Johannes Brahms Klarinetten-Trio

Excerpts from first movement (video)

There are three main strategies applied to the Brahms score in the compositional process: filtering, shifting, and superpositioning. These actions are deployed with carefully calculated algorithms to create an ever-increasing distance from the original Brahms score, which dominates the beginning. An example of a filtering algorithm could be this: keep ten notes, remove one, keep nine, remove one, etc., until the process is reversed: keep one, remove two, keep one, remove three, etc.



Below, a page from a working sketch. Different colours denote different procedures of filtering and shifting:


  • Red signifies note omissions (filtering)
  • Yellow signifies notes to be played by ad-hoc performers (e.g., on piano strings, using plectrums, beaters, etc.)
  • Green signifies notes to be shifted on the same instrument (e.g., piano chords replaced by clusters or single notes displaced in octave, clarinet tones replaced by multiphonics, etc.)
  • Blue signifies notes played in their original state (replacing the red after the tipping point where there are more omitted/filtered notes than original)

Excerpt showing the resulting piano part: on the upper half of the page, notes are omitted (through the filtering process); on the lower half new material is superpositioned, with cluster chords and displaced notes in addition to the omissions.

Johannes Brahms Klarinetten-Trio

Excerpt from second movement (video)

Excerpt of piano part showing new material and the Lachenmann quotation superpositioned onto Brahms's piano part, completely covering the original music. Note that the Lachenmann material has also been subjected to interventions: the dynamics have been shifted from very loud (forte/fortissimo) to very soft (piano/pianissimo).

Opening of second movement, cello part. In the first line, notes have been omitted. In the second line, original Brahms figures have been superposed with glissandi. Then, two small fragments (bars 9 and 21) have been looped. On the lower half of the page, simultaneous processes of filtering and shifting have been superposed on the original music.

Johannes Brahms Klarinetten-Trio

Excerpt from third movement (video)

Opening of third movement, cello part. The red lines denote passages to omit. The blue brackets indicate notes to be played by the cellist. Simultaneously, the ad-hoc performer on ring modulator tries to follow the melodic contour by adjusting the modulation-dial in sync with the cellist. On the last three lines of the page, Brahms's cello notes have been partly shifted with microtones (still followed by ring modulation).

Johannes Brahms Klarinetten-Trio

Fourth movement (video)

Yes, it's beautiful; Trio Boulanger has taken the stage and Brahms's Clarinet Trio opus 114 is on the programme. I've been looking forward to this. I like Brahms, I like the musicians, we have worked together on a couple of my pieces earlier in this festival, which is drawing to a close. But still. It's getting old. The smooth flow of perfect phrases, the well-shaped high notes, the shining harmonies. There's this itch somewhere inside me, I need friction, something to rub up against after a week of silken chamber music. Am I the only one feeling this way? I look around, discreetly, while the musicians begin the second movement. The faces around me glow with pure contentment and idle peace, and suddenly I have the heretic thought that few of them really get what's going on inside a Brahms sonata: the dialectic of the formal structures, the abstract thinking that yielded these poignant melodies and sweet harmonies. But that's not the point, I’ve said it myself many times, that it's not about understanding music, it's about experiencing it. Still, what I experience now is an overwhelming feeling that something's got to happen, something unforeseen, something other than this beautiful work unfolding along its preordained and beautiful trajectory where beautiful performers provide their beautiful interpretations, almost identical to other beautiful interpretations of this beautiful music. I ponder my own role in this spectacle, as composer-in-residence in this beautiful festival in the beautiful woodlands of Lower Saxony: I have hardly provided any friction myself, with my beautiful pieces, some strange harmonies, some leftfield timbres, but come on, really, everything is well within the norm of what chamber music festivals will happily assimilate in exchange for a couple of new-music brownie points. And I sense my body rising from the chair and I make my way through the audience with whispering apologies left and right, and then I'm out in the aisle, the ensemble have started the third movement by now, I've never liked that one, to be honest, it's just silly, and my steps are firm as I approach the scene, deaf to the hushed voices that spread among the audience, I mount the small flight of stairs and head for the Steinway, the musicians are still playing, but I can see the confusion in their eyes when I tuck my head under the piano lid, take in the vibrating metal strings and dancing felt hammers for a while, the piano sound brushing my face is delicious, I suck the smell of metal, wood and chamber music deep down into my lungs before I swing myself up from the floor, roll myself together and crawl into the piano. The sound is immediately damped to short, percussive thumps before the pianist stops and the clarinet takes the instrument out of his mouth and the cellist's bow stop moving across the strings, but I stick my head out from under the lid and try to shout with a whisper, no, no, don't stop, please continue, this is going to work out fine! And they exchange a few glances and continue, hesitant at first, and I can feel the vibrations from the strings through my body, and by rocking back and forth I can open up for some strings, let them sound normally, and I hear how the playing of the two others changes, the altered piano enforces an altogether different approach to playing – damped, uneven, jumpy – and finally, I think, something's finally happening here, this is perfect, just as it should be, this music needs friction, surprise, something to slow the perpetual mumbling of the chamber music machine, a veritable counterforce to the half-hearted romanticism of tradition, but that's not how it is, it won't work, I'm not lying on the piano strings, not crawling into the piano; I'm not mounting the stairs, not even walking up the aisle. I'm not getting up from my chair, I sit there through both third and fourth movements, and when it's time to applaud I clap my hands and smile and afterwards I do small talk with a concert house director from Hamburg. Mögen Sie Brahms? she asks me.

