When Wolfgang Rihm was young he showed his work to Stockhausen and asked what he should learn. "Dear Wolfgang Rihm. Please follow only your inner voice." Stockhausen wrote back, tersely. The note was written in green ballpen, which gradually faded into the paper over the years, becoming less visible. That's a metaphor for Rihm's music, too, where formal outlines disappear. You have to "follow your inner voice" to figure what they might be.
The evening concert on 13/3, on the Wolfgang Rihm Total Immersion Day at the Barbican illlustrated the concept further.
Schwarzer und roter Tanz (1982-3) is powerful, didactic stuff. Cellos and basses pound out a rhythm, bow on wood. Sophisticated instruments used in a primitive way. The relentless beating's important. Modern life is mechanical. People are processed like lines in a factory. Hence Rihm's relentless, pounding verticals, which impose an artificial order over natural form. Rihm's Schwarzer und roter Tanz is a Rite of Spring for the Age of Technology.
As the gears of the tempi change, vivacious anarchy leaps out in brief, lively bursts. Languid trombone and clarinet create unhurried horizontals against the relentless vertical chords. Then, suddenly, the plug is pulled and the machine switches off midflow: another of Rihm's Fetzen (shreds, or better still "tearings off")
The picture above comes from the Munich satire magazine Simplicissimus. It's over a hundred years old, but what it says about society applies today. Our brains are still filled by others, we're still conned into believing dichotomies and clichés. Red and black are the colours of Germany (now moderated with gold). Rihm's being specific. But the concept holds universal.
In the excellent programme notes, Ivan Hewett quotes Antonin Artaud's dream of reinvigorating theatre through "violent rigour and extreme condensation of scenic elements". Thus stark, stylized simplicity, jagged outlines that heighten emotion. Modern society feeds us soma, the mind-numbing pap in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Music and theatre inspired by Artaud's vision is the antidote because it makes us think for ourselves.
Das Gehege (2004-5) was written for stage, so its text offers clues as to meaning. Yet again, paradox, for this text is based on Botho Strauss's Schlusschor : Gruppenbilder mit Dame und Adler. A "group picture" featuring woman and eagle, but not necessarily a narrative. In Rihm's version, a woman goes to a zoo and tears a hole in the aviary. But why? Among the contrasts: feathers versus clothes, nature versus impurity, interspecies sex, lust versus love, victim defeated by predator. Which further begs the question, who is the predator, the woman or the eagle?
Ultimately, it's more like a nightmare, whose interpretation varies from person to person. We're told the woman is Anita, a reference to Anita von Scharstorf, whose father plotted to kill Hitler, so the Eagle could represent Germany. But it's all much kinkier and more contradictory. You could read completely opposite meanings into this, or none at all, which is why it's so tantalizing.
Rihm doesn't give clues. The eagle doesn't have a voice, so we're completely missing "his" side of the story, which is important. He's the "castrated chimera" who ends up torn to shreds - Rihm's Fetzen again - through no fault of his own. I was glad that Rayanne Dupuis replaced Gabriele Schnaut in this performance, because she's still young enough to be sexy. Wearing red velvet slit to her hip was a true stroke of theatre! She acts well, too, so if her diction wasn't perfect, it didn't distract. As with so much modern art, meaning is "beyond" literal.
Sandwiched (not a good choice of word after Anita devours the eagle) between these two hyper-dramatic works, Rihm's Konzert in einem Satz (2005-6) might seem strange. It's a long concertante, where Steven Isserlis has to play almost without a break. Superficially, it could be labelled "conventional" because it seems, at first, relatively straightfoward. But Rihm wrote it specially for Isserlis, who's known for his lyricism and delicacy. "No use writing against a performer", said Rihm, who adapted Isserlis's strengths into the music.
So it contains beautifully complex writing for the cello, and cadenzas in which Isserlis can display the lucidity of his playing. Yet don't assume that Rihm's gone traditional. There are hints of other, earlier music, but they're elusive suggestions, not simple quotes. Rihm removes the signposts so thoroughly that you can't rest on conventional form. Konzert in einem Satz feels like a concert heard from a distance, like it's underwater perhaps, or "music from another planet". Feelings are a perfectly valid point of entry into this music, indeed any music. Compartmentalization is the danger. "Kein Schublade" as Rihm said. "No pigeonholes"
Please see my other pieces on Wolfgang Rihm by scrolling down or using the search facility on the right. Lots more on other contemporary composers on this site. Don't forget to listen to the BBC broadcasts.