Helmut Lachenmann, 75 years old this year. How does the news strike us? If a composer in Europe, a better than 60%-70% chance that this is an important milestone. If a composer in America, less than 40%-30% chance of the same reaction. As a mainstream American classical concert-goer, the number is probably closer to 10% or less.

In the last couple decades, the influence of Lachenmann upon all kinds of composers has been immense, as have been the names of Franco Donatoni, Brian Ferneyhough, Beat Furrer, Gerard Grisey,Tristan Murail, Wolfgang Rihm, Kaija Saariaho… Yet the other thing they all share is how little they appear on the general American concert stage, and so the practically non-existent impact they’ve made on the minds of the average concert-goer.

To which the average concert-goer responds “I don’t know, it’s all just horribly weird sounds to me”;  The unsympathetic composer responds “that’s because it sucks”, or “that’s just that elitist Euro-formalist bullshit.”

I tell you, it’s enough to make me think of Teabaggers and Green Party folks! In the end, if someone were to sit down — without their piled baggage of cultural assumptions blocking all ingress — and just listen, they’d find the common thread: all of these people just write music, some combination of sound and idea that totally engages their heart and mind, and can also that of  anyone else who opens themselves to it. From a short interview a couple years ago, here is the “Euro-formalist” speaking about what is truly important in his music:


These aren’t the words of the hermetic formula-maker locked in the laboratory; they’re the words of a man simply in love with music, its history, instruments, people and ideas.

Lachenmann’s birthday is getting some respect in the form of a series of concerts devoted to his work:

Last Thursday SIGNAL, with the JACK Quartet, cellist Lauren Radnofsky and Lachenmann himself as both soloist and speaker, kicked off their celebratory “march” through New York in Buffalo, Friday hit Rochester, and Saturday were on to Troy (review)– all this to culminate Thursday, April 1st in NYC’s Miller Theatre (116th St. & Broadway on the ground floor of Dodge Hall, 8PM, $25/15, 212-854-7799). The event includes an onstage discussion between Lachenmann and Seth Brodsky, as well as five works: Wiegenmusik (1963), Pression (1969-1970), Ein Kinderspiel (1980), String Quartet No. 2 “Reigen seliger Geister” (1989), “…Zwei Gefühle…” (1991-1992).

Coming up on the flank, this Tuesday March 30th the East Coast Contemporary Ensemble will make their own contribution to the festivities, at Good Shepherd Church (152 West 66th Street, NYC, 8PM, $20/10, 212-877-0685), with a number of chamber works featured.

If you’re curious to finally catch up but not in the area, there are a lot of recordings of Lachenmann’s music available; one of the best bets is to get an introduction from the good folk at La Folia. Dan Albertson’s 2004 survey is an especially good starter, and a quick search on their site will provide you with many more perceptive reviews for further listening.

23 thoughts on “Happy Geburtstag Helmut!”
  1. Lawrence, at what point did Mahler lose his innocence? And, once he lost it, what rushed in to fill the vacuum that loss created? It’s possible that Mahler viewed himself as an innocent adventurer, and that the terms of his adventure were simply different (nature, spirituality, finding god, etc.).

    It’s great that we have music that’s solely “about” sonic exploration, and there’s a lot of music I really care about that has absolutely no agenda beyond that. But by labeling only those composers as “innocent adventurers,” and every other creator of music in every culture throughout world history as something not-innocent, you’re coming very close to throwing the baby out with the bath water.

    Also, again–there are (and have been) composers out there who don’t speak German! This whole thread has had an undercurrent that strikes me as vaguely provincial, if not explicitly ethnocentric. What about Debussy, who was definitely not an “innocent adventurer” by your criteria, as his music definitely evokes emotions, and nature, and stories, but who definitely *was* one of the greatest purely sonic innovators in all of western musical history?

  2. Not that I’m siding with earlier posters in this discussion (I rather like Lachenmann’s music, and his way of thinking about writing for instruments has been an influence on me, for sure), but there’s a part of me that suspects that Lachenmann, in the video in the above post, was perhaps on some kind of defensive (or at least was visibly suppressing older ideas by using newer ones). Though what he says about listening being an adventure is absolutely correct (and fits with what I think also), its not true that this open-minded aesthetic has been present for ever in European music.

    There’s a part of me that feels this willingness to address musical gestalt content (be they sonic, gestural, textual, conceptual) *as they occur*, in experience, is linked to Cage’s contribution to musical aesthetics. Up until that point, it seems to me that music was largely about two linked things: the expression of abstract pattern, and the expression of abstract emotional content, mixed in varying degrees among composers. It was taken as read that music had something “beneath the surface”, which it needed to *express*. Moreover, this expression had a large dogmatic content, be it technical or transcendental. From this perspective, Mahler is definitely not the innocent adventurer that Lachenmann suggests he might be.

