Performing Hanne Darboven's Opus 17a and long duration minimalist music

Performing Hanne Darboven’s Opus 17a and long-duration minimalist music
Michael Francis Duch

When learning new music to be performed, first and foremost there are usually technical difficulties that have to be dealt with. For a string player, musical phrases may present obstacles in the form of fingering issues, string crossing and, especially when performing contemporary and experimental music, bespoke sounds that might require extensive research in order to produce them. This text deals with my experiences with Hanne Darboven’s Opus 17a: a 70-minute large-scale minimalist composition for solo double bass, which presents some other challenges than one usually encounters when learning new music. The process could accurately be described as one of unfolding, especially because the conversion of Darboven’s score into a set of appropriate performance actions requires careful teasing out of what the markings in the manuscript mean.

In early 2012, I was contacted by the English composers, Tim Parkinson and John Lely, about coming to London to perform at their concert series Music We’d Like to Hear. As the name of the concert series implies, the organizers programme music that they would like to hear, and this is usually music that is rarely performed. I was asked if I wanted to play Hanne Darboven’s Opus 17a, which is the first of four parts from her Wunschkonzert. At the time, I had neither heard of the piece nor about the composer, but I was intrigued by the proposition and the challenge it would prove to be. Lely and Parkinson got in touch with the Hanne Darboven Foundation, which then provided the score for Opus 17a. It was a handwritten manuscript consisting of 72 pages; what seemed at first to be standard musical notation, proved to contain some challenges when reading through and turning the notation into music. There was no clef, no dynamics and no time indication in the score, so I had to find out in what pitch, dynamic and tempo the piece was supposed to be performed. Also, a dash appears after each quarter note in the score, but no explanation is given as to what performance action this requires.

Hanne Darboven was a composer and conceptual artist born in Munich. She grew up in Hamburg, where she lived for most of her life, except for a short spell in New York when she was in her mid-twenties. There, she discovered Conceptual art and Minimalism, and she came in contact with artist like Sol LeWitt. She devised a mathematical system, arranging calendar dates into numbers. These numbers would then provide the basis for both her number drawings and what she called her mathematical music. Darboven’s mathematical music may sonically resemble Philip Glass or other minimalist composers, but her method of music-making was closer to that of John Cage and Indeterminacy. Instead of rolling dices or consulting the I Ching, Darboven used birthdates or other dates, either official or dates marking some specific event, as found objects and used them and their checksum numbers as a way of composing music.[1] Her assistant Friedrich Stoppa and, later, Wolfang Marx both experienced that she showed little interest in how they transcribed her music. In his essay From Numbers to Notes: Transcribing and Arranging Hanne Darboven’s Music, Marx writes that he was always surprised that she “desired very little input into the decisions regarding musical parameters other than pitch.” (Enwesor & Wolfs 2015:1999). All other musical parameters were left entirely to her transcriber’s choice.

As I already have mentioned, Opus 17a is the first of the four-part Wunschkonzert for solo double bass composed by Darboven. Created in 1984, it is both a composition and part of an installation, Fin de Siècle, in which Darboven’s handwritten scores are exhibited as objects in their own right. Darboven’s first major installation work Kulturgeschiche 1880-1983 was completed the year before Wunschkonzert, and has been described as large-scale minimalism. The same could be said of her musical compositions and Opus 17a, as well as the other parts of Wunschkonzert. Opus 17a, is both a visual work of art and a musical composition based on 36 “poems”, each of which consists of a title and Darboven’s calculations written on a confirmation greetings card. The musical score is derived from these poems, or rather from Darboven’s calculations written on them. Each poem consists of two pages and each of the total of 72 pages that this piece consists of begins with the following text: “36 gedichte a,c,d”. A simplified and conventional score was later transcribed by Stoppa/Marx reducing the number of pages to 31. It is normally transposed down two octaves with the first note (F1) beginning on the double bass’ lowest string (E1).

