Widmann embraces dialogue of past, present

Friday, July 31, 2015

David Weininger writes about Yellow Barn's Composer in Residence Jörg Widmann for The Boston Globe:

As a teenager, Jörg Widmann hung pictures of two musical heroes on the wall of his Munich bedroom: Pierre Boulez and Miles Davis. They make an odd couple at first glance, the allegedly dogmatic serialist and ruler of the French music scene and the famously protean jazz titan who evolved by shedding styles as quickly as he adopted them.

But to Widmann, who took up the clarinet when he was 7 and began composing not long after, there was no contradiction. “I was fascinated equally by them,” he said during a recent conversation from his home in Freiburg. In Boulez, who would later become an important mentor, he heard not determinism but “the opposite — what I heard was orgasms of color and freedom of sound.” Listening to Davis and his band playing at Munich’s Philharmonie in the 1980s, Widmann said, “the incredible thing was what he did not play. The notes he did not play were so amazing.”

Widmann’s unique way of resolving seeming contradictions into something new and unexpected is more than a (very German) facet of his personality: It is perhaps the most important characteristic of his work. Widmann’s music is incontestably of this moment, music that could only be written now, and yet no other composer is so deeply engaged in a dialogue with the past, a tradition which the composer, who is the subject of an upcoming residency at the Yellow Barn music school and festival in Putney, Vt., is both a part of, and stands apart from.

He reached this point not solely through his own creations but, as importantly, through his career as a clarinetist and his constant engagement with the masterpieces of the repertoire. Earlier this month he played Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. “That’s another piece where, how can I close my doors and say, OK, now it’s time to write something completely different? But of course, it’s my obligation to do something different.

“I’m very interested in a dialogue,” he went on, “but not in a nostalgic way, looking back and saying, well, it was so nice in the past. A dialogue is not always only agreeing with each other. Sometimes it’s a questioning of the other one.”

Take Widmann’s “Hunt Quartet,” his third string quartet, whose title is a clear reference to a Mozart work of the same name. The piece opens in a healthy A major, with clear references to a famous rhythm from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Quickly, though, easy guideposts fall away, harmonies darken, and the music is eventually consumed by noise generated entirely by extended string techniques. The cellist becomes, at least metaphorically, the victim of the “hunt.” A tradition is not erased so much as brought to its extreme conclusion.

One might think the composer of such stuff as the quartet and the recent opera “Babylon” would be an imposing, thorny person. But Widmann, 42, is a warm and generous conversant, laughing often and almost overflowing with enthusiasm about all things musical, as if the passion that ignited him early on has never worn off. He is particularly pleased by the diversity of Yellow Barn programs — curated by artistic director Seth Knopp — since their deft mix of old and new appeals naturally to his own artistic inclination.

He also appreciates the fact that, along with well-known pieces like the “Hunt,” Knopp insisted on including some of Widmann’s more obscure works. None, probably, is more obscure than “Skelett,” a 2004 solo-percussion piece that mischievously upends the idea of a virtuoso solo display. In fact, it doesn’t even have a written score: Widmann conceived of it, he said, after realizing that after concerts, “each time, as [the rest of us] enjoy a beer or a glass of wine at the bar, the poor percussionist still has to [take apart] their percussion instruments. And it takes two hours!

“So I wanted to write a piece about that moment,” he continued, as the percussionist grows increasingly frustrated and begins to create “these sounds which you would never use in a regular piece.” Widmann paused, then added, thoughtfully, “I don’t even know if it is a piece.”

Still, he seemed delighted to have the chance to work through it with Eduardo Leandro, Yellow Barn’s percussionist. “Maybe there will be a score at the end. I’m very curious about it myself.”

What the diversity of the programs also makes clear is how varied Widmann’s output is. He is unafraid to radically change direction from work to work. Indeed, he seems driven simultaneously to use whatever materials suit his expressive purpose — tonal, atonal, lyrical, or noisy — and to avoid repeating himself. It is both freedom and obligation, a productive ambivalence that Davis, in particular, would have appreciated.

“I don’t like the idea of doing the same thing all your life, and then somebody calls it ‘style,’ ” he said with a laugh. “I have great respect — there are many people who work like that and really have a language — you hear three notes and then, ‘Well of course, that’s this and this composer’ . . . [But] even when I write a piece and I start the next one, many times it is just the opposite.

“I have two tables, and sometimes I write two contrasting pieces at the same time. When I wrote my orchestra piece ‘Lied,’ it’s a very tonal piece, a Schubert homage, on the other table there was a kind of piano-destruction piece, ‘Hallstudie,’ which is 40 minutes long. The pedal is put down all the time, and until the first normal note is played it’s 15 minutes — until then it’s wood sounds, metal sounds, piano-lid banging. Everything is in reverberation and echo.

“And to me it’s not a contradiction,” Widmann continued. “I just try not to repeat myself.”

Jörg Widmann's Composer Portrait: August 4

Complete schedule of works by Jörg Widmann: August 3 - August 8

Monday | 8:00pm
Skelett (2004)
North American Premiere
With works by Bartók, Manoury, and Schubert

Tuesday | 8:00
Air for horn solo (2005)
United States Premiere
Elf Humoresken (2007)
Skelett (2004)
Duos for violin and cello "Heidelberg edition" (2008)
Fantasie for clarinet solo (1993)

Wednesday | 8:00
Jagdquartett (2003)
With works by Adès, Mozart, Debussy, and Couperin

Thursday | 8:00
Liebeslied (2010)
North American Premiere
With works by Stravinsky, Carter, and Schoenberg

Friday | 8:00
Tränen der Musen (1993)
North American Premiere
Ikarische Klage (1999)
With works by Wood and Janáček

Saturday Matinee | 12:30
Fünf Bruchstücke (1997)
Versuch über die Fuge (2005)
With works by Dvořák and Schumann

Season Finale | 8:00
…umdüstert… (1999-2000)
With works by Donatoni, Mozart, Britten, and Harvey