Klangbeschreibung (transl. "sound description") is a composition that was finished in 1987 and premiered at the Donaueschingen Music Festival in the same year. It is divided into three parts. Klangbeschreibung I for three orchestral groups lasts ca. 20 minutes, Klangbeschreibung II, for 4 female voices, 5 brass players and 6 percussionists lasts close to half an hour, and Klangbeschreibung III for large orchestra lasts almost 40 minutes. At a total duration of close to 90 minutes, the massive composition has the dimensions of a large Mahler symphony.
The music is slow moving and relatively static. This forms a great contrast with the dynamism of motion in, for example, the also massive Tutuguri, written five years earlier, and follows a significant trend in the composer’s output during the late Eighties and early Nineties. The composer characterizes the work with the phrase "Every sound: a sculpture of itself" (CD booklet, Hänssler Classic, p. 11).
This movement of about 20 minutes duration is scored for three orchestral groups. The slow music is weighty in character, with rather dark timbres. Woodwinds are in low register, e.g. contrabass clarinet, bass clarinet and contrabassoon, or are often used in their low range (e.g. clarinet); the contrabass clarinet produces some growling tones, later on at times countered by sounds of similar character in lower strings. Brass outbursts, including those in higher registers, are of a complex, somewhat muted and restrained color. The sound colors contribute to create a brooding, at times even menacing atmosphere.
Initially, individual instrumental groups or instruments play lines that are mostly dominated by long notes and restricted or slow in pitch motion. The lines often contain just a few notes, yet they can still considerably stretch out due to the length of the notes. Importantly, there is constant gradual and restricted dynamic swelling and abating, also resulting in timbre fluctuations. Lines of such character alternate, overlap, or run in parallel for some time. In combination with the timbres of muted, darkened color, a texture arises that gives the impression of viscous flow.
As the music progresses, there are less dynamic changes within the sounds and, instead of lines of a few notes, there tend to occur close successions of individual sustained sounds, often played by different instrumental groups and in different registers, causing constant shifts in color. These successions of sustained sounds extend the thick flow of the texture that at times evokes a stream of molten lava.
While in the first several minutes there are constant fluctuations in dynamics, the overall dynamic range is constrained during this time, hardly rising above mezzoforte. Later on the music allows for higher dynamic levels, but fortissimo outbursts are restrained in duration and frequency. Brass screams imbue the texture with power, or pierce it like massive, sharp objects.
Heavy percussion, while underscoring or introducing dramatic elements, is sparsely used. Instead, the agility of light wooden percussion, like wood blocks and xylophone, sets some vivid accents among the generally slow-moving music, as does percussive piano. In the second half of the movement, there are moments of faster commotion within the orchestra, some of them sending tremors through the texture, yet the slow undercurrents in the music remain.
Towards the end a remarkable sound is heard, developing over more than one minute. A subdued piano tremolo in middle register is surrounded by a halo of softly excited tubular bells. Very slowly, the overall sound becomes louder and louder, and then is supported by other metallic percussion. Finally it climaxes and dies away. The previous music resumes for a while, gains in agitation and eventually subsides.
This movement of about half an hour duration is for four women’s voices, five brass players and six percussionists. The music keeps on moving slowly, but the fabric of this movement is quite different from the first one. Now, rather than being embedded in a viscous texture, the generally long-stretched sounds stand more alone, often separated by pauses. The music, dominated by the brass, moves somewhat like a glacier, in steely and glassy colors.
The long-stretched tones and chords in the brass invite to listen into the single sounds, which now become all-important. This also opens up the ear to the remarkably rich palette of brass colors, produced by diverse instrument combinations and harmonies. The alternation in the brass of single tones with chords, or of chords of varying richness, creates compelling and beautiful textures.
The four soprano voices match the penetrating, often bright colors of the brass, and their predominant singing of long-stretched notes corresponds to the extension of brass notes and chords. While there are also solo parts, often the sopranos sing together. The combination of four voices of the same register range on stretched-out notes allows for the creation of what is perceived as single sounds with a rich inner life, similar to the chords in the brass. Yet at times greatly different expressions are packed into these bundled sounds, such as shouting timbres in one or two voices combined with serene tones in others.
There is often an arresting correspondence of soprano harmonies and brass chords. A number of times brass echoes the pitch of the sopranos, yet at some points it does so with a variant on normal echo effects, as the brass chords swell in volume above the previous soprano sounds. At other times the soprano voices arise as a reaction to brass chords.
