically sealed.

Sadder Than Was
I talked to a brilliant and successful young ensemble director.
–Let’s commission Davidovsky for your group! Do premiere in .
–No, he said, it wouldn’t fly there.
–I think, something is very wrong in Vienna; something is very wrong with Ensemble Director.

About a year later Davidovsky died.

Regarding the limiting of elements, I see this happening with the noise composers. What pitch can do is deliberately simplified. I argue that it is also atrophying by neglect of that muscle. I want a noise revolution that integrates noise **AND** everything pitch could ever do.

Next: I now see the need to touch on young composers of the 70’s who mistook Carter & Babbitt and others for noise. Carter & Babbitt were pushing, over-reaching. It was easy to take their middle period music as free improv. or noise. The young composers thought it was cool, fashionable and deisrable, and proceeded to make noise the thing. It’s been in the works for a long time. That’s a mis-taking. Lachenmann’s noise push is deliberate and poetic.

–William Kentner Anderson