Helmut Lachenmann: Schwankungen am Rand (ECM New Series 1789)


Helmut Lachenmann
Schwankungen am Rand

Ensemble Modern
Peter Eötvös conductor
Recorded November 1998 at Alte Oper, Frankfurt (Schwankungen am Rand); November 1994 at Radiostudio Hessicher Rundfunk, Frankfurt
Engineers: Rüdiger Orth and Wolfgang Packeiser (Schwankungen am Rand); Udo Wüstendörfer
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“Enigmatic” doesn’t even begin to describe the music of Helmut Lachenmann, a composer who had for decades been charting a most distinct path in the world of sound unknown to most listeners outside of Europe until this, his first New Series release. Like the work of mentor Luigi Nono, Lachenmann’s sonic project seems bent on sidestepping tradition, all the while plumbing its very depths for inspiration and raw material. His polemics are genuinely concerned with their origins, of which the compositions surveyed here constitute a solid mythos.

Despite its porous structure, Lachenmann’s music is not something one enters into lightly. Take, for instance, the disc’s eponymous work of 1974/75. Translating as “Teetering on the Brink,” the title is as much a state of mind as it is a descriptor. The music seethes like an unprocessed emotion threatening to overtake the wounds that bore it. Whereas its featured percussion instruments produce viable utterances no matter how they are struck or manipulated, we almost never hear any stringed instrument played in the manner for which it was intended—only the tuning of violin pegs, but no bows to “justify” their adjustment. Snatches of electric guitar, sine wave-like whines, and underbelly rumblings constitute a turgid and unnavigable topography. A disembodied voice gives a Kabuki musician’s “Hup!” As if to intensify the analogy, wood claps, crunchy yet delicate, move across the stage as if kneeling, labored like the beaten metal thunder sheets that tremble above them. There is never any storm, only the pronouncements of Mouvement (- vor der Erstarrung) für Ensemble (Movement before Paralysis), composed between 1982 and 1984. With pathos restored, we can grasp strings again like vines in a broadening jungle. After a winding bell, woodwinds spin breath into more discernible vocabularies, a colony of semantic mice scampering through the orchestra room after being locked up for the night. The disc ends with the newest work, 1992’s …zwei Gefühle… (…Two Feelings…) for speaker and ensemble. Based on texts by Leonardo da Vinci, it was later dropped into the complex folds of the composer’s opera, Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern. Further protractions and creaking floorboards abound in this weathered vessel, raising its voices only rarely for benefit of our attention. Comprehensibility is wrought by the purity of the utterance, scripted in a clear and present language. These constant dictations lend the instruments a blatantly subjective quality that never wavers.

In his liner essay, Jürg Stenzl paints a portrait of Lachenmann as one who “himself views the composer as a person who obeys tradition by prolonging it rather than clinging to a misconception that rigidly equates ‘tradition’ with its misguidedly idyllic aspect.” In other words, what seems haphazardly thrown together here can only be meticulously ordered, tied up in crisp packages and offered to us like an array of sweets upon a well-worn tray. His is a world in which the parameters of understanding are a Möbius strip that we fear to tread upon and yet from which we cannot look away. And so, we sketch it on paper, that we might memorialize its effect without ever having fallen into its permanence. In this way, every line comes to have its hallowed place.

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