Dimensional Dialectics

Composers of various generations talk about their personal encounters with Friedrich Cerha’s monumental Spiegel cycle.

Conceived as a kind of “world-theatre about humankind”, the seven parts of the Spiegel cycle are concerned in purely musical terms with one of the composer’s life-long interests: the relationship between the individual and society. To mark the 2011 CD release of Spiegel, recorded by the SWR Symphony Orchester under Sylvain Cambreling, composers of various generations contributed their personal encounters with Friedrich Cerha’s cycle. These quotations are published with the kind permission of Kairos.

Pierre Boulez (Paris, 21/12/2009)
I have always regarded Friedrich Cerha as one of the most important personalities of his generation. I have followed his composing with great interest whenever I had the opportunity to listen to a work or read it during its creation. I am delighted that an album has now appeared which makes it possible to get an impression of his music’s remarkable development. I hope that this will serve to create an awareness of his true significance.

György Kurtág (Salzburg, 26/01/2010)
Friedrich Cerha’s Spiegel deeply impressed me. The impulsive drama, the constant – sometimes quite low-velocity – emotional movements had me captivated to such an extent that I almost didn’t notice that I had already listened to 80 minutes of music. I completely forgot to listen for how it had come to be, how it was made; I constantly had visions, sometimes large Rothko-like surfaces, sometimes Munch paintings, and then Turner or simply landscapes long familiar to me that blended into one another, at times eerily lit and then friendlier once more. I am thankful that I was able to experience this; Sylvain Cambreling’s recording is magnificent – and I hope to have the opportunity of hearing Spiegel in concert someday, as well.

Helmut Lachenmann (Stuttgart, 02/02/2010)
I have finally heard Cerha’s Spiegel cycle – twice! These are indeed impressive soundscapes, composed with a feel for sound that is simultaneously assured and prophetic.

Hans Zender (Freiburg, 19/02/2010)
When today, looking back over 50 years, one encounters the Spiegel pieces by the young Cerha, one is uncertain just what one should admire more: the mastery in the handling of means that were new at the time, the appearance of a clearly recognizable individuality within a texture more prone to negating the individual, or the determination of the composer, later on, to depart from the – narrow – basis of the recognizable compositional brand that he had hit upon, and to do so just as soon as possible. To leave it for a stylistic opening to the full breadth and freedom of the many facets of the modern era, to a universal stance – which also quite naturally included dealing with historical styles – of a great musician whose individuality could not be expressed in terms of the then-current formulas of the compositional field. In the very diversity of his stylistic palette, Cerha’s oeuvre embodies in a unique way the spirit of a–not doctrinaire, but rather lively – modernism that selects and uses available means freely and in often-new ways.

Brian Ferneyhough (Stanford, 02/03/2010)
Camera lucida – camera obscura
I always used to think that a standard-setting piece of orchestral music really had to be able to close more doors than it was capable of opening; this notion leads me to think of pieces such as Gruppen and Atmosphères. What I found particularly interesting about Cerha’s Spiegel cycle, on the other hand, was to just what extent these stylistically quite disciplined structures communicate an entirely different impression. As I first listened, I was immediately captivated by the meticulous detail of the figuration, captivated by it in accordance with the extent to which the cluster-like quality of the overall structure did not blot out, but rather sharpened and deepened this necessarily up-close impression. Even just in connection with the title of the cycle, I thought of comparing it to the so-called “Claude Glass”, that mirror-like accessory made of black obsidian that was used by 19th-century painters. By virtue of the fact that all of the colour is forced out of that which is reflected in the glass, one gets the impression of a raised perspective: the extreme limitation in the one respect leads inevitably to an almost “surrealist” excess of sharpness in both the objects as well as the conditions of the sonic space which they project. This is how I view the dimensional dialectics borne within these compositions.

Georg Friedrich Haas (Basel, 24/02/2010)
Friedrich Cerha’s virtuosically composed orchestral work Spiegel is a milestone of music history. Within the space of one-and-a-half hours, there unfolds a drama of changing sonic densities, dynamic levels and contrasting structures. The work’s rational calculation leads to an emotionally compelling effect. In 1972 – as a young man who was just beginning to study music – I was able to experience the first-ever performance of the complete cycle. This performance numbers among those impressions which decisively influenced my musical thinking.

