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Contemporary Music Review Vol. 23, No. 3/4, September/December 2004, pp.

107 114

Dialectic and Form in the Music of Helmut Lachenmann

David Lesser

The following article is an exploration of the impact of Louis Althusser, amongst others, on the work of Helmut Lachenmann. It demonstrates the correlations between Althusser and Marx and dialectic and form in Lachenmanns music. Keywords: Althusser; Analysis; Criticism; Dialectic; Form; History; Marx

Helmut Lachenmanns challenging and uniquely beautiful music offers an extensive range of intriguing possibilities for analysis, discussion and creative response by other musicians and listeners. These possibilities have for too long largely gone ignored, especially in the English-language musical community. If we are to move beyond the few conventional views of Lachenmanns work that d, then it will be have already outlived their (initial) usefulness and become cliche necessary to re-examine a number of the aesthetic premises that are all too frequently assumed in much English-language scholarship when writing about developments in post-war German music and culture. When confronted with the challenges posed by a substantial and complex oeuvre of major and highly innovative works that do not accommodate themselves particularly well within the horizons of conventional analysis, it is more than ever necessary to explore new avenues of enquiry that may allow us to gain further access into their aesthetic, procedural and formal horizons. An important rst step in this process would be to identify those areas of aesthetic and wider philosophical implication that have traditionally been undervalued or ignored in much previous writing and thus to signal the need for future scholarly engagement to create a framework more suited to further investigation. The following text is intended to map out some of the issues involved in studying Lachenmanns formal thought (an area of enquiry that has been particularly neglectedindeed some critics have gone as far as to suggest that his work is essentially formless in any conventionally analysable sense, and for which many of the current analytical tools that have been developed during the last half century in
ISSN 0749-4467 (print)/ISSN 1477-2256 (online) 2004 Taylor & Francis Ltd DOI: 10.1080/0749446042000285735


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response to the work of other composers are ill equipped to respond): it is hoped that it will function as the basis for further investigation and discussion in the future. I will suggest that one of the most potentially fruitful of these avenues for future exploration is to reappraise and examine the dialectic structures used as a means of articulating large-scale musical forms in many of the composers most signicant scores. Further, I will also suggest that, to maximise the conceptual benets that this line of inquiry brings, it is necessary to move beyond the conventional Aristotelian or 19th-century understanding of the nature of the dialectic process itself and examine Lachenmanns practice in the light of newer dialectic models, in particular those suggested in the work of Louis Althusser. Locating Lachenmanns Achievement Helmut Lachenmanns work poses unique aesthetic challenges for both his listeners and other composers and performers. Although it is possible to locate his oeuvre within the developing global context of post-war European Modernism (and this would in itself be a highly useful cultural exercise), Lachenmann has, in rigorously developing and exploring his own creative horizons, produced a body of work that denes itself largely by the aesthetic tensions and paradoxes inherent within this particular stream of Modernism, and this movements own (much argued) progressive disintegration during the latter half of the 20th century as a viable meta-aesthetic. Lachenmanns music, together with his various theoretical and other miscellaneous writings (collectively published as MaeE; Lachenmann, 1996), are a source of fascinating potential for exploring these aesthetic tensions that lie at the heart of so many aspects of European contemporary music. Lachenmanns work is rmly embedded in its origins within the general development of European Modernism at a particular stage in its history: it is not an eccentric, isolated or even outdated development, as has been suggested by some hostile to his work. In common with some other major German composers, such as his approximate contemporaries Dieter Schnebel and Hans-Joachim Hespos, and most obviously the older gure of Bernd Alois Zimmermann (whose late music certainly moves towards some of the aesthetic and textural regions explored in Lachenmanns contemporary pieces), but unlike others, notably Karlheinz Stockhausen, Lachenmanns work stems, in its inception, as opposed to many of its actual sonic characteristics, from the conicting inuences and pressures particular to the broad trends of Modernism within the history of German or related German language 19th- and 20th-century art, culture and social critique. (Any exploration of the actual sonic phenomena of Lachenmanns mature work would have to be widened to take into account the crucial inuences of non-German composers such as Harry Partch, Iannis Xenakis and his teacher Luigi Nono.) This is in no way an attempt to localise or provincialise Lachenmanns work, nor is it to suggest that the composer is himself oblivious to other musical developments in

