Once in a while, I like to dip into UbuWeb: Sound. Part of the Ubu online collection of avant-garde art and video, it was originally conceived as a library of sound poetry but now encompasses a generous spectrum of experimental music, too.
I cherish the idea that these mostly out-of-print works have a home, but I have to admit, I also revel in the obscurity of it all. So much art from so many unfamiliar names. So much history! It’s a playground for hipsters of the avant-garde: “I was into Laurie Anderson back when she was doing actual songs! On vinyl!” (Check out “It’s Not the Bullet That Kills You, It’s the Hole.”)
So one day — the day I found that Laurie Anderson page, actually — I decided to spin the big wheel. Push the cursor blindly, investigate a name. It could have been someone extremely famous like Phillip Glass or Don Cherry. But I lucked out and got a modern classical composer of great renown who had so far escaped me: Helmut Lachenmann.
His purview is “musique concrète instrumentale,” meaning the extramusical sounds that can be squeezed out of musical instruments. His pieces are like noise sculptures, full of extended playing and improv-like atmosphere. The sound of “a beetle on its back,” the Guardian says, quoting the instructions from one of Lachenmann’s pieces.
Ubu’s collection includes two of his works, from a 1986 recording on the Col Legno label; it’s still available on eMusic. A string quartet called “Gran Torso” fills the space with creaks, scrapes, bow bouncing, and the occasional wisp of an open-stringed tone. I can see how pieces like this might have informed works like Elliott Sharp’s “The Boreal.”
Even abstract noise can be used to carve a trajectory, a pacing, as “Gran Torso” does. The activity ebbs and flows in a storytelling fashion. It’s enjoyable.
The secon piece is “Saut für Caudwell” for two acoustic guitars, played in clackety percussive style that I would have mistaken for violins. It gets into a snappy rhythm with the guitarists chanting in German — simple stuff, a 1/4 time signature in a sense. That’s followed by a dynamic segment of springy, scraping sounds.
Exploring elsewhere, I’ve found that when Lachenmann’s aesthetic is applied to an orchestra, the result is pretty much as I expected — lots of sparse abstract sounds, but a wider variety that comes at you from a multitude of directions. I’m also trying to get into his solo piano piece, “Serynade,” which combines moments of fluid virtuosity; sudden, shrill bursts; and long bouts of silence.
I know there’s a whole world of musique concrète to discover, but for now, I’m happy exploring Lachenmann’s corner of it. His work essentially involves extended techniques on acoustic instruments, a milieu I’m more than familiar with, but I’m finding fresh aspects to his music. Despite the abstractness of it all, I think I can feel a common style and personality in the pieces I’ve heard so far.
Here’s a performance of “Serynade” by Mexican concert pianist Anna Paolina Hasslacher. It’s also on her Soundcloud page, but I like the way this camera angle reveals the techniques involved.