Bernhard Lang: Die Sterne des Hungers | Hugues Dufourt: L'Afrique d'après Tiepolo

Sabine Lutzenberger, Klangforum Wien/Cambreling (0013092KAI) | Ensemble Recherche (0013142KAI)

23 May 20112.5 stars3.5 stars

LangThe Vienna-based Kairos label has dedicated two previous releases to the music of the Austrian composer Bernhard Lang. Now comes a third one, featuring two works composed by Lang in the past four years.

Lang's music is concerned with repetition: the cellular repetition of short motifs, sectional repetitions within a work's form, the repetition or recomposition of works by other composers (here Machaut and Schoenberg), and repetition in the sense of series of works with a shared title (thirty works have been written in Lang's Differenz/Wiederholung series). Bound with this are ideas of modern life as being based on habit, and of experience as being regulated by modes of industrial reproduction.

This is music dressed in heavy philosophical clothing. Differenz/Wiederholung is named after a work by the French philosopher Giles Deleuze on the ontology of difference. Monadologie VII, featured on this disc, takes its name from one of the key concepts of the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

Intellectual baggage aside, though, Lang's music can be viscerally thrilling. When I first heard Differenz/Wiederholung 2 a few years ago on its Kairos release, I found its mix of William S. Burroughs, free improv, rap, Arabian music, and avant-garde classicism to be a bright and brilliant brew.

Die Sterne des Hungers is a work for soloist and ensemble based on a dismantled text by the Austrian poet Christine Lavant. Also referenced is Guillaume de Machaut's rondo Ma fin est mon commencement, quoted at various points as filtered through Lang's febrile acoustic. Die Sterne des Hungers reflects Lang's concern with the ways in which modern audio technology affects how we listen to music – every period of music history being available to us at the touch of a button.

One of the most noticeable differences between this release and Lang's Differenz/Wiederholung 2 is the harmonic language, which in parts of Die Sterne des Hungers is based on the harmonic process of frequency modulation. The Klangforum Wien churns out the desired chords deliciously; it must be said, though, that the passages in question bear more than a passing resemblance to the music of Claude Viver.

Unfortunately the music is not up to the standard of Vivier. In fact it is often boring, never really lighting up. Granted both works are slow and glimmering rather than hectic and radiant, but Lang's deliberate neglect of overall architecture here makes for a desultory discourse.

Another recent Kairos release focuses on two recent works by the French composer Hugues Dufourt. It is the first Kairos release to focus on a composer who is probably best known for coining the term spectral music in describing the common currency between his work and that of his contemporaries, including Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail.

DufourtWhereas Grisey and Murail's music sees spectral analyses of sound reproduced by ensemble and orchestra, Dufourt's music focuses on the timbral instability characteristic of our current acoustic era (as witnessed, for example, in the twentieth century orchestra's proliferation of percussion instruments). Dufourt homes in on 'miniscule shifts, rough spots, textures.... the plasticity of sound, its ephemerality,' something he sees as distinguishing his music from that of Murail and Grisey, whom he views as being too much in line with the orthodox French tradition of Rameau, Berlioz, and Ravel.

Both works collected here are from the past six years. L'Afrique d'après Tiepolo and L'Asie d'après Tiepolo are of a piece, being based on two sections of a monumental fresco painted on the ceiling of the Residenz palace in Würzberg in the 1750s by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Before composing the pieces, Dufourt jotted down his impressions of the painting, later transferring his ideas into the two ensemble scores.

Both pieces feature colourful and percussion-heavy ensemble writing. Recognisable throughout is the characteristic spectral blurring of the distinction between harmony and timbre, most notable in the works' sequences of strangely vibrating chords.

Dufourt's music is often content simply to follow one slow chord sequence for twenty minutes with little change in dynamic. One result of this, as Martin Kaltenecker mentions in his sleevenotes, is that at times his music can echo in a luminous way that of Morton Feldman. Another result is that upon one's first encounter with it Dufourt's music can be quite boring, since very little seems to happen.

But once the ear has become attuned, the slow unravelling of acoustic tapestry in L'Afrique d'après Tiepolo, for example, is exquisite and compulsive. Like Grisey's works, this music demands of the listener a disengagement from the clock-watching time of the quotidian, to sink into a slower and more malleable sense of time. The yield is music wherein the reappearance of events after the lapse of a long duration, such as the opening piano chord of L'Afrique d'après Tiepolo, tampers with one's sense of chronology.

By Liam Cagney