Composer Eric Nathan’s Missing Words is a six-song cycle of purely instrumental music. This sounds like a paradox and in a sense it is; the cycle is made up of translations into music of invented German words, which provide the texts for each movement. The words aren’t spoken or sung—and thus they’re missing—but they’re there nevertheless, in Nathan’s musical interpretations of their meanings. The cycle, which is arranged for chamber ensembles ranging in size from two to eight pieces, consists of six parts subdivided into several relatively short movements, each of which is dedicated to a single word.
And what words they are. Given the collective name of Schottenfreude—presumably a pun on “Schadenfreude”–the words were invented by Ben Schott to describe everyday situations and sensations that don’t have a readymade, dedicated word in English, or in German, for that matter. So Schott conjured them up by combining existing German words into new compounds. German is notorious for its apparently open-ended capacity to admit new words made by tying together seemingly endless strings of entries from its lexicon; Schott took advantage with such coinages as “Straußmanöver” (“ostrich-maneuver,” for hiding one’s head in the proverbial sand in order to avoid reality) and “Dreieckungsumgleichung” (“triangle-reorganization,” for when two people you’ve introduced exclude you from the friendship you helped facilitate).
Nathan’s musical translations of Schott’s words are often witty and always evocative. For example, Missing Words VI, for a quartet of two winds and two strings, contains three movements for the word “Witzbeharrsamkeit” (repeating a witticism enough times to ensure that everyone in the room has heard it). Each features a statement with variations of probably the most famous opening of any symphony in the classical repertoire–the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth—played in turn by flute, flute, and bass clarinet, and violin, against the background chatter of the supporting instruments. A movement for “Brillenbrillanz” (the sharpened vision one gets from new eyeglasses) is scored for the bright timbres of brass quintet, with just enough scattered movement to suggest the temporary disorientation that comes with the view through new lenses. “Dreieckungsumgleichung” is scored for a sextet of winds, percussion, and strings, which Nathan appropriately enough divides into two trios in which the voices seem to compete for each other’s attention.