Scattershot Screed from Germany

M.J. Walker

[December 2002.]

No one hears himself the way he speaks…. His own ear and skull sound along with the voice. Thus outside, outside the skull, our utterances sound very different. If you hear your own voice coming from outside, reflected, on a disc, then it sounds foreign. It doesn’t contain our Now, and it hardly even seems to belong to a friend. — Ernst Bloch

Listening to voices, those oldest of all instruments, might be described as searching the foreign (or Other) for our own sound, and perhaps recognizing / befriending it for what always seems to be the first time. I hear it in the deceptively dulcet sounds of Susanna Rigacci, for instance, producing Mozartian melos and neurotically gurgling coloratura complemented by the instrumental ensemble’s ghostly stirrings and scratchings, hollow pipings, plinks and percussions, in Salvatore Sciarrino’s Aspern Suite, derived from a 1978 opera on the Henry James story, to be found on Arts 47591-2. The label offers other recordings by the fine Contempoartensemble, also two modern collections by the excellent pianist Massimiliano Damerini.

I don’t understand much of the Italian text, partly spoken by the above artist, the only singer. No libretto is furnished, but the story of the old maid in Venice whom the greedy scholar attempts to cajole into handing over a great poet’s manuscripts is a well-known investigation of mistaken investment, there being several film versions and another opera by Dominick Argento. The suite will keep you awake and agog for its 43-minute duration because it knows how to foreground the qualities of this voice by means of absorbingly varied pacing and an instrumental part that is not a background but a foreground of its own: Never colliding with the vocal articulation, suggestive of a skullground of inarticulate or repressed desires, it colludes with the voice. Sciarrino’s latest opera, Macbeth, is coming on at the local (Frankfurt / Main) opera house later this month, and I hope to be able to offer a report on it here. On its face, Shakespeare’s witchy drama would seem to be a perfect subject for the composer’s strengths.

Since 2001, I have been spontaneously picking up the odd CD from the immense collection (150 discs planned) by the Deutscher Musikrat ( on RCA / BMG Germany, “Musik in Deutschland 1950 – 2000,” concentrating on more experimental work, like Musik für Radio, the electroacoustic compositions of Angewandte Musik from the acoustic art studio of West German Radio, and Sprachkomposition (74321735-212, -222 and -332), in all of which anthologies the voice plays a leading rôle more often than not. A general criticism of the series might be that it contains too many single movements or excerpts from symphonic music, etc., which I won’t waste money on, whereas the earlier series from the same source on long-gone LPs covered more of such whole works as Stockhausen’s Stimmung, my introduction to that hilariously titillating masterpiece. The soundbite trend is spreading, but even I am prepared to accept tasty excerpts from music for the radio on B.A. Zimmermann’s Melusine or Henze’s Ein Landarzt, for instance, or from Bill Fontana’s “sound-bridge” from Cologne to Kyoto, an installation that ran for three days.

Georg Katzer’s Aide mémoire (1982), a review of the Nazi millennium, is an essential piece of historical evocation in 14 minutes on Disc One and seemingly complete. It’s the major reason for acquiring this CD, in my opinion. Those tonally manipulated voices of Hitler, et al., as blended in this dizzying collage with some of the holy cows of German musical culture, speak to us as our anti-selves. Associations with cartoon figures are evoked by speeding up the recordings, highlighting the monstrous absurdity of the period and bringing it uncomfortably closer to home, before the piece cranks up the level of noise to a fair-equals-foul imitation of marching armies and blitzkrieg bombardment. The crackle and hiss of old recordings is well integrated into the atmosphere as an expressive element. After one hiss phase reaches a high pitch of intensity, the sudden aural drop into a hushed rendering of a cultural icon bears what Walter Benjamin might have called choc value. Late in the piece the Kristallnacht-like splintering of glass segues into what sounds for this listener like the burning of books, accompanied by unbearably distorted voices as the ghastly reflections of one’s most evil impulses, unless one has none, but who among us …? For those who don’t speak German, it is worth mentioning that while much of what can actually be understood is poisonous rant, one voice (which I do not recognize — older Germans might) stands out as a measured denunciation of what Hitler and his cohorts did to German culture.

Kagel has three pieces on these discs: nine minutes of Ein Aufnahmezustand (1969), an amusing take on the vicissitudes of sound engineering, at the end of which the engineers’ voices are slowed down to a subaqueous point of almost lascivious decay; the spacious Nah und Fern (1994), a sonorous soundscape of Utrecht with carillons and trumpet played by Markus Stockhausen among others; and thirdly, the first phonographic issue (!) of the whole of 1964’s mighty Phonophonie, an essay in aesthetics based on a “reconstruction” of excerpts from concert and theatre reviews (one in English) from that 19th century apparently so alien to us now, the soloist of which splits into four different rôles, including a gesticulating deaf-mute, not on this recording. Some of the quality of this piece is perhaps indicated by one such citation: “The critic remonstrated that his long fat tongue made his speech incomprehensibly sibilant, moreover his voice was rough and blunt, without softness and transitions, and slithered in the most passionate expression into certain whistling noises reminiscent of the furious groans of wild animals,” etc. An effective ostranenie effect is created by a female speaker with that strange German post-WW2 po-voiced radio plangency announcing the time at intervals and commenting on the work.

