All he asks is: ‘Try to like it’

ALL HAIL: Helmut Lachenmann, 72, is considered by many to be one of the world's most distinguished living composers.
ALL HAIL: Helmut Lachenmann, 72, is considered by many to be one of the world’s most distinguished living composers.
(Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times)
Special to The Times

HELMUT Lachenmann’s work is very strange, even by contemporary standards. This preeminent German composer shapes what are essentially noises -- taps, scrapes and rustlings, though made largely by conventional instruments -- into beautiful, even spiritual, music.

How he does it is one of the mysteries of art. Perhaps it’s also one of the legacies of Germanic musical forms, which Lachenmann takes to daring extremes. He possesses a formidable analytic mind, a good thing for an avowed “structuralist.”

In any case, his compositions -- to be presented along with a new documentary film about him this morning at the Goethe-Institut, then at an all-Lachenmann Monday Evening Concert at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall -- make extraordinary demands on musicians and audiences alike.

Maybe that partly explains why, despite being in his eighth decade, Lachenmann is still little known in this country. In Europe, his imaginative and formally airtight pieces are honored and performed, and he is considered by many to be among the greatest living composers. But a recent Lachenmann concert in New York, which he attended, went unreviewed by that city’s newspaper of record.

Lachenmann’s pedigree is indisputable -- he was the only private student for two years of Luigi Nono, the influential Italian avant-gardist who died in 1990, and also studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen. Yet the man himself is engagingly modest.

“It’s easy to make music with noises. That’s always somehow contemporary,” he said recently, speaking by phone from Vancouver, Canada, where he was making one of many stops on the hectic international tour that has now brought him to Los Angeles. “But to make it with intervals, or to make it with motif-like elements, this is the real challenge.”

He added that a composer confronted with so much tradition “must not only use it but make it empty” -- that is, find a fresh context for conventional musical elements so they regain authenticity. “The same C-major harmony which was full of expression in the Renaissance no longer applies in the music of Wagner,” he explained. “The problem is to find a new way of listening.”

This spring, Lachenmann is a Fromm Foundation visiting professor at Harvard, a post previously held by Gunther Schuller and Magnus Lindberg. In between teaching master classes, he is also traveling throughout the U.S. advising musicians how to play his complex and challenging scores.

That hasn’t left him much time to complete his current commission, a piece for soprano and piano based on three Nietzsche texts, tentatively titled “Got Lost.” Its premiere, which Lachenmann plans to attend, is scheduled for just a few weeks from now in Munich, Germany.

But first there’s Monday’s all-Lachenmann program, Monday Evening Concerts’ season finale, which will give listeners a rare opportunity to hear the composer play his seven little pieces for piano from 1980, “Ein Kinderspiel” (Child’s Play). The program also includes two masterpieces from the ‘80s: “Mouvement” for an 18-piece ensemble, and “Allegro Sostenuto,” for clarinet, cello and piano.

“When Lachenmann deals with sounds, he’s very sensitive to the quality of expression,” says Michel Galante, who will conduct New York’s Argento Chamber Ensemble in “Mouvement.” “But he’s also putting them in a context that’s almost classical, because he’s always thinking in terms of climaxes, transitions -- all the things that make a coherent structure in the way we think of Beethoven.”

‘10 rehearsals in one day’

LACHENMANN, who worked with Galante in New York last month, has not always had it so easy with musicians. “My music needs 10 rehearsals in one day. And each musician has to have the courage to be unskillful for a moment,” he observed. “If I have to explain to a 60-year-old cello player that he has to hold the bow in another way, he feels ashamed to be a beginner again.”

He said that during rehearsals for his first big orchestral piece, “Air,” in 1969, conductor Lukas Foss had to “fight for my music.” Then, when the work was finally performed in Frankfurt, Germany, the audience halted the percussive piece with shouts of “This is not music!” and derisive laughter. But Foss, himself a renowned composer, insisted on going back to the beginning and performing the entire work.

Lachenmann chuckled recalling the suddenly silent audience. “They were afraid if they disturbed the performance again, he might start over.”

