Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Guardian's Contemporary Classical Music Guide

The Guardian newspaper is performing the laudable task of trying to introduce its readers to contemporary music. Back in April I posted on the introductory essay and found it a bit wanting. Let's check back and see how they are doing. So far they have put up articles on nine composers. It looks quite intriguing because while some of them I know something about already, like Zimmermann, others I know much less than I should, like Pauline Oliveros and John Zorn. There is even one composer, Helmut Lachenmann, that I have never heard of! Here is his bio in Wikipedia and the guide in the Guardian.

I am very happy to find that my first impression was really quite mistaken. This is a good series and might help to introduce a lot of people to music they wouldn't otherwise know. The approach and writing style of Tom Service, that I found so annoying in his introduction to the series, turns out to be just right for the essays on the individual composers. His generalizations didn't hold much water, but his enthusiasm for each individual composer is infectious. So, my bad!

The plan is to take up a different composer each week for a year. Let's have a closer look at Helmut Lachenmann. He was a student of Luigi Nono who was both a member of the post-war avant-garde, and a very committed Marxist, much of whose music had political content. One of Lachenmann's pieces for ensemble linked to in the Guardian essay is this one:

The first half of this movement (a section from a larger work) is like a very fast gigue or tarantella. Unlike a lot of contemporary music, the rhythmic texture is quite clear and impels the music forward. What is unique are the timbres chosen. The music skitters along with squeaks and pops in a quite charming way. Oddly enough it calls to mind Mendelssohn's scherzo to A Midsummer Night's Dream:

The second half of Mouvement changes to a slow, pointillist texture that perhaps resembles Bartok's 'night music'.  Another work linked to in the Guardian essay is the first part of Lachenmann's third string quartet from 2001, Grido.

This music again focuses on timbre, with extensive writing for string harmonics and glissandi. Tom Service refers to Lachenmann's music as "extreme" and "focused" which is what we are hearing here. The idea of adding new timbral resources has been used by many, many composers in the 20th century. The difference here is that certain timbres are very tightly focused on. Lachenmann is no "kitchen sink" composer.

As a guitarist, I was particularly interested in Lachenmann's piece for guitar duo, Salut für Caudwell:

I chose this clip, of a live performance, over the complete one found in the article so that we can see the kinds of actions that create the sounds. Like Mouvement there is a very tight focus on a certain set of timbres and a fairly consistent rhythmic structure. You may or may not like the results, of course. I tried to get a look at the score for the piece both to see how it was notated and to see what the text was the guitarists speak during parts of the piece (though not in the excerpt above). Alas, I got sucked into file-sharing hell and wasn't successful. However, Wikipedia has an article on a Christopher Caudwell who died fighting in an International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. He was a literary critic and Marxist, much of whose writing was published after his death.

Let's have one more clip, the first part of Concertini from 2005.

Lachenmann's music utilizes many kinds of sounds--scrapes, snaps and thumps--that were not traditionally considered to be 'musical'. The early 20th century composers, such as the Futurists, tended to throw a bit or a lot of noise into the music and stop there. But Lachenmann integrates these kinds of sounds into the music by focusing on them, by using them as recurring, integral 'themes'. They are no longer 'noise', but musically significant sounds. Just not pitched ones. Interesting...


RG said...


Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, sure can sound creepy. It is kind of interesting that a lot of the typical gestures and sounds of avant-garde music went straight into horror film soundtracks.

The question is, can you hear this music as beautiful? How about as sublime? Edmund Burke developed this concept to capture a certain kind of aesthetic value that is contrasted with beauty. The sublime challenges us and has an element of horror.