The Paranoid Critical Method


In the text above, I portray a delirious impulse that occurred during a Brahms performance at Sommerliche Musiktage Hitzacker in July 2009. It poses the question of what it takes to break the imperturbable calm of chamber music, to ruffle its smooth surface. This passage may serve as a starting point for what eventually emerged as a chamber music work, entitled Johannes Brahms Klarinetten-Trio, which I will present through this exposition. Nevertheless, I was not sure how I could use this impulse until in a text by Rem Koolhaas (2010: 91) I read about Salvador Dalí’s method of critical paranoia. The subject is also discussed in Koolhaas's book Delirious New York. In consequence, the title of this exposition is adapted from Koolhaas, although it is his renderings of Dalí’s ideas that I will discuss in relation to the underlying motivations and energies of my piece. I will try to do it in a way that relates to Dalí's method by combining the phantasmagorical impulse with a more factual approach.

Let me first state that paranoia in this context is not identical to persecution mania. Instead, it is applied in a wider interpretation, as described by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan in his dissertation De la psychose paranoïaque dans ses rapports la personnalité (1932). In this view, paranoia is the delirium of interpretative association involving a systematic structure. It is in these terms that we should understand Dalí when he describes paranoid-critical activity as the 'spontaneous method of attaining knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectification of delirious associations and interpretations' (Dalí 1935). [1] What we have here is the opposition between the delirious impulse and the critical and systematic objectification of its associations. It could also be described with words used by Dylan Thomas in a letter:

I make one image, though 'make' is not the right word; I let, perhaps, an image be made emotionally in me & then apply to it what intellectual and critical forces I possess; let it breed another; let that image contradict the first, make, of the third image bred out of the other two, a fourth contradictory image, and let them all, within my imposed formal limits, conflict. (Thomas 1985: 397) 


In Dalí’s version however, I find a more radical approach where, in Rem Koolhaas's words, 'a sane person and a sane intellect insinuates itself into the aberrant processes of paranoid madness or psychosis' (Koolhaas 2010: 91). It is a matter of inner imagination, evoking states of immanent delusions, which act as fuel in the creative process. In this way, the method requires a greater amount of imaginative energy to get beyond the 'normality' of a musical work's context.


This has lead to an approach in which I no longer regard the score as mere 'material' for manipulations and operations in working out a critical context for the pieces of music; I take the whole situation of a chamber music performance and intervene in the situation itself. To borrow a slogan from artist Michael Asher, I am author of the situation, not the elements (Foster 1996: 236). Or to give it a personal twist, I take authorship over the situation by intervention. What happens is this: a chamber music ensemble is sitting on stage, performing what seems to be a classical piece, but my intervention gradually changes both the music and the interplay between the musicians, and it alters the expectations of the audience during the course of listening. [2] The work being performed is Johannes Brahms's Clarinet Trio (1891); I try to take the delirious impulse and change the situation of the performance, not only the material that is being performed. Accordingly, the paranoiac state can also be traced in the unfolding of events on stage. Central dichotomies in the discourses of paranoia are set in motion: confusions between proximity and distance (the here-and-now of musical performance versus the historicity of 'classical' music), between inside and outside (what is the 'real' Brahms and what is external additions), etc. [3]


