AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Roman Haubenstock-Ramati – Konstellationen [Kairos 0015003KAI]

0015003kai_haubenstock_webcoverAs sculpture, a mobile presents an ever-changing profile to the viewer, its constituent elements constantly rearranging themselves in relation to each other and creating new composite forms with every disturbance in the surrounding environment. As early as the 1932 composition of Henry Brant’s Mobiles for unaccompanied flute, the idea of the internally-reorganizing work had been imported into music from sculpture. Among the most prolific composers of the musical analogue of the mobile was Roman Haubenstock-Ramati (1919-1994).

Haubenstock-Ramati’s life and career reflected the tragedies and breakthroughs of 20th century European political and musical history. Born in Krakow, Poland, he and his family fled the country after the German invasion in 1939. From there Haubenstock-Ramati went to Lemberg (present-day Lviv in Ukraine), where he studied composition with Józef Koffler, a former student of Schoenberg’s, and graduated from the Lemberg Music Academy. In addition to the more orthodox dodecaphony he studied with Koffler, Haubenstock-Ramati was attracted as well to the music of Webern, which he’d been introduced to while still in Poland. Returning to Poland after the war, Haubenstock-Ramati next moved to Israel and then to Vienna in 1957, where he continued to develop his own unique ways of organizing musical sounds.

Konstellationen collects five different works ranging from 1948’s String Trio No. 1 to Morendo for tape and bass flute and Pluriel for string quartet, both of which were composed in 1991. Much of the work is based on what Haubenstock-Ramati called “dynamic closed form”—determined sets of constituent elements whose interactions are significantly indeterminate. In a sense, Haubenstock-Ramati’s “closed form” functions like an open field—a bounded unit allowing for multiple paths always subject to the possibility of deviation and change. Konstellationen, for example, which in a version for twelve-piece chamber ensemble appears in three iterations on the disc, is a graphic composition made up of a set of geometric forms set out in twenty-five slightly varying patterns. Aggregates of these forms repeat throughout the score, but in irregular cycles, making for a texturally-driven piece in constant flux as individual instruments enter and exit independently. Haubenstock-Ramati’s tendency to use overlapping cycles of differing lengths appears as early the String Trio, an expressive twelve-tone work bearing a resemblance to Second Viennese School polyphony, but which is nonetheless permeated by an unorthodox handling of musical material. Multiple 4 for oboe and horn, dating from the 1960s, is a fixed graphic score that juxtaposes gestures for each instrument in sparse interaction; rather than creating tension through superimposed, irregular cycles, the work derives its dynamic force from the collisions of the contrasting timbres of reed and brass.

The pieces in this collection are striking examples of composition as pure musical plasticity. Plasticity is a property usually associated with the visual, and especially sculptural, arts; its application to Haubenstock-Ramati’s compositions is appropriate not only because Haubenstock-Ramati was directly inspired by Alexander Calder’s sculptures, but because to a significant extent, Haubenstock-Ramati’s compositions capture and translate into musical language the intricate, quasi-epicyclic motions of Calder’s sculptures. Haubenstock-Ramati did this through structural means, by setting out elements that can be put into motion against each other through contrasts and coincidences of periodicity or of timing generally. Not unlike the movement animating Calder’s sculptures, in fact. And just as with mobile sculpture, plasticity in musical terms just is the dynamic relationships realized through the interplay of forms; the generating principle behind much of Haubenstock-Ramati’s work is exactly that: Forms moving dynamically with, against and through one another. To a large extent, these works’ dynamic is their structure. The work isn’t realized until its repertoire of forms is put in motion, constructing as it moves larger scale forms by virtue of the asymmetries inherent in its variable timing.

Daniel Barbiero