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About my compositions

Not committed to any ideology

With my music I do not feel bound by a particular ideology; it is rather the wealth of musical languages, forms of expression and the wide field of current composition techniques that constitute the basis of my musical imagination.

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A Wide range of expression

I try to explore a broadly diversified spectrum of expression by the inclusion of most different musical trends of our time, and thus to give my music a profile as varied as possible. Yet, despite the heterogeneity of the used means, I always aim at generating a distinct individual musical idiom. This language is often shaped by dance rhythms facing ametric sound fields; and if the harmony is mostly tonal, it glides into atonality over and over again.

Synthesis of different elements and currents

It is not my primary goal to produce the unprecedented “new”; instead I try to explore the field of sonic possibilities between simple triads and sharp dissonances or clusters, between monodical melodies and complex polyrhythms, between traditional sound concepts and experimental instrumental techniques up to the use of electronic sounds. For me the new, exciting perspective of contemporary art lies in the infinite variety of possible syntheses powered by different elements and currents.

“between the cracks”…

If one strives to catch the inexhaustible spectrum of musical possibilities in all its diversity and apart from ideologically frozen positions, and if one tries to conciliate between contradictory, mutually exclusive musical points or view – one inevitably risks to miss sworn in target groups and to fall “between the cracks”.

This is exactly the place that interests me.

Art as lively field of possibilities

The evaluation of art occurs in the end with the individual, on a subjective level. This proves sometimes difficult to accept, but therein lies the meaning of art as such: as a lively field of chances in which values must basically be accepted, but can not be regarded as absolute.

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As a composer I feel attracted by numerous tendencies and sound worlds, and I constantly aim at interconnecting most diversified influences in a personal manner.

In all my pieces I take care of a very wide spectrum of tonal possibilities, from the simple triad up to sharp dissonances or clusters, from complex polyrhythms up to unanimous melody, from traditional play manners of established instruments up to the application of electronic sounds.

The thrill of contemporary art in my opinion is to be found in the personal synthesis of heterogeneous elements and topical currents.

In my compositions I deliberately try to implement opposing forces of contemporary music into a personal idiom. This idiom is often characterized by pulsating rhythms repeatedly crossed by ametric sonic situations; the harmony is mostly free-tonal, yet gliding into atonality again and again; and if most intimate music passages consistently appear in my orchestral pieces, my chamber music itself is often suffused with symphonic gesture.

Martin Lichtfuss

About new church music

[ 2011 ]

Contemporary music – at church?

When we talk about “contemporary church music”, a presumable minority of people only realizes that “church” and “contemporary music” share essential qualities – and probably more extensively than they prefer: they are both raddled by ominous manifestations of “hereditery sins”.

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These unfold their effect in the jerk by which the majority of people in our society almost reflexively withdraw the moment the terms “church” or “contemporary music” are mentioned …

“Beauty” as a lure?

Should a composer of contemporary sacred music scare away even the last church-goers by the maintenance of established expectations proclaimed by a sworn in minority of specialists? Or is it not rather the function of church music to attract people and to “seduce” them to attend religious ceremonies – for example by conceding that contemporary music, regardless of the materials and techniques involved, might be “beautiful”?

The “other” side of new sounds – a utopian dream?

For basically open-minded listeners, the dazzling variegation of a cluster may well correspond with the colors of a triad. Or the magic of a melody may also unfold within the realm of harmonics. It appears to be a “square of the circle” to apply comprehensive and widely accepted sounds while maintaining artistic claims presupposed in the field of contemporary music. However, is there a more important determination of art than that to strive for utopias?

(Un-)predictability as a key factor of compositional thinking

A central aspect of the thinking of composers
Published in: LA CHIAVE INVISIBILE – Spazio e Tempo nella filosofia della musica del XX e XXI secolo

A cura di Letizia Michielon, Milano-Udine 2011.

The consideration of musical expectations and their fulfillment or violation represents – in my opinion – a central aspect of the thinking of composers. Of course this is not true for all types of music, but in the context of Western traditions of the past 3-4 centuries the development of individuality, personality and – globally speaking – of a “personal language” has proved to be a crucial criterion for compositional results.

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When we look up the definitions about the term “composition” in various relevant encyclopedias (including Wikipedia) we may notice that there is consensus about the claim for “originality” in this context. “Originality” means that a composition differs to a certain extent from established standards (or goes beyond commonplaces) by unexpected progressions. This however implies a paradox: We expect that “unexpected” events may happen….

