1. Overview

I first encountered Patrick Frank giving a lecture at the 2014 Darmstadt summer courses with the provocative title “Rede zur Lage der Nation” (roughly: “State of the Union Address”). It was in many ways an unrepresentative introduction to Frank—relatively light on theory and more focused on personal experience—but it was infused with his characteristic sense of urgency and imperative. Frank is nothing if not committed, and while he has little of the proselytizer in him—his presentations are overflowing with more citations than invective—his unusually direct style of address combined with the sheer breadth of his knowledge made a fundamental impression on me in a way that music, let alone theory, very rarely does. I have followed his work ever since.

Patrick Frank is a composer, project designer, and cultural theorist based in Zurich who is the creator and CEO of VoiceRepublic, an online platform and archive of international performances and lectures. He is among a generation of composers in the Teutonosphere who are grappling with the death throes of the material-teleological narrative of New Music. In the briefest, most telescoped terms: the avant-garde after Cage and Lachenmann incorporated increasingly alien sound materials into composition—first extended techniques, then sound production from non-instrumental sources—until a point was reached where any source of sound could be interpolated into a composition and be recognized as “music”—or rather, could be recognized as such by a consensus of New Music audiences. Thus, according to this teleology, the conquest of sonic material (a process described in such precisely conquistadorial terms at least since Webern’s writings) had exhausted itself; there are no “new” sounds left to bend to the will of musical logos. Indeed, at one of Lachenmann’s lectures at the 2014 Darmstadt courses, he spoke of this material conquest in the guise of an orange: what do you do after you have consumed the inside of the fruit? Do you eat the peel? What next?

“What next?” has, of course, always been a fraught question among artistic avant-gardes. But Frank and his peers find themselves at a particularly intimidating moment in aesthetic history, where the conditions of “newness” are themselves in question. From the birth of polyphony, the material-teleological narrative of Western art music has been relatively straightforward—church modes to musica ficta to tonality to chromaticism to serialism to noise...—and so now that any aural material is axiomatically also musical material, the foundational myth of musical progress no longer works.


2. The early works: rejection

Patrick Frank’s earliest acknowledged works are a series of three pieces dating from 2000 to 2002, RZ-gamma I-III. This series applies certain properties of special relativity (namely the gamma factor) to both metric/rhythmic (RZ-gamma I and II) and pitch (RZ-gamma III) organization. In the case of the latter, this results in a highly specialized tuning system. This combination of scientific structuring of complex formal material brings to mind the more ambitious works of fellow continental composers Robert HP Platz and Enno Poppe (especially the latter's Rad, from 2003), and this is indeed what Frank’s earliest works sound like, including Onto-Off for solo violin (2003). The sort of philosophical/sociological critique which becomes crucial to Frank’s mature work can be found in a zygotic form in subsequent pieces like (…..) for solo piano (2004) and Just do it for percussionist (2005). Still, both Frank’s soundworld and his philosophy remain firmly grounded in a content-material aesthetic (read: the aural) at this stage.

Patrick Frank

Patrick Frank

Der schalltote Raum (“The Anechoic Chamber”, 2006), Frank’s only composition to date for orchestra, is the first unmistakable turn towards a radically new aesthetic. The piece begins with a series of solo string instruments slowly and laboriously repeating the same pitch (an E), then gradually doubling, a process which, with occasional silences, continues throughout the first three and a half minutes. The effect is somewhat akin to a particularly aggressive manifestation of tinnitus. Then, after a sudden descending melisma, the main orchestra falls silent. Faintly—very faintly—a second orchestra in a different room, comprising seven wind instruments, can be heard playing another piece of music, which is just barely recognizable as the overture to Mozart’s opera La finta giardiniera. It is immediately obvious that this is not a quotation or a snippet of a collage, the kind that can be found in the works of Sciarrino, Schnittke, Hans-Jürgen von Bose, and many others. It is the work itself, whole and played in its entirety: not a reference, but an artifact. Here the composer is not a bricoleur or assembler of pastiche, but an arbiter of historical material. Nor is such material arbitrarily chosen: the premiere of Der schalltote Raum was programmed in a concert where it was to follow a performance of the overture to La finta giardiniera, the same piece that reappears as a distant yet very familiar (because, at least, it was just heard two minutes previously) totem in Frank’s piece.

