Enno Poppe conducts Dal Niente: not a review, but a re-view

by Michael Lewanski

Along with, I imagine, most everyone else in the US who lives and works in what we may loosely call “arts” or “culture” or “humanities” or “life,” I’ve been spending the days since Nov. 8 wondering just what the hell I’m doing.  Rather, maybe, why I’m doing it.  Perhaps, more accurately, if how I’m doing it makes any sense.  Or, actually, I guess, what I will be doing in the future.  More existentially, if I will be doing anything at all.  To be precise: not only am I ambivalent about what I’m doing, I don’t even quite know the question I’m asking about it.

Ensemble Dal Niente (of which I’m conductor and therefore about which I am, duh, 100% not objective) gave a concert on Dec. 4, 2016 with German composer Enno Poppe, who guest-conducted his own pieces, along with some music by other German-ish composers Rebecca Saunders and Michael Pelzel.  If you’re saying “who cares?” to yourself, I don’t blame you.  If you’re wondering why you’re reading this review, similarly, I sympathize with your self-doubt.   Poppe’s work doesn’t have the elegant and systematic critical theory of Spahlinger’s (say this piece, or this talk), the sarcastic social critique of Kreidler’s, or the unapologetic directness of Stäbler's.  What relevance, one reasonably asks, could finely-wrought central European art music have to a population that just managed to elect a hopelessly, uniquely, dedicatedly, relentlessly, joyfully and angrily unfit person to be president of the United States?  If you hope for me to give a clear answer to this question, I will not be doing so.  I will not claim that new music will filibuster whoever Trump’s climate-change-denying EPA administration nominees are, or alter the popular vote distribution in large Pennsylvania counties, or convince people who would undoubtedly benefit therefrom that wealth ought to be more equally distributed.  I most certainly will not be quoting that lobotomy-deserving Leonard Bernstein bit about our response to violence being to make music more blah blah blah whatever [eye-rolling emoji].  Nor, on the other hand, will I be telling you that you should stop being a musician and go organize; though if you want to do that I don’t blame you and won’t discourage you.  

During Enno’s time in Chicago, I watched him rehearse Dal Niente and do so extremely well, with the zeal one would expect of a person who writes carefully idiosyncratic music.  When we weren’t rehearsing we often talked about politics.  Like everyone, he just can’t understand how Trump got elected; and I tried, in my moderately patronizing, undoubtedly privileged, resolutely over-educated-white-guy kind of a way to mansplain US politics to him.  He humored me politely.  

Working on his music and planning this concert, Dal Niente has become enamoured of Paul Griffiths’ line about Enno’s art: “Poppe writes music that is at once natural and weird (as perhaps nature is).”  

When Enno wanted to program Michael Pelzel’s “...Sentiers tortueux…” [winding paths], this was a composer and a work we didn’t really know, but we went along.  It turns out that this piece is a huge pain in the ass, a different sort of winding than we expected.  It calls for a percussion set-up that one person described as “unethical.”  Upon being told that the original part needed two players, the composer took advantage of having the extra person and added more material.  “If we told him he could have four players,” Enno quipped, “he would write for eight.”  Of the two pianos, one is tuned down a sixth of a tone.  “He’s a maximalist,” said Enno.  I rehearsed the piece twice, listened to a recording, took in the dress rehearsal run-through.  Still, I sat in the concert, for the work’s entire 20-minute duration, not knowing what was going on moment to moment; the piece is so excessive that it reads as not quite graspable in real time.  You might think this is bad, but I don’t mean that at all.  Sometimes the insurmountable percussion set-up, expertly managed by Greg and Kyle, seems like an overgrown gamelan; other times, the three winds instruments—Andy, Katie, Connie—were half an orchestra; the strings—Janet, Ammie, Chris—were alternately hilarious, screeching, circumspect.  During the (what’s notated as a) 15-second pause before the last note (which Enno held for at least 30), I was uncertain whether the intense vibrations were coming from the pianos, the gongs, the room, my inner ear, or my imagination.  “The only way I would improve that performance,” said an audience member, “is to have them do it four more times right now.”  The winding of this piece’s path is more of the Westworld than the Disneyworld variety.  Like, it’s a bit scary.  The listener doesn’t control it, the composer isn’t in charge of it, the musicians can’t tame it.  It is twisted and confusing and completely riveting.

Enno Poppe is an absolutely outstanding conductor [1].

Remember Griffiths: “natural and weird (as perhaps nature is).”  Initially what struck me about Enno’s music was the “natural” part.  When Dal Niente worked on his Salz (“Salt”), I became enamored with how naturally, how organically it seems to develop.  (So much did its charms cloud my judgment that I unironically used the word, in spite of myself, a word that I resist in principle)  I got obsessed with ferns because he mentioned them.  Working with him, though, I now realize that what’s interesting is the weird part, not the natural part.  Of his piece Rad (disappointingly, “Wheel” in English) he says:

The piece is a kind of systematic summary of my years of working with micro-intervals. There are a total of a hundred different scales, some of which are used for only a few seconds. The constant retuning makes possible an almost inexhaustible supply of pitches. The types of scales include:

-Tempered scales with step sizes from 1.66 to 0.1 semitones, including scales such as that of 0.96 semitones that contain no octaves;
-Scales with equal frequency intervals that become ever narrower in higher registers (segments of harmonic spectra);
-Chord progressions;
-Combinations of different scales, so that each key is associated with a number of notes.