    It does not seem to me possible that Lachenmann could have said what he said in the video 50 years ago (not quite). As far as I can see, today, in European new classical music (I can’t speak as reliably for American music), the tendency toward expression and the tendency toward sonoristic adventure (which is close to, but not necessarily synonymous with, Experimentalism) exist in tandem, often supporting or contradicting each other. But I suspect that, before Cage, the ‘adventure’ of music was not as manifest as it is today. Whether Lachenmann really is the innocent adventurer that he purports to be remains to be seen. Maybe he is now; but he wasn’t always.

  3. Wow, I love it when people show up, almost out of the woodwork to provide some comic relief. Just would like to add my appreciation to Mr. Layton for this post. Fresh air, its the best.

  4. I just want to publicly confirm the rightness of Jeremy’s view. The one thing I would say about Lachenmann in particular though is recordings of his music actually represent their substance very well for me, sometimes even better than live performance. The best recordings of his pieces – Schwankungen am Rand with the Ensemble Modern on ECM or anything on Kairos – bring a closeness, a vividness to the sound that often gets swallowed up in live performance. Plus, if you get bored you can just switch it off. Years ago he came to MSM to conduct some of his pieces, and about fifteen minutes into the aforementioned Movement he got lost following the score, cut off the performers, turned around and announced, “We will start again from the beginning…”

  5. I’ve never been involved in an online discussion where I agreed with another person’s contribution as much as I do with what Jeremy Howard Beck has written here. Thank you for all that, Jeremy. The line “we know he’s not just letting his cat walk on the orchestra.” is especially amusing. (I do disagree with the bit about the panel discussion. Shudder.)

    Personally, I wouldn’t say I hate the music we’re discussing here as Jeremy did, just that it’s not very relevant to my sense of place in the world of music.

    I hold the tradition to which Lachenmann belongs in much lower reverence than some other posters. People have a right to make such personal decisions, much like their right to choose a religion.

    As I approach my sixties, I’m convinced that I am much happier using the time during which I might have attended a probably mediocre concert sitting at home engaged in the act of creating something of my own.
    A concert would need to be unbelievably, extraordinarily, unspeakably good to make me change that opinion.

  6. And sorry for the length/severity of my last comment. It’s something I’ve been chewing on for a long time, and obviously this is a subject we are both very passionate about. And that’s wonderful! It’s great that there’s this forum where we can all get together and hash these things out with each other.

    This would make a really great panel discussion somewhere…

  7. Steve, I of course know that that’s not what you intended to telescope, but it is exactly how your post read. (I mean, Tea Partiers? Those people who compared health care reform to Buchenwald? REALLY?!)

    I think what both you and Aaron point out–that we haven’t had very many opportunities to see this music live–is a valid observation, and it’s objectively and verifiably true. However, from what I’ve heard of Lachenmann’s recordings, I have none, zero, no inclination whatsoever to check out any of these performances. That could be because of the piled baggage of my cultural assumptions, or it could just be that I didn’t like what I heard on CD, and I don’t have a lot of time/money, and I’m not gonna go spending the time/money I do have to hear a live concert of a piece I hated on CD.

    I mean, I don’t get to hear the Bulgarian State Women’s Television and Radio Choir live very often, and they’ve had a very distinguished international career. But if you told me you hated their music, I wouldn’t expect you to attend one of their (expensive, rare) live performances in an attempt to correct your previous reaction to their stuff. Because if you hated it on CD, then there is a very good (read: nearly certain) chance you will hate it live. I have never, ever, not once hated a piece on CD and then fallen in love with it live and suddenly realized what I had been missing.

    I suspect most people’s experiences are more like mine than not in that regard. At the very least, people tend to not spend their time/money on experiences that they already have a fairly good idea they won’t like.–just look at demographics breakdowns of weekly box office returns for big movies. I don’t think people avoid “difficult” art or experiences–just check out MoMA any day of the week, or the Anjelika Film Center, or the Holocaust Museum in D.C. (Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust museum, is a major tourist attraction and one of the most upsetting art/museum experiences I’ve ever had.) But I do think that people avoid experiences that have nothing to do with how they live their lives, or are unintelligible/seemingly arbitrary.

    Am I saying that Lachenmann’s music is unintelligible or arbitrary? Of course not. It’s obviously not unintelligible to everyone because a lot of people seem to like it. And it’s obviously not arbitrary, because he’s spoken enough about his artistic philosophy and compositional process that we know he’s not just letting his cat walk on the orchestra. But it is unintelligible to me, and it still sounds arbitrary to me when I hear it, and even if I had an ear transplant and could suddenly hear what you do in his music, I would still hate the SOUND of it. It is, as us kids say these days, Not My Thing.