The problem that I sketched in the opening paragraph is not primarily a question of aesthetics or 'beauty'. It concerns chamber music, which has become too guarded, too streamlined, too safe. The chamber music situation opens up for spontaneous interaction between the performers, a seizing-of-the moment, exposing the audience to a feeling that extraordinary things could happen. Both moments of failure and of the sublime should be within the range of possibilities when a group of performers come together in front of an audience collectively to interpret a classical score. I would argue that the different interpretations of the best chamber music players today have become extremely streamlined, with little difference between them. Due to this, moments of the unexpected seldom take place – and as an audience, our expectations become dulled. This is an underlying notion in the work; in opening up the situation, I hope to point to a broader range of possibilities in performance and, subsequently, a broader scope of expectation. My aim is not to radically alter the mechanisms of chamber music performance, but to highlight the possibility to alter the expectations of this situation. So while my method is composing with the musical situation, I emphasise that this composition in turn hopefully allows the audience to become aware of new modes of listening and, indeed, expectation.

Dogmas, limitations, and historical time (apropos Lachenmann)


As a consequence of the deliberations outlined above, I have imposed several limitations to the composition of Johannes Brahms Klarinetten-Trio. First, there is the limitation of performance – playing the work as a classical piece of chamber music, within the limited scope of the chamber music hall. This concerns the expectations of the audience. As stated above, the piece is about the performance situation of chamber music in the classical tradition. It is about how we listen, as much as what we listen to; it addresses listeners' expectations as much as the sounding matter of music. When I use a method of intervention, it is crucial that this action takes place in a context where it is actually perceived as intervention, a disruption of a pre-established order. Rem Koolhaas (1998: 261) states that 'PC [paranoid critical] activity counts for its impact on a solid background of convention', and I believe this is true. If the situation were altered, for example, to a white cube gallery, a common site for many new music performances, the audience would inevitably come to the music with a different set of expectations and a different mode of listening. The white cube certainly has orders of its own, but they very different to those of the classical chamber music hall. This also goes for the framework of traditional instrumental theatre, which yields yet another set of expectation in the audience. My intervention tries to dramatise the order of the chamber music hall by venturing outside the audiences' field of expectations in this specific situation. 


The intervention that takes place on stage also happens in the written music, that is to say, in the parts of Johannes Brahms's Clarinet Trio. This is the second limitation; working with the parts as found, physical objects. In addition to my own musical imagination, I implement specific material from a newer layer of music history: Helmut Lachenmann's clarinet trio Allegro Sostenuto (1987). This choice has two functions: First, to show the historical roots of material that I (along with a majority of present-day composers) work with, namely the use of noise sounds and 'new' playing-techniques on classical instruments. Emerging in the Germany of the sixties, Helmut Lachenmann was a pioneer in developing what he called 'musique concrète instrumentale'. Now that this has become part of the global lingua franca of new music, it is easy to forget that it has roots in a very specific context and a specific artistic and political environment; when I use these techniques and superpose them on Brahms, I want to acknowledge that they are historical objects too, instead of pretending that these techniques are 'neutral' and without semantic implications. This leads to the second function, which is to point to the question, what is historical music? How does the difference in historicity between a piece from 1891 and one from 1987 manifest itself? Can a twenty-five-year-old piece be new music? Is Brahms more historical now, in 2013, than Lachenmann?

I am not trying to answer this question explicitly in the work, but rather show how a parallaxic repositioning, an altered point of view in the present, can offer different constellations of historical objects (as opposed to perspective, which relies on a fixed distance between the eye and the object and is a precondition in most renderings of history). In the following, I will try to expound briefly on the implications of bringing Lachenmann into the situation. What happens is something I like to think about as a crisis in the work. The Lachenmann material, implicit in the techniques used to infiltrate the Brahms piece, is suddenly made explicit. Not as something posed from the outside; it is emergent, from within the music itself. Although I extract bars 365 to 369 from Allegro Sostenuto and transplant it to the coda of Klarinetten-Trio's first movement, I insist that it represents something emergent in those Brahms bars, that Lachenmann's gestures there are in fact an estranged version of Brahms's floral gestures in the coda. In other words, I detect a similarity that is, albeit vague, probably not a coincidence, and I make Lachenmann's hidden reference explicit by 'uncovering' it. 