The musical material here is roughly familiar from both Frank’s contemporaries and an older generation of composers also writing a certain music of rejection (or what Hans Werner Henze referred to as “musica negativa”), especially that of Nicolaus A. Huber (cf. especially 1966's Informationen über die Töne E-F) and Mathias Spahlinger. Nevertheless, there are several aspects of the piece that point beyond technical imitation and towards an understanding of musical material which is as historically specific as it is unique to Frank’s compositional development. Specifically, the site- and program-specific curation is a remarkable innovation, and already demonstrates Frank’s discursive understanding of the compositional act: Der schalltote Raum bears the conditions of its creation (a new commission to follow a Mozart favorite) within the music itself.

Nevertheless, there is a fundamental mystery about the piece. While the “anechoic chamber” of the title is perceptually obvious upon listening, what the experience of such a chamber signifies is far more ambiguous. Is it the space wherein all new works written in the 21st century must fall, a warped void where the masterworks of the past are still vaguely perceptible? Or is it a sort of musical singularity, where all the potentiality for “new music” has been compressed into a single, endlessly repeated and doubled pitch? My waxing poetic may be justified, but it certainly comes with a necessary qualification: Patrick Frank’s music only allows for navel gazing after it has administered a punch to the gut.

If Der schalltote Raum represents the beginnings of Frank’s negativist critique of musical material, Das Meisterwerk (2010) represents the endpoint, the last threshold of compositional paralysis. It is, as its subtitle “Studie III zum Jetzt-Möglichen” (“Study III for the Now-Possible”) indicates, an absolute and all-encompassing reckoning of musical syntax, both in conception and execution. It is also, consequently, a genuinely unsettling and exhilarating monument of musical nihilism: the ambiguity found in Der schalltote Raum is nowhere present.

The piece is in four movements and three “interventions”: the former are scored conventionally for piano and later trombone (from the second movement on); the latter are spoken either by one of the musicians or an independent announcer. The first movement, “danse languide,” comprising the initial two minutes of the piece, is immediately recognizable as “institutional New Music” of a Germanic flavor: a freely atonal language developed from smaller harmonic and rhythmic cells, the sort of construction easily amenable to both pitch-class and motivic analysis. But analysis is not signification. This point is made immediately after the conclusion of the first movement, where, as “Intervention I”, the announcement “welcome to today’s masterpiece” is made. Now the first movement is actually (and accurately!) auto-analyzed by the announcer as containing “a very expressive and neo-romantic language” where “[d]ifferent influences can be heard, for example by Scriabin.” But the inability of such description to offer any sense of meaning to, let alone understanding of, the musical material is persistently and lugubriously driven home by the speaker, who goes to great lengths to explain the development of the motive E-F into the “diatonically filled minor third” D-E-F. The performance indication of the first movement, visible to the performer but not printed on the program, gives a further indication of this empty signification of material: “Auf der Grenze zwischen Original und Simulation. In Neoromantischem Schein (danse languide)” (“On the border between original and simulation. In neo-romantic appearance [danse languide]”).

The next two movements, “ardent, enthousiaste” (performance indication: “zeimlich gut” [“pretty good”]) and “in mutigem Glauben” (“in bold faith”) offer little surprises besides the entry of the trombone, which, as the speaker subsequently notes, increases the “complexity of the texture” with “[s]ound repetitions [that] are characteristic for its voice.” But upon the conclusion of the third movement (as “Intervention III”), the speaker announces something new:

In the fourth movement, you have two options to choose from: either simulation or original. In the year 2010, everything is possible in Contemporary Music, every style, every technique, every intention; even lack of style, or no intention at all are imaginable. Negative and positive, original and simulation have dissolved into each other. Please raise your hand to show us which fourth movement you want to hear. The one with the majority of votes will be played by us later.

