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The Empty Sheet

Thüring Bräm:  The Empty Sheet

(Public lecture for the students of the composition department at the Music University during the 28th International Week for New Music in Bucharest on May 23, 2018.)

1. Where does inspiration come from?
- Material
- Form
- Content
2. Relationship composer-public (communication-communion?)
3. Background:
Monteverdi: Madrigali guerreri ed amorosi
Bruckner’s architecture
Philosophy of John Cage
Bräm: “Quiet music” and “Clockwork”

Examples from Bräm:
Stringquartet No.3 “As a bystander on the side of the big celebration” (1997/98)
 “Clockwork” for violin solo (1976)
“our da sumbrivas lungas” (2016) for six solo voices
“Délire” Scene for 6 clarinets (2018)
“La Cantatrice” (chamber opera, texts by Aloïse Corbaz, 2015)

One says about Puccini, that he had to visualize his opera figures in their acting in order to be able to write the music he wanted to attribute to them. So he needed a clear psychological or dramatical suggestion in order to inspire his musical fantasy.

Mozart often notated only the obvious in his scores, having all in his head or sometimes also using improvisational elements. Thus the middle movement of his “coronation” piano concerto No.26 K537 is lacking the left hand throughout the score. Given the harmonic framework of classical music, it seemed pretty clear what had to be played.

Pierre Boulez’ predetermined style of writing grew out of a strict arrangement of the serial elements (pitch, rhythm, dynamics, timbre). Klaus Huber sketched the form of his violin concerto on millimeter paper so the relationship of real time and filled time became absolutely clear, not admitting any hazards. In the 2nd movement of Webern’s Symphony the only freedom of the time flow consists in the fermatas after each variation. Handel’s “Messiah” was written in such a haste, that no larger premeditation was possible, after the basic concept was in his mind: possibly one piece grew out of the other. If you trigger algorithms in live electronic music, the material creates more or less itself. And so on.

What does this tell us?

Firstly: We all as composers have an empty sheet in front of us, which we have to fill. And we do it very differently according to the circumstances and the conditions we are in. We have to provide the building blocks with which we can construct a piece. We need material.

Secondly: Since our medium only works within time, we need a form, which we are going to shape according to our intentions.

Thirdly: This form has to be filled in with a certain content, a syntax that shapes the musical meaning or the meaning of text, if we use text, or movement, if we write for a dancer.

And fourth: We may or may not think about how we can communicate this content to the listener, but if this is of importance to us, we may reflect, how to share this content. That is not so easy as it may sound, since it depends a lot on the encyclopedic knowledge we share with the listener, as the specialist of bilingualism, François Grosjean, calls the mechanism that determines our capability to understand each other in different languages. Here we get into the field of linguistics: We may be very pleased with the sound of a language even if we don’t understand most of it, whereas the depth of the pleasure of understanding may be much deeper, if we understand more than just the surface. We will get to this problem when we talk about text and music.

And note: These four points are interdependent, i.e. the material and the form may be chosen according to the content or the content according to the material or the form. When your sheet is empty you have to decide where to start.

There are certain universals in composing, that concern us all, but there are many personal solutions. And since this lecture is supposed to be about my own pieces I shall try to explain some of the proceedings how they work for me personally and subjectively. For this reason I have chosen five examples of pieces of mine: a string quartet from 1997/1998, a piece for violin solo from 1976, a piece for 6 solo singers from 2017, an excerpt of my third chamber opera “La Cantatrice” and at the end of my lecture we could talk a bit about “Délire”, the piece for 6 clarinets, which had its premiere yesterday.

I’ll begin with my String Quartet No. 3, so you have a first acoustic impression, which in itself may explain more than my explanations: The piece lasts 9’30’’ and consists of 4 short movements and I may discuss the points of “material”, “form” and “contents” afterwards. I chose the piece, because it is easy to hear, ‘clear-cut’. I wrote it for my predecessor’s 80th birthday. He was a violinist and the conductor of the chamber orchestra “Festival Strings” in Lucerne and director of the Conservatory, Rudolf Baumgartner.

[Play String quartet No.3, “…als Zuschauer am Rande des grossen Festes...“ ]

The core movement is the first-one, an “Adagio”, and I used an old technique for gaining the pitch material which had to do with the person I dedicated the piece to: ru-D-ol-F BAumGArt(D)nEr and his concertmaster GunArS lArSEnS. So the usable letters were in musical Italian language: RE FA SI(flat) LA SOL (RE) MI and SOL LA MI (flat) LA MI(flat) MI and MI (flat).

[Show beginning and end on the piano.]

