Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber

The spiritual and the secular – in Baroque times, these were two spheres that should never meet: they were mutually exclusive, like day and night or life and death. However, a bondsman from provincial Bohemia dared to unhinge this supposedly unbreakable rule. What did he use to do this? Music. Of the most virtuosic, idiosyncratic and daring kind that could be found or thought of at the time. Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, born in 1644, achieved unparalleled advancement solely through his artistry, which was explicitly categorised as »bizarre« at the time, and he did so despite his eccentric attitudes which managed to avoid any concessions to common conventions. With titles such as Fidicinium Sacrum-Profanum (Sacred and Profane Fiddle Music) and Sonata die Pauern-Kirchfahrt genannt (Sonata named the Peasants’ Procession to Church) he made his intentions unmistakably clear: where God is, the world is too – and wherever the world is, there is God. In his Sonata representativa, he did not consider it beneath him to allow the violin’s imitations of the voices of hens, frogs and nightingales to form the musical core of the work. Biber’s intentions were neither comic nor part of the class struggle: and this much was clear to the authorities, who elevated him to the nobility in 1690. He simply wanted to make it understood that God knows no limits. He is not the preserve of any single group or individual: not the clergy, not the nobility. He is for everyone and in everyone and everything. In an archbishop and in a chicken.

It was under such auspices that his Mysteriensonaten (Mystery Sonatas, also called the Rosary Sonatas) were written around 1674. Although religious music tended as a rule to be accompanied by liturgical texts, while virtuosic solo instrumental music was more associated with entertainment at court and in private settings, these 15 sonatas in the form of dance suites for violin and continuo are to be considered religious music. They wander through stations in the lives of Mary and Jesus: from the Annunciation of his birth, his scourging, the resurrection through to the Beatification of Mary in Heaven. Biber's rosary is accordingly divided into three cycles; one joyful, one sorrowful and one glorious.

Biber involves his audience directly in the process of the mysteries: transcendence in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. And he does this through the senses, a level of communication that is more potent, specific and tangible than any words. So tangible that it might even be called programme music, because just like the chickens clucking and the frogs croaking, here an iron hammer bangs the nails into the cross, the sharp points of the crown of thorns dig their way into Christ’s flesh and the trumpets echo triumphantly (albeit played on the violin) when he rises to Heaven.

Biber’s sensual approach does not stop at such vivid imagery. He also digs beneath the visible surface into the intangible world of tension and atmosphere, of colour, light and splendour that is communicated through sound. To do this, he took advantage of the then rarely used technique of scordatura (deliberately mistuning the violin strings) – doing so with a boldness that in extreme cases bordered on deconstructing and rebuilding the instrument (for example, crossing the two middle violin strings in Sonata XI). One advantage of the scordatura was that it enabled him to create certain chords that would have been almost unplayable using the conventional tuning in fifths, another was that by increasing or decreasing the tension of the strings, Biber was able to open up a wealth of expressive tone colours that lay hidden inside the violin. As a result, the instrument sounds dull and lacking in resonance while Christ is carrying the cross, but radiant, bright and full of life during his resurrection. By transforming and taking apart the instrument and its sound, this 15-stage exercise in contemplation reveals itself to be a great meditation which, in the course of Christ’s story, achieves audibly more transcendent states, as if one is walking side by side with Jesus on his path through death and beyond into eternal life.

Gérard Grisey

Biber’s search for a vocabulary that might be hard to grasp but is all the more expressive, that lies hidden beyond pure pitch, did not end with this adventure in scordatura. On the contrary: it was a harbinger of what would happen many epochs later in the future, when this desire would be expressedonce again – so loudly, in the case of a handful of composers in Paris in the 1970s, that they derived an entire new system from it. In 1973, Gérard Grisey and his colleagues Hugues Dufourt, Michaël Levinas and Tristan Murail founded the collective L’Itinéraire, dedicated to composition with the overtone spectrum of pitches. This meant that instead of the traditional 12 pitches which make up the chromatic scale, they composed with the overtones that resonate above a single pitch. These physically caused natural pitches form a broad scale, that diverges ever further from tempered tuning into the area of the tiniest micro-pitches, the higher it gets. They form the basis of an independent harmony that is mainly made up of the tone colours (timbres) one might wish to achieve. Because it is the specific set of overtones that generates and defines the colour of each note. Unlike the fundamental tone that is heard in the foreground, the timbre is perceived on a level that is hard to locate: it is the aura of a note, as it were.

