CIRCLING MOVEMENT, A SPRINGBOARD INTO THE OPEN
A PORTRAIT OF THE COMPOSER MATTHIAS PINTSCHER
by Markus Fein
Paris, number 40 Rue de Villejust, fourth floor. In Julie Manet's salon, Edgar Degas stands in front of a camera. Nine oil lamps illuminate the room. When Degas presses the shutter, both the people being photographed remain in position for fifteen minutes: to the left, on the sofa, the painter Renoir. To the right, standing next to him, Stéphane Mallarmé, the great French Symbolist poet. Some days later, the photographic proof is ready; only now can the viewer marvel at Degas's skilful artistic arrangement. The photograph shows not only the two artists, but also gives an impression of the upper middle-class apartment where the scene is set. A mirror can be seen above Renoir. And this leads the observer's view back into the room, a technique previously used in the paintings of Jan van Eyck. The photographer as painter? Perhaps Degas had the ambiguous world of paintings of the old Dutch Masters in mind when he took this photograph in 1895. On closer examination, the picture turns out to be a mysterious staging, for in the blurred reflection of the mirror, the outlines of other people can be seen: the silhouettes of Madame Mallarmé and her daughter can be recognised; even Degas himself, concealed by the dim light of the oil lamps, can be seen vaguely as a shadowy figure.
Those who hear Matthias Pintscher's music enter similarly unreal spaces like those in Degas's photograph. Transported, as if his music sounds from afar. Sounds whisper incomprehensibly through the air, as mysteriously as Degas's shadowy figures. And because Pintscher arranges his musical world of mirrors with great subtlety, he is reliant upon the precise attentiveness of the listener. From the first impression the listener senses that a sensitive and subtle artist is at work, composing music of great poetic beauty. Seldom before has a composer placed his sound world before the public with so much care. His music sounds fragile, above all in the recent chamber music works, which set out on a journey into the inner life of sounds. But also there, where his music breathes and shivers like a body, where bodies/groups of sounds roar, the listener feels how vulnerable an art this is. Matthias Pintscher composes music for the ear. It stands apart from the banal, the everyday, instead propagating its freedom and independence. The freedom of music – that is a long sought-after wish of the composer, for the theory and the metier are bound up with the notes. If there is a basic gesture in Matthias Pintscher's music, it is perhaps this movement of freedom, which lends the notes a floating lightness. "Gamba-like, light and floating", heads the score of "in nomine" for viola solo (1999); the piano work "on a clear day" (2004) bears the expression mark "evenly floating and swaying". Pintscher wrote of the piece "Janusgesicht" for viola and cello (2001) in an afterword in the score: "These are quiet/still, breathing notes for slow and quite free music. Two parts, delicately floating, in a 'unity'. This music is indeed free, for it is released from measured time and is not bound by the straitjacket of bars. It ebbs and flows in its own rhythm.
Matthias Pintscher is an anachronism. His ars subtilior does not fit with the strident, loud world which surrounds us today. It is therefore quite surprising that the music business noticed his extreme talent early on. He was born in Marl in North Rhine-Westphalia in 1971, and first studied piano, violin and percussion. After conducting the City Youth Orchestra in his home town for the first time at the age of 14, he developed a wish to compose, "to breathe life into the orchestra himself". In 1988 he began studying composition as a Junior Student with Giselher Klebe in Detmold; two years later, he encountered Hans Werner Henze, whose idea of an "imaginary, instrumental theatre" inspired Pintscher to compose in a narrative, gestural style. It was also Henze who encouraged him to study the sixteenth century composer Carlo Gesualdo. His examination of the madrigal Sospirava il mio core resulted in the Fourth String Quartet; Pintscher gave this the subtitle 'Portrait': "Ritratto di Gesualdo". Whilst still studying composition with Manfred Trojahn which followed on from this period, Pintscher had his first successes. After portrait concerts at the Salzburg Festival in 1997, and the premiere of his opera "Thomas Chatterton" at the Semperoper [Semper Opera House] in Dresden in 1998, an international career was assured. Today, Pintscher is one of the best-known and internationally recognised composers of our time. And taking it even further: alongside Pintscher's composing he has become a conductor of worldwide recognition. And this is by no means limited to the contemporary repertoire. Along with specialized ensembles like the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris, for which he is named their music director from the 2013/14 season, Pintscher is conducting a wide repertoire with Orchestras like the New York Philharmonic, The Cleveland Orchestra, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, where he serves as artist in association, or the Deutsche Symphonieorchester Berlin. He is also working as a curator for several festivals, as a program curator and as professor for composition.
