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Bernd Künzig about Aleph Gitarrenquartett


We begin with images. In the Edgar Reitz’s epic film series The Second Heimat (1992) the fictional and ambitious composer Hermann Simon begins his journey from the Hunsrück (a pastoral region in Rhineland-Palatinate, in the west of Germany) to study at the Music Academy in Munich. A musical instrument accompanies him. Conforming to Reitz’s romantic depiction of of artists, the instrument Simon is given is a guitar. The effect is that a peculiar musical atmosphere is evoked by the idea of the guitar as the quintessential instrument of melancholy artistic solitude: one is reminded of song setting of poems by Hermann Hesse and Georg Trakl. However, this cliché completely contradicts the music of the younger generation of composers after 1945. Even Pierre Boulez greatly favoured the guitar, as can be seen in his Le Marteau sans maître (1955) and in his large cycle of Mallarmé settings Pli selon pli (1957–62). But, surprisingly, even these pieces are perme- ated by the exotic spirit of the southern hemisphere.

Approximately twenty years later than this Hans Werner Henze employed the guitar as a virtuosic string instrument in the Shakespeare Illuminations of his Royal Winter Music (1976/79). Helmut Lachenmann composed using the unconscious sonic realities of his “musique concréte instrumentale” in his Salut für Caudwell written in 1977 for guitar duo. Despite both Pierre Boulez’s and Helmut Lachenmann’s progressive aesthetics they are still unable to disguise the fact that the guitar remains the archetypal instrument of solitude, an accompaniment to one’s feelings. Once the number of guitars has been multiplied the fiery spirit and culture of the Flamenco quickly emerges.

Since its inception in 1993, the Aleph Guitar Quartet has done its utmost to work against these clichés and has commissioned composers to write for this uncommon ensemble. It must be emphasised, however, that the apparently unconventional character of the grouping is merely superficial. The guitar quartet proves itself as an ensemble that contains its own logic. The quartet bears many similarities with that other highly established chamber ensemble: the string quartet. In both cases we are presented with string instruments that share a similar corpus and pitch range. The methods of playing may be different, but they really only differ in one respect: one ensemble uses a bow,he other plucks strings. In addition, both playing styles are determined in infinitely different ways by the personal styles each commissioned composers has. The playing tech- niques offered by this ensemble can be almost limitlessly adapted to the personal style of each composer; in other words the medium challenges the composer to acknowledge the level of consistency and assimilation four individuals must have in order to function as a unit. The pieces presented here have all been especially commissioned by the Aleph Guitar Quartet. The composers are: Manuel Hidalgo, Beat Furrer, Helmut Lachenmann, Markus Hechtle, and Georg Friedrich Haas. These composers haven’t only contributed to a new definition of guitar sound, but have also discovered precise and often very refined playing techniques, as well as highly individual musical languages of differentiated musi- cal textures that unfold in the hands of these four interpreters.

The traditional sound of the guitar is most apparent in Manuel Hidalgo’s (Kampftanz) (Fighting Dance, 2000). Viewed from one perspective it is astonishing to remember that Hidalgo, a former student of Lachenmann, has also been well schooled in the sophisticat- ed transformational techniques peculiar to “musique concréte instrumentale”. Seen from another perspective, Hidalgo remains – in (Kampftanz) as well as in his other music – loyal to the Spanish musical tradition of his home country. The music here is mostly rhythmic and filled with tremolandi. The many tremolandi awaken associations of the so-called Rasgueado playing technique, typical of Flamencan music in its virtuosic use of pitch rep- etition. Occasionally there are percussive moments where the guitarists strike the corpus of their instruments with their hands. At exactly this moment the music reveals itself to operate in two ways: exactly these percussive techniques appear in Lachenmann’s music and, at the same time, are not untypical for Flamenco. The “à la espagna” of Hidalgo’s (Kampftanz) is highly ambivalent; whilst using playing techniques that obviously derive from the realm of new music, in the end the Spanish elements ensue as a Fata Morgana.

