Ekstare (1988/90) for flute, oboe, violin, viola and violoncello 07:11
Martina Roth, flute · Alexander Ott, oboe · Friedemann Treiber, violin
Jessica Rona, viola · Beverley Ellis, violoncello
 temps et couleurs I (1995) for flute and guitar 12:49
Martina Roth, flute · Jürgen Ruck, guitar
 Streichtrio – le son d’un monde secret et couvert (1994) 08:54
Friedemann Treiber, violin · Jessica Rona, viola · Beverley Ellis, violoncello
anisotropie – (vier) (aggregat) -zustände (2001) for piano 12:48
Akiko Okabe, piano
 Achronon (2008/09) for accordion and guitar 11:00
Olivia Steimel, accordion · Jürgen Ruck, guitar
Anamorphosis II (-Polymorphia) (2002/03) 13:51
for ensemble in various spatial constellations (Version A)
Martina Roth, flute/bass flute · Alexander Ott, oboe · Walter Ifrim, clarinet/bass clarinet
Pascal Pons, percussion · Akiko Okabe, piano · Friedemann Treiber, violin
Jessica Rona, viola · Beverley Ellis, violoncello · Alistair Zaldua, conductor
total time: 66:54
Martina Roth, flute · Alexander Ott, oboe · Walter Ifrim, clarinet · Pascal Pons, percussion
Akiko Okabe, piano · Friedemann Treiber, violin · Jessica Rona, viola · Beverley Ellis, violoncello
Jürgen Ruck, guitar (guest) · Olivia Steimel, accordion (guest) · Alistair Zaldua, conductor (09–16)
German composer Michael Quell (b.1960) has devised a methodology, apparently based upon philosophical beliefs involving existence, the complex and variable nature of relationships, and seemingly infinite states of perception, that allows him to manipulate a wider-than-usual range of sounds in meticulous, albeit unconventional, ways. He often involves micro-intervals of various degrees, which emphasize the blending and contrast of unusual tonal colors, and uses speed (not merely tempo fluctuations, but exaggerated phrasing and durations) to affect the density and internal tension of his music in ways somewhat reminiscent of Elliott Carter. For the most part, the instruments in these chamber pieces exhibit their own individual characteristics, and attempt to co-exist—if not necessarily always in agreement—with their partners in an unsettled environment. For example, the accordion and guitar in Achronon (2008–09) and flute and guitar in Temps et couleurs I (1995) include microtones in their vocabulary along with a “micro-polyphonic compositional technique” that translates into contrasts of nearly static, sparse interplay with agitated, dense activity; at times in the earlier work there’s a resemblance to Japanese or Korean music (the flute as shakuhachi or piri, the guitar as koto or kayagum), but there’s also little if any audible evidence that the piece is a distortion of a medieval hymn until it briefly appears in its natural state toward the end.
The String Trio, “Le Son d’un monde secret et couvert” (1994), features compressed details, sharp attacks, and a bristling texture as the three parts overlap, collide, and separate. Similar inter-ensemble activity motivates Ekstare (1988–90, for flute, oboe, violin, viola, and cello) and Anamorphosis II [Polymorphia] (2002–03, for chamber ensemble), but their expanded tonal palettes incite a more attractive and surprising surge of details. Limited to the sonorities of a piano, Anisotropie—[vier] [aggregat]—zustände (2001) employs rapid figuration, silence and resonance, and inside-the-piano and percussive effects to suggest a sequence of relationships associated on a molecular level.
The members of Ensemble Aventure are experienced in all manner of modern and contemporary music, and they are strong and persuasive advocates for Quell’s complex, ear-catching scores.
Dies ist der Klang der geheimen, verborgenen Welt: drei Streicher (Violine, Viola, Violoncello) schieben einzelne Töne übereinander, lassen sie aufleuchten und wieder verschwinden, geben ihnen eine fahle Färbung. So entsteht ein Klangband, das sich allmählich das hohe Register erobert. Manche Töne klingen jetzt flötenartig, besitzen fast schmerzhafte Intensität. Unvermittelt fahren rasche Repetitionen dazwischen. Diese klanglichen Schraffuren beherrschen bald die Szene und sausen durch den Raum, werden aber kurz darauf von feinen Linien in extrem hoher Lage abgelöst.