Halfway through, the piece is reversed, creating a musical palindrome. This is done in a way that does not affect the ascending broken chords, nor the two intervals in every eight-note combination. This turning point can be heard when the broken chords in F are played twice. Because the broken chords are always ascending, although the piece is reversed midway, there is also a feeling of something that continually ascends, starting over and over again throughout the performance. This minimalistic, repetitive and almost naïve music is quite spectacular as a live experience; given its combination of repetitiveness and length, it feels almost as if the music never ends. It is almost like a musical equivalent of the Myth of Sisyphus, but instead of rolling an immense boulder uphill, the bass player is doomed forever to play broken chords and what resembles scale exercises.

A composition for solo contrabass by Hanne Darboven, performed by Michael Francis Duch. Video production by Jeremy Welsh. The first film in a trilogy of works for bass, including compositions by Michael Pisaro and Pauline Oliveros.

Once I received the score of Opus 17a, I searched for past performances and recordings to get an idea of how this music should, or could, be approached. At the time, not much could be found and not many performances were available online, but luckily two recordings had been made and I found one of them, performed by Robert Black, as a free download at ubuweb. Black was a bass player with whom I was already familiar, as he had recorded Christian Wolff’s music for solo bass, as well as being a founding member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars ensemble. I listened to Black’s recording of Opus 17a and tried to make sense of the score. By listening to Robert Black’s recording, I found out that he had interpreted Darboven’s score in G-clef, as well as playing it steadily in terms of tempo, rhythm and dynamics, at roughly one page per minute. The 72 pages of the score therefore translate into roughly 70 minutes on his recording, released as a CD in 1997. Also, the dashes after each quarter note were played as broken chords; first the fundamental, third, fifth and octave, and then the fundamental, fourth, sixth and octave, all played continuously without pause. My main concern in preparing my own performance was how I could prepare myself physically and mentally to play continuous eight-notes for an hour-plus, and also how to be able to turn the pages. I could therefore easily relate to the percussionist Russell Hartenberger, when describing his experiences in performing Steve Reich’s classic minimalist piece *Clapping Music: *

One of the biggest difficulties in performing Clapping Music is endurance. I try to transfer points of tension in my arms and hands mentally while playing the piece to cope with the stress of the repeating clapping movements – a technique that I call ‘energy shifting’. It also helps to think about my breathing. Sometimes, breathing into the tightening arm muscles helps relieve the tension. (Potter, Gann & Siôn, 2013:379)

In retrospect, there were many aspects of my first performance of Opus 17a that I did not think of in advance. This is where unfolding the process of working with Darboven’s music enters the realms of artistic and/or action research. I could envisage fatigue as a possible outcome or obstacle, and turning a page too quickly or slowly, both possibly stopping the flow of the performance. I could also foresee that I might have to change my posture and how that might possibly affect the musical outcome, but even this had to be experienced in order to know how to handle it, in real time. In addition to the London performance in 2012, I have also performed Opus 17a in Trondheim, Oslo (a 20-minute excerpt), Glasgow, Huddersfield and Vienna. This now gives me an accumulated body of experience upon which to reflect and provided the motivation behind my paper for the Unfolding the Process symposium at the Norwegian Academy of Music in 2016.

When preparing my paper, I decided to get in touch with fellow bass players Robert Black and Tom Peters to see how they approached the piece and to hear about their experiences performing it. Black provided some interesting thoughts during a telephone-conversation (R. Black, personal communication, November 15, 2016) where he told me that he had first been approached by Dia Center for the Arts in New York in the mid-nineties and asked if he could record the piece. Like me, he also knew nothing about the piece or the composer and had a hard time finding out how to perform it. He describes the process of performing the piece as exhilarating, almost as an out-of-body experience: “like I’m not performing but experiencing it from the outside: It is strangely relaxing, like the body is flowing, almost like a runner.” (ibid.). Both curators of the concert series in London told me they felt like they had asked me to prepare for a marathon when I was preparing for my first performance. The story made it to the newspaper in my hometown, Trondheim, with the headline “London Marathon on double bass”.