All the other movements are based on these notes or on derivations of this pitch material (like inversions, mirroring, canon techniques etc.). This in itself is not particularly interesting, but there is a psychological, almost theatrical background to this piece (almost in the sense of Puccini). My predecessor was a clever, generous but also impulsive man, so I tried to take some psychological experiences and put them in short movements, thus shaping memories in a way to get a dramatic form.

One of my great reference points in music are Monteverdi and Bruckner. Not in a stylistic or historical way, but Monteverdi with the contrats in his “Madrigali guerreri ed amorosi” in a dramatic way and Bruckner as architect of big formal building blocks that create an inner drama through the juxtaposition of different emotional developments and a profile of depth by superposing different layers. In my earlier compositions – after I abandoned the twelve-tone and serial techniques I used in my student days in the 1960es – I wrote several pieces of “quiet music”, music that did not move, music that just “was”, “existed” (influenced by John Cage’s musical philosophy) and opposing to that several pieces called “Clockwork” (“Uhrwerk”), which followed actually Stanley Kubrick’s movie “Clockwork orange”, where a “machine infernale” (as Cocteau called it) was directing itself to a final catastrophe.

[Play an excerpt from “Clockwork” for solo violin (flashback to the 1970es)]

The main role in this piece play 16 different articulations which begin with some percussive elements, that gradually move over from noise to pitches at the end of the piece. It is kind of a anti-piece because it is avoiding the main element one is expecting from a violin: melody, but it creates a new main parameter: a “melody” of articulation! The material becomes content. Here in my earlier years I used a serial approach to writing: this piece is very much constructed and grows out of given numerical facts. Through the regular beat it creates a certain inescapability, but through the superposition of the different articulations it nevertheless stays rhythmically alert. Since it is never relaxed, it gets a certain nervous activity.

Later I abandoned the strict concept of Peace and War (“guerrero ed amoroso”) and came to a combination of the different elements in the same piece. So back to my 3rd string quartet and its content: confronted with the empty sheet and with the situation of the composition (and the 80th birthday of a friend) I had found a wonderful title for the piece from a poem by Katharina Sallenbach, who was a poet and a sculpturer, and the wife of my predecessor. It describes very well the personal aspects of the content of my piece. Maybe we find this way of relating to personal circumstances best in pieces like the early string quartet by Janacek or the lyrical suite by Alban Berg. Although the background stories are not necessary to understand the music (sometimes they even distract us from the essentials), they may be crucial in the development of the piece for the composer.

  Das Fest

zuschauer/am rande /des grossen festes

sie spielen/tanzen/singen

wir stehen/und schauen/stumm

der grosse kreisel dreht/wir haben keine worte/für einander


The feast

Bystander on the side of the big celebration

They play, they dance, they sing

We are standing there and look on, silently

The big top is spinning/ we have no words for each other

The literary model becomes an atmospheric inspiration between sound and silence. In this sense we can consider also the simple dance memory of the second movement almost in an ironical way, since it is followed by a very hefty brutal and destructive movement. The fourth movement brings us back to a distancing calm, making peace from far away. Thus the text is part of the material and at the same time of the content. But it stays in the background just as an inspiration.

The form is very simple: contrapuntal structure/exposition of the pitch material (1st movement), image, atmospheric allusion to a dance (2nd movement), destruction (3rd movement: “clockwork”) by a motoric movement with very a dissonant pitch structure and peace (4th movement, “quiet music” with almost no movement at all). Through the juxtaposition of the four very different parts results a form, that is distancing us from a logical development and lets us become acoustical observers of the events, “bystanders”.

I wrote this piece about twenty years ago and I see in my newer pieces many follow-up features of this kind of writing that lead also to my new piece for six clarinets which was presented yesterday or to my piece “our da sumbrivas lungas” for six professional singers from 2016 which I would like to present to you in more detail, because it demonstrates where I come from and gives me the chance to talk more about material, form and contents.

“our da sumbrivas lungas” – “out of the long shadows” are Romansh texts from the lower Engadin (Vallader), a valley in the south-east of Switzerland where the majority of the population still speaks this fourth language in Switzerland (apart of Swiss-German, French and Italian). It is probably the language nearest to Romanian, where there are also active ties with Switzerland: I hear that Madeleina Popescu from Bucharest just has translated the poetry of Arnold Spescha, a Swiss poet from one of the Romansh regions (there are still five different idioms of this language spoken by about 50’000 people). Why did I choose these texts by Rut Plouda in Romansh?

Again: There was the empty sheet in front of me and how to fill it?

