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Georges Aperghis: “Situations” (2012/13) – 70’
for 23 soloists

Klangforum Wien
Emilio Pomárico (Musical Direction)


by Patrick Hahn

“Nothing is feared more by man than being touched by the unknown” are the opening lyrics “Mass and Power”, the philosophical opus magnum by Elias Canetti. “All the space people create around themselves is driven by fear. One locks oneself in houses with restricted access and only there does one feel halfway safe.” Music overcomes space at the speed of sound, penetrating into the human body, through the ear, onto the eardrum, anvil and stirrup to the auditory nerve, sending impulses to the brain that unleash their neuronal play, igniting thoughts and feelings. People also moves close together to make music – a stroke of luck! – to breathe together, to vibrate, to resonance also. According to Canetti, in the resulting “mass”, people free themselves from their “fear of contact”: “Only as a congregation can we free ourselves from our distances. […] In this, the separations are thrown off and all feel equal.” The miracle of every successful musical performance lies to a large extent in how numerous highly specialized artistic individuals synchronize in a special way to such that a new whole is created, for which the German language has even coined its own term: “Klangkörper”. “Situations” by Georges Aperghis is a piece about a very special body of sound, the Klangforum Wien. It is a piece about community and at the same time a collection of portraits of the individuals who constitute this community. And Elias Canetti is also included.

Klangforum Wien, founded by composer Beat Furrer, is a leading ensemble for contemporary music. Founded in 1985, it is somewaht younger than the Ensemble Modern, which was established in 1980, or the Ensemble intercontemporain, founded in 1976, but it has nevertheless inscribed itself no less deeply into music history with its multitude of world premieres and ground-breaking performances. Sometimes lauded by fans as the “Vienna Philharmonic of New Music”, the ensemble not only has a complete woodwind and brass section (without tuba), strings, three percussionists and two pianists, but also a harpist, a saxophonist and an accordionist among its members, who all enrich the ensemble’s special timbre. Among its honorary members, the ensemble counts not only on prominent Austrian composers from Friedrich Cerha to Olga Neuwirth, or its long-time conductor, Sylvain Cambreling, but also Georges Aperghis. The close collaboration between Aperghis and Klangforum is documented, among other things, on a monographic CD with significant ensemble pieces and and the emblematic double bass solo “Parlando”. A joint opera production – “Les Boulingrin” – has further deepened their collaboration. But the highlight thus far of Aperghis’ work with the Klangforum is his composition “Situations”. Premiered at the Donaueschinger Musiktage 2013, the piece has since been performed at numerous festivals worldwide. The piece eludes programming: lasting more than an hour, it is practically an entire evening in itself – and indeed enjoys being exactly that, as the inviting subtitle suggests. Aperghis describes the work as “musical conviviality”. This convivial character was originally to be reflected in the style of performance: “We are no longer in a ‘concert’, but rather attending a soirée whose musicians seem to have forgotten that an audience can see and hear them. […] Those who are not playing listen to their colleagues (while sitting in an armchair or on a sofa), sometimes they are absorbed in the music that is being created, sometimes they comment, sometimes they are just there, as if absorbed in themselves.” This outwardly theatrical aspect has since been slowly reduced by the composer. Originally, at the premiere, the stage was enriched not only by music stands and instruments but also by sofas and armchairs as well as lamps, with the lighting gently supporting the proceedings. The actual drama, however, lies – as so often with Aperghis – entirely in the music.

The cormpositional process itself was not only an encounter in the metaphorical sense. Aperghis exchanged letters and e-mails with every member of the ensemble talking about their favourite films, theater visits and friendships, later translating his observation into musical sketches. Sometimes, material is taken directly from this communication, such as the Finnish counting rhyme that the pianist Joonas Ahonen recited to Aperghis: “Entten tentten teelikamentten…” This imitation of the way German sailors speak is known as Pig German in Finland, and it is not surprising that Aperghis, who loves to invent fantasy languages, pounced on the peculiar sound of these children’s verses. Harmless as they sound, these rhymes also negotiate themes of inclusion and exclusion, belonging to a community or being excluded from it: “… and out you go.” In many other places in the score, where Aperghis asks the musicians to speak or sing in addition to play their instruments, language games abound. “You see you do this do you play just to see it” is first heard from the third violin. Aperghis plays with the expansion and contraction of syllables, ironically commented on by the violoncello with the words “È tu vois?” – “You see?” This verbalisation is not always comprehensible but does always merge into the music, with the single exception for the statements of the pianist, who – unaccompanied by other instruments – recites Elias
Canetti. “Silence is the better option”, he says at one point. “It is more precise, and it is more precious. Silence provides its own protection and encourages concentration.” Such moments function similarly to the titles of Paul Klee’s paintings, which inject concrete tangibility into the otherwise abstract, formulaic aesthetics. Such is the case when the pianist refers to the “patience of the hands”. “But how did the hands become patient?” he asks, again with Canetti. Canetti’s answer is: “One of man’s earliest known occupations is to ruffle their friends’ fur, which monkeys love so much.” With such philosophical questions, Aperghis is essentially aiming at very basic processes, at the prerequisites of community, which relies on a balance between individual and group well-being.

