Saturday, 21 November 2015

Be liberated!

Helmut Lachenmann is considered one of the important German sonic artists (Klangkünstler), who has worked all his life to explore until then unused sonic possibilities of otherwise normal instruments: blowing through disconnected mouth pieces of brass instruments, finding sound in applying all kinds of treatments of string instruments except the normal use of the bow over the strings, etc. etc. What does he want?

"Er will das Publikum von seinen vorgeprägten Hörgewohnheiten befreien und ein neues Hörverständnis schaffen. Das Geräusch selbst wird bei Lachenmann zum Träger von Schönheit" (from a review in the Wiener Zeitung). So, he wants to liberate the audience from its pre-programmed listening routine and to create a new understanding of hearing; any noise like rustling, murmuring, whispering, soughing is, for Lachenmann, a carrier of beauty. This can be considered something like the basic tenet of sonic art: creating an acoustical awareness of sound as such. Comparable ideas can be found in abstract painting, which wants the viewer to get conscious of the beauty and interest of patterns as such, as they also can be found in nature, like the roots of trees, the manifold miniature patters of a cornfield waved by the wind, of the whirling of water in movement, of the formal transitions of cloudscapes. In music it was Debussy who took these phenomenae as an overall point of departure for much of his work (Nuages, La Mer, Voiles), albeit always within the context of musical, poetical expression.

Abstract visual art and sonic art are art forms which 'stepped-out' of the mimetic tradition and created a separate territory of awareness, they ask the viewer and the listener to take a step back from what they are used to consider 'Art' (with a Capital A) and concentrate on their materials, and from there, any material from the real world. Sometimes elements from reality are re-assembled into abstract works which direct the attention back again to that real world, hopefully with a better understanding of their aesthetic nature.

So far, so good. But where I have problems with, is the notion that art/music audiences have to be liberated from their routines of viewing and hearing, as if they are some form of restriction, of underdevelopment, of domination by some authoritarian mode of behavior or reception. Are listeners of classical music not conscious of the sonic qualities of a Mozart symphony, or of the physical nature of Beethoven's scoring?
Not to mention the differentiated sonic qualities of Wagner, Mahler, Strauss, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky. What is often seen as 'hearing routine' by sonic artists, is in fact being initiated in an understanding of music as an art form: the aesthetic qualities of sound as a carrier of musical meaning, exploring a world of emotional differentiation which sonic art is utterly incapable of even beginning to compete with - in fact, sonic art never wanted to explore this dimension of emotional experience, because its focus on sound as such.

An embarrassing suspicion thus presents itself to the consciousness of a musically-alert listener: sonic artists have a restricted understanding of what serious music, as an art form, really is. It is quite possible, I dare say: probable, that sonic artists don't hear music at all, but merely the sound it makes. And indeed: if you hear only the sound of music (no pun intended), and then look at the central performance culture with the endless repetitions of a core repertoire, it must strike the sonic artist as a mysteriously conventional field where thousands of people want to hear the same kind of sounds over and over again, a sort of apotheosis of empty, obtuse hearing routine, inducing trance-like states of unconsciousness only interrupted by ritualistic clapping of hands on waking-up from comatose slumbers. If this notion of the musical world were true, we should embrace sonic artists indeed as liberators from a primitive and costly cultural ritual. But - as a majority of music lovers are fully aware - this is not how the music world works, and not what is really going-on at a classical music concert, where the sonic level is the carrier of emotional experience which in itself is not restricted to the purely acoustical phenomenon.

I have often been accused of 'not understanding 20C music', of 'hating modern music', and even of being the ringleader of a fanatic biedermeier sect wanting to stop contemporary music from developing (sonic artist Konrad Boehmer in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik). But you can easily see that sonicism, where it wants to 'liberate' us from music, can be accused of not understanding music as an art form, hating the central performance culture, and creating a sect-like scene claiming performance space and money in a territory where it does not belong, because of not relating to the fundamentals of the art form.

Sonic art has a legitimate right of existence within the cultural field, especially where it explores forms of awareness. But it should remain within its own sphere of activity, and not intervene in classical music concerts, where it does not belong, in the same way that photographs and cut corpses in formaldehyde do not belong among the collections in the Louvre. Sonic art and concept art are no competition to music and painting, because they want to do something fundamentally different.
But the problem begins where such alternative art forms want to liberate us from an art form with which they have nothing in common, and in comparison with which they strike a rather poor figure.

Later additions:

"Lachenmann indes hat gerade beim 75-Jahr-Jubiläum der Donaueschinger Musiktage eine Rede gehalten, in der er, Nietzsche zitierend, lakonisch proklamierte: 'Die Musik ist tot.' Sie muß, als ob es sie gar nicht gebe, immer wieder neu zum Leben erweckt, wenn nicht gar erfunden werden."

So, a hero of sonic art declares that 'music is dead', referring to Nietzsche's proclamation 'God is dead', a similar type of proclamation by someone without much understanding of what he wants to see no longer live. According to Lachenmann, music should be considered as something that has to be invented from scratch all the time, as something that never existed before and has to be brought to life continuously - in other words, only to die immediately afterwards, otherwise you cannot go on inventing it at an empty place. Obviously, Lachenmann was not talking about music, because then he had noticed that it is still very much alive, so the only conclusion possible is that he was talking about his own work, which seems to have got stuck into a eternal 'Stunde null', the 'hour zero' as was proclaimed after WW II when avantgarde composers wanted to begin with a completely clean slate. A clearer example of philosophical and cultural confusion, combined with ignorance about the art form of music, is hard to find - has he not noticed how the world has tried to recover from WW II and how, especially in his own country, a hughe transformation took place?
It seems to me that he had to deny all of that, because accepting such recovery, and noticing the resurrection of its central performance culture as one of the most impressive and multifarious in the world, would not have left him much mental space to develop his idiosyncracies and to justify his lack of understanding music.
Lachenmann has noticed the existence of music as an art form with a humanistic, expressive dimension - otherwise he would not have wanted it to be dead - but it is exactly that which he wishes to be no longer alive, it should be a mere museum culture, and with no progeny in the present. Such attitude can only be considered masochistic, nihilistic, and hateful: a death wish to something that is so much better than what musically-challenged people can produce themselves. In these days, such mentality rings a bell: envy, powerlessness, hatred of the culture of 'the other'.

In the early 1980s, Lachenmann (targeting Hans Werner Henze in particular) blasted the music of postwar 'neo-symphonists'. Said Lachenmann: 'The recent teeming abundance of powerfully emotional music exists thanks to the degenerate fruitfulness of maggots having a good time on the fat of the tonal cadaver.' One is reminded of the nazi rhetoric aimed at 'the Jews'.


  1. Lachenmann is one of our great musicians and composers. We are lucky to have him.

  2. I could not disagree more, Lachenmann denies an entire musical tradition for political reasons. And he is ignorant of the art form. These two tendencies often go together quite well.