«Ins Offene: Piano Music Of Modern Age»
|Claude Achille Debussy||Préludes – Book 2: No. 1, Brouillards.|
|Sigfrid Karg-Elert||Fünf Miniaturen, Op. 9.|
|Olivier Eugène Prosper Charles Messiaen||Mode de valeurs et d'intensités (No. 2 from Quatre études de rythme).|
|Karlheinz Stockhausen||Klavierstück V.|
Andreas Skouras (Piano).
Ever since the music of modernism radically emancipated itself from its historically nurtured “worlds of concepts and feelings” (Nietzsche), composers have been diligently striving to liberate themselves from the standards, models and experiences of the past whilst embarking upon an indefinite journey, without orientation, into the open.
With the help of a number of selected piano works (ranging from Debussy to the world premiere of the Fünf Miniaturen), I wish to show how composers have moulded this self-consuming, continually self-renewing process of modernism in highly individual and divergent ways – and how it is only through their works that openness is created. The selection of these composers has remained necessarily subjective, as it is historically selective. This conceptually open, demanding and exacting presentation of piano works – not comprehensible in their respective conceptions and so widely differing in their respective aesthetics and styles – is, at the same time, a musically varied, richly contrasted, heterogeneous and sensual journey into the piano music of modernism. Consequently, the works presented here can only serve to illustrate a cross-section of modernism, as reflected in the individual creative processes of the composers.
With these musical experiences, I also wish to provide a glimpse into the irreconcilable difficulties of composing, sonorously pointing out how each of the composers presented here constantly searches for and “composes” his own personal musical path anew, free of traditions, rules and aesthetic concepts, in latent uncertainty and an aimless orientation towards the future. Their works bear witness to their attempts to come to terms with the antinomies of modernism by showing the way into the open.
The “Modern Era” (as a term denoting an epoch), which became apparent as a break with tradition already before 1900, initiates a multifarious and, at the same time, heterogeneous experience of radical change of diverging forces. On the one hand, there was a fixation on the ideology of progress whilst paying tribute to scientific character and enthusing over the beauty of technology, speed and noises. On the other hand, the crisis of tradition denounced the accumulated understanding of a work, of musical material, the artist’s self-conception, the language of form, tonality and a linear understanding of history, which manifested itself in the most musically diverse and most highly varied movements, approaches and styles.
It was Claude Debussy who moved on the threshold of modernism by continuing to maintain the balance between conventional structures and new timbres. At the same time, he also experimented with medieval modes whilst absorbing the stimulations of jazz rhythms and non-European cultures, advancing the “emancipation of the dissonance” and progressing along the path towards abstraction in his piano works. The structural procedures gleaned from the musical material were only recognised and further developed by the serialists. Like many other representatives of modernism, the piano served him as a musical laboratory. The Prélude no 1 “Brouillards” (1913) already allows us to hear all the ingredients of emerging modernism; this forward-looking sound composition dispenses with a theme and development, as well as any definite key. The liquidation of tonal compositional techniques is continued in the loss of traditional form; these techniques lose their meaning, and what remains is a composed process of timbres, of structured sound movements.
The utopia and nightmare of the Modern Era came to an end, at the latest following the experiences of two world wars, dictatorships and the euphoria of progress. In the “awareness of an epochal threshold”, the special situation after 1945 also led to a paradigm shift in music. The new avant-garde serial music went far beyond the Second Viennese School, for it aimed to create a fundamental renewal; in search of “a schoolmaster of objectivity and of and organisation” (Thomas Mann), it had lost orientation, time and subjectivity.
The key work of serial music is considered to be Olivier Messiaen’s etude Mode de valeurs et d´intensités (1949), a compositional-technical “exercise” that went down in history. The compositional procedure was based on Messiaen’s system of modes and rhythms, which he explained in the preface as follows: “This piece develops the linkage of durations, pitches, modes of attack and intensities. It makes use of a mode consisting of 26 pitches, 24 durations, 12 modes of attack and 7 degrees of intensity. It has been written exclusively in this mode, i.e. it makes use of no other pitches than the chosen 36 pitches; these tones always remain fixed in their respective octave registers originally chosen, each linked with the duration, mode of attack and volume provided for it in the mode.”
This paved the way for serialism, a self-organising, thoroughly organised music of aesthetic objectivity orientated on the mathematical ideal. The musical parameters were pitch, rhythm (now called duration), degree of intensity, mode of attack and articulation, up to and including form (now called structure) and space, all of which were quantified and newly organised. This seemingly mathematical rationalisation of the musical material was made into an absolute whilst composing; one consciously dispensed with mimesis, meaning, motifs and subjectivity, with ignorance of one‘s own historicity. It was believed that meaning was created of its own accord by means of technical rationality, as the object of progress.
