Helmut Lachenmann Chamber Music Day: Arditti Quartet, Helmut Lachenmann (piano), Oliver Coates (cello), Clio Gould (violin), Sarah Leonard (soprano), Rolf Hind (piano), Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 23.10.10 (GDn)
Helmut Lachenmann wants us to listen in a new way. What he means by that can be difficult to put into words, he'll use expressions like 'playing the piano rather than playing on the piano', which don't necessarily make things any clearer. Fortunately, his music – all his music in fact – makes the point explicitly, and with an immediacy that makes his alternative approach to sound seem almost intuitive.
One of the events of the Chamber Music Day was a discussion with the composer. At 75, he is of the immediate post-war generation of German composers, and like all of his contemporaries, he spent the early years of his career searching for ways to resurrect the German musical tradition from the apparent impasse it faced in the 1950s. Being a German composer, Lachenmann is an artist who deals with tradition and seems to continually reconcile what he does with what has gone before. However, that is something you'll only realise if you hear him talk; his music seems miraculously unencumbered by tradition.
It turns out that one Lachenmann's most significant early influences was John Cage. At the talk, Lachenmann mentioned 4'33" as a work in which the listener is obliged to listen differently, to explore new ideas of what music is. This is the deep level at which Lachenmann seeks to alter our perceptions, and any performance of his music takes us back to the basics: we have a concert hall, performers, instruments and an audience – that's all you can take for granted. If his works engage with musical tradition (and I still have my doubts), it is through the radical reinterpretation of the performance situation.
Lachenmann's project is surprisingly insular. At a time when composers around the world are increasingly obliged to take on cross cultural and multimedia influences, Lachenmann continues to explore a distinctively personal sound world. In practical terms, this means that performers have to submit wholly to his aesthetic. He regularly collaborates with performers, but judging by what he expects of them, this must surely be because musical notation is unable to express exactly what he needs them to do. Lachenmann is the godfather of extended performance techniques, and the production of almost every sound in his works is the result of an instrument being used in an unusual way.
Fortunately, the Arditti Quartet have the measure of this music. The expertise they brought to the first concert, spoke of many years of deep engagement with the composer's work. They take on the extended techniques as if they were second nature. To give an idea of the sort of thing we are talking about, the concert featured: the back of a violin being played with the bow, bowing the tail piece, the head, the pegs and the bridge of the cello, plucking violin strings with the tensioning nut of the bow...the list is seemingly endless. But the coherency of these performances lay in the fact that the performers didn't treat any of the techniques as if they were unusual, and for Lachenmann they are not, they are the basis of his aesthetic.
The two works in this first concert, the 1st and 3rd String Quartets were written in 1972 and 2001 respectively. The difference between them is remarkable. In the first, there are virtually no pitched sounds (in typically Cageian fashion, Lachenmann takes little interest in the distinction between sound and noise). He talks about 'perforated sounds', and the timbres produced by the various performing techniques could well be thought of as an array of different levels of perforation. In the 3rd Quartet, pitched sounds are the basis of most of the textures, and there are a surprising number of instances of notes being produced on the strings of the instruments with the hair of the bow. But the radicalism remains, as if Lachenmann has spent the intervening years claiming traditional timbres for his personal sound world. Consonances and chords appear, but even then, Lachenmann ensures we are listening to them differently, as if all their former meaning had been stripped away.
The evening concert began with the composer himself performing the piano suite 'Ein Kinderspiel'. These early pieces are a kind of manifesto, setting out his radical ideas in simple terms. So in one work he plays a chromatic scale from the top to the bottom of the piano. The reason? Well, Lachenmann is of the opinion that the banal in music equates to no music at all. So this chromatic scale is merely a medium. In the composer's words, it means that rather than playing a chromatic scale of the piano, he is playing the piano on a chromatic scale. There then followed two solo works, played by cellist Oliver Coates and violinist Clio Gould. Both handled the music well, and were able to make all of the unusual effects sound, but neither were quite up to the level of the Ardittis in terms of their fluency with Lachenmann's language.
The final work was a song cycle entitled 'Got Lost'. Soprano Sarah Leonard and pianist Rolf Hind are seasoned Lachenmann performers, and this was a very impressive performance. The composer spent many years incorporating vocal music and language into his work, a project that was initially focussed on his opera 'Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern' and later on a series of spin-off projects, of which this is one. Predictably, perhaps, we are in a world here of Cathy Berberian vocal effects, singing into the case of the piano, plucking the strings, striking the soundboard with a hammer. Personally, I find Lachenmann's innovations with string technique superior to his piano devices, although his most significant innovation with the instrument has been to treat the keyboard as a resonant body and explore the sounds that can be produced without actually striking the keys. It is an interesting piece, and the most recent of the works on the programme, demonstrating that even in his 70s, Lachenmann is as inquisitive and adventurous as ever in the continuing expansion of his distinctive and utterly original sound world.