    I just can’t believe that comparing people who have my reaction to the people who brought guns to presidential speeches last summer and spat (!) on and hurled epithets at Black and gay members of Congress just last week is (a) productive (b) fair (c) good for the art form (d) good for the civility of this blog. A little “positive jingoism” on behalf of the composers you love is healthy and great, and I sure do the same for the composers I love. But there is a line we often cross that puts other people on the defensive, and this post crossed that line.

    When that line is crossed, people who aren’t willing to spend an hour honing their comment as I did simply check out. They stop reading, they don’t go to your shows anymore, they don’t buy your recordings, they unsubscribe from your mailing list. This line-crossing, writ-large by orchestras and opera companies and chamber music organizations the world over, is what’s killing classical music faster than anything else I can think of.

  8. Jeremy, nobody — least of all me — is telling you that you can’t dislike this or that type of music or the work of a particular composer (though I honestly can’t think of any real reason to *hate* any music or musician). But part of what I’m getting at, and I think Aaron reinforces, is that we’ve barely had any opportunities to engage this music or these ideas (and same for almost all the other names I mentioned earlier), to even be able form the most vague notion of it, and we’re talking about a composer who’s 75 and been on a reasonably major stage for at least 40 years! (by Stravinsky’s 75th he was already on “Agon”!)

    I’ve got nothing against a little “positive jingoism” on our side, and love to park my ears in front of Steve Reich, J.L. Adams, Ben Johnston, Peter Garland, Robert Ashley, Julia Wolfe, Annie Gosfield, etc. etc…, but I get get the feeling that aside from a very few pockets, we’ve been barely hearing half the other musical conversation, and maybe a little willfully.

  9. Aaron, to reiterate the point that I made above, I’m so happy that you’ve found music that you find to be “provocative and challenging.”

    But, again, you state his music’s provocative-ness and challenging-ness as fact when they are, really, your opinions, influenced as opinions are by your tastes and upbringing and any number of other variables.

    Your tastes are your tastes, and my tastes are my tastes. You find his music provocative and challenging; I find it to be fairly old-fashioned, provincial (every single composer he cited during that interview as an inspiration was a German-speaking composer), and boring. You are absolutely entitled to disagree with me, but you should also know that I and others are just as entitled to disagree with you.

    Differences of taste and opinion are the sign of a healthy artistic culture, not an unhealthy one.

  10. I don’t want to get into any aesthetic turf wars here. I just want to say I went to Saturday’s concert, and I highly recommend it. The large ensemble piece, especially, is fantastic, a kind of Tempest mirrored in Da Vinci’s words.

  11. Steve, with all due respect, I think that I represent a composer’s Best Possible Chance of winning over an audience member: I had a very musically diverse childhood; I was exposed to contemporary music at an early age; I’ve received the best musical training one can possibly get; I’ve grown up in a generation that prides itself on its eclecticism, open-mindedness, and stylistic adventurousness. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I go into every single concert I attend wanting to LOVE every single piece on the program.

    That said, there is music out there that I simply don’t like. Some of that dislike is a kind of weak ambivalence, and some of it is visceral, physical hatred. I think I’m as good as anyone (and probably better than most) at leaving my “piled baggage of cultural assumptions” at the concert door.

    And yet, when I reveal the composers and pieces that I dislike–and no, they don’t all fit neatly into one category, or period, or even genre–I am hit with such vitriol by OTHER COMPOSERS who simply cannot believe that I don’t like [Composer] or [piece] that they love, simply because they love it.

    I have never, and I will never, infringe on anyone’s right to like something. If you love Lachenmann’s music, then that’s wonderful for you and I am very happy that you’ve found music that answers a need of yours. We should all be so lucky.

    But with posts like these, you perpetuate a classical music culture that every single day infringes on my right–and the right of every human being–to dislike something. It is the single most repulsive quality of our classical/new music world, and it is the single most offensive thing we broadcast to the people whose ears (and, yes, dollars) we need the most. They are thoughtful, intelligent, sophisticated people, and they can tell when they are being tsk-tsked.

    I have listened to Lachenmann’s music, and I Hate it. I admire its craftsmanship; I respect him immensely as a composer and a musician. And yet I cannot stop Hating his music. Tell me: what is the flaw in my training or character that makes me feel this way? How do you propose I go about correcting that flaw?

    There are people in the world of popular music whose opinions of you will plummet as soon as they find out you Don’t Like some band/artist that they Love. And they will not hesitate to tell you that, and then they will try to convince you otherwise, as if knowing more about said band/artist would somehow change your mind when, really, you just hate The Way Their Shit Soundz.

    My non-classical-musician-friends call those people Assholes, and no one wants to talk to them at parties. Do we really want to be those people?

