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Composing by sight (“Das Auge komponiert”)

20 March 2017 | Azra Ramić

On 27 and 28 January 2017, the Bern University of the Arts HKB held the symposium “Das Auge komponiert – Hermann Meier und das Verhältnis von Bild and Klang in der Musik nach 1945” (“Composing by sight – Hermann Meier and the relationship between image and sound in music after 1945”). This symposium was part of a research project into Hermann Meier at the Graduate School of the Arts in Bern.

Excerpt from the basic plan for the Piece for Werner Heisenberg, 1968. © Paul Sacher Foundation, Basel, Hermann Meier Collection.

The composer Hermann Meier (1906–2002) from Solothurn is today regarded as one of the most important representatives of early Swiss avant-garde music. He remained always in the background, writing works that were “spared” criticism and correction. They are thus especially original and retained a specific individuality. His compositional techniques, too, were extremely idiosyncratic, on a large-scale, and often highly colourful.

This symposium set itself the important task of making Hermann Meier’s works known to a broader public, in hopes that they might in future more often find a place on the concert programmes of Swiss orchestras and of other musicians. Although Meier’s music was rarely performed during his lifetime, he remained aware of the contemporary scene. His extensive oeuvre includes over twenty orchestral works that have never been performed. His composing style seemed too radical for the Swiss music world back then. It was not until the 1980s that some of his works saw the light of day, thanks to the support of the composer and pianist Urs Peter Schneider, who embarked on a close collaboration with Meier. Other important figures who helped to advance his music were the pianist Dominik Blum and the composer and publisher Marc Kilchenmann. It was on Kilchenmann’s initiative that the Basel Sinfonietta performed two large orchestral works by Meier in 2010 [the Schweizer Musikzeitung published an article about them in their first issue of 2010, see p. 18 f. – Ed.].

Hermann Meier’s archives have been held by the Paul Sacher Foundation since 2009, and they have been the subject of the research project “Das Auge komponiert” (“Composing by sight”) since 2013. The project will close in 2017, when a monographic exhibition will be held at the Solothurn Art Gallery.

The two-day symposium featured papers on Hermann Meier’s music and on graphic notation, given by Heidy Zimmermann (Paul Sacher Foundation, Basel), David Magnus (Berlin), Pascal Decroupet (Nice), Roman Brotbeck (Bern), Michel Roth (Basel), Marc Kilchenmann (Basel), Michelle Ziegler (Bern), Jörg Jewanski (Münster), Doris Lanz (Bern), Christoph Haffter (Basel) and Michael Harenberg (Bern).

The symposium’s diverse programme ensured two varied but compact days. The focus was naturally on Hermann Meier, his works and his compositional technique, and the symposium also offered various insights into forms of graphic notation.

In her paper, Heidy Zimmermann deliberated on the basic principles of Meier’s graphic works. Most cases of graphic notation involve finished scores that contain graphic elements or that are notated in graphic form. With Hermann Meier, however, the graphics are part of his cognitive process, and do not constitute the finished product – the actual score. It was fascinating to get insights into Meier’s creative process and to be able to see several of his graphic works that are held by the Paul Sacher Foundation.

David Magnus used several examples of scores from the post-War avant-garde to explain different types of graphic notation. These are different with every composer, and often cannot be assigned to any particular genre. His focus was on the Greek composer Anestis Logothetis and his notation, whose end product – the score – is a graphic system that can provide a different musical result with every reading of it; this sets Logothetis apart from a composer such as Meier.

Pascal Decroupet’s paper on the role of pictorial and graphic sketches in serial and post-serial composers was especially interesting. After 1945, there was a fundamental realignment in the realm of sound and its contexts. New ideas led to new forms of representation; space became an independent parameter, and electronic music, aleatorics and expanded playing techniques needed new, visual solutions. Besides examples from the music of Pierre Boulez, the focus of this paper was on Stockhausen’s masterpiece Gruppen.

Roman Brotbeck investigated the relationship between Wladimir Vogel and Hermann Meier, who was one of his students. Vogel enjoyed close contact with Meier, though they subsequently drifted apart. After five years, the lessons foundered. Brotbeck compared Meier’s Piano piece of 1947 with works by other Vogel students. It transpired that Meier maintained his own personal style. Even despite the influence of Vogel, Meier regarded dodecaphony not as a goal in itself but as a transitional stage. He did not just compose using a row, but “about the row” – as if in an act of overcoming abstract constructivism. Sometimes he did this in a structured way, at other times in a context of playfulness.

