Performed by Ex Cathedra / cond. Jeffrey Skidmore. Sound projection by Kathinka Pasveer. (Also referenced: Helmut Lachenmann, 'Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied' / Gustav Mahler, 'Symphony No.5', performed by the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra / cond. Jonathan Nott / with the Arditti Quartet. BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, 15.07.2013.)
It would be possible to argue, of course, that the climaxes of Lachenmann’s piece occasionally reached a fairly traditional kind of modernist angst-bombast. A few years ago, indeed, the composer-improviser Radu Malfatti expressed discomfort with this aspect of Lachenmann’s music in an interview for Dan Warburton’s now-defunct Paris Transatlantic magazine: “for me, his pieces are still hopelessly old-fashioned, the structures and the forms tumble around in 19th century-idiomatics: with all his beautiful sounds [by ‘beautiful’ Malfatti here means Lachenmann’s use of extended techniques in order to further the range of instrumental material available, rather than in what he would call a ‘regressive’ sense], I still hear rondos, climaxes, anti-climaxes, and so on.” Yet, against Malfatti, I would argue that, like Mahler’s, Lachenmann’s climaxes highlight their own status as moments of ‘power’ or force or angst as the weak and ineffective moment that, as clichés, they are. The issues surrounding connections between nation, music and mass murder that ‘Tanzsuite’ attempts to address, through its scrupulous re-working and stripping away to a last ghost gesture of German song material, might be said to express itself in two forms: first, an almost-nothing, in which, say, the entire texture is reduced to the whisper or scrape of a violin bow being drawn across the body of the instrument, barely audible in the extended space of the concert auditorium. This almost-nothing, however, always implies climax, a layering of additional instrumental over smaller groups or soli (as implied by the concerto grosso form) – thus, rather than any ‘still, small voice’, it is invariably fraught with the tension of an anticipated return, of an extension that never settles comfort, always liable to interruption or discontinuation but too extended to remain an easily-assimilated interlude. Second, a full-blown climax, which, however, implies its own dissolution back to fracture, to that ‘almost-nothing’, and thus seems to contain something hollow within it. The fairly large orchestra on-stage, then, always seems reduced, impotent, those climaxes sounding out an attempt at bombast that comes across as over-compensation, and through such a move – the inhabitation of fullness and large-scale exaggeration by extreme forms of reduction, and vice-versa – Lachenmman’s piece becomes a dialectical engagement with the orchestra as a particular ensemble category. One could, if one were being crude, apply some crude fascism metaphor to the orchestra , its members swaying to the charismatic will of conductor and composer, everyone with their particular role and their right place; more specifically, though, ‘Tanzsuite’ is an engagement with the presentation of a ‘national music’ that becomes associated with particular orchestral sounds (see, for instance, Adorno on the use of brass within the ‘New German manner’ of the Wagner / Bruckner school), as forms of false collectivity which, in its splintered re-fashioning of how such an ensemble might sound out, is fully engaged with questions of musical form choked with layers of corrupted historical sedimentation.
Up on cloud nine or on Sirius B, with stars in his eyes, I suppose Stockhausen was never going to be connected enough to music’s historical stakes to attempt anything like this. Still, to return to 'Welt-Parlament', I kept wanting, even as the spectacle and the music itself were impressive enough (though the choral language felt, oddly, rather too comfortably conventional in its beauty, too safe in its affect), a music that could take the potential for debate within that form and really delve into formally; some version of the extended debating scene from Ken Loach’s ‘Land and Freedom’, or the debates in Peter Weiss’ ‘Aesthetics of Resistance’; or Plato’s Symposium; or some sense of what Love might mean in theological or political terms, as in J.H. Prynne’s extended, word-by-word close-reading of George Herbert’s ‘Love III’. What love might mean in terms of hunger and consumption and individual and community, negotiation and gift, the economics of personal relation, and so on. But mainly what I got, in the end – and though I’m certainly glad there have been two Proms performances of contemporary music in one week, before the onslaught of Britten and the queasy-banal propaganda celebration of Royal-Baby-coinciding ‘Britishness’ – was feet heavy with cosmic glue.
[*] [A further note on Stockhausen and humour]