I theorise that Lachenmann's material, however novel, also represents a repetition, or rather a return. That under his typologic/topologic grid of sounds and shapes the classical system of how sound moves in time and space is still active, sometimes even on the level of pitch and duration. In terms of historicity, I want to relate this to Hal Foster's comparison between the institution of art and a subjective entity (Foster 1996: 225–26). With the psychic temporality of the subject being different from the biological temporality of body, it allows for temporal displacements such as those of the 'material' shared by Lachenmann and Brahms. [4] It also suggests the possibility to connect (or reconnect) seemingly disparate temporalities as an act of resistance to the ubiquitous not-so-subversive-anymore postmodern strategies of allegorical fragmentation. As orders of associative interpretation, the orders of this process are emergent and not formally or ideologically premeditated.

Therefore, I propose a dialectic between the two musical surfaces, between the fragmented topology and the smooth flow. In the first movement the relation is antithetic, due to techniques of filtering and shifting: the 'new' sound objects are inserted in and disrupt the Brahmsian flow. In the second movement, this relationship becomes one of superpositioning: the sound objects actually mutate with the flow of time and become the musical time. This process is intensified in the third movement when electronic equipment is brought to the stage to modulate and distort the original musical 'text'. In the brief fourth movement, the two materials are annihilated: the opposing energies are captured in a topology where the historicity of both 'old' and 'new' material is made evident by placing them on the same surface as uprooted and decontextualised samples. (My use of electronic equipment also constitutes a limitation that I will return to later).

I regard this process parallaxically, moving from a point of listening where historical distance is at the forefront to one where I can hear the sound objects are aligned in the (seemingly) same historical time-space. [5] With themes such as paranoia, authorship, situation, and parallax in mind, it was interesting to meditate on what title this piece should have. I advocate that it is not an act of interpretational composition in Hans Zender's sense. [6] If it is an interpretation, it is of chamber music performance itself, not of Brahms's score. The score is of course not randomly chosen, but it is first and foremost a vessel to get in touch with the energies and expectations surrounding a classical chamber music performance. Rather than being my interpretation of a Brahms piece, it is a new piece staging the intervention of a Brahms performance. Hence the title Johannes Brahms Klarinetten-Trio.

An architectural figure


My interest in the performance situation as a category for manipulation and intervention could be described as a shift from a preoccupation with critique in the framework of form (interpreted as a set of materials and structures), towards critique through form that is not ideologically fixed. The architecture critic Jeffrey Kipnis pointed out this difference in a discussion on Peter Eisenman and Rem Koolhaas in London in 2010:


Rem's work I understand as having come out of discovering form as not being ideologically loaded. [...] And so this insight, that the modernist vocabulary was not already irrevocably loaded with its own formal ideologies, and could in fact be employed, deployed and redeployed, meant that you could do a critical architecture without it having a formal preoccupation, without engaging it in the intricacies of formal discussion. By contrast Peter is entirely invested in the specificities of the canons of formal argumentation, and for him any critical practice will only operate at that level. So what we have is a situation where one architect is entirely devoted to the ideologies of form and the other is entirely devoted to the possibilities of discussing ideologies through form, but without any relationship with it whatsoever. (Kipnis and Somol 2010: 42–43)


In musical terms, this points to the possibility of a critical practice that does not necessarily associate with the formal preoccupations of well-established critical practices, for example, those of Helmut Lachenmann or Brian Ferneyhough. It points to a practice where ideological questions are discussed through musical structure and material without a priori formal demands. What comes to the foreground then is the necessity of engaging with the contextual sides of musical practices, its social situations, places, and formal devices. Historical examples of this dichotomy applied to music are numerous. Consider, for instance, the Fluxus approach of John Cage as opposed to the formal preoccupations of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Or let us take a closer look at Helmut Lachenmann versus Mauricio Kagel.