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the rest of the world (again, the inuences of Nono and Partch are highly suggestive). The traditional myth of Germanic cultural otherness is an extremely problematic concept that will not be debated further in this text; rather, it is a recognition of the fact that many of the aesthetic tensions that Lachenmann has creatively explored and exploited throughout his career are most clearly to be grasped through a wider understanding of the history of 20th-century Modernisms particular place within the environment of German culture as a whole. There are great opportunities for further work that address these issues, some of which may take their lead from the most interesting recent work in German literary theory, in particular studies that locate ller within a major post-war Modernist writers such as Paul Celan and Heiner Mu broader German language context of cultural practice. Dialectic A predominantly dialectic mode of highly focused thinking about wider philosophical and aesthetic problems is, of course, one of the strongest features of rung of the 18th century. It is strongly present much German thought since the Aufkla in the philosophical Idealism of both Immanuel Kant and Johann Gottlieb Fichte and reaches its most consistent application in the work of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whose fundamental dialectical modelthesis, antithesis, synthesiswhen stripped of the elaborate conceptual superstructure of Hegels real practice, forms a classical 19th-century denition of the process. It has frequently been pointed out that this model is of relevance in understanding a number of important late 18th- and 19th-century modes of tonal musical discourse: most obviously in the development and exploitation of the Classical sonata principle. Despite Marxs celebrated inversion of the dialectic, the Hegelian model is absolutely central in methodological terms to Marxs own critique and has from there informed the majority of later Marxist social and aesthetic analysis. This Hegelian/ Marxist tradition has had profound consequences on other later European philosophers, particularly those advocating forms of political or other social cs, Antonio Gramsci, Jean-Paul Sartre, and even engagement such as Georg Luka the determined anti-humanism of Althusser, or those whose concern with mapping and challenging the interfaces between language, knowledge and social practice, such as Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida, has led them into a wide-scale rejection of much earlier philosophical methodology. This dialectic predisposition is central to the work of Theodor W. Adorno, whose negative dialectics introduces a new strongly emotive tone into his social analysis and critique conditioned by the wider political circumstances of the time. This is also broadly true of the work of the other members of the Frankfurt School as a whole. (Attempts to move away from the dialectical process are relatively uncommon in 19th- and early 20th-century German philosophy. Much of the originality in the work of both Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche stems from their


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struggles to free themselves from the toils of dialectic. In the 20th century, the conceptual and linguistic challenges of Martin Heideggers phenomenological ontology reveal the profound effort involved in addressing certain philosophical issues in a non-dialectic way.) Lachenmanns chosen reference points in his written discussions of his own work, cs, et al., are themselves reective of a complex of in particular Adorno, Luka signicant issues in the composers own process of aesthetic self-denitionwhile it cs have, at different is obviously the case that the writings of both Adorno and Luka times, played a hugely inuential formative role in the aesthetic horizons of music and the other arts in Germany, it would be very difcult to argue that Lachenmanns own work exemplies their views of an appropriate artistic response to the varied phenomena of late capitalist society! There are other more recent aestheticians and theorists of the arts to whom Lachenmann could refer instead in the discussion of his own work and whose ideas are more closely related to the acoustic realities of his scores. However, Lachenmanns references to these authors do reveal a consistent and abiding engagement with a variety of forms of dialectic thought, as do his frequent references to dialectics in various programme notes and published conversations, which is one of the most important areas for consideration in any investigation into the musical processes that produce the formal structures of his work and into the subtle and varied relationships between these structures and the actual experienced musical content that inhabits them. Many of Lachenmanns most signicant and (belatedly) inuential scores, especially from the profoundly questioning and experimental 20-year period between the early 1960s and the early 1980s reveal a clearly (and deliberately) audible surface exploration of the possibilities of large-scale dialectic-based formal construction; not, of course, in any nostalgically doomed attempt to reinvent the earlier relationships between dialectic and various tonal practices, but rather because of an appreciation of the constructive and formal possibilities inherent within dialectical processes themselves. These processes, with their characteristic potential for juxtaposition, opposition and combination/synthesis between different materials, which in turn pave the way for future development as the contradictions inherent in this process are themselves addressed, would be particularly attractive to a composer working with an enormously expanded, non-studio-produced, range of acoustic material (such as Lachenmann), and they offer opportunities that would be of considerably less interest in a more pitch-based compositional approach. It could be argued that Lachenmann is one of the rst composers of his generation to re-engage creatively with contemporary parallel developments in the understanding of dialectical processes as a way of articulating large-scale musical forms. One of the benets of this re-engagement is that it has allowed the composer to write in his preferred single movement structures, many of which are extremely long, often lasting in excess of 30 minutes. Single movements of this length, although highly typical of Lachenmann, are relatively uncommon in European post-war music and

