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Biography

  • Born

    27 November 1935 (age 85)

  • Born In

    Stuttgart, Baden-Württemberg, Germany

Lachenmann was born in Stuttgart. He studied piano with Jürgen Uhde and composition and theory with Johann Nepomuk David at the Stuttgarter Musikhochschule from 1955 to 1958 and was the first private student of Luigi Nono in Venice from 1958 to 1960. From Nono, he acquired the belief that music should aim to serve a message of social relevance. He also worked briefly at the electronic music studio at the University of Ghent in 1965, but thereafter focused almost exclusively on purely instrumental music.

Lachenmann lived in Munich from 1960, and later moved to Stuttgart. Besides his activities as a composer and pianist, he also taught at various institutions during this period. In 1972 he taught composition for a year at the Basle Musikakademie, and from then on his teaching duties frequently took him abroad. In 1976 he was appointed professor of music theory and aural training at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik und Theater, Hanover, a post he held until 1981, when he took a chair in composition (and, until 1988, music theory) at the Stuttgart Musikhochschule. He was awarded the Ernst von Siemens music prize in 1997.

Only two pieces written during Lachenmann's period of study at the Stuttgart Musikhochschule have found their way into his catalogue of works: the piano cycle Fünf Variationen über ein Thema von Franz Schubert (1956–7) and the Rondo (1957) for two pianos, dedicated to his teacher David. In the Schubert variations Lachenmann does not adopt a Schubertian mode of expression but points up structural aspects of the theme in a way that emphasizes the historical distance between himself and his model and shows the theme in an entirely new light.

The composers of the postwar whom he met at Darmstadt, Nono especially, exercised a crucial influence on Lachenmann's subsequent development. His study of the works and aesthetics of the serial composers, and the Second Viennese School in particular, left clear traces on his compositions of this period. For instance both the point-like texture of Souvenir (1959) for 41 instruments and the orchestral studies Due Giri (1960) are based on a comprehensive serial organization of the different parameters. Up to the Wiegenmusik (1963) for piano and the String Trio (1965) Lachenmann's work was governed by this concept of sound as the outcome and expression of abstract ideas of order.

In the 1960s two tendencies of fundamental importance to his later work began to emerge: first, as he commented in 1962 in his introductory text to the piano piece Echo Andante, he developed a kind of ‘musical thinking in which structure was not the means to expressive ends, but instead expressivity, as a pre-existing factor already inherent in the means, became the point of departure for structural adventures’. Second, and linked to this approach, was his increasing interest in the ‘anatomy’ of sound, which went further than the purely acoustical considerations central to serial thinking (pitch, duration, dynamics and timbre). Lachenmann now integrated the mechanical and physical conditions of instrumental and vocal sound production into his compositions, and developed the concept of what he has called musique concrète instrumentale, music ‘in which the sound events are chosen and organized so that the manner in which they are generated is at least as important as the resultant acoustic qualities themselves. Consequently those qualities, such as timbre, volume, etc., do not produce sounds for their own sake, but describe or denote the concrete situation: listening, you hear the conditions under which a sound- or noise-action is carried out, you hear what materials and energies are involved and what resistance is encountered’.

As a result, after temA (1968) for flute, mezzo-soprano and cello, the overall sound of Lachenmann's works fundamentally changed. Its defining characteristic now, as in almost all the composer's subsequent output, was the exploitation of loud and unconventional sounds more in the nature of noise, of the kind generally suppressed in traditional instrumental performance. For instance in Pression (1969–70) for solo cello, the familiar sound of the instrument is presented as the result of just one of many ways to draw sound from the instrument, ways which also include such techniques as bowing the body and tailpiece of the instrument, or exerting extreme pressure with the bow. Guero (1970) for solo piano entirely avoids the ‘normal’ sound of the piano achieved by striking the keys. Lachenmann developed a special way of notating these works, which combines elements of traditional notation with a special tablature.

Lachenmann's principal aim in his development of musique concrète instrumentale was not merely to extend the repertory of available sounds along the lines of the discussions of the 1950s and 60s on the concept of musical material, or to shock the listener by the ‘alienation’ of the familiar sound of the instrument. Instead, the composer's intention was to explore a new sound world and to create compelling and logical musical works based predominantly on sonorities which had remained unused and hence uncontaminated in the past. The musical instrument, as the quintessence of its many sound-generating possibilities, is effectively reinvented in the process. Lachenmann has spoken of composition as equivalent to ‘building an instrument’, and this is as true of his attitude to solo instruments as it is to his approach to ensembles or orchestras. Serial ideas of order now become available for the musical exploitation of this newly discovered sound world. Lachenmann continued to work with abstract ‘structural networks’ and ‘temporal networks’, but they now had only a regulatory rather than a generative function.

