It took me a long time to even think about translating this interview. Helmut Lachenmann, the German master of a music often referred to as musique concrète instrumentale, a noisy, raw, gorgeous music, is almost as noted for his words as for his sounds. These words can seem inextricable from the language that he says them in.

Like Thomas Mann’s, Lachenmann’s German sentences unfold as a spiral of secondary clauses. Study a sentence closely, and you may find it harder to understand than you did on first reading. There’s something essential about this—it reflects Lachenmann’s deep dialogue with the music of the past, with the philology of sounds and societal convention. Tobias Rempe, our author, met Lachenmann as part of a week of celebrations in Hamburg: included was a performance of his famous work for piano and orchestra, “Ausklang.”

Lachenmann turned 80 in 2015, and the festivities lasted into 2016. The conversation focused on Ennio Morricone, the naïveté of affecting change through music, and the insult of calling a piece “very interesting.”

VAN: Your musical birthday celebrations went on for over a year. What were some of the most memorable concerts?

Helmut Lachenmann: They were all memorable, each one in its own way. Nevertheless, on my birthday, there was a concert of my tuba concerto “Harmonica,” my percussion concerto “Air,” the spacial composition “Schwankungen am Rand” with the Ensemble Modern Orchestra, high-caliber soloists like Gérard Buquet and Rumi Ogawa, and the hall was packed. All of that corralled into the same program—I’ve never experienced something so intensely compact before. And what was also very memorable, in a different way, was a concert that I had alongside Ennio Morricone in Rome.

How cool!

It was a little strange. The program consisted of my “Mouvement,” two works by the Villa Massimo residents, and two pieces by Morricone: a suite from the film music to “Once Upon a Time in the West,” in some arrangement, and a composition for piano and four winds, kind of a piano quintet. But then I found out that Morricone apparently called the presenter and said, “If Lachenmann’s going to be there, then I won’t allow my film music to be performed. I’ll get up and go.” Still, we sat next to each other at the concert peacefully. But I didn’t dare ask him about his film music.

Helmut Lachenmann, “Mouvement”; (Ensemble Modern Orchestra, Peter Eötvös (Conductor), ECM New Series, 2002 · Link to full album

Do you like his film music?

Yes, I like it—it has an irresistible aura. I can’t find a rational way to peek behind the curtain and explain it. I never come away indifferent, because of the immediacy it has. Though I do know that he’s working with standardized ways of creating emotion, but I mean, that entrance of the bells and the bass guitar in “Once Upon a Time in the West”—he shouldn’t be afraid of claiming that, it’s brilliant.

Photo © 2013 by Emilio Pomàrico, Paris
Photo © 2013 by Emilio Pomàrico, Paris

You try and avoid the categories of serious versus entertainment music. Instead, you talk about magic and art. But where would you put Morricone’s music on the spectrum, if you had to?

Well, to be able to answer that quickly, I’ll turn to an observation I once made to [the late German music theorist] Heinz-Klaus Metzger. He was having a fit about the dishonest way Schlager music promises happiness. And I told him: “Entertainment lies, but it lies honestly. The so-called ‘serious’ composers, like us, keep trying to deceive ourselves.” That’s much worse. But Morricone’s deceit is brilliant. His work is haunted by so much expertise in the tradition, which then gets kind of heated up from the inside. And all of that is a part of the arrangements he makes, which, to me, are as interesting for their technical mastery as they are for the power of their melodic invention.

Though the existence of the German categories of “E- und U-Musik”—serious music versus entertainment music—lends itself to stereotypes of engineer-like musicologists, the terms are widely acknowledged to be have limited meaning. When Rempe mentions them, it’s with an understanding of the over-simplification they imply.

So you’re an advocate for melody?

Why not? When I used to take my kids on vacation, it’s not like we were singing atonal songs in the car. But there’s something else about it that I don’t find anywhere else: Morricone’s music takes its sweet time. And each one of his film scores is different, which is radically different from most film composers, who are like music delivery boys. I got to know his music in 1961. “Once Upon a Time in the West” had just come out here. And I thought: who is that composer? He must have such a mastery of practical music theory. Now I know that he was a student of Goffredo Petrassi’s. And that he came to Darmstadt, in 1958.

And is it art?

