Amazingly, what Spanish composer Alberto Posadas has done is close the gap: With six big and hard piano works collected together into a cycle called Erinnerungsspuren (Traces of Memory; 2014‒2018), he has managed to reveal the old in the new, and the new in the old. Each piece in the cycle bears the title Anklänge (reminiscences) plus the name of another piano piece or a composer of the past. If the six are heard alone, the connection to earlier works might not be so apparent. But at last week’s Wien Modern concert, the objects of reminiscence were also performed, courtesy of pianist Florian Hölscher, an exceptional new music expert and the cycle’s dedicatee.
The memories traced were works by Bach, Couperin, Schumann, Debussy, Scelsi and Stockhausen. While the last two ‒ Giacinto Scelsi (1905‒1988) and Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928‒2007) ‒ are not household names, they do belong to the great composers of the past, their compositions unfalteringly standing the test of time.
Our only problem with new music, I believe vehemently, is that it is not familiar. Remember that nice line: Fashion is what seems beautiful now but looks ugly later, whereas art is what first seems ugly but then becomes beautiful.
Wien Modern | When old art becomes beautiful
I experienced something close to that phenomenon at this concert: Old art becoming beautiful. While the works by Posadas were exciting, impressive, full of tricks and magic, it was their inspiration that stood out ‒ set in relief, the forebears were given new meaning.
Stockhausen’s once imponderable yet still intense Klavierstück IX (1954‒1961) has a rhythmical structure based on Fibonacci numbers (the sequence where each new number is the sum of the previous two). Through excessive repetitions of the same “dissonant” double tritonic chord (280 times, to be exact) intriguing patterns of overtones shift in and out, exploring the ear’s memory and our perception. And Scelsi’s Aitsi (1974) plays around with the natural decay of loudly struck piano tones, revelations of beauty in loud becoming soft, with all the twists and turns of color that involves.
Posadas, Couperin & Debussy
Notwithstanding such “complexity,” placed behind the curtain of Posadas’ Anklänge an Stockhausen and Anklänge an Aitsi (both 2017), Scelsi and Stockhausen were strikingly accessible.
Similarly, Posadas’ “homage” to Couperin to Debussy had the effect of moving those old pieces rapidly forward, revealing how modern they actually are ‒ even, possibly, how “ugly” they seemed to their first listeners. The gap in time simply disappeared.
Listening to new music is not rocket science – it is simply a blend of memories, expectations and discovery. An overheard comment about the Stockhausen brightened my day immensely: “It seemed pretty straightforward to me. I mean it’s hardly a dance song or anything, but it’s not that weird.”
That’s exactly the direction we need to be heading.