the cmrc blog

Tracing the Net/Netting the Trace

Roger’s recent blog on Holliger’s settings of Beckett, and Bill’s reply, prompted me to offer a few thoughts on the subject of (fairly) recent examples of text and music for voice, with or without piano – or song, if you like to call it that.

I’m curious to see how deconstructive strategies derived from the work of Jacques Derrida can be applied to standard repertoire as well as to the more indeterminate end of the spectrum, so here are some musings on ‘classical’ style Lieder by Heinz Holliger (b. 1939) and Wolfgang Rihm (b. 1952), and something a little bit different (but still for voice and piano) by one of Holliger’s almost exact contemporaries – Hans-Joachim Hespos (b. 1938).

So what’s at stake? Some notion of faithfulness to the original text perhaps, to the newly composed music, to both, to neither, to something in-between, to something that refuses to be categorised until the very moment of performance?

As with Rihm, Lieder are a continuing preoccupation of Holliger’s spanning almost his entire career, and most are in a state of perpetual revision or development. The Sechs Lieder (1956/7, texts by Christian Morgenstern) Dörfliche Motive (1960/61, revised 1994, texts by Alexander Gwerder) and the Mileva Lieder (1994, texts by Mileva Demenga) have all been subsequently further revised prior to type setting (2012) and are still evolving. Moving from handwritten manuscripts to printed copies there are numerous alterations and changes, e.g. notes change, metronome markings alter, and Italian and German speed and mood indications change or disappear altogether; in other words, the works are in a state of flux – and not just in terms of editorial niceties and notation. I should add that this is still the case.  Working on these songs with Holliger prior to recording them last year, he proceeded to change pedal markings, phrasings, dynamics and tempi during the rehearsal process, often trying new things through at the piano whilst I was singing; and for scores with such precise metronome markings he has a marked aversion to any sense of ‘counting’ during performance.

This is what seems to me to be at stake – that passage between fixed points, the areas of flux, of undecidability, of uncertainty, of aporia. This is apparent in the very frequent allusions to the canon or archive (in the Derridean sense, i.e. hypertextual as well as intertextual amongst other things) of Lieder repertoire, both implicit and explicit in all of these songs. Throughout, there is a sense of the ghosts of the past intruding on the present. The Sechs Lieder are suffused with the spirit of Bartόk (e.g. the Op. 16 songs), the open, modal harmonies, folksong-like motives and warped subject matter (Vöglein Schwermut and Vor Sonnenaufgang in particular), and Holliger remarked that all of his generation were obsessed by Bartόk when they were young. The Dörfliche Motive songs again acknowledge the archive, whilst keeping a distinctly European modernist language in play. The (already) short text is split across four songs, Webernian in their economy of resources and employment of widely leaping tessitura, yet there are also nods to Schumann and a broader sense of the German romantic Hegel/Schlegel aesthetic. The same can be heard in the Mileva Lieder, where there are ghostly tributes to Brahms and Schönberg, while a pair of Webernian style canons (reminiscent of Op. 16) closes the set, hinting not only at the Second Viennese School, but the earlier obsessional emotional and formal (for does Winterreise truly open or close with Der Leiermann?)

labyrinths of Winterreise as well.

In both the Dörfliche Motive and Mileva-Lieder, the text too is subject to a process of fragmentation and erasure; melismata are taken to extremes, with single syllables stretching over whole systems of music, losing any semantic identity in the process, becoming fragments in a chain of pure resonance. The text is not fixed, but open to endless permutations. You can find similar preoccupations in both Dillon and Finnissy’s text settings, e.g. Dillon’s Evening Rain (1981) has a text composed entirely of phonemes, and yet it is actually the deconstruction of a Gaelic poem about a man who was lost at sea (something I didn’t discover until I was rehearsing it with him). Finnissy too likes to use extreme melismata (as echoes of Bel Canto writing – back to the archive!) and also to mash up existing texts by a single author, e.g.  Tennyson in Same as We (2008) or Goethe in Hier ist mein Garten…. (2016).

The archive here is a place of forgetting as well as remembering, it is a place for suppression and repression as well as conservation. The archive must speak of the future as well as of the past ( for we are looking at the creation of new works) as it gives up its secrets;  and as it gives up those secrets, Bataille like, it destroys itself, or rather I should say it transfigures itself during the process. It represents the authority of the institution while simultaneously it critiques the institution from within (this is most evident in more indeterminate works) – as John Caputo says institutions are the way things get done, and they are prone to violence….Nothing is innocent. The archive is in a constant state of flux.

Der Maler malt das Vergessen. Das Bild vergiβt

 seinen Gegenstand. Der Maler ist Charon. Mit

 jedem Pinzelstrich/Ruderschlag verliert sein

Passagier an Substanz.

                                                Heiner Müller/Wolfgang Rihm – Ende der Handschrift

(The artist paints forgetting. The picture forgets its subject. The painter is Charon. With each brushstroke/oar stroke his passenger loses substance)

Which brings me to Rihm.