Not as emphatically as, say, Ligeti’s “Apparitions,” or the movement “Träumerei” from Schumann’s “Kinderszenen.” But it’s art in the sense that it’s a combination of absolute mastery of craft, coupled with a deep originality. Morricone didn’t invent a new musical language. He’s also not a Structuralist or anything. But within the bounds of the old categories—melody, harmony, and rhythm—he found a way to charge them with an energy that I haven’t come across in any other music. For me, he’s a successor to Dimitri Tiomkin, Nino Rota, and Bernard Herrmann. He managed to discover new things in places where I thought everything had already been done to death—and for a long time already. There’s that famous basso ostinato in Pachelbel, and Morricone references it at the organ entrance in “Sacco and Vanzetti”…

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It feels like you’ve finally made it into the mainstream. The Berlin Philharmonic plays you. Your place in music history is already being written. You won the Deutscher Musikautorenpreis for your life’s work, meaning you were celebrated alongside pop stars. It’s almost as though your music isn’t controversial anymore. Is that a good thing?

Well, first of all, about the Musikautorenpreis—there’s a nice little scoop there. First of all, they asked what four-minute piece of mine they could play at the ceremony. So I made a few suggestions. Then I received a letter saying that they’d rather not play anything of mine. Out of consideration for guests who wouldn’t know how to approach it. So clearly, there’s still something about my music that’s confusing to people.

At the same time, I get these accusations: how could I sink so low, write music that isn’t so wonderfully ugly anymore? Write music that, in its perceived radical critique of society, has either stopped keeping up or even fallen away completely? There are still plenty of composers out there who think that music, as a composition but also as a kind of organized—however that would work—resistance, could act to oppose a collective, omnipotent definition of beauty, and by doing so change society. Or even, as I read recently, “rub salt in the wound of society.” That’s what I meant when I mentioned deceiving ourselves earlier.

The original “There are still plenty of composers…” is a fabulously complex sentence, a Ferneyhough-esque nested tuplet in language. I’ve split it into two sentences here. The way it’s packed almost serves to illustrate how misguided some composers, the ones Lachenmann is referring to, are: they don’t realize how impractical their densely-expressed theoretical considerations are when confronted by reality.

In that context, my String Quartet No. 3 is considered a step back. Because, in it, I look back at musical formulas that have been emptied of meaning. Their presence as metaphorical ruins is just as relevant as any more-or-less fascinating, or provocative, noise that I’ve used. Maybe, in a sense, it’s comparable to the references to the past made by Schoenberg in his middle period. After he developed the twelve-tone technique, he wrote a Sonata-Allegro movement, a minuet, a gigue, even a musette! But they’re not harmless attempts at historical Neoclassicism. They’re skeletons—the corpse decomposed by Structuralist techniques—of societal pieties, outdated yet surviving in a zombified existence. And they’re not just being used as surreal, distorted objects for musical enjoyment. They’re being shown in a new light. Like from Hamlet: “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”

Lachenmann, String Quartet No. 3, “Grido”; JACK Quartet, MODE Records, 2014 · Link to full album

So there are discussions, but it sounds like they’re taking place within a fairly select group.

Some people have this idea of almost an avant-garde idyll. They’re supposed to feel comfortable there, at home, almost. With my music, I’ve always wanted to go naked into the lion’s den: the bourgeois concert hall. And it’s not about being crazy or provocative with my sounds or actions. It’s about new, or newly-considered, contexts; about reorienting the act of listening. All music should be an invitation to rethink music. And that comes along with a certain existential confusion. That people will think of music as a magical, comforting medium is unavoidable.

Back to your birthday celebrations for a minute. When you talk about art, you often turn to images and words like hiking, work, resistance…


…adventure. But now you are becoming part of the canon. Has that had concrete effects on your compositions?

OK, well, Bach and Beethoven are canonical too, but they don’t get to defend themselves. Whether the trope is classical master or “misunderstood genius,” it’s always better to be heard than to be ignored. When I’m composing, I do what I do. I’m not worrying about whether the music industry sees me with a halo or a dunce’s cap. I’m immersed in the timbral, compositional aspects of my work; in possibilities, barriers, blind spots, disentanglements, discoveries. I always start off with the immediate experience of sound. And of course, in the back of my head, I know that these experiences are the cultural props of our society, to whatever degree.