Lachenmann is explicitly devoted (and, one could say, limited) to the material considerations of a work. He is occupied with 'composing as resistance to the prevailing concept of material means: Casting new light on this concept of material, illuminating it so as to reveal and create awareness of what is suppressed in it' (Lachenmann 2004: 49). His interest in the production apparatus of music is devoted to what it produces, in terms of listening, and any consideration of how it produces is addressed by proxy. The formal consistency of his works is remarkable, with their steady, almost didactic explorations of a well-defined universe. The social and political implications that inform the strongly felt ethos of his work emerge from the material manipulations within the framework of institutions such as the orchestra, the string quartet, and even the opera. For instance a piece like Gran Torso, which in so many ways renews and challenges the notion of what a string quartet can sound like, still takes the institution of chamber music as an a priori fact – something to challenge and renew, yes, but still a functioning framework for the material considerations. One could say that his exploration of the origins of sound in the mechanics and physics of instruments and bodies constitutes a significant opening in the formal framework. [7] His materialist approach is evident in his assessment that his music 'had broken away from serialism's immobility, because the energies that were basic to instrumental sound, as the trace of its mechanical production, were consciously incorporated into the composition and played a crucial role in the work's sonic and formal structure' (Lachenmann 2004: 46). But the keywords sonic and formal structure point to the limits of his approach. This would correspond to what Kipnis identifies as devotion to ideologies of form and specificities of the canons of formal argumentation.

Kagel, on the other hand, investigates the ideologies of modernism through staging its formal devices in often satirical situations. Even in early Darmstadt works such as Sexteto, written within a traditional idiom of the musical work, he evokes subversive strategies that explore and almost satirise the lacunae of serialism. In the words of Paul Attinello (2001: 263), 'this music represent[s] a confounding of serial control, an eruption of elements which could not be completely ordered into a serial fabric'. After Kagel arrived at his techniques of instrumental theatre, works such as Sur Scene can be regarded as self-reflective discussions where modernism, by ways of humour and self-mockery, investigates itself. This impulse is later extended well beyond basic deconstructive methods in pieces such as Staatstheater, a 'signal that even the world of opera can be completely dismantled and recreated in a way that makes it unrecognizable' (ibid.: 281). This may also be seen as an attack on autonomy; it asks what the score really is beyond a collection of possibilities to stage a performance, and in extension questions compositional authorship and the authority of the stage. In this respect, we see how Kagel creates a critical music without a formal ideology but rather by 'employing, deploying and redeploying', in Kipnis's words, the formal strategies of modernism.

So on one hand we have the idea of an internal critique given formal frames and on the other a critique that discusses ideology through form as contextual device. In this duality, I mainly investigate the second position in the current chamber music work; I might phrase it as a wish to let practice submerge form. Another way to see it is to expand the notion of 'musical material' to encompass not only the pitches and time structures, not only the instruments and bodies, but also the rituals and places of performance, the context of music. The following passage by Lachenmann acknowledges such an approach even within his strict dialectics:

Dialectic structuralism means: constructing situations, organising, even improvising them, or stipulating them in the broadest sense, so as to break or even force open existing, ostensibly intact structures, so as to demonstrate or make perceptible, within a more or less known, trusted or even magically endowed object, something that is unknown and perhaps suppressed. (Lachenmann 2004: 52)


This could perhaps lead towards a certain kind of synthesis of the duality Kipnis asserts, a synthesis that Hal Foster (1996: xvii) identifies in the difficult task of (re)claiming critical spaces: 'On the one hand, it is a labor of disarticulation: to redefine cultural terms and recapture political positions. [...] On the other hand, it is a labor of articulation: to mediate content and form, specific signifiers and institutional frames.'

