GEORGES LENTZ - composer / sound artist
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 What the Heavens Tell

- recent orchestral music by Georges Lentz
Richard Toop:

"Heard melodies are sweet, yet those unheard are sweeter": long before Keats' ode, musicians and theologians alike had speculated on the possibility of a music inaudible to us, and heard - if at all - only by planets and angels. Such ideas underlie the Pythagorean idea of the 'music of the spheres' and above all the musica mundana that the theoretician Boethius extrapolated from Ptolemy at the turn of the 6th century. But there have been more recent incarnations too, arising not least from the Romantic notion of 'absolute music'. Thomas Mann, in his novel Doktor Faustus, wrote: "Perhaps … it was music's deepest wish not to be heard at all, not even seen , nor yet felt; but only - if that were possible - in some Beyond, the other side of sense and sentiment, to be perceived and contemplated as pure mind, pure spirit."

A recent and particularly fascinating addition to the history of such ideas is provided by the recent music of Georges Lentz, born in 1965 in Luxembourg, but resident in Australia since 1990. Shortly before arriving in Australia, he had begun work on a cycle of pieces entitled "Caeli enarrant…", which preoccupies him to this day. The title comes from Psalm XIX - "The heavens declare the glory of God" (or in Handelian terms, "The heavens are telling…") and it reflects both Lentz' fascination with the awesome beauty of the universe revealed by modern astronomy, and his spiritual/religious beliefs. Early pieces in the cycle include works for orchestra, for strings, percussion and boy soprano, for string quartet and four suspended cymbals, and for prepared piano, while others for two choirs and for computer sounds are still works-in-progress.

Then, in 1994, Georges Lentz evolved the idea of a seventh part of the cycle, entitled 'Mysterium' (shades of Scriabin!) which would be a private, largely conceptual work: a labyrinth of abstract tones and durations intended as a kind of personal 'spiritual exercise' - a utopian dream of music, rather than music to be played and heard. In the composer's own words: "The initial stimulus to launch myself into this idealistic project came to me after reading about Pythagoras' poetic notion of the Music of the Spheres, music which, according to the great Greek thinker, is produced by the friction of the heavenly spheres and is audible to God, but inaudible to human ears. I wanted to write music which does not evolve or unfold, but simply is." Yet at another level, without wishing to be unduly intrusive, one can't help surmising a certain spiritual and artistic crisis, resolvable in the first instance only through a retreat into extreme austerity. For the first couple of years, Lentz relates, he wrote only single-line melodies in crotchets!

Yet whatever the circumstances, it is ultimately difficult for composers to devote themselves to the conception of music that is not meant to be heard. Following some opportune prodding from his publisher, in 1997 Lentz began to start realising parts of 'Mysterium', and as a result, his view of the whole project has, in part, changed: the original abstract score, which has now grown to about 60 pages, is no longer just an object of contemplation, but also a testing ground for new ideas. His first realisation, Birrung for 11 strings (1997), had an austerity in keeping with its source. Yet in subsequent ones, such as the two orchestral works - Ngangkar (1998-2000) and Guyuhmgan (2000-01) - one is struck by the rich colours which are extracted from relatively limited means, revealing exceptional knowledge of orchestral sonority. Though both works are, for the most part, very quiet, this doesn't make them remote. There is a luminosity in the sound of Lentz' orchestra, reminiscent at times of Messiaen and Takemitsu, that draws in the listener, and once drawn in, one becomes aware of just how much variety, even drama, can occur at the limits of the audible.

Lentz regards Ngangkar and Guyuhmgan as companion pieces, and indeed they have much in common beyond their roots in the 'Mysterium' material. The titles are both Aboriginal words meaning 'stars', and the choice of these titles reflects another influence on his work, namely the paintings of Kathleen Petyarre and, above all, Emily Kame Kngwarreye. Anecdotally, both works were partly composed "in the peace of my favourite composing place, the beautiful 18th-century presbytery in the tiny village of Ouren on the Luxembourg-Belgian border." Musically too, there are shared elements - long, richly harmonised chorales whose melodic contours may reflect the composer's fondness for Gregorian chant and whose regular rhythms are sometimes disturbed by much shorter or longer note lengths; mysteriously twitching 'aleatory' textures in which rhythms are only approximately specified; the 'destabilising' use of quarter-tones; sinuously twisting melodies sometimes inspired by Asian music, and not least, moments of sustained silence, which Lentz regards as "a precondition to any form of contemplation".

