One handshake away…

Pheeeee baff spsp sp whooooooosh! BAP….. BAP BAP BAP oooooooooo, pheee…. Op op op op op, sweeesh, O! ik ok kik POW! Popopopopop.

Helmut Lachenmann has arrived at the Aldeburgh Festival and Ensemble Modern, his long term interpreters, are doing what they do best after many years working with this great man and his music. The sounds are exciting, disturbing, exquisite, subtle, haunting, beautiful and completely, utterly original.

It’s no wonder that an entire generation of composers are copying him, albeit mostly very badly. It’s hard to ignore the power and sensitivity of his music. 

On tonight’s programme in the beautiful Snape Maltings concert hall is Mouvement (–vor der Erstarrung) which the composer describes as:

“A music of dead movements … pseudo-activity which consists of nothing more than rubble … like a beetle floundering on its back”.

Also on the menu is virtuoso clarinet concerto Accanto (1975/76) (UK premiere) for orchestra and tape and  …zwei Gefühle…, Musik mit Leonardo (1992) for which Lachenmann himself comes on stage to perform.

After the first few minutes of thinking, well blow me, that’s Lachenmann performing on stage, HOW historical is that? his voice became an integral part of the ensemble, almost instrumental in texture.

“The Prophet” woodcut by Emil Nolde 1912. Do admit there’s a resemblance.

He’s a tall man, an imposing but benign presence, who looks like a 19th century woodcut print of a Norwegian lumberjack. Everyone says he’s a total darling to work with, demanding but fair, a judgement I can confirm after meeting him a couple of years back when he came to work with London Sinfonietta.

In one of the only sectional rehearsals of my professional career (there’s never enough cash for such indulgence) I vividly remember him patiently explaining and demonstrating to us cello types every one of his techniques and its notation.

Excerpt from Lachenmann’s “Gran Torso” for string quartet (1972)

He’s a really, really nice man and a real musician.

His supporters are fanatical in their worship of their hero, giving him a standing ovation of almost tearful intensity at the end of the show. The non-fans in the audience slunk away looking confused and a bit upset.

It’s not for everyone.

Whilst full of admiration for this expertly heard and crafted music, I confess to having had moments of heresy in some of the longer non-pitched passages. Without tonality, one aspect of the listener’s navigational guidance system has gone, and without any pitch at all, it goes completely. It takes a different set of ears to really take this stuff in and it’s interesting to note the extent to which my English lugholes are biased towards harmony. It’s no accident that Lachenmann’s music has taken longer to reach audiences here than in Germany.

Ensemble Modern performing their celebrated Yellow Shark album live with Frank Zappa. I seem to remember the then bass player going out with Moon Unit Zappa.

Moon Unit is an excellent name.

It’s the first time I’ve listened to Lachenmann’s music when not playing it myself or listening to recordings, and for me the live, visceral experience is irreplaceable. Many moments were absolutely thrilling.

It was fab to see my old friends in Ensemble Modern, a group I’ve played with many times in the past, joining them in their wonderful rehearsal studio in Frankfurt which has one of the best contemporary music in- situ coffee machines. The best one is in Gråbrølretov 16 in Copenhagen, home of Danish new music.

Mods Conductor Frank Ollu (now assistant to Boulez) has just introduced me to the best chocolate in the world by Pierre Marcolini. Tiny, intense, exquisite, screamingly expensive chocolates made from cocoa beans handpicked by flawless young maidens of the bluest blood, flavoured with saffron, violet, rose, spices, love.

They remind me of German writer Patrick Süskind’s famous novella “Perfume” (recently made into vastly inferior film) where the choicest virgins in the land are cold-pressed so that their essence can be used to make a perfume whose wearer will be fallen passionately in love with, regardless of appearance or status.

Evil perfume genius Grenouille as apprentice, learning his trade with rose petals before turning to virgins for inspiration. From the film “Perfume” (2006).

A few years ago I was brutally attacked by an early Van Eyck Virgin reproduction hanging on my wall which fell off and narrowly missed cracking the back of my head. Two days later a Piero della Francesca master Virgin crashed down from above my bed, slicing my leg with broken glass. I still have the scar.

Killer: Madonna del Parto by Piero della Francesca c.1460

Do not, I repeat, do not mess with Virgins.

