Where the River Bends: The Cologne School in Retrospect

By Fox, Christopher | Musical Times, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Where the River Bends: The Cologne School in Retrospect


Fox, Christopher, Musical Times


ATTACHING LABELS to art and artists is a difficult exercise. Critics, and perhaps audiences too, like labels because they provide a short-cut to understanding; artists tend to resist them because they imply a shortage of that most marketable asset, individuality. Few artists respond well to comparisons of their work with that of other artists, but there are historical instances where labels can also be a way of acknowledging that at a particular time and in a particular place something new and important occurred and that this was, in some sense, a collective aesthetic achievement. It seems to me that the music produced by a group of young composers in Cologne between the mid-1970s and the early 1980s is one such moment of historical significance within the development of new music and that by designating this group as a Cologne School it is possible to draw attention to the nature of their collective achievement without diminishing our sense of their individual status. Indeed, I hope to demonstrate that part of the strength of this Cologne School aesthetic is that it has enabled its principal protagonists to forge such powerfully distinct compositional identities.

At the centre of this article then are four composers, Clarence Barlow, Gerald Barry, Kevin Volans and Walter Zimmermann, and in due course I will discuss why I am concentrating on this quartet more or less to the exclusion of a number of other composers working in Cologne during the same period who might also be considered part of the same musical tendency. I am not however offering an overview of all or any of these composers' careers, although in each case there is much to consider and, to date, far too little serious critical writing on their work. Instead, I want to re-examine some of the music by which these composers first began to attract attention, to put this early work in the context of the ideological debate which its composers were generating around their music, and to compare the aesthetic positions taken up in these early works with those articulated by some of their more recent music.

I want to argue that one of the central features of this music is an inquisitorial attention to the nature of musical material and to the nature of the relationship between that musical material, large-scale formal structures and expressive intention. By musical material I mean the very stuff we hear when we listen to music; it seems to me that one of the achievements of the Cologne School composers was to introduce a new body of material into the repertoire of new music. A key strategy in the production of this material was appropriation, the transference of existing musical material into a new context. Most of this material was tonal and/or modal, and its choice was often at least provocative and sometimes politically incorrect (although that term had yet to be invented when the Cologne School members began their work). I want to show that although acts of appropriation, whether quotation, allusion or 'meta-collage', were familiar features of the music of older composers like Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Kagel or Stockhausen, the absence of irony in the Cologne School's use of appropriated material distinguishes it as something new and different.

What attracted Barlow, Barry, Volans and Zimmermann to Cologne in the 1970s was the city's reputation as a major centre both for new music and for new ways of thinking about music in general; this after all was the city not only of Stockhausen and Kagel but also of musicians like Reinhard Goebel, who launched his pioneering work on Baroque repertoire with the Musica Antiqua Koln in 1973. Cologne's reputation rested on the active presence of such highly influential individuals and on the institutions which supported them, most notably the Hochschule fur Musik, where Kagel and Stockhausen led composition courses, and Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), exemplary patron of new music through its concert series, its commissioning of new music, its electronic music studios and its commitment to innovative programme-making both in TV and radio. …

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