Avant-garde German Composer Helmut Lachenmann Makes an Orchestrated Racket at Zipper Hall
by Julie Riggott
A violinist slides a bow vertically along the strings, instead of across them. Then she uses it to saw on the side of the instrument or even on the tuning pegs. The strange scrapes, scratches and whispers emanating from the stage might seem cacophonous to the virgin ear, but Helmut Lachenmann’s music is considered among the best of contemporary classical compositions.
All of the instruments, from the trumpet to the timpani, are used in unconventional ways in a Lachenmann concert, and each instance of noise – so called because the sounds are not pitched or tuned – is precisely orchestrated in a symphony of activity as fascinating to watch as it is to hear.
“I think it’s absolutely fantastic music, some of the greatest music written in recent times, and certainly when the history is written, this will be up there with the most important music of the century,” said Justin Urcis, managing director of Monday Evening Concerts.
The oldest contemporary classical music series on the West Coast, Monday Evening Concerts has a 69-year history of presenting rarely programmed new music. It continues the tradition with “The Music of Lachenmann” on Monday, April 14, at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall.
The series started as Evenings on the Roof in 1939 (at the Rudolf Schindler-designed home of founder Peter Yates in Silver Lake) and presented the American debut of Pierre Boulez, world premieres by Igor Stravinsky and music by Arnold Schoenberg and other composers who fled Europe during World War II. Between 1965 and 2006, the series was held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. When LACMA dropped its support, Monday Evening Concerts moved to Downtown Los Angeles.
The April 14 program purposely shows the range of Lachenmann’s composition for a variety of instruments, Urcis said. The composer himself will perform Ein Kinderspiel [Child’s Play], a solo piano piece. Eighteen musicians from the Argento Chamber Ensemble play Mouvement (-vor der Erstarrung) [Movement (-Before Paralysis)], and Ensemble Recherche performs Allegro Sostenuto, a trio for piano, clarinet and cello. Michel Galante, who has worked with composers such as Elliott Carter and Boulez during his time with the Argento Chamber Ensemble, conducts.
“Lachenmann has a reputation as a very daunting composer because his music is extremely complex and difficult to play,” Urcis said. “On first hearing, it may bewilder a little or intrigue, because it’s not what one’s used to. But I think there’s a lot of playfulness and joy in this music.”
The concert is a rare opportunity to hear Lachenmann’s music. The 72-year-old composer has been traveling a bit to work with American musicians. He actually prefers to work with musicians directly to explain his extensive notes on the score about how to use the instruments.
The instructions are like a set of stage directions, telling the musician precisely how to hold a drumstick or bow, where to move it and how quickly. According to Wolfgang von Schweinitz, the Roy E. Disney Family Chair in Musical Composition at CalArts, they take up more space than traditional musical notes on the score.
The difficulty of interpreting the text, let alone translating it from German, could explain why Lachenmann’s work has been slow to cross the Atlantic, suggested von Schweinitz.
Lachenmann invented these techniques for using instruments in the late 1960s, following in the path of European composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, who took a rebellious and experimental approach to composition after the Nazi’s proscriptions about unacceptable music.
“He introduced a rich repertoire of different colored noises into the music,” von Schweinitz said of Lachenmann’s lasting contribution to the classical music world. While there was some resistance to Lachenmann’s sounds early on, “Now there is no question about him being the leading composer in Germany,” he said.
Not that Lachenmann cares to be accessible. “He wants to deny the easy refreshment drink. He’s kind of saying the easy happiness is not going to be the real happiness,” von Schweinitz said.
At the same time, Lachenmann’s music follows European traditions. He composes in genres such as the string quartet, and there is some resemblance to symphonic music. In addition, “We have always had an element of noise in music, even the violin playing in Mozart. You will hear the scratching noise in chamber music,” von Schweinitz said.
Because Monday Evening Concerts supports composers like Lachenmann, audiences have the chance to hear something unique.
“The music that we present has the ability to completely reshape how people listen to music. I think when you go to a Monday Evening Concert, you can go not knowing anything really and come out having a whole new world of possibilities open for you,” Urcis said.
“I mean, when you hear Lachenmann’s music, or the music of many of the composers we present, it’s a whole other world.”
The Music of Helmut Lachenmann begins at 8 p.m. at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall, 200 S. Grand Ave., (310) 836-6632 or mondayeveningconcerts.org. Watch a preview at youtube.com/watch?v=Kkq9uaG8aDw.
Contact Julie Riggott at email@example.com.
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