In 1966, Ornette Coleman recorded his album The Empty Foxhole, accompanied by Charlie Haden on bass and his own son, Denardo Coleman, on drums. Denardo was ten years old. His playing is truly impressive, not in the sense of his being a prodigy but that by that time he had already been playing the drums for four years, and was totally comfortable and expressive accompanying his father. Ornette by had been playing trumpet and violin as well, self-taught in a concerted effort to bring a child-like innocence to the instruments, a means of expressing himself unencumbered by notions of how they were supposed to be played. But it is Denardo, the child, who is truly the innocent, unselfconscious musician on this gem of a recording.
Children are born innocent, despite what David Brooks or Joseph Ratzinger say, that innocence being gradually transformed into experience. And as we gain in experience we also develop imagination. The sentimental view is that children have a special creativity that is lost when they become adults, but this is not true. Children are adept at imitating and adapting, but it takes the lessons of life, especially seeing things not yet imagined and trying and failing, to master imagination and creativity. It took the adult imaginations of Joyce Cary and Georges Simenon to write their novels about artists who somehow manage to maintain their innocence into adulthood, and it takes the adult Helmut Lachenmann, now seventy-five years old, to compose musical art as, possibly, a child could.
Lachenmann’s birthday was celebrated Thursday night at Miller Theater, in the finale of this season’s excellent Composer Portraits series. This one, the first programmed by new director Melissa Smey, was perhaps the most remarkable. Even more than Xenakis, Lachenmann’s compositional art challenges the fundamental notion of what we consider music and does so by approaching instruments and sound making in a way that is completely innocent. Without prior understanding or context, it doesn’t always translate well to recordings, but seeing his music in action is a gripping and revelatory experience.
The revelation began with Lauren Radnofsky sliding the fingers of her left hand up and down the strings of her cello. Lachenmann’s Pression is a work that approaches the cello as if the musician had just discovered this fascinating object and wondered what to do with it. Innocently, the musician produces sounds with it; eerie harmonic glissandi, the rasping of the bow against the bridge, col legno playing from underneath the strings. The hands and bow are barely applied in any way either idiomatic or familiar, and so it is absolutely riveting to see the musician take actions and produce sounds that would be disorienting, off-putting and difficult to focus on if heard only from a recording. The sound is frequently so quiet that one must concentrate on listening, and each unfamiliar action produces a moment of anticipation; what will the next sound be?
Like a lot of things that are avant-garde, it’s fundamentally radically conservative. While Varése and Xenakis extended the possibilities of musical materials and organization into the timbres of instruments themselves, Lachenmann’s work gives the impression of gleefully tossing aside the accumulated history, or baggage depending on how one sees it, of Western classical music and returns to first principals, i.e. the innocence of sound. Before humans wrote, they spoke, and before they spoke they sang and before that they grunted and hooted. Lachenmann’s language is a recovery of the innocence of music making, exactly like that of the other great 20th century radical conservative, Albert Ayler. His language is pure, because it’s without the arbitrary tuning system we know as pitch, and after a moment’s readjustment seems deeply familiar and natural, like the sounds we ourselves made many years ago. It takes an act of sophisticated imagination to rediscover this state in the context of music meant for performance, and it takes further sophistication and craft to make this language into fascinating and rewarding pieces of music.
And these pieces are indisputably music. One may object to the sound of instruments used this way, but every bit of striking, stretching and stroking that Radnofsky performed had a purpose as part of a larger structure of sounds organized through time. Where other composers describe time through melody, harmony, rhythm and repetition, Lachenmann describes it through a tremendous variety of sounds and careful attention to their timing and dynamics. It is so involving and exciting to hear, and his clarity and sincerity were conveyed so powerfully through her tremendously commanding and understanding performance, that the brief moments of identifiable pitch, like a crescendo on D-flat, break the spell and are actually disappointing. His results are so convincing that the moments of standard sound are out of place.
The JACK Quartet played his String Quartet No. 2 “Reigen Seliger Geister” with the same command and understanding. It’s really astonishing to hear any musician play this music, which goes against so many years of training and habits, with the precision of these young performers. They made this work of contrapuntal gestures and ultra-quiet sounds seem as logical, lyrical and inevitable as Webern. The two fundamental challenges are to play the instrument in a new way and to make every moment fit into the overall scope of the piece, and JACK did this as well as imaginable.
Lachenmann himself too the stage, both for a brief discussion about happiness with Seth Brodsky, and to play two of his piano works, Wiegenmusik and Ein Kinderspiel, and to perform as the narrator with Signal in his chamber symphony-sized piece, “. . . zwei Gefühle . . .”: Musik mit Leonardo, with text from Leonardo da Vinci. The chamber piece uses an orchestrator’s dream collection of instruments, including both contrabassoon and contrabass clarinet, again directed to produce almost exclusively non-pitched sounds. The piano, bound to pitch by keys and strings, is used as a resonator for the trumpet and tuba and has its lid physically manipulated to produce a wah-wah sound after notes have been struck. And why not, the lid is there, why not do something with it? It’s the imaginative leap to do the thing that is both not done and is so truly simple. The variety of sounds was dazzling, the performance by Signal under Brad Lubman superb in every way, the musicians alive and totally committed. The one flaw was the sound of Lachenmann’s amplified voice in the acoustic environment; the tinny speaker that was used was a sonic misfit for the collection of physically expressed timbres from the ensemble, including vocalizations accompanying and in response to the instruments.
The piano pieces were an essential expression of his compositional art, the innocence possible in musical expression. Wiegenmusik is pithy, dissonant but lyrical, with a rambunctious, fingers-falling-over-the-keys quality. Using pitch, it emphasizes how un-dogmatic Lachenmann is; if it came out of the mouth it would be a song, not a lecture. His children’s music is some of the most charming there is. It doesn’t talk down from an adult’s standpoint of what music might please a child, it treats the piano as a child would, before any parent considers paying for lessons and their regimentation. The “Fake Chinese (slightly drunk)” movement is full of happy banging and bashing on the keys, the concluding “Shadow Dance,” mesmerizingly played on the highest B-C on the keyboard, is the different rhythms of dressage on a single pitch. Pounding the extreme edges of the instrument is how every child tackles the piano, but Lachenmann is a composer, his innocence is highly imaginative and creative. The precise use of pedal along with the tone-clusters of “Bell Tower” turns the basic repetition into a powerfully involving sonic wave of shifting colors, resonating timbres, the notes on the page literally turning into the magic of pure, ordered sound. Music.