By Randy Nordschow
Berlin has become a safe haven for musicians everywhere seeking cheap rents in a city with a palpable creative vibe and spirited subculture. Alongside the pounding din of construction sites, underground performance spaces have been carved into the urban landscape. It’s inside this do-it-yourself artistic pressure cooker that Kammerensemble Neue Musik (KNM) fashioned its HouseMusik concept.
During the course of an evening, audiences migrate from private apartments, offices, shops, and cafés to witness new music and hybrid performative installations created with traditional classical instruments and the latest digital technologies. Replicating the HouseMusik experience, albeit with assigned seating, KNM has fashioned a multifaceted approach to this evening’s programming. First, a quick historical survey of the region's musical influences, from Schoenberg to Lachenmann, followed by a crash course of new work by composers entrenched in Berlin’s creative hive, revealing unprovoked connections and the inner workings of a city renowned for unabashed artistic splendor.
To begin a sonic-portrait of Berlin with a composer with only a passing connection to the city is in no way fallacious, especially if that composer happens to be Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951). Although his Chamber Symphony No.1, Op. 9 (1906), only hints at the 12-tone composition technique that he would later develop in order to bring systematic unity to his compositions, the piece demonstrated that grand statements could be created using small instrumental forces, rather than gargantuan Mahler-sized orchestras. Schoenberg’s impact on 20th-century music traveled far beyond his native Vienna. In fact, the composer’s groundbreaking compositional method made one of the biggest impacts of the last century and continues to hold sway over many musicians’ thought processes to this day.
Luigi Nono (1924–1990) is another powerful influence on today’s new music scene. No doubt connected to Schoenberg—he married Schoenberg’s daughter Nuria—Nono also spent a year in residence at the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD) in Berlin, the same year he composed the haunting Post-prae-ludium No. 1, “per Donau” (1987). The oxymoronic title is as enigmatic as the colorful hand-scribbled score. Once the performer parses out the composer’s intentions, a delicate balance of musical utterances, electronic specialization, and near-silence electrifies the performance space, focusing listeners on the tiniest of details. Nono developed his sumptuous use of live electronics in Freiburg, Germany, and the impact of his electroacoustic works from the 1980s is still echoing its influence throughout Europe.
Peter Ablinger (b. 1959) has forged an eclectic body of work using his own brand of conceptualism. Through his investigations, the composer has forged a unique relationship with both the voice and piano—even creating a work in which a piano speaks the angry words from an inflammatory letter Arnold Schoenberg wrote to a record producer, with the aid of a computer-controlled mechanical device retrofitted to the piano which plays the keyboard fast enough to produce the necessary frequencies to replicate spoken language. In his ongoing series titled Voices and Piano (begun in 1998), the composer takes recorded speeches by well-known figures—such as Marcel Duchamp, Gertrude Stein, and Mao Zedong—and creates an exacting piano accompaniment that reinforces the fundamental pitch found in the particular speaker’s voice.
Certainly influenced by his teacher Luigi Nono, Helmut Lachenmann (b. 1935) has managed to redefine the parameters of music for an entire generation of composers. In Germany at least, it’s very difficult to escape the shadow of his influence. Lachenmann’s music, notable for its unconventional playing techniques, embraces a highly structured sound world encompassing instrumental noise and pitch on equal terms. His percussion piece Intérieur (1966) is an early attempt to synthesize the elements that would become his signature. Lachenmann’s concept of musique concrète instrumentale solidified the notion that composers needed to push music to its limits, and the younger composers who occupy the remaining portion of the program have heeded this calling.
Taking a cue from Marcel Duchamp’s famous “readymade” sculpture Bicycle Wheel, composer Stefan Bartling (b. 1963) creates a clicking cantus firmus for his simultaneously performed works Mit Namen (2002) and RANDNOTIZ (2002). Intermingled with the sound of a turning bicycle wheel, names of historical significance are spoken and whirled through a network of speakers. This sort of conceptual approach, where the sound-sources themselves seem to have a metonymic relationship to art history, is closely aligned with strategies typically found inside the visual arts world. The ritualized feeling of the work belies its own absurdity, making for a compelling blend of installation art and performance.
The work of Helmut Oehring (b. 1961) seems to encompass an unquantifiable otherness, a unique approach to sound and timbre that manages to relate to classical music’s canonical past, while at the same time seem completely unbeholden to tradition. His childhood experience of growing up with deaf-mute parents continues to impact the sonic qualities of his work. In his Untitled (2007) piece for soprano saxophone and electronics, the composer continues questioning the enigmatic properties of audible language and communication using music as his context.