The musical “situations” can be viewed as such quasi-archaic encounters. There are elaborate monologues, such as from the double bass at the beginning, there are tangible confrontations, as between saxophone, trumpet and bass drum immediately before the first Canetti quote, there are moments of anxious chatter, moments of tender embrace, collective unrest and unrestrained celebration. A speech-like ductus also characterizes the articulations of the instruments in this “Concerto grosso”. Often, several instruments play unison rhythms in the narrowest of tonaI spaces, thus, “chattering” together. The sound is often made alien by harmonics and outbursts in extreme registers and with particularly strong or weak bow pressure in the strings, and tone-clusters in the woodwind instruments. At the same time, Aperghis makes the characteristics of unusual wind instruments his own, such as the heckelphone – a low oboe – or the radiance of a Wagner tuba. Per composer Eleni Ralli’s analysis of the piece, Aperghis derives his large-scale form from a continuous montage of fragments, of musical scraps that he collected during his exchanges with the Klangforum musicians. One can perhaps compare this to a house which allows multiple perspectives into other rooms, through windows of various shapes and sizes. Sometimes there is a gentle fade from one window to another, but more often it comes in the form of a hard cut; sometimes the images from different rooms overlap.

The double bass often delimits hinge points throughout the piece, but the finale belongs to the accordionist, who – following his colleagues on flute, violin, cello and piano – uses his own voice and, accompanying himself, recites a poem by Pushkin. When I wrote to accordionist Krassimir Sterev to find out more about the poem he is reciting, I likewise ask whether he feels Situations is still a special piece for the Klangforum. “Of course the piece is very special for us.” – “Did you get to know your colleagues better as a result?” – “I recognized them!” Just like the lyrical ‘me’ in Pushkin’s verses, who encounters a “fleeting beauty” that frees him from the prison of every-day life: “The soul may now convalesce: / And you appear for the second time, / A swiftly escaping miraculous being, / Of pure beauty’s ideal.” Once touched, the unknown transforms itself, transforms us.

Translation: Robert Jacobs

The original article by Patrick Hahn was first printed in:

Program for the award ceremony of the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize 2021 to Georges Aperghis on 22 February 2022 in Munich.

English translation (Robert Jacobs): p. 71f.

Klangforum Wien playing "Situations"

I often think of an acrobat who goes or jumps from one rope to another and catches himself at the last moment. This fragility, this danger is what I am looking for.

Georges Aperghis

Klangforum Wien:

Vera Fischer (Flutes)
Wendy Vo Cong Tri (Flutes)
Markus Deuter (Heckelphone)
Olivier Vivares (Clarinets)
Hugo Queirós (Clarinets)
Lorelei Dowling (Bassoon)
Gerald Preinfalk (Saxophone)
Christoph Walder (Horn)
Anders Nyqvist (Trumpet)
Mikael Rudolfsson (Trombone)
Alex Lipowski (Percussion)
Lukas Schiske (Percussion)
Florian Müller (Piano)
Joonas Ahonen (Piano)
Krassimir Sterev (Accordion)
Miriam Overlach (Harp)
Annette Bik (Violin)
Sophie Schafleitner (Violin)
Gunde Jäch-Micko (Violin)
Dimitrios Polisoidis (Viola)
Benedikt Leitner (Violoncello)
Andreas Lindenbaum (Violoncello)
Evan Hulbert (Double Bass)

© ️Xavier Lambours
© ️Stefanie Loos