October 22, 2010 / 1:05 AM / 7 years ago

Scrapes, mallets hit right note for composer Lachenmann

LONDON (Reuters) - The music of pioneering modernist German composer Helmut Lachenmann will be showcased in London this weekend, allowing listeners to hear violin bows scraping sideways on strings, percussionists using scrub brushes and pianists hitting strings with mallets.

Lachenmann, 74, who will attend the weekend at London's Southbank Center , said he felt compelled to create new musical sounds from established instruments, in what he calls "musique concrete instrumentale," to help music from the corruption of classical culture by the Nazis during World War Two.

The son of a Protestant priest, Lachenmann found his niche after drifting into the world centered on the avant garde music camp at Darmstadt, Germany, set up in 1946 to rediscover modern music after the war and dictatorship.

He was inspired by modern music composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono, and Pierre Boulez, who deconstructed music from past concerns with melody, harmony and rhythm to focus instead on loudness, pitch, duration and 12-tone composing.

The audience reaction was violent, sometimes leading to walkouts from concert halls, and also to a return, by some composers, to music that restored melody and familiar rhythms.

But Lachenmann thinks listeners, if they open their ears, would hear plenty of beauty in his compositions.

He spoke to Reuters during rehearsals this week:

Q: Why do you go to such extremes with the orchestra, getting a cellist to make sounds from the bow only or a pianist flick his fingers over the tops of the keys rather than strike them?

A: "When I was a child I loved to stand close to the percussion because I'd see what they did and sometimes I saw sound as a kind of energy ... I began to think of music in these categories, energy, pressure ... I began to think of making music in different ways from the way instruments, in old music, are put into focus."

Q: You still travel the world instructing professional musicians how to play your music for which you invented new techniques and notation. Wouldn't it have been easier to do this electronically, which was something you experimented with?

A: "I had an electronic piece but I found that there was no performing tension and that these were sounds without any history. Plus they came through a loudspeaker. I cannot mention one electronic piece that touched my heart."

Q: You studied for some time during the late 1950s, with the Venetian avant garde composer Luigi Nono, who famously was a committed communist and thought music had to have a political message. Does your music have a political message?

A: "Nono was a committed socialist ... but he was an Italian socialist and this is different. At that time he was not respected by the Russian or the (East) German communists ... And to me he was kind but he said we have to find another world and the first thing is to not go on making bourgeois music .. In 1971 there was break between him and me."

Q: So you settled into a bourgeois lifestyle, but as an avant garde composer. Whose music do you listen to when you relax?

A: "I was asked this at Harvard University where I was speaking about Webern, Schoenberg, Elliott Carter, Boulez, Morton Feldman -- and someone asked, 'But which is your favorite composer?' And I said this is Ennio Morricone, this is a wonderful artist and I love it -- but as art, it is another thing. I enjoy, but I have another path than him. And I also said when I go with my children on vacations in the car we don't sing 12-tone music."

Editing by Belinda Goldsmith

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