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.

Helmut Lachenmann: Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern (ECM New Series 1858/59)

The Little Match Girl

Helmut Lachenmann
Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern

Eiko Morikawa Sopran
Nicole Tibbels Sopran
Helmut Lachenmann Sprecher (“Zwei Gefühle”)
Mayumi Miyata shō
Yukiko Sugawara Klavier
Tomoko Hemmi Klavier
Experimentalstudio der Heinrich-Strobel-Stiftung des SWR Elektronische Realisation
André Richard Klangregie
SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
Matthias Hermann Musikalische Einstudierung
Sylvain Cambreling Leitung
Recorded July 2003 in Freiburg, Germany

Angst is the necessary form of the curse laid in the universal coldness upon those who suffer of it.
–Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics

Helmut Lachenmann’s Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern (The Little Match Girl) is a beguiling, albeit loosely contextualized, redaction of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytale of the same name. The girl in question pedals matches on New Year’s Eve before seeking shelter from the cold. She lights one match after another to keep from freezing, fearing her father’s wrath for not having sold any. With every conflagration, she is visited by visions of warmth, sustenance, and love—the last things she ever sees before the climate takes her life. Lachenmann augments this frigid morality tale with other textual sources: Leonardo da Vinci’s The Desire for Knowledge, in which the artist stands before a volcanic chasm, and the writings of Gudrun Ensslin, Red Army Faction reactionary, and acquaintance of Lachenmann’s, who marked her life with fiery eruptions of her own. Each of these figures, marginally marked by forces beyond their control, cowers in its respective hovel, succumbing to the darkest edges of already shadowed words.

What we have in the present recording is the opera’s “Tokyo version,” which, according to the composer, is definitive. Lachenmann’s self-styled “music with images” is beyond meticulous. Its first part is overwhelming and impenetrable, lost in gusts of scrapings, percussive half-statements, and voices doomed to inhabit the borders of incoherence. A dust storm of pops, whistles, skips, whispers, yawns, sighs, shouts, grunts, flutters, clucks and clicks, open-mouthed slaps, and general aphasia shares a lung with an extra-sensory instrumental constituent. Unrealized dreams are its blood, unformed words and broken promises its skin. Speech curls into itself, like a radio dial constantly tuned from one station to the next, an effect only heightened by the presence of electronics. Every sound disguises indecisiveness as ardent exploration, even while achieving that very thing, inhabiting the mouths and heads of its characters, such that human voices and instrumental utterances become so closely allied that often one is hard-pressed to distinguish between the two (and, in fact, feels no need to do so). The drama comes to a head in “Die Jagd” (The Hunt), leading at last to fully articulated speech in “Auf Allen Fenstern” (On Every Window), before a monumental closure. The second part wavers like a flame caressed by frosty winds, hiccups, and choked sentiments. “In Einem Winkel” (At An Angle) provides some startlingly beautiful moments, of a piece with the alchemical precision of Stockhausen and Ligeti at their most meditative. “Zwei Gefühle” (Two Sentiments) gives us the longest stretch of speech, culminating in a prickly crescendo. The opera finishes with a long drone laced with sine waves and counted in time by the rapping of death at our door. Its barely articulated fade is an epilogue to end all epilogues.

One might feel compelled to criticize Das Mädchen as a nervous wreck unsuitable for any self-respecting listener, but the consistency with which it cracks itself open, like a suicidal egg, is so visceral that any negative reactions fall with it to their doom. It transcends the utterance at every turn, dissecting “taboo” into its meaningless phonemes. Like a workout after years of inactivity, it exercises muscles we never even knew we had. Having never seen the opera live, and with only the booklet’s cryptic black-and-whites to go on, I cannot speak with any surety for its potential production value. Suffice it to say that I will be in the front row should the opportunity ever present itself.