Georges Aperghis and Die Hamletmaschine

Grant Chu Covell

[June 2004.]

Cover of Cyprès 5607

Georges APERGHIS: Die Hamletmaschine-oratorio (1999-2000). Françoise Kubler (sop.), Lionel Peintre, Romain Bischoff (bar.), Geneviève Strosser (viola, voice), Jean-Pierre Drouet (percussion, voice). SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart, Ictus Ensemble, Georges-Elie Octors (cond.). Cyprès CYP5607 (http://www.cypres-records.com/).

Georges Aperghis is relatively unknown in English-speaking North America. Born in Athens in 1945, Aperghis (pronounced a-per-GUESS) came to France in 1963 and worked with mavericks Pierre Schaeffer, Pierre Henry and Iannis Xenakis. By the early 1970s he had forged his own style, establishing himself as an original creator of works that meld music and theatre. He founded his workshop, l’Atelier Théâtre et Musique (ATEM), in 1976. Many creations bridge the gap between short plays and operas. He remains outside the mainstream of contemporary music. It is not without irony that Machinations (2000), Aperghis’ first appearance at IRCAM, a long-overdue invitation reflecting begrudged acknowledgment from that august body, utilizes video technology over any of IRCAM’s prized musical and technological innovations.

Rich with nuances often lost in translation, Aperghis’ work readily communicates emotional extremes with comic flair. The comparison with Mauricio Kagel is inevitable. Ever the pessimistic narcissist thriving on parody and sarcasm, the prolific Argentine is more concerned with the composer’s place in history (his own?) as evident in so many pseudo-ethnomusical works, e.g., 1898, Blue’s Blue, Sankt-Bach-Passion, and Ludwig van, to name but a few. Yes, Kagel is always good for a laugh. But philosopher Aperghis’ universal truths, sad or mirthful, address the human condition. It’s more rewarding to experience an artist whose work looks outward, touches nerves and asks essential questions. Thus Heiner Müller’s cryptic, somewhat Joycean and apocalyptic nonplay Die Hamletmaschine (1977) seems a perfect fit for Aperghis.

Taped live in 2001, this recording involves several people who have worked closely with Aperghis, among them soprano Françoise Kubler, violist Geneviève Strosser and percussionist Jean-Pierre Drouet. Kubler’s ensemble Accroche-Note (with clarinetist Armand Angster and percussionist Emmanuel Séjourné) premiered and recorded several works (the 1992 Accord 201992). Strosser is one of four actors / soloists in Machinations. Percussionist / composer / improviser Drouet has been living in this space forever. (Drouet’s Aperghis recordings include the 1989 Triangle Carré on Montaigne 782002 and the 1995 Parcours collection on Transes Européenes 008.) Strosser and Drouet are also credited as vocalists. Aperghis often requires that musicians move, talk, act and sing in addition to playing instruments. The results never tend towards the pompous stiffness of Stockhausen’s Harlequin but are truly fluid and a convincing amalgam. Aperghis doesn’t pretentiously suggest that actors should sing or that musicians should talk. He draws upon man’s primal need to express himself, rejecting civilization’s distinction between drama and music.

Just like Müller’s original, Die Hamletmaschine-oratorio subdivides into five parts. Aperghis runs them together and soloists announce the section titles over the din. The German original (with some English bits) makes its presence felt in the chorus’ frequent interjections. The soloists deliver Jean Jourdheuil’s French translation, the blood, gore and mayhem of which suggest the French Revolution rather than the more recent atrocities Müller was considering. Cyprès’ booklet contains Jourdheuil’s text. You can follow along, but it’s a bumpy ride without seatbelts. There’s a complete English translation at http://www.efn.org/~dredmond/Hamletmachine.PDF.

Die Hamletmaschine-oratorio is serious but never pretentious. Each movement is framed by the lone violist lassoing a squirming line ripe with insinuating glissandi and microtones. Aperghis wastes no time introducing strident high winds and the aggressive chorus. A slightly oppressive mood persists for the whole hour. The pacing is brisk and varied. From the beginning there’s a funny buzzing sound off to one side, like a kazoo or duck whistle. This is Drouet’s doing. Sometimes he’s producing a scraping noise or speaking, at other times he’s a conventional percussionist. Don’t think we’re in some cutesy Cage-like land of nods and winks. Aperghis jettisons us behind enemy lines to view the carnage on our own.