All this is embedded in a montage of tape sounds and percussive barrages produced by six drummers, resulting in a labyrinthine theatre of seditious commentary on the pathological nature of the speech composition of new music, according to Werner Klüppelholz in the fascinating notes, unfortunately printed only in German, as I see it, a comedic re-interpretation for our inquisitive ears of the hysterically amplified voices of the Romantic to Victorian / Wilhelmine eras. Kagel has engaged with this period before, in Staatstheater, for instance. William Pearson exhibits his seductive array of swooning, crooning, gargling, etc., vocal devices as beloved by fans of Ligeti’s subsequent Aventures and its sequel. (I well remember experiencing what I think was the first performance of the latter at the North German Radio studio in 1966, coming out into the spring air dazed by the adventure of it all and merrily essaying similar ludi-cries with my companion; we knew that this was us, in all our blossoming absurdity.)

Completeness is also a welcome feature of other works on the third disc: Juan Allende-Blin’s Erratum musical de / pour / sur Marcel Duchamp (1972) or Hespos’ nai for solo voice. Stelzenbach and Hoyer’s originally hour-long verzeihung, der kopf is in a presumably definitive shortened version by Susanne Stelzenbach prepared for this CD. Speech composition, as Klüppelholz defines it, covers the whole cosmos of linguistic and nonlinguistic vocal utterances, and he alludes to Schubert’s Erlkönig, Berlioz, Humperdinck and Pierrot Lunaire, in which Schoenberg was perhaps the first to present a revised sonic and phantasmagoric image of the 19th century, anticipating Kagel and Ligeti. Wagner is termed “the first phonetician among the composers,” giving priority to the “liquidity” of /l/-phonemes in Isolde’s Liebestod over any conceptual semantic level, for example. In fact, I would add, Wagner often seems to be encyclopaedically investigating the gesturally expressive possibilities of alliteration, especially in Der Ring, as indeed his whole aesthetic, as adumbrated in Oper und Drama, turned on what he called “Gebärde” (gesture), going beyond the word as semantic unit, as speech composition will later do in its reshuffling and distortion of vocal sounds. He makes Beethoven speak of joining the “chaos of ur-feelings” to “the voice-language of the human heart” and judge that “words are too feeble organs for this task” in his programmatic (and mordantly funny) “A Pilgrimage to Beethoven” (1840), which is obviously relevant to this whole question of manipulation (one might say recomposition) of vocal sounds.

Digression: If you want to get a quick fix on Wagner at his best in this respect, go to track 10 on CD1 of Naxos’ recent issue of the live Met performance of Siegfried from 1937, for Mime’s fevered forest daymare. Oh. Mime, you vertically challenged but mimetically challenging bundle of complexes, I recognize my most abject self in your revealing vocal gestures: For my money, only you should have got the baubles and the bird, not to mention the girls. Unlike a large part of Wagner’s musical rhetoric, this will never congeal into Sunday afternoon bandstand offerings of your favorite tunes, speaking as it does to us of both the horror and the humus (which entails humor) of our humanity. Imagine Mime’s Funeral March, it would have been even more devastating, with all that pre-minimalistic hammering, hallucinatory Schoenbergian malicious slither and allzumenschlich (not to say meschugge) yammering for sympathy adding spice to the monumental mix.

If we also take into consideration Wagner’s description of the leitmotifs (many of which may originate in vocal gestures) as “plastische Gefühlsmomente,” which means something like sculpted nodes of feeling, then we may now cross a mental rainbow bridge to return to Disc Three and Allende-Blin’s Duchamp piece from later in the same experimental era as the Ligeti and the Kagel, an almost Oulipo-faced combination of Duchamp’s “sound sculpture” project (long-drawn-out notes coming together from different points, sung by a choir on four pitches in this work) with what Duchamp called “Erratum musical.” For this he split the sentence “Faire une empreinte” into 25 syllables and put the same number of musical notes into a hat, taking them out randomly to assign them to the syllables. As the text is sung three times each by three soloists, Allende-Blin had to add seven parts (following the same method) to the two actually realized by Duchamp. I listen to this stately, expressive (the mostly unrecognizable words are sung with great feeling) and rhythmically cumulative piece, the sporadic musical pauses creating enormous tension, as a naked bachelor ascending a staircase to my bride, almost. It is the very abstractness of that expressivity, the randomly created vocal line inhibiting conventionally significant responses, which confronts one again with that strange familiarity of the gesture implicitly subtending it, itself supported by the sonic pillars of some ancient ritual.