The score as fetish and found object


This way of incorporating the whole apparatus into the notion of 'material' opens up a new approach to the score: It is not only an idealised recipe for sound production, nor an abstract system of signs, it is a real interface in its physical fact, the very thing that informs the physical action of the musicians. As an intensification of the notion of context and musical site, I regard the score as a found object. If we rewind a little, we see that the fetishism of music-as-text, of notation, and of the institution of the score is one of the main features of post-war modernism. Later composers, such as those of the New Complexity movement of the 1980s and 1990s, made this position their main topos, taking classical notation to its extremes and investigating the relation between musician and score to an almost conceptual extent. In Johannes Brahms Klarinetten-Trio I try to work literally with the idea of the fetishised score by using strategies from fine arts. [8] My basic rule is that instead of taking Brahms material and reapplying it in my own score, I take a Brahms score and use it as it is, filtering, erasing, superposing, and pasting 'foreign' material onto it. This goes for the parts in particular, which are the objects that the musicians handle and take as instructions for their performance. [9] The result is a unique, new set of score and parts that will only exist in this one copy. The score and parts I work with have been used in performances of Brahms's Clarinet Trio by the ensemble this piece is written for, the Oslo-based ensemble Asamisimasa. In this way, the work can be said to have a specific contextual framework: that of this ensemble. The score will not be an item for proliferation, but exist in one copy only. [10] This is obviously the opposite idea of the traditional way of composing music, writing a score that can be realised by anyone with the corresponding set of instruments. On the contrary, this is not writing for instruments but for the individuals playing it. 


The close relationship I have with the ensemble (we have a longstanding professional relationship) is the ground for a dialogue through which the ensemble has been active in the compositional process. [11] The musicians have been instrumental in detecting weak thinking on my behalf, addressing problems, and proposing improvements. One example is the implementation of live electronics: Initially, I was not planning to use it. On the contrary, I wanted to avoid a situation where the composer was hovering in the back of the hall over a mixing table like some deus ex machina. Likewise, I did not want to have computers on stage – they tend to take focus away from the circumstance of chamber musical interplay that I wanted to investigate, being opaque 'black-boxes' from which the audience cannot really know the relationship between computer and performer. One of the performers proposed an onstage solution with contact microphones and analogue gear, a suggestion I investigated and expanded and that in the end became an important part of the piece. The real-time preparation of the piano gets an electronic counterpart in the ring modulation of the cello and clarinet; an onstage sampler starts to intervene in the third movement and is the only sounding source in the fourth.

By implementing electronics, I believe the work traverses a wider area of thought, spanning from the traditions of chamber music to new ways of performing and listening in the age of digital reproduction, where questions of authenticity and historicity are brought to the fore by juxtaposing 'old' and 'new' music on the same surface (which is the ending point of the composition, with samples of Brahms and Lachenmann intertwined). With a solution where electronic equipment was taken onstage during the performance, I could preserve the initial chamber music situation intact (as an area for intervention), heighten the notion of this intervention, and, importantly, keep a transparent and analogue interplay between instruments and electronics as an integral part of the chamber music.

The score as collage


The act of refetishising the score has further implications that can be discussed in terms of assemblage and certain of its historical categories. The act of taking a mass manufactured object such as a score and turning it into a singular art object has certain similarities with the readymade. There are however two big differences. First, the score is not a neutral everyday object (as the objects of Duchamp were). It is heavily laden with connotation and 'value'. Second, the score is only part of the complex net of references, actions, and material that constitutes the musical work – text, sound, performance, psychology of listening, etc. It might be more useful to view the process of using the score as a material basis for manipulations, as related to the collage. One of the properties of the collage is the ability to break illusions of continuity. In this case we have the illusion of the continuity of nineteenth-century chamber music works – that it can mean the same to people living today as it meant to those who heard it for the first time. My position is that we hear these works differently – of course we do – but this difference is unconscious when the listener is under the spell of the illusion of continuity. Both Theodor W. Adorno and Peter Bürger describe collage as a shock, in Adorno's words a 'way to articulate discontinuity' – a device to break the spell (Sæther 2009: 46).

In Johannes Brahms Klarinetten-Trio the collage is evident in the way the original score is manipulated by cutting and pasting other materials into it – a collage in a literal sense. I believe that a site of new knowledge lies in this particular implementation of collage-strategies in composition. In different parts of the musical spectrum, sampling and quotating have been investigated widely over the past forty years. But composition as a physical collage – working with writing, cutting, and pasting within the limitations of the printed classical score – is something else. There is a great difference between using a Brahms quotation in a new score and working within this score itself as a physical fact. A musical work has multiple existences as sound, text, memory, and movement, and the fact of the score informs the musicians in a different way than would a new score based on musical quotations. The musician receives a well-known object (the Brahms score) partly altered to a state beyond recognition, as the actions of composition have been made performative in the exchange with the physical score. What the musicians put on their music stands is the outcome – or indeed residue – of this process.