The Hard Hitti (Arditti) 4tet are also in residence, giving masterclasses to young 4tets. “Just like Haydn” gushed one young keeny, clutching a viola. Everyone has been raving about their performance of the Lachenman’s 4tets the previous evening.

The Hard Hitti quartet. These boys don’t mess around when it comes to 27 in the time of 19.

Am I imagining it or is Irvine wearing a BERET in this pic? 

A composer friend of mine told me a story about Irvine Arditti meeting the Queen of Holland, who is a good queen in that she supports contemporary music. Apparently, he remarked to her that it’s a shame that our Queen doesn’t do the same, and Queen Beatrix replied:

“It’s a question of education”.

The night before, Olly Knussen conducted an astoundingly powerful concert with the CBSO and BCMG at the Maltings.

The programme included Bartok’s fabulous Three Village Scenes (new to me) with a thrilling peasant girl chorus shrieking away c/o EXAUDI (v glam collection of girls who nab 80% of the dressing rooms) over ridiculously complex beat patterns;

Gratuitous peasant girl illustration. (Not EXAUDI)


Knussen’s own unbearably moving requiem, Songs for Sue, sung with great power and sensitivity by Dawn Upshaw; the muscular, impeccably crafted Interventions for Piano and Orchestra by Elliott Carter with festival director Pierre-Laurent Aimard hurling notes across the Steinway and Ives’ The Fourth of July and Three Places in New England.

“Scallop” (2003) by Maggi Hambling. Memorial sculpture for Benjamin Britten which endured  endless initial vandalism until finally reaching it’s current resting place far up Aldeburgh beach.

 I think it’s fab, whatever the locals’ problem is. 

In front of me in the audience sat one of my favourite living UK artists, Maggi Hambling, in a cloud of rose essence, cigarettes and intellectual lesbia.

Wave Approaching Rain (2005) oil on canvas. Maggi Hambling


Apparently she’s got tons of ancestors stashed in the Viking burial ground just up the road from the Maltings.

Charles Ives!!!!! 




Like Lachenmann, there is no replacement for the live experience of the Fourth of July’s outrageously polyrhythmic score guided by 2 conductors. Rising star Jonathan Berman expertly assisting Knussen at constructive cross-purposes in this outstanding performance of tremendous clarity and brilliance, in spite of the (intended) raucous cacophony.

Charles Ives c.1948. Actually, now I think of it, he doesn’t look unlike that Lachenmann woodcut print…

How the hell did the first performers of this work cope? The listeners? It is outrageously fresh and daring music NOW, let alone 1903, goddammit, which is when Ives started writing it. HOW did this insurance salesman have this stuff in his brain? NO ONE was writing music like this at the time, or frankly, since.

It is sensational music: vivid, moving, strange, beautiful, sensuous, bursting with life force.

Stuff “new complexity”. This is WAYYYY more sophisticated and original.

The combined age of me and that of the newly 60 Olly Knussen still barely meets that of 103 yr old Elliott Carter, whose family bought insurance from Ives and later introduced their boy. Ives took the young Carter to concerts at Carnegie, encouraging his early attempts at composition. Their correspondence appears in Carter’s surprisingly fascinating Collected Essays and Lectures, which includes an unexpected page or two eulogising Fauré.

Gabriel Fauré 1845 – 1924

A composer friend of mine has a theory that everyone who likes Fauré’s music has a head shaped like Fauré.

Elliott Carter (right) does indeed possess a similarly sloping cranium, as does Thomas Adés (below), another fan of Fauré.

It’s a bit weird.

One handshake awayI’ve met Carter, who knew (amongst many others) Ives, Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Carl Ruggles, Milton Babbitt and Varese, who in turn listed amongst his friends Apollinaire, Richard Strauss, Busoni, Satie and Picasso.

Carter and Varese used to hang out in speakeasys in the 20s during Prohibition and drink whisky out of teacups, watching horse and traps ride past.

It’s mind blowing.

Here’s a dreadful piccy of a historical and frankly scary lunch at Aldeburgh’s celebrated Lighthouse Restaurant in Elliott Carter’s 100th birthday year – 3 years ago. 

From right to left:

me, clearly having a fat, bad hair year, Jonathan Reekie (chief exec Aldeburgh Music), Elliott Carter, Pierre Laurent Aimard, Virgil Blackwell (Carter’s manager), Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Olly Knussen, composer John Woolrich and Dan Whitfield (Aldeburgh Music). 

