Magazine article The Spectator

Whisper or Scream

Magazine article The Spectator

Whisper or Scream

Article excerpt

Since the recent death of Karlheinz Stockhausen, his compatriot Helmut Lachenmann, 73 this year, has inherited the Emperor's mantle of grandiose invisiblity.

I'm pitching it with provocative unfairness!

Yet the struggle to extract gold from their mass of water or rock is beset with legitimate reservations that cannot be begged: Stockhausen the visionary charlatan- genius, Lachenmann the poet of exiguity -- both present enormous problems to the would-be believer. In Madrid last week for completely different events, I chanced upon the Spanish première of Lachenmann's Little Match Girl, a theatre-piece after Hans Christian Andersen, in a revised version, given without staging to open a brief season of avant-garde opera.

There was no scenery and no costumes, but plenty for the eye: the stage, bursting with most of a large orchestra, was flanked to left and right by two grand pianos, two sopranos, a small vocal group, and backed by a solid row of computer consoles. Along each side of the auditorium, there was more chorus, a handful of violins, a percussionist, plus a phalanx of woodwinds and brass.

Behind the audience, there were yet more violins and a mass of electronics. A large complex apparatus for what proved to be nearly two hours' smallness and simplicity.

The idea, clearly, is symmetry of surroundsound-source -- echo, answer, occasional synchrony -- between most visibly the two pairs of soprano plus piano, most audibly the antiphonal winds plus percussion.

Lachenmann's textures are minimal in the extreme (albeit miles removed from the bright populist patterning this word usually connotes). 'Accidental' sounds -- breathing, scraping, tapping, rubbing -- producing pitchless susurrations almost too soft to hear (even overhear) alternate with shattering explosions from conventionally played brass and percussion, and the electronics that could well cause grave damage to the human frame or the fabric of the building.

Everything is a whisper or a scream: the only continuity is that of the spasm; there can be no fast or slow, and only the most simplistic play of contrast.

Thus it is for the first 45 minutes or so.

Then continuum begins to evolve -- a long stretch of violent hyperactivity followed by prolonged near-silence, followed then by overlapping crescendi from all four banks of sound on the space's four walls (an old thrill from Stockhausen's three-orchestra Gruppen), here settling on a well-achieved major third. After this consonance, pitch is abandoned altogether for universal soft frotting of soft rubber (? ) pads, prolonged build-down to the composer himself, slipping up on to the main stage from his seat in the audience, a gaunt, fine-looking oldish man, to recite in syllabically treated German the texts by Leonardo da Vinci and Gudrun Ensslin so incongrously affixed to the deconstructed Match Girl of Andersen's tale.

Music (for want of a better word) ceases totally save for a distant whirr as of central heating, behind the long duration of the composer's speech: it then resumes, chastened, so excessively soft that one sees rather than hears the slow bowing below the instruments' bridge of the spatially separated violins. This 'sound' wasn't even audible enough to be subliminal: it's an 'idea' of sound rather than the corporeal actuality, however faint. …

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