“Sometimes I say to musicians, ‘Try to like it,’ ” he said. “They laugh, but they understand.” But he maintained that performers of his music must be as precise as if they were playing Mozart. “Each sound can be performed dirty or pure. I don’t want scratching noises -- you must be cruelly tender with the instrument, and the result must be beautiful.”

Lachenmann described his compositional process as combining traditional instruments in a way that expands their individual sonic capabilities, forming a new “super instrument.”

“It’s as if every instrumentalist had the huge sound palette of a percussion player,” says critic and author Paul Griffiths. “Lachenmann finds ways to deal with all the instruments equally.”

Griffiths rates Lachenmann as one of the two or three finest living composers. “He’s one of the most influential composers around,” Griffiths says. “And he’s also made a massive contribution as a provocative teacher and guide. Yet he is now 73 and still not big news in England or America.”

Wolfgang von Schweinitz, the Roy E. Disney chair of composition at CalArts, offers a more practical reason for Lachenmann’s neglect here: His scores are in German. “This nuisance cannot be underrated,” Von Schweinitz says, pointing out that Central European composer György Ligeti used to write his scores in two or three languages, whereas in Lachenmann’s, “every bar there’s a word in German.”

Yet when Von Schweinitz first heard Lachenmann’s work, at the premiere of the austere string quartet “Gran Torso,” in 1972, he immediately pegged him as the foremost German composer in the generation after Stockhausen. “And I still think so,” he says.

Recently, Von Schweinitz taught a class on Lachenmann, whose uncompromising aesthetic he particularly admires. “Around the mid-'60s,” he explains, “he developed his own personal style of using these noises, not allowing people a cheap kind of beauty. The denial of quick satisfaction was a big theme for him.”

Other composers beware

IF Lachenmann is not easy on audiences, he’s been even tougher on other composers, such as Ligeti, Hans Werner Henze and Krzysztof Penderecki, all contemporaries slightly older than he. “He thought they were losing the hard edge avant-garde mentality of the ‘50s already during the ‘60s,” Von Schweinitz says.

The hard edge Lachenmann admired no doubt came from his teacher Nono.

“Nono was incredibly hard on me,” Lachenmann said. “It was a little bit of a game. He always tried to make an inquisition of my bourgeois provenance. If I wrote a trill, he said, ‘Who do you think you are? [French Baroque composer] François Couperin?’ My first compositions were close to his own technique, because I was full of Bartók, Messiaen and Stravinsky, and I thought it was all . . . not me. His influence was so strong that at a certain point, I had to kill him, like everybody has to kill his father somehow.”

In 1959, instigated by Nono, Lachenmann ghost-wrote a polemic for the older man against the music of experimental composer John Cage, which he now explains this way: “At that time, I was not against Cage, I was admiring Nono. When I heard Cage in 1954, my world broke apart. I was also impressed, because there was method in his madness. For me today, Nono and Cage are the composers who have a very deep influence.”

Lachenmann’s other primary influence was Bach, whose music he heard as a child in the Stuttgart church of his father, a Protestant minister.

“I felt the magic of being together and singing,” he said. “In the concert hall, we also come together to concentrate on an experience, reminding us that there is something which we call ‘spirit.’ ”

There are other kinds of “magic” that Lachenmann said he would never understand, such as his daughter’s fascination when she was younger with techno music. “This was cheap magic,” he said, “but very strong. Art is more than this kind of pseudo-provocation.”

According to Griffiths, Lachenmann’s own music must be seen and heard live to be fully appreciated. “It’s a bit like going to a sports event,” Griffiths says. “You’re seeing people who are working at the extreme, doing things that are barely possible.”

The composer agreed. “We need adventure in art,” he said. “People should have a sporting ambition to go into a concert hall, and musicians should also have an ambition to learn and do things they haven’t done before.”

Lachenmann added that his music theater piece “The Little Match Girl” has often sold out European venues. “I’m very fortunate now, but it was also booed,” he said with another laugh.

That he can joke so freely about his often difficult career is a testament to his resilience.

“At least people are not indifferent to my music,” he offered. “A composer has nothing to say to an audience. He has to do something, and what he does, this shall say something. He is a medium. The composer is the person who is the most shocked by what he did.”