Choosing a text is as all know who had an empty sheet in front of them and did not have already a clear idea about a text they wanted to set to music, is extremely difficult. Witold Lutoslawski has given an interesting definition about the characters of texts that will help and those that will make it difficult to set them to music. In his talks with the musicologist Tadeusz Kaczinsky he divides the text in two categories: in poetry of thought and poetry of feeling and image. I would say, that the poetry of thought is very difficult to treat musically, because the thought is there on paper and it does not need any additional medium or it may be distorted rather than enhanced by a musical addition (ex. Krenek’s Opera “Charles the Vth” which consists merely of a philosophical dialogue on stage and gets long and – let me be honest – boring. If you take the much less elaborate texts of Schubert’s “Schöne Müllerin”, which is often considered of minor quality, it is a much better suited text for the ambiguous emotions Schubert wanted and could express with his music). A less defined text gives the composer the chance to develop another layer than the layer of words, it may be an interpretation of the text, but it is only possible when there is an unfilled space around the words or if there is an image that can be enhanced and reach the listener with additional power.

I think personally that the language used (with all the cultural implications around it and the surface of its sound) influences the way it can be treated. It is a cliché – but it seems true to me – that the High German language is more fit for philosophical discourse than our Swiss German dialects and I am sure you’ll find differences in the languages of your country (like between Romanian and Hungarian songs e.g.) which may be similar. So when I chose one of the languages that are spoken in Switzerland and if I heard in my inner ear an ensemble that would sound like Marenzio’s or Monteverdi’s madrigals adapted to our time I would not choose French or German but Italian or Romansh. Since I have spent an important part of my childhood in that mountainous area I was inclined to search for a text. So I found some rather simple but very inspiring texts, referring to nature as a mirror of our interior life by the writer. It is important that this use of images and the simplicity of the language are authentic with the experiences of the writer and the cultural environment. At the same time it is important that the treatment of the text by the composers doesn’t leave this register by getting too artificial, but at the same time adds to the text an additional layer of refinement. I wrote in the introductory text of the cycle:

In these texts we find several images of nature as a mirror of the big world. Through this filter we articulate in the medium of sound the important inner values and bring them into a form: under an obvious surface there are not only our roots where we come from, but there is also a historical dimension of our existence, which throws its long shadows on our lives. (Thüring Bräm, "our da sumbrivas lungas", Introduction)


I shall guide you through the five poems:

1)    davant il spejel (In front of the mirror) suggests the mirroring of the songline, since the text goes on with: I have looked at my face (Eu m’ha guardada in fatscha-) The time has played on it (il temp fa pajaglia). I go barefoot through my magical forest (Eu vegn a pè scuz tras meis god inchantà). But before I return, I shall hide my dreams under brownish moss (mo ant co tuornar/zopparja meis sömmis suot müs-chel brümaint).

Here we have the idea of the changes in my face, painted by time, the person goes through its magical forest (i.e. another inner world) , where he or she hides its dreams, before she reappears and the “games of life” paint their traces on the face again.

[Show on the piano: a pè scuz: unison, then dreamlike passage parallel to “sömmis”-dreams.]

I close formally with the repeat of the title,“mirroring” the poem, adding an element that is not in the original text.

[play music]

2)     I naivenaivenaiva (it snows and snows and snows), mütta la scenaria (silent is the scenery), be vuolp ria (only the fox is laughing stigl “schadenfroh”, gleefully) ün sigl (a jump) la vita es hoz sia (life belongs to him today).

Nature is white and silent, there is a light movement like snow flakes: there is only one (treacherous) action: a fox that jumps (at something we don’t see, it is only mentioned in the word “stigl”, expressed musically with a falsetto jump).

3)     Eu sun föglia chi tuorna (I am a leaf that is turning, that is also re-turning) e früt chi paisa (and a heavy fruit,) eu sun vent chi tschunca (I am a biting wind) e flomma riainta (and a laughing flame) immez il di ( in the middle of the day).

Eu sun suldüm chi guetta (I am the wasteland that looks out) our da sumbrivas lungas (from under long shadows)

E stranglantüm (I am exhaustion) plachada aint il travasch (that is nesting in the hustle), eu sun terra (I am earth) chi sa da l’arader (That smells of the plough), ün ultim rudè ( The last round) da l’utschè da passagi (of the migrant bird).

