The soprano sighs, whispers, breathes in, breathes out, groans and squeeks – Helmut Lachenmann’s Got Lost in November Music

Helmut Lachenmann (c) Marion Kalter/Lebrecht Music

The German composer Helmut Lachenmann (1935) is the champion of evocative squeaks, grindings and splatters. Like John Cage, he hears music in unusual sources. Rarely an instrument is played as is prescribed in the books. ‘Making music with sounds is relatively simple and always somewhere modern’, he once said about this. Although he started his career as a choirboy, his catalogue contains surprisingly few vocal works.

On November 7th his only cycle for soprano and piano, Got Lost, will be performed in the newmusic festival November Music. This will be performed by the soprano Yuko Kakuta and the pianist Yukiko Sugawara, the composer’s wife. Lachenmann himself will come to Den Bosch especially for a meet and greet after the concert.

Lost laundry

He composed Got Lost in 2008 for the Biennale for New Music Theatre in Munich. It was a request from the British soprano Sarah Leonard, one of the singers in his opera The Little Match Girl. This explains the subtitle ‘Sarah’s Song’. The opera was based on the fairy tale of the same name by Andersen, this time he used texts by Nietzsche and Pessoa. From the first, he chose verses from The Wanderer about an abyss that inevitably leads to death. From Pessoa he quotes a reflection on how ridiculous it is to write love letters. – With the conclusion that it is even more ridiculous not to write any.

Finally there is an English text, from which the title of the cycle is derived. ‘Today my laundry basket got lost. It was last seen standing near the dryer. Since it is pretty difficult to carry the laundry without it I’d be most happy to get it back.’

At a previous performance in Muziekgebouw aan het IJ, Sugawara told me that these words originate from their neighbour. She had hung a note in the launderette where she had lost her laundry basket. Since then, the expression has become a running gag between the couple. ‘Helmut is always losing things, so then he sighs once more: oh, dear, my pyjamas got lost.’

Ridiculous situations

Unlike a song cycle by Schubert or Schumann, the words can seldom be understood literally. Got Lost’s score consists mainly of individual consonants, vowels and syllables. The soprano sighs, groans, whispers, breathes in, breathes out, blows, squeaks and only incidentally sings a fragment of arioso. The pianist sometimes mixes in with tongue clacking and sudden outbursts of guttural sounds, in the meantime banging out clusters interspersed with sparse but graceful cantilenas.

In his own commentary, Lachenmann describes how he has forged ‘three only seemingly incompatible texts’ into a unity. He has ‘stripped them of their emotional, poetic and profane diction’ and used them to shape the soprano part. This ‘sound source’ produces a ‘constantly changing field of sound, reverberation and movement. Sometimes shouting, sometimes playfully trembling or whimpering’.

Lachenmann constantly mixes the various texts, so that unexpected interactions, layers of meaning and a witty expressiveness arise. Thus Lachenmann emphasizes the ‘transcendent, ungodly message of the ridiculous situations’ connecting the three texts.

Like Anna Korsun, Helmut Lachenmann writes music that escapes analysis. He himself would like to ‘broaden the listener’s horizons’. He certainly created new horizons in Got Lost. – So off to Den Bosch it is!

Thursday 7 November, Willem Two Toonzaal, 12.30 hrs.
Helmut Lachenmann: Got Lost
Mark Andre: iv 1
Mark Andre: Job. 3.8
Yuko Kakuta - soprano; Yukiko Sugawara - piano

More info and tickets here.

About theaderks

Thea Derks is a Dutch music journalist, who studied musicology at Amsterdam University. She' specialized in contemporary music and always has an eye open for women composers. In 2014 she wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw and in 2018 she published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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