The word transcription, so the dictionary informs us, has roots in the Latin trānscrībēre, which can be rendered literally as “to write across,” “to write over,” or even “to write through.” Inscription-as-palimpsest, as it were: less a one-to-one conversion or correspondence across media than the writing of a writing, the creative retracing of an original whose untraceable residues the new version or “layer” can never completely encompass or efface. Viewed in this light, questions of semblance and fidelity recede into the background—especially in the musical domain, where literal-minded transcriptions are, in the main, non-starters. Idiomatic recomposition is not, it seems, a matter of duplication, but of supplementation (even when that supplementation takes the form of subtraction). As Peter Szendy argues in his absorbing Listen: A History of Our Ears, arrangers are “the only listeners in the history of music to write down their listenings, rather than describe them (as critics do).” Which means an effective transcription will be multi-perspectival, oscillating constantly between the erased imprint of the source text and the arranger’s auditory apperceptions of that text.
Take this train of thought to its logical conclusion—that the boundary between composition and arrangement is a porous one—and you have Zählen und Erzählen, the latest installment in the Winter & Winter label’s ongoing series devoted to the music of Denmark’s Hans Abrahamsen. The title, borrowed from a children’s piece of the same name by Mauricio Kagel, is a play on words: zählen corresponds to “counting,” erzählen “recounting” (in the sense of an account or tale), and when in proximity the two summon up some of the affinities between reiteration and narrativity. Certainly, it comes as no surprise that this tissue of associations resonates with the Germanophile Abrahamsen, whose credo is “music is already music,” that “what one hears is pictures—basically, music is already there.” This is, after all, just another way of saying that writing and rewriting are not so easy to disentangle, that even the most schematic reshuffling of old work brings to bear a mediating sensibility, and that the creation of purely “original” music entails a sort of bricolage in the opposite direction. Zählen und Erzählen’s graffitied Caspar David Friedrich cover artwork only underlines the point.
The programming makes the point, too, with Abrahamsen’s Four Pieces for Orchestra and Piano Concerto offering two very different reinterpretations of the Ten Studies, a much older piano cycle that functions as the material wellspring or “ur-text” for the large-scale works, much as György Kurtág’s Játékok have more famously done for that composer’s opus numbered works. Of course, such webs of borrowings are nothing out of the ordinary for Abrahamsen, and when a prolonged drought struck in the 1990s, he instead focused his energies on arrangements of music by other composers, including his elder countrymen Carl Nielsen, Per Nørgård (one of his mentors), and Poul Ruders, as well as more canonical figures like Bach, Satie, Ravel, and Schoenberg. His approach to Nielsen’s little-known Op. 59 piano pieces is exemplary: without adding a single bar, Abrahamsen reprocesses the music so that every note “tells” anew, something not always the case with the originals, which were not so far off from being sketches for a potential Seventh Symphony. On the contrary, Abrahamsen dusts Nielsen off as the iconoclastic progenitor or questing trailblazer he never quite was in the first place (that is to say, as anything other than a cozy icon of Scandinavian equanimity).
Years before his dry spell hit, though, Abrahamsen had already begun to rethink his older works in these terms, considering them endlessly reconfigurable objets trouvés he could use to object-ify his own past. Abrahamsen concedes that transcription was a “very foreign” concept during the 1970s, when he was a staggeringly precocious young composer still wedded to the conventional modernist wisdom on the unity of form and content. But once the bulk of the Studies were done, he had begun to change tack, recycling six of them for horn trio, practically “boiling away” the relatively staid originals (the Six Pieces of 1984, regrettably not included on the present disc, where they would have made ideal makeweights). So that while Abrahamsen’s recompositional technique may have been born out of pragmatic necessity—a tight deadline or two—today it lets him sidestep the blank page at will, secure with his infinitely permutable store of pre-existing material. At its best, the results are nothing short of magic alchemy; witness Abrahamsen’s trick of transmuting the modest water of the three-decades-old wind quintet Walden into the giddy, bracing wine of 2009’s Wald (both pieces feature on another delightful Winter & Winter release).