Rihm, although still writing in a very ‘classical’ style for voice and piano, has somewhat different preoccupations to those of Holliger. I suppose one of the most immediate concerns for the singer is his use of dynamics. His obsession with pp, ppp, and pppp markings, usually set around the passaggio of the voice, for pages at a time on occasion, presents considerable technical challenges; how can I sound broken and fragile without just sounding incapable – does it matter?  Is it all part of the aesthetic? These are frequently combined with tempi and mood indications such as langsam, sehr langsam, sehr ruhig and müde, so as a singer, you feel like you are being exorcised, or flayed.  The voice is stripped, subject to a process of erasure (as is the piano to an extent), and the same process is applied to the text setting, while Rihm’s choice of poet (Celan, von  Gunderrode, Lenz, Heiner Müller, etc.) allows him to exploit these possibilities to the full – again, a text that has some sense of a romantic aesthetic is very open to deconstructive strategies – you could say that a deconstructive drive is built into the fabric of the poetry, communication is disordered.

Three Lieder sets that are especially concerned with these issues are Vier Gedichte aus Atemwende von Paul Celan (1973), Ende der Handschrift (1999) and Drei Hölderlin Gedichte (2004). Think of each element (voice, piano, text, dynamics, range) as a separate entity, and then think of them as forming a net of sound and silence, and you have some idea of how Rihm works as a Lieder composer.  And the net is interesting – without its spaces it cannot exist, it is just a bag. So not only are there the same hypertextual and archival concerns that are present in Holliger’s Lieder settings, but there are also the spaces in between the threads of the net to consider, and in places, that net is close to breaking. The text and the voice are subject to a process of erasure and disintegration that leaves only traces behind, echoes, ghosts…a chain of imagined resonance. How does this work in practice? Take song VI from Ende der Handschrift – one page of music, sehr langsam, ten words (Im ächten Manne ist ein Kind versteckt das will sterben – In every real man a child is hidden that wants to die), pp for every note of the voice part except one micro crescendo and one micro sfz.  The text (already unstable in a sematic sense) is steadily broken, so that the last word sterben (to die) is split across four bars, with a bar’s worth of silence in the middle. The piano opens ff and moves to pp in the space of five bars, where it then stays for almost all of the rest of the song (reaching ppp at the end). The piano lines are slow, low, and chromatic and largely in parallel chords which then unravel. Nothing is stable here – chords break, text disintegrates, the voice is erased into a thread – as is the piano, its final notes moving from ppp through a further decrescendo.

We do not await death, we only desire it as a past we have not yet lived, that we have forgotten, but with a forgetfulness that has not come to cover over an experience, with a memory more ample, more capable, older than any perception.

                                                                                                                                                J Derrida – Glas


I first came across the music of Hans Joachim Hespos in the late 1990s, subsequently performing Bing (2009) (for solo voice) on several occasions – a work where the singer gets to fight her way out of a giant cling-film bubble, and beat hell out of a pipe with a metal meat tenderiser, all the while executing pointillist vocal acrobatics – as you can imagine, it’s quite enjoyable to perform live.

Weiβschatten takes a similarly left of centre approach to the medium of voice and piano, and was written for me last year. The score utilises extended, non-standard notation, but definitely not graphic in the usual sense of the word, i.e. not pictures, although there are frequent areas of indeterminacy and undecidability (vocal production for notated ‘text’, pitch range, vocal colours, piano effects)as well as an improvised duo section about halfway through the work. So, there is a mixture of very precise notation – very demanding technically, where the composer’s intentions are very clear – and areas where things are much freer, allowing the performers a considerable amount of agency and keeping the aporia in play. Events occur within specified, irregular, blocks of time (almost like a time bracket piece), and are designed to unfold in a way that surprises both composer and performers.

A word about the text – or the singer’s (and pianist’s!) phonetic material; apart from specifically notated, non-sung syllables, the phonetic material (or text in the loosest sense of the word) is entirely improvised, so I just pick whatever feels best in the moment of performance; before the moment of performative measurement, everything is in play, a musical Heisenberg principle if you like.

Wreathed in smiles, Hespos’ mantras during the rehearsal period were ‘I don’t know what she’s going to do’ and ‘like Klee said, an artist [composer] should learn everything there is to know, and then forget everything he knows’. So there are a lot of surprises during live performance, which keep the work ‘unfixed’, open to perplexity and ambiguity rather than trying to ‘solve’ anything. Another good example of this can be found in the improvised section, where the piano has a series of small and complex motifs, and the singer has one repeated note, with seven lines of dense instructions that are entirely composed of lists of adjectives, including some so enigmatic that I was unable to translate them (another example of undecidability).  Nor could I find anyone else who could (it turned out that the really problematic one was the name of a late ‘70s North German punk band!). This list of crazy and contradictory adjectives reminded me of the ‘spiral’ symbols in Stockhausen’s Spiral (1969) and Pole (1969), and I was somewhat at a loss as to how to interpret them, as it seemed to me, that by trying to recreate an emotionally ‘overwhelming’ moment, I would be guilty of reducing this section to yet another ‘the singer goes mad’ event, and I think Donizetti and company gave us enough of those;  as did Berio et al. come to that. So, what to do? Hespos’ solution was perfect; after all, he should know. ‘Oh, I was thinking of Tom and Jerry there’. So that’s what we did, and it works uncommonly well; cruel, surreal, and, if it goes well, funny.  So although Weiβschatten belongs to the canon of recognizable ‘scores’ i.e. of the archival canon,  it also allows that virus of undecidability into its fabric, through its egalitarian generosity, not to kill, but to unsettle, to shake things up a little, to challenge from within.












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About the author


Clare Lesser specializes in the performance of 20th century and contemporary music.  Her current research in performance focuses on deconstructive performance strategies and their application to graphic and indeterminate scores. She has given over 50 premieres to date, and her work in this field has previously been nominated for a Royal Philharmonic Society award. She…

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