Mp3 Blog #54: Helmut Lachenmann

Helmut Lachenmann:
”Gran Torso” (1972)
For String Quartet
Performed by the Berner String Quartet
Available on compact disc at Forced Exposure

”Schwankungen am Rand” (1974-75)
For brass, four percussionists, two electric guitars, two pianos, and strings
Performed by SWF-Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg conducted by Ernest Bour
Available on this compact disc

* * * * *

I am a little reluctant to say much about Helmut Lachenmann besides laugh that I’m posting this after posting an mp3 blog entry featuring Philip Glass.

Although Lachenmann’s music is rarely heard in the United States, or the Western Hemisphere for that matter, he is considered one of biggest names in contemporary composition in most of Europe especially in his native Germany. I’m also a little reluctant to write much about Lachenmann because I’ve seen his esthetics exert something close to a cult-like dogmatic influence amongst some of my colleagues, because so much has recently been published on his music (for example see the recent issues of Contemporary Music Review, an English translation by Sequenza 21’s own Evan Johnson, and – for those who read German – the recently published collection of Lachenmann’s writings) and furthermore – to be completely honest – I’m still struggling to fully understand what Lachenmann does and aims to do in his music.

That said I have a great respect and admiration for Lachenmann’s forward thinking compositional approach. These two works demonstrate something that I would feel confident in calling “Lachenmann-esque” – a focus on what one would call in other contexts “extra-instrumental techniques” and the pure physicality required to produce sound from all instruments to create a new (possibly more natural) hybrid ensemble which is largely treated as one instrument or entity. I personally find that these formal, structural, and timbral exploratory techniques engender his music with a certain highly imagination excitement.

“Gran Torso” (the first Lachenmann piece that ever made any sense to me) achieves this aim by largely focusing on the string players’ excessive bow pressure (or grain/”granum”) to create an alternatively dramatic and unaffected disembodied entity (or “torso”). “Schwankungen am Rand” works similarly but on a much larger scale with a sonic focus on brass and sheet metal in its many manifestations. The larger palette in this piece creates a sound world that is both ripely volatile with abandon and delicately intimate.

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