  12. … which, of course, doesn’t touch the idea that Western musical practices of the years 1500-1900 or so (because no, mclaren, pre-Renaissance composers did not use the same voice-leading models as, say, Bach) are the only ones that our brains are wired to fully appreciate. I’m not even going near that one.

  13. It seems to me that “mclaren”‘s comments are akin to saying that, since our visual processing capabilities are optimized for understanding the world we see around us, all painting should be photorealistic. Make of that attitude what you will.

  14. I only wish I could make both concerts, but I will be covering the Thursday event at Miller for Musical America. I think Lachenmann’s a talent and look forward to an entire evening of his work.

  15. Peter T, mclarens comments are rather fringy, I’d say.

    mclaren, wouldn’t you say theres a difference between successfully processing information and listening to music? It of course depends on what we define as music, which may be what your ultimate goal is. So have at it: define music for us. No, really, it’ll be good. I’m excited. Give us some examples, some pieces that exemplify music.

  16. This is really interesting. I have often been left with a feeling that the adherents of the neurocognitivist movement behave and speak like members of some obscure religious sect. I yearn for learning more about this phenomenon (?), would anybody elaborate? Thanks!

  17. Touting a composer because s/he has been “tremendously influential” represents a very poor choice of strategies.

    The creator of the Pet Rock proved tremendously influential in the 1970s…for a while. Does the creator of the Pet Rock belong in anybody’s pantheon?

    One of the best-known artists in the 1960s was that guy who painted cats and dogs with really really big eyes. You found reproductions of those paintings in every supermarket in the land throughout the 1960s. Now, of course, he has deservedly been relegated to the trash bin of history.

    The attempt to reduce aesthetic value to a popularity contest (“how influential” the composer is) mistakes quantity with quality. Oddly enough, it’s the exact parallel in haute culture of the crude and cartoonish measure of musical quality used in low culture — i.e., how many albums the rock group sells. It’s the most vulgar error any musician can make, and yet serious contemporary musicians continue to make it — and right on the front page of Sequenza21. The Viennese Kook (author of the laughable tract “Harmonielhere”) exerted immense influence…for a while, just like the creator of the Pet Rock. And now, like the creator of the Pet Rock, he has vanished into well-deserved obscurity, influencing no one, of importance to no one, considered worthwhile only by a microscopic and marginal lunatic fringe of musical scientologists.

    In his article “Thinking About Helmut Lachenmann, with Recommended Recordings,” Dan Albertson writes:

    Vital to his aesthetic belief is the reformulation and renewal of musical traditions; why simply accept the hierarchy of traditions the evolution of music has handed down to us?

    The obvious answer is that the hierarchy of traditions which the evolutin of music has handed down to us derives from the hardwiring of the human ear/brain system. Miller’s “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two” (1956) is not some whim dreamed up on the spur of the moment: it’s hardwired into the human nervous system. The fact that Western voice-leading derives from the essential perceptual properties of human auditory cognition is not some fantasy cooked up by monks or renaissance composers, it’s an essential reflection of the fundamental neurophysiological properties of human cognition.

    It remains the tragedy of our time that musicians like Dan Albertson and Helmut Lachenmann prove too arrogant, too ignorant, and too incompetent to recognize this basic neurocognitive reality.

  18. Personally, I’d be more happy with the phrase “elitist Euro-formalist bullshit” if the words had fewer syllables. Every composer, in their own way, will tell you how their music is deeply rooted in emotions and love of sound and music. Occasionally their pieces bear them out.

    Music becomes meaningful to me when it reflects the different traditions which have repeatedly enriched my life over the decades. It’s true that Mahler, Berg & Beethoven (whom Lachenmann mentions) are still in my mix somewhere, way in the back. Other stuff that I expect as part of an aesthetic conversation seems to be missing here.

    I apologize because my opinions may not be universally welcome attached to this post. I’m not trying to suggest that there’s anything wrong with any composer. It’s good that some people enjoy Lachenmann’s music and want to honor his birthday. American audiences shouldn’t be disparaged because they have musical expectations and familiarities which don’t include him. The fact that they don’t appear to care for the European bleeding-edge is not surprising. They didn’t care for the American bleeding edge — back when we had one.

  19. I second Trevor: you need to see his stuff live. It really can be transcendent as Lachenmann says.

    As a European composer maybe I’ve had a few more chances to hear his music, but I’ve lived my last four years in Britain where concert programmers unfortunately err towards American aversions when it comes to Lachenmann’s music. Thankfully, it looks as if that might slowly be changing. His birthday is not until November, so roll on plenty more celebrations!

  20. Of all the, um, “Euro-formalists” out there, Lachenmann is just the baddest motherfucker. Never really got the appeal until I started seeing his works in concert, when (almost literally) every little thing about them blew my mind–not only the timbres, but drama, structure, beauty, et al. Can’t wait for the Miller gig on Thursday.

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