Michel Roth offered a kind of “reading log” of all of Meier’s orchestral works, offering what came across as an unambiguous statement about Meier’s vast oeuvre.

Marc Kilchenmann’s paper dealt with the role of the graphic plans in Hermann Meier’s compositional process. Meier’s archives include some 150 graphic plans and 300 sketches in notebooks. Over time, Meier’s plans became increasingly complex and multi-layered. Kilchenmann explained the relevance of the development of Meer’s graphics with reference to his compositional oeuvre.

Michelle Ziegler has written her doctoral dissertation on Hermann Meier’s piano works as part of the research project “Das Auge komponiert”. Here, she examined Meier’s phase of electronic composition, focusing on Klangflächengefüge oder Wandmusik for Hans Oesch (“Soundscape structure or wall music”, 1970–71) and the Second piece for two pianos, two harpsichords and two electric organs (1973). Meier’s oeuvre can be divided into different phases: in the 1950s, he embarked on works for orchestra, while the 1960s were notable for his works for keyboard instruments. Meier’s electronic phase was clearly the 1970s, though he had also shown an interest in this field in earlier years. Up to today, only one of his electronic compositions has been realised in the studio.

Jörg Jenawski spoke about the relationships between music and painting in the 20th century, taking as his starting point Monika Fink’s Eight possibilities to set a picture to music (1988), and asking whether or not we can discern a similar relationship in Hermann Meier’s oeuvre. Meier’s interest in architecture and the visual arts (especially his passion for Mondrian’s works), his visits to important exhibitions, his lessons with Wladimir Vogel and their connection to the visual arts (this was also the topic of Doris Lanz’s paper) – all this suggests that the movements of sound in his scores could be understood along the lines of “movement” in a picture, while fields of colour could be seen to correlate to instrumental groups.

The papers by Christoph Haffter and Michael Harenberg dealt with specific works by Hermann Meier; Haffter discussed the orchestral works of the 1960s and Meier’s avant-garde aspirations of these years, while Harenberg examined the only electronic work that Meier realised in the experimental studio of the Heinrich Strobel Foundation at South-West German Radio (SWR). Haffter used the Piece for orchestra of 1986 to demonstrate how Meier dealt with compositional problems and how his solutions differed from those of other composers of his time. Michael Harenberg spoke about the matters with which Meier found himself confronted when realising his electronic pieces.

A discussion with Meier’s colleagues Urs Peter Schneider and Dominik Blum, moderated by Florian Hauser, was recorded by the cultural programme of Swiss Radio SRF2 and offered the listeners deep insights into Meier’s personality, his collaboration with both Schneider and Blum, and also his high degree of self-criticism.

There was a remarkable concert of Hermann Meier’s works, given by the pianist Gilles Grimaître (including the world première of the Piano piece of 1947); Grimaître’s programme also featured works by Galina Ustvolskaya. This concert offered an exciting mixture of extremes, ranging from the exemplary, almost modest twelve-tone technique of Meier’s Piano piece of 1947 to the tension-filled Sonata No. 1 by Ustvolskaya, and from the bubbling and ticking of Meier’s Piano piece of 1987 to the merciless, quivering cluster chords of Ustvolskaya’s Sixth Sonata, which made the floorboards tremble.

The symposium “Das Auge komponiert” was highly successful and took an important step towards the goal of bringing Hermann Meier’s music to the attention of a broader public. It offered an interesting programme, with papers on topics that both reflected Hermann Meier’s exceptionalism as a composer and also offered excellent insights into the general music scene of his day and the trends that were current during his life as a composer. After just the two days of the symposium, I felt that I had got to know the composer Hermann Meier a little, and I am looking forward to hearing more of his remarkable music. It is now hoped that those in higher places will have open ears and will bring him into the orchestral repertoire, giving him a voice – along with so many other forgotten, undiscovered composers. This would make a significant, thought-provoking statement about both our time and theirs. By (re-)discovering valuable archives that our cultural heritage has bestowed on us, we have an opportunity to create a canon of works that is less one-sided and less superficial than it perhaps is at present.

The papers from the symposium will be published on the occasion of a Meier exhibition at the Solothurn Art Gallery in the autumn of 2017.

Azra Ramić Source: Schweizer Musikzeitung, 20 March 2017

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