This is the 3rd and middle poem of the whole 5-part cycle. It is the center in so far as the musical material recapitulates the remembrance of the past (my past, our past, the past of music history of 500 years). The”I” of the poet will return again as well as the migrant bird, but in its last round it remembers the past: The music works here with quotations as cliché’s. They become the material, the building blocks, but  hardly anybody may hear where they come from: it just creates the idea of the well-known, somewhat sentimental memory of our past that has disappeared, but will always catch up with us again. The key words of this memory are: suldüm (Loneliness, exhaustion, abandon) – Max Reger, l’arrader (Haydn’s “Seasons” with the image of the sower/farmer) and ün ultim rudè (going back to the 16th century composer Ludwig Senfl, one of the few great originally “Swiss” composers): a last time we sing a madrigal! And then the call that hints at the benediction the shepherds used to sing in the Swiss Alps.  

4)     Nots (Nights)

I dà nots (There are nights) chi’s plajan intuorn las spadlas (That wrap themselves around your shoulders) sco saida (like silk), I dà nots (there are nights) chi spettan coura sco ladras (that are waiting outside like thieves), nots sco tailas d’arogn (nights, like spinwebs) tanter fögliam e früts cotchens (between leaves and red fruits) e nots ch’ins piglian adascus e’ns transmüdan (and nights which take us clandestinely and transmute us).

This is the most dramatic part in the cycle with the transmutation at the end from singing to whispering and from “normal” singing to other techniques “bringing nearer to us” (in the sense of Lutoslawski) the contents of the words by using timbral material.

5)      Vita (Life)

The last song demonstrates the colored aspect of fall as life in its height, which is also the change into loss, the last desire to live.

Lascha’m racoglier tas flommas utuon (Let me collect your flames, autumn),e’m dirvir a tia    comblezza – (And let me open myself to your abundance) paschiuns stendschantadas resüstan (opressed passions flare up) e fan il barlot cotschen fö (to a flamy red witchdance) ed ant chi as stüda meis di (and before my day is extinguished) possa sterner la tschendra da mias anguoschas (can I seed the ashes of my anguish). Lasch’m tour tias flommas utuon (let me grasp your flames, autumn).

Here the words are the material that is dictating the rhythm and the melodic line of the individual singers. At the same time I introduce quotations of the former parts in order to close the cycle with the means of remembrance: we remember the leaf that (re)turns (Eu sun föglia chi tuorna) as well as the forest of my dreams (tras meis god enchantà) and the Nights (Nots), only the snow does not come back (has “melted”). Thus within the cycle is the same fugacity within the world of this small cycle as there is in the 3rd song for the last 500 years of affetti and thinking.

 It is not far from the composition of these songs to the work you heard yesterday: “Délire” for six clarinets. Since it is too fresh I did not choose to explain this piece to you, but maybe we can discuss it. I used quite a different technique to distribute the 6 solo voices, but the piece I described is definitely a forerunner of the new clarinet piece, where the solo dialogue is between the highest and the lowest instrument, whereas the four clarinets in the middle are creating an atmosphere and only occasionally participate in the “drama”.

But let me finish before our discussion with an excerpt of my last chamber opera, "La Cantatrice"

In the past 10 years I have put into effect the element of transition of contrasting realities in my chamber operas, especially the two pieces that deal with the art brut (outsider art) painter Aloïse Corbaz, who lived in the first half of the century near Lausanne, Switzerland. She was diagnosed as schizophrenic and put into a lunatic asylum from 1917 up to her death in 1964. She did not talk anymore, only mumbled, but she still sang hymns and operatic tunes (what she always wanted to do professionally and was not allowed to do due to the puritanical attitude of her social environment) and she started painting. On her paintings she used often interesting captions. I used only texts from her which explains that there is no coherent plot. It is a portrait of somebody who is full of associations. It reminds me of the description of how an autistic mind works (see Naoki Higashida: The Reason I Jump, London 2013): The 13 year old boy writes there:

 I imagine a normal person’s memory is arranged continuously, like a line. My memory, however, is more like a pool of dots. I’m always picking up these dots – by asking my questions – so I can arrive back at the meaning that the dots represent. (p. 24)

The puzzle of these associations and the puzzle of the images Aloïse uses, mirror the inner break between “normal” and “trans-normal” or whatever you may call it. In the passage I‘ll show you, the musicians take over the role of the singer (la cantatrice) by uttering single words that accompanied her paintings as associations of places that played a role in her life. Through these repeated single words that represent her imagination, they are creating a memory of the existing world. The musicians melt together with the main figure, leave their role of accompanying players and create an unexpected dramatic tension. Maybe a similar situation like the one in my clarinet-sextet in the “delirious” passage of the multiphonics: the reality of the normal sound is being wiped out by a surreal transcendence.

[play the passage of the chamber opera]

Thank you and let’s talk now about your reactions.