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they place enormous demands on a composers abilities of long-term musical planning, pacing, deployment of textural variety, etc. In this respect, his work marks a profound shift away from the very different range of approaches to formal considerations adopted by many of the leading gures of the European avant-garde in the 1950s and 1960sfor example, any obvious indebtedness to dialectical models largely disappears from Pierre Boulezs work after `me Sonate (1946 1948), apart from the fascinating but somewhat the Deuxie exceptional (and unresolved) case of FiguresDoublesPrismes (1958 ), nor do they play any signicant part in Stockhausens compositional practice during the 1950s. In Lachenmanns work, these dialectic explorations are often expressed through the conict of binary tensions between differing forms of acoustic phenomena, as in Wiegenmusik (1963), where the tensions between the performers gestures and our acoustic perception, and between sonic decay and silence, which are so characteristic of many of Lachenmanns most moving scores, nds an especially touching early appearance, or in the monumental Klangschattenmein Saitenspiel (1972), where the composer has referred to the work relying on the dialectics of refusal and offer.1 This could even be seen in the more recent Mouvement (vor der Erstarrung) (1982 1984), where the composer seems to be reappraising many of the structural principles of these earlier scores in the radically sped-up context typical of a number of his works from the mid-/late 1980s and early 1990s. Lachenmann also explores the inherent tensions between expectation and fullment of listeners preconceptions, as in Kontrakadenz (1970 1971), or through the juxtaposition of several oppositional r pairs of different types of acoustic phenomena or performance activity, as in Salut fu Caudwell (1977), an especially remarkable work that is in numerous ways paradigmatic of many aspects of Lachenmanns formal practice during this period. Although the dialectic processes are at least partially audible in these works, it should not be forgotten that, as in any complex musical structure, there are many different processes unfolding during the works duration and differentiated structural layers that develop these processes in their own characteristic way and at their own characteristic pace. In an analytical programme note, Lachenmann himself has referred to the multilayered process of experimenting with superimposed rieur 1 (1965 1966). The extraordinarily rich surfaces of arrangements. . . 2 in Inte Lachenmanns best work, with their often very rapid alternations of textures and playing techniques, which form pairs or groups in dialectic opposition to one another, are the surface indicators of other more deeply buried developments. Future analysis will clarify these different structural layers more fully. In other scores of the period, however, this dialectic mode of formal development is less clearly audible, less near the musics surface of perceivable musical events. In a number of large-scale orchestral and chamber works such as Air (1968 1969), the rieur III) (1970) and the epic remarkably inwardly probing Dal niente (Inte Schwankungen am Rand (1974 1975), the formative tensions seem far more interiorised, buried deeper beneath the skin of the music. As these works force their


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listeners to reinterpret the expressive tensions between their expectations and the performed reality of the score in new ways that radically challenge those preconceived expectations, it is particularly aesthetically appropriate that the formative structures of the pieces should be more withdrawn and hidden from the listeners experience of the music. It is also signicant that in these scores Lachenmann greatly increases the important role played by sounds on the very periphery of silence and by silence itself in his music: indeed, it may be suggested that silence, which has always played a highly suggestive and poignant expressive effect in his work, becomes in these pieces a major term in the dialectic process itselfas well as fullling its traditional roles of building tension through delay, and offering an expressive alternative to sound, silence here takes on a formative role in the unfolding musical discourse, one to which the musical material is itself an ongoing response. This is not to say that these pieces are in any way less preoccupied with exploring the possibilities of dialectical structures. Rather, it could be suggested that they reect a creative awareness and consequent exploration of different possibilities within a broader constellation of dialectic models, some of which would have been newly opened to artists in the wake of a number of recently published philosophical works of the mid-/late 1960s. Different Dialectic Models In any ongoing history of dialectical thought, possibly the most important of these developments would be the papers collected together and published as Pour Marx in 1965 (translated into English as For Marx, 1969) by Louis Althusser. The impact of this seminal volume was further consolidated with the publication in 1968 of Althussers most sustained critical text, Lire le Capital. Many of the most striking innovations in Althussers analysis quickly triggered further creative responses by te du other younger writers; for example, the publication of Guy Debords La socie spectacle and Jacques Derridas LEcriture et la difference, both in 1967, clearly show the impact of Althussers new approach. Although strictly conned in their scope to a number of issues of concern within the sphere of European Marxism at the time, such as the relationship between Marxs early and mature thought, his debt to Ludwig Feuerbach and the scientic status of Marxist critique, Althussers extraordinarily rigorous rereading of Marxs work effectively challenged many of the most long-held humanist perceptions of Marxs work current amongst western Marxists. Central to Althussers reinterpretation of Marxs signicance was his understanding of how the dialectic processes changed in Marxs thought, from the early work, which is clearly indebted to the methods of Hegel (in a negative sense), Bauer and the other Right Hegelians, and Feuerbach, to something radically new in the mature volumes of Das Kapital and some of the other late polemic textsa transition for which Althusser adapted Gaston Bachelards usage and referred to as an epistemological break (Althusser, 1996, p. 168). Althusser also argued that Marx

