Helmut Lachenmann

“If this man doesn’t meditate”, I thought, “I’ll eat my hat”.

It was a randomly-caught radio programme – Music Matters on Radio 3 – which sparked thoughts of cerebellarophagy. It contained an item about the modern composer Helmut Lachenmann which I found so intriguing I saved it for posterity (please download and listen if you’re interested – at 11 minutes it’s a bandwidth hog).

The bit that particularly caught my ear was this, said by cellist Gabriella Swallow about the composer with whom she’s been working closely:

Every second counts with Lachenmann, I mean he’s always listening and I think this music is incredibly well heard. He even uses it as a demonstration – he tells you to stop talking… and he says ‘listen’. And you just listen for a minute and there’s a fan or a light or something, a little hum, and he says ‘that’s beautiful to me’. And it’s just this incredible sound world he engages you in.

This reminded me so strongly of the kind of meditation practice where you lose yourself in the universe of sound:

Listening meditation works in a different way from breath or sensation meditation. We do not focus inwardly but outwardly in a wide-open manner. We do not create nor imagine sounds. We wait for them to come to us. Any sounds will do — the roar of a car, the barking of a dog, the twittering of a bird. We listen attentively to any sounds that might occur with a non-grasping attitude. We open up to the music of the world and of life. We do not name, conjecture or identify the sounds. We just listen as widely and openly as we can at the sounds themselves. If there are no sounds we just listen to silence and its special hum. In listening meditation we cultivate an open and spacious attitude which waits quietly for the unknown without fears or expectations.

How could I miss what turned out to be the last concert in a series called Transcendent which was being held at the Queen Elizabeth Hall the very next night? Obviously I couldn’t.

pre-concert talk

That’s Lachenmann on the right having a pre-concert chat with journalist Tom Service, the host of the radio programme clip above. Nothing said in their exchange on stage lessened my sense that hearing this music would be in some way akin to listening meditation, and for me that was indeed the case – the sighs, whispers, hums, rattles, clinks, growls, squeaks, pops and twitters resembled the range of sounds which arise, mingle and fade away across the aural canvas of contemplation.

And of course it was also profoundly unlike a listening meditation because by its nature it was ordered, choreographed, wrought. And I couldn’t entirely lose myself in the sounds because the visual stimuli were so strong. The intense concentration on the faces of the musicians, the extraordinary things they did to their instruments to make the sound required by what must be an extraordinary score. What, to take one example among hundreds, is the notation for playing a clarinet by removing the mouthpiece and banging the top with the palm of your hand?

Thought followed on thought. Does Lachenmann explore the sonic possibilities of each instrument himself or in collaboration with individuals who can play them? Why is it important to make these sounds within (mostly) the constraints of the traditional instruments of the orchestra? I thought how different each experience of each performance or recording would be because of the sonic environment in which it is heard and whether that awareness was part of the intention of the composition.

At the end of the first piece there was a tingling in the air for many seconds of breath-held silence while the conductor remained motionless, semi-bowed, arms flung outwards, before he finally straightened and allowed the audience to applaud, amongst us the clearly delighted composer kissing his fingers to the musicians.

It was now or never.

As people dispersed slowly for the interval I bounded up the steps, planted myself as near to the lionised composer as I could get and asked, politely but firmly.

“Excuse me, do you meditate?”

He looked without speaking for some seconds.

“Yes” he said simply. “I do. Sometimes.” I started burbling incoherently about how wonderful the music was, but he was firmly re-engaged by the person from whom I had just briefly extracted his attention.

So my hat is saved from ingestion. I had a quick chat with Tom Service who’d overheard my question and thought it interesting. The analogy hadn’t occurred to him before but he found it a useful one. “Yes”, he said. “Just wait for Concertini [the second piece in the concert], you’ll like that even more.”

And so it proved. The musicians had been split into three sections – one group on the stage and one each on either side of the auditorium about halfway between the stage and the back wall. Beside several of the musicians on the stage were one or more small Tibetan singing bowls carefully positioned on cushions on a series of low tables.

Where I was sitting I was surrounded by sound just as in the meditative experience the sounds heard can be from any direction. It was easier during this piece to close my eyes and keep them closed and get lost in the music since two thirds of the visual distractions were actually behind me. I remember thinking about the expense and technical difficulty of recording and recreating such a sound field and reflecting on my amazing good fortune to be able to experience it in performance, and then I think I was lost in the music because I don’t remember any more thoughts.

While looking for more information about Lachenmann I came across a journal entry at the social music site last.fm by Carl, who had been at the same concert. He concludes:

It is a good experiment to go to such events. However I do not believe in its beauty. That will be the subject of another journal entry.

I shall look forward to reading it. I did believe in its beauty. I found the experience profoundly engaging and moving. As the short biography I linked to above notes:

His works aim to invite listeners into uncharted sonic realms free of the habits of typical concert music and in the process, he hopes that listeners will find some feeling of liberation. In this sense, his music could certainly be deemed existential.

The first concerts in the Transcendent series are being broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 25 November. The concert I heard is slated to be aired on, if I heard correctly, January 28th next year.

7 Replies to “Helmut Lachenmann”

  1. (o)

    Those bowls probably have much more to do with drawing me to Tibetan Buddhism than I’d really like to admit. Such a sweet pure sound.

  2. Hmm, I’m terribly good at appreciating very radical music, but will try and catch the broadcast concert on Saturday – anything that can be categorised under both ‘little fluffy clouds’ AND ‘prometheus unbound’…

  3. Made me think of hearing Jack Ashley speaking about regaining his hearing after a large chunk of his life without it, and the interestingness of sounds he was hearing for the first time which most of us would either not notice or find redundant or irritating, such as that made by the windscreen wipers when they were left on after it had stopped raining.
    ‘Little fluffy clouds’ and ‘prometheus unbound’ not really incompatible, I don’t think.

  4. Hmm, I’m terribly good at appreciating very radical music.

    “Lachenmann” means “laughing man.”

    Sounds like my kind of guy. And this report itself was wonderful. Thank you.

  5. Rachel, I’m intrigued and excited by this post because the listening meditation was exactly what I was doing preceding the experience of the “Effect” (that I wrote about recently in Qarrtsiluni) but at the time I thought I’d invented the technique. Realising now that it’s part of a tradition is comforting and validating, like accidentally stumbling upon secret knowledge. I must now also listen to Lachenmann.

  6. I’m glad you found it interesting Natalie. The first series of performances were broadcast on R3 on Saturday night in the “Hear and Now” programme slot. It can be heard online for the next week, I think, until replaced by the next edition of the programme. I have CD of some of his work which I bought at the concert which I can lend you, very soon 🙂

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