Lachenmann: A Self-Portrait
Should I defend myself?
Towards the end of the Q&A session after the workshop concert of Got Lost, two consecutive questions were put to Helmut Lachenmann. Both had the potential to induce a more personal response than he had otherwise offered: first, "why did you come back to Darmstadt 2014?' to which Lachenmann unhesitatingly replied with a simple 'why not?!'"; then "why did you come back to teach the younger generation?" to which he declared, "I cannot teach, I do not teach, Composers cannot be taught [...] I hope you find your own way that is all. Should I defend myself?"
It was interesting to witness Lachenmann reply at length to the previous questions on 'syntax' and 'sound' and then suddenly switch to such short, sharp answers. Nevertheless, across the numerous events involving him during the Summer Courses, a number of themes did emerge that seemed to explain at least part of his motivation to be a Visiting Composer at Darmstadt 2014, and many of these were teased out and explored in a discursive context during his final conversation with Yuval Shaked, entitled 'Composing Today' and translated by Wieland Hoban.
There is no doubt that Lachenmann's appearance at Darmstadt 2014 has been of great importance from a number of different perspectives. Between 4th and 7th August, the 78 year old composer undertook a demanding schedule in which he held two open rehearsals, the first with the MIVOS quartet on Reigen seller Geister, and the second with Yuko Katuta (soprano) and Yukiko Sugawara (piano) on Got Lost. He was also involved in a workshop concert of Got Lost and a workshop with Trio Catch on Allegro Sostenuto, all of which took place before the 'Composing Today' talk.
One theme that emerged was the problem of the definition(s) signified by the term 'New Music'. In 'Composing Today' Lachenmann highlighted how "people always talk about 'New Music' – but what are they talking about? My music, Cage, Feldman? It's a totally stupid generalisation. What should we call it? How about just music?" To label a discourse does risk confusion and contradiction. Terms such as 'contemporary music', 'modern classical music', 'new classical music', 'modern music', 'art music' and 'new music' are used, even juxtaposed, without any accompanying definitions or interrogation.
The need to define cannot, however, be easily escaped. Offering a possible short-term solution, Lachenmann continued, "sure it should be new, but I think there's a stale, escapist expectation in that term. It has to be something that is new to me – it's not about new sounds. That's a misunderstanding. Not new effects. New means anew – listening anew, hearing familiar sounds in a new way." Perhaps Lachenmann was using Darmstadt 2014 as a platform to suggest replacing 'new music' with a term such as 'anew music', at least in respect to his own compositions.
A second theme to emerge was Lachenmann's non-aggressive, defensive mannerism, epitomised in his answer at the end of the Got Lost Q&A session, "should I defend myself?" There were other, subtler examples of Lachenmann's need, even now, to raise a protective shield when faced with potential criticism. In 'Composing Today', Lachenmann talked about how "people thought I was just after new sounds, sound effects, when what I was really aiming for was a sensitization of listening to find new insights. Where tradition is followed by stretching and expanding it. I exemplified this in the pieces I workshopped here, when I spoke about not looking for unchartered territories but creating a new experience, even if that includes sounds that are familiar. I keep looking for new aspects. I may be an old model, out of date, but to me a string quartet can still be a cutting edge piece."
Squeeze the lemon, crash the car
A third theme was Lachenmann's encouragement to the new generation of composers to examine individual sounds and what he calls their 'categories' or 'families'. In 'Composing Today', the composer discussed how he himself "had a lemon that had to be fully squeezed [...]. But once you've squeezed everything out of the lemon, what do you do? Throw it away, bite into it?" Vehicle metaphors also recurred: "[a]s a composer, one learns the tricks and skills, one learns to drive the vehicle of one's trade – but to really compose, you have to build your own vehicle [...]. When you get in your vehicle, you have to risk crashing it. If you just stay in it and everything remains intact, that's something that's uninteresting."
Towards the end of 'Composing Today', Lachenman's real motivation for attending Darmstadt 2014 perhaps finally became clear. "When I look at concepts today – which of those concepts can unsettle anyone today? I don't want to mock it, but I think it's harmless compared to back then. I think our culture risks falling down a black hole of dumbing-down. [...]. Rather than thinking about sabotage, having masturbation on stage and giggling... I'm allergic to all that, it repulses me [...]. Sure you can take the bull by the horns, try to comfort the problem aggressively."