So beginnt das Streichtrio le son d’un monde secret et couvert von Michael Quell, das auf einer 2010 produzierten CD mit weiteren Kammermusikwerken des in Fulda lebenden Komponisten erschienen ist. Das Stück erweist sich als Musik von enormer Kraft und Intensität, der Komponist betrachtet Klänge gewissermaßen als reich strukturierte Wesen, deren Eigengesetzlichkeit es zu wahren gilt. „Charakteristisches Merkmal des Werks ist die Suche nach neuen Klangwelten, nach un-erhört neuen Wahrnehmungsräumen und damit untrennbar verbunden das konsequente Sich-Verweigern gegenüber jeglichem abgegriffenen Vokabular“, schreibt Quell in einem Kommentar zu dem 1994 entstandenen Werk.
Der 1960 geborene Komponist zählt zu den Künstlern, die ihre Werke sehr bewusst reflektieren, was sich in Werkkommentaren mit einigem philosophischen Anspruch niederschlägt. So versteht Quell le son d’un monde secret et couvert auch als Suche nach einer „quasi unendlichen Vielfalt an Denk- und Wahrnehmungsmöglichkeiten“, als Versuch, sich vom „Ratiofaschismus der Funktionäre des Denkens“ zu befreien. Ob man dem folgt, bleibt jedem einzelnen Hörer selbst überlassen. Die Rhetorik des „konsequenten Verweigerns“ und der „un-erhörten Wahrnehmungsräume“ wirkt jedoch ihrerseits bereits etwas angestaubt.
Nichtsdestotrotz zeitige diese Suche „faszinierende künstlerische Ergebnisse auch mit großem musikantischem Potenzial“, wie Ernst Helmuth Flammer im Beiheft schreibt. Etwa in den (vier)(aggegrat)-Zuständen für Klavier mit dem Titel Anisotropie. Hier lässt Quell zwei Klangsphären variantenreich aufeinandertreffen: den des „normalen“ Klaviertons in Gestalt weit gespreizter Figurationen oder dissonanter Akkorde, und den des mit Plektrum auf den Saiten gespielter Töne, einzeln oder als Glissandi. Der Pianist Akiko Okabe realisiert das mit stupender Treffsicherheit.
In ähnlicher Weise spielt Quell verschiedene Dichte- und Intensitätsgrade in Anamorphosis II (Polymorphia) für größer besetztes Kammerensemble durch. Im ersten (von zehn) Teilen wird das Klangmaterial in punktuellen Aktionen gleichsam vorgestellt, im weiteren Verlauf erlebt man komplexer werdende Strukturen, aber auch deren Reduzierung bis hin zum Verschwinden ins Geräuschhafte. Das spannende Stück erfährt durch das Ensemble Aventure eine fabelhaft präzise und schlüssige Realisierung. Am Ende implodiert die Musik in einem wabernden Klavierakkord, für Flammer ein „schwarzes Loch“.
Weitere Werke auf der CD: Ekstare für Streichtrio, Oboe und Flöte, temps et couleurs I für Flöte und Gitarre sowie Achronon für Akkordeon und Gitarre.
Creating a “Realized Infinity”: An Interview with Composer Michael Quell
BY ROBERT CARL
Michael Quell (b.1960) is an emerging German composer with a distinct take on what music is, should be, and can do. He’s rigorously intellectual and also vigorously enthusiastic about art’s potential to interpret and shape the world. His way of thinking and expressing himself reflects a deep belief in the power of intellectual discourse to interact with musical ideas, so as to create a blend that’s a contemporary extension of the modernist tradition. He’s also deeply engaged with musicians on both sides of the Atlantic; his thoughts on American musical culture I think give a refreshing perspective that helps pull us out of our usual unexamined attitudes. I corresponded with the composer via e-mail to develop the following interview.