I always come back to Morton Feldman’s wonderful title, “The Viola in My Life.” In all of my pieces, in different ways, I’m searching for “The Music in My Life.” Because of that, I’m in permanent dialogue with what I recently called, in the context of what we understand music as in this country, the “aesthetic apparatus.” I’m working on a piece right now for eight horns and orchestra. Eight horns! That’s crazy. There are connections to Wagner and Bruckner, to Mahler and Strauss. And I’ve got my own traumas surrounding that, and I have to try to break through them in my own way. The sounds I imagine—the sounds I speculate about—are, in this case, confronted with elements of bourgeois music. And I use the five-line stave, tempered tuning, I use the orchestral apparatus and the concert hall with all that comes along with it: the logistical demands it has and the taxpayers who pay so that it works.

So that’s how sensitized I am to composing. It’s about what I want to hear and experience. In that process, what I’ve created collides with the expectations of our society all over the place.  And that can turn into, and has turned into, a lot of problems—protests, scandals. When someone gets angry with me and says, “That’s not music,” that the concert hall has become a playground for pointless games, then I think to myself: “That’s my guy! That’s the person I need to get through to.” When other people tell me that my music is “very interesting”—that’s below the belt.

Although, these days you can pretty much take the role of the artist-martyr or the scourge of the bourgeoisie, and sell it as entertainment. I see through that. I’m not able to communicate much in the way of society-changing energy. It’s really only about writing for yourself, writing what you want to hear. Making something out of all your sensitized intelligence, your feelings, and your desire to write.

Photo © 2013 by Emilio Pomàrico, Paris
Photo © 2013 by Emilio Pomàrico, Paris

Is the idea of the artist changing society an illusion?

I know that young composers still have—or are getting back to—the expectation of being able to shake things up in society. Of “rubbing salt in the wound.” I think that’s moving, and I respect their intentions. But it’s also naïve, and they end up sacrificing aesthetic rigor. Besides: who am I to rub salt into the wound? I am the wound.

If not change, what can art accomplish?

Art should be understood, and enjoyed, as a world that hasn’t been infected by commercialism. And within that, it should serve as a reminder that we are creatures who have the ability to access our souls.

Lachenmann uses the word Geist here, which can mean variably spirit, wit, intellect, and psyche.

When that happens, listening becomes observing. And when I’m observing, I stop thinking in terms of good or bad, or in terms of interesting or boring. I’m thinking: what is this? And then I observe and I start to discover myself, too. When that happens, no matter whether you’re thrilled or confused, listening becomes thinking. Not necessarily on an intellectual level, it’s probably more neural, but it becomes a kind of thinking. And where there’s thought, there’s resistance.

Is that the most important role for art, do you think—to be outside the usual order of things?

The usual order of things is a way of repressing inner chaos, of keeping that in check. The society we live in is absolutely not free. We’re dominated, contaminated, paralyzed, anesthetized, debilitated by so many commercial influences. There’s a black hole of idiocy out there, and it’s just waiting to suck us in. That’s just as disastrous as any ideology. Within our system, I think art has to stand out as an opportunity for what I’ve called adventure. It has to be a journey for the soul. We have to be able to expand the horizons of our experiences, but also recognize ourselves as beings who are capable of reflecting on our conscious horizons. To use Ernst Bloch’s words, art helps us to be aware of our own limits and transcend them. That’s decisive. It’s an experience of responsibility, and happiness.

Lachenmann, “Schwankungen am Rand”; Ensemble Modern Orchestra, Peter Eötvös (Conductor), ECM New Series, 2002 · Link to full album 

I’m not sure that everyone would share your understanding of what art means.

Definitely not! It seems to me that we’re living in a society that’s full of art, but as part of that, we’re forgetting art more and more. With to some extent devastating consequences. That shows itself, not least, in the places that we think we can save money. You’ve got to fight that. Composers can’t be afraid to use the term art, too, and to come as close to a definition as they can so that it’s—with all due respect—separate from the entertainment industry. The central tenets of our lives and our society right now are growth, security, and fun. And the word beautiful just gets constantly tossed around. Isn’t that beautiful!

Without thinking about art now—when you look at society, what do you see?

I look around and see the collective, crazy egotism that we have, and the fear that goes along with it—the fear of losing any of the comforts we have. That would mean sacrifice. Still: I’m not giving up hope. ¶

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… has been an editor at VAN since 2015. He’s the author of The Life and Music of Gérard Grisey: Delirium and Form (Boydell & Brewer), and his journalism has appeared in The Baffler, the New York...

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