While the sopranos mostly sing, there are also moments in which they engage in speech-song or speaking. Around 10 minutes into the movement the German word ‘fassen’ (grab) is repeated numerous times in this mode, almost as a conjuring ritual. The texts are from a poem by Nietsche, yet instead of the sentences only single words selected from the poem are used in the music, as if to emphasize the fragmented nature of the musical flow on the level of word succession.
As in the first movement, light wooden percussion plays a prominent role. The range of percussion now is extended more into the realm of light metallic percussion. Its colors supplement those of the brass. Heavier drum percussion is heard as well, but is employed sparingly. In the middle of the movement there is a period of about a minute duration that features only percussion sounds, somewhat breaking up the usually steely surface of the music. Another episode towards the end features just metallic percussion, cymbals and hi-hats.
This movement for large orchestra is the most colossal movement of the work, both in character and in length; its duration is close to 40 minutes. The huge tension and the massive and sudden orchestral outbursts above a slow, menacing undercurrent may make this music seem like a primeval monster.
Also in this movement there are numerous passages where sounds are relatively isolated; frequently there are small pauses or moments of near-silence between them. Many times there are just a few – often long-stretched – sounds present that are homophonically combined, or even just one or two sounds. Polyphony features mostly no more than two layers of sound events, except in major clusters that occur infrequently.
Starting with a few percussive figures, an introductory phase of several minutes introduces an atmosphere full of tension and gradually opens up the dynamic space, finally allowing for loud orchestral attacks. Following this, the tension, which is now enormous, is open and entirely ambivalent to a degree that is rare in music. There is a volatile atmosphere; small ‘tremors’ create suspense that allows for brief loud eruptions to occur suddenly and at any time. Most of these attacks consist of, or prominently feature, single piercing brass sounds. Listeners are constantly ‘kept on alert’ as it were, not knowing what to expect at any given time and when the next attack occurs – an attack may also not occur, even when anticipated at last. Yet also when later the magnitude and frequency of sudden dynamic outbursts is diminished, tension is always kept at a high level, e.g. beginning at around 10 minutes with well-timed light wooden percussion and matching rhythmic gestures on piano, or at around 20 minutes by sound planes in dissonant strings.
There are also larger complexes or clusters of sounds with orchestral force at high dynamic level, which are mainly comprised of sound groups or single sounds that closely succeed or overlap one another, accompanied by sustained sounds or driving ostinato rhythms. Such large sound complexes are absent in the beginning, and enter only after quite a while. Yet as they become more frequent, extended and massive during the course of the movement, eventually even forming chains of clusters, they considerably shape the overall development. The music in a larger complex can suddenly be silenced, only to quickly arise again, or abrupt sound attacks occur within it. All of this maintains the unexpected element here as well. As the movement progresses, the overall atmosphere also becomes more charged, and a state of heightened excitation is noticeable.
In an extended episode at around 18 minutes a barrage of percussion symbolizes the steady, rhythmic sound of a giant power engine. This is reminiscent of a corresponding passage in the last movement of Tutuguri, but the two events vastly differ in rhythm and timbre.
The music features a wide sound palette, including a broad range of heavy and light – wooden or metallic – percussion, with piano used as percussion instrument as well. At times rare colors are elicited from the orchestra. Around 23 minutes there are strange chords played by a combination of woodwind instruments that sound almost electronic. The timbres are also slightly reminiscent of the ringing, slightly hollow sound excited from a wine glass by rubbing its rim in continuous motion with a wet finger. Towards the end there is an onslaught of percussive sounds that appear to come from cymbals that are crashed together and then held or even rubbed together – these noisy sounds have a strange compressed, hissing character.
The work is combined on a Hänssler Classic double CD (widely available, e.g. at Amazon) with Morphonie, a work for large orchestra and string quartet. Premiered at the Donaueschingen Music Festival 1974, this work initiated Rihm’s rise to fame as a composer.
The composition features dense, nervous, agitated high-volume polyphony of disparate elements that, while meticulously composed, elicits an impression of ‘quasi-chaos’. Blocks of this restless polyphony alternate with sections of rather static and quiet music. The string quartet, apparently amplified (although not mentioned in the CD booklet), often plays very ‘public’ gestures, rather than chamber-music like intimate ones.
© Albrecht Moritz 2011