Monday and the Los Angeles-based concert series that bares its name, Monday Evening Concerts, brought Austrian composer Klaus Lang to town this week for an evening of the most thoughtful music. Lang figured prominently not only as the composer of the major work on the bill, einfalt. stille., but also as organist for the three short works that preceded it. Lang has written extensively on music history and theory in addition to his work as a composer and he’s got a lot on his mind as suggested by the lengthy abstract program notes he provided. But these were not your average program notes in other ways. Some contemporary art music carries an unfair stigma of being overly intellectualized – more about the concept or theory behind its creation than the end product itself. Worse than this is the reactionary tendency of some living composers to strive for unvarnished and sentimental emotion in their music. But Lang, though certainly thoughtful, lies somewhere else with an approach I’d describe more as philosophical than simply theoretical. He argues for a Zen-inspired concept of pure music free from a tether of meaning. A music that “is not a form of language, it stands on its own as a thing without a purpose, justification and meaning outside of itself. Music neither depicts the structure of the cosmos, nor is it the language of feelings.” He sees his music neither as evidence of mastery of structural tricks or a way to connect with an audience. His hour-long work for voice, viola, flute and percussion, einfalt. stille., instead is firmly rooted in this ideology and is offered as a a text or object to focus concentration towards “a state of the highest inner clarity or inner silence.”
This sort of meditative take on music is not a new one as Lang himself acknowledges. It has roots in early music as much as in the 20th Century and may explain his choice to start the evening with a series of three short early 17th-century Italian organ toccatas. He played works by Girolamo Frescobaldi and Ercole Pasquini on a meantone temperament organ isolated on the Zipper Hall stage. The music theory behind meantone temperament is bit rich for my blood here, but lets just say its not the way instruments have been tuned since Bach’s time and it invites all of these works to have a certain dissonant and dark undertone. They evoked a kind of meditative state, as did Lang’s piece, which followed, and whose title translates as “simplicity. quiet.”
The ghosts of John Cage and Morton Feldman could be heard in Lang’s work, not only for its particular vein of philosophical grounding, but also in the deliberate but slow moving texture of it. The four players were stationed in the upper level of Zipper Hall around and mostly out of sight of the audience for the whole performance enhancing the bodyless sense of sound. The short constrained range of tones was repeated often at similar short intervals over and over often with only slight variations from one part to the next. There was a clarity and separation that gave each tone its own space with minimal overlap. The wordless vocal part consisted of a few frequently repeated sounds performed by soprano Natalia Pschenitschnikova. It was one of those abstract sensory experiences that as Lang suggests, doesn’t “transport” you anywhere other than perhaps inward. And while I didn’t find the conceptualization entirely original, that’s really part of the point. I admired Lang’s comprehensive and thought-out approach to the work that builds on a specific musical history showing how much, and how little things have changed in four hundred years. It was definitely the kind of music that doesn’t tell you how to feel and leaves things open to a more individual experience. That in itself is a major achievement and another reason to keep your Monday evenings open.