Abrahamsen is usually evaluated through the pseudo-journalistic prism of the so-called Ny Enkelhed (“new simplicity”), the Danish compositional movement that anticipated some of the phenomenological rigor of the American minimalists and the radically streamlined construction of Stockhausen’s 1970s melodic ventures. No doubt there is some justification for this, and not only because Abrahamsen’s supposed “objectivism” persists to this day, most memorably in the deterministic clockwork of the post-drought Schnee (available on this indispensible Winter & Winter disc), which revisits the “objectification of material” that was such a key feature of the Ny Enkelhed works. Even so, it is not the whole picture. Almost from the start, Abrahamsen’s cool, concretist detachment was accompanied by more hot-blooded impulses, which found an outlet in his investigations of the debased coin of Romanticism, as exemplified by the inscrutable, polymorphic Berlin Philharmonic commission Nacht und Trompeten, from 1981. It is customary to say that Abrahamsen has always been a miniaturist at heart, and traces of the brains behind Eusebius and Florestan can surely be found as far back as 1973’s 10 Præludier (String Quartet No. 1), a manifesto-souvenir of the composer’s immersion in the Ny Enkelhed. Capping nine stripped-down, musical automatons is a straight-faced Baroque parody, of which Abrahamsen observes, “Like in the fairy-tales one could say, ‘…There, this was a true story.’” As with Schumann’s “Bilder” pieces, it is not the content of the fable that matters so much as the frame, the “once upon a time….” Here, Abrahamsen draws on the resources of a fundamentally expressive syntax to achieve its impassive opposite. But the equation also holds when reversed, as when Abrahamsen speaks of Ny Enkelhed transparency in terms of the attempt “to find more expression, which is of course a kind of contradiction. We tried to make our music as cool as possible, but we also wanted to come as close as possible to it.”
Though the friction between these two poles is what really makes this music tick, Zählen und Erzählen plainly tips the balance in favor of the “expressive” Abrahamsen. Especially telling are the Four Pieces for Orchestra: written between 2000 and 2003, they are (mostly) convincing arrangements of the first quartet of piano Studies, which had been conceived in their own turn as fugitive recollections of “the Schumannesque and Chopinesque worlds, but seen from our time, as a kind of psychoanalysis.” Only occasionally, in the languorous outer movements, does the listener ever suspect that this was once keyboard music. Instead, the miniatures have been slowed down considerably, reconceived from the ground up in terms of Expressionist large ensemble texture (the massive orchestra includes quadruple and quintuple woodwinds, four Wagner tubas, and harps, guitar, and mandolin). In this light Abrahamsen’s 1998 arrangement of Schoenberg’s Op. 19 piano pieces looks like a dry run, particularly as far as the sepuchral bell tones of the concluding Sehr langsam are concerned, which plainly echo the selfsame-titled movement from the Viennese’s set (famously, a eulogy for Gustav Mahler). From the Stürmisch, bewegt’s delirious Shepard scales to the soaring, twittering “Scherzo-Fragment,” a glittery ice chip of a piece that eventually melts into a lonely clarinet minor third, Abrahamsen’s mastery of coloristic technique is everywhere on display, with felicitous moments at every turn—and yet for all that, there is something curiously self-defeating about these Pieces. The composer indicates that plans to recompose the Studies dated back to their initial conception in the 1980s, but the lengthy interval separating the idea from its realization looks to have kept the neurotic spontaneity that was the lifeblood of Abrahamsen’s models (viz. Schoenberg’s Op. 16, Berg’s Op. 6, and Webern’s Op. 6) a little too far at bay.