What this speech does not reveal is that there is only one final movement of Das Meisterwerk written in the score. This means that no matter how the audience votes, they are going to hear the same thing. Of course, even if the audience remains unaware of this particular shell game, the end result is the same: the movement that follows is as undifferentiated as those that preceded it.

It should go without saying that Das Meisterwerk is not a crowd-pleaser. Yet at the same time, it is far too didactic and mundane to cause a scandal. The only possible experiential outcomes are irritation, boredom, and desperation: it is a Lehrstück where nothing is learned. But this irritation is the only authentic (in the Heideggerian sense) outcome of the creative aphasia gripping the conscientious, self-aware composer of New Music, an aphasia that goes beyond the simple failure of signification of the material. Historically speaking, the concept of a “masterwork” has been under heavy scrutiny since at least the 1920s (cf. Artaud), yet music's cultural-institutional-industrial complex still demands that the artist dutifully create masterpieces—which is why, of course, producers from record labels to academic publishers speak of a contingent series of “20th Century Classics” and now “21st Century Classics.” The critically conscious artist thus is only able to fulfill their role, as it is currently formulated, in bad faith. This is why the elemental creative unit found in the work of young critically-informed composers is not a sound or a form but a commission—which, like all other musical ideas, tends towards fulfillment. (For another example of this, see Johannes Kreidler’s Fremdarbeit of 2009.) Das Meisterwerk lays bare the entire process of artistic production in its current historically-formulated condition of absolute impotence: it is an artwork that annihilates its own cultural-material foundations, a creation against the potentiality of creation.

After such a statement, Frank could no longer continue along the same course of rejection, having now in effect rejected the entirety of the musical apparatus. So again the question presented itself: what next?


3. Overview, continued

Like Kreidler, Frank realized that the aesthetic-material impasse of music was deeply interconnected with a broader cultural-political impasse, and thus both his writings and his compositions increasingly turned towards political and sociological developments for their theoretical justification. Looking back now over the lecture I attended in 2014 (both in an ad hoc translation by Wieland Hoban, and in its published form in the 2016 Darmstadt Beitrage für Neue Musik), its prophetic content is obvious. Extremely unusually by 2014 standards, Frank identifies subversion not as a precondition of revolutionary political art, but as a demagogic tool of right-wing populists. I quote from the English translation given to me by Hoban:

Populists often complain that the freedom of speech is applied selectively, that there is intolerance towards opinions not belonging to the mainstream. They present themselves both as victims of defamation and heroes of democracy and freedom of expression. […] The Left must confront the paradox of accepting intolerance and inequality as a way of stabilizing the values of tolerance and equality.

Years before Milo Yiannopoulos would get and, recently, lose a six-figure publishing deal for saying nasty things loudly and persistently (that he lost the deal thanks not to the left, but to a center-right group, the “Reagan Battalion,” is a perfect illustration of Frank’s point), Frank identified the impasse between the avant-garde fetish of subversion and the Left’s fixation on an unqualified tolerance. Before the alt-right was even a twinkle in an anime messageboard’s eye, Frank had described the catastrophic trajectory of our time.

This catastrophe can be roughly encapsulated in Frank’s postulation (in his talk “Performative Affirmation,” given at the 2016 Darmstädter Ferienkurse) that “negativist critique no longer works.” The negativist mode of engagement with political discourse is simple, straightforward, even propagandistic: a problem is identified, isolated (I am “here,” the problem is “there”), and abstracted. Not only is this far too simple to be effective in the fundamentally de-centered world of digital mass media, but it reinforces an absolutist hegemony where “subversion” becomes an end in itself. It is from such a foundation—a foundation that is now self-evident and unquestionable, but that was far from obvious in 2014—that Frank sought to develop a consistent compositional praxis, one that incorporated a pluralistic, digressive engagement with culture while still retaining a comprehensible grounding in critical theory.


