texte & bilder
Mathias Steinauer. Hypotheses - Antitheses.
If we compare the earlier pieces with the latest works, the muscial language of Mathias Steinauer has remained amazingly constant. What runs through his composing like a coloured thread is a confrontation with history, with the history of music: he simply quotes a prelude by Bach (Omaggio), arranges baroque sarabands (Rallentamento) or an aria from Bach's St. Matthew Passion (Risse), he seeks other paths, the origin of the stilted saraband of the high baroque drawn from the disreputable dance of the Aztecs (Rallentamento), or he pretends to be the arranger of an anonymous 0232 (Speculum Sibyllinum). The grave and death are recurring references (Visions, Duat, Blütenlese, Rallentamento, Risse).
In the instrumental works, even his composing is fragmentary; particular states are aimed at which alternate abruptly or connect only by narrow bridges (Visions, Duat, Rumori, Nacht). It is often a matter of instrumental tonal effects. However, their sense is not clearly definable since there is a compositional process behind them which is not primarily tied to the notional model, but which obeys individual musical laws.
The works do not exhaust themselves by attempting to meet a preordained concept or given structure. They remain elementary: the making of music as producing sounds, the listening to music as letting it sound as itself.
This music does not rely on the support of a recognisable form. It does not intend to convince but to open up for discussion. It declines to expose its conditions and claims. The works remain open to their realization. The details within many passages of the note are deliberately left to the interpreters: time is not entirely organised, the shaping of the sound must rely on the moment.
This music is never painful. The limit of beautiful sound is never transcended and, furthermore, one never remains for too long in one state of listening. And yet everything that can be said about the composer Mathias Steinauer and his composing is not quite true again:
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"As a composer I plan and calculate. Nevertheless, and this is no contradiction, I finally rely on my feeling, premonitions, imagination".
Yet he looks for extremes, tension or release. Middle roads are avoided (Blütenlese). In the formulation of the music, in the creation of sound fields, of tonal states, of narrow procedures, it looks as if the phantasy of the composer does not want or need to leave anything to hazard. Nevertheless, the music is tolerant, is concerned, listens to itself; but it thinks further, develops its own proposals.
Steinauer is less a composer of frameworks (Rallentamento: Ritual resp. Überfahrt), of drawings, but more often of a fitting out, of a picturesque colourization, of instrumentation (Rallentamento: Quasi Stillstand). In the vocal works the tonal pictures serve the progressive development of a message, the representing, reflecting and ironically breaking encounter of text particles and tonal moments (Blütenlese, Speculum). What runs through his composing like a gleaming string is a confrontation with texts, literature, genesis (Blütenlese, Rallentamento, Duat) and histories of creation (Omaggio, Risse): he seeks for instance another path, the sense in the etymology of words, not in the words themselves (Blütenlese). If we compare the earlier pieces with the latest works, the musical language of Mathias Steinauer is amazingly flexible and diverse.
Dominik Sackmann

Incommensurable daring
‘Laughing and smiling come over me’. This little text by Robert Walser, seemingly
tossed off so lightly by the poet, is at fi rst accompanied in this song by hollow, heavy beats in the piano. This is no normal accompaniment, but rather an act of rebellion, almost an attempt at destruction. The voice fi rst insists, giggling, on the vowel ‘i’, until it hardens. ‘Lachen’ (laughing/to laugh) is to be spoken harshly, ‘Lächeln’ (smiling/ to smile) rather mischievously. But ‘what of this?’, she fi nally asks in cantabile fashion, only to answer quasi-objectively: ‘That’s just how these things are’. What things? – one would like to ask. Don’t the pieces on this CD deal with precisely such things? Walser’s words and Steinauer’s setting of them remind one of a remark of Theodor W. Adorno’s: you can’t keep back a smile if a note is still sounding – which immediately triggers off further associations with the music of Mathias Steinauer. The question is not really how this smiling has come about, whether it is a friendly or a scornful smile, sympathetic or bitter, but rather, what kind of note it is that is still allowed to sound. Is there a note at all? Perhaps the sentence means that every note that within the avant-garde spectrum of sounds (which were moulded above all by the 1960s) is at the same time a Madonna-like figure within the midst of fallen sonic creatures, rather like a melody of Mozart’s in an orgy of scratching and scraping (as in Helmut Lachenmann’s piece Accanto, which is akin to a clarinet concerto). There is here certainly a tension that is part and parcel of Mathias Steinauer’s music. Here, too, notes, sounds and noises ‘appear’ time and again, from out of the fl ow of happenings, as if they would like to say something in particular. In these pieces, there are repeated, ambiguous relationships and contrasts: note and noise, distinct and indistinct, tonal and atonal, clear and vague. In patterns such as these, this music could be listened to in sections.
