Of Wisps and Peals: Mark André’s ‘…auf…’ Triptych

Dan Albertson

[December 2008.]

[This is the first in a series of pieces on the music of Mark André. My sincere thanks to Stefan Conradi of Edition Peters, whose assistance enriched these remarks. D.A.]

Massive metallic fusillades permeate the crackling stillness. Knocks, rattles and blowing wind are recurrent motifs. Am I listening to Einstürzende Neubauten? No, the music of Mark André (born 1964), a French composer of German residence and French and German education. The most important teacher in his impressive background, which includes Gérard Grisey, is without a doubt Helmut Lachenmann. He is one of the few Lachenmann disciples, however, neither to imitate blindly nor to soften his master’s theories as a means of commercial success. André’s music is even more uncompromising!

I first encountered André’s work as part of the 1996 Donaueschinger Musiktage documentation. The piece in question, un-fini, showed a surprising level of reassurance for a young composer. Its unremitting darkness left an impression. I later heard only sporadic pieces and rumors of others. A German friend considers him to be the most interesting voice of his generation. Earlier this year, I was able to hear …auf…, the composer’s 2005–07 orchestral triptych. My earlier enthusiasm burgeoned into admiration.

I admit that I have no clue what André’s titles mean. Ambiguity is perhaps his intention. Other recent, and equally enigmatic, titles include the diptych …als…, the solo piece …in…, the trios …zu… and durch, and the ensemble pieces ni and …es….

To remain with …auf…, the material riches of the work’s three parts build to a transfixing experience. I (2005–06), broadcast by Bayerischer Rundfunk and led by Johannes Kalitzke, II (2007), broadcast by Hessischer Rundfunk and led by Pierre Boulez (!), and III (2007), broadcast by Südwestdeutscher Rundfunk and led by Sylvain Cambreling, which fare well enough independently, are more engaging as consecutive events. A complete performance is slated for 2009. Words are insufficient to describe the sounds the composer engenders with the conventional forces of a large orchestra. The three pieces exhibit a directionality that only becomes apparent as we approach the music’s conclusion. Absent form, sonic wizardry is not music. Having abandoned standard orchestral practice, the composer treats the ensemble with a keen sense of proportion. II, for instance, has moments of savagery that could destroy a loudspeaker. Bells resound en masse, not as conveyances of joy or portents of doom, but rather as a means of creating resonances, given further substance by two pianos, a technique taken from Lachenmann. The ample brass section, including six horns and four trumpets, often tacet, is amply audible at a climactic moment midway through the piece, echoing above a raucous fray. Another indelible moment comes toward the end of I, at which point all semblance of an orchestra has been shredded. All that is left is a noise easily mistaken for wind. The broadcast included a cough from the audience, or so I think! It may be part of the score, so appropriate it seemed. III adds subtle live electronics to the large orchestra. The range of sound, from gossamer to granite, comprises the musical argument’s heft.

Despite my love of musical tradition, at no point in this triptych have I yearned for the sounds of a conventional orchestra. Nostalgia pales in the face of invention. Has André written three of the great orchestral works of the decade? Yes.