4. Later works: performative affirmation, or, “started from the bottom, now we’re here”

A totalizing statement of rejection, Das Meisterwerk also pointed towards Frank’s further creative development, in that the bankruptcy of aural meaning was foregrounded by a cultural-political overdraft of signification. To unpack the monetary metaphor: Das Meisterwerk’s guided tour through annihilation not only neutralizes all musical material by expressly presenting its fundamental interchangeability, it also (if only by implication) accuses the cultural-political institutions, the “arbiters of taste,” of positioning this same fungibility as a necessary precondition, not just commercially, but ontologically, of artworks. It may be helpful here to quote from a source Frank himself often draws from, Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment: “Bourgeois society is ruled by equivalence. It makes the dissimilar comparable by reducing it to abstract quantities.”

Frank continues this criticism—which, in a sense that composer-critic G. Douglas Barrett would see as epochal, is “post-aural”—in his piece The Law of Quality (2010–ongoing). Both a traditional score, an art object, a continuous piece of performance art, and a pyramid scheme, The Law of Quality is a score, which is placed in a luxuriant picture frame, and sold to a series of investors. When each successive investor buys the pieces (for an increasing price), the payment is divided between the previous investors, the performers of the piece, and Frank himself. Thus the series of commodity exchanges is part of the work of art itself.

Frank (right) with one of the investors in The Law of Quality

Frank (right) with one of the investors in The Law of Quality

While this is certainly a significant development both within Frank’s work and amid the backdrop of his contemporaries, it does invite the sort of “this-has-been-done-before” criticism that New Conceptualism so often must field. To wit: the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye created a large machine that produces chemically accurate shit he called Cloaca, then sold both the shit and shares of the Cloaca corporation (as physical documents, objets d’art, etc. etc.) to museums and art collectors. So, while it may be argued, as other practitioners of New Conceptualism have done about their own work, that Frank’s piece brings New Music up to date with trends in the visual and performing arts, the ways in which such a piece is dramatically new and indeed musical at all are initially obscure.

Even if The Law of Quality was not, as a physical document, at least, a traditional musical score, it would still be primarily comprehensible as music rather than plastic or visual art—as a structure which exists primarily as time and motion. Whereas similar conceptual pieces like Cloaca have a fundamentally atemporal production, The Law of Quality is inextricably rooted in its perpetual development in experienced time, a time which includes not only conventional “performances” of the piece, but the monetary, institutional, and interpersonal machinations which allow for such performances to occur. Even the least charitable evaluation of the piece must acknowledge that Frank has created a remarkably transparent diorama of the New Music production line, and this transparency points towards Frank’s further aesthetic development.

The through-line of all of Frank’s most recent works (from 2013 onwards) is the search for an alternative to the negativist critique endemic of political artworks—a critique Frank rightly describes as “toothless” in his “Negation, Affirmation, Hyperaffirmation: Zum Stand aktueller Kritik” (translations mine). Most recently, this has come in the form of what Frank terms “performative affirmation” or even “hyperaffirmation.” Theoretically, Frank positions performative affirmation within the linage of the two dialectic tendencies of the post-war avant-garde: one towards “radical abstraction” and the other towards “radical concretion.” Crucially, he goes on to point out that “the avant-garde utopia of 'art of the everyday',” the utopia that consistently sought to expand the boundaries of possible art material, is realized in the ultimate dissolution of art itself. (It is thus that Trump’s proposed budget which eliminates in toto all art funding can be described as “utopian.”) Such a dissolution immediately foregrounds the subject as the locus ultimum of the creative act, which performative affirmation seeks to exorcise. Performative affirmation at its core is an empathetic grappling towards a new (or new enough) formulation of artwork which can mean something more than its own creation. This is simultaneously a response to both current social conditions and aesthetic material: as Kreidler has said on a Facebook thread, “people take so many selfies because everything else has already been photographed.”

In practice, Frank’s theory-laden and somewhat jargon-y concept of performative affirmation manifests itself surprisingly, directly, and often viscerally. In the short audio-video piece The 1000 most extraordinary people of all time, part of the much larger multimedia project wir sind aussergewöhnlich (“we are extraordinary”, 2012–2013), Frank has aggregated from popular sources (Time magazine, Wikipedia, etc.) a list of the “most extraordinary” people who have ever lived. They are the usual suspects: athletes, physicists, great artists, politicians, explorers, dictators. Their images flash by at a near-stroboscopic pace to a soundtrack of Frank’s earlier compositions, compressed and overdubbed on top of each other. The spectator-listener need not understand Frank’s comprehensive taxonomy of “performative affirmation,” nor even be aware of it, for the piece to do its work. Indeed, despite its aggressively confrontational presentation, there is a sort of familiarity to the piece: this is history by lightning, but it’s empty history, an aggregate rather than a grand narrative, a playlist instead of an epic. You don’t need to be acquainted with post-Adornian metaphysics to realize that you’ve seen this before.

