Winner of the 2016 Composition Award: Hannes Kerschbaumer

On the Music of Hannes Kerschbaumer
Jim Igor Kallenberg

Hannes Kerschbaumer’s kritzung for prepared viola and three stringed instruments with wooden objects (2015) begins with a nearly inaudible noise as the bow is stroked sideways, ever so lightly but in a concentrated manner, over the wooden edge of the instrument’s body. Little by little, the bow motions become larger and the pressure greater, with the strings gradually engulfed by the radius of the bow as its stimulating reach expands, at first swiping them just in passing, then eliciting soft vibration, and finally—the motions grown extravagant, the pressure massive—ripping them into violent motion, with an exchange of great physical force between the tensed bow hair and the tensed strings, the instrument beneath nearly bursting, and Kerschbaumer’s piece rolls through the hall in an escalating dynamism like some force of nature. The sonic structure comes to grip one’s entire body as it spreads out: the unstoppable motion, though it starts out barely audible, can be seen as a steadily growing arm movement and is of an enveloping bodily presence and tangibility, as if we could indeed reach out and touch it. When Georges Didi-Huberman says that “seeing can ultimately be thought and felt only via a touching experience,”1 then we—in reference to this experience—can say that here, the touching experience is only felt via hearing. The music gives rise to an experience that addresses not only our hearing, but also—on a much more fundamental level—the entire body. And herein lies the unmistakable paradox of Kerschbaumer’s music: for when we ask ourselves how that which we call the touching experience is achieved, we have to admit that no actual “touching” takes place; there’s nothing that we could literally touch or that could touch us. But it does seem as if the “authentic" touching experience were to take place precisely when we just sit still and unaffected in our chairs.

The dimension of corporeality in the music of Hannes Kerschbaumer follows from his affectionate attention to the materiality of his sound sources. In many of his works, those instruments of art music that have been refined over many centuries are joined by “noise-objects”—resonant raw materials that he treats with the same attention to detail as he does the accordion or the viola: shards of ceramics and glass, Styrofoam on Styrofoam, sandpaper on sandpaper, sandpaper on wood. His wooden objects are defined precisely in terms of their dimensions and the types of wood used (pine, oak, or balsa), and they are stroked, hit, rubbed, and brushed. They serve as meaningless sound-producing bodies that involve certain types of friction and degrees of sonic density. What interests the composer are the sounds they make. “I just can’t write sequences of pitches,” says Kerschbaumer, referring not to any particular technical deficiency but rather expressing precisely the fact that, behind this music, there exists no system or idea that he seeks to convey to us, to have us understand, to communicate; he is concerned simply with the audible sonic surface itself. And an additional, similar paradox reveals itself to us: we are being addressed at a juncture where there is absolutely nothing to say. And doesn’t the music indeed have the right of it? Don’t we already know everything that it could say to us? Besides which: the wonderful thing is precisely that the music speaks to us without saying anything.

This allows us to view the conventional romantic motif of the language of the inexpressible in a whole new light. It is not just any random feelings, present to begin with, that are stuffed into a sonorous costume in order to be unpacked again by their addressee. In our case, the language of the inexpressible would mean precisely the opposite: that it is simply about the costume, about that “purple shimmer of romanticism” (E.T.A. Hoffmann). Kerschbaumer’s piece buchstabierend for six male voices (2016), for example, begins with the text of the Istanbul Protocol, the United Nations manual used to investigate instances of torture. Its original text lists various superficial human injuries—injuries to the skin—that are indicators of torture’s having occurred. Using a special combinatorial method, Kerschbaumer uses this initially technocratic and instructional-seeming text to realise an abstract poeticism of sorts. The way in which torture is dealt with here is thereby liberated from its moral and emotional implications, and thus also from its “reality”. Torture becomes a phenomenon of surfaces and figures, sounds and word-fragments, in which the wounds appear within the structuring of its surface: they are “circular”—it is about scrapes, cuts, bone surface, scars, soft tissue, patterns, scratches, tears, pigmentations, deformations, streaks, and outlines. All these are structured surfaces, aesthetic phenomena. It is not about human beings—it is about forms, figures, and patterns. The proximity and intimacy with which Hannes Kerschbaumer’s music affects us is not a matter of his coming up to us and informing us, for instance, about the horrors of torture (about which we already know), nor a matter of his condemning it morally. On the contrary: he terminates all connections to our selves and to our moral and intellectual setting, cutting the leashes that would tie him to the here and now, and instead looks at the shapes. The human skin is dehumanised; it becomes a canvas, as surface for the inscription of aesthetic forms. What we are dealing with here is the paradox of music’s proximity being achieved via its distancing. And in this figure of thought, we see what Walter Benjamin called an artwork’s “aura”—not just as “the appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close it may be”, but at the same time as the reverse: as the experience of an all-encompassing proximity, as distant as it may be.