© Gerard Grisey Estate

Its official term is spectral music (musique spectrale), although Grisey preferred the term liminal music (musique liminale), because its domains are the high resolution margins and internal structures of the notes. Thanks to this microtone technique, hard boundaries between notes become permeable membranes: living textures through which one can cross – or, to put it metaphysically – transcend into other, seemingly inaccessible spheres. None of his works realises this potential quite as comprehensively and explicitly in terms both of its music and its theme as his Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil (Four Songs to Cross the Threshold) from 1998 – Grisey’s final work before he died suddenly of an aneurysm at the age of 52. The threshold, which he crosses four times here, is the ultimate one between life and death. The songs are poetic, metaphysical manifestations of emptiness, silence, disappearance, of echoes and shadows in an existential as well as an acoustic sense. Grisey actually saw overtone spectrals as a kind of insubstantial realm of shadows: »Composing using the shadows of sounds means imagining an instrumentation that will illuminate the depths where the different timbres awaken into life«, he wrote in his book Écrits, ou l’invention de la musique spectrale. Four fragments of poetry from different periods and cultures lead us over the threshold in Quatre chants: in Death of the Angel, the poet Christian Guez Ricord reveals that everyone’s mission in life lies in their dying; in Death of Civilisation, inscriptions in ancient Egyptian sarcophagi offer the prospect of entering an astral dimension after death; in Death of the Voice, the Greek poet Erinna, who died when she was 19, looks back into the kingdom of shadows, where all echoes are suffocated; and finally, in Death of Humanity, a passage from the Epic of Gilgamesh invokes the apocalyptic flood – and the calm that follows it: everything, including humankind, has dissolved and turned to liquid. The mud-like sea that remains is the source of a new life. The lullaby with which Grisey closes his threshold songs therefore offers a passage not to eternal sleep but to a new being. Life is death is life. The beginning is the end is the beginning.

Olivier Messiaen

Grisey’s teacher Olivier Messiaen, who was born in 1908, also did not associate the death of the body with limitation or even the end. Quite the opposite – as his answer to the question of whether he is interested in space travel reveals: »Yes, it’s wonderful, but I think it will be possible for me to do this in an entirely natural way after my death, when neither distance nor matter will be able to stop me.« Messiaen is a man of timelessness. Death is no grim reaper, putting an end to everything that is beautiful and alive. In Messiaen’s song cycle Harawi (1945), death is what brings true love to its fulfilment. Inspired by the transcendent idea of the »Liebestod« from the Tristan myth, Messiaen created an entire trilogy of works. And Harawi, the first part, conjures up a form of love song from the Andes whose defining element is the lovers’ death.

© Malcolm Ball

Messiaen’s sublimated notion of love originates with his Christian belief, which recognises the love of God as the only true love. And in dying for love, human love is touched by divine love, whereby it is turned into a love that is eternal. Whether as a composer, ornithologist or organist, Messiaen devoted all his work to making what was sacred, insubstantial and spiritual appreciable. Ecstasy and excess, which are necessary to raise humankind up out of its quotidian spiritual limitations, are therefore key moments in his music. He often uses contemplation and meditation as means of enabling the Christian mysteries to be experienced in musical form. But also indirect, often ecstatic routes using mediating agencies such as colours (as a synaesthete, he literally saw sounds as specific colours)
or birdsong (he transposed their melodic and rhythmic structures into music) enabled him to make what was beyond understanding audible. He regarded the fact that the music he wrote as a profound believer in praise of God was heard largely by non-believers as the tragedy of his life. This despairing realisation on Messiaen’s part can be heard in his early orchestral work Les offrandes oubliées (Forgotten Sacrifices) from 1930. In this symphonic meditation he recalls the memory of Christ’s sacrifice in dying for humanity on the cross. Framing the work is a gentle delirium of colour that he allows the listener to drown in, in order to be able to feel Christ’s love. But at its heart, lies suffering, the musical incarnation of sin, that cuts through this atmosphere sharply and abruptly, almost defiling the divine sacrifice of love.