Q: You are a composer who believes very strongly in the power of music to convey ideas and concepts. How much of philosophical discourse do you feel can be cogently conveyed through music? What are the strengths of the medium for this purpose? What are its limitations?
A: I see myself and my artistic behavior essentially as a musician and at least not primarily as someone who is characterized or driven by the aim of conveying ideas and concepts. This might surprise you when first looking at my compositions and especially at the single titles of my works, which indicate a philosophical and esthetic background, but such a superficial squint at a dimension of conveying music would be for my own understanding as composer far too redundant because musical composition has far more power and vastness to offer. In case my own musical works were dominated by such a shallow pretension, I would see the danger of a utilitarian, almost departing-from-art attitude. Such a position is not an option for my artistic expression because I am far too affected by the musical art form in itself, which denotes the sphere of my movements, which is my language and which is my deep conviction of its autonomy and power (taking the relativity and scope of the term “autonomy” in the post-Darmstadt era discourse into account, of course).
Intellectual, philosophical and conceptual approaches play nonetheless and at the same time an important role in my music; even scientific references are sometimes possible.
You might say this is a real contradiction, but it is only the case at first glance. Let me describe it in the following way: All the things I compose are developed in a musical—if you like autonomously musical—space. At the same time our spirit is pervaded by various intellectual and philosophical questions, ideas, concepts; to be more precise, we think about everything that concerns our essential understanding of the world. All these existential and mental things of course affect our definite artistic activity in a variety of ways. For my artistic expression, I try to find ways to understand such mental aspects in their full dimension; I also try to enlarge the specific aesthetic space in an essential way by abstracting these concepts in order to partly neutralize the crucial separation between the philosophical and the specific musical and esthetic world. Before beginning with the actual composition there is a process in which such apparent extramusical ideas and concepts concretely permeate into the musical syntax, the material, the form and the structure of the composition, basically into the finding and the development of the specific musical language of one’s own for exactly this work, which hence moves in utterly musical categories. Thus, the work is still an “autonomous” musical composition; however, at the same time it is infused with and therefore fundamentally characterized by a philosophical and intellectual concept of thoughts that essentially influences the process of the forming of the work. The existential dimension of composition for me is founded upon this approach. A mere external approach to any topic, maybe only referring to the title or to pure external characteristics that is not seldom the case, would absolutely not be my style. I do not see any limitations in this approach concerning the composition apart from the ones regarding the musical composition itself. I always experience the composition of a new work as a personal and hitherto undreamed expansion in the proper sense of the word. Composition can be seen as transcending borders, overstepping the boundaries; composition as a search for the visionary (e.g. of a Varèse), as a forming of a new intellectual and esthetic world—but new is by no means to be equated with the mere technical, redundant concept of progress. Besides, one can for example see that Emile M. Cioran in his Syllogismes de l’Amertume puts this successfully in a nutshell by considering the limitations as the nature and the reality of music, but these limitations according to Cioron are to be comprehended as a “realized infinity.” As a composer I see my task in giving as much space as possible to this “infinity” in the reality of the musical work.
Q: What efforts should the listener make in order to perceive the music as the composer intended? How much of these efforts need to precede the actual audition of the work?