Karlheinz Stockhausen believed that he recognised his visionary, anti-subjective conception of a work’s “purity!” in Messiaen’s etude; similarly to Boulez, he continued from there. Stockhausen also pressed ahead with the mathematically strict designs of serialism in the second cycle of his piano works. In Klavierstück V (1954), a composition consisting of serially structured sound groups, Stockhausen experimented with time rows, “uncertainty relations” as well as with rhythmic and melodic sound configurations. Making use of new playing techniques, the work is as extreme for the pianist as for the listener, dispensing as it does with the latter’s traditional aesthetic perception.
Through a rationalisation of musical material taken to extremes under the dictates of the time, serial music with its forced “fetishism of material” (Adorno) reached its immanent limits. It revealed its aporias after just a few years of its claim to sole music-historical representation and then began to disintegrate.
The 7 Etudes for Piano (1999–2001) by the Messiaen and Xenakis pupil Pascal Dusapin cannot deny their French origins; they are notable for a constrained constructivism located between neo-serialism and post-modernism. In these etudes – widely different in their characters but all composed with creative intensity – tones and sounds, poly-rhythms and microtonal melodies are arranged in a manner by turns austere and angular, impressionistically colourful and reduced, transparent and sparing.
The most consistent renunciation of Western music, going far beyond serialism, was undertaken by the Italian Giacinto Scelsi, who did not consider himself a composer but a medium. In his view, only the artist was capable of creating the sound (as a tone) through inspiration, “the first movement of something motionless”; its notation, on the other hand, was the responsibility of the craftsman. His spiritual music of “altering sounds” moves within the limited space between rationality and mysticism on the path towards “purity” and “spirituality”, understanding itself to be a “part of a divine unity”. His future-orientated, meditative sound compositions, advancing into the territory of microtonality, of which the Quattro illustrazioni (1953) for piano are an example, defy analysis; “their gesture is refusal” (Carl Dahlhaus).
Attempts at liberation from a modern music forced into abstraction with a timeless claim to validity also led to new discoveries outside Europe. The Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu thus came to terms with his “teacher” Messiaen and with Nono, Stockhausen and Cage; he experimented with musique concréte, electronics and aleatoric music, which led him to a return to his own Japanese musical tradition. One result of his coming to terms with the European avant-garde, with Messiaen’s modes and the traditional pentatonic music of Japan was his early piano work Lento in due movimenti (1950), which was revised forty years later and premiered as Litany (in memory of Michael Vyner) in 1990. Nature as an aesthetic reference value, as an attitude of experience, became the power of silence for him, as it previously was for his “teacher” Debussy. The new space for sound and design thus enabled him to overcome “manias of form” (Debussy).
Whilst cut off from musical developments after 1945 and uninfluenced by the various currents and stylistic directions as practiced in Western Europe, Sofia Gubaidulina was able to develop her religiously characterised, “naturally growing” personal style. In her works, she came to terms both with musical tradition and with Webern and serial music. As a composer she is committed to romanticism and to her conviction that “composition is a religious act”; she experiments with the twelve-tone technique, with numerical symbolism and with a variety of rhythmic processes, writing intentionally clear, transparent works orientated towards the listener. An early piano work is the Chaconne of 1963, inspired by baroque music. These variations on an eight-bar theme are clearly structured in terms of form, and the expressive musical material, rhythm and sound carefully move beyond traditional boundaries.
Out of existential and religious experience, Arvo Pärt underwent a radical renunciation of the established compositional techniques of the New Music, finding a personal compositional style by coming to terms with Gregorian chant. The two-voiced piano piece Für Alina (1976) is the first of his works composed after developing his Tintinnabuli style. The regularity and minimalistic handling of tradition, attained by renouncing the “progress” of musical materials and avant-garde trends, lend his works formal clarity and sonic purity, enabling them to communicate directly to the listener.
The Fünf Miniaturen (Five Miniatures, 2014–2016) by Hans-Michael Rummler are a musical psychogramme, a seismograph of personal states and, at the same time, a journey in sound between the composing observer and the person observed. Tones are placed point by point, joined to form lines or compressed into chords; these are arranged with functionally ordered rhythms and intervals to form a piano piece full of power and intensity. The compositional working process is a meaningful balancing act between rational design and ambiguous experimentation. Always strictly constructed without making an abstract effect, and with a sensuous feeling for sound, extremes are explored in striking rhythms and frequently angular chords consisting of many notes. At the same time, carefully crafted lines lead to calmness and create orientation in space and time. What is characteristic of my compositional style – whether in piano music or polyphonic choral works – is always a definite dramaturgy of formative energy, as well as a transparent, perceptible and recognisable music well-disposed to the listener – full of sonic intensity, expressive gestures, strongly pulsing rhythms, cantabile sensuality and calmness.
Hans-Michael Rummler • Translation: David Babcock