Contemporary Music from Germany – Current Trends

“I don’t write pure music” – Wolfgang Rihm at 60

Onuk Fotografie, Bernhard SchmittWolfgang Rihm, photo by Onuk Fotografie, Bernhard SchmittWolfgang Rihm is one of the most successful contemporary German composers. On March 13, 2012, he will celebrate his 60th birthday. A good occasion to draw up an interim balance.

Not for him the creative pause: Wolfgang Rihm, born in 1952 in Karslruhe and active there since 1985 as a professor at the local conservatory, is considered one of the most productive contemporary composers. Over 400 pieces in all musical genres are credited to his name and, after four decades of indefatigable composing, Rihm’s oeuvre has reached such complexity that an attempt to survey it, as music critic Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich once said, would resemble an “exploration of Asia along bicycle routes”.

Start in Donaueschingen

Back to the beginning. Donaueschingen, 1974: Rihm made his debut at the music festival. Morphonie, a work for string quartet and orchestra, caused a sensation (and disconcertment) among audience and critics. It is excessive music, music that is conceived less as a structure than as an event – an antithesis of the post-serial project of rational composition. Morphonie relies on the effect of expression, on the strength of emotion. Instead of expanding the “existing state” of music, it presents a music that is born of inspirational impulses and evinces the indubitable effort to find its own, distinctive language.

Wolfgang Rihm, reading the sheets of one of his compositions, photo by Onuk Fotografie, Bernhard SchmittPreviously Rihm, influenced by his first composition teacher Eugen Werner Velte, had been oriented to the aphoristic style of Anton von Webern. In 1970 he had attended the Darmstadt summer courses and was influenced above all by the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Morton Feldman. Gradually, however, his view of avant-garde projects changed; he was especially critical of their negation of subjective expression. Against the idea of structure as the carrier of meaning, Rihm began to emphasize the idea of language. Music as language – more precisely, as speaking.

One of Rihm’s maxims from this period is: “We have to be shaken by [music’s] energy, or we must fall silent before its void – then we are composers”. A dictum that underscores the will to subjective expression and makes an open confession of “de-theorized” composing. In his writings Rihm has clarified this pithy statement: he distinguishes “exclusive composition”, in which stipulations and systems of rules make no room for creative vulnerability, from “inclusive composition”, which embraces the unpredictable, the spontaneous eruption of the “I”, and refuses to rope off the abyss, to tame the wild. “I don’t write pure music”, says Rihm; “I cannot and will not write it; I am in my person exposed to many uncertainties, arising both within and outside myself, and I yield to these uncertainties”.

The principle of uncontrolled growth

Wolfgang Rihm in Venice in 2010. He was honored there with the Golden Lion Award. Photo by Universal Edition, Eric MarinitschComposing, for Rihm, is always a process of natural growth – not least of “uncontrolled growth”, whose form obeys unpredictable inherent laws: “In my way of working I can plan something as a closed piece, begin it, and then find it turning into something open – and vice versa. Compositions are, after all, living beings, which at a certain stage of their morphogenesis begin a dialogue with me, perhaps even play their game with me and draw me into dialogue. I’m surrounded by this multiplicity of formed shapes that is constantly growing”.

Even if critics overdo the use of the term “organic” to describe Rihm’s compositions, the biological metaphor is decidedly apt: his music proliferates, pullulates, literally coalesces from countless individual elements that overlap, interpenetrate and complement each other – seemingly without limit. “Finished” – this word, says Rihm, makes him nervous. Re-working, refining and multiple use are accordingly defining features of his processual form of composition: “There are strata of works that I go back to again and again: to already processed material. These are, seen in themselves, finished pieces that are put into new contexts. They’re not put into a ‘better’ but into another form, which then constitutes a new piece. They are re-shaped by commentary, insertions, overpaintings, paraphrasings, almost medieval contrafaction. All these are techniques of self-interrogation. And sometimes it works: then the piece is ‘finished’”.

Gérard Buquet conducting "Étude d'après Sérafin" of Wolfgang Rihm at ZKM Karlsruhe (2007); Ensemble für Neue Musik der Musikhochschule Karlsruhe; Ballett des Badischen Staatstheaters Karlsruhe; choreography: Terence Kohler, source: YouTube / Rihmcenter

Success through listenability

Perhaps the reason that Rihm’s compositions are among the most often performed works of contemporary music lies in the listenability of this “organic” art. Fundamentally designed to be communicative, his music is meant to be heard and experienced. It is about the presentation of complex states of feeling, brought to expression in an equally multi-layered music. For this reason alone talk of a “new simplicity”, with which critics in the 1970s attempted to dismiss Rihm’s aesthetics as anti-intellectual post-romanticism, is very wide of the mark.

The composer, relaxing in the park, photo by Onuk Fotografie, Bernhard SchmittFor all his trust in the power of emotion, Rihm is suspicious of the idea of a music based on pure “externalization”. “In music”, he explains, “more than in any other art, the artist must be highly intellectual and at the same time emotional. […] He must know that he will make as little progress artistically by relying on pure intellect as he will by relying on the power of pure feeling. Surely nowhere is the interconnection of mind and senses more inextricable than in music.”

Five important compositions of Wolfgang Rihm (proposed by Dr. Michael Rebhahn):

Sub-Kontur für Orchester (1974/75)

Die Hamletmaschine, Musiktheater in 5 Teilen (1983/86)

Die Eroberung von Mexico, Musiktheater (1987/91)

Gesungene Zeit, Zweite Musik für Violine und Orchester (1991/92)

Jagden und Formen für Orchester (1995/2008)

Dr. Michael Rebhahn
lives as freelance music journalist and curator in Frankfurt/Main and works for Deutschlandradio Kultur, hr2-kultur und WDR3 among others.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
March 2012

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