The Philharmonia Orchestra's 2017/18 Music of Today series continues with a celebration of music by Austrian composer, and founder of Klangforum Wien, Beat Furrer. Watch the free performance on Sunday 5 November at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall. In this post, Tim Rutherford-Johnson introduces Beat Furrer's intricate style.
Works for stage – seven so far and an eighth (Violetter Schnee) in progress – run like a spine through Beat Furrer’s output. Of them, FAMA (2005), performed in London last November, is perhaps the most renowned. In Ovid’s description Fama, the Roman goddess of fame and rumour, lives at the centre of the world in a house with ‘a thousand openings, and no doors to bar the threshold. It is open night and day: and is all of sounding bronze. All rustles with noise, echoes voices, and repeats what is heard.’ Furrer’s hour-long ‘sound theatre’, which combines Ovid with Arthur Schnitzler’s 1924 novella Fräulein Else, was originally staged inside a specially built box. The audience sat inside while the musicians, outside, played and sang through shutters – lined on one side with bronze – that opened and closed, continually amplifying, filtering and altering the sound.
FAMA, described by one reviewer as ‘a miracle’ after its premiere at the Donaueschingen festival, is almost a summation of Furrer’s work, and motifs of echoes and reverberations, as well as processes of filtering and layering, overflow into his instrumental pieces. The piano in particular – with its built-in echo chamber of copper-wound strings – has been an important instrument. After nuun (1995–96) for two pianos and large ensemble, ideas of resonance and shadowing were taken up in the piano solo Phasma (2002) and the Three Piano Pieces (2005) – the latter essentially studies in reverberation effects. The Piano Concerto (2007) sets these investigations within a highly dramatic trajectory. Over its 18 minutes the work traces a broad sweep across the full range of the keyboard, beginning with silently depressed bass strings that resonate sympathetically with the sounds of other instruments, up to the woodblock-like snap of the very highest register. Throughout, the ensemble (which includes a second, ‘shadow piano’) acts like a resonating chamber for the soloist, although not a straightforward one: it has its own agenda, and its reflections – like those within FAMA’s shuttered box – are often recoloured or recharacterised.
Nicolas Hodges, piano soloist
Twice the upward spiral is interrupted, the music’s frenetic dynamism freezing suddenly like a ‘bullet time’ sequence in an action film. The first instance feels like a system error as piano and ensemble appear to have peeled apart and halted one another. The second, after 10 minutes, is longer and has a more melancholy feel however, as though the piano, having reached its topmost register, knows that the game is up. Soloist and ensemble rally briefly, but the music – which had such momentum – has become stuck in ruts and loops, like a damaged CD. Left with nowhere to go, apart from a few cries of defiance, it simply burns itself out.
Despite his love of resonance as a dramatic and thematic device, the surface sound of Furrer’s music – exemplified in both this evening’s pieces – is rather dry, dominated by snapping pizzicati, staccato piano (especially in its very highest, least reverberant register) and muted brass. Resonance, then, is less a matter of washes of echoing sound, but of crisp relationships between a thing and its double.
Furrer’s doubles developed into polarities after the composition of another theatre piece, Wüstenbuch (Desert Book, 2010), whose libretto is concerned with the desert as a place between earth and the afterlife (it is based on Ingeborg Bachmann’s diary of her journey to Egypt in 1964, made in the midst of sickness and after the breakup of her relationship with the playwright Max Frisch). Linea dell’orizzonte (2012) picks up these themes: the ‘line of the horizon’ is where ground meets sky, and Furrer’s piece for nine musicians holds opposing elements – at the start, staccato jabs and drooping glissandi – in a similar balance, at the same time evoking the skyline’s intense, hazy glare.
© Tim Rutherford-Johnson, 2017
Tim Rutherford-Johnson is author of Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 (University of California Press).