A: That is absolutely not as problematic as it seems to be at first glance. Indeed, listeners often ask at concerts—because of the program notes in the program book that are supposed to give a short insight into the work, its philosophical background, and its evolution—if it is essential to be familiar with Heidegger’s philosophy or if one must know what anisotropies are in order to understand the work. I can tell my listeners: Of course not, absolutely not. As already mentioned, my compositions are quintessentially musical compositions and are certainly meant to be listened to as such. Beyond that there is apart from the mere musical immanent dimension a further and deeper one that comes close to the mental one; I do not want to say that this dimension is purely philosophical, but it is rather an altogether musical, philosophical, and esthetic dimension in which all the things on a higher mental level melt into a new unit and are no longer separated from one another. The mental and conceptional things and ideas will of course become hermeneutic when they permeate into the structure of the composition, in its macrocosm and its microcosm. They give rise to an immanent mental level of the musical work; however, every piece without exception can be considered to be pure music one can simply listen to. In addition to that, it offers at the same time the opportunity to advance into a deeper dimension of the composition when devoting oneself to the composition and maybe even to its mental background beyond the first listening. Besides, I ideally want my works to be graspable and comprehensible when listening to them for the first time, but at the same time—and that is what I consider especially important—when listening to them several times, deeper dimensions can be recognized; not only new details will be discovered, but also unexpected new levels will be revealed. In my work, the listening plays a very important role anyway. While composing I consider the listening to be a listening into the composition’s inner structure, the sound, the instrumentation, and the amalgamations of sound and of course into the dimensions of time; this dimension plays a central role for me, but is unfortunately frequently neglected.
Q: What composers do you feel have achieved some success in the project that you feel you yourself to be part of?
A: A strong inner substantial relationship between the mental or conceptual and the specific musical dimension is characteristic for various composers; in these cases, the first dimension influences the second and such an approach proves to be very prolific. First of all I think of someone like Matthias Spahlinger, a composer who again and again finds new and exciting and at the same time thrilling work concepts while taking into consideration a new adaption of Hegel’s philosophy. Naturally Lachenmann or E. H. Flammer, just to name a few, but also a composer like Edgard Varèse, even though in a completely different manner.
Q: How do you prepare your works for performance? When collaborating with performers, what sort of guidance do you give them, if any?
A: I attach importance to a very precise and clear notation in my works. Most of my works are characterized by quite a high degree of distinction especially with regard to the parameter of harmonic color and the instrumentation or rather the treatment of instruments; this is also the reason a highly differentiated and exact system of notation is so important. As a consequence, new signs for new techniques have to be found. Therefore, I offer quite an extensive preface for all my compositions, including a precise explanation of all signs and all indications necessary for the performance (esthetic aspects that are important for the performance can also be part of the preface). Consequently, musicians and ensembles can rehearse these relatively complex works without my help, especially in view of the fact that most ensembles succeeded in discovering the esthetic dimension of my works after a few rehearsals. However, I often work together with the ensembles during the rehearsals. On the one hand it is an inspiring experience for both and on the other hand the musicians have always appreciated this sort of cooperation. It offers a good opportunity to hint at musical details during the rehearsals and to work them out together, and it is a good chance to draw the attention to esthetic aspects that are essential for a good and appropriate interpretation. It happens not uncommonly that musicians take an interest in the philosophical background beyond the composition, and this experience opens up a dimension of an extended access of the composition to them.
Q: One could say that Schoenberg liberated pitch and interval, and more recently Lachenmann has liberated noise (though in each case, this is a freedom to enter into a precision of control previously unknown). How do you feel your work fits within this historical context?
A: I see myself completely as a part of this tradition; it is so to say the encountered precondition of my own musical language. But not only the pure technical dimension of this liberation and not only the material itself are important, but the esthetic implications as well. As already mentioned, they are preconditions for me, but it is not yet my language. In my compositions this language is to be newly developed for every new work, taking into consideration my special concept of esthetics. The noise is not simply mere material for Lachenmann, but is extremely connoted with regard to the thematization of the actual generation of sound. This also plays an important role for me, even though quite a different one that correlates with the quite different philosophical and esthetic conception of my works. In order to realize my compositional and esthetic approach, I am always refining this sort of exactness of control of the “up-to-now-unknown” and so to further differentiate my musical language with regard to the respective specific new work, thus not as an end in itself. This is for example the case in Anisotropy for piano solo, in which the parameter tone color is hyper-differentiated, but not for the sake of the self-sufficient colorism in itself, but because of its necessity for the realization of the very specific concept of the work. The result is an appropriately differentiated notation, which has been mentioned before.
Q: Where do you see the greatest points of convergence and divergence between American and European contemporary music?