Galina Ustwolskaja

One woman who would have understood Messiaen in his pain and his despair, is Galina Ustwolskaya, possibly the most uncompromising composer of the 20th century. So uncompromising that she completely banned her music from the world in which she lived. And yet she continued writing it. Even if it was destined for the drawer. Her tonal language sounded outlandish and boisterous within the musical landscape of post-war Russia, following no school or movement. She had learned her craft from Dmitri Shostakovich, whose students were famous for becoming Shostakovich imitators. But not Galina Ustwolskaya. Her teacher admired her independence, even proposing marriage, without success.

With her incorruptible character, Galina Ustwolskaya was born at a distinctly inconvenient time: in 1919, two years after the October Revolution. Her family lived in poverty, and her childhood and youth were overshadowed by profound feelings of loneliness. A solitary nature marked her way through life, even if this was directly at odds with the normalising state doctrine of socialist realism that dominated organised culture from the beginning of the 30s. Working on religious or spiritual themes in music, for which Ustwolskaya became renowned, was still taboo years after Stalin’s death in 1953. The composer would subsequently attempt to exclude most of her works from the 40s and 50s, which are at least outwardly consistent with state doctrine (including her First Symphony from 1955), from her catalogue, which includes a mere 25 approved pieces.

Between 1960 and 1970, Ustwolskaya took the logical but drastic step of no longer publishing practically any new compositions. Once she resurfaced in Soviet musical life, her works almost exclusively featured religious and liturgical texts and titles. Unlike Messiaen, however, Ustwolskaya’s religious belief is directed towards an abstract divine power and is not used to serve any institutionalised faith. In aesthetic terms, too, a very different language dominates her work: instead of flow, the thrill of colour and development, here there is clarity, breakage and collision. The closest her music, which is conceived entirely in horizontal terms, gets to harmony comes in the form of clusters (adjacent notes gathered together), such as she repeats emphatically in the opening of her Third Symphony.

While the political thaw during the 70s led many Russian composers to explore the western avantgarde with fruitful results for their own work, Ustwolskaya‘s music only changed to the extent that her characteristic qualities became even more radical: with extreme dynamics, a reduction of means and unusual combinations of instruments. Then there was also her particular habit of no longer using a full orchestra in her symphonies. She didn’t even come close: typically, instruments in the middle register would be dispensed with – and sometimes whole families of instruments: in the Second Symphony, for example, the entire string section. The instrumentation for each symphony becomes progressively more chamber-musical, and the accentuation of sonic contrasts and contours more intense, which Ustwolskaya, with her inclination towards the painfully sharp, hard entries, raises even further.

Pain is not only her companion in retreating from the world: pain is also the means of transport that propels Galina Ustwolskaya into another sphere through her music. At times the sense of being overcome turns into an almost physical experience, behind which a metaphysical dimension opens up – and this is what seems to matter to the composer. The pain that is written into the repeated banging of fists on the piano and the violent drum beats 215 in her Third Symphony evoke ideas of self chastisement and self-abasement in the face of the highest, redemptive power – to which she appeals in the text. It is as if the pain of the body that is imprisoned in reality becomes an escape route into a sphere that is beyond the physical: sublimated – or, indeed, metaphysical.

Iannis Xenakis

That the physical world with all its laws can be more than a shackle that keeps us bound to earthly reality has been proven by another composer who knew as much about pain as Galina Ustwolskaya. Iannis Xenakis arrived in Paris in 1947 as a political refugee with a severely wounded face. He had fought with the Greek resistance against the German occupation, been wounded, imprisoned and sentenced to death. In exile in Paris, he found a job that made use of his professional qualifications as an architect and engineer in Le Corbusier’s studio. Until then, his composing had been self-taught, but now he set about learning the craft systematically. His training in the natural sciences had equipped him with a structure of thinking that at first seemed alien in composing circles. Of all people it was Olivier Messiaen, the musical spokesman for Christian mysteries, who recognised the potential of his pupil’s qualifications and encouraged him to use precisely this thinking and knowledge creatively in his music. The result was a brilliant voice, unique in musical history, which over half a century productively questioned countless conventions (his own included) and became a source of admiration and inspiration for countless other composers.

