Helmut Lachenmann’s three string quartets, realized here in exemplary form by the JACK Quartet, are challenging investigations into the architecture of sound and sound production. In these three works, as in Lachenmann’s work generally, timbre is an independent musical value that interacts with or—more often—supplants pitch, harmony and rhythm as the central element of composition. As a result the focus of these quartets is on how sound is produced, modified and organized.
Listening to the string quartets is analogous to reading Finnegans Wake—both works are extremely dense in content and shades of meaning. In Lachenmann’s case the material is sound color in the various guises it can take as it is wrung from the conventional instrumentation of two violins, a viola and a cello. Although produced from standard orchestral instruments, individual sounds can be difficult to place. As with acousmatic music, their sources—meaning here the gestures used to produce them—can sometimes only be guessed at.
Gran Torso (1971), the first quartet, is the sound of acoustic instruments in extremis, its prominent clusters of pizzicato notes emerging creaks, rattles and the sounds of distressed wood, horsehair and strings. A long pause about ten minutes into the piece adds an element of structural enigma to match the sonic enigmas on either side of it. Reigen seliger Geister (1989) draws heavily on flautando playing and wind-like, pitchless sounds, as well as percussive and strumming gestures broken up by silences. Throughout the quartet tones are bowed in a way that reverses the usual attack-decay profile of the rapid or immediate attack and gradual decay, making for passages that sound as if they were run through a volume pedal. The final and most recent quartet, 2001’s Grido, embodies a brittle, often microtonally-flavored lyricism embedded in skittishly modernist phrasing.
In calling for unusual ways to produce sound from acoustic instruments, Lachenmann’s string quartets ultimately seem to be about the resistance of material to the energy applied to it. This resistance is implicit in all music—think of the tautness of the string pushing against the pressure of the bow as an ordinary tone is sounded—but Lachenmann takes this play of forces and pushes it to the point of crisis, amplifying it and thus bringing it to the center of the composition. Resistance reaches a crisis when instruments produce the kinds of sounds they weren’t designed or perfected to produce–one might say that the nature of the instrument itself resists the use to which it is being put. And it is from this that the drama of these quartets arises.