A: This question involves the danger of drifting into a cliché, which is really not my intention. Indeed, there were—and maybe there are still in Germany as well as in Europe—stereotyped notions of what American contemporary music is like. This is of course due to the Darmstadt School, which was the dominating school until the 1990s. I think both cultures are very diverse so that a differentiated view on them is of course necessary, but unfortunately there is not enough space for such a discourse. However, with due respect to all the diversity, there are some basic differences that can be made out. There is first of all the keen historical awareness of the Europeans, not only with regard to the mere knowledge of the past in order to make it available as material for the present. This historical awareness directs one’s attention to the associated connotation; it consequently underlines the hermeneutic aspect. Against this backdrop one can understand, for example, Helmut Lachenmann’s Kritik am ästhetischen Apparat . Taking into consideration my knowledge of American music, composers, and musicians, I can state that the understanding of music is noticeably different with regard to this point; it is less characterized by the historical point of view. As a consequence, the notion “postmodernism” is completely different in America, rather eclectically coined, than in Europe where the notion is much more controversial. This is rather a simplified perception, but I also had different experiences, for example during the SoundScape summer academy. I was invited to give a master class in composition; part of this class were young, predominantly American composers for whom these questions were relatively new, but who dealt with them in a very enthusiastic way. This was very exciting. Or at last year’s New York Guitar Seminar at Mannes where one of my relatively typical “European” pieces, Enigma , was excellently performed by Duo46 and where I introduced into the piece’s philosophical background material that was correlated with the philosophy of the later Nietzsche. That was a very fruitful and vital communication, as if the two worlds were less different but rather intimate. Then there are in America a lot of young composers who apart from the American culture are also well informed about the European culture, for example Arthur Kampela and of course the great American classical composers who were and are still very influential in Europe. Without a Cage or Feldman, the new music in Europe would have developed into a completely different direction. I have been working together with American musicians for six years and I am absolutely enthusiastic; I love the country and its people and I am really looking forward to the premiere of my new work, a Barlow-commissioned composition, in the spring in the U.S. Many of us Europeans tend to keep an eye on the philosophical, the connotative, even on the material level and the historical positioning of the work and its esthetics. The Americans fill me with enthusiasm because of their tremendous degree of real freedom, real mental freedom, which is absolutely amazing, whereas it can happen that some European composers are sometimes a little prone to have a narrow point of view (but which is today characterized by noticeably more freedom than back in the ’80s). There is another essential difference between America and Europe concerning the level of musical life; in America, concerts presenting contemporary music are natural, which is not the case in Europe. Europe is much more characterized by its classical composers and the contemporary music is mostly presented in special concert series that concentrate on the contemporary music, and not on the traditional subscription program. But this has also changed a lot over the years. All in all I want to say that I do not want to miss the complexity and the moment of the connotative of the European thinking, but that I consider this great American spirit of freedom and ease to be profoundly enriching, refreshing, thrilling, and stimulating.
Q: What made you want to be a composer? What was your musical formation in general?
A: In my childhood I was on the one hand strongly influenced by a scientific way of thinking; as a young boy I had my own laboratory and liked to think about basic scientific questions. From the beginning I was interested in the basic complexity of nature, a complexity that I thought was really fascinating. Even at that age I perceived this complexity as an extremely aesthetic one (for example the turbulence of a cloud). At the same time I got to know classical music by attending concerts at an early age. This made me want to learn to play the classical guitar at the music school. I had played the guitar very intensively and had already given numerous concerts before starting with my university studies. This experience from both worlds, the scientific approach of the complexity of nature on the one hand and the fascinating aesthetic and musical complexity on the other hand—which is especially in my case characterized by the limitation of the classical repertoire for the guitar—induces me to create a musical language of my own; this was supposed to be a language that allows one to compose a music that should be characterized by a similar and fascinating complexity and its intertwined character, which I have already known from the scientific view of the world. At that time I experimented a lot; from a present-day perspective I experimented of course clumsily because of the missing means to write down the visionary, sensed world of fascinating complex sounds and structures. But nevertheless, from day to day, I experienced that there must be more than the acquainted world and that this must be very fascinating. When I listened to György Ligeti’s Atmosphères for the first time in my early youth, this was an overwhelming experience because from then on I knew that the musical horizon was wider than I had known until then. I embarked upon its exploration and finally moved in this rich, fascinating, and esthetic world and to be creatively active. At the academy of music I first studied classical guitar with Heinz Teuchert, as well as piano, conducting, music theory, and musicology, and at the same time composition with Hans Ulrich Engelmann. At that time, I frequently gave concerts, which was a good experience for me. Then I came to the realization that doing both—realizing the instrument and composition on a high professional level—would be difficult in the long run and I had to make a decision. My decision was not a difficult one; from then on I wanted to dedicate myself to composition, which has cast a spell over me since my early youth, so I additionally completed my studies in the composition master class with Rolf Riehm at the Frankfurt Academy of Music.