In his commentary on the Four Pieces, Abrahamsen invokes the ghost of Pierre Boulez’s Notations, but the Frenchman’s freer approach to recomposition has rather more in common with the Piano Concerto, a much less equivocal affair that foregrounds the marvelous musical conjuring tricks that seem to be Abrahamsen’s true forte. Along with the then-incomplete eighth and ninth piano Studies, the 1999-2000 Concerto was the first project Abrahamsen embarked on after his fallow period, and the result was to have its origins in a number of earlier efforts, including the oblique Schumann homage Märchenbilder. Significantly, the spare piano monologue that initiates the Concerto’s pivotal second movement is an “erasure” of a passage from that previous chamber orchestra piece. As Abrahamsen confesses, “I would never be able to compose it, just like that. […] Behind its apparent simplicity, in other words, lies great complexity! It is the history of this piano part has that made it possible for me to write it into the piano concerto.” When pressed to discuss the processes at work in Schnee, Abrahamsen favored a stereoscope metaphor (he also likened his early Stratifications to a magic lantern), but these moments also earn him the right to apply the metaphor to his recompositional practice. Harry Vogt’s liner note suggests that the Four Pieces might be thought of as “3-D” versions of the corresponding piano bagatelles, but just as important in the Concerto is the interplay between text and subtext, the latter understood to encompass Abrahamsen’s own self-borrowings as well as his many allusions to music’s rich past, from Mahler to his late, lamented teacher György Ligeti and beyond. (Ligeti’s shadow looms large in the animated, aurora-like Tempo di grande gioia, which concludes with an “out of tune” horn solo in the Hungarian’s best late manner.)
Yet this is the wonderful Abrahamsenian paradox: the listener need not be aware that the Concerto’s opening bars are a reimagining of the Studies’ “Arabeske,” with their characteristically “snowy” treble twinkling, to be carried along all the same by their limpid unfolding. Nor does it necessarily matter that this is the same music that served as the point of departure for the “Scherzo-Fragment”—and in any case the material rather functions here as a pretext, quickly transcended by the “frozen time” that remains one of Abrahamsen’s favorite tempo designations. Some might even argue that there is nothing essential to be gained by attending to the tangled undergrowth of auto-quotations that undergirds each one of Abrahamsen’s works. But if such reshufflings are the composer’s prerogative, why does Abrahamsen feel compelled to alert us to their presence in the first place? The very idea of “creative” musical transcription is an essentially Romantic invention, cooked up by Liszt as grist for his virtuoso mill, but unlike the 19th-century figures from whom Abrahamsen customarily claims lineage, Liszt is hardly a fashionable figure these days. Moreover, even today musical borrowing—especially self-borrowing—remains somehow disreputable; not drawing attention to such uses might then be construed as an “admission of guilt.” Abrahamsen experiences few pangs in “tell[ing] the same story in different ways, again and again perhaps,” because he knows that “then the story becomes different by time [sic].” This is not the same as improvement, however, and Abrahamsen’s first, sketch-like thoughts on the meccanico “Boogie-Woogie” and listless “Rivière d’oubli” movements appeal just as much in their own way as the richer, more premeditated forms they take in the Concerto.
Though newcomers to this most vital of today’s composers are still directed, in the first instance, to the above-mentioned recording of Schnee, Winter & Winter are to be applauded all the same for their continued commitment to Abrahamsen, on whom they have lavished some of the best production values in the business. Actually, the only piece that had not seen commercial release prior to Zählen und Erzählen was the Four Pieces—hardly surprising given its size, which has precluded any more than a handful of live performances over the past decade. Even so, these new accounts of the Studies and (in particular) the Concerto are to be welcomed with great enthusiasm, and not only because the three-way collaboration between the much-in-demand Yugoslav pianist Tamara Stefanovich, the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, and conductor Jonathan Stockhammer proves an all-around triumph. Using a fuller string section in lieu of soloists redresses some of the more unsatisfying balances heard on the previous Dacapo Records version, and it is, as such, a performance that outdoes its predecessor in almost every respect, suggesting that Abrahamsen’s Concerto might just be worthy of comparison with that of his maître Ligeti. Meanwhile, Abrahamsen has been comparatively productive in recent years, and he has plenty of works still to be documented by Winter & Winter. I’m already waiting for the next installment with baited breath, and that is, I hope, the highest possible compliment.
Matt Mendez is Digital Music Editor of Music & Literature. His blog is Soundproof Room.