Heinz Reber: MA – Two Songs (ECM New Series 1581)


Heinz Reber
MA – Two Songs

Kimiko Hagiwara soprano
Dohyung Kim baritone
Junko Kuribayashi piano
Recorded June 1994 at Radio DRS, Bern
Engineer: Hans Küenzi
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Freed from the weight of the will towards expression
things come and go.
where it is,
within us,
like an empty glass,
in which something may be poured at any moment.

Heinz Reber’s premature death in 2007 left a musical gap that is never likely to be filled. The Swiss composer didn’t so much chart new paths as abandon the idea of paths altogether. In their place, he enacted an idiosyncratic (yet unusually selfless) comportment of sound in which bodies, voices, and instruments came to describe their own conditions without academic partitions. All of which makes MA – Two Songs all the more remarkable. In its contradictory impulses, one finds auditory portraits of the Second Viennese School (think Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern) and its tonal expansions, as well as, in the words of one press statement, the “relationship of Asiatic singers to the Romantic song tradition.” Although a fascinating album in its own right, as Reber’s projects usually are, this one bids our total attention in order to appreciate not only its texts and their conceptual milieu, but also the brittle agency of its voices, which breathe with all the beauty of a slow-motion breakdown.

“School of Vienna” lives in the depths of a piano, beyond which we hear only the acrobatic soprano of Kimiko Hagiwara. Her tender blend of forced vulnerability and highly trained exposition make for an especially balanced piece, one that both reifies and breaks everything a prototypical Lied should be. This 20-minute diatribe thus becomes an eloquent statement of its own incremental demise. The high note functions here neither as a point of resolution or fulfillment of expectation, nor as the promissory engagement with the listener through the articulation of a lyrical ploy. Rather, it secures the act of singing into place, each piercing vibrato a lynchpin of a broader vocal image. The language is soft to the aural touch, cautious in its extemporization, playing out the ruse of development with a secretly romantic pleasure before being washed out to sea in a robust waver. “School of Athens – School of Noh” drips upward from finger-dampened strings as baritone Dohyung Kim vocalizes the dramaturgy of Antigone alongside an aphasic Hagiwara. The latter reveals herself in fully sung sentences only in the second half, in which she is foregrounded. All the while, Junko Kuribayashi’s pianistic puffs of air act as pre-commentary to the text, opining on every secretive occasion before it is uttered.

As with the equally visceral Mnaomai, Mnomai, there has been a slippage of interpretation I feel I must address. In his liner notes, Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich notes that the “MA” (intermediate space) of the album’s title is a Japanese ideogram combining the characters for “door” (門) and “moonlight” (月) when in fact the calligraphed Kanji in question is made up of the characters for “door” (門) and “sun” (日), which combine to form: 間. While historically, “sun” could have been replaced with “moon” without any change in meaning, nowadays one will likely only see it as it is portrayed on the cover. A subtle error, to be sure, but one that misrepresents a language that is so often prone to a curious overlay of mystique. I point this out only to clarify the music’s underlying structure, as I personally fail to see the “sublime appeal of alienation” that is supposedly inculcated in these pieces. In a musical context at least, I don’t believe this is what MA is all about. To be alienated, especially at one’s own will, is to consciously set up a parallel space to the one being rejected, which is equally viable in its own nothingness. At any rate, Jungheinrich offers poignant insight when he notes the significance of Reber’s overt challenge in “a time of renascent xenophobia.” The combinations inherent in these pieces are unsettling in the present climate, for they posit music both as an act above the confines of the nation-state and one that highlights its own rootedness in land and ideology. As a historical document, music is already archival the moment it is rendered.

Is this deconstruction, or reconstruction? Refreshingly, Reber frames this question as moot.

Heinz Reber: MNAOMAI, MNOMAI (ECM New Series 1378)

Heinz Reber

Thomas Demenga cello, viola
Terje Rypdal guitar
Jon Christensen drums
Tschin Zhang vocal
Ellen Horn vocal
Recorded October 1990, Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The Swiss composer Heinz Reber (1952-2007) cut a fascinating figure in the world of sound. He began his career as a music therapist for psychiatric patients before turning to more public forms of audible expression. Reber would even combine the two in a 1975 play for Swiss radio, the cast of which was culled from those same patients. Such ruptures of identity would characterize his output to come. For the spiraling exegesis that is Mnaomai, Mnomai, Reber assembled a handful of equally committed (no pun intended) instrumentalists and vocalists for an intriguing mélange of sound and spoken word. The word mnaomai (pronounced “mnah’-om-ahee”) appears in the New Testament and means “to bear in mind” in Greek. Reber lifted his title from Jean-François Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy. Although the source texts are interesting in and of themselves—ranging from Beckett to Chinese protest poetry written by Tschin Zhang, one of the album’s vocal performers—they constitute a set of linguistic entities whose orthographic shapes are as equally important as their verbal ones. Thomas Demenga’s viola seems to struggle through its opening while a low groan stretches in the background. Demenga scrounges for phonetic footholds as Zhang’s voice rings out like a light to show the way. Jon Christensen and Terje Rypdal each take their own direct approach, even while Demenga continues to wrestle with his communicative role. Zhang’s voice soars through a field of strings with the surety of a homing pigeon, while that of Ellen Horn creeps in from above, percolating through Zhang’s as if to strip these languages of their semantic egos. Sometimes the voices are present, other times they are distant, but they never stray from their message. Part III consists of a repeated figure on viola, as if Demenga’s instrument has finally found a solid phrase and is reveling in its repetition. This is followed by a final spurt of poetic energy that fizzles out into a delicate cello strum.

In closing, I should like to address a concern I have over a particular way in which this piece has been interpreted. Mnaomai, Mnomai contains a fair amount of spoken Mandarin, and for those of us who don’t speak the language it’s all too easy to over-romanticize Chinese for its rhythms and other idiosyncrasies. This seemingly impenetrable barrier is further strengthened by the addition of Horn’s quieter recitations, of which Steve Lake writes: “When bringing Ellen Horn’s voice into the ensemble, Tschin Zhang’s poem was converted into Norwegian, another ‘alien’ tongue, to keep the text as a pure play of sounds.” But “pure” to whom? Surely, heritage speakers of either language will have a difficult time treating the text as a meaningless, if enchanting, jumble of phonemes. Rather, they will hear a skillful recitation of a heartfelt poem written in a time of great political upheaval. Are they somehow missing the point? I doubt it. In spite of Reber’s supposed interest in the “Far East,” I don’t feel as if he is using the world’s most populously spoken language just for the sound of it. Otherwise, what would be the purpose of using words at all? Chinese is itself no more “beautiful” or “musical” than any other language, and any assertions to the contrary are simply a matter of opinion. In the end, Reber cannot be said to be tapping in to some mystical linguistic core, but rather creating a new and personal juxtaposition of music and speech as a means of teasing out the narrative potential in both. Neither can we ignore that the musicians, and Demenga in particular, are also “speaking” through a multi-instrumental conversation. Still, I think Lake is getting at the heart of this record: namely, that language’s fundamentally arbitrary vocabularies are like composed matter—static and silent until they are enlivened by human rendering. It all comes down to the transparency of the utterance. This is music interested not in its legacy, but in its disintegration, for as the title reminds us, we do well to “bear in mind” that meaning exists only insofar as it holds our interest.