Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Sailing Past Lachenmann: Why I'm Ecstatic

I may slouch along no longer.  The Ecstatic Music Festival, several concerts of which I had the good fortune to attend, has ended, and Helmut Lachenmann, who provided the frame for my “Slouching” series, recently received the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Contemporary Music, with 400,000 Euros in prize money attached:
The jury singled out the importance of his creative works, which “based on an intimate knowledge of the musical past, have enlarged the world of sounds during the last fifty years in a way unmatched by any other contemporary composer."
In receiving the BBVA award, Lachenmann is reported to have been taken “completely by surprise.  ‘I could never have imagined this,’ he remarked on receiving the news. ‘I can only say that this is a totally undeserved as well as unexpected honor.’”

Lachenmann shows no trace of arrogance in his remarks, no sense of entitlement.  Yet I can’t shake off a sense of foreboding or, at least, a terrible sense of waste.  As the Ecstatic Music Festival so vividly demonstrated, countless young composers and ensembles are out there today, offering to enrich our lives with glorious music-making.  Why, then, such a mammoth prize to this one man, when so much could be gained by spreading the wealth around?

And there’s something else:  I’ve spent most of my adulthood, insofar as classical music is concerned, unable to connect at all with the strands of music that seemed predominant.  There is a reason so many of us stopped at Bach and Brahms (or Prokofiev and Ravel), and I don’t credit the cause as our inability or unwillingness to embrace new or complex things.

Like it or not, music-making is a compact among the composer, the performer, and the listener.  Somewhere along the way, that compact was broken, and the listener abandoned.  I know Milton Babbitt didn’t choose the title of his essay “Who Cares If You Listen?”, but I have read the essay—more than once—and I find the title apt.

Like Babbitt did, Lachenmann follows his passion, and I respect that.  Nor do I begrudge Lachenmann creating the music he wants to create.  I do take note, though, that Lachenmann’s own favorite composer is Ennio Morricone, of spaghetti western soundtrack fame.  There is a disconnect here, and I find it troubling.
I have constant reason to be grateful to composers of my generation and before who swam against the high Modernist tide, composers like Steve Reich, John Metcalf, Peter Sculthorpe, and Ned Rorem.  And I’m ecstatic, yes, ecstatic, to be able to witness a musical renascence led by the brilliant, effervescent composers coming up now, well grounded in the musical past, protean in their imaginative vision, and with delightful disregard for traditional musical boundaries.

These composers are brimming over not only with desire to create, but also to connect with us as listeners.  In my view, these men and women have saved classical music from itself and brought it back to joyous, ebullient life.  All we need to do is listen.

The “Slouching” series is dedicated to composers John Metcalf, who opened the door, and Judd Greenstein, for curating the Ecstatic Music Festival.  I hasten to add that neither composer is responsible for the points of view I've expressed.

Postscript: As I was writing this post, an article in New York Magazine about young composers in New York City inspired a fascinating set of responses, the touchstone among which was composer Matthew Guerrieri's marvelous piece, "If that's movin' up, then I'm movin out'."  Judd Greenstein's dazzling contribution to the discussion can be found here.

Post-Postscript:  As you might have gathered, I will not be writing about Lachenmann.  Instead, I refer you to others who understand what he is up to and have written and spoken about it with thoughtful eloquence.  Here is a little of what I found:

For an excellent article on Lachenmann that includes a thorough-going listening list, click here.

For a lovely article about Lachenmann by pianist Rolf Hind, click here

Below you’ll find Seda Röder’s charming and lucid explanation of Lachenmann’s music, through the piece Ein Kinderspiel.

My sister has just sent a link to her favorite Morricone piece.  In light of the comments and lively debate going on at one rare salad (on which I add a comment in an effort to dig even an deeper hole for myself on this issue), below is the Morricone piece, as well as an excerpt from Lachenmann's Mouvement.

