Yes, I was one of those kids who carried a chisel-tipped calligraphy pen in his pocket and took advantage of every opportunity to practice his penmanship, usually at the expense of paying attention in class. Before my personal and professional interests shifted toward creating music, I spent long hours closed up in my bedroom copying entire pages from ancient psalters and books of hours.
It's not so difficult to draw a line between calligraphy and engraving musical scores. Indeed, before I turned to composing music myself, I had established a one-man shop as a high schooler, arranging and copying musical scores by hand for the music department. I suppose it makes sense that my first job following music school was working as a copyist in an orchestral library.
In playing on this theme, the Morgan Museum creates quite an apposite juxtaposition between the aforementioned forms in its thoughtfully curated concert series. The presence of historic musical manuscripts in the museum's collection, autographed by the likes of Wagner, Mozart, Cage and Lutoslawski (to name a few), provides only a metaphorical basis for the appropriateness of the venue. Nestled into an atmosphere of old-fashioned scholarship and its founder's appreciation for sophisticated art, the performance of music seems like a requirement in support of this grand, philosophical architecture.
The concert on Wednesday, February 19 featuring the JACK Quartet truly took things to the next level. The program consisted of the complete string quartets of German composer Helmut Lachenmann (b. 1935) to coincide with the release of JACK's latest recording, due out April 1st on MODE Records. Much like the esoteric and deeply personal language of Lachenmann's music, the performance itself treaded onto a plateau beyond facile description.
If I have to choose something to say, it is simply that I was stunned. Stunned by the absolute silence that befell the audience, even during impossibly lengthly sections filled only with delicate swooshing sounds produced by the hair of the bow against the wood of the violin, or minute clicks and taps created by the heel of the bow meeting the string over the fingerboard. Stunned by the raw energy of Lachenmann's music and the un-compromised focus and passion of the ensemble's interpretation and performance.
One moment that continues to stand out in my mind was when the cellist inadvertently tapped his bow against the base of his music stand. Even in my total admiration for Lachenmann's avant-garde gestures and abrasive vocabulary, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that the resulting clink might have been lost in the surrounding cacophony of scratching, swooshing, crunching, tapping, bending and sawing and gone unnoticed. Instead, it rang out noisily, briefly interrupting the near-palpable atmosphere of mental energy and exhibiting unquestionably that what we were hearing in that moment was not just some arbitrary collection of displeasing noises, randomly jumbled together in an opaque and incomprehensible cloud, but was uniquely beautiful music.
My point is that even in the total absence of pitch and tonality, Lachenmann's organization of these primal sounds in time is truly the essence of musical expression; like capturing the pure emotion or the raw impulse of thought that precedes the production of pitch and harmony and in a way makes them seem almost unnecessary.
Due credit, of course, must go to the unmatchable ability of the JACK Quartet and their intimate relationship with this music. As the ensemble remarked before the performance began, Lachenmann's work was the first they performed as an ensemble, and in his active support they have come to view him as the father of the group. The skill and precision with which this ensemble is able to articulate their true understanding of this music is what makes all the difference. They get it, and the results are truly awe-inspiring.