Monday, October 07, 2013

The post-war world and the Darmstadt effect

I've spent the weekend at The Rest is Noise at the Southbank, hoping to learn something about the post-war years and Darmstadt. I'm sure I'm not the only one who's found this the single most tricky patch of 20th-century music history, and I reckoned that if this panoply of talks, films and concerts wasn't going to sort that out for me, then nothing would.

I got a lot more than I bargained for.

It's not every day you have the chance to hear things from the horse's mouth, and the horses in question were Schoenberg's daughter, Nuria Schoenberg-Nono, and the composer Helmut Lachenmann. The event started a little late; it was such a beautiful day that they'd decided to walk over to the South Bank together.

Lachenmann expressed an objection to the part of the book-behind-the-series devoted to the so-called Darmstadt School. First, he says, it doesn't mention Bruno Maderna. But moreover, he insisted that the aura of myths and fear and domination that in contemporary music seem to surround the name Darmstadt are just that: myths. Probably based on a couple of things that Boulez might have said once, a long time ago. Stockhausen annointed the saviour of the future of music? Boulez the dominant force? Only one type of music can be allowed? Rubbish. Stockhausen was one of many people with many contrasting ideas. The place was filled with composers whose ideas were fundamentally different from one another, he declared, recalling, too, perfectly civilised discussions between Cage and Nono. How myths are built, what they consist of, what they do to our perception - these all need more consideration.

Nuria Schoenberg-Nono recalled her father's concern (NB he died in 1951) about the trend towards analysing serialist technique ahead of concern for expression, since he considered his music expressive. Asked (by muggins, who was tired of only blokes asking the questions) what she thought he'd have made of the musical world today, she said she has never tried to get inside the minds of either her father or her husband, but she does think that the standards of performance now have risen so much that a work such as his piano concerto or violin concerto can by played like music, rather than as a technical struggle.

But what constitutes expressiveness in music anyway? Lachenmann cast powerful perspective on this. (I personally don't agree with him about Rachmaninov - the idea that R is sentimental is a myth in the opposite direction - but never mind that for now...). Essentially, he suggested that emotional response lies in the listener, not the music itself. He says that a composer doesn't write to express his/her own emotion - you are not crying while you write, as you are in a ferment of creative activity. Any emotion involved comes from the person listening. The import is in the message, not the way it is conveyed. As an example, he said, if you tell someone, "Your father is dead," you don't fill those four words with huge expressive import. You say it without emotion. The person receiving the message will respond with feeling of their own. 

(This explains to me exactly why I loathe so much the exaggerated interpretations of certain of today's terribly successful performers. They get in the way of the music's message. I could name a few, but this is probably not the moment.)

One gentleman in the audience shared his own memories of Darmstadt and remarked that in contrast to a summer school in the States, the food at the German organisation was absolutely terrible and gave him very bad poisoning once. If the food had been better, he said, the whole history of music might have been altered thenceforth. Nuria pointed out that in the post-war years there wasn't very much food in Germany, and recalled an incident in which a sack of potatoes was delivered to Darmstadt, yet the person in charge of catering had never seen a sack of potatoes before, so cooked them without washing them.

There's the rub: the effect of the war. We know, in theory, that the association of marching rhythms with Nazi jackboots, the use of Wagner, Bruckner and Beethoven in Goebbels's propaganda, the building of a sense of supremacy through these great romantic masterpieces, all that was seared into the minds of the young people who saw it happening around them, in some cases lost their families, in some cases were forced to take part in the horrors themselves. But do we really feel, and empathise with, how deep that psychological shock went? It's a Clockwork Orange effect, perhaps; and within a terrible void, for the great creative voices like Stravinsky and Bartok had left Europe, while potential newcomers had in some cases been killed (think of Gideon Klein). If a fresh start had to be made, you can see why.