On the surface, such composers' careers can often conceal the doubt and insecurity which are part and parcel of their development. Matthias Pintscher is one of those composers who continuously reflect their musical position, indeed, who wear themselves out for their art. Like the literary figure in Arthur Rimbaud's poem 'Départ', a key text for his musical thinking, Pintscher is also continually on the point of a new departure. Against the background of this slow and questioning process of development is an extensive catalogue of works encompassing all forms, including opera. If we review the works of the last fifteen years, we can see developments within his output. We see how the composer has gradually made his scores sparser and has constantly given the structure a more subtle shape. His early, highly expressive orchestral pieces swell threateningly, like a vibrating bell; more recently, Pintscher has directed the tension in his music inwards. Looking backwards, however, the constants in his work also begin to emerge. In the variety of colour and refinement of his musical language, but also in the orientation of his artistic outlook, Pintscher was always a musicien français. Most of his works share a preference for finely illuminated sound and a dramaturgy of opposites: sounds on the edge of silence and ecstatic spatial sound, filigree markings and brutal eruptions of sound both interchange and reflect each other.
Pintscher began his search for an ideal sound early on, which has become a distinctive characteristic of his music: das Vage – the elusive. He has a marked weakness for the equivocal and the ambiguous. This interest has made him receptive to the literature of the American author Edward Estlin Cummings (1894-1962) who gave a voice to the elusive in many of his poems. In "the hours rise up", Cummings wrote a poem about the twilight, about daylight breaking at dawn, the city waking up, people's dreams and obsessions and the gradual darkening at dusk. We can hear the echo of this poem in Pintscher's ears in "a twilight's song" for soprano and seven instruments (1997). The shadow play between light and darkness is transformed there into an atmospherically dense music of nuances. Since then, Pintscher has constantly pursued his search for the distant and untouchable. In "Lieder und Schneebilder" for soprano and piano (2000), he again turned to texts by Cummings. And also here, in poems about twilight, moon and winter, Pintscher is listening to overcast, barren landscapes. Four years later with "Study I for Treatise on the Veil", Pintscher began a cycle of chamber music works dedicated to the American painter Cy Twombly (b.1928). Twombly devoted his entire career as an artist to examining the elusive. He sparingly placed his symbols and letters on a mostly cream-coloured background to give the impression they were floating, by overpainting and smudging them. Pintscher's "Traktat über den Schleier" is a homage to this art of blurred shading.
This interaction with other art forms is not an isolated example in Pintscher's output. "Dernier espace avec introspecteur" for accordion and cello from 1994 can be interpreted as an examination of a sculpture by Joseph Beuys (1921-1986). Another point of reference is Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966). The five-part "Figura" cycle for string quartet and accordion (1997-2000) resulted from a study of Giacometti's sculptures, and relates to the Swiss sculptor's late works. Again and again the music follows fault lines, and sounds erupt into noise or silence. The fact that the music moves within an extremely reduced range of material can be understood as a reference to Giacometti. Pintscher likewise "draws" in finely differentiated shades of grey. What he has in mind is a malleable music in space, the detail of which is illuminated in constantly changing ways. Something else should also be mentioned: both artists, Giacometti and Pintscher, deliberately expose their material to interruptions. Along the way to dematerialization, Giacometti leaves emaciated bodies whose surface is as crudely hewn as the flaking walls of his studio. Pintscher's music draws its poetry from this form of threatened beauty.
Matthias Pintscher is a sound-obsessive. Those who study his scores see the precision with which he lays out his landscapes of sound. The music is full of detailed performance instructions for the musicians. In the hands of the performers, this precise notation is transformed into music of great poetic power.