Listening List (an eclectic sampling of contemporary music)

John Luther AdamsInuksuit
Caleb BurhansKeymaster, played by the marvelous janus trio
Jesse Alexander BrownThrough the Motions, played by the terrific contemporaneous ensemble
Companion Star (collaborative)Dream Seminar (excerpts)
Jefferson FriedmanString Quartet No. 3 (excerpt)
Judd GreensteinVayomar Schlomo; Le Tombeau de Ravel
Ellen LindquistNakoda
Dylan MattinglySix Night Sunrise
Missy MazzoliStill Life with Avalanche (scroll down to get audio)
John MetcalfPaths of Song; Never Odd or Even
Meredith MonkDolmen Music (excerpts)
Nico MuhlyFire Down Below
Joseph C. Phillips, Jr.Of Climbing Heaven and Gazing on the Earth 
Steve ReichVariations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards (excerpt) 
Ned RoremEarly in the Morning
Peter SculthorpeEarth Cry (excerpt)
Valgeir SigurðssonNebraska (reviewed here)
Sarah Kirkland SniderPenelope (excerpts)

Credits:  The photograph at the head of the post is a detail taken by Susan Scheid of Elliott Hundley's "put them together and dial anywhere" (2011).  The photograph at the end of the post is of the Keaton Music Typewriter.  No credit is provided, but the photograph appears to have been taken by Olivander.


  1. Hi Raining Acorns .. such an interesting post - and I'd love to go through all your links to learn more - my knowledge is appalling, sadly also I'm not too musical .. but I love learning .. one day I hope I'll be able to spend time here and learn from you.

    Thanks .. a really informative post - Hilary

  2. Allow me to play devil's advocate for a moment. One of the problems I have with traditional composed music is that performances are too often dull with repetition. The musicians play the notes, not the music. In their defense, I will say they don't always have much time to rehearse. When this happens with a composer I love, such as Bach, it's particularly disappointing. It just might be, with a composer like Lachenmann (who sounds intriguing), the point is to short-circuit musical expectations, forcing you to listen to get anything at all out of it. This would seem to be the opposite of disengaging with the listener; instead, it would seem to be a gesture of respect for the listener, and indeed for music making.

    I offer this as a possible approach, being ignorant about Lachenmann, apart from what I have learned in the past few minutes. But his approach to music doesn't seem very different from composers that I am familiar with. It makes sense to me that he liked Morricone, since Morricone incorporated unusual sounds and voice into his work.

  3. As always, a well-researched, intelligently reasoned and well-written article. I am not sure that I would choose to listen to Lachenmann except as a novelty composer, Geraeusch Komponisten not being amongst my favourite entertainers. Sorry about the 'entertainers', perhaps that is what Lachenmann is, an entertainer. I don't know enough about him to be as rude as I have just been.

    I must take absolute exception with Mark in the previous comment.
    The musicians who play the notes and not the music are NOT musicians.

    Whoever he is talking about, it's not musicians. Not the ones I know or whose conversations and arguments I have to listen to.

    Sorry I've been away from the blog world for a while. Somebody spoilt it for me and I am only just picking myself up off the floor.

  4. Sadly, I think there IS a certain brand of musician who has musicality but just doesn't put it across. The more I listen, the more I'm sure that any music of reasonable interest will engage if the artist has the will to communicate. Everyone in a hall feels this. And sadly the day-to-day schedules of even the best musicians do instil a certain sort of routine.

    What about Fernyhough? I was dead agin 'im, but a marvellous communicator called Robert Worby, who presents on Radio 3, came and talked to me and my students and told us why we should care. I found it intriguing and headspinning. The heart isn't quite fed, but there's certainly more to it than just arid mathematics. And I'm now told my first experience, of 'La terre est un homme', many years ago may have been spoilt by the brass deciding to blow a raspberry and play things like 'Colonel Bogey' in the melee.

  5. Dear Raining Acorns,
    thank you for giving us your frank view on the prize-winning! I often wonder why at a festival a prize is given to someone and not to another one - the ways of a jury are wilful and not always opaque. I like it when young persons are encouraged - as you write: maybe one should split such a big sum of money for different categories?

  6. Hilary: Thank you, as always for stopping by! I wonder what sort of music you listen to, when you do? Perhaps in another comment you’ll say.

    Mark: As always, you offer an interesting perspective. I suspect you might well enjoy Lachenmann, and if you do, you’ll be in quite respectable company, including the admirable people I mention in the post. For my part, there is so much music out there I want to listen to and haven’t yet had the chance (anti-social music to name just one), that I became resentful about spending time listening to music to which I could find no connection. On reflection, though, I think I actually take far less issue with Lachenmann than with the BBVA. It will be interesting to see what Lachenmann does with his award. Perhaps he will surprise us.