One cannot be led into confusion by Beat Furrer’s fragmentos de un libro futuro (Fragments of a Future Book), written in 2007. Scored for soprano and guitar quartet the piece is a setting of a poem by the Spanish poet José Angel Valente. Essentially Furrer is more interested in the sonic images the Spanish language has to offer. One can argue that that this piece is a song with guitar accompaniment to a superficial degree only. A more comprehensive description explains how the voice and the instruments have become synthe- sized and have been treated as being on the same level as each other. The singer is asked to touch on the consonants exactly in the same way that the guitarists are instructed to render their pizzicato as ominous and clanging. Furrer allows the players to interpret the poetic im- agery, for example the falling leaves, for themselves. Already after the first ten bars Furrer instructs the guitarists to to play “sprechend”, i.e. as if they were speaking. Here one notices that the piece, fragmentos de un libro futuro, begins to transcribe Furrer’s own composi- tional aesthetic onto the instruments of the ensemble; the instruments are used in a vocal and linguistic manner.

In addition to this the meaning of the text is rendered the least important element, the song itself stands out as a linguistic avalanche and here: everything “speaks”. Helmut Oehring’s quartet Mich.Stille. (Me.Silence/Stillness.), written in 2000, is clearly more graphic. Oehring has always been interested in writing a filmic music to be per- formed without the presence of a film. Perhaps the main reason that strongly visual ges- tures dominate his music might be due to his having been brought up by parents who are deaf and who don’t speak. In Mich.Stille., the impression is that an abysmal chase film has been allowed to unfold. Alone the sub-heading, relating to a series of pieces called Cruising/Opfer (Cruising/Victim), owes a fair amount to he genre of horror film. The tape part that Oehring inserts here consists of a coughing, breathless female voice the sonic explicitness of which leaves very little to the imagination. The climax of the piece consists of a music that could serve as accompaniment to a chase scene in a film, it is as if it came directly out of a studio of noise: each guitar is played by with a plastic bag covering the right hand. At the end of this sequence the plastic bags are removed thus leading to the dramatic climax of a furiously paced hijack scene. This music might otherwise be described as a “fugue” but the use of this term doesn’t necessarily aid understanding, but since the word “fugue” originally means “escape” this word adequately illustrates the visual nature of the music. Why the piece hasn’t been entitled “Threatening Danger – Anxiety – Catastrophe” has been written elsewhere, but an accompaniment for a silent film it is all the same.

Markus Hechtle’s piece Linie mit Schraffur (Line with Shading), written in 2006 for four guitars and clarinet, is a suggestive as well as a minimalist piece. One might expect the title Linie mit Schraffur to be a poetic description, however it names the exact procedure the piece undergoes, even if the realm of the visual has also been touched upon. The con- tinuous surface of tremolandi represents the shade, the physical gesture of which imitates the meditative movement of shading in with a pencil. Additionally the guitarists use the Rasgueado technique – only here there are barely any associations of Spain or of Spanish music, if any at all. This texture can be seen to form the primary coat of an artists canvas upon which the melodic lines of the clarinet, with its rough cascading figures and soar- ing lines, are inscribed. Linie mit Schraffur is a painterly piece: it is both colourful and colours ones perception and is as minimalist as a piece of minimal art. Georg Friedrich Haas’ Quartet from 2007 is possibly the most idiosyncratic work from this selection of Aleph’s repertoire. For Haas, the way the piece unfolds is impressively logical especially in relation to his work, typical for him, harmonic chords, and the harmonic series; the microtonal tuning system used in this piece is that conceived of by Ivan Wyschnegradsky. This particular piece represents the link between Haas’ two orchestral pieces: Natures mortes (2003) and limited approximations (2010). From the first orchestral piece Quartet continues with the use of dense harmonic chords and – in Haas’ own description – a “singing” that occurs in the melodies of harmonic as well as the movement of sound throughout space from one instrument to another. What the guitar quartet takes from the later orchestral piece is a reference to the string sound; limited approximations is scored for six microtonally tuned pianos and in Quartet it is as if the inner resonant body of the piano has been externalised by Haas’ use of the guitars. Finally, all three pieces relate to each other in that they all create an overwhelming hallucinatory effect; after a short amount of time, despite the fact that we are listening to a quartet, one forgets that four instruments are playing. Furthermore one no longer considers these instruments as belonging to or representing any kind of convention.

Bernd Künzig - Translation: Alistair Zaldua