© Ralf Brunner

Music as a means of communication dates back to pre-historic times. The human voice is the oldest »instrument« of all, the only one that requires no additional equipment. It combines the primary means of communication of speech and the secondary one of singing – with or without words. Although enormous precision is possible in the use of the spoken word, there are levels of communication of which no language is capable and which can only be fully exploited vocally or instrumentally.  

The first musical instruments created by humans were drums and flutes. These did not require much: the first flutes were made in the Stone Age from the bones of birds or ivory from mammoths; the first drum, the so-called ground drum, consisted of an animal skin stretched over a pit. Over time, drums began to appear in every imaginable situation and role, ranging from warning signals to the ritual summoning of ancestors in which they were used to communicate with the dead. Their use covered such a broad spectrum, it could accommodate even the most extreme contrasts of human life: both frenzied dancing and military marches.

Percussion marathon – a succession of hits

The apparatus of modern percussion is boundless, with individual instruments derived from African, Arab, Turkish, East Asian, South East Asian, Central and South American cultures and only to a slight extent from European ones – a fact that has long been neglected in Western art music circles. For a long time, percussion’s presence in the orchestra was restricted to an accompaniment providing rhythm and emphasis. In chamber music it was entirely non-existent. Its unrivalled wealth of possibilities would only be discovered gradually and not before the 20th century. New modern visions of the aesthetics of sound involved more and more associative, noise-like, non-musical sounds, starting with the cow bells, whip and hammer in Gustav Mahler’s 6th Symphony (1904). How a sonic atmosphere can not only be communicated but envelop the listener entirely can also be experienced in Leoš Janáček’s final opera From the House of the Dead (1927/28). Straight from the overture Janáček uses the sounds of everyday tools such as chains, anvils, axes and saws to define the environment of the Siberian labour camp characterised by relentless hard physical work. In common with these tools, every new source of sound that was added to the orchestra, ended up in the percussion section. Here an interface developed between music and the everyday world, a completely heterogeneous organism that held every style of music and the entire world stored inside it. And the more attention percussion received, the faster both the instrument and the repertoire for it grew. Talk of the »century of percussion« is perfectly justified – and it is not yet finished.

The Hungarian composer Béla Bartók was one of the first who attempted to emancipate percussion in Western art music. In his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1938) he places the percussion on an equal level with the piano by swapping their traditional roles: due to its hammer mechanism he treats the piano like a percussion instrument, while emphasising the melodic potential of the percussion with the aid of a xylophone and pedal drums. This makes the pianos and the percussion chamber music partners of equal standing, both providing melody, sound and rhythm.  

Solo compositions took longer to arrive. In 1959, when the Darmstadt Summer Course for New Music planned to advertise an instrumental competition for percussion only to realise that there were no solo works available, Karlheinz Stockhausen promptly wrote his epoch-making Zyklus for a percussionist No. 9 – a title that can be understood both literally and visually: he grouped the instruments according to their materials – wood, skin, metal – and arranged for the instruments to be set up in a circle in order to facilitate seamless sonic transitions from one group to another. Zyklus immediately inspired a series of other composers to write pieces for solo percussion. Liberation from its accompanying role had been achieved!

Now percussion is more than simply emancipated. In addition to the fabulous virtuosity that has made jazz and rock greats like Billy Cobham legends on the drum kit or a musician such as Mohammad Reza Mortazavi a maestro of the Persian percussion instruments the tombak and the daf, this variable instrument offers sufficient stage potential for performances of a visual or choreographic nature (Marilyn Mazur, Camille Emaille et al.) – and sometimes even with a theatrical character, as it is typical of Ensemble This I Ensemble That, or as also happens in Georges Aperghis’s new music theatre piece Die Erdfabrik.

True art gives us the chance to open up the spiritual dimension: People lose that chance because all they want any more is an easy life, easy music, easy art. Sofia Gubaidulina

Wildly serious and hugely playful – Michael Wertmüller, Sofia Gubaidulina, Simon Steen-Andersen

No instrument combines the core of so many distinct musical styles as the percussion. So it is no surprise that a composer such as Michael Wertmüller, who has enjoyed a career as both a jazz drummer and an orchestral percussionist, understands and treats the seemingly irreconcilable worlds of classical music and jazz as ONE world. In his experimental opera space D•I•E (world premiere Ruhrtriennale 2021) he proved this with five bands and ensembles working in entirely different styles. In his new piece for the Ruhrtriennale, he brings together two contrasting orchestras – a symphony orchestra and a big band – and fuses them into one huge heterogeneous ensemble. The fact that the two do not necessarily find harmony and relish repeatedly running counter to each other with contrasting rhythms, metres and tempi, is evident from the title Shlimazl.