The torture that buchstabierend deals with is itself a centuries-old practice of this apparently paradoxical figure of reality. We should not forget here that torture is a means for the “discovery of truth”. And regardless of however tasteless this thought may be, it does tell us something about that which we call truth: the truth gained via torture is an impossible truth, undermining the concept of truth itself because it is only the imagining of said truth that actually initiates the process (here, torture) that brings it forth. But mustn’t we say this of every truth? For it is only by establishing an impossible, utopian image that we set in motion that process that rearranges the field of the possible. So instead of dismissing such great images as figments of the imagination and thinking of ourselves as having arrived in “reality” following the end of their narratives, we might understand that, without these images, there would be absolutely no reality at all because reality as such is not up for grabs. Reality is a reality of images.

This approach also determines Kerschbaumer’s treatment of the instruments. He refrains from taking them as what they are. He is much rather an excessive user of preparation methods, situating each instrument’s specific sonic character someplace where that instrument is not already at home. In kritzung, the sound of the viola approaches that of the wooden objects (and vice-versa), while in picea.debris for two prepared descant zithers and prepared bass zither (2014), the zither’s sound is purged from the zither, as is the human sound from the human voice in buchstabierend. The entire way in which the music relates to the instruments is thus reversed: the instrument is not simply a means via which the musical structure speaks, nor is it a “bearer” of “musical content”; instead, the instrument itself becomes the task at issue. It functions not as an extension of the composer’s brain, but rather as its counterpart. In abbozzo V for quarter-tone accordion and string quartet (2016), the accordion circles around the blank space of its own sonority, which would typically suggest itself for chordal and melodic use by virtue of its defined pitches and bellows. abbozzo V conceives of the instrument from its extremes—from where the accordion is not an accordion. With deep, rhythmic cluster-cascades, expiring keyboard(!) glissandi, and a high-pitched, circular-seeming fluttering, the instrument adopts an exalted sonority that approaches a kind heard in electronic music. The resonating body of the accordion only surfaces where the instrument approaches the specific sound of an accordion that has exceeded its sonic abilities—and not where we’re familiar with it, where we know that that’s how an accordion sounds. And precisely this artificial accordion sound is more intense and more touching, and in fact more real, than it could ever be in reality.

How is this possible? It’s only even imaginable if we say that there is a level upon which artificial music is closer to the real than our given reality. And Kerschbaumer’s works offer the decisive key to understanding this. The work kritzung starts from a natural phenomenon: in German, Kritzungen are the scratches that glaciers inscribe into the stones beneath them over periods of centuries. This process of organic, slow but inexorable inscription is also the process of this musical work: the voices of the wooden objects inscribe themselves into the viola part, in which the entire work eventually finds its monochromatic culmination—kritzungen gives rise to no images, but is rather itself the canvas, the surface, and its inscription. The visual phenomenon of these inscriptions is not present in their sonic realisation; what we hear is not an image thereof. It is more than that: it is, in fact, the very process of that which it describes. Hannes Kerschbaumer refers to this approach as “bionic thinking”, a technique of mimicry that transfers natural phenomena to the realm of the technological—just as kritzung transfers a natural phenomenon to music—without necessarily understanding how they work, which is to say: without being able to answer the question of why something functions a certain way. Bionic thinking, in this sense, looks only at the surface, at things’ outward appearance, and goes on to copy this appearance rather than looking behind the surface and gaining an “understanding”. So it’s really about the costume.