Pintscher composes music of powerful imagery. The listener encounters this sometimes as a floating, light, sound figuration, and sometimes as a powerful, accumulated body of sound. "Choc" for large ensemble dating from 1996 is such a work. Pintscher wrote it, influenced by the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud. And in the same way that Rimbaud conjures up a blazing world which becomes intoxicated with conflicts, Pintscher composes music which is sparked off by the collision of differing soundworlds. "Choc" lives by capturing eruptive soundscapes – and their echo. The roaring and screeching of violent bodies of sound is answered by the final chords of aftershock.
The importance which Matthias Pintscher attaches to the conception of a musical space is shown by a glance at his scores. From his early orchestral works onwards, he gives precise instructions as to the layout of the orchestra. In the score of his Violin Concerto "en sourdine" (2002), he stipulates precisely how the orchestra should be divided into two symmetrical groups. Here, the soloist functions as a prism which collects the sounds and transmits them into the various directions of the orchestra. If these sounds have already begun their journey they are subtly altered in form, or thrown back in broken colours or as a distorted echo. In "Sur Départ" (2000) and other works, the composer even stretches the extent of his musical resonances into the auditorium; three cellos and female voices placed in the concert hall grasp the whispering, shimmering and trembling of the orchestra and throw their sound shadows back at the podium. Pintscher's spatial musics are however far more than a purely musical investigation. For him, the interest in aural effects is closely bound up with his artistic thought process. When asked about the creation of his works, he talks about "sound spaces" which make an impression as a first musical idea in his inner ear. When he came across descriptions of illusionary rooms or spaces in an obituary of the English film maker, painter and writer Derek Jarman (1942-1994), he was stimulated to compose "with lilies white" (2001/02) for large orchestra and voices. Jarman's texts, sung in the work by a boy treble and three sopranos, describe rooms or spaces on the boundaries between life and death, "Durchgangslager" [places of transition], "Warteräume" [waiting rooms], "unearthly rooms which are silent, and which absorb every noise, sound or word", according to the composer. "This is the song of my room" – in Pintscher's setting, this sounds soft, pallid, claustrophic, unreal.
Today Matthias Pintscher is looking back at a 20 years long career as a composer. Looking at his extensive catalogue of works there seem to be a strongly developing tendencies within his musical oeuvre. We can see very clearly how his musical textures have become more transparent over time and how the settings have transformed into another quality of subtlety. The narrative gestures of his earlier orchestral works, inspired by visual arts, have changed to more abstract forms. But overlooking the entity of his works we also identify consitency. In its variety of color and timbre of his musical language, also in the direction of his musical apprehension, he seems to be a true "musicien francais". Along with an affinity for subtle and illuminated sounds he can equally create the drama of contrast: sounds at the verge of silence, ecstatic sound spaces, intricate sonic drawing and violent eruptions are in a direct dialogue and are commenting each other mutually. And this is exactly what is happening in his recent work "Chute d'Etoiles" for two solo trumpets and orchestra, referring to a work of Anselm Kiefer. Following the oeuvre of Matthias Pintscher you will discover the leading ideas of his esthetic: his works seems to urge into some specific motion of direction, giving a voice to the longing solitude, swaying gently above deep abysses. Memories swaying over to us from "the other side". And also something entirely different will become apparent: the compositions of the recent years of Matthias Pintscher are trying to abandon bar lines and are connecting the works in a labyrinth like manner. He keeps reforming existing gestures and idioms: the spectral hushing noises of the air inside the flute, the lamenting call of a horn solo, the eery and fleeing gestures of fast and soft runs for the muted trumpet, the dangerously tempting calls of the clarinets. In his ensemble tryptick "sonic eclipse, in his second violin concerto "mar'eh", in "Osiris" and in "Chute d'Etoiles" all these elements are reoccurring as constantly shifting and transforming sounds enigmas: Matthias Pintscher is creating connections in between his works. As a listener you get the impression to walk through a garden of sonic memories.
Matthias Pintscher's works are far removed from every day existence. To some they may appear like sounds of gossamer which appear in beautiful radiance. But that misses the point. For those who describe his music thus fail to appreciate the hidden message it carries with it. Those who listen carefully learn much about the person of the composer. Those who immerse themselves in his music sense that Matthias Pintscher wants to protect his message from being instantly accessible. His art is therefore not of the mainstream. His music promises new experiences in out-of-the-way places.
translation: Elizabeth Robinson