Tom Peters provided me with a lot of practical tips on how to approach the piece via Messenger (T. Peters, personal communication, November 17, 2016). He uses four large boards with eight pages on each board to make it an easier job for the page-turner to follow the music. He takes roughly 15 minutes to complete each board, so his version is slightly faster than Black’s. He admits this creates a visual distraction but, at the same time, this is what works best for him. Peters mentioned that an iPad-version of the score might make it easier, something that was also suggested to me from the Darboven Foundation, but I believe we both prefer working with a physical score, despite its flaws. Peters has clearly spent a lot of time analysing the entire Wunschkonzert, both musically and technically. Inspired by Béla Bartók, he ran a golden section operation over the piece so as to identify a point of “climax”. He approaches all four opuses of the Wunschkonzert in the same way as one would Bach’s cello suites, regarding individual musical gestures. This is to “humanize” the music, as he puts it, but one could perhaps ask the question whether Darboven’s music should be humanized or not. As mentioned earlier, her composing technique could be compared to that of John Cage and to indeterminacy, where the composer makes a clear distinction between the artist and the artwork, and often de-humanizes the music.

Personally, I prefer to perform Opus 17a without adding too much in the way of dynamics or musical drama, but not performing it mechanically either. This has also been my experience, both as a performer and listener, in relation to other minimalist works of long duration. Terry Riley’s In C is perhaps one of the best known examples of repetitive minimalism. I have performed it in various ensembles and, like Opus 17a, I believe it works best when focussing on the subtle integral musical drama of the music. My experience is that too much variation in phrasing and dynamics tends to draw the focus away from these subtleties. The same could be said about two other long-duration minimalist solo pieces I have performed: Michael Pisaro’s Mind is Moving IV and La Monte Young’s Composition 1960 #7. The duration of Mind is Moving IV is between 30 and 60 minutes, depending on the performer’s choice of playing either all of its 60 “sound events”, or fewer than this, down to a minimum of 30. Every sound event is performed exactly one minute apart, and the decay of each sound varies according to where and how it is performed on the instrument. Some sounds may be experienced as shorter or longer than others, but this is determined by the acoustic properties of the instrument in relation to the performance space, rather than by the performer. The indeterminacy of Mind is Moving IV therefore lies in the decay or length of sound.

In La Monte Young’s Composition 1960 #7, the perfect fifth, which constitutes the piece itself, is accompanied by the following instruction “to be held for a long time”. The duration of this could be a conscious choice, it could be predetermined or it could be determined simply by fatigue. In every case, it involves an intense listening experience and what could be described as a mindfulness exercise taken to the extreme. Similarly, in one of my performances of Opus 17a, an audience member told me that about half an hour into the performance he was angered and provoked by the continuously repetitive naïve music. This anger eventually passed, but came back to him when the music stopped. Tom Peters told me that he believes that the audience should be able to come and go during the performance, which should take place preferably in a gallery of some sort.

In an e-mail (M. Pisaro, personal communication, March 21, 2018) Michael Pisaro writes in relation to his Mind is Moving IV that: Most of the feedback I’ve had deals with the unique, forbidding prospect of starting a long period of playing so seldom and then the relative ease or naturalness of the experience once it has actually begun. My experience of performing his piece is that each sound should be performed in a state akin to a Zen archer: a moment of extreme concentration and focus. This is a situation where one needs to be present in the moment but, unlike Opus 17a or Composition 1960 #7, it involves a situation calling for tension and release. Both Opus 17a and Composition 1960 #7 call for a constant state of flux, an ambiguous situation that is both dreamlike and focused at the same time.

In the case of both Opus 17a and Composition 1960 #7, the music itself is neither complex nor complicated from a performer perspective. Composition 1960 #7 is a drone, based on a perfect fifth, and in Opus 17a, the range is within the two lower octaves on the instrument, and the bowed eight-notes are fairly easy to read and play. The challenge therefore lies in the long duration of the music and the stamina and “nowness” required to be able to perform it. John Harle, once member of the Michael Nyman Band, talks about “flow” and describes his approach to performing minimalist music as “to be ‘outside’ the music, looking in” (Potter, Gann & Siôn 2013:381). As with many other performers, he also compares performing minimalist music to meditation and the performance itself as potentially engendering a heightened meditative state in both performer and audience.