In a similar way, the parts in schraffur for quarter-tone accordion and ensemble (winner of the Erste Bank Composition Award, 22 Nov. 2017) are not structured based on processual (e.g. harmonic) relationships, which would serve to lend the piece meaning from the “inside”. schraffur (which means “crosshatching”) instead starts with the idea of the synonymous painting technique, in which an entire image is composed of countless individual lines that are bereft of meaning in and of themselves. The instrumental parts accordingly describe glissando lines that, as a whole, result in a complex, shimmering structure. So the relationship between the parts exists not on the inside of the music or behind it, but rather arises only on its surface. And in their mass—i.e., only on the surface where they “coincidentally” come together—they form an overall image. So this is not an inside-out development, but rather a massive ensemble of lines that make no sense individually, in and of themselves. And their sound in the here and now comes together only in terms of the image viewed from afar, the overall picture, likewise speaking to us from a distance; so what we conceive of as reality is not a thing, but rather the product of a tension, of the energetic process between a far-off image and meaningless individual parts, just as Kant once proposed.

In schraffur, Kerschbaumer for the first time employs a “distortion-notation” that summarises parameters like bow, air, and lip pressure as degrees of distortion, which the musicians then implement based on to their experience in terms of performance practice. These distortions alter the instrumental sounds to the point that their “traditional sonic identity can no longer be perceived” (as the score’s performance instructions state). This is not about laying bare some “original reality” behind the music, similar to the way in which Lachenmann’s music is occasionally misinterpreted, but rather about the “artificial” musical surface itself becoming real.

This reinforces what both Lacan and Žižek point out about the Freudian interpretation of dreams: the dream is, as we know, not reality; it is an aesthetic surface comprised of images, intensities, desires, etc. But by embodying the negation of the principle of reality, it itself becomes what is actually real. It is in our dreams that we encounter what is real about our desires, while we wake up in order to escape the real and play along with the illusion of everyday life. The images in our heads are therefore not the illusion; they are, in fact, more real than what we hold to be reality. Without them, reality is meaningless and stares back at us with empty eyes. So images are not reproductions of reality; on the contrary, they are what is real about reality, what makes it possible to structure a reality in the first place: they hence arise not from reality, but from the holes in reality.

Consequently, there is no returning to paradise. Walter Benjamin describes this loss with reference to language: following the well-known episode with the Tower of Babel, we are strewn in all directions and end up standing before the wreckage of incompatible languages, unable to put them back together and thus recreate the original, pre-Babylonian whole. We have been separated from the world and from one another. For this reason, we need translation, which always entails the claim that it is possible to put together the senseless and mutually indifferent shards to form a new whole. But this putting-together is not a return to the original state, when everything was in one piece; instead, it must—as Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel had already reluctantly been forced to decide in order to hold on to their paradisiacal utopia—go the opposite way, the way of artificialisation, of ongoing splintering. And this is precisely the direction in which Hannes Kerschbaumer goes with his approach of bionic translation.

