Helmut Lachenmann’s 80th birthday Nothing Is Given

The composer Helmut Lachenmann
The composer Helmut Lachenmann | Photo (detail): Breitkopf Verlag / Giovanni Dainotti

On 27 November 2015 Helmut Lachenmann will celebrate his 80th birthday. For more than half a century the composer from Stuttgart has developed an aesthetics of acoustic freedom, which has unfolded the essential in constructive opposition to the familiar. A portrait.

Composing as a political act, as the result of an alert historical-cultural consciousness – from his teacher Luigi Nono, with whom he studied between 1958 and 1960, Helmut Lachenmann learned in what the social function of music can consist. Nono taught him, he has said, “how from a radically changed-over aesthetic environment the familiar emerges strong and unfamiliar”.

This questioning and conversion of the familiar became Lachenmann’s great theme: based on Nono’s ideas, he went further, right down to the energetic roots of sound production itself, where this goes beyond the usual musical practice. In this sense, Lachenmann’s music is about undermining habitual listening attitudes so as to free the unfamiliar from the sphere of known effects. For him, composing means not resorting to exotic playgrounds, but going into the “lion’s den” – right into the “philharmonically pre-formed space”.

Launch pad: Darmstadt

Lachenmann made his public debut in 1962 at the International Summer Courses for new Music at Darmstadt. Echo Andante is the title of the piano solo piece that the composer himself premiered, an instrumental work that he was later to call a “piece bourgeois furniture”. His Opus 1 was “an experiment on a recalcitrant object”: an outwitting of the piano sound, which, because of its process of constant decay, “melts away under your hands”. Here Lachenmann’s aesthetic credo was already clear: reflect on everything, put everything into question, accept nothing as given.

At the end of the 1960s Lachenmann took this approach a step further. He turned expressly against every kind of “domestication” of sound and developed a music in which acoustic events are chosen and organized so that the listener takes the act of their creation as just as important as the resultant sound. More specifically, this means that the noises arising in the generation of the sound, which it is usually attempted to eliminate as “unwelcome”, become the focus. Pression is the title of a cello piece from 1970 in which Lachenmann first formulated this principle. He called the compositional method, with which he realized his ideal of a “radical aesthetic conversion”, “musique concrète instrumentale“. The point, according to Lachenmann in his work Klangschatten – mein Saitenspiel, was “to bracket out the usual way of treating sound and lay bare the previously suppressed”.

The liberation of listening

The aim of this compositional posture was nothing less than a “liberation of listening” from all learned and internalized expectations and resentments. The aesthetic project to which this liberation was to lead Lachenmann described as the “beauty” that results “from the refusal of habit”. And it is precisely this dictum that always has been polemically abridged or misunderstood by a comfortable ignorance. For Lachenmann this is by no means about a refusal of music per se, but rather an eschewal of the all-too-familiar, which the listener registers instead of responding to the actual sounds.
Helmut Lachenmann - Deutsche Oper Berlin: Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern, source: YouTube

His is the refusal of a music that arouses mere reflexes instead of generating reflections. In this spirit he has developed a compositional ideal that understands the aesthetic experience of music as an existential question: “The object of music”, according to Lachenmann in his essay Hören ist wehrlos – ohne Hören, “is listening, perception that perceives itself”. And in another place: “Listening, in a time when the daily glut of music simultaneously overwhelms and demands too little of the listener, must free itself by penetrating into the structure of what is to be heard as an uncovered and provoked perception deliberately set in the work itself”.

“Music as an existential experience”

A calculated lockout of socially pre-formed listening expectations: to be a composer in Lachenmann’s sense is inextricably bound up with the effort continually to scrutinize and question the terms and conditions of social intercourse with music. Musik als existentielle Erfahrung – Music as an Existential Experience – is the title of his collected writings (1996) and may be regarded as Lachenmann’s artistic principle: “Music makes sense only insofar as it goes beyond its own structure to other structures and relations – that is, to realities and possibilities – around us and in us”, he writes in Struktur und Musikantik.

Lachenmann has changed thinking in and about music as have few other composers, and has long been one of the most significant figures of New Music, is not least the result of incessant self-criticism. A music that raises questioning to its principle can tolerate neither complacency nor the pride of the discoverer. “Nothing is given”, says Helmut Lachenmann, “for the paths into art lead nowhere, least of all to a goal.”