To digress again: Do you associate that Duchampenoise “make an imprint” with an ur-human gesture, as I do? I spend part of the year in the Ardèche in southern France, where less than a decade ago the cave with the oldest drawings known to man was discovered, the Grotte Chauvet. It’s not, for conservational reasons, open to hoi polloi, so apart from a museum visit in neighboring Vallon Pont d’Arc, one relies on books and film, a splendiferous example of which was recently shown here, with John Berger, the art critic, making his first visit. As they arrived at the beginning of the inner sanctuary, as it were, light was shone at a collection of seeming dots, a proto-minimalist assembly that turned out to be formed by the imprints of (stained) palms pressed “äh-äh-äh-äh-äh,” as Berger’s French guide ejaculated rhythmically, what he called “gestes en périodes,” thus mimetically re-making sense of the term synaesthetic, the spaced music of gesture becoming the visual art of sonorous impression. Later on, the same guide remarked as they passed through parts of the cave with no drawings, “no pauses, no music,” Berger finally remarking on the different qualities of silence in the cave and that he had the impression “de danser ensemble avec cet artiste il y a 30,000 ans.” Even through the distancing medium of the small screen, a sense of that amazed confrontation of the modern with the archaic survives.

The piece verzeihung, der kopf (1993-94), translating as “excuse me, the / your / my head,” for two speakers, soprano, alto, tenor, bass clarinet, string bass, piano and live electronics, is an oneiric head-trip through fragments of Western culture (the, ahem, canon), beginning on a deep bass drone like the beginning of Rheingold, soaring or sinking through layers of musical gesture subtly differentiated by spatial positioning to create a counterpoint of noise, tone, vocal sonorities and semantic utterance, with Koglmann-style jazz naturally taking its place next to post-Erwartung vocalizations, Shakespeare quotations (in English), stuttering invocations of “der And-e-re” (the Other), and finally a torch singer’s voice from the 30s seeming to imply achingly nostalgic resignation with respect to the Western “head” in question. Even without much German, I would imagine, it’s a fascinating journey, with the help of pause and reverse buttons and a handy dictionary. Even linguistically challenged listeners will recognize the phrase “Ich weiß nicht was soll es …” as the beginning of a poem by Heine (in a corny setting by Silcher) and complete the line with “… bedeuten.” I don’t know what it’s supposed to mean….

This disc offers yet more: Lauren Newton’s superb performance à la Berberian of nai, Nadeldruckchoräle by Wolfgang Heisig, an amazing demonstration of zany German humor, and may be emphatically recommended without reservation. I shall revert to Disc Two, however, to apostrophize a piece unfortunately presented only in its final 5:20 (I have no information on its full length), but which moved me to tears: Alvin Curran’s For Julian (1988), a kind of requiem for the co-founder of Living Theater. (I saw them too, in Hamburg long ago. It was a radical and experimental time.) One hears a series of key words (“face, train, house, rose …”) which Julian Beck recorded before his death, repeated at differing levels and from different directions while the Cäcilienchor sings an occasional baleful mourning or violently protesting chord punctuating the course of the piece, accompanied by recessed saxophone snorts and hymnal doodlings (Steve Lacy). Judith Malina’s voice, faint at first, vanishing, then ever stronger (“Thou dirge / Of the dying year”), comes into focus reading with searing force the last part of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”: Make me thy lyre, ev’n as the forest is: / What if my leaves are falling like its own! / The tumult of thy mighty harmonies / Will take from both a deep autumnal tone, / Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce, / My spirit! be thou me, impetuous one! There can hardly be a more stirring invocation of the way music and voice can bridge othernesses, even humanity and nature.

Last of all, I leave Music in Germany for the U. S. of A. as presented by a Frenchman: Far West News Episode No. 1 (Signature / France Culture SIG 11014), a rivetingly rhythmic, automotive journey taking us to the heart of the heart of the country. It has been magicked out of on-location recordings processed in transformative ways: diner conversations abutting on crashing car doors, the wind, the feeling of éspaces infinis and precariously sheltered places, a composer’s rap, almost, turning into a kind of reflection or manifesto on the nature of music by the end. Here the Americans speak, well, American, including Navaho, the composer Luc Ferrari mainly in French. I’m pretty sure I recognize that Navaho voice, in which a native guide speaks to a French composer on the dizzying brink of a Western cañon, as my own. “It’s like a picture,” Ferrari says to the guide in explanation of his recording activity, which makes sense to the Indian. It all sounds foreign and familiar at the same time. Have we arrived? Can we hear ourselves in that picture?

[Readers with questions are invited to email Mr Walker at [.] W.M. covered Damerini’s Piano XX — Vol. 2 anthology in his 4 / 00 column. Ed.]