Big bands stand for fun and entertainment. Such nimble footwork is the last thing one would associate with the Tartar-Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina. Indeed, the 91-year-old sees a dubious tendency in today’s fun-loving society that we are losing contact with any kind of spiritual activity and life is increasingly becoming horizontal and one-dimensional. »True art gives us the chance to open up the spiritual dimension: the vertical,« she said in an interview with Janica Draisma in 2002. »People lose that chance because all they want any more is an easy life, easy music, easy art. And everything is just for fun. That is extremely dangerous. That way they will be dead. Spiritually dead. But they don’t notice.« Gubaidulina does think fun and lightness are important but they have to retain a balance with being active and thinking deeply, otherwise people will lose their »spiritual muscles,« their »connection with Heaven« – or, as she expresses it elsewhere, their »roots in Heaven.« She is fond of using the metaphor of the cross in order to illustrate this balance. At first it might seem astonishing that this highly intellectual and deeply religious woman, whose creativity was once born out of poverty, fear and sadness, would write such an apparently frivolous piece as Revuemusik for Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Band. But only at first glance. On re-examination, it is clear that she uses her two contrasting ensembles precisely for this purpose: to create a balance between forces. This is by no means her first experience of composing for a jazz orchestra as in her younger years in Moscow she often wrote film music to make a living – a quality that comes into effect again in this entirely unfrivolous, wonderfully quirky composition.

Steen-Andersen uses humour and playfulness to reach a new kind of music, a kind of meta-music that emerges from this pile of audio-visual rubble and edits like a sonic phoenix from the ashes. Barbara Eckle

The idea that fun and humour should not automatically be equated with an essential superficiality but can also be a key to depth, doubt or something unknown, is advocated by the Danish composer Simon Steen-Andersen. His interest lies in the process of musical performance, the concert situation and its trappings, which he uses as material to play with – and he plays the most ludicrous and absurd games. For example, the material for his audio-visual composition Piano Concerto is taken from a video of a grand piano being dropped from a height onto a concrete floor, crashing and smashing into pieces. In his Black Box Music for Solo Percussion, Video and Ensemble he examines and deconstructs the performative qualities of both puppetry and conducting. In his TRIO for Orchestra, Choir, Big Band and Video he operates on a monumental scale: sequences made up of tiny fragments, loops or rapid collages of video material showing the three ensembles in concert and rehearsal situations are displayed on a giant screen above the three ensembles. The historical material comes from the archive of the broadcaster SWR. And the live musicians who have to follow these sidestepping images provide a breathless soundtrack. This wild ride is entertaining, thrilling, amusing and fascinating – but at full speed it also raises questions:  is the composer making fun of the »god-like« conductors and the dusty, pathetic gestures that went with the music-making of that era? Or is he targeting something else entirely? What is clear is that Steen-Andersen challenges the sacred seriousness with which Western art music has been performed for centuries. And yet behind his iconoclastic urges, there seems to be a need to liberate music in its true state from the habitual trappings of bourgeois performance. Steen-Andersen uses humour and playfulness to reach a new kind of music, a kind of meta-music that emerges from this pile of audio-visual rubble, rising from the hectic leaps, cuts and edits like a sonic phoenix from the ashes.

The communicative world of Georges Aperghis

When he was a young artist, the Greek-French composer Georges Aperghis also had substantial doubts about the conventional music and theatre business. In the early 70s he achieved notable successes at all the famous French music festivals, but he had the feeling that he was not contributing anything new and he was working in the wrong place. As a result, he abandoned this path for many years and founded a company creating experimental music theatre in a suburb of Paris noted for its poverty and social deprivation, whose aim was to develop a new form of artistic expression inspired by everyday life that would transpose social events into the world of poetics. The first local residents to show an interest in these newcomers from Paris were children. So his work began with them. They conducted playful improvisation exercises that explored how language, sound and gestures were related to each other. The material they played with came from the stories of those children, most of whom were immigrants from North Africa, about the neighbourhood and traffic noise, about their homelands and crossing the Mediterranean. It was from elements of these workshops that Aperghis developed his music theatre vocabulary, which he continues to build on to this day.