Nevertheless, it is also a collage because it discontinues the smooth time-flow of Brahms's chamber music, transferring the quality of collage from the spatial realm of paper to the temporal realm of musical performance. [12] The collage serves as a roadmap for performance, where the same intervention as the composer performed on the score is carried out by the ensemble. First, to a subtle degree on the instruments, by muting certain notes, then, more outspokenly, by exchanging notes with noise or foreign sounds and physically altering the instruments, then, finally by letting electronic apparatus take over the whole stage. [13] Through this process, the audience gradually have to change their expectations of what a chamber music performance of Johannes Brahms's Clarinet Trio might be, fulfilling the compositional process by intervening in the idea of chamber music performance.



The last factor I want to bring into this equation is the idea of theatricality. Dealing with the inherent theatricality has been one of the main challenges of intervening in a chamber music situation. All musical performance has an element of theatre, to greater or lesser degree. [14] As composers and musicians we often close our eyes to this while spectators, especially those with untrained eyes, will discover the theatricality at first glance. The seating arrangements, the applause before and after, the silence between movements, the dress code of the musicians, the postures of the bodies, the entries and exits by the back of the stage, all this gives the comfort of ritual for the trained chamber music patron – the assurance of knowing the framework of what will (and will not) take place. And in contrast, all this complacency will bemuse or bewilder (or both) visitors unused to the halls of classical music. This asymmetry of perception is one of the conditions that make Kagel's instrumental theatre so effective.


In my first sketches, I wanted to make a three-step intervention: first, intervening in the score with manipulations, omissions, and shifting, then intervening physically in the instrumental playing, moving on to a situation where ad-hoc players (the de facto executioners of intervention) would take control over the situation. However, I ran into problems with the ideas of physical intervention: real-time preparation of the piano worked quite well, but imposing similar physical interventions on the clarinet and cello would be difficult given the fragility of the instruments and the mode of playing. More important, it would give too much emphasis to the theatrical side of the piece. Imagining ad-hoc players physically 'assaulting' the cello and clarinet would demand that we start viewing the piece as instrumental theatre, which is quite different from what I wanted to achieve. [15] As discussed above, the idea of incorporating electronic interventions emerged through discussions with the ensemble. Unlike most chamber music ensembles, this ensemble does have considerable experience working with electronics and we came to a solution where the electronic manipulations would all be done locally, onstage, by the musicians themselves. Of equal importance was the decision that the equipment would be brought onstage during the performance, allowing the piece to start out as a 'normal' piece of chamber music. [16] This was of great importance in maintaining the element of surprise and of the unexpected, and in fact added to the interventionist quality that I was looking for.

So we arrived at a four-step intervention: beginning with manipulations of the score, then intervening physically in the instrumental playing, moving on to electronic manipulation of the instrumental sound, and ending with the whole situation taken over by the electronics. These four steps are carried out in succession, in correspondence with the four movements of the original Brahms Trio, and can hopefully be followed as the piece unfolds. The full performance of the piece, shown below, is from the Ultima Festival in Oslo, September 2011. The ensemble playing is Asamisimasa.

Eivind Buene: Johannes Brahms Klarinetten-Trio


Clarinet: Rolf Borch

Cello: Tanja Orning

Piano: Håkon Austbø

Ad Hoc players: Anders Førisdal and Daniel Paulsen


Ultima festival, Oslo, 13 September 2011




Attinello, Paul. 2002. 'Imploding the System: Kagel and the Destruction of Modernism', in Judy Lochhead and Joseph Auner (eds), Postmodern Music / Postmodern Thought (London: Routledge), pp. 263–85.

Brahms, Johannes. [1892] 1979. Klarinetten-Trio (München: G. Henle Verlag).

Buene, Eivind. 2011. Johannes Brahms Klarinetten-Trio (Oslo: Mic).

