On Culture and Music: A Discourse with Helmut Lachenmann
This article has been published dated January 2, 2022, on Con-Cul Journal Online.
In today’s globalized world, “cultural fusion” may seem like an outdated topic to put a spotlight on. Tōru Takemitsu presented his November Steps, a piece uniting the Japanese shakuhachi and biwa with western orchestra, over fifty years ago. Countless successors have, to varying degrees of success, attempted to marry diverse cultures in their artistic and musical expressions. When one looks around, it is not an arduous task to find a concert program with a new composition by a western art music composer using a non-European instrument in their works, something which is partially due to the evolving aesthetic preferences and societal changes amongst composers, performers, promoters, and audiences.
Musicians and composers of East Asian origins are very much present in representing a large portion of the enrolment in European and American conservatories studying western music. The cultural identity a composer embraces can at times create innovative and unique musical results. However, one’s identity, or identities, are at times remarkably complex, and cannot be simply divided into categories and styles that can be immediately understood by all.
“Borrowing” cultural elements which are not of one’s background and musical consciousness can be a sensitive topic in certain countries, particularly in the United States, where the debate on cultural appropriation has been widely discussed. How then, should a composer handle the social upheaval of our present period while still seeking to incorporate different cultural elements and symbols into their works? As this has a potential to be a delicate topic in certain contexts, I wanted to hear the opinions of an “established” composer in the field of western art music: someone who did not have to fear his reputation falling when having to express unpopular opinions. The first person who came to mind was the German composer Helmut Lachenmann.
Helmut Lachenmann (left) and author in Dresden, May 19, 2022
As one of the most well-known art music composers alive today, I anticipated that Lachemann’s views on this topic would certainly be intriguing and edifying. He has been active not only in Europe but around the world. Lachenmann has also written for shō (Japanese traditional mouthorgan) performer Mayumi Miyata, whom he describes as “unique and authentic” and “a mediator of new and traditional Japanese music”. In this interview, I was curious to hear Lachemann’s perspectives on the changing landscape of the western art music. Our interviews were conducted in German, and took place as face-to-face conversations in Dresden, Germany, which then continued over several emails.
Following my initial conversation with Lachenmann, I noticed two things about him. Firstly, he was very cautious about his words being misinterpreted. I was told of past interviews where questions of translation and misunderstandings about Lachenmann’s concepts were unacceptable to him. Therefore, the rough draft of the article was thoroughly checked by the composer himself in order to avoid miscommunication. Secondly, the composer did not like relying on generalizations, and my questions were often answered with further questions, so that he could understand my terms in a more specific context. These two points served as a stark reminder of the importance of artists choosing their words, and of the importance of being precise when describing an idea.
Our conversations started with Lachenmann recalling his “wonderful memories” of his visits to Japan. He specifically pointed out several names of Japanese composers and musicians, such as Toshio Hosokawa and Mayumi Miyata, when speaking of the close friendships he had nurtured there. One “unforgettable experience” was a performance of his opera Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern (The Little Match Girl) in Suntory Hall, Tokyo, where a Buddhist monk “with a stature of a sumo wrestler” participated as a special guest. “He stood on a podium in the middle of the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra and created this irresistible intensity at the moment when the little freezing girl lights up the matches for sale to warm herself. This was over twenty years ago. I still do not know whether a Christian priest in Germany today would allow himself to perform in a context so different from his conventional sphere.”
Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern was first premiered in January of 1997 at the Hamburgischen Staatsoper. Lachenmann has used shō only in section twenty-three of part two of the work. When asked whether he had a special reason he had decided to include shō in his opera based on a Danish story, he answered with “why not?”.
“After the little girl died from frostbite in my opera, I no longer wanted to allow ‘orchestral sounds’ to ring through the space in that moment, and I ‘fled’ to the shō – a distant, non-European relative of the organ, with its ‘organ pipes’ resonating through human breath. I borrowed the strange, and at the same time magical, aura of this instrument. Furthermore, using the shō at that specific moment had an added visual effect, too, as the performer holds her hands in front of her mouth, as if she wanted to warm her cold hands.” That said, Lachenmann made it clear that he does not think about the symbolism of the instrument, as symbols are, in his words, “empty and shallow”. “Everyone (in the audience) can think what they want to think.”
Lachenmann said, however, that he will not compose for this instrument again. “The shō brought its magic only once in my life, which I already exposed compositionally, when the little girl dies. This is one of those instruments whose sound conveys such strong expression before a composer has even written the first note in the score.”
Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern was widely applauded by contemporary music enthusiasts in Japan after its premiere in Tokyo in the year 2000. However, when asked about the audience reception of his usage of shō, he was uninterested, and articulated that composers who worry about whether or not their music will be accepted, regardless of where, should go into the more commercially interesting business of being entertainers. Nonetheless, Lachenmann added that, while a friendly applause or bravo does not prove that one is “accepted” or “understood” in Japan or anywhere else, he had only received polite praise and had never been booed in Japan, unlike in Germany. “Maybe Japanese listeners find my music ‘interesting’. But that doesn’t make me happy either. ‘Interesting’ is horrible and boring.”
Of course, he did not forget his humorous and witty sting. “I flinch at generalizations. When you ask me about a ‘Japanese audience’, whom exactly are you referring to? The Emperor and the Empress of Japan? Mr. Haruki Murakami? Mr. Shinzo Abe? Or, are you referring to my Japanese sister-in-law? Also, what is your definition of ‘accepted’? Was Bach ‘accepted’? He was criticized as being too complicated for the listeners of his time. Was Mozart ‘accepted’? Mahler? Schoenberg? Weren’t they all ‘accepted’ at some point, and still misunderstood to this day? By the way, I sometimes don’t understand my own music too. It is full of mystery for me, and I just have to accept it as it is.”
To my question of his overall impression of Japanese composers composing for European orchestral instruments in the context of western art music, he made clear first that his opinions were from a “limited European perspective”, and that to generalize a group of composers is entirely superficial, as they “are not a flock of sheep”. Following this, he described Japanese composers as seeming to have a pre-existing concept of “beauty”, perhaps based on models found in nature. “When compared to European composers, Japanese composers are brought up in their studies, at least outwardly, to be ‘in awe of their masters’. Therefore, when they come to Europe, they are attracted to studying in France, because there, you obediently study under a métier music that is [deemed] ‘good’ – brilliant, elegant, sensual, and always lyrical or dramatic. For those who only follow their ‘masters’, with limited exceptions, success in composition is not possible.”
Lachenmann was a student of Luigi Nono, the twentieth century avant-garde Italian composer, about sixty years ago. He praises Nono as a “fantastic teacher” but claims to have learned to detach and free himself from his teacher’s doctrines and influences. “As a composer who has outgrown the European tradition, I am looking for music that ‘wakes me up’ every time I hear it, and those which make me ‘nervous’. I want to hear something that changes me and reminds me of my possibilities in different ways. I want music that opens and expands my horizons, as well as my thoughts and feelings. While listening and when composing, I want to rediscover myself in the process.”
That said, he named Toshio Hosokawa as an “exception” amongst Japanese composers in the field of western art music. “Hosokawa’s operas have deeply impressed audiences around the world with their musical intensity and compositional mastery. Hosokawa, who studied with Klaus Huber in Freiburg, has internalized both traditions – the western, as well as the diametrically different variants of the eastern world experience – in his compositions, and has found his very own music.”
Cultural and artistic exchanges between Europe and East Asia, as represented by Toshio Hosokawa in his works, seem to have considerably increased in the context of western art music. However, Lachenmann believes that the concept of ‘cultural exchange’ is not of importance for composers. “The concept of ‘exchange’ reveals a certain naivety when thinking about the compositional creative process. I am skeptical as to whether or not there can be something like exchange between different cultures. No matter the ethnicity, whether Japanese or German, Asian or European, music will touch every person differently who wants to open their ears, no matter the cultural landscape one is rooted in.”
He gave the example of a surgeon performing an operation on a patient. The surgeon should not care about his or her own ethnicity or cultural background, or of which ethnicity or cultural background the patient comes from. Rather, he or she must focus and concentrate on the task in front of them. Similarly, Lachenmann says that a composer must not take into consideration which “culture” the musical traditions are from. “Bach wrote his works without directing his music to a certain ethnicity. However, his music still touches people all over the world where it is heard. Experiencing music as art does not mean ‘listening’ as though it were a language that you have trained to understand.”
For Lachenmann, music must not be bound by anything. Music is not a medium to be appreciated or composed in a certain method due of one’s ethnicity, cultural background, or age. There may be certain leads that will be lost, when placing a boundary on our situations or contexts. “Observe yourself. Discover new antennas within yourself, discover your own ability to discover, and thus recognize your own potential of sensitivity. That in turns means… start to THINK! Recognize your possibilities of THINKING and of NEW THINKING. Discover the richness of your own human potential in yourself and open your inner being – that in turn means HAPPINESS”.