Lachenmann's analysis of hitherto unexploited aspects of the ‘anatomy of sound’ was at first largely confined to the mechanical and physical conditions of its production. A new, uncharted tonal world is now opened up, one in which the expressive qualities seemingly inherent in different sounds do not derive from their use in past music but seem to the listener to be carried over from other, non-musical domains of experience. This notion of musical expressivity as socially mediated did not become central to Lachenmann's work until the mid-1970s, since when, in what has turned out to be the longest phase of his creative development, his interest has focussed on what he calls the ‘aesthetic apparatus’. The object of composition is no longer the sound material alone. Instead, the composer's thinking must also include the social contingency of his means of expression and construction. He now no longer has to prove himself by working solely with ‘virgin’ material, in other words sounds not yet devalued by excessive use, but also (indeed especially) by using the all too familiar sounds of the traditional repertory. Lachenmann seeks to create a new experience out of the worn and outmoded. His direct references back to tradition, increasingly frequent since the mid-1970s, should be seen in this context, for instance in Accanto: Musik für einen Klarinettisten mit Orchester (1975–6), where he refers to Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, and in the orchestral work Staub (1985–7), where the reference is to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The culmination of this most recent phase in the composer's output came with the 1997 première of his ‘music with images’, Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern (1990–96). In this, his first stage work, the subject is not merely the projection of the plot of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale ‘The Little Match Girl’ onto the social conditions of our time, but also the institution of opera itself as part of the ‘aesthetic apparatus’.

In response to the stereotyped perception of his music as the expression of protest or denial, a cliché that became established at quite an early date, Lachenmann has repeatedly emphasized the novelty and uncontaminated aspect of his sound worlds. His work may indeed strike its listeners initially as a denial of the familiar; in other words, they perceive only what they find lacking from it. However, once they open up to his new and strange world of sound, his work offers the chance of an aesthetic experience largely undistorted by habit: an immediate and thus a liberating experience. This ‘existential’ dimension of artistic creativity has been at the heart of Lachenmann's poetics of composition since the 1960s. Composition in the here and now is understood in relation to the mechanism of hearing, itself viewed as a network of experiences, expectations and habits. This network is determined by its own historical dynamic. Seen in this way, composing is a social activity, that is to say it intervenes in those social conditions that determine our perception. Some of the force of such a ‘social activity’ can be felt in the resistance to Lachenmann's music, and the often vehement reactions it has elicited from musicians and the public: the music itself ends up demonstrating the force of habit. The uproar in 1986 over the refusal of the SWF SO to give the première of Staub, a work it commissioned, should be seen against this background.

It is only in this most recent phase of his work that Lachenmann has truly succeeded in establishing the social and ultimately political dimensions of his work, which, while not flouted openly, are genuinely subversive in their aesthetic implications. An approach to composition that is closely connected to a concrete historical situation often ends up locked between the dialectical poles of habituation on the one hand and the disruption of habit on the other. Such would also be the fate of Lachenmann's music if his new sound world did not result in such aesthetically convincing works. Transcending easy and short-lived shock effects, these works construct a world with a beauty of its own, one that reveals itself only after several hearings, and is still not exhausted after many more.

Since the 1960s, in parallel to his development as a composer, Lachenmann has given many lectures, and has written essays and introductions to his works which may be regarded as attempts to make himself understood on unknown and uncertain ground. While the analysis of sound was the focal point of his thinking in the 1960s (‘Klangtypen der Neuen Musik’, 1966), the changes in Lachenmann's work from the mid-1970s onwards brought the historical aspects of his musical material to the centre of his attention (for instance in ‘Vier Grundbestimmungen des Musikhörens’, 1979). The majority of his writings since 1966 are published in the volume Musik als existentielle Erfahrung (Wiesbaden, 1996). Lachenmann's growing reputation as one of the major exponents of the postwar avant garde in Germany has also stimulated an increased academic interest in his work, aided by the availability of most of his sketches, scores and working materials in the Paul Sacher Foundation, Basle.

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