Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Unheard Music

April 14, 2008

Lachenmann and the Argento Chamber Ensemble under Michel Galante
Photo : mine 2008

One of the first “classical” music CDs I ever bought featured a recording of a Bach flute concerto and I was convinced there was something wrong with it. From the first listen I could detect this prominent and irritating clicking noise throughout the piece. At first I thought the disc was damaged, but then realized this was actually part of the recording. I then couldn’t believe that someone would have left this awful extraneous noise in the recording until I realized that the clicking was actually the sound of the flautist hitting and releasing the keys on her flute. Here was music supposedly marred, in my mind at the time, by the very sound of it's own production. It is exactly this tension between the sound that is "intended" and the sound that is ostensibly not that lies at the heart of the work of Helmut Lachenmann.

Tonight the composer appeared with two different contemporary music ensembles in a magnificent concert tonight as part of the Monday Evening Concerts series at Zipper Hall that will likely end up being one of the best things I see this year. At 73, Lachenmann is nothing if not an unique composer with an idiosyncratic take on music. He has spent his life creating a sound world as apart from the familiar as imaginable using various sounds, or parts of sounds that lie at the periphery of what most listeners are trained to pay attention to. His works are quiet, dynamic and filled with instruments used in unconventional ways to explore the broad range of sound they can make from stimuli not usually employed with them. Lachenmann’s works are as likely to rely on the sound of a piano foot pedal being released as it is to feature notes played on the keys. The matter of a bow’s angle becomes an issue of great concern as bridges and the tops of music stands are stroked back and forth. Wind instruments rustle as air passes through without the benefit of reed or mouthpiece. Think this is silly or unimportant? The entire career of popular artists such as Bjork could be traced to the ideas and techniques Lachenmann has advocated for decades.

Helmut Lachenmann
Photo : mine 2008

This evening's performance is alluring stuff, and the nearly sold out audience tonight was held rapt for two hours with music as high in drama as it is sparse. The evening began with Lachenmann himself playing his solo piano piece Ein Kinderspiel that set the tone for the very musical games some of his techniques seem to suggest. This was followed by much weightier matters including Mouvement (von der Erstarrung) played by the Argento Chamber Ensemble under the leadership of Michel Galante. This work was a wonder and expertly played by this very talented group of young musicians who made every rushing breath count. After the break came Allegro Sostenuto played by Frieburg's own illustrious Ensemble Recherche. Again, the piano in this trio, which included clarinet and cello, functioned in more than it’s typical way acting both as several different percussion instruments and a sounding board for the clarinet. Simply put, it was stunning and each piece received a standing ovation from the enthusiastic crowd.

This is not “easy” music and it eschews melody and traditional forms. And while it is inventive, there is much more to it than a gimmick of using instruments in non-traditional ways. It may be as Betty Freeman said during her cameo in Bettina Ehrhardt’s Lachenmann documentary MEC presented on Sunday morning – this is music that doesn’t tell you how to feel. Instead it challenges you to make up your own mind and form a response on your own without being told what the correct one is in advance. That is no small task and it is a testament to any composer who can pull it off. Lachenmann has spent his career, as he describes it, trying to discover something new without having a preconceived notion of what "new" actually means in advance. It was a great show and here's the good news - if you missed the show check out the MEC site, which may include video excerpts from the program in the coming days.

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