The question, for example, could be how something can be made to shine in a context in which coloured patterns or individual threads (Klangfäden.Einzeln) could develop out of a group of tangled, coloured threads of sounds; these would then shine in many colours (without one having to fix this irrevocably in a synaesthetic manner). What is surprising in this piece is the climax towards the end in a senza filo – ‘wireless’ – which abruptly fixes upon G major and closes there. Tonality here serves to cut the music – almost to cut it off – which would otherwise continue unrolling endlessly. And this moment shows how Mathias Steinauer hunts after the old powers inherent in music, but in a latter-day context.
As an aside: It seems in general that the discussion does not interest him
whether or not one may still use tonal material. This material is a natural part of music – sometimes written bitonally, in the ‘Argento’ passage in Klangfäden.Einzeln, or turned off and ending in dissonance in the second movement of La dimensione dello strappo; or fi nally, alienated in …WOAMM…
Even this alienation is ambiguous. This perhaps affords only more clarity to appearances. In …WOAMM… – the onomatopoeic title bears Mozart’s initials within it – this occurs with the ‘Turkish march’. In Steinschlag (‘Rockfall’), brief homages to other composers (Stravinsky, Messiaen, Kurtág) are hewn into the stone; a stone script, however, that is barely recognizable any more. In Nacht, quotes are zapped
passed us as if in a nightmare – and continue in our sleep, while thoughts and fantasies fl ow forth. In this manner, the composer plays in multifarious ways with the recognizability of what is known.
There is another kind of ambiguity, although distantly related, in Sott’aqua, namely the ambiguity that lies between composition and improvisation. The composed sections come across at certain moments as if frozen, while the improvised sections allow for a freer realization of the textures. When one listens to it, one truly has the
occasional impression of listening under water – as if the sound were ‘swimming’.
Another aside: can one resist a smile if a note is notated where one
could just as well improvise it?
Steinauer’s music exists along such borderlines. Doubt carries it along, so that it does not tumble down. It is inspired by the utopia of crossing over. Trans_it was the title of the ISCM World New Music Days that travelled all across Switzerland in 2004, and of which Mathias Steinauer was the artistic director. Sometimes he seems to want to depict what is insurmountable; he seems to want to dare the incommensurable. He composes the inadmissible. This, along with the composer’s
own introductory texts, compels the listeners to engage with the music, perhaps even to contradict it.
And an aside on this matter of smiling: it might appear that Mathias Steinauer’s pieces are not so serious because they never arrive in a dramatic, insistent fashion. However sad the occasion might be, they do not utter tragedies, they are neither heavy nor pregnant with meaning. It seems at times as if we’re dealing with chance things. But more of that later.
Something is in motion here and cannot be pinned down any more. Sometimes, for example, the music asks the question as to where a note should still be sounded. Spaces are organized after another fashion. This is only a single symptom of the fact that nothing in this music can rely on what appears to be secure. Every piece dares something new, only by virtue of the fact that ever-new instrumental combinations are tried out. Necessity is the mother of invention, one might say. And indeed, it is not the simple, rather superficial tendency to innovation that leads to unusual solutions in sound, but the possibility of saying things any other way. This needs unusual equipment, for the terrain is not secure. It can be set in motion at any moment, and
perhaps it already is.