Aperghis harnesses great power from Müller’s language. The words, sometimes resolving to several simultaneous threads, are always audible from the prominent soloists and chorus. French and German appear simultaneously, but never is it suggested that soloists are glossing chorus or vice versa. Sometimes we hear a Bach-like chorale. Aperghis frequently repeats entire phrases such as in the central Scherzo, a tour de force wherein Drouet (his voice recognizable from another Aperghis disc) delivers the repetitions (text and the embedded stage directions) in a dispassionate newscaster’s patter. Aperghis thrives in that Saussurian haze where a meaningful phrase can dissolve into colorful-sounding phonemes.

The chamber orchestra Ictus, expertly commanded by Georges-Elie Octors, never gives in to bombast or breast-beating. Musical instruments take on the traditional dramatic chorus role, infrequently jostling to the fore. For the most part they scurry about like unseen rats. It’s a shock when you realize there are strings, to hear the brass play without mutes. The synthesizer, emulating piano, organ and celeste, is subtle. In the first movement, an angular ostinato surfaces as if to remind that we’re listening to music. There’s a lengthy piercing oboe solo replete with multiphonics in the fourth movement.

Aperghis reflects the duality Müller assigns to his Hamlet by calling for two baritones to take the role. Within the fourth movement they labor in tandem, sometimes navigating tricky alternating sung syllables. The solo viola reappears at work’s end, but Aperghis shatters the return to normalcy by alternating the sad viola with forceful tuttis separated by silence.

“… [T]his text put me through the mill, it actually made me ill. It contains such violence, such cynicism …” says the composer in an interview. Die Hamletmaschine-oratorio is definitely the darkest Aperghis composition I’ve heard. Gravity and brusqueness replace the composer’s customary sly comedy and lithe elegance. Admittedly I know Aperghis only through recordings of solos and chamber music, which is a diminished way to experience his work. However, Aperghis’ catalog labels Die Hamletmaschine an oratorio and not a theatrical work, so a home listening experience is realistic.

Müller’s desolate, violent world might best be represented with music scored on blood-lined staves played by blinded musicians with broken instruments. Aperghis approaches this frontier askance: His interpretation is fueled by the text’s linguistic potency. But without French fluency an audience might never be singed by the work’s heat, though even a casual listener would appreciate the composer’s skill, variety and wildness. This recording is a live performance and there’s no audience noise after the first minutes. No one else sounds like this. You should pull up a chair.

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Need to slake a thirst for Aperghis? Few recordings are available in the US. Fortunately Naïve has reissued the acid test, Récitations (1978) performed brilliantly by Martine Viard (Naïve MO 782118). Its 38 minutes cover the gamut of Aperghis manipulating text and sound through acting and singing. It is a work of genius. In rapid, breathless French you might hear a continually prefixed phrase (Z, Y-Z, X-Y-Z, W-X-Y-Z, V-W-X-Y-Z, etc.), each syllable presented klangfarbenmelodie style. Either you’ll find it wickedly mesmerizing and be hooked for life, or you won’t. Sample it at http://www.ubu.com/sound/aperghis.html. Alongside Die Hamletmaschine-oratorio, stateside persistence should net you Triangle Carré for three percussionists and string quartet on the Arditti’s “From France” (Naïve MO 782002) and Graffitis (1980) for percussionist on col legno’s Darmstadt 1998 set (WWE 2CD 20055).

Aperghis’ new Machinations (Accord 472916) and a colorful disc of recent chamber music lovingly played by the Ensemble S:I,C. (Zig Zag ZZT 020501) haven’t officially crossed the ocean, though I’ve had good luck ordering from http://www.fnac.com/. The Accroche-Note Accord 201992 is out of print, though others in the same Accord Una Corda series seem to be coming back. Worth the search, it took me years until I found it in Italy. An ATEM production, Sextuor — L’origine des espèces (MFA 216004), might also reappear. I found the amazing Parcours, “music by Georges Aperghis adapted and interpreted by Jean-Pierre Drouet on Claudine Brahem’s musical machines,” (Transes Européennes TE008) and Aperghis’ harp and percussion Tryptique (Transes Européennes TE014) in Montreal years ago and have never seen them since. Pauline Vaillancourt tackles bits of Récitations alongside selections from Scelsi’s Canti del Capricorno on the rare Canadian Société Nouvelle D’Enregistrement SNE-571-CD. Fanatics will need to track down Elisabeth Chojnacka in Quatre petits moments brefs (1989) on Adda 581224.