Doubtless there exist many types of music that are neither “original” nor of any “personal” style. And yet they are compositions! Almost all medieval works follow the idea of pure handicraft, i.e. of a most perfect elaboration of established standards. And in many cultures of non-European regions the search for individuality and uniqueness of artistic outputs is of no authority at all. As a consequence musical tastes and norms in past times (or areas) survived during relatively long periods compared to the accelerated sequence of changes in our culture since the beginning of modern age. For a contemporary composer the demand for uniqueness of his statements is an enormous challenge:
Stockhausen: “… seit ich mich zum ersten Mal entschieden habe, […] etwas zu komponieren, das alles ausschloß, was ich kannte, und das auch für mich selbst neu war. […] Schallvorgänge […], die man noch nie gehört hat (sollte es jemand gehört haben, so sagen Sie es mir gleich, dann werfe ich das Stück in den Papierkorb). Das ist mir wichtig: das Neue.” [1]

The idea of innovation is of particular importance in our part of the world since the period of Enlightenment, and therefore it is a genuine European category. Clearly, in medieval and Renaissance music a different attitude is pursued and established as artistic criteria: J. Tinctoris, one of the earliest European composers and author of the first theory of counterpoint, assigned the idea of permanent change and unpredictability of musical progressions to his concept of varietas, a term that was mainly used by contemporary rhetoricians. “Varietas” means the renunciation of qualities that make music recognizable, such as contrasts, rhythmic or dynamic profiles, repetitions, sequences etc. A generally static overall impression was aspired, colored by a diversity of details. Music should flow (more or less) functioning like a background and without claiming too much attention – an aspect that turned out to be of particular significance during the council of Trento and the respective debates on the role of music in liturgy.

This music functions in a totally different way than music from the classical or romantic period. Composers from these ages focused on the chance to create contrasts as a source of discussion and development. Their works are characterized rather by the opposite to the principle of varietas: Schoenberg marked some end of this development by his search for formal concentration, which became first evident in his analysis’ of works by Beethoven and Brahms: He pointed out a particular quality of these composers and their works which he himself would develop further in his 12tone-technique: to characterize it he established the term “Fasslichkeit” – an antonym of “varietas” and a word hard to translate: ~ perceptibility. The idea was to compensate for the loss of tonality by a maximum of intensity, concentration and the creation of some kind of “gravitation” by the use of rhetoric elements of maximal comprehensiveness. In this context it seems paradoxical/contradictory that he abandoned the most evident technique to create “Fasslichkeit”: the means of repetition.

This aversion to literal repetition is a constant throughout the compositional thinking since the beginning of the 20th century; it originates in the inflation of repetitions in the so-called “light” music since the mid-19th century (or even before) and the resulting wish of composers to distance themselves accordingly. Yet the means of repetition is a crucial compositional technique to address the listener, to attract his attention, to evoke expectations and to confirm him by fulfilling them. Considering this it is interesting what A. Schoenberg expressed with reference to the music by J. Strauß, a composer which he profoundly admired and to whom – as we know – he dedicated some arrangements of significant artistic importance. Schoenberg identified the appeal of Strauß’ music (and of popular music in general) by the following elements:

  1. Everything that happens is concentrated in the melody – […] the harmony has a very simple, familiar scheme, which is, moreover, much repeated.
  2. The invented figures are repeated very often, and with only insignificant variations.
  3. Only after these repetitions have guaranteed that comprehensibility is possible do new, more ‘far-fetched’ figures make their appearance.
  4. If they make their appearance earlier, then there is much subsequent repetition.
  5. Moreover, each section is repeated in toto. [2]

We notice that in these considerations repetition for Schoenberg is a crucial phenomenon – within 5 attributes of popular music the word itself is mentioned 4 times, and compared to the original version of the waltz Schoenberg infiltrated quite a few varying ornaments where Strauß merely repeated a passage. The tendency to replace repetition by variation is of course very old – in fact it goes back to the Baroque period and the practice to introduce ornaments into da-capo-passages. It represents the wish to reduce predictability where musical sequences are too evident. I.e. that a certain balance between predictability and unpredictability – between confirmation and surprise – was the goal of musical invention, of the communication/the interaction between composers and their listeners. This balance was seriously disturbed by the disengagement of popular music in the 19th century and its usurpation of striking effects or – in other words – its inflation of elements of confirmation. Whereas popular music up to the present presupposes a high level of predictability, “art” throughout the last 200 years became more and more incalculable, enigmatic, inimitable. It is remarkable that for Schoenberg – after his reluctance to use repetitions in his early period – the developing of dodecaphony opened the door to the rediscovery of repetitions as a compositional means (e.g. in his piano suite op. 25). The new technique guaranteed that the degree of predictability was now low enough to reintroduce the option of a literal re-playing. On the other hand the use of “classical” periods of 8 measures should help to pool musical forces drifting apart due to the lack of tonality.

This sounds logical – and yet we may identify a source of contradiction. The idea of a democratic use of all pitches in the twelve-tone-technique is correlated with increasing unpredictability – despite the fact that the original idea of this principle was the creation of a row as a pattern that could be recognized. Indeed the repetition of passages that are more or less amorphous and unrecognizable is inconsistent per se since it cannot have any aesthetic impact on the listener. In general composers of Western art-music throughout the 20th century developed a growing reluctance to use literal repetitions and recognizable sequences, and in particular they moved away from preformed elements, such as symmetrical periods, regular groups of measures etc. If in relevant music of the 20th century these elements occur they obtain a meaning different from historical contexts:

  1. v. Webern’s symphony op. 21 shows very impressively the revaluation of the technique of repetition: contrary to its former affirmative effect it arises here as an outcome of static thinking, of enigmatic circulation around a center that remains unveiled. Not only are the two sections of this movement repeated, the “development section” itself is strictly symmetrical thus evoking the opposite of what its name could suggest: the character of some kind of “perpetuum mobile”.