There’s another theory that everyone in the (classical) music biz is 3 shags away from Leonard Bernstein. 

Contemporary music in early 20th century America was as factionalised as it always has been everywhere (in my experience), with numerous composer societies thumbing noses at each other’s respective aesthetic and political views.

In a VASTLY simplified overview, the cosmopolitan League of Composers, to name one of the larger camps, (which, incidentally, commissioned the Bartok Village Scenes) was headed by such musical luminaries as Aaron Copland and Marc Blitzstein, and upheld a creed of audience accessibility. There was a marked gay/Jewish intellectual slant.

On the other side of the fence was the more experimental International Composers Guild founded by Varese that included Ives and Ruggles amongst its supporters.

“Carl Ruggles at the Piano”. Thomas Hart Benton (1934)

American composer politics were not pretty at this time.

Ives, who generously gave financial support to composers’ music across the board, broke a long friendship with his saintly (by all accounts) first biographer and friend, composer Henry Cowell (called a “fucking pederast” by Varese, according to Milton Babbitt) when he was sentenced to 15 years in the notorious San Quentin prison (he served 4) for fellatio with a 17 yr old boy. He only patched things up when Cowell agreed to a marriage in 1941.

Homosexuality wasn’t illegal (or specified)  in California in 1936, 17 was legally adult, but oral sex was against the law. Incredible.

NB: These interesting details and more can be found in Joel Sach’s fantastic biography  (just out) of Henry Cowell: a real gold mine of unexpected and fascinating info, including the fact that Gershwin studied with Cowell…

Charles Ives and Henry Cowell. I’m guessing they are NOT talking about interior decoration, ballet or rent boys.

Likewise, Lou Harrison (Cowell camp) dissociated himself from lifelong friend Carl Ruggles after a lunch in New York at which Ruggles, known for his filthy language and rabid anti-semitism, shouted racist and homophobic abuse at passing diners. There’s a letter from Ruggles to Henry Cowell re League of Composers about “that filthy bunch of Juilliard Jews…cheap, without dignity, and with little or no talent.”

Makes our own Huddersfield versus Aldeburgh bitchery look pretty mild, huh?

Fear not, I’m not going to tackle 20th century American art and politics here, but if in the mood, you should check out Carol Oja’s compelling book Making Music Modern about New York in the 20s. WELL worth a go.

Dodgy politics aside, Carl Ruggles is an interesting figure. I just heard his striking piece Angels (1921) in which hard core dissonance sounds anything but thanks to the beautiful sonorities of muted trumpet sextet; and his outrageous orchestral monolith Sun-Treader (1931), generally acknowledged to be his masterpiece, which he didn’t get to hear until the very end of his life.

Ruggles was also a prolific painter, selling many works in his lifetime.

“Church”. Oil on canvas. Carl Ruggles

Champion of Ruggles’ music Michael Tilson Thomas brought a recording of the Sun Treader premiere he’d just conducted with the Boston Symph over to the old people’s home where Ruggles was living. “Damn fine music”, said Ruggles on hearing it at last.

Speaking of Aaron Copland (which I sort of was), I just saw the wonderful film Something Wild (1961) directed by Jack Garfein, who was leading lady Carroll Baker’s husband at the time and for which Copland wrote the magnificent score.

Carroll Baker in Something Wild, hot screen property after her previous (fab) smash hit, Baby Doll (1956 – piccy below), a screen adaptation of the Tenessee Williams story, directed by Elia Kazan.

With the exception of the final 5 minutes of the film, which suck, badly, this is a fantastic film, rich in psychological complexity and a profound and sophisticated exploration of post rape trauma, dramatically expressed in Copland’s music. In fact, I can’t think of another film where the music is energetically and emotionally bigger and more complex than the visual aspect in quite this way, filling in the narrative gaps with astonishing subtlety and nuance.

“Something Wild” completely bombed at the time, and Garfein never made another film, which is a shame because it’s A-class stuff. Perhaps it contains too much gritty reality for pre-feminist early 60s America, and requires an audience with sympathetic musical ears to work.

Garfein’s first choice for composer was Morten Feldman, which didn’t work out:

“My wife is being raped on screen”, the frustrated director is recorded as saying to Morty, “And all you give me is celesta music”.

On which delicate note, it’s definitely time to end this somewhat lengthy post.

Stay tuned for the next episode of Z Blog, to explore John Cage, PVC thigh boots and the perils of the music education project.