Monday was an important day at Darmstadt


A personal reflection by Donal Sarsfield


Monday was an important day at Darmstadt. It was important because nothing happened. Nothing that hadn't happened before. Nothing that won't happen again, tomorrow, or the day after. Everything stayed the same.

A personal reflection by Donal Sarsfield


"In life there is really no great or small thing. All things are of equal value and of equal size."

Oscar Wilde, De Produndis.


Monday was an important day at Darmstadt. It was important because nothing happened. Nothing that hadn't happened before. Nothing that won't happen again, tomorrow, or the day after. Everything stayed the same.


Two invited composers gave lectures about their music: one spoke of breathing as an independent and fully materialised musical element within a composition; the other showed a picture of Tolstoy ploughing in his field. One spoke of exploring a universe of gray between black and white, all in between; the other about notation in the renaissance, and how time is experienced through listening.


All in between.


Both played examples of their music from a computer, through loudspeakers, to give the audience an idea of what they have composed. The loudspeakers were all around us. We listened, but we could not see.


Love and empathy.


In one lecture the sound of children playing outside was heard. We could not see the children, but we all heard them. The door was closed, and then the composer informed us that we had disconnected ourselves from the external world and we were in the new music world.

Nothing new.


After the lectures I observed a group lesson with another invited composer. Some younger composers offered up their scores for comment. We listened to the pieces and he registered some general thoughts and impressions. He was, positive, polite, but critical in what he said, and sometimes left a gap, maybe five seconds, between one comment and the next. The pauses seemed pure; considered. Something caused him to mention the snare drum roll in 'For Frank O'Hara', and how it always surprised him, still, every time he heard the piece. When one student said they were afraid of being boring he offered some advice which I wrote down:


"Don't be afraid of being boring".


An ensemble of four men got together in a gymnasium to perform a piece for a different kind of sport. A sport of the intellect, or an exercise for the imagination. Hundreds of people sat in chairs, facing forward. Bows were used, some instruments were involved, a man spoke into a microphone, the people left. The effort to interpret the sounds from the score was enormous. This particular piece had been played many times before and this exact ensemble of instruments was well known. Many composers have written thousands of works for this combination. The music was complex; everything moved so quickly I could barely register the layers of sound, but one passage in the second movement struck me to my core. I was glad that I experienced it. I left wanting to hear more.

The quality lies in the thing itself.


Later there was some kind of event at a space in the Centralstation. There was a queue to get in because the piece was new, and so nobody had seen or heard it before. It was exciting. We sat in the centre on mats, facing in all directions. The production was extravagant.


Enormous sheets of crumpled paper surrounded us, the lights behind the paper changed gradually, a drum beat slowly, the sheets of paper shimmered, and two women started to breathe in and out, slowly, through megaphones. Then a fast reiteratitive sound caused the loudspeakers to pulsate fantastically. We could all see the loudspeakers because they were visible. Some other instruments were heard, but we could not see them. They did not play often, only now and then. Together, the instruments and loudspeakers made many beautiful sounds, which at times reminded me of the sound of a small, distant, helicopter. The sound also reminded me of my washing machine.


At one point three transulcent silicone shawls were raised, slowly, above the loudspeakers. This was new. I had never seen anything like this before.


About half way through the piece three male percussionists came towards us. Bows were used, but instead of instruments they each stood in front of an object: a polysterene sphere, at eye level, cut in half, intersecting so one sphere faced alternated with the other. Lying tensed on top of the polysterene sphere was a very long string, which clasped the object to a metal pole. They extracted an enormous range of sounds from the object. I could hear lots of detail. I could see the effort. The force of the bowing grew and grew until all three percussionists were bouncing their bows, unisono. Beauty from process. It was a moment of wild chaos.


Later in the piece I imagined I heard the sound of Park Street Station in Boston, where the red line meets the green line. But that memory was just for me. I could see that it was not the sound of the trams squeaking at Park Street Station in Boston. What I thought was the sound of trams squeaking their way into and out of the six tracks at Park Street Station in Boston was in fact a complex combination of instruments and sound projected through loudspeakers. It was not the sound of the trams at Park Street Station in Boston.


The reiterations returned. The silcone shawls were wound down and three women came towards us singing urgently at the top of their voices. But now it was the man breathing, slowly, through the megaphone.


On my way out I saw what caused the paper sheets to shake; it was a pair of loudspeakers. They had been removed from their cases and were lying facing upwards. Some wires were attached it the cones, and these wires extended upwards to the back of the paper. I thought this was wonderful. I saw also some simple hairpins on the back of the paper. It was not immediately clear what they were doing there, but I enjoyed the fact that behind such complexity there is usually a simple object, doing nothing but what it was designed to do: in this case, holding something in place. Out of sight.


I wondered. What had I seen?


I keep wondering why we had heard what we heard, and why did we see what we saw?


I wondered is a sound more beautiful if it is produced by design, or by accident?



The final concert of the day was four pieces for percussion.


The first piece featured many long metal rods. Holding one metal rod vertically the percussionist loosened his grip which caused the rod to bounce off the floor. The percussionist gripped fast the rod on the rebound. On. Off. On. Off. Sound. Silence. Sound. Silence. It sounded metallic, but we could all see the rods; we could all hear the density. The effort to perform the piece from memory must have been great. Some rods were treated vertically, but most of the rods were horizontal, and he attacked them in a variety of ways. Vertical and Horizontal. The percussionist was standing in the middle front of a metal frame which reminded me immediately of the cages in a painting by Francis Bacon. Those cages which are there, and not there. It had that look about it.


The second piece incorporated some video. Some people laughed because what they saw and what they heard played a joke upon each other. It was not a simple joke; it was a musical joke for the eye and for the ear. The room was full of people who love music and so some people found it funny. Some people did not. In a room full of people somebody will always laugh at a joke. I do not know any other joke which requires a vibraphone.


The third piece featured a number of pauken, some of which had a number of different types of what looked like chinese bowls positioned on top. The timpani behaved not like the timpani in a Sibelius symphony, but more as resonators, amplifying the vibrations which passed from the bow, through the bowls, into the shell. They were timpani none the less. Again, the effort from the performer was great, pedaling and bowing at the same time. Although the venue was full of loudspeakers, the timpani were not amplified.


It had been a long day. Although I was enjoying the sounds, I was fighting the urge to leave the concert. I was standing at the very back of the hall. A woman behind me was stooped over rolling a cigarette on her knee, very slowly, and I was distracted from what was happening on stage by the woman slowly creasing and folding her cigarette paper behind me. I looked at her a number of times, but she did not notice. She was oblivious. My attention went back to the piece.


I left the concert before the final piece and had a beer with some friends, chatting not about the world, but about the music. A pianist came and joined our conversation. I asked him about a piece of contemporary music which he had been playing a lot over the past few years: he said, for him, it was now like Beethoven. He found something in it every time he performed it. This was the first time I had heard somebody mention Beethoven, but it was only the fourth day of the music festival.

I did not see Beethoven.

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By Donal Sarsfield