Winner of the 2009 Composition Award: Bernhard Lang

Monadologie VII: … for Arnold …

There are composers who, in their creative work, mainly start from concrete sound conceptions, and from this, develop their works step by step. And there are those for whom, as a rule, superordinate ideas stand at the beginning of the act of composing, no matter whether they are concerned with special artistic problems or with extra-musical topics.

It is not immediately clear where Bernhard Lang would fit into this – admittedly simplified – scheme. On the one hand, the composer, who was born in 1957 in Linz, Upper Austria, runs a kind of sound lab where he experimentally explores new materials; on the other, philosophical and theoretical constructs are omnipresent in his musical creation. Still, for an outsider it may seem that he sometimes chooses the path from single element to conception, and sometimes vice versa.

Lang himself does not want to separate the two, but in this respect prefers to talk about an “osmosis between concept and material level which mutually influence each other – in a kind of feedback system”. However, the composer, who not only studied music theory subjects and piano but also German literature and philosophy in Linz and Graz, obviously often puts in the foreground theoretical considerations that reach far beyond the music itself. They form, at least, the indispensable background of his entire musical work, which was decisively influenced by private lessons with Gösta Neuwirth and his participation in the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music (John Cage, Helmut Lachenmann).

A book by Gilles Deleuze was the force behind a number of important pieces by Bernhard Lang. The post-structuralist French philosopher’s thoughts are very important for the composer, and lead directly to the core of his pieces. Deleuze criticized the traditional categories of identity, analogy, polarity and similarity, which also determine the perception of music, and instead of them introduced the closely interacting pair of terms “difference and repetition”.

For him, difference means something that can only exist in repetition, and thus offers a new starting point for a problem that is as old as new music: for, since Gustav Mahler’s and Arnold Schönberg’s time, repetition has been looked at askance and tabooed. While it has since been taken up again, in minimal music, for example, in pattern compositions and not least in the loops of turntablers and electronic musicians, here, too, it often stays one-dimensional.

To the principle of Deleuze’s dialectic Difference and Repetition Bernhard Lang has dedicated an extensive work cycle of the same name, in which repetitive patterns show minimal differences – from Differenz/Wiederholung (DW) 1 (“Difference/Repetition”) for flute, violoncello and piano (1998) to DW 20 for boys’ choir (2008). What Thomas Schäfer once observed not only holds true here: “Loops, that is, the repetition of certain structures – since Pierre Schaeffer’s experiment with the hanging stylus at the end of a record track synonymous with arrested time circling within itself – with Lang have become the elaborated paradigm for repetition in every imaginable form and instrumentation, from soloist up to the large orchestral apparatus.”

With its span of more than a decade, the work cycle DW is a central piece, but there is a Lang before and a Lang after, and both are connected with it. His roots can be traced back to his student years, during which the composer also participated as arranger and composer in various jazz formations in Graz. In addition, he dedicated himself to electronic music in an equally intensive way – at the Institute for Electronic Music and Acoustics (IEM) of the University of Music and Performing Arts, Graz.

It was in this context that he also developed software for computer-aided composition, which formed the basis for the loops he later also began to apply without recourse to the computer. A chaotic element has entered Lang’s work with his Schrift cycle where he experiments with écriture automatique, and which also comprises music for radio plays, theatre and film, sound installations and dance projects.

While his entire opus works on the dissolution of existing contexts, Das Theater der Wiederholungen (“The Theatre of Repetitions”, 2003) shows in an exemplary way how Lang, apart from the “deconstruction of the gestural with the help of loops”, also manhandles the opera genre and the content it relates. The composer talks about this work as follows: “I wanted to create a new form of music theatre that was to present an implicit critique of the new concepts known to me. I opposed the theatre of repetitions to the theatre of representation as a critical antithesis. In a certain sense, opera is always representative theatre with regard to the definition of identity in the story presented and the definition of identity of the performers, as well as the political identity of the powers that be representing themselves in musical theatre. Naturally, the investigation of the repetition term also resulted in the dimension of historical repetition, especially the recurrence of martial violence in the course of the history of mankind. Moreover, there was the political situation in Austria, where the saga of a functioning employment policy in the Third Reich added a new, cynical connotation to the theatre of repetitions. This return of cynical reason gave me the impulse to write my first explicitly political piece.”

Apart from, and following, a downright impulsively created group of music theatre pieces (besides Theater der Wiederholungen these are Odio Mozart, 2006, Der Alte vom Berge, 2007, and Montezuma, 2010) another group of works has been added in recent years: the Monadologien, one of which, Monadologie VII: … for Arnold …, was composed for the Erste Bank Composition Award. Again, the core of these compositions is formed by loops, which are connected with the help of sophisticated organizational principles: in a manner of speaking, the structures generate themselves according to a complex pattern – which makes a difference for the listener insofar as close relations between the repeated elements and their harmonic foundation become clear.

From Monadologie II onward, another aspect is added when Lang deals with already existing music in his way. Sabine Sanio remarks, “The removal of taboos from repetition […] also returns in the appropriation of models, especially of other works and aesthetic concepts. In this way, he repeats something that is already known, investigates its reality, and thus avoids compulsive originality or restricts it to the ways of repetition.”

Monadologie VII: … for Arnold … takes Arnold Schönberg’s Chamber Symphony op. 38 as a starting point for the compositional work. Lang excerpted minute parts of the model and subjected them to his specific repetition principles. Since each of the piece’s four parts takes up one of Schönberg’s main themes, the appropriated paradigm is reflected in outlines by Lang, who today is professor of composition in Graz.

The material used, however, has been deconstructed to such a degree that it is hardly recognizable. Moreover, Monadologie VII: … for Arnold … is also an example of the intertwinement of several points of reference in Lang’s oeuvre: Besides Schönberg, for Arnold also could stand for the filmmaker Martin Arnold, who creates his works by cutting out and re-inserting short image sequences – a principle which Bernhard Lang has transferred to his compositions.

Text: Daniel Ender