In my music there is something that wants to speak to the audience, to the musicians and also to me. Georges Aperghis

Although Georges Aperghis describes himself as a loner and an outsider, his interest in human beings is so comprehensive that he places it above his work – and at its heart. And these human beings wish to communicate: »In my music there is something that wants to speak to the audience, to the musicians and also to me,« Aperghis explains. »This is not music from the heavenly spheres. It is made on earth, for people, and it tells us about people, about love, about language and about the body.« He also views instruments as being like communicative human beings who are trying to say something to him: »At a concert of Mozart’s piano music, you feel like the piano is talking to you. Every time it says something different: it’s not precise, but it is clear that it’s trying to tell you something and you more or less understand what it is. I love that! And I’d like to achieve that but, in my opinion, Mozart is the only one who does.«

Georges Aperghis treats language as pure sound, as a musical means of expression irrespective of its content. He is less interested in what is being said than in how it is said: the nuances that are difficult to describe but which speak volumes about someone and their relationship to what they are saying. They reveal something about their confidence or irritability, about their inner calm, tension or inner conflict, and also about their character, truthfulness and passion. He usually abandons the logic of any text and dissects its language into syllables and phonemes, treating them like notes. He even makes melodies of a sort out of them, though these are not necessarily sung.

Intimacy through language – Leoš Janáček

In Georges Aperghis Leoš Janáček would have come across a kindred spirit, if the Czech composer had not been born almost a century earlier. While their music is not directly similar, the close affinity both have with language is unmistakable. Janáček is famous for the remarkable precision of his response to human language – in his case Czech: as with   Aperghis, he is less concerned with specific statements than with the way in which each individual uses the sound, melody and rhythm of their voice and composure to lend expression to their speech. During his lifetime, Janáček was almost obsessed with the so called »melody of speech« of the people around him, whether these were acquaintances or strangers, important or run-of-the mill individuals. He listened to their speech as if it were music, and recorded short melodic and rhythmic motifs along with the accompanying syllables in note form and preserved them in an ever-growing collection. This archive of speech melodies with its wealth of characters provided the basis for his compositions, both vocal and instrumental. Sometimes he felt that these notations were a kind of storage medium for keeping alive memories that mattered to him – such as the last words of his daughter Olga, who died aged only 20: »Já nechci umřít, já chci žít! – I don’t want to die: I want to live!«

Janáček’s method reveals an unstinting interest in people and the way in which their highly complex psyches are reflected in sound. His egalitarian view of humanity also influenced his unusual choice of subject matter for his operas: his most famous operas Jenufa, Katya Kabanova and The Cunning Little Vixen do not deal with tragic heroines, but with creatures who occupy the shadows, who have departed from the straight and narrow, who not only have no rights, but have also committed wrongs. Whether they are women who have stepped out of line or exposed creatures of the animal kingdom – Janáček demanded a sympathy for them in his music that was hard to find in a male-dominated society. By contrast, men alone are the subject of his last opera From the House of the Dead – however, these were not operatic heroes, but criminals and losers, floundering in the indifference of life in a labour camp.

Ob nun fehltretende Frauenfiguren oder die weitgehend ausgelieferte Tierwelt – Janáček forderte mit seiner Musik Mitgefühl, wo es in einer männlich dominierten Gesellschaft rar gesät war. Barbara Eckle

Only occasionally a small window opens: when one prisoner tells his own story, a typical Janáček-like individual steps into the spotlight. Not just his own voice, but the voices of all those included in his story come to life – short, internal dramas in which these convicts revisit the fateful situation of their crime, repeatedly changing roles in order to give a voice to their victims and tormentors. This takes particularly memorable form in the case of the prisoner Šiškov: he remembers how he murdered his beautiful bride Akulina because he believed his disreputable rival’s claim that she was no longer a virgin when they married. When the innocent victim Akulina then speaks through Šiškov’s voice, not only Šiškov’s tragic love, his pain and his regret come to life: for one brief moment, Akulina herself appears like an angelic, metaphysical presence, bringing light to the darkness of the prison camp.

Last voices – Huelgas Ensemble

The same nocturnal space that holds Janáček’s prisoners from the House of the Dead captive is again lit up by the human voice for the finale of Ruhrtriennale 2023. This time it is alone, without any accompaniment.  The vocal ensemble Huelgas explores the world of early vocal polyphony that originally evolved from human speech in the early Middle Ages when liturgy, prayer and people speaking to God turned into music. And the powerful effect of the human voice has grown: it has learned to make a vertiginous 24-part fabric such as Josquin Desprez’s Qui habitat fill the air with the strength and clarity of each individual voice. And it has learned to make the ground shake in Antoine Brumel’s earthquake mass Et ecce terrae motus: moving stone, moving worlds, moving people.

Barbara Eckle is the head dramaturg for music theatre 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.