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Setting the tone – with experiments

No sound is too bizarre for them, no rhythm too complicated: the Ensemble Modern and other German champions of New Music


For a long time, the one or other 20th-century composer had no other choice than to sit down and try to unravel the mystery of patience. Innovative works remained in top drawers as no musician could interpret the signs for noises, actions and sounds. For example, Pierre Boulez composed his Livre pour quatuor in 1948 and 1949. It was partly performed six years later, but only (almost) completely in 2000, by Quatuor Parisii. Violinist Irvine Arditti considers it one of the toughest compositions in his repertoire. This assessment also applies to Boulez’ piece entitled Le marteau sans maître, a 
key composition by the entire avant-garde post-Arnold Schönberg. In 1955, Hans Rosbaud and the Südwestfunkorchester needed no less than 44 rehearsals prior to the premiere performance. There were few drummers able to grasp something so complicated, and just as few guitar players who could follow the conductor’s instructions.

In fact, composers today can count themselves lucky. They can with a good aesthetic conscience entrust their works 
to musicians who have made complicated scores their daily artistic bread. In Germany, which has often otherwise blazed the trail in musical matters, this took longer than in France, Italy or England – until in 1980 the Ensemble Modern arose, a team of new Music specialists.

The Ensemble Modern first saw the light of day four years 
after Boulez founded the Ensemble intercontemporain, but 
it was swiftly acknowledged as a cutting-edge company for the new in music. Not only the many awards it has won bear this out – received by musicians now based in Frankfurt am Main. Above all the commissions by renowned composers show that the musicians, who in a good old Leftist tradition are self-organised, find no rhythm too complex, no sound too bizarre to not be produced by a wind or string instrument, a drum, a key, or a gesture.

Anyone who asks why the Ensemble has in the last 35 years gained so great a reputation will find there are primarily 
two reasons. The members have internalised the myth of 
the “rolling stone”: they’ve stayed in motion, gathered no moss, avoided all routine. And they evidently reject all artistic prejudices. This has earned them the respect of artists 
as different as György Ligeti and Nina Hagen, Frank Zappa and Karlheinz Stockhausen, Mauricio Kagel and Heiner Goebbels, Bill Viola and Steve Reich. The 22 members come from almost a dozen different countries, but this seems 
to be as much part and parcel of their agenda as is the wide-ranging repertoire: from leading contemporary chamber music through to pieces of music theatre, orchestrations 
and jazz.

The ensemble’s very existence and expertise has inspired artists and let to unprecedented interaction between composition and interpretation. An unorthodox artist such as Heiner Goebbels, whose roots are in 1968 sub-culture and whose 
career with the So-Called Leftist Radical Brass Orchestra 
was so unlike that of his colleagues from the classical avant-garde, has with the help of the Ensemble Modern perfected 
a style of composing where the staging is an integral part 
of musical score. Pieces such as Black on white or the scenic concert Eislermaterial see the Ensemble acting not just 
as the orchestra but as part of the score and composition 
as it were.

Matthias Pintscher, born in 1971 in Marl and now living in New York and Paris and who swiftly emerged as one of the most successful and oft-cited composers of his generation, benefited in his art from the skills of groups like the Ensemble Modern or Klangforum Wien, or Ensemble intercontemporain, where he is the conductor. Yet Pintscher with his highly discerning avant-garde style took a traditional route from studying composition to arrive at Giselher Klebe, Hans Werner Henze, Pierre Boulez or Péter Eötvös. He creates works that are not least inspired by the fine art of an Anselm Kiefer or Cy Twombly or the poetry of an Arthur Rimbaud – he transposes musical material into colour segments and rearranged them quite defying convention.

Something similar is true of Munich’s Jörg Widmann, a 
clarinet-player and composer born in 1973 who in many of the works he initiates for his instrument combines the role of a new performer who masters all the current techniques and forms of expression with that of composer who intelligently realises all the new forms within the piece. And 
the sensory appeal of his aural language is compelling as 
a result, where strict scratching sounds on a violin’s bridge or the sliding chords on a grand piano don’t get disguised 
but reveal just how much the music is a product of the spirit of the cantilena.

Only Michael Wollny doesn’t automatically fit in this phalanx of artists. And yet he can with some justification be con­sidered a representative of the new forms of interpretation and composition. Born in 1978 in Schweinfurt, he can hardly be called a jazz pianist, but in his musical chamber of wonders he defies any boundaries between the genres. Because he 
intuits that a 12-bar blues by Robert Johnson, a late Schubert sonata and John Cage’s prepared piano may possibly not be separated by musical essence or the appropriate aesthetic, but only by the listeners’ prejudices. ▪