By far the most ambitious of Frank’s projects to date is the massive “theory opera” Freiheit—die eutopische Gesellschaft (“Freedom—the eutopian society”, 2015), which, as its Ouvertüre indicates, is “a museum of posters, a discourse space, an installation, a quantitatively and qualitatively captured art project […] a freedom-genealogy, a cultural-theoretical descriptive model of perspectives of ‘freedom’ with the conceptual pairing of ‘quantity’ and ‘quality’; ironic, moral, and childishly sincere.” In essence, the composer has evolved from a cynic to a curator, relinquishing all but the most rudimentary authorship over their creation: Frank’s theory opera is a collaboration with not only other musicians and composers, but video artists, architects, sociologists, celebrities, philosophers, and celebrity-philosophers, such as walking meme Slavoj Žižek. (A video excerpt of Žižek’s part from the piece’s 2016 performance in Zürich can be found here. It should be noted in passing that Frank’s inclusion of Žižek should in no way be read as an endorsement.)

It is here, in his latest and most freewheeling works, that the singularity of Frank’s aesthetic approach is clearly and fully manifest. There is an Adornian adage, by now a bit shopworn, that artworks are innately utopian since they “bear witness” to the fact that the world can and should be other than it is (cf. Aesthetic Theory, p. 242). But such a paradigm is dependent on the material-immanent quality of artworks, a quality that has disappeared with the fungibility of material: any part of an artwork could be replaced with anything else without a change in type; it is still identified as an artwork regardless. So Frank’s latest works, in all their plurality, reveal a world that could not possibly be otherwise.

One brief example of how he does it: the performance spaces and program material for Freiheit—die eutopische Gesellschaft are filled with different posters—from communist propaganda to car ads to campaigns against zoning ordinances—that each promise a simple, immediate subjective action which will result in freedom. These are doubly contradictory, primarily in that freedom is presented not as an a priori but as a commanded objective, but also in the deployment of “freedom” for mutually conflicting ideological ends, whether transcendental-global (“Proletarians of the world, unite!” proclaims one poster) or mundane-local (the anti-zoning-ordinance poster shows a forest with a sign in front of it which says, perhaps over-dramatically, “Freiheit verboten”). Taken as a whole—and this is indeed how the piece presents them—these posters are a dissolution of ideology. This dissolution is more than a theoretical construct, it is a physical-emotional response, the same sort of sinking anxiety a self-aware person gets when encountering a Che Guevara t-shirt or a dorm room poster of Marx and Lenin drinking Mai Tais. An alternative world cannot possibly be imagined, and even if it could, its imagining would immediately be assimilated into the existing sociocultural order: vide Pepsi deploying Black Lives Matter to advertize a soft drink. This is the visceral and quotidian counterpart to the somewhat cryptic statement at the end of Das Meisterwerk: negative and positive, original and simulation have dissolved into each other. In his seismic reversal of Adorno’s formulation, Frank’s presents this subsumption not as critique but as affirmation—not only do we have freedom, but we are free to choose which freedom we want to have. These recursive potentialities, condensed into a single work and perpetually reaffirmed, are the propulsive force behind Frank’s music. Put in Beethoven’s terms: es muss sein!

At this point, Frank’s works are far too complex and discursive to be concisely summarized within the auspices of an introductory profile. An analysis of Freiheit—die eutopische Gesellschaft would far exceed the scope of the present investigation. It is far easier to demonstrate how Frank arrived here, rather than to analyze or explicate what exactly “here” is, and this is what I have attempted to do in the foregoing section. But it is nevertheless clear that Frank’s theory opera is not a genre but a blueprint: a seismic opening up of the artistic apparatus towards the “outside” world. Future projects would include not just the professions listed above but also video game programmers, politicians, religious authorities, factory workers, or anyone from any conceivable background or vocation. It is thus that Frank has cunningly wrested the utopian project of the avant-garde from its materialist exhaustion.