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himself may have been only partially aware of the nature of this break in his thought, which would help us in understanding why he found it so difcult to accommodate his analysis of Capitalist development within the language and conceptual framework that he had inherited from earlier social theorists and Classical economists. In Althussers reading of the dialectic in Marxs work, he stressed that in the early texts, which operate within the horizons of Hegelian and immediately post-Hegelian dialectic, the analysis is very tightly focused and the links between the object under discussion and the dialectic process of the discussion itself are clear and directly located within the textthe objects problematic directly fuels the ensuing structure of reasoning. In the later, mature texts, most signicantly in some passages of the Grundrisse, Das Kapital and the very late Critique of the Gotha Programme, this clear linkage between object and dialectic is no longer so apparent; the object becomes removed from the central focus of the dialectic. Tellingly, in the two most important methodological essays in For Marx Contradiction and overdetermination and On the materialist dialectic (Althusser, 1996, pp. 87 128, 161 218)Althusser describes this new model as one where the dialectic object moves from its central focus and becomes peripheral. Thus the enormous quantity of factual information, statistics, analysis, and intricate dialectic reasoning that makes up so much of Das Kapital is largely driven by concerns that are not directly expressed within the text itself. Althusser suggests that a good analogy of this process of peripheralisation is the way that Freudian theory emphasises how subconscious drives, of which the analysand is himself unaware, can cause changes in (apparently unrelated) forms of behaviour. This essentially new model of a periphalised dialectic structure, driven by concerns that may not be readily apparent within the actual text itself, seems to offer strong parallels with the formal practices explored by Lachenmann in a number of his most important scores. The shift in the position of the object of discussion in the dialectic from a central, tightly focused and privileged location, to a peripheral, marginal (or even non-present) position highlighted by Althusser seems to be a remarkably pertinent description of the formal processes in many of Lachenmanns most complex and mysterious works. In addition to the major scores from the period 1960 1980 discussed above, this model further offers potential for the study of many of Lachenmanns more recent pieces by suggested access points into the formal thinking of such profoundly signicant large-scale works as Ausklang (1984 1985, rev. 1986), Allegro sostenuto (1986 1988, rev. 1989), the II. Streichquartett, Reigen hle. . ..., Musik mit Leonardo (1991 1992). seliger Geister (1989), and ... . .zwei Gefu Future Avenues In this text, I have outlined a number of possible avenues for future discussion and further research that I consider would be useful in developing our understanding of the formal aspects of Lachenmanns work. A greater awareness of and responsiveness to these issues, and of the ways in which different dialectic strategies could aid in


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expanding our aesthetic and analytical knowledge, would assist in the process of evolving new analytical approaches to important areas of the European post-war repertoire. Such a developing understanding would also be of benet in establishing a methodological framework for discussing formal aspects in the work of a number of other major German composers, for example Bernd Alois Zimmermann, HansJoachim Hespos and Mathias Spahlinger, whose full importance is only gradually becoming appreciated by the wider musical community. Notes
[1] Lachenmann, booklet text, Kontrakadenz; Klangschattenmein Saitenspiel; Fassade. Kairos: 1223. [2] Drynda, Yvonne, booklet text, Col Legno: WWE 20511.

Althusser, L. (1996). For Marx (B. Brewster, Trans.). London: Verso. usler, Ed.). Lachenmann, H. (1996). Musik als existentielle Erfahrung. Schriften 1966 1995 (J. Ha rtel. Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Ha