Some of the most challenging music of recent years—challenging to play as well as to listen to—has been written by German composer Helmut Lachenmann (b. 1935). The conceptual core of much of his music has consisted in laying bare the conditions underlying and assumed by music production—essentially, the physical prerequisites of performance practice, as well as the determinations, both accepted and rejected, of genre. For Lachenmann, musical sound is a complex of factors reaching back within the tradition or genre in relation to which it is created, and reaching forward into the moment—the physical situation of specific possibilities and the choices they elicit—in which it is actually produced. Thus the title of his book of writings, which translates as “music as existential experience.” This standpoint puts extraordinary demands on the performer, who must be familiar with all the aspects and resources his or her instrument has to offer. With Aesthetic Apparatus, a set of three Lachenmann compositions, clarinetist Gregory Oakes takes up the challenge.
Oakes, who is principal clarinetist for the Des Moines Symphony Orchestra as well as an assistant professor of clarinet at Iowa State University in Ames, is particularly interested in contemporary art music. Much of his repertoire is the product of collaboration with currently active composers, and he seems especially drawn to new music that assumes a broad notion of what kinds of sounds are permissible in the concert hall. Thus Lachenmann’s music is a natural fit for him.
The affinity between Oakes and Lachenmann’s sound world is immediately apparent with the first piece, 1970’s Dal Niente (Interieur III) for solo clarinet. The composition calls for a number of extended techniques for the instrument, many of which involve the sounds of breath on the borderline of silence. In his liner note, Oakes points out that the title of the piece derives from a musical marking that translates as “from nothing;” his performance accordingly pivots on the flux of sounds proceeding from and returning to nothing. The Trio Fluido for clarinet, viola and percussion of 1966, in which Oakes is joined by violist Jonathan Sturm and Matthew Coley on marimba, also centers on sound but in a more assertive way. The piece begins with a fragmented Modernist counterpoint that, through a kind of compositional auto-deconstruction, gradually dissolves into abstract sound. What’s striking about the piece is its underlying consistency; the division of the three voices focuses attention on their individual timbral characteristics, whether played conventionally or with the extended techniques that come to dominate the final third or so of the performance. The interplay among the three performers manages to be both refined and (subtly) dramatic. The final performance, the nearly 32 minute long Allegro Sostenuto (1986/1988), is a trio for clarinet, cello (George Work) and piano (Mei-Hsuan Huang) that Lachenmann has described as mediating between resonance and movement. The piece begins as an archipelago of rapid bursts, truncated phrases and points of sound that accumulate and build length and mass over time. The resonance inheres in the individuation of each of the three instruments, which is helped by the three players’ precise articulation. Here as on all three pieces, Oakes plays with a fine-grained, well-modulated and vivid sound.