TRADITION SEEMS EXHAUSTED…
Tradition seems exhausted, the celebration of the new is wilting. Bernd Franke`s music is conscious of the fact that we cannot change our history like underwear, that a denial of its imprint would be merely a variation. His music plays with sounds and instruments, with the form and content of the central European style, never however looking backwards but continually and carefully separating itself from the ragged and used-up clichés with an alert awareness which scrutinizes the classical Utopia, mindful of the folly of contemporary society. Bernd Franke asserts neither a tabula rasa nor the horror vacui to which decrepit tradition inclines us. His deconstructions perhaps however attack tradition more sharply than other numerous, at first sight, radical projections: they suddenly transform the existing framework into the dramatis personae of a conflict-laden piece of theatre.
The game which Bernd Franke sets into play, is dark, often malevolent. In “Music for Trumpet, Harp, Violin and Orchestra”, unlike his colleagues, who wish as he does to deal with the anachronism of orchestral hierarchy, he does not allow his musicians free space and new communicative structures; his game is well laid out; he holds the reins with which he leads the figures through his game firmly in his hand. Their textbook is made up of the remains left by the worn-out process of classical-romantic thought. In place of what was once called the thematic link, a self-abandonment stands on its ruins. If the dialectic principle of symphonic conflict is conceived in the sense of an idealised progress dreaming of the reconciliation of a strongly delineated notion of an individual with society, here the conflict for the figures of Franke`s game is one of irresolvable contrasts, an equality of difference.
More powerful still than his, up-to-now, largest symphonic work is the four movement piano solo “For WOLS (It’s all over)”, an endgame. But it does not come to a result like chess or football, rather it is to be understood in Beckett`s sense as “an old, previously lost endgame”. Where the “Music for Trumpet, Harp, Violin and Orchestra” froze the dialectic between the individual and society, here the piano solo empties the process of individuation itself. Development takes places here, if at all, only in the minutest, often stuttering dimensions, tending towards petrification in a developmentless point. The portrayal of time is significant: irrationally-driven passages leading nowhere stand next to stagnating dead-ends; abrupt breaks leave the portrayal incomplete. At the end, the most expressive oppositions; two voices in far apart positions moving contrary to one another. In a contradiction of apparent stasis and violent eruptions, both voices find the inspirational way out of the title: the paintings of the artist Wolfgang Schulze who died at the beginning of the 1950`s, and whose abstract work Franke portrays partly as silent filigree, partly as violent expression brought about by his thoughts and feelings during the Gulf War which was raging at the time of its composition.
Finally the figures of Bernd Franke`s musical game sit between silence and scream in glass cases, fragile in the extreme distance. Where once the genus of chamber music drew its classical feeling from successful communication, a “conversation between rational people”, where diverse modern pieces seek to renew this feeling by bringing in real communicative action into the interpretive process, Franke`s chamber music changes the realism into a musical and theatrical portray of a horror story. – “Hope as a breath…” is the subtitle of his “Music for Violin, Violoncello and Piano”. Whether anything like a “weak messianic power” is concealed within the continual unbroken musical motif, which is broken briefly by stillness and sudden cries, seems at least questionable, bearing in mind the mistrust with which Franke opposes any dialectic synthesis and nurses against all deceitful portrayals of reconciliation.
This way of composing, which sets out reality using autonomous musical methods, must be worked out on the deconstructed ruins of the past which cannot just be dealt with any way one likes. An indifferent game in the supermarket of post history is as much out of the question as a return to a self-chosen incommunicable composition system, whatever terra incognita is feigned by such a prison. Tradition seems exhausted, the celebration of the new is wilting.
In the cycle “SOLO XTIMES” the described aspects of Franke`s compositions come into a sharper perspective. They free themselves completely from the concept of a musical genus. Since 1988 the piece “Solo 3times” for Violin, Horn and Piano, based on Joseph Beuys` idea of social sculpture, exists as an open work-in-progress which grows in Franke`s head and proliferates almost daily:
“Solo 6times – ossified” for percussion ensemble, “Solo 7times – in the distance” for a wandering trombone and six instruments, “Solo 2times – approach (I)” for flute and piano,
“Solo 2times – approach (II)” for oboe and piano, “…approach” for piano solo,
“Solo 2times – approach (III)” for viola and piano, “Solo 4times – overlayered” for electric guitar, bandoneon, harp and violin, “Solo 5times – splintering” for wind quintet,
“Solo xtimes – tape (I-IV)”, “Solo 9times – into infinity” for ensemble, “Solo 8times – in movement” for ensemble.
Chamber music? Yes, but in extreme isolation: in the free notation, which Franke has utilised since 1994, every player is to be understood as a soloist, and not merely in the sense as a first among equals, but almost as an outsider: he must form his part completely for himself without listening to the others; rehearsals together are reduced to a minimum. The ensemble playing is not bound by a common score; instead the musicians orient themselves towards a stop clock without taking notice of one another.
Solo music? Certainly, but in such compositions the virtuoso, triumphant self-assertion of the soloist is as much left behind as the process of successful musical communication. In its place comes the surrounded loner, continually in danger of being neutralised. Togetherness – somewhat in the rich, floating, combinational sounds of the instruments – is only apparent.