Michael Quell (b.1960) is a composer who finds his inspiration in the representation of philosophical argument through his music. (You know what you’re in for when the first name in the first sentence of the booklet notes is Adorno.) It might seem strange to use the term, but his is a sort of program music; rather than folktale, myth, Shakespeare, or landscape, the music instead uses as inspiration such things as Heidegger’s train of thought. This can certainly lead to some knotty intellectual challenges; again, to quote a passage from the notes, “In physics, anisotropy (to put it simply) refers to the direction dependence of the physical properties of a material and its material constraints as a result of the arrangement of its atoms, ions, or molecules in space.”
I may seem satirical here, and yes, there is a certain tweaking of what we Americans may see as European pretension, but I wish above all to give some basis for how to approach this music, because it will definitely not be for a majority of tastes. Quell’s aesthetic strikes me as similar to Brian Ferneyhough’s, a composer of the previous generation some of this readership may know. Quell’s language is very much late high modernism: complexly textured, highly chromatic or atonal, rhythmically free and mostly unpulsed, exploring a sonic spectrum from noise to pitch. And despite certain reservations I might have, there also are a number of qualities to this music that demand thoughtful appreciation.
Quell, while definitely in the post-serial tradition, also is not afraid of letting music thin out, slow, even stop in ways that are affecting, even poetic. In both works featuring guitar [with flute, Temps et couleurs I (1995), and with accordion, Achronon (2008–09)] there are passages where the music concentrates on a single sonority, or extremely slow-moving line, with microtonal variations. The result is a focusing of attention that shows the composer is really listening to his creation, not just spitting out notes from his conceptual factory. Also, there’s a coloristic imagination at work in these pieces, where at times it becomes very difficult to tell which instrument is playing, and how the rarefied sounds are being produced. As another example, Anisotropie (2001) is a solo piano work that uses inside-the-instrument and prepared effects, but never gratuitously. One feels that the pizzicati and mutings of the strings are part of an innate, essential sound palette and organic structure. I found this work to be the most personally satisfying of the program.
Ekstare (1988–90) for mixed quintet, the 1994 String Trio and Anamorphosis II [Polymorphia] (2002–03) strike me as a bit more generic in their modernist Sturm und Drang . I can’t help but feel that the more restricted the sound-sources given Quell, the more imaginative and expressive he becomes, and the more possible it is to actually hear the concepts he wishes to project.
In short, a rarefied product, but one that does show real imagination and musicality. My major concluding criticism doesn’t so much judge the music in terms of good/bad, pleasant/unpleasant, but rather notes that not much here breaks through to new levels of discovery within the tradition it’s chosen (and that tradition in fact tends to demand such discovery). Somewhat ironically, it strikes me as quite neoclassical, though the classicism we’re talking about is not what the term usually refers to.
Having said that, performances are outstanding; the recorded sound is clear, close, and full. The performers listed in the headnote are guests of Ensemble Aventure. The remaining players are Martina Roth, flute; Alexander Ott, oboe; Walter Ifrim, clarinet; Pascal Pons, percussion; Akiko Okabe, piano; Friedemann Treiber, violin; Jessica Rona, viola; and Beverly Ellis, cello.