Acoustical Living Assistance:
The Work of a Decade as an Agenda for the Next Few Millennia
Daniel Wolf, Frankfurt
When first asked to come to Kiel, some years ago, I knew too little German to appreciate the name of this august organization. Now, I know a bit more. The name, however, has retained a large part of its mysterious aura, that is to say, it survives translation intact: it remains incomprehensible.
The idea of the incomprehensible artwork is perhaps at the heart of the work done by this society. Or perhaps, better put, artwork that is incomprehensible on any terms other than its own. To this end the Society has presented paintings (especially monochromes), installations, performances, and mostly, music.
It is essential that the Society was founded in Kiel. Kiel, indeed much of Northern Germany, has been largely free of live exposure to the various trends in modern music in the last half century. This has been to the advantage to the Society’s programs in that the audience in Kiel is largely unprejudiced towards or against any of those trends, in fact, all of them represent sources of musical potentiality. This distance from the shared history of the institutional avant-garde – the Darmstadts, Donaueschingens, WDRs and HRs – has allowed programs to be made free of any responsibility to that history and its ever-narrowing aesthetic politics.
This organization – like any other – is defined largely by its membership. The society for acoustical living assistance has but one member at present, Hauke Harder, after the departure of the artist Rainer Grodnik to the exotic east in 199-. Granted, a society composed of one member presents something of a legal and sociological puzzle, but it does offer a certain opportunity to proceed in a definite direction, unencumbered by the disadvantages of a group decision-making process. Moreover, it provides the opportunity to present a singular vision.
A singular vision. The poet William Blake had that and so did the physicist Isaac Newton. Both were members of "societies of one", individual avant-gardists working in territory essentially incomprehensible to their fellow citizens. And yet something essential separates these two. This verse of Blake’s, distinguishing his singular but multifaceted vision from the single, one-sided, vision of the scientist, which I learned from N.O. Brown, has long accompanied me:
Twofold always, let us keep,
from single vision and Newton’s sleep.
Hauke Harder is both a composer and physicist, Blake and Newton in one person, if you will. This fact is something that Harder has always presented as essentially accidental. This fact has sometimes made composers and musicians a bit nervous, suspicious of the program behind his programs. A large part of this nervousness is surely just the anxiety most citizens feel about science: they do not understand it but believe it to be true. This is just a modern substitute of the fear of God felt by all of our ancestors. In truth, though, Harder’s vision should rather make physicists nervous: his is an assertion that the aesthetic, with qualities incomprehensible to the rational eye and ear, also has a part, indeed the vital part, in the life of the mind.
I happen to consider Harder’s career as a physicist to be relevant to his musical career, but not in an obvious way. Harder is an experimental physicist, not a theorist. This means that he is interested in finding out how things are, establishing the plausibility of propositions about the material world, not about formulating those propositions. Likewise, his musical works and programs are composed, put together, not speculated upon, and the end results are accepted for what they are, not for their representation of – or failure to represent – an external ideal. Harder is exactly what John Cage defined to be an experimental composer. Like Cage, he will happily discuss the materials used in a musical score or the method of their deployment, but he remain happily speechless when asked about their meaning.
(Hauke Harder is also a competitive table tennis player and a serious dancer of tangos. The relevance of these activities to his musical compositions and to the programming of the Society is an issue I will leave to future generations of musicologists. )
Vision. (Curious it is that our vocabulary so fails us when it comes to talking about music. We are left with words borrowed from our visual vocabulary to talk about sound. What do we call a vision made of sound?) Programming a series of concerts requires some sort of sound-vision. An idea about what will fit together, mingling productively in the imaginations of the listeners.
What is Harder’s sound-vision? How can the musical works programmed by the Society be characterized? Do they form a coherent repertoire in any traditional sense? I think rather not, but I do find some common concerns in the music. One of these is tonality. In this case, it is not the question of an existing set of melodic and harmonic figures within which a tonal language is defined but rather the fact that human beings respond to musical tones in a tonal way, attempting to organize them around central pitches, seeking repetitions, discerning the structural from the ornamental. While Harder has avoided the famous names of the European avant-garde – Boulez, Nono, Stockhausen and their weak successors like Lachenmann or Ferneyhough – the avant-garde moment of the 1950’s did play a vital, if negative, role in the recovery of tonality as heard here. This repertoire demonstrated decisively that no matter what one does with a bunch of notes, their tonal associations were bound to be heard.
Several of the composers programmed here made a journey from one of the old avant-garde to the new sound vision – Ernstalbrecht Stiebler, Wolfgang von Schweinitz, James Tenney. In his last years, John Cage famously came round to share this tonal vision. Perhaps Morton Feldman had had it all along. The composers at the core of Harder’s programs all seemed to already know this. I would identify Walter Zimmermann, Boudiwijn Buckinx, Clarence Barlow, and Jo Kondo as the key figures in the formation of Harder’s canon and they have that tonal vision. It is necessary here only to cite Kondo’s own characterization of his compositional practice. He calls it simply: "the art of being ambiguous". (Ambiguously, Kondo never said exact what he was being ambiguous about!) Others – notably Alvin Lucier and Gordon Monahan – begin with curiosity about the acoustical foundations of sound and the potential for any audible event to create a musical context. And then some, like Maria de Alvear or Pauline Oliveros, begin with a meditative or ritualistic context, whose framework determines the tonal passage.
It would be wrong to omit the names of some performers whose affinity for the music played as well as their virtuosity have been constants in the Society’s concerts: Ensemble l’art pour l’art, pianists Marianne Schroeder, Genevieve Foucrolle, Brigida Romano, Hildegard Kleeb, Ensemble Recherche, Thürmchen Ensemble, Trombonist Roland Dahinden, and the multiply talented Chris Newman.
I am generally allergic to all things millennial. The numbering of calendar years is, in the end, arbitrary. So please take the following words with some salt. In the last decade of this millennium, the Society for Musical Living Assistance has been able to present a repertoire of music and other arts integrating vision and ratio. I predict that the next millennium will be one in which our knowledge of the rational will be more and more complete ("the end of science" as some put it) while our knowledge of the mysterious, especially the aesthetic, will be increasingly incomplete. This contrast has been the basis of the programs here in Kiel, and might just be the most vital agenda for the times to come.