It sounds strange, it sounds oversimplified, but a sense of empathy was what emerged, above all, from this extraordinary couple of days. A film about Ligeti (made in 1993) told of the composer's family's fate in World War II - his father and brother were killed, his mother returned unexpectedly having survived a concentration camp - though said nothing about what happened in that time to Ligeti (pictured, right) himself. We heard from Tom Service - whose pre-concert talk before Gruppen yesterday contained the single clearest and most succinct explanation of electronic music that I've ever heard - about Stockhausen's background: his father, drafted into the German army, died somewhere in Hungary; his mother, mentally ill, was confined to an asylum, but there left to die by the Nazi regime.

We heard nothing from anybody, though, of Bernd Alois Zimmermann, surely one of the most violent and compelling voices of that era, who committed suicide in the 1960s - or if we did, I missed it. It's impossible to take in everything since so many different events are going on at once, but the website is a fabulous resource as many of the talks are posted on it after the event. Explore here.

Talks around the era included matters of DNA and also the CIA (which some say funded Darmstadt - I missed this one too, but want to read the book - Note, update this morning, Ian Pace tells me that he has explored the issue thoroughly and found it to be yet another myth). The historian Donald Sassoon spoke on literary heroes and villains, notably those of Ian Fleming's James Bond books. My former sister-in-law, the art historian Monica Bohm-Duchen, gave a Bites talk about the art created by inmates of concentration camps and subsequently by others in response to the Holocaust. And the desperation, horror and nihilism of Rosselini's film Germany, Year Zero - shot in the ruins of Berlin after the war, following a 12-year-old boy's efforts to survive and feed his family - perhaps gave us the clearest insights of all into the forces that shaped these minds.

And now and then, a revelation of sorts emerges from the correlations of different artforms. How strange that those Bond villains, over the years, whether influenced or not by the Cold War, are not  politically motivated but instead represent self-interest, greed and big, soulless business versus the individual; how bizarre that both a Soviet book and an American one could trace almost the same outline of the same journey; and how intriguing that fundamentally opposed musical systems - the ultra-control of Boulez versus the chance operations of John Cage - can produce, for the listener, music that seems to inhabit the self-same aesthetic. How extraordinary that the iconoclast par excellence, Stockhausen himself, is still part of a tradition of larger-than-life German visionary composers and was inspired to create Gruppen by the sight of the Alps. (And how many times has my OH protested against my discomfort with Bruckner by saying "But it's the music of the Alps!" - yet had he been there last night, instead of on tour in Vienna, he'd probably have fled the volume of noise inside the hall).

Our cultural world is not flat. If you travel round it far enough in one direction, you arrive at the same point you'd have reached if you'd gone the other way.

Add to this some extraordinary concerts. Members of the Aurora Orchestra were at the helm on Saturday night for Stockhausen and Boulez, with pianist Nicolas Hodges and percussionist Colin Currie interacting with electronics for all they were worth in Kontakte, following the strange, aural-3D spatial effect of Gesang der Jünglinge - the odd matter of attending a live concert to listen to something non-live is another issue, of course. Boulez's Le marteau sans maitre - like Stockhausen the visionary - seemed strangely in tradition too, that of French music's attention to timbre, instrumentation, detail and delicacy. 

On Sunday afternoon we heard astonishing percussion playing from students of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, performing Xenakis and Cage; and the weekend culminated in Stockhausen's Gruppen - three orchestras, one on stage, two to the sides of the RFH auditorium - with the "traditional" (I quote) two performances of the piece framing the evening on either side of more delicacy and detail, this time from Nono. Is the journey from Monteverdi and Gabrieli's antiphonies in San Marco to Stockhausen's in the RFH as great as we might think? 

The thoughts provoked by these days, the intensity of the information intake and the social whirl - old friends and new, with everyone wanting to share their impressions - will not, as you'll have gathered, fit into a single blogpost. This is a beginning, not an end; a chance for further exploration and a great deal more chewing in the months and years ahead. As for today, I don't think I'll be listening to anything at all.