Music review: Klaus Lang at Monday Evening Concerts
Monday Evening Concerts has, in recent few years, become a significant source for news of the uncompromising avant-garde from Western and Eastern Europe. This month, the subject was Klaus Lang, a 40-year-old Austrian organist and cryptic composer who has said that sound is sound just as mollusks are mollusks, that composing is different from coming up with a formula for LSD and that acrobatics belong in the circus.
His music moves with self-conscious slowness and strangeness. He gets a lot of his ideas from John Cage and late 20th century American experimentalism. He approves, moreover, in provocatively enigmatic statements, of Donald Duck and Michael Jackson. But he is also a professor in Linz, Austria, who has not divorced himself from history. Far from it.
Lang began Monday night at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall by performing three short early 17th century organ pieces -– two “Elevation” toccatas by Frescobaldi and a durezze (a slow moving style with melody and accompaniment in different tempos) by Ercole Pasquini. The small portable organ was in Baroque meantone temperament, meaning it was tuned to what to us now sounds microtonal and exotic.
The playing was inexpressive and probably purposely so. One note came upon the next. The point was clear that early music can be made to sound as indeterminate as venturesome modern composition or, for that matter, quantum physics. The old organ, however, gives off a whiff of pious solemnity. How much more intriguing this might have been had Lang used the rock ’n’ roll Fender Rhodes electric piano he plays so beautifully on a recent Cage CD, “Melodies & Harmonies.” Still, the quiet curiousness of Frescobaldi (who influenced Bach) was impressive.
The main piece was the U.S. premiere of Lang’s “einfalt. stille.” Four performers were situated in the balcony. For 50 minutes, soprano Natalia Pschenitschnikova sang mesmerizingly slow, wordless pitches above the stage. Percussionist Jonathan Hepfer and flutist Alice Teyssier floated their mesmerizingly slow sounds over the heads of the audience from the left, while violist Andrew McIntosh did the same from the right.
Lang has had quite a bit to say about his relationship to the history of music, how it came to be that in the 20th century composers could pick up a lost but liberating trend of the 17th century. “One speaks,” he was quoted as saying in the program notes, “in connection with Morton Feldman and also others of ‘loose music.’ ”
I couldn’t tell from listening how Lang’s “einfalt. stile.” (simplicity. quiet.), which was written in 2002, was made. It was quiet but not simple. Sounds were produced slowly but deliberately. Each was allowed enough time and space to make an impression and be admired. The formula for coming up with pitches was, perhaps, not as different from the one for LSD than Lang let on, namely they functioned as trance-inducers.
The performance was exceptional. Every pitch, every sound, had a considered, tactile beauty, as if it had been lovingly worked on and perfected. Lang created an enviable environment where craftsmanship meant there would be no “loose music.”
But he also seemed to be fighting old battles. This is music on the other side of history. Cage and Feldman (whose music is exquisitely patterned and not "loose" at all) drew attention to nature. Theirs was a music of matter, of sound as a physical phenomenon. They meant to take the listener outside of him or herself and bring us closer to our surroundings.
Lang’s “einfalt. stille.” is meditative, but not static. It is, as I heard it, meant for the mind. Every listener is different, but I felt it very much to be music from the country that gave us Freud. Cage released the ego from music; Lang massages the ego in the way connoisseurship does. Each sound in "einfalt. stille." might be a collector's item.
But this is splendid music, and true to itself. It is also worth remembering that this is the work of a gifted composer, then 30, who has gone on to develop his ideas and written a number of music theater works yet to gain attention on this side of the Atlantic. Perhaps this premiere will spur our curiosity.
-- Mark Swed
Photo: above, Klaus Lang at Zipper Concert Hall Monday night; below, soprano Natalia Pschenitschnikova. Credit: Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times