Most of these features are immediately apparent in Ngangkar. An opening melody, shared between clarinet and alto flute, leads to a soft patter of string textures around a sustained central note (G sharp). The flute re-enters with a sort of miniature 'bell orchestra' of high pitched percussion instruments, and then comes the first of the chorales, initially in the strings, then involving the winds. The flute returns again, and then so too does the chorale-like music, but now with trills that give it an almost dance-like quality. Till now, the emphasis has been on the middle and upper registers of the orchestra, but about half way through the piece this changes, with appearance of tuned Thai gongs, and a chorale entrusted to violas, cellos and basses. Familiar elements - flute, high percussion, the sustained G sharp - recur, then suddenly there is an extended silence, and the low gongs resume. At the very end comes an eerie, repeated string chord which may well remind filmgoers, not entirely inappropriately, of the first 'alien transmission' in Contact.

For Lentz, one primary difference between the two works on this disc is that Ngangkar is very much a view of the night sky from Earth, from the ground level, whereas Guyuhmgan engages more with extraordinary celestial images picked up by, say, the Hubble telescope - in effect, space viewed from space. As such, the gestures are often bigger, and the textures more complex, and more likely to be directed towards temporary climaxes. The use of instruments, too, is sometimes more radical, as witness the multiphonics that end the various Tibetan-inspired oboe/cor anglais duos in the first part of the work. Listeners may be particularly struck by several passages including computer sounds (created in collaboration with Gordon Monro). At one level these could be seen simply as an extension of the pitched gongs used in Ngangkar, and still present here. But at least equally important for Lentz is that they enable him to present the same materials found in the orchestral parts at 'inhuman' speeds, and this becomes, for him, a way "to highlight the inadequacy of human perception and comprehension in the face of the complexity of reality".

While many of the elements in Guyuhmgan may be familiar from the earlier work, the way they are put together here is rather different. In Ngangkar, one element at a time tended to predominate, but here the music is usually multi-layered, and ever more so as the piece proceeds. Picking up from the composer's own analogy, one might say that on earth one can only look upwards to contemplate the heavens, whereas in 'deep space' (as in Swedenborg's heaven) every direction is potentially awe-inspiring. Guyuhmgan begins with dense but barely audible and pointillistic string textures, held in place once more by a sustained G sharp occasionally tending towards B flat (though in this piece there will be other 'focal pitches' too). As the orchestra settles on the G sharp, the electronic music enters for the first time, and from it emerges the first oboe/cor anglais duo, initially on its own, then underpinned by other instruments, and eventually by electronic music. A sequence of string-dominated tuttis leads to a first chorale, and then to a particularly dense and hyperactive electronic passage. Subsequently, the computer has its own 'solo', which also incorporates a long 'silence for contemplation', analogous to the one in Ngangkar. Thereafter chorales are omnipresent, though only as one layer among many, and eventually the human and mechanical music fade away together.

This is an era in which, compared to earlier decades, more or less grandiose musical assertions of belief and spirituality abound. Lentz' music expresses something rather different: belief and awe, yes, but also something of the discomfort and provisional doubt that a Gallic composer might naturally inherit from Pascal and Descartes. Gordon Kerry cites the following eloquent statement of the composer's current position: "The words that perhaps best sum up my spiritual attitude these days would be 'and yet'. I can't help doubting many of the dogmas that were inculcated into me as a child, and yet I still have an unshakable belief in a higher (metaphysical) reality. This reality may or may not turn out to be a utopia. My way of questioning these ideal worlds in my music is not by shattering them through ff-outbursts (in my opinion a cliché), but through the use of silence - the most glorious sound, in one way, but also the most terrible, terrifying one. We all know that eternal silence is our common 'final destination'. Hence my music is, to my mind, also and above all about the problem of bearing this silence, about the problem of loneliness."

© Richard Toop 2002


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