Notes from Inside

I've just posted my video of Lachenmann's classic percussion solo, Interieur I, to my media page.  Below is a reprint of the notes I wrote for the piece for Vic Firth, as well as some of Lachenmann's own prose about his musical material.  Thanks to Mark and Neil at Vic Firth for their help and support!  Interieur I has become one of my most beloved, and in my opinion it remains an under-appreciated masterpiece in the percussive canon.

About Interieur I:

"At a time during the 1960s in which many composers in Europe and the US began working in electronic music studios in a search for new sounds, Helmut Lachenmann asserted that not only could acoustic instruments create original colors, but that there's something special about the physical gesture of producing sound that is essential to the vibrancy of music. His music uses sound—the gradual transition between closely related sounds, and the bold crashing of conflicting timbres—against one another as an argument, both for the importance of acoustic music, and for the need to constantly rethink traditional means of expression and conventional playing techniques.

I'm sure every percussionist has played a piece where they thought "this composer must have never heard or seen a single percussion before instrument in his life." With Lachenmann this isn't the case: not only does he have a deep knowledge of the instruments' capabilities, he's also famous for using primarily non-traditional playing techniques, expanding the repertoire of sounds each instrument can produce. Throughout Intérieur I you'll hear me making—I hope!—beautiful marimba, cymbal, triangle and timpani sounds; you'll also hear me scratch, scrape and crash my way through some other, more original colors. I think Intérieur is a really important piece for percussionists to get to know because of how perfectly it's suited to percussion's greatest strength: the potential to produce a startlingly diverse range of colors and dynamics. It's a whole piece about sound, where timbre determines both the small gestures within the piece and the overall structure!

Lachenmann's score is bursting with innovative timbral ideas. It's also bursting with instruments, which makes getting into position to play the correct drum or cymbal at the right time one of the major challenges in learning the piece. Lachenmann gives us a lot of help: an incredibly detailed setup diagram, a score designed to be spread across three music stands, and a notation system that helps indicate where an instrument is located based on its position on the staff. However, because most of the piece involves extremely delicate combinations or progressions of sounds, practicing my footwork was one of the first challenges in learning the piece. I also decided that memorizing as much of Intérieur as possible would let me stay focused on getting into position and producing the kinds of sounds I wanted. Lachenmann emphasizes that Intérieur is a actually a very vocal and melodic piece, regardless of how disjunctive some sections may seem. This is especially important because Intérieur is written almost entirely without traditional rhythms. Lachenmann gives suggested durations for phrases and indicates rhythmic relationships through note spacing and beaming, but the performer is left to use his or her ear and the sonic characteristics of the specific instruments in the set-up to determine note length. Because of this, I tried to rely less on muscle memory in my memorization, instead latching onto the connections Lachenmann makes between gestures and how I could use the particular instruments I had to create composite sounds from multiple instruments and to make sharp transitions between sections

Another challenge in a piece with so many instruments is the mallet changes. In the interest of simplicity, Lachenmann asks for only a few types of mallets: hard wooden or yarn mallets, soft mallets, drum sticks, brushes, a tam tam mallet and a knitting needle. He is, however very specific about where and how to change sticks, even making a note in the score to practice the many switches as an integral part of the piece and asking that the changes occur quickly and don't disturb the flow of the piece. Because practicing Intérieur had me so attenuated to sound, I began to make additional mallet changes that I thought could improve the clarity of musical line without sacrificing continuity. A marimba mallet doesn't sound as rich and full on a timpano than a large timpani mallet, and using a real triangle beater or brass mallets on triangles allows them to sparkle more than the butt end of a drumstick. Although my additional mallets added a some logistic difficulties and necessitated some creative thinking, the ability to both emphasize and prioritize some of Lachenmann's gestures while making some of his brilliant timbral combinations come out was in my opinion worth it.

I hope you enjoy watching and hearing Intérieur I as much as I do playing it!"

- Michael Compitello [hr_invisible]

More Information, Straight from Herr Lachenmann:

"Intérieur I was composed in 1966 at the suggestion of Siegfried Fink, to whom it is dedicated. It was premiered in the United States in Santa Fe by  Michael W. Ranta in 1967 and in Germany in the same year by Christoph Caskel at the International Summer Courses for New Music in Darmstadt.

The terraced arrangement of the instruments — vibraphone, marimba, kettledrum, two tom-toms, three triangles, three cymbals, two tam-tams, four temple blocks, and four cowbells, high hat, cymbales antiques—forming a horseshoe around the player creates a characteristic ‘playing room,’ an ‘intérieur,’ not only for the player but also for the composer himself, which can be illuminated in a variety of ways. The form thus proves to be a multi-level process in which layered structures are probed, as well as the combinations and relations that result from them. Sound and gesture are thus individuated in two ways: as abstractly subdivided components of structural constellations, as well as the result and expressive product thereof."

Lastly, some additional philosophical background, courtesy of Lachenmann's descriptiong of  Pression (for solo cello):

“…instrumental musique concrète…by which I mean a music in which sonic events are selected and organized in such a way that their mode of origin becomes no less a part of one's experience of the music than the resulting acoustical characteristics themselves. Timbres, dynamics, pitches, etc., do not sound for their own sake or for the sake of the forms from which they are built, rather they characterize or signal the concrete situation of their origin: from them one hears under which conditions, with which materials, with which energies, and against which (mechanical) resistances each sound or noise is produced. Such a perspective has no effect by itself: it must first be called to attention, exposed, and given a musical sense through a compositional technique that makes use of a nuanced alienation in playing techniques. Thus, the unthinking path to the music, i.e., using one's usual, ingrained habits of listening, is obstructed. Through its insistent scrutiny of new visions of the con- text of sound, the totality becomes an aesthetic provocation: beauty as an invalidated habit.”

 -Helmut Lachenmann (trans. Steven Lindberg)

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