For AUTOMAT (1999/2005) brothers Peter (b. 1970) and Marc Sabat (b. 1965) combine their individual work into a meta-duo that fuses sound and image. The video combines two slow panning shots superimposed—fixed objects, like the carwash and neighboring gas station, parked cars, and phone booths appear to be inhabited by ghost-like figures as the double exposure catches passersby inside this otherwise banal urban environment. The ambient sound from the film mingles with a live performance of Marc’s Duas Quintas (2004) for two violins, exhibiting the composer’s interest in microtuning and intuitive rhythmic flow.
The poetry of Ron Winkler (b. 1973) uses a technical-analytical vocabulary to subtly convey nature—think of an idyllic forest, for instance, which can be burned onto a DVD-R. The irony of such an approach isn’t lost on Argentine-born composer Ana Maria Rodriguez (b. 1963). Her own relationship to technology is ambivalent insofar as its functionality is merely a tool for her to realize sound installations and performances. Indeed, technology is almost second nature in 21st-century life; perhaps these two artists have discovered a third nature. To simply say that Telegram from a Sea (2007) is poetry set to music is a misnomer—it’s a message from the melding point between our natural and virtual worlds.
The Listeners (2005) is a clever commentary on how we encounter music and its inherent ephemerality. Composer and sound artist Alessandro Bosetti (b. 1973) enlisted a group of volunteers who agreed to be videotaped while listening to short audio works individually created by Bosetti. Each of the listeners was the first to hear their own respective piece, and the last—the composer permanently deleted the work after each volunteer finished listening. All that remains of the music are the visual responses of the headphone-clad strangers that we watch onscreen in silence.
Walter Zimmermann (b. 1949) typically draws upon a wide range of history and culture in conceiving his work. A mainstay of Berlin’s music scene for decades, the composer reveals a blend of intellectual rigor that seems at odds with his tendency toward stripped-down, simplistic-sounding music. His distinct brand of aesthetics may appear to be out of synch with today’s more dominant musical trends in Europe, but his music makes a bold impact through its cold, calculated clarity. Shadows of Cold Mountain 5 (1997) is from a series of works based on artist Brice Marden’s group of paintings and works on paper titled Cold Mountain, which in turn are inspired by calligraphy from the Tang Dynasty. Following contours from the drawings’ networked patterns, Zimmermann translates Marden’s gestures into sliding musical phrases filled with shimmering different tones that freely collide during performance.
The video stills that accompany Ezra Jack Plot (2007), composed by Australian native Thomas Meadowcroft (b. 1972), are taken from the book The Snowy Day by the American children’s book author and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats. The images are presented in the same order as they appear in Keats’s original work. The rate at which they are projected no longer correlates with the speed in which a child might view them; instead, they progress in synch to the accompanying musical structure. In turn, the musical structure was created in such a way as to make audible the block-like forms—in particular the juxtaposition of materials such as linoleum, cloth, and paint—that figure so beautifully in Keats’s illustrations.
Vom Durst nach Dasein (“Of the Thirst of Existence,” composed 2000–01), by Stephan Winkler (b. 1967), is a seven-part cycle of “character pieces” for viola, strings, percussion, and sampler. Using sampled rhythms and tropes from the techno scene that permeated fin de siècle Berlin, the composer creates a work that’s always emerging and imploding upon itself. “Berlin is a city condemned forever to becoming and never being,” wrote author Karl Scheffler. Perhaps this composition is Winkler’s succinct response to this sentiment.
If all of the works presented tonight have anything at all in common, it’s a mutual respect of process. It only makes sense that the American composer James Tenney (1934–2006), whose work embraces a process-made-audible approach, should have the last word. In pieces like Chromatic Canon, the composer managed to reconcile the seemingly polar opposite methodologies of Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone system and the then-emerging repetitive tactics of post-minimalism.
Tenney’s Cognate Canons (1993) was composed in Berlin during his residency at DAAD. The “cognates” in the piece are pairs of sound-configurations: one played by the percussionist, the other by the string quartet. The composer treats both equally to make canonic relationships via different modes of sound production. The work contains 13 overlapping canons, all involving different tempos between the two voices. For those not too tired to follow along, here are the relative tempos in order of appearance: 3:4, 4:5, 3:4, 2:3, 3:4, 4:5, and 3:4. Fittingly, Tenney dedicated the work to composer Conlon Nancarrow, who often created canonic pieces using simultaneous multiple tempos.
Copyright © 2007 by The Carnegie Hall Corporation
Composer Randy Nordschow is Associate Editor of NewMusicBox.org.
© 2001–2007 Carnegie Hall Corporation