Monday, March 6, 2017

Hans Thomalla: Traces of Meaning

The Center for 21st Century Music is pleased to host Hans Thomalla as guest composer this friday, March 10. During his visit, Thomalla will conduct a masterclass with PhD composition students and present a lecture on his recent works.

Thomalla is currently Associate Professor of Composition at Northwestern University, where he founded and currently directs the Institute for New Music, Northwestern’s counterpart to UB’s Center for 21st Century Music. The composer was previously Dramaturge and Musical Advisor of the Dramaturgie at the Stuttgart Opera before moving to the US for doctoral studies at Stanford University, where he studied with friend of the Center Brian Ferneyhough. His output ranges from chamber music to orchestral works to two recent operas, “Fremd” and “Kaspar Hauser.”

Thomalla’s compositions foreground how musical meaning is made. Approaching music as a language of sorts, his works explore how raw, ephemeral, multi-dimensional sound comes to carry quasi-linguistic meaning. His works often examine a particular historical musical vocable from a variety of angles by deconstructing materials from past Western musics.

Many of Thomalla’s works explore the dynamics of musical meaning within the context of a particular instrument’s history and culture. The beginning of his early piece wild.thing proceeds from a deconstruction of the drumset. Historically, percussion instruments in Western art music have always been the “odd ones out,” as they are unpitched while Western art music’s language revolves fundamentally around pitch. This dilemma has often been resolved by relegating the instruments to a marginal role such as time keeping, resulting in a tension between the instruments’ timbral richness and procrustean beds of musical order they are forced into. This might explain why meanings historically associated with percussion relate to this dialectic between freedom and order—from the martial associations of the snare drum, to the Utopian connotations of the climactic cymbal crash in 19th century orchestral music, to the (problematically colonialist) aura of liberated sexuality implicit in late 19th century exoticist percussion (particularly in “Spanish”-tinged works by Bizet, Rimsky-Korsakov, Chabrier, and others).

Wild.thing begins from a sound object that dramatizes this tension, namely a drum solo from the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s noted live performance of the song “Wild Thing” at the Monterey Pop Festival. The drum solo, something of a coda to the song (which accompanies Hendrix as he prepares to light his guitar on fire), liberates the drums from the constraints of time-keeping, if not from regular rhythm altogether, but, at the same time, it is built from the highly ramified snare drum rudiments of the military march. Thomalla’s wild.thing takes excerpts (starting at 6:11 in this video) from the solo as the basis for the percussion parts, deconstructing them through filtering processes reminiscent of his former teacher Brian Ferneyhough. The piece could be understood as a kind of parallel universe to the Hendrix/Mitchell original, exploring what might be possible if the coda’s gesture of sonic liberation were taken as the starting point for the construction of a musical language.

In reimagining their sources, Thomalla’s compositions perhaps aim less to transform found material for the sake of novelty than to open up the material's dimensionality. Wild.thing seems to imagine how its source material might take on possibilities denied in its original context—specifically, how the drum set might exist in a musical order less bent on repressing its noisiness and corporeality.  The composer’s interest in historical materials stems not at all from a conservative desire to “return to the past,” but instead from a desire to imagine the past as open, and to better understand its bearing on the present, thereby making possible alternative futures. From this standpoint, Thomalla’s compositions might be understood less as closed masterpieces and more as catalysts for a broader critical practice of listening, to be applied potentially to any relevant piece of music.

At the Center, we greatly anticipate discussing these issues with Thomalla later this week. His website is here, and his publisher’s website is here. Below is a video of a more recent composition, Albumblatt.

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