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Eivind Buene:
Delirious Brahms
Investigations in the Music Chamber

Artists invent their predecessors

                             Harold Bloom

[1] Dalí was in contact with Lacan at this time, and his text is probably informed by Lacan's thesis (see Foster 1996: 291).

[2] Consider a remark writer David Foster Wallace gave in an interview, where he discusses the sort of expectations serious fiction should set up in readers. He claims that 'The classical Realist form is soothing, familiar and anesthetic; it drops us right into spectation' (Wallace and McCaffery 1993: 138). It might be the same anaesthetic tranquillity that I try to disrupt (or at least challenge) in this chamber music work.

[3] Hal Foster (1996: 291) refers to paranoia as 'the last refuge of the subject threatened by alterity and technology', which has different implications than the more technical use of the paranoiac energies deducted from Dalí by way of Koolhaas.

[4] If I am mistaken in my identification of these passages from Lachenmann and Brahms, it could be interpreted as an instance of 'bad combinations', something that, in the words of artist Sam Durant, offers spaces for associative interpretation (see Foster 2004: 3–22). In other words, my spontaneous association of the passages from Brahms and Lachenmann could be regarded as a result of the paranoid critical method.

[5] By the same token, our perception of Lachenmann changes when we listen to him not from the perspective of revolutionary high modernism, but with an ear for displacement, dialogue, and a sensualist preoccupation with sound.

[6] See, for instance, Håvard Enge (2010: 144–59) on Zender's recompositions of Schubert and Schumann. 

[7] This topos has since been explored by Lachenmann's followers. We have for instance seen the physical/material approach renewed in the work of Simon Steen-Andersen, with his insistence on the corporeal base of music (see, for instance, his piece Chambered Music).

[8] As opposed to fine art, the musical artwork has a medium of distribution – in this context, the score. Where the driving force of art has been that of singularisation, music is still engaged in inherited ideas of distribution – the composer writes something for an abstract instrumentation (string quartet, orchestra, etc.), a work that can be distributed and reproduced in any number of instances. (We might of course turn this argument around, and state that music became modernised with its system of distribution, while the arts have stayed with the premodern concept of singularity.) We know, however, that musical innovation often takes place in very specific and singular contexts, involving specific bodies in specific places, and that the rhetoric of distribution is often counterproductive to artistic innovation and, indeed, singularity. (That select innovations become part of the system of distribution, courtesy of publishers and agents, is a different story.)

[9] Rather, the score is a master plan, unsuited for performance, in which the changes and alterations are expressed in a system of colour-codes and collage.

[10] Subsequently, new pieces can be made for other ensembles, taking their specific circumstances into account and making them an integral part of the work.

[11] It was the ensemble that invited me to work with them and, in fact, proposed the Brahms' Clarinet Trio, which they were already performing as part of their programme. This provided a very real 'stage' for intervention.

[12] 'Montage', with its historical roots in the temporal art of film, is strictly speaking a better term here; but for the sake of clarity, I will stick with 'collage'.

[13] In his reworkings of Jean-François Millet's L'Angélus, Dalí also worked with the Paranoid Critical method in a temporal way. He imagined the famous painting of two peasants praying in a field – a childhood memory of his – as a freeze frame where the piety of the moment is reinterpreted as a moment of sexual desire about to be consummated. In a series of images (among others in illustrations for De Lautréamont's Les Chants de Maldoror), he permutated the elements of the painting, creating a temporal narrative encompassing the original.

[14] In my view, a piece of contemporary chamber music is a live performance, and any sound-reproduction (CD, sound file, etc.) is a different mode of the work itself. This is another story, however.

[15] See, for instance, the ensemble Asamisimasa's performance of Trond Reinholdtsen's Musik for an example of contemporary instrumental theatre (performed at Donaueschinger Musiktage, 2012).

[16] As soon as people see a microphone, mixing table, and loudspeakers they immediately start to have certain expectations. In fact, the element of expectation also poses a problem when the piece is performed in the context of contemporary music; contemporary audiences have learnt to expect the unexpected. Ideally, the piece should be programmed as part of ordinary chamber music programmes. But with the rigorous politics of classical chamber music, this is more difficult to achieve – a point that poignantly motivates this kind of intervention.