Longing for irritating novelty

For many the concentrated preoccupation with music marks what can be described as longing. Photograph: © ZHdK

Music beyond ordinariness

In a world comprising a medley of sounds and tones, a concentrated preoccupation with music is particularly valuable. Experiencing music, however, can amount to more than sheer well-being or an antidote to everyday stress. Hosted by the Department of Music, the forthcoming Lachenmann Symposium aims to kindle our longing for the unknown.


“We do not simply hear something new, but we hear in a new way and with different ears, we hear something unheard of in this sense,” writes the philosopher Bernhard Waldenfels, who was recently a guest at ZHdK. This listening experience has to do with longing for a particular intensity, with which contemporary music, in a self-evident manner of sorts, relies on a tonal language that consciously escapes the familiar and whatever else makes easy listening. This perspective also outlines the horizon of many contemporary composers — including those teaching and studying at ZHdK.

The commercial music industry has long been accused of catering far too little to this longing through its steadfast insistence on unvarying repetition. And indeed, it frequently neglects the aspect of perceptual training
— instead privileging that superficial form of longing aimed primarily at re-encountering the familiar. It is worth adding that the training offered at a music academy also seeks to counteract any kind of flattening and thus to stimulate the desire for the unknown. Since today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders, it is at least indirectly a matter of countering the tendencies towards standardisation or trivialisation within musical life.

Longing entices listening adventures

n this respect, one obvious question is how what I am suggesting is related to the familiar image of longing, which was particularly pronounced in the Romantic period and makes us think of poets like E.T.A. Hoffmann or Joseph Eichendorff. The “blue flower” of Romanticism, a famous motif of longing, can hardly be equated with the stance delineated by Waldenfels. The gap inbetween, however, has to do with the many coarse oversimplications characterising the treatment of many Romantic works. Closer scrutiny reveals that the longing for a “poetic” idea of music, such as that demanded by Robert Schumann, the archetypal Romantic composer, has a fundamental aim: namely, to entice us into real listening adventures. Thus, its concern is not at all the blissful immersion into familiarity. It is now time, therefore, to lay bare even such Romantic yearning, at least to a certain extent, in order to separate it from those tacky or superficial ingredients and distortions that some simplistic parts of the cultural business have imposed upon it down the centuries. This becomes possible, for instance, if we confront music of this period with the adventure of listening to contemporary music — with works by composers who are related in spirit to Schumann and many other important figures of his time.

Lachenmann Symposium at ZHdK

Helmut Lachenmann’s music, which is among the most influential positions within contemporary music far beyond Europe, has frequently been combined in symphony concerts with that of Robert Schumann, most recently by Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker. One of Lachenmann’s major pieces is titled “‘Zwei Gefühle …’. Music with Leonardo.” It later made its way into Lachenmann’s probably best-known work, the opera “Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern” (“The Girl with the Sulphur Woods”), a highly impressive contribution to the theme of longing. This piece, which has already been performed in numerous musical metropolises in Europe, America and Asia, will finally be performed in Zurich from October 2019. It also forms the centrepiece of a small Lachenmann Symposium. Organised jointly by ZHdK’s Department of Music and Zurich Opera House, the event will feature three concerts and an international symposium.

This project, entitled “Which wonders may be contained therein …,” certainly bears closely on questions of longing. In particular Lachenmann’s tonal language repeatedly navigates the boundary between the familiar and the unfamiliar. Enormous unfoldings of sound come up against sudden moments of reflection, while intuitions of familiar gestures, chords or melodies keel over almost abruptly into surprising searching movements. “Music with Leonardo …” evolves all of these elements based on a programmatic text by Leonardo da Vinci, whose 500th anniversary is being commemorated this year. His narrative, which provides the Zurich event with its motto, illustrates the effort that the astonished person makes to recognise something. It is an expression of longing for what is irritatingly new. What is decisive for Lachenmann’s approach is that his music corresponds to the joy of discovery embodied in Leonardo’s thinking, in other words that it engages in a searching movement itself. Its various means invoke listening adventures. Inscribed in these is the invitation to performers and listeners to clearly transcend the sensation of what merely astonishes or arouses curiosity. “What was once only admired is finallycaptured by the mind,” wrote Johann Gottfried Herder in the late 18th century. Contemporary music like Lachenmann’s has much to do with this kind of longing, which probably always strives to grasp matters with the mind.
From 7 to 9 November 2019, the Department of Music and Zurich Opera House will be hosting a comprehensive Lachenmann programme in which the composer himself will be involved. The symposium and three concerts (among others with the Ensemble Arc-en-Ciel) will present some of his key works. Several renowned speakers will explore and seek to reveal their resonances and ramifications.


Jörn Peter Hiekel (joern_peter.hiekel@zhdk.ch) teaches music history, heads several research projects and is a member of ZHdK’s Studio for Contemporary Music.
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