This type of musical ensemble playing comes about as much from the confrontation of classical form with actual social reality as from the almost limitless separation and unpredictable combination of single voices which it makes possible. Altogether, developed from a common original form, and working out analogous material in the field between form and formlessness, order and chaos, dictatorship and anarchy, in motion or ossified, they are given ever new illumination in simultaneous layerings.
Thus the “Solo xtimes” project becomes an unending, living, growing organism. The first simultaneous performances of single pieces have already been given and there has long germinated in Franke`s head the idea of a complete performance in which nine games with altogether 44 solos are formed into an orchestra which tears itself apart, exploding from within into isolated bits. In fact, “Solo xtimes” is symphonic music.
The subtitles of the pieces indicate the spiritual character of the music. It is continually a social game through the medium of sound. None of these aspects should be overlooked if one is not to completely misunderstand the music: the backcloth of the reality of human relations and the concentration on the language of music. Franke`s music, whatever work of visual art may have inspired it in the first place, contains no representational pictures, much more it transforms gestures into musical process. The iconoclastic music of the great American Morton Feldman is as much distant through its spiritual content to the central European “Solo xtimes” as its sound is near. When a concert makes clear the social and communicative aspects of the musical scenes through the relationship of spatial parameters – performance and movement in the concert hall – then it does so through a conscious portrayal within the concert situation, not by changing the musicians into actors. Movement, colour, light, video, voices, Bernd Franke will in the future bring all these into the project; each of them through transformation and abstraction has something to offer, which the foundational, spiritual setting lifts up in each`s own particular language. Certainly, “Solo xtimes” is music theatre.
Already the original form of “Solo xtimes” has a four-movement dramaturgy. First comes the alienation of the tradition, for instance its preference for the heterogeneous breaking-up of the formation of the classical model, or the coordination of the soloists by a time-code; this is substantially new. The performance of this music frees itself from the distortion of the decaying concert ritual, from the narrative of a linear, time-axis following, dramaturgy which indicated its starting off point, and turns itself into a sculptural process that Franke, inspired by the layout of musicians into spatially appearing, foundational gestures, creates into a musical field in which, partly controlled, partly unpredictable, the music develops: clear, “Solo xtimes” is a sound sculpture, an installation.
There are passages in which the percussion gives something of a clearly followable pulse. Immediately, influenced by our tradition, we start to hear the ensemble of instruments as an extremely complex rhythmic strata. In the mind of the hearer these are as real as they are non-existent in the writing of the composer or in the playing of the fully-for-himself and at most unconsciously influenced by the pulse musicians. Naturally “Solo xtimes” is a reflection on perception and the imprint of history on our hearing.
One can hardly expect from a composer, whose instrumental music forces him to spiritually- inspired musical scenes, a musical portrayal of a story on the operatic stage, rather the transformation of theatrical situations and proceedings into musical language. Already the text “Mottke the Thief” is the result of several metamorphoses. Franke, together with Hans Werner Henze, who commissioned the piece for the Munich Biennial, elaborated the exposé which was based on the novel by the Jewish writer Schalom Ash and for which the libretto was originally written in English by Jonathan Moore and which Franke translated into German and revised. It is no surprise that in this story those aspects which permeate Franke`s work are accentuated: Mottke who, escaping from the poverty-stricken criminal environment of his origins, at first attaches himself to a circus, whose superficiality he however, cannot bear, and who, killing his workmate Kanarik, takes on his identity and sets out as a pimp. Neither however can Mottke stomach this deceitful existence. The loneliness of the isolated sediments itself in the drastic picture of a stage-dominating cage which is used by Franke as a musical instrument.
The inescapability of a fated and, through and through, superficial existence – the transformation of all that transpires into an endgame – the contemporaneity of the heterogeneous in the choice of instruments which extends the ensemble into the field of electronic sounds with a bandoneon and an electronic guitar, as well as in the use of Franke`s not up-to-now so well known complex layerings of differing time signatures and tempos… the contradiction between complex ordering and a sound dominated anarchy, of violent movement and ossified stasis. The dialectic between scream and silence is here given extreme form: in the central points of the opera – the scene in which Mottke is beaten, Kanarik`s murder, Mottke`s breakout – from the intolerable situation of his deceitful existence and in the finale – the dying away of the song: “ritual music” comparable in structure to the compositions of the cycle “Solo xfach” with the setting out of conceptual layerings of instrumentation. The expressive cry arrives silently. Opera – and “Mottke the Thief” calls itself provocatively in its subtitle “opera” – once had its essence in the suspension of the action in the expressive aria, which transcended the failure of history; where the singing figure in dying realised the ideal bourgeois individuality, the unchanging self and unconditional freedom (Schelling).
A dramaturgical breaking out from the narrative line takes place in the scene where Mottke “outs” his identity as well as revealing his sensitivity: however these are revealed as monadic and revocable. Such appear only as a consequence of the ruins which were left behind by the celebration of the individual in German Idealism.
Franke also remains true to his understanding of tradition in “Mottke the Thief”: tradition is as little denied as it is muselike realised, rather it is deconstructed in the face of reality and reconstructed under new premises. So much is perhaps contained in the synthetic tone, with which the opera, after a long expiry ends, yet which still contains the transcendence of historical failure: pure sound.
Manfred H. Wenninger, Radio Hessen, Frankfurt am Main, Portrait 1998
Translation from the German text: W.D. Bengree-Jones, 2001