The pianist and composer Helmut Lachenmann is one of the grand figures of European musical modernism. He was already composing in his teens, and in his early 20s was Luigi Nono’s first private student, though only a pair of works from those early years survive in his catalog. He has written in most forms and genres, often for unconventional ensembles, and has won many of Europe’s more prestigious compositional prizes in the process.
His fame includes a measure of controversy as well, for his concept of musique concrète instrumentale upends traditional expectations of what music is and does. In his music, the composer says, “sound events are chosen and organized so that the manner in which they are generated is at least as important as the resultant acoustic qualities themselves. Consequently, those qualities, such as timbre, volume, etc., do not produce sounds for their own sake, but describe or denote the concrete situation: listening, you hear the conditions under which a sound or noise-action is carried out, you hear what materials and energies are involved and what resistance is encountered.”
This places novel demands on the listener as well as the performer, but the potential reward is a liberated experience free of the distortion of habit. As Lachenmann says, “composing is always deconstructing in new ways.”
Composed 1982-1984 for the Ensemble Intercontemporain at IRCAM and dedicated to Peter Eötvös, Movement (– vor der Erstarrung) is perhaps the best-known locus of Lachenmann’s method. The “Erstarrung” of the title is a rigor mortis-like paralysis, and the music, Lachenmann wrote, is “dead movements, practically the last convulsions and its pseudo-activity: rubble out of empty – dotted triplet, motored – rhythms which already show that inner paralysis which precedes the outer paralysis. (The fantasy which, in the face of deeply felt threats, gives up all expressive utopia and, as a beetle does, lies struggling on its back, continuing to work with empty learned mechanisms, recognizing at the same time their anatomy and uselessness and by doing so, seeking and trying new beginnings.)”
The “new beginnings” are the key here. The dying old sound world is represented by a deconstructed quotation of the jaunty Austrian folk song “O du lieber Augustin,” but its death throes may reveal new modes of perception. The floundering beetle notwithstanding, this is tense, scratching, keening music that pushes instruments – and their players – to the rough edges of sound and back. It reorients and recontextualizes listening as much as it does playing, mining the rubble of musical conventions for new materials.