By Rebecca Schmid
BERLIN — In Nik Bärtsch’s AIM – Ich gehe, texts by Heiner Müller, Shakespeare, and the Swiss composer’s eldest daughter interweave into a single dreamlike landscape. But the work for speaker, mixed choir, and two pianos, which explores what Bärtsch calls the “departure or awakening into both death and life,” avoids ponderous reflection, allowing the philosophical and childlike to intermingle.
Berlin’s RIAS Chamber Choir unveiled the work in Amsterdam before bringing it to the Philharmonie Nov. 10 with conductor Florian Helgath and Turkish duo pianists Ufuk and Bahar Dördüncü. The singers rose to its musical, physical, and theatrical demands with unaffected enthusiasm, clapping and stamping their feet as they gave a spoken delivery of an excerpt from Müller’s posthumously published Traumtexte (Dream Texts) before entering the free tonal harmonies of Die Schöne Mondblüte, a fairy tale by Aina Bärtsch.
The most intriguing transition occurred as a morbid text evolved into an episode that commingled Shakespeare’s King Lear and Edward Lear’s nonsense poem The Owl and the Pussycat. The phrase “in einem Liegestühl,” from one of Müller’s Traumtexte fragments, refers to the reclining lounger on which a man dies. Bärtsch set the words to a jazzy rhythm that repeats with detached irony — a reminder of how death interpenetrates life.
Bärtsch is in fact best known for ambient jazz compositions with his zen-funk quartet Ronin, and in AIM – Ich gehe, he is not afraid to blend disparate elements into a personal narrative. While his settings of Müller use extended techniques such as the back of a mallet drawn across the piano keyboard to create eerie soundscapes of the unconscious, the “King Fool Episode” from Shakespeare employs minimalist patterns to generate an atmosphere now meditative, now dance-like.
Bärtsch’s connection to the American avant-garde was made clear in the rest of the program, which included works by John Cage, Christian Wolff, Morton Feldman, and Elliott Carter. Carter’s The Defense of Corinth for speaker, male choir, and four-hand piano, written in 1941 for the Harvard Glee Club, reveals a playfulness and dry wit that are less apparent in the thorny instrumental music of his more mature years, but there is no missing its skillful construction. The piano’s sarcastic interjections drew laughs in the audience that were clearly with and not at the work, which uses a 17th-century text about the siege of Corinth as a foil for commentary about war, most likely with regard to World War II. Speaker Andrew Redmond gave an authoritative account that integrated the right dose of irony, while Helgath drew bouncing rhythms from the chorus.
The first half of the concert was dedicated to the experimental structures championed in Cage’s circle. In Cage’s own Four 2 for mixed chorus, the conductor appeared only briefly before members of the RIAS Chamber Choir sang down from the balconies, shaping a selection of notes according to their own will within prescribed time brackets. The sustained tones of the basses in particular resembled drone singing — a refreshing contrast to the kitschy a cappella music that dominates choral writing — but the piece quickly lost traction, the growth of individual notes into open chords of random duration eventually becoming predictable. I was more taken with Feldman’s Christian Wolff in Cambridge, in which wordless harmonies resembled the colors of a kaleidoscope as they zoomed in and out, their duration determined this time by the conductor.
Wolff — the only living American composer on the program — was also represented by his own works. Imprecise notation allowed the harmonies of his Evening Shade, Wake Up for mixed choir to float organically from intimate clusters into free-ranging atmospheres. As if to mirror this effect, the work calls for the choral members to turn their backs on each other and wander offstage one by one. The RIAS Chamber Choir was as convincing as ever despite occasionally imperfect English diction. In an inspired dramaturgical touch, Wolff’s Duos for Pianists I and II framed the work, percussive gestures and other eruptions of sound coming together like stones of a mosaic under the fingers of the Dördüncü sisters. Only the beeping of a timer at the end served as a reminder of Wolff’s underlying mathematical procedure.
It is always a disappointment to see the chamber music hall of the Philharmonie half-empty for a concert as brave and successful as this one, but the audience was young by classical music standards and not afraid to show its enthusiasm: During an encore of Bärtsch’s “King Fool Episode,” a couple of teenagers danced in their seats as if at a rock concert. Surely it can’t be a bad thing when new music manages to be both intellectual and accessible.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, Gramophone, Musical America Worldwide, and other publications.