The harmony is decisively affected by a device that generates sum and difference tones from the pitches that are played. The number of sounding pitches thus grows as the square of the number of played, so that a ten-note chord, using all the fingers, produces a hundred notes.

excerpt from Holz, Enno Poppe

This is not a music that is weird for the sake of being weird. This is music that is weird for the sake of exhaustively exploring weirdness to find out how not weird and actually lovely it may be.  The weird is approached affectionately, conscientiously, deliberately, meticulously.  In the midst of the hustle and bustle of his clarinet concerto Holz [Wood] (the solo part of which Katie played with unbelievable poise and musicianship), a microtonal chorale emerges.  On beat 7 of m. 93 (3:29 in the recording), all instruments stop to make way for a single, bizarre harmony in the keyboard (see picture).

This most irregular chord is given its own moment on a most irregular beat, as if the piece stops to say, ‘no really let’s all carefully consider this wonderful, peculiar thing.’

The title of the newest work on the program, Stoff, means “Material” or “Fabric” but of course we actually want it to be just “Stuff” because 1) that would be awesome and 2) that’s what the piece feels like.  It starts as repetitions of an E-flat, which you expect will slowly develop.  Your expectation is correct, except for the “slowly” part, and the “develop” part.  There’s nothing linear here; this is not music that follows a pre-ordained natural pattern, or believes in some foregone Hegelian or Marxian outcome of history.  Says Enno’s note: “ideas are not outside of music but inside it and therefore follow the same processes like growth, getting stuck, or disappearance just like all parts in music.”  When you think something is going somewhere, it goes away.  Or alternatively, some apparently inconsequential detail takes over half the ensemble for an extended stretch.  The huge build-up at the end doesn’t lead to an apotheosis. It’s not a slow reveal of something inevitable.  It’s entirely evitable.  It’s a manic transcription of an unbalanced world that is not what we thought it was.  

In the end, what was rewarding for me about watching Enno work may not have been what he enjoyed.  He told the audience before the concert that “climbing the mountain” with the ensemble, then producing a performance that was a result of this work, was fun.  Fun is an important concept for him; and it involves mountain-climbing, working hard together.  At the concert I spent so much time in a state of bemused bewilderment that I’m not sure “fun” is the word for my experience.  It’s more that Poppe’s music—and the other music he brought us, and the way he prepared it, and the way he thinks it, and the way he presents it—is art that looks at the weird, then looks at it again, then looks at it yet once more with increased insistence.  It penetratingly, doggedly, committedly, lovingly examines some strange thing; then it follows the strange thing but does so not exactly to its logical conclusion, because logic is probably not strange.  But follow it does, and as you follow with it/him you realize that it’s not strange at all.  There we all were Sunday afternoon in this room listening to this stuff together that we once thought was strange but now realize is just stuff.  What if we did this more often and in more contexts?

Look, I’ll continue to call my representatives and give a steady stream of small donations to the ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, DCCC, OurRevolution.com, etc., and so will you.  Maybe while we’re doing that, let’s not forget to stare for a while at something weird on some unexpected corner of the internet or your office building or your neighborhood park, and see if we can’t get someone in the red state branches of our family to do the same.

Like I said, I simply do not have an answer for you to a question about, say, the relevance of contemporary performing arts in a “post-truth” late-night-tweet fake news Trump era of fictitious again-great-making, unapologetic patriarchy, and oppressive hetero-normativity.  But: I want to tell you that you’re ok, and actually the weirder the better.

[1] OK OK OK, SORRYNOTSORRY, just gotta fan-gurl for a moment.  Enno makes me jealous of him and embarrassed for myself.  When I fantasize about my own conducting, my three fictional characters are Carlos Kleiber, Chance the Rapper, and Robyn (bonus fourth character: Semyon Bychkov and the Berlin Philharmonic); I desperately, whole-hearted, painfully want to imagine that I’m lithe and elegant and musical and eloquent.  Enno’s conducting is a lesson for me in my remarkable ordinariness.  He is tall and striking; and once you’ve stopped fixating on his incredible red hair, you notice just how highly particular and incredibly expressive his movements are.  When he conducts a fast 4/4 pattern, beats two and three look like steampunk robots or something out of Futurama.  It’s as if, said one of the Dal Niente players, he has five elbows.  He is mechanistic and graceful somehow at the same time.  His conducting embodies—actually em-bodies—his own music in a way that is uncannily compelling.  It’s magic; you’re watching him think and act out and spontaneously generate his music as it passes in front of you.  No wonder there is a video of him performing the conductor solo from Alexander Schubert’s “Point Ones.”  He’s a person who deserves to perform a conductor solo, an otherwise obviously dumb idea.  [N.B., if I may suggest: do yourself a favor—watch those video clips; you’ve had a rough month; you deserve something fun.] #sorrynotsorry