photo by Dave Dyet
By Amanda Oosthuizen
As a parasite that feeds full, long and unashamedly on the creative juices of others, I donned my most hard-core anorak and went along to the South Bank’s Helmut Lachenmann Fest last month.
Lachenmann was celebrating his 75th Birthday and a more energetic, creative and (surprisingly) humorous man, I don’t think you’d find. He was also very tall with a lively, possibly wicked, glint in his eye and he obviously loves what he does.
One of Europe’s top composers, Lachenmann believes in using the contemporary orchestra in unusual ways. Not for him the vacuum cleaner or typewriter. The bass players of the London Sinfonietta were sliding their bows almost soundlessly down their bridges, the flautists were clattering their keys, the trumpeters were blowing percussively without mouthpieces.
Creating friction, a new way of listening, he says. Recreating sound, always rethinking what he does, according to the critics. All very experimental and creative, you might say, but how does this interest a writer? Apart from the creativity and originality and his constant exploration of the edge, which obviously I fed on plentifully, there was something else.
First on my agenda was a film directed by Bettina Ehrhardt. Ehrhardt, a tall athletic woman, strode onto the stage in a short blue and white tweedy skirt and boots, her blonde hair styled in a way that somehow reminded me of Ian Hislop’s. I was though, drawn in by her voice, husky and at the same time high pitched. Like Lachenmann, Ehrhardt possessed enormous creative enthusiasm. She spoke about her experience of filming Lachenmann, how, in the first session, she filmed him talking for an hour and a half without stopping and she knew then that the process was going to work. We were all enthralled and perhaps hopeful that she’d edited comprehensively.
One point in the film came across above others. Lachenmann told a story about a conversation between Beethoven and Goethe in Vienna. Beethoven asks Goethe if he’d listen to his latest work and tell him what he thinks. Goethe agrees, so Beethoven plays (the Emperor Concerto, I think) and Goethe listens. At the end Goethe brings out his handkerchief and dabs his eyes and says something along the lines of, “I found that awfully moving!” At this, Beethoven is furious, slams down the lid of his piano and says, “I expected better from you, Goethe, the great poet. You’re giving me the same pathetic reaction I get from the damn ignorant contessas round here.”
Later on in the evening Lachenmann himself, who by then had reached iconic status in my mind, was interviewed by Norman Lebrecht. Lebrecht and the lanky Lachenmann were balanced precariously on a tiny dais against a magnificent view out the window of the night sky, the London Eye, the Thames and the Houses of Parliament. Lachenmann told us how his work is all about structure, and really not about emotion or beauty. When Bach wrote his two part inventions, he was concerned with structure and nothing else, said Lachenmann. Yes, I thought, this relates well to short story writing. But do I believe him?
After a short break we all trailed into the Festival Hall for the concert. From the platform, the London Sinfonietta sized us up to see if we were man enough for the experience. Brad Lubman, the conductor, raised his arms like a vampire about to lunge, pausing for a moment, shoulders hunched, arms spread. I was full of expectation, thinking of grand orchestral beginnings, almost anything by Beethoven or Tchaikovsky or Shostakovich. The moment heralded great drama, big soundscapes, the hall awash with resonant pitches. No. This was Lachenmann and what we got was a drift of skilfully executed whooshes, reminding me of the sounds of sand and sea, an intake of breath, a hiss of steam. And yet it was amazingly beautiful. My ear was not scholarly enough to detect a structure but I could respond to the wonder of it. Maybe that’s the difference between composer and listener, writer and reader. It made me think that I should spend a lot more time working on the structure of a story before jumping in and writing…or maybe not.