November 12, 2014

People are strange...

As someone who deeply admires the otherworldly, alien music of Helmut Lachenmann, I was jolted when I recently read an interview with the pianist Rolf Hind in which he said that Lachenmann's favorite composer is ... Ennio Morricone.  (Rolf Hind worked closely with Lachenmann on the composer's piano concerto Ausklang.)

Not that there is anything wrong with liking Ennio Morricone's music.  As far as film music goes, he has supplied some of the most memorable scores in the history of cinema.  Compared to such three-chord musical midgets as Hans Zimmer (or to the fucking retard who won an Oscar last year for using less then three chords in his brain-numbing score for the film Gravity), Morricone is certainly an artistic giant.

Still, I think the greatness of a film score, whether by Morricone, Korngold, or Hermann, is inseparable from its function as a component of the total aesthetic experience of watching a film.  Heard on its own - the way one listens to art music, such as a Mahler symphony or a Carter concerto - a film score immediately sinks under the weight of its severe limitations, imposed on the music by various pragmatic considerations having to do with its functional role in contributing to an overall non-musical aesthetic experience.

So, why on earth would a composer as revolutionary as Lachenmann listen to Morricone's film scores?  What kind of aesthetic rewards does Lachenmann's mind derive from Morricone's triadic harmonies, conventional rhythms, and mostly ordinary (if very skillful) orchestration?

I really can't think of a plausible explanation.  But then I don't know much about Lachenmann the man, so I may be unaware of some biographical reason for his elevation of Morricone to the status of a favorite composer (rather than favorite film composer).  Perhaps this kind of aesthetic weirdness is common among avant-garde composers?  The only other example that comes to mind is Milton Babbitt, who reportedly possessed encyclopaedic knowledge of (and immense affection for) Tin Pan Alley songs of the 1920s and 1930s.

In any case, if you are not familiar with Lachenmann's strikingly original music - the music whose gestures, textures, and timbres are light years away from the music of other 20th century modernist composers, let alone from Morricone's film scores - you can acquaint yourself with this composer by listening to his composition Air, music for large orchestra with percussion solo (1968–69), conducted by Ingo Metzmacher and recorded live at the Concertgebouw on April 5, 1997.


Christopher Culver said...

"Perhaps this kind of aesthetic weirdness is common among avant-garde composers? The only other example that comes to mind is Milton Babbitt, who reportedly possessed encyclopaedic knowledge (and immense affection) for Tin Pan Alley songs of the 1920s and 1930s."

As documented in Duchesneau & Marx's György Ligeti: Of Foreign Lands and Strange Sounds, Ligeti was a massive fan of Supertramp's Breakfast in America and, when sketching new pieces, would refer to that album as the kind of sound he wanted.

Per Nørgård has referred to a number of somewhat-forgotten 1960s psychedelic rock/pop bands. I think his midlife crisis in the late Sixties resulted in some obsession with the counterculture; he dropped acid in 1968 and his own music changed noticeably in that time even if it remained avant-garde.

Boom said...


Thank you for additional examples. I now incline to think that these musical "affections" on the part of avant-garde composers are rooted in some sort of biographically rooted nostalgia, and have next to nothing to do with the intrinsic musical values of popular, rock, or film music.

E.g., hearing a song that once was often played on the radio during one's formative (teenage, early adulthood) years may elicit strong emotional responses in a strictly "Pavlov's dog" sort of way. One may no longer perceive any aesthetic merits whatsoever in the music itself, yet still succumb to the force of an earlier "associative conditioning" (or something along these lines).

Christopher Culver said...

Well, it's hard to see how Ligeti's great love of Supertramp could be ascribed to teenage nostalgia. He could of course heard no rock music during his youth in wartime Transylvania or Communist Hungary, and Supertramp's Breakfast in America was not released until he was around 55 years old.

Daniel Childers said...

To me, Morricone makes perfect sense. Sure, the instant assumption is that Lachenmann is referring to the straightforward music from his western scores, but Morricone wrote for a number of horror films in which he experimented extensively with timbre (The rejected Exorcist score comes to mind). Lachenmann's music inspires in me the same visceral sense of tension and release that Morricone's more radical scores often display. To assume all of his work is variations on 'The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly' is to deny yourself the work of one of the more unique composer's film music has to offer, and to wave it off as mere nostalgia is to deny yourself an opportunity to appreciate the unique path that Lachenmann's musical mind has traversed. Just sayin'.

Boom said...


It was a medley from "Once Upon a Time in the West" that Lachenmann one day played on the piano for Rolf Hind after they had lunch. So it seems that Lachenmann had plenty of affection for the "conventional" Morricone. Even more freakish, Rolf Hind mentions that Lachenmann also interpolated some Gershwin tunes in that impromptu performance.

It turns out (according to Hind), that, in his youth, Lachenmann earned a living as a jazz-lounge pianist. Perhaps that's how he got connected to Morricone, Gershwin and other popular or "crossover" music of that time. If so, then my conjecture of biographical reasons behind his musical affections does not seem that far off mark...