Beat Furrer (Vienna, 03/03/2010)
During my university studies, I hardly missed a single opportunity to be at Cerha’s rehearsals and performances of Baal, Netzwerk, Monumentum and the Spiegel pieces. His concerts with die reihe opened numerous doors for me: to the music of the Second Viennese School, of Varèse and others. Along with Haubenstock-Ramati, Cerha played a crucial role in that process of opening in Viennese musical life which eventually led to the establishment of the Wien Modern festival in the late 1980s. His orchestral and music theatre works bear witness to consummate mastery. Particularly the Spiegel series, written during the 1960s, is pioneering and radical in terms of its development of form from the sound itself; to this day, the cycle retains every bit of its original strength and freshness.

Bernhard Lang (Vienna, 21/12/2009)
I first heard Spiegel as a music student back in the ’80s when it was performed at the musikprotokoll festival in Graz, and I was deeply impressed. I still remember a great, very slowly swelling orchestral sound, which was mirrored, however, at its energetic centre – thereafter passing into an equally slow decrescendo. Sound as a surface, as an instrumental simulacrum of electronic sounds, as a staging of structure: that is what was so fascinating about these pieces. The multidimensionality of the mirror’s programmatic nature referred to Webern – but also, as in Foucault’s discussion of ladies-inwaiting, to a step towards the postmodern, to a way of viewing the subject as something mirrored multiple times and ultimately ungraspable.

Michael Jarrell (Geneva, 24/02/2010)
For me, Cerha’s Spiegel cycle is one of the most impressive orchestral cycles of the second half of the 20th century. In its richness of perspective, I detect a strong inner relationship with Grisey’s Les espaces acoustiques. It is a cycle of great strength and eruptiveness which artistic significance is comparable to that of Apparitions and Atmosphères.

Mark André (Berlin, 30/01/2010)
The Spiegel cycle by Friedrich Cerha is a thoroughly fascinating work. From the very beginning, one senses a wholly unique sort of breath-like pulsations. This “breathing” allows the work’s structure as such to unfold in all its complexity. The consistency of its composition gives rise to massive tension, which strength acts on one’s perception with great immediacy. It is about contemplating and admiring a multilayered message.

Marcelo Toledo (Wien, 05/03/2010)
Sometimes the work of an artist is manifested through a process that arrives to its final product from outside of the intrinsic mechanisms of that particular art form. Then a complete new world is presented to us. In the Spiegel series Cerha gives the impression of building his monumental orchestral pieces not from the language of music but rather from the tradition of drawing, sculpture, architecture, geology or any field in which the visual imagination is extended to its limits. The Spiegel are fundamentally sound shapes, textures, colors and densities transformed in time. It is music projected into space similar to the way visual artists and architects, sketch volumes, textures, forms and proportions into a plane. The Spiegel are, in their own way, the ultimate expression of what Varèse called organized sounds. The fact that after those two years of the seven Spiegel Cerha moved on into new music worlds keeping his prolific catalog could suggest the existence of these pieces as one more aspect of his work. We could be sure that these seven pieces stand up in themselves together with Charles Ives' unfinished Universe Symphony, Varèse' Arcana, Stravinky's Le sacre du printemps and few other orchestral pieces from the second part of the XX century as part of the tradition of utopian works of modern music.

Rebecca Saunders (Berlin, 26/01/2010)
I am fascinated by Cerha’s flexibility of line, by the body and weight of the orchestral sound. Cerha’s Spiegel leads one into a visionary sonic landscape which is of great sensuality. The architectural lines of the whole cycle possess an extraordinary clarity. Both strange and arresting.

