String Quartet No. 1 “Gran Torso”, Helmut Lachenmann

Overpainted Photograph (18.1.89), Gerhard Richter
The German composer disperses the refined tones of the traditional string quartet to reveal the shadowy, barren soundworld that lies behind.

“You see, right now you’re listening to what I’m saying, but you’re not listening to my voice,” Helmut Lachenmann recently told his audience ahead of a performance of his music at King’s College London. And this might’ve been true had I not just spent the last fifteen minutes straining my ears against his thick German accent. In fact, it was impossible for me to ignore the composer’s voice: its unfamiliar rhythms and cadences – its alien substance – erecting a near-impenetrable façade around his hesitantly unfolding sentences. The concrete stuff of speech – usually a mere transparent container for language – had become brutally, unavoidably present, a syrupy mass through which I was forced to wade in order to glimpse the meaning I so anxiously sought.

And 1972’s Gran Torso, the piece Lachenmann had been introducing, constructs a similar experience. Imagine stripping all the words out of spoken language, leaving behind only the liminal sounds existing between and around those neatly delimited symbols: clipped breaths forcing air in and out of lungs, the moist sounds of saliva between tongue and teeth – all those uncanny by-products of the mechanical, fleshy actuality of the production of meaning. Now do the same to the rarefied language of the string quartet – with its hallowed tradition stretching back to Mozart and Haydn – and you’ll begin to approximate Gran Torso’s barren soundworld. Here, there are no notes, no stately melodies or harmonies flowing forth from the ensemble: all such comforts have been erased to reveal the faint rustles and scrapes, the jarring rattles and creaks, of the string quartet’s shadowy in-between sounds.

Whole stretches of the piece are constituted by little more than the whisper-quiet noise of friction as a bow rubs up against the wood of its instrument’s body – first the cello, then viola. And tempting though it is to read a sense of muted tragedy into the quartet’s continual failure to (re)capture an intelligible musical language, Lachenmann’s uncompromising and total surrender of tradition seems to question whether any of that was worth holding on to in the first place. Give yourself over to this way of thinking and Gran Torso reveals itself to be not only disarmingly aloof but also light, airily undemanding: in the absence of any promise of meaning – of some rational organising force behind it all – it’s easier just to let the sounds be, simply to observe their unfolding through time without any jittery need to impose narrative, development, coherence upon them. And so, Gran Torso achieves a total inversion of the pithy observation with which Lachenmann chose to preface this recent performance: the piece may, in the end, have nothing at all to say, but in its blankness the grain of its hoarse, guttural voice is made strikingly audible.

[Edit, 9th August 2015: Since the time of writing the recording referred to below has been removed from Spotify. The piece is still available in other recordings, for example here.]

Listening notes: Gran Torso’s opening minute acts as a prelude to the music that follows. Separated from the main body of the piece by a period of silence, the passage defines the parameters of the quartet’s acoustic space, from its dry, bassy rattles right the way up to its fraught high violin tones. At 1:40 the continuous noise of a bow scraping against its instrument’s body is first introduced. Throughout the majority of the piece, this sound serves as a focal point around which the others revolve, surviving even the most brutal onslaughts of noise (for example, the creaking cacophony starting at 4:32). But by the end of the piece the grinding noise of the quartet has frayed and shortened to curt scrapes and the clunk of plucked strings.

Image: Overpainted photograph (18.1.89), Gerhard Richter