Instead of reversing the “distribution of the sensible” (Rancière), Kerschbaumer sets up the shards of different, now separate contents of sensory experience (seeing, hearing, touching) in opposition to one another, and the result is a comprehensive aesthetic-bodily experience of boundaries’ dissolution—or, to keep with our metaphor: the Babylonian boundaries’ destruction. We can identify a further means of dealing with these shards in Kerschbaumer’s series of works featuring the word “debris” in their titles. There, we experience the opposite of processual, continually progressing forms of development, namely processes of decay—in slow motion and close-up. In contrast to the “constructive” sound structures that describe organically growing processes, such as in kritzung, abbozzo IV & V, and schraffur, the debris series dismantles organic units to arrive at their individual parts: an overall sound disintegrates, is shattered, level by level, ending up as a pile of debris (much like space junk, building wreckage, or similar rubble). The dialectical trick of this series is that precisely these debris pieces, in contrast to the composer’s organic and constructive works, are clearly structured and adhere to a strict form: pedra.debris for bass saxophone, contrabass, and percussion (2013; Wien Modern: 12 Nov. 2017), for example, describes a process of decay in 47 clearly defined and systematically growing sections. The initial impulse thus unravels over 47 individual decay sequences to form a complex sonic structure of incomprehensible vastness. 47 impulses, 47 views of the moment of breakage, of the exploding object, of the pile of rubble looming up ever-higher. This process of decay is first and foremost a process of unfolding, for from the individual impulse with which the piece begins—which can be taken as something of an opening “serve”—there unfolds a rich sonic structure of continually greater nuance. Via destruction, not construction. And it is particularly these pieces that, in contrast to the “constructive" processes of formation, adhere to a strict formal construction. Destruction is thus rendered a constructive force.

In this, the debris series likewise has a visual origin: “This whole series really arose back when I came into contact with the sculptor Aaron Demetz and made recordings while he worked, recordings I listened to repeatedly and then processed, overlaying and editing them together. It was just always this visual image of the sculptor who hits the chisel with the hammer, with the chisel chipping things out of this material—and each time, it’s various particles, various parts of this material that fall onto the floor and disintegrate in the process. It’s precisely this that happens in pecea.debris: the sculptor hits this block 10,000 times a day and no longer perceives its sonority. I, on the other hand, do the exact opposite: this sonority is what I focus on. It’s about this very stoic activity, this hitting, this impulse that occurs again and again and, as part of the overall process, constantly brings to light different details that may not have been present in this impulse before.” (Kerschbaumer) The very fact that art still exists may be due to this utopian image: that the shards, at the very moment in which they’re struck off, can be more than just meaningless shards, isolated from one another. Kerschbaumer’s music transforms them into aesthetic fulfilment, thus dragging the utopia out of the distance and into the here and now, into our midst. And by voiding all of the separations entailed by the reality principle, this music is “pure suspension of the moment, in which form as such is perceived. It is the moment in which a special humanity is formed.”2

Kerschbaumer’s string quartet abbozzo IV (2016) features what he calls “wormholes”: the instrumental lines wind up in a field of extreme distortion created by bow pressure that causes the notes to sink into pure noise, arriving at a zero-point in terms of pitch that allows them to suddenly surface someplace entirely different. This makes possible great leaps, the transitions between with are actually neither flowing nor “leaps” as such; these are much rather “wormholes” that prevent the process leading from A to B from being followed. It is precisely this inscrutability, of course, that makes these wormholes so interesting. They are musical culminations that cannot be localised here or there, as they are explicitly neither A nor B. They are, in fact, the energetic process between A and B, and it is between A and B that the music happens. The concept of voltage can provide a model, here. Voltage is neither one pole nor the other, neither here nor there, nor even in between; voltage is rather the process, the motion entailed by the poles, which are meaningless on their own. The wormholes, then, are the voltage in which the impossibility of musical meaning finds its musical expression, since pitch relationships themselves no longer serve to guarantee meaning. Music, after all, doesn’t happen somewhere in the great beyond, or on paper, but in the here and now, in the wormhole of the present—it’s that crackling between the poles.

[1] Georges Didi-Huberman, Was wir sehen blickt uns an: Zur Metapsychologie des Bildes, München: Fink 1999, S. 13.
[2] Jacques Rancère, Die Aufteilung des Sinnlichen, Berlin: b_books 2008, S. 40/41.