José M. Sánchez-Verdú (Berlin, 24/02/2010)
A distant star: Friedrich Cerha
As a student in Spain, the name of Cerha was like a far-off star to me: brilliant, and at the same time infinitely distant… I had experienced Cerha as a conductor by listening to numerous recordings by his ensemble die reihe; I will always associate the Chamber Concerto by Ligeti with his name. And at the same time, this name was also inseparably connected to Alban Berg and Lulu. Cerha was a reflection of Vienna and its culture – in many senses. die reihe was, for me, a reference to something great that this composer and conductor from Vienna had led forward, always in a lively way. Later on, he came closer to me: this allowed me to get to know several compositions by him, and I finally also learned more about his personality, including how he taught composition to some of my colleagues, one of whom was a Spanish composer. But then, Cerha’s name was still like that of a neighbour in my own world, a name from the culture of Austria and of Europe. Brilliance, awareness, dedication, interpretation and creativity were all summarized by this name of “Cerha”. The star and its radiance had come quite near. The musical universe needs stars like this.

Bernhard Gander (Vienna, 15/12/2009)
…I had the pleasure of hearing the Spiegel cycle only this year–around 50 years after its composition – in a complete performance. It had a frightfully refreshing effect on me. In terms of sound and emotion, this work is compelling in a way that other pieces written around that time and made from similar materials simply do not manage to be. To my mind, this is one of the outstanding qualities of Cerha’s music – he does not simply leave sound material to be sound, but much rather forms it, always making it his own.

Klaus Lang (Vienna, 04/02/2010)
I heard Spiegel for the first time in class, back when I was a student, and I was fully impressed by the idea of blocks of sound that were conceived quite sculpturally, like objects. Ligeti, for example, lends Atmosphères or Lontano a poetic connotation. With Cerha, on the other hand, I enjoy pure music – the immersion in a pure experience of sound where it is not about it's leading anywhere, to any particular message. Cerha consistently does without the illustration of moods.

Elena Mendoza (Berlin, 22/12/2009)
I became acquainted with Cerha’s Spiegel thanks to KAIROS, and I was immediately taken with the work. I ask myself why I had not run into this milestone of the 1960s avant-garde much, much sooner, for it could have far more clearly suggested to me a route to my own musical language than the compositionally similar orchestral works by Ligeti and Penderecki (Atmosphères, Threnos, etc.). In Cerha, the newly invented material is not the theme per se, but rather a means to an end in order to shape a musical story that is quite exciting in a dramatic sense. Cerha plays imaginatively with the material, leading it to unexpected destinations, seeking out expressive twists, and he is every bit as much a master of organic transitions as he is of sharp contrasts. He takes what he needs from 1960s compositional methods in order to shape sounds for his musical discourse: this is highly differentiated on the inside, and dramaturgically overwhelming from an overall formal perspective. An appeal to the symphony orchestras out there: please give frequent performances of this lively orchestral cycle, every exciting minute of it! It represents a real opportunity for a large number of inexperienced listeners to understand the language of the avant-garde and make it their own.

Johannes Maria Staud (Vienna, 31/12/2009)
Cerha’s Spiegel cycle, this gigantic quarry of ideas and textures, this gold mine of unfettered sonority and audacious twists, this kaleidoscope of shimmering hues and orgiastic masses of sound, is a work which is compelling and refuses to let you go once you have wandered into its claws. As with a spider web, Cerha envelops the listener in his seductive and suggestive sounds, abducting him into a cosmos of generous architectonic dimensions which is governed by its own laws. Without a doubt, this work represents a milestone of 20th-century music. What continues to baffle me today is how fresh and unworn, how visionary and exciting this music sounds even fifty years after it was created. The uncompromising and economical way in which it was composed and the innovativeness of its notation and orchestration go hand-in-hand with an unbelievable bounty of sweet and iridescent, coalescent and eruptive, bizarre and unforgettable moments.

Hèctor Parra (Barcelona, 14/01/2010)
Giving a deep listen to the cycle Spiegel by Friedrich Cerha takes us to the limits of our perception and cognition of all things sound. Masses of frequencies very often contain modal spectra in constant evolution towards chaos. Or, contrastingly, towards harmonicity and powerful abstraction, an overwhelming power which unifies space and time as if mirroring the physical reality of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. A curved world expands from the very first acoustic stimuli: immense, moving, majestic, full of mystery. Cerha's Spiegel pieces allow through their deep and immense nature, as well as their sounding space-time, the emergence and interaction of connected emotions in the deepest architectural sense of our creativity.

    20006 cerha cover 1