The “flow” of the music and the state of mind experienced in performing free jazz or free improvisation, is somewhat similar to that of performing minimalist music. In both cases, duration often plays its part, but an important difference is that improvising involves a creative part in spontaneously making music that we don’t find in composed minimalist music. Composer and improviser Pauline Oliveros often combined these two practices in her Deep Listening Pieces. Deep Listening was a concept coined by Oliveros after improvising in an underground cistern in the late eighties, and the method itself is explained as a way of listening intently, combining as many senses as possible and listening with the entire body. For Oliveros, there was also a strong connection between music and listening and various meditation practices, and it seems that most long-duration minimalist music, whether being repetitive or drone-based, is associated at some point with meditation or mindfulness.

The English percussionist, John Stevens, made improvisational exercises and, although his music would rarely be described as minimalist, he often combines listening and focussing on one’s breathing in his exercises and as a starting point for a “free” group improvisation. La Monte Young grew up listening to the sound of telephone poles before becoming increasingly interested in eastern music, philosophy and religion, and became an inspirational figure in the psychedelic era of pop and rock in the sixties. Whether the purpose of the experience is mind expanding or mind altering, meditation or mindfulness, or simply just listening, the experience of listening to minimalist music often puts us in a dreamlike state of mind. Temporality also often plays its part here, as many minimalist works distort our perception of time. I find this feature interesting, and especially so in the case of Hanne Darboven and Opus 17a, as time was an important feature in most of her works.

When talking about minimalism, repetition and temporality in music, it’s hard not to mention Morton Feldman, and in particular his later works. Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello from 1987 was Feldman’s last composition and bears some resemblance to Opus 17a. Its overall duration is roughly 70 minutes, like Opus 17a, and the piece is based on repeating material over and over, but always slightly changing. The musical material is more abstract than Opus 17a’s broken chords, as was the means of attaining the material itself, but the ever-changing, seemingly repetitive material produces the same disorientating effect on its listener, or, as Feldman himself describes it: “This way of working was a conscious attempt at “formalizing” a disorientation of memory.” (Friedman, 2000:137). Bryn Harrison describes this further, when reflecting on Feldman’s last piece*:*

In Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello, materials are being introduced and reworked almost from the start, but in a way that is difficult to discern. Sometimes short, complete phrases are repeated exactly but, most often, they are left incomplete, so that the ending feels like the opening of new phrases, and the openings feel like the endings. This effect is wholly disorientating (…) (Glover, Gottschalk & Harrison, 2019:19)

My experiences of performing the music of Oliveros, Young, Riley, Pisaro, Darboven and other related composers first and foremost, highlight the need for “nowness” or being present while performing. This is a virtue that needs practice just as much as any technical aspects relating to the musical instrument. Equally, though, if my technique is not good enough, this in itself will hinder the flow of the music and, most likely, will also be hindering my presence in the performance. When unfolding the processes behind my work with Hanne Darboven’s Opus 17a, this is what I would regard as my greatest challenge. It requires a great deal of concentration, and after each performance I have been both mentally and physically drained; but at the same time, the intense experience of performing the work also gives me energy and euphoria from the adrenaline generated. Like a musical equivalent of the dragging of a ship through the jungle in Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, Opus 17a is rarely performed due to its duration and the physical and mental challenges involved in performing it. To my knowledge, there has not yet been a full performance of the entire Wunschkonzert in one concert.

Adler, D. (2009). Hanne Darboven: Cultural History 1880-1983. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Black, R. performance of Hanne Darboven’s Opus 17a retrieved from

Enwesor, O. & Wolfs, R. (Eds.) (2015). Hanne Darboven: Enlightenment – Time Histories: A Retrospective. Munich: Prestel Verlag.

Friedman, B.H. (Ed.) (2000). Give My Regards to Eight Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman. Cambridge, MA: Exact Change.

Glover, Gottschalk & Harrison. (Eds.) (2019). Being Time. London: Bloomsbury.

Music We’d Like to Hear concert series retrieved from

Potter, K, Gann, K. & Siôn, A.P. (Eds.) (2013). The Ashgate Research Companion to Minimalist and Postminimalist Music. Dorchester: Dorset Press.

  1. A checksum is defined as ‘a small-sized datum derived from a block of digital data’. Nowadays, it is primarily used for the purpose of detecting errors that may have been introduced during the transmission or storage of data. ↩︎