The works in his comprehensive oeuvre relate almost without exception to mathematical or physical laws and phenomena such as stochastics, game theory, set theory, chaos theory and sieve theory. The last of these also forms the basis for his ensemble piece Thalleïn. The boisterous, raw power of his glissando-rich, gestural music suggests that there are emotionally formative memories behind these apparently cool, analytical processes that were crucial in creating a desire for musical expression, however abstract the principles the composition follows. Thus, for example, his real experience of demonstrations and street battles provided the intellectual substance for the piece based on strict mathematical calculations that provided his breakthrough: Metastaseis (part of the programme for Ruhrtriennale 2021). »I heard the sound of the masses, marching on the centre of Athens, the slogans they shouted, and then, when they came up against the Nazi tanks, the irregular fire of the machine guns, the chaos«, he described in a conversation with the music publisher Bálint András Varga. »I will never forget this transformation of the regular, rhythmic noise of hundreds of thousands of people into incredible confusion… I would never have thought that one day it would all come back again and turn into music.« Knowing this, the Sumerian and Assyrian syllables and phonemes in his choral piece Nuits also seem like direct, clearly articulated shouts by those to whom this nocturne is dedicated: the political prisoners of this world, as Xenakis was himself, who have been robbed of their voices.

© Ralph Fassey

Along with his experiences of war, impressions of nature from pre-war times had also engraved themselves on his memory, as he recalls later on in the same conversation: »I would often take trips out to the countryside around Athens. I’d take my bike, choose somewhere to put up my tent and listen to the sounds of nature. Cicadas, for example: their chirping would come from all directions and change constantly. Those are crowd noises too, you see?« In a way that is both paradoxical and fascinating, the technique that allows him to systematise and analyse far-reaching experiences mathematically also makes their emotional power more clearly apparent.

Sarah Nemtsov

The ability to remove something from its natural habitat and to make it possible to experience it sensually and understand it more deeply on another level is a quality that also distinguishes the music of the Berlin-based composer Sarah Nemtsov – albeit in an entirely different way. She found the inspiration for her ensemble piece MOOS (MOSS) in a natural phenomenon with which everyone is ostensibly familiar. Everyone knows what it feels like to walk on moss, the way it denies our feet a firm hold on the ground and how the airy, soft carpet of plants evokes a pleasingly unstable, almost fairy tale-like sensation. Sarah Nemtsov has studied this growth up close. From its apparently chaotic branching, spreading out horizontally in all directions, she derived a system for her composition in which the percussion instruments operate purely as resonators. The other instruments of the ensemble are heard through them, with the sounds recorded by microphones and then transferred to the percussion via transducers. The percussionist’s indirect playing is like walking on moss: s/he is able to regulate the volume and the distortion of the amplification, but without actually playing a single note on her/his own instrument.

At the same time, Nemtsov reflects moss’s seemingly indestructible and scarcely believable rampant structure on another level: »Compositionally, various musical elements are interwoven horizontally then momentarily ›trodden down‹, they are developed and then forgotten again«, is how she describes the structure of her composition, enabling us to hear the principle of survival by being forgotten – a mercy of which not only moss but also the human brain is capable.

© Neda Navaee

Repeatedly and in the most varied contexts, Sarah Nemtsov superimposes one system onto another: a verbal one on a musical one, an organic one on an artistic one, a mental one on an acoustic one. And just as in her instrumental music theatre from 2012, A Long Way Away, where she told stories about memory by Marcel Proust, W.G. Sebald, Walter Benjamin and Mirko Bonnés wordlessly, using only instruments and the sounds of everyday objects, so that one thought one had heard the stories and practically inhabited them, now in her instrumental, spatial performance HAUS moving through the Bochum Turbinenhalle, she describes the process of the transforming trans body. Who or what enables her to make the process of a body metamorphosising be experienced through a former industrial building thanks to the power of her music alone, if not faith in the power of the imagination? Its »house« is the brain – certainly the most metaphysical organ within human physics.

Translated from German by David Tushingham

BARBARA ECKLE is the head dramaturg for music theater and the concert programme of the Ruhrtriennale 2021-23. As an author and presenter in the field of New Music, she has worked for Deutschlandfunk and various programs of German public radio ARD for several years. Between 2018 and 2020, she was a dramaturg at Stuttgart State Opera.