5. Overview, concluded

Placing an individual composer within the wider context of New Music today is a confusing and perilous task. The New Music scene has fractured into so many discrete stylistic splinters that the creation of some sort of hierarchy of recognition appears to be not only practically but ethically unfeasible. I’m Facebook friends with most of these people, and even I can’t really follow what’s going on. Still, if only for comprehensibility’s sake, and if only as a concession to an outmoded (romantic?) historical consciousness, an extremely rudimentary contextualisation might be made thus: if Johannes Kreidler is the trailblazing, controversy-courting firebrand of the Konzeptmusik school and Jennifer Walshe is the more accessible, less abrasive, and vaguely lyrical distillation of the ethos, Patrick Frank is the quiet renegade calmly talking the aesthetic ideologies of his peers to their most radical conclusions. To make a vastly oversimplified comparison—this is, again, nothing more than an introduction—with another musical triumvirate: Kreidler is Schoenberg, Walshe is Berg, Frank is Webern. There.

From Freiheit—die eutopische Gesellschaft

From Freiheit—die eutopische Gesellschaft

When Frank says that his compositional material is “the axioms that allow New Music to exist as an institution,” as he did in a roundtable discussion at the 2016 Darmstädter Ferienkurse, he is in effect describing two distinct but coincident processes. The first process, logically and chronologically, is the rejection of music qua music, the neutralization of cultural-political hierarchies that maintain prestige and value judgements, and the denial of an absolutist conception of artistic autonomy. This is to be understood as both a continuation and qualification of the “refusal of habit” outlined by Helmut Lachenmann: it is a rejection of the conditions which allow habit to emerge in the first place. The second process is performative affirmation, which turns from content to context while simultaneously reaffirming the radical subjectivity of artistic production and consumption. In simpler, if somewhat hackneyed, terms: Frank’s music simultaneously looks inwards—towards the structural/ontological constructions of sound as music—and outwards—towards the conditions, professional, socioeconomic, political, philosophical, scientific, and otherwise, in which such a music arises.

I have consistently sought to emphasize my acute awareness (starting with the title) that this profile often uncomfortably—indeed, cringingly—veers towards the hagiographic. And now, having just in effect described my subject as a Janus-faced colossus astride two worlds without a hint of irony, I would like to very briefly explain by way of a conclusion why I have decided to frame a to all appearances dry, theory-laden composer, steeped in the Adornian tradition and little known to the English-speaking world, in such messianic terms. As it stands, not only has New Music failed in its utopian projects, but culture in general—high, low, and medium—has utterly detached itself from political phenomenology. If a Beyoncé album has demonstrably the same concrete political impact as a Brian Ferneyhough quartet (read: nil), then the terms of artistic political engagement must be sharply redrawn. Art in general, and so-called political art in particular, can no longer afford to enjoy its autonomy from the “problems” it seeks to identify. Rather than write a protest piece, an act which is at best useless in 2017, the artist must now grapple with the cultural-hegemonic machinery which allows the blissfully impotent existence of such an artwork. Frank was one of the first to identify this situation, and the first to propose active artistic solutions. His evolution from negativist material critique—wherein the materials that make up the art object are shown to have lost all signification and power—to a wildly discursive, critical, collaborative, even inspirational curatorial composition—so-called “performative affirmation”—represents, at the bare minimum, a staggeringly ambitious and self-aware attempt to transform what music is able to do. It should therefore come as no surprise that a still younger generation of composers has already begun richly to build on Frank’s achievements in their own practice.


Max Erwin is a musicologist and composer originally from Franklin, Tennessee. He is currently completing a PhD in musicology under Martin Iddon at the University of Leeds, where he is the recipient of a Leeds Anniversary Research Scholarship.


Banner image: Detail from Marcel Broodthaers, White Cabinet and White Table. 1965 (painted furniture with eggshells)