Coincidences are threatening. Perhaps this note that prompts the smile is created at the intersection of two lines that cross by chance. This does not have to be the case, but perhaps it is precisely by virtue of crazy chance. But it is nevertheless noteworthy on account of it. It disturbs the wellaccustomed manner in which we make music and listen to it. However delicately the aforementioned allusions are given in Steinschlag, nevertheless they remain a variously coloured game with stones – with little stones even, one might like to add, with which the lithophone is struck – indeed, which are thrown onto it, so that they fall off the edge of the instrument onto the floor. Are they then quite so subtle? The element of chance here comes gradually into play – and
threatens to ruin the game. The music asks: do these newly discovered methods of ‘attack’ – indeed the game with stones in itself – hold a dangerous potential within them? The connection becomes clear to us: hitting – falling – the very ‘rockfall’ of which we are warned on roads in the mountains. This connection is explored in all ist facets: from the rainmaker, the gentle slipping down of the stones, via the pictures evoked of water drops and stalactites, down to the boulders that tumble downwards. This game appears ingenious, and is constructed using a particular machinery: the large stone does not fall at first; but then it does. The rumbling that is at first prevented in a tension-laden way is at last allowed to happen, and destroys
the artifi ciality of the situation. It makes palpable a sense of threat,
under which conditions this composition was created. And however much it might seem by chance when the stone falls, it is nevertheless composed out in a natural way. Yet another contradiction. Sometimes, Mathias Steinauer would like to compose out this moment of chance, in the knowledge that such an endeavour is impossible precisely because it is composed. In the end, one asks oneself: in view of the large, hanging stone, were all the games in this piece intended to conjure up the danger, and thus to exorcize it?
This palpable threat is a level of emotion that recurs time and again in Steinauer’s music, whether it is a stone threatening to drop, as here, or whether as in Nacht it’s the pictorial impressions of nocturnal zapping continuing into one’s sleep, or sometimes fi ssures, as in La dimensione dello strappo. Even smiling is fragile. And finally, behind the Rumori cardiaci, an eerie picture emerges: the fi gure of a devil – not in detail, but covering the whole of Europe, good old Europe. Is this meant quite in all seriousness? Or is it sheer irony? In either case, the music here has something of a horror fi lm about it. In a surprising fashion here, things are composed, brought together, that do not belong together. In La dimensione dello strappo (‘The dimension of the fissure’), this appears at its most obvious. The coming together is here tragic. Two different types of line cross in space: a fl ight line, and the cable, the ‘carrying line’ of a cable car. A fissure occurs. Can this be made into the topic of a work, a ‘tombeau’? Does not such a fi ssure make all notes not just absurd, but obsolete? The basic idea of the work is astonishing, even shocking, but not in the sense of ‘épater le bourgeois’. Across the whole of the concert hall there is strung a length of material that breaks. Is this still music? one asks oneself spontaneously (for the first time in a long time). The situation casts us back into our helplessness and the diffi culty of artistic expression. But precisely through this, music here offers a statement about this awful coincidence. It leads us on by attempting to depict a situation that cannot be depicted. It brings things together that do not belong together. The fissure cannot be overcome. It terrifies.
It is of such matters, near-incommensurable in art, that the music of Steinauer’s often speaks (along with his explanatory, introductory texts, which almost by necessity belong with the music and themselves prompt questions). This becomes clear in the
song mentioned at the beginning above, ‘Es kommt mich…’, as it does in almost all the other pieces. It also appears in a quite special fashion in …WOAMM… This piece, which deals with the alla turca – could, like Mozart’s piece itself, serve as a riproaring final number on a concert programme, and in its humorous alienation could even prompt merriment. Yet it is odd that ‘rip-roaring humorous alienation’ should in the context of this piece acquire a quite different undertone. After all, the piece deals with the foreign Turks that Austria would like to keep outside ist borders. In what century are we really living? – one asks oneself in the face of such divergences. And it is precisely questions such as these that this contemporary, contemporaneous (perhaps even time-travelling) music of Mathias Steinauer poses to us.
Thomas Meyer, 2008 (Translation: Dr. Chris Walton)