Webern’s music – due to its logical structures as well as to its crystalline sound – has very often been compared to a starry sky – thus evoking the connotation of galactic spaces, despite its density and stringency. Another contemporary of Schoenberg persecuted similar ideas of some kind of “astronomic music” – an Austrian composer who is very little known abroad and whose works are far less relevant than his ideas, by which he can be regarded as a very typical and characteristic representative of the first half of the 20th century: J. M. Hauer.

Hauer invented his own concept of a twelve-tone-technique independently of Schoenberg and – this is particularly important – with totally different results. Contrary to his great contemporary “competitor” he approached the vision of “musical democracy” by pursuing the idea of an alleviation of tension as complete as imaginable. Of course this concept presupposed an attitude completely free of expectations and resulted in a very specific output of “objective” sound.

In this sound Hauer – by an ability which he called “intuition” – believed to have found the “language of the universe” and with it the “revelation of the world order”; as the interpreter of “Melos” he felt himself appointed to make this order accessible to all listeners. Very strangely he postulated that his Zwölftonspiele represented the eternal, unchangeable absolute music of cosmic dimension: “Die absolute, die kosmische Musik gestattet den tiefsten Einblick in das Weltge­schehen. Die Töne mit ihren Obertönen sind Sonnen mit ihren Planeten. Die Sonnensysteme ‘temperieren’ einander; ihre Spannungen ordnen sich mit zwingender Notwendigkeit zur Sphärenharmonie. Zwölftonspiele beinhalten Funktionen der Milchstraßensysteme [… und sind] auch gleichzeitig ein Orakel’spiel’, wie es in dem uralten Weisheitsbuch der Chinesen, im Iging, überliefert ist.”. (Walter Szmolyan, J.M.Hauer, Wien 1965, S.5.)[3]

A very peculiar, even bizarre point of view, maybe a little crazy, but still fascinating in some ways; even if Hauer’s reputation was not international enough to identify a direct impact on minimal music, he may well be called a person who anticipated future musical developments. After all John Cage highly appreciated Hauer’s concept (which was quite similar to his own!). Cage’s ultimate conclusion of his concept of music without any intention was silence – silence as a state of suspension. There is no difference between a quiet silence and a silence full of noise. What they both have in common is the absence of intention. And this is the state I am interested in.” [4]

Cage may be regarded as the perhaps most radical “anti-composer”: because he not only abandoned “intention”, he deliberately excluded it. And opened the field of composition to any sounds imaginable. His famous piece 4’33″ incorporates this idea extremely.

This composition and its perspective has proved to be highly relevant in the music after World War II, yet a further development of this point of view could not be deduced. It was the endpoint of a chain of considerations, highly important, but not applicable in general. And there exists a paradox to be identified – a paradox not only regarding J. Cage but all music which is not anonymous and yet pretends to be accidental (“aleatoric”): the intention to abandon intention…

This is also true of predictability: the far most part of contemporary music is not predictable at all – at least as far as details are concerned. And this is exactly what we expect when we attend a concert or listen to music of our time: as soon as we think to foresee anything we turn away and are “disgusted” by the composer’s naivety. However if a composer is ready to unfold an amorphous sounding space without characteristic details (“motives”) to be identified (i.e. in a manner of “varietas”!) we feel confirmed and backed up since our expectations are met. But is it not the function of art to disturb, to irritate, to make uncertain, rather than to fulfill expectations, even if they concern unpredictability?

I believe that the consideration of predictability/unpredictability is a crucial aspect of composing. Let us rediscover methods to stimulate expectations again – not to meet them superficially as an instrument of confirmation, but to understand them as a stimulus in the communication process with the listeners, as a way to provoke, or simply to play with them.

[1] “…since I have for the first time decided to compose something that excluded everything that I knew […] oscillations that were unheard; should somebody have heard it before tell me, I will then trash the piece. That is what is important for me: the New.” Neue Zeitschrift für Musik 7-8/1998, p. 19.

[2] Journal of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute, Vol.1/No.2, pp. 102-105. Los Angeles, 1977.

[3] “The absolute, cosmic music offers the most profound insight into the world’s events. The tones with their overtones are suns with their planets. The sun-systems ‘temper’ each other respectively; their tensions organize themselves with compelling necessity to the harmony of spheres. Zwölf­ton­spiele contain functions of galaxies [… and are] at the same time oracle”games” similar to those in the Iging, the old Chinese wisdom book”; in: Walter Szmolyan, J.M.Hauer, Vienna 1965, S.5.

[4] ORF – Kunstradio 13.8.1993; c.f. http://www.kunstradio.at/1992B/13_8_92.html (25.1.2010).

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