Jagden und Formen, Wolfgang Rihm

High rise Friedrichstraße 1921, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Even as the innovations of the twenty-first century render the classical traditions distant, in Rihm’s experimentation with ‘form’, such techniques return to the fore.

How does the composer determine when a new work has finally reached completion? Historically, most pieces of music have been written using ‘closed’ forms that arrive at a clear, definitive ending. By writing material that somehow always pointed towards a piece’s ending, true masters could unite seemingly incompatible events into a coherent, large-scale structure. But the German composer Wolfgang Rihm eschews ‘closed’ form and claims that he has yet to truly finish his large-scale work Jagden und Formen (“Hunts and Forms”), despite its public premiere back in 2001. For Rihm, “Double bar-lines at the end are really only vertically extended colons.”

At the turn of the twenty-first century, most musicians may have wondered if composers had exhausted all true ‘revolutions’ in musical aesthetics. Even many of the avant-garde techniques that arose from older music traditions were losing their novelty. The question loomed: “What next?” Rihm deliberately responds by confronting the listener with more questions.

Rather than plainly offering a compositional solution for what’s next in music, Jagden und Formen perpetually searches for what’s next. The piece realizes Rihm’s ceaseless ‘hunt for form’ by exploring several paths, or directions, all at once. Ultimately, Jagden und Formen takes listeners on a quest to discover the ‘new’, that vast, ambiguous, but also sublime realm of inspiration for which we all yearn. Of course, Rihm will never finish hunting the ‘new’: myriad possibilities await the composer who reworks a supposedly finished piece. Thus the structure, or form, of Jagden und Formen necessarily remains open-ended. It’s not formless, just ever-expanding.

This piece has taken many guises before in the earlier works Gejagte Form (“Hunted Form”), Gedrängte Form (“Harried Form”), and Verborgene Formen (“Hidden Forms”) written throughout the 1990s. In these works, Rihm drew direct inspiration from the striking visual-arts technique known as ‘overpainting,’ whereby the artist applies a new layer of paint over a pre-existing, “finished” work. But Rihm draws a distinction between the visual artist’s use of overpainting and that of the composer. “In music the old state is preserved alongside the new one. In painting, the surface is painted over to produce a whole new picture, in which the earlier state has disappeared. In music…the individual stages are heard, each in its newly overpainted guise, so that the overpainted layer can itself then be overpainted and overwritten.”

In Jagden und Formen, audiences simultaneously hear both the oldest and the latest. Several directions are experienced all at once – what composers have historically called ‘counterpoint.’ Even as the innovations of the twenty-first century render the classical traditions distant, in Rihm’s experimentation with ‘form’, such techniques return to the fore. The dense textures resulting from years of over-painting dumbfound the senses at first. But it’s within Jagden und Formen’s ‘open’ form and continual striving, that listeners glimpse profound references to music of the past.

Listening notes: ‘Crack!’ A scurrying, out-of-phase violin duet sends Jagden und Formen‘s opening theme into a frenzy above a layer of foreboding cello and bass drones (1:10 of b. 1). Suddenly, the woodwinds erupt into anguished paroxysms (3:10 of b. 1) that morph into a collision between piano and mallet instruments (b. 142). These ‘paroxysms’ return in b. 189, but layered atop an almost burlesque texture of marimba rhythms and bass clarinet. At b. 372 the work finds something of a respite, turned sour by the trombone’s rendition of the opening theme. This moment becomes absolutely sublime, though, as the ‘foreboding drones’ return in the English horn (2:04 of b. 372) and set the mood for one of the work’s most haunting sonorities: an excruciatingly painful tune belted out in the French horn’s highest range (2:32). Even though the chaotic hunt never lets up from overlapping contorted themes with Reich-like minimalism (2:10 of b. 650), one must marvel at how tuneful it ultimately sounds (b. 841).

Image: High rise Friedrichstraße 1921, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe