Variationen über ein altes Thema

Click image for some extracts

Instrumentation: 4 speakers with megaphones
Duration: 9 minutes
First performance: Scholarship holders of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Berlin, 4th June 2011 (partly)
Students of the Högskola för scen och musik Göteborg, Göteborg, 17th November 2012 (completely)

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Variationen über ein altes Thema is my reaction on a seminar in which I took part in the organisation of an art exhibition together with fellow scholarship holders of the German Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. The general topic of this exhibition was arts and politics. Apart from the concrete organisation a lot of profound discussions about the relationship of arts and politics emerged, especially about the question in which way political attitudes can be transformed into artistic expression. One of the more extreme viewpoints in this discussion was that every work of art must incorporate a political statement, and if this is disputed by the artist he himself states the political content through this denial – stating that he disapproves of any political commitment.

This attitude obviously led to some intense debates, as it implies a lot of problematic connotations. Like some of the other artists present at this seminar I – being an artist who is not laying any political intentions my compositions – felt rather affected by this assumption. This feeling of being offended however soon converted into something else: I felt challenged to prove this approach wrong.

I believe that if art shall be political, its connotation has to be tangible in the artwork itself, visible not only through long and complicated explanations by the artist but at least in some way present to a ingenuous recipient. My idea for the piece that I was going to write was therefore to create a music which itself carries no political content by reconstructing an apparently political text in such a way, that its meaning – and therefore even its attitude – is completely dissolved in sound. Only further explanation of its genesis shall reveal the deeper meaning.

The musical realisation of this rather abstract idea began by choosing a suitable setting: By choosing four speakers with megaphones I intentionally created a rather paradox situation: The piece, seeming completely unpolitical to the listener, is performed by musicians that use the most politically entailed instrument: the megaphone. The text that is spoken is taken from a babylonian inscription ca. 1000 B.C. and states that today’s youth is corrupt and that the babylonian civilisation will end because of its juveniles. Despite its banality its tenor is even today uttered very often, making it a suitable text for my composition: I did not want to take a text from politics of the day, nor did I want to use something that is completely irrelevant today.

The beginning of Variationen über ein altes Thema resembles the theme, in a sense that here the text appears as an entity. Various techniques are however used to make the actual words inaudible, using the text as a quarry for sounds. In the course of the piece variations of the “theme” follow, in which on composition technique from the beginning after the other is explored more in detail.

Due to the ideas that are the origin of this piece it is desirable that this information is not given in advance. However, this text could be read to the audience after the performance.


Click image for an extract

Instrumentation: snare drum, organ
Duration: 4 minutes
First performance: Leander Franke (organ) and Johan Renman (snare drum), 8th March 2012, Göteborg

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Recording with Malte Fischer, organ and Timo Gerstner, snare drum:

The basic concept behind Proportionen is rather simple: A certain amount of time, i.e. the duration of the piece, is split into several parts by musical events. The listener’s attention is drawn onto these musical events and what effect their timing has. This is achieved by creating a continuous layer, which, being not interesting enough to function as a musical foreground, moves into the background very quickly. Thus musical space for the proportioning layer is opened. This layer consists of short musical events that succeed each other unpredictably in their timing.

Proportionen is the result of a series of studies carried out by visualising various examples of proportionings on paper and making them audible by very simple means afterwards. In these pre-studies the continuous layer was represented by the constant blowing into a microphone, the short musical events were a single pizzicato of a double bass. These were then put together on the computer, so that different proportionings could be tested and compared. In a first step I tried out various orders of lengths that were multiples of the shortest. Having decided on an order I then made the lengths more complex, e.g. relating to the Fibonacci numbers, the square roots of the first natural numbers or the first numbers of Pascal’s triangle.

I then wrote a music that is able to carry for a longer time by making the continuous layer more interesting. With its permanent sound the organ appeared to me as a very suitable instrument for the duration layer. It is separated into three voices. The voices begin on the same note, drive apart from each other slowly, converge again, drive apart, converge etc. until they reach the first note again in unison. The voices never break off and two voices never move at the same time. The harmonies being reached appear completely random – although they are very well planned.

In order to disturb the sacral aura that the organ almost inevitably creates, especially when playing a very quiet and gentle part like in this piece, I chose the snare drum and as a playing technique the rim-shot for the proportioning layer. The extreme contrast between these two sounds, the constant flowing of the organ versus the brutal noise of the drum, is not bound to any traditional music and makes it obvious that this piece is not part of any tradition but wants to stand alone, being only what it is, a musically interesting  experiment on the proportion­ing of time.