    Friko: I love this expression in German, for which I can only get what is the terribly inadequate translation “noises composers.” My own views are under constant reformation as to that. It’s interesting to me that I came to like Piotr’s sound compositions, about which I wrote, and yet can find no connection with Lachenmann. In the case of Piotr, I met and spoke with him at an early point in his musical journey, and I know that part of my joy is just being allowed to ride alongside for a while. In neither case is this music to which I would naturally gravitate. On the other hand, I have found that if I do my best to keep my ears open, I discover things to like where I would not have thought there was anything to like at all.

    David: Interesting you should mention Fernyhough. I’ve noticed his name mentioned from time to time and have been curious. My first attempt to listen didn’t take me far, I will confess. In the face of that, your experience strikes a real chord. It’s often about finding the way in, isn’t it? A good guide, as Richard Worby clearly is for Fernyhough, can make such an enormous difference. A fine live performance can as well, of course. In my recent musical wanderings, I’ve heard many live performances that convinced me completely of the value of a composition in a way I would not have thought possible. One example recently was eighth blackbird’s performance of Stephen Hartke’s “Meanwhile.” I don’t know that it would translate for me at home with my feet up on the recliner, but I would definitely seek out another chance to hear/see it live.

    Britta: While you are not in any way to be held responsible for this, without you, I may never have learned about the BBVA Award. As for encouraging the creative endeavors of young people, I so agree with you there. Interesting to read that John le Carré seems to agree, too. As reported in the New York Times, on being chosen as one of this year’s finalists for the Man Booker Prize, he “asked that his books should not be submitted for the annual prize to give less established authors the opportunity to win.”

    With this last reply, it seems I’ve come full circle in my responses to all your thoughtful comments. Thank you all so much.

  7. "I became resentful about spending time listening to music to which I could find no connection."

    Don't be resentful and don't listen if you don't want to! It's perfectly okay. Don't feel less than for not knowing about some kind of music, because there is way, way, way too much good stuff to know about. Just share what you know, explore what you can, and stay open minded (which you've clearly got down...).

    I've written a lengthier response to this which will be up on my blog later today... http://one-rare-salad.tumblr.com


  8. You are indeed open-minded, and I admire that very much.

    I take pride in being open-minded - perhaps too much so. When I encounter something I don't like I sometimes experience it as a personal failure. I tell myself, 'Surely there is something positive you can say about this.' But there are some things I just don't like.

    People who knew him say that Sun Ra loved all music - any music. Riding in a car he'd stay on any station. Maybe it was country music and someone would suggest changing the channel. 'No, leave it' he'd say. If it was music - any music - he wanted to experience it. I believe he was genuine and it's an ideal of mine to be able to see (and hear) with those eyes.

  9. Andrea, welcome, and thanks for writing--and as I see you've since posted a direct link to your response, I'm providing it here.

    Mark, what a lovely story about Sun Ra. On the subject of "open ears," I encountered another example of the miracle an excellent live performance can work Friday night. contemporaneous presented a concert at Bard called "internal/external combustion." The concert included pieces by six different contemporary composers, including 3 world premieres, one of which was "Jabberwocky," by Ryan Chase. The singer, Ariadne Greif, was extraordinary, the ensemble astounding (and beautifully conducted by David Bloom). Of all the pieces performed, this one, for me, was the most complicated proposition for listening. The performance, however, was enthralling. I found myself utterly captivated by the piece and hope I'll be able to hear it again soon. David Bloom, contemporaneous's co-artistic director, writes about it brilliantly here.

  10. Thank you for such an extremely well written and interesting series, culminating in such a fittingly thought-provoking finale. The postscripts and comments are at least as educational and entertaining as what came before!

  11. Thanks for a fitting end to your series. It has given me much to think about and I have learned a lot. Not that I can comment coherently here though. I daresay the most recognizable thing to me was the title of Matthew Guerrieri's piece mentioned in your postscript, which I immediately recognized as a line from a Billy Joel song. :)

    Fascinating photo of the music typewriter - to me it looks like much less work to just hand write the music (or wait for the invention of GarageBand!)


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