Clanking cold dancing with burning fire

Helmut Lachenmann is invited at “Hochschule der Künste Zürich» and «Opernhaus» Zurich.

Helmut Lachenmann ©Klaus Rudolph, CC BY-SA 4.0

Corinne Holtz
Helmut Lachenmann, one of the most important contemporary composers, wrote his first opera at the age of 62 and achieved the biggest success of his life with its world premiere in 1997. Avant-gardist and pupil of Luigi Nono, feared by the orchestras as “noise” composer, Darmstadt’s “victim” – as he amusingly defines himself – gives his take on Andersen’s fairy tale “Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern”, focusing mainly on the social and critical message of the material.

Lachenmann interprets the fairy tale as metaphor for the icy coldness of post-capitalist societies and breaks the narrative with texts by Leonardo da Vinci and Gudrun Ensslin. Synopsis: A girl tries in vain to sell matches on New Year’s Eve. She eventually lights the sticks herself and experiences the delight of bourgeois warmth for a brief moment in the “glow” of the flames. The girl ends up freezing to death and her dead grandmother takes her to heaven.


Interview with Helmut Lachenmann about Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern, Ruhrtriennale, Jahrhunderthalle Bochum 2013

Not a story, but “meteorological conditions.”

Lachenmann sees beauty as “denial of the accustomed” and music as a “liberated art of perception”, beginning with the creation of sound and the necessary efforts in order to achieve it. Lachenmann uses eight horns in his opera. “The eight horns are one single instrument. It all boils down to new ways of hearing and to do so I must start with suspending the melodious perspective.” Things he demands from the musicians are for example fluttering tongues, air noises, valve rattles and vibrations. This acoustically attractive effect results from the overlapping of two oscillations with frequencies only slightly differing from one another. But he goes even further and calls the opera a “pretext to write for singing voices”. The music does not tell a story but represents “meteorological conditions”. The girl is surrounded by freezing cold and feels burning fire for a moment.

The core of Lachenmann’s gestural music is actually theatrical. Those who experience it live can observe busy performers and invent their own scenery. Transforming these actions into the art form of ballet is a challenge. How can one create a choreography that goes beyond images and leaves room for music and its actors?


Helmut Lachenmann, Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern, Opernhaus Zürich 2019, Trailer

This new production: “Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern” is the focus of a three-day symposium, which the Zurich University of the Arts organises in cooperation with the Zurich Opera House, as well as the starting point for an interdisciplinary examination of Lachenmann’s work. Musicologist Hans-Ulrich Mosch illuminates Nono’s shadow, music journalist Julia Spinola the methods used in previous productions, dance scientist Stephanie Schroedter the transformation of musical score into movement. Finally, the composer and his choreographer Christian Spuck will discuss the opportunities and limitations of the new production with composer Isabel Mundry.

“Can an Adorno student be happy in the act of composing?”

Lachenmann’s utopian musical thinking has fallen out of date and is – perhaps for this very reason – of vital importance. In addition, the composer knows how to convey his beliefs in a humorous way. His colleague Hans Werner Henze once asked him if it was possible for him – as an Adorno pupil – to be happy in the act of composing. “No. Never happy, but I’ve been joyful.” What about the feeling of happiness after the premiere of a new production? “Every performance is an adventure and its outcome always uncertain.”
Corinne Holtz


Helmut Lachenmann, Allegro sostenuto 1986/88, interpreted by Trio Caelum

ZHdK: Zu Gast: Helmut Lachenmann: Congress / conference / symposium, 8.-10.11.19

Opernhaus Zürich: ‘Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern‘, 12.10.-14.11.19

neo-Profiles: ZHdK, Philharmonia Zürich, Basler Madrigalisten

Pling! Plong! Brrr!

Michael Pelzel

Composer Michael Pelzel is currently polishing the final details of his first opera for the Opernhaus Zurich. In this interview with Bjørn Schaeffner, he talks about the razor’s edge, zero energy states and that certain degree of lightheartedness work sometimes needs.

Michael Pelzel, how’s life?  
Very hectic at the moment, I am reaching my limits and I’m working from home right now. 

You’re on the home straight of your opera “Last Call”.
I can fortunately rely on a great team. It’s a joint effort. As an opera composer, one must always deal with other art forms as well. 

Have there been arguments?
Only on one particular issue. I personally had a dreamwalking final in mind for “Last Call”, some kind of gravity song, reminding both of a church chorale and a vocal quartet in the style of “Manhattan Transfer. I wanted to establish some kind of zero energy state at the end, but my partners Chris Kondek and Jonathan Stockhammer both believed that this had already been fulfilled earlier and wasn’t needed anymore at the end of the opera. They eventually convinced me. 

How did the idea for “Last Call” come about?
Author Dominik Riedo from Lucerne reached out to me and we developed the material together in an inspiring kind of ping-pong working procedure. Riedo’s text approached my music using an onomatopoeic, almost comic-like language. Pling! Plong! Brrr! 

In “Last Call”, humanity loses control over communication media and is therefore forced to dislocate to a distant planet.
I’m sure you’re familiar with this – I experience it day in day out. As soon as you’re done answering your 30 mails, the inbox is full again. We are literally being attacked from all sides and on every possible channel. Then there are tech giants like Amazon or Google, who know more and more about our lives. It makes one wonder. 

The programme brochure defines the opera as grotesquely exaggerated.
Yes, the idea is to get quirky, somewhere between Dürrenmatt’s “Die Physiker” or “Le Grand Macabre” by György Ligeti. I was also inspired by Christoph Marthaler, in whose productions you often don’t really know whether he’s being serious or not. I like walking on the razor’s edge. 

Michael Pelzel, Last Call, UA 28.6.19, Opernhaus Zürich ©Herwig Prammer

How did you approach “Last Call” in terms of composition?
Many composers are in despair, hopelessly trying to harmonise each and every musical parameter. I believe one has to set to work with a certain degree of lightheartedness and knowing that for a 90-minute work, you can’t compose every note from scratch. I therefore developed and dwelled upon already existing themes and worked in theatrical sense of course.

What bothers me in contemporary opera is this latent tragedy and almost clichéd profundity that’s pervading everything. I wanted to work against that, so I took the liberty of being a little cheekier here and there.  

Cheekier?
We slightly altered the “Sendung mit der Maus” melody for example. This is nothing new of course; variations within a composer’s own musical language can be found in Mozart’s works and Wagner sometimes suddenly and surprisingly tapped into baroque elements. 

What can the public look forward to?
I am curious too, about how it will all come together. The child must stand on its own feet and then take flight. But the public can certainly look forward to Chris Kondek’s video art. He has this great way of conjuring a trashy kind of pop art into the opera with very few means. Then there’s the stage design by Sonja Füsti, highlighting video art very well and Ruth Stofer’s costumes everything actually. As said: it’s a joint effort.
Interview by Bjørn Schaeffner

Michael Pelzel, Last Call, UA 28.6.19, Opernhaus Zürich ©Herwig Prammer

Opernhaus ZürichMichael Pelzel

broadcasts SRF
29.Juni 2019: “Musikmagazin“, Kaffee mit Michael Pelzel (auch als Podcast)
1. Juli 2019, “Kultur-Aktualität“, Bericht zur Premiere; “Kultur Kompakt

neo-profilesMichael Pelzel, Opernhaus Zürich, Jonathan Stockhammer, Philharmonia Zürich