19 Sep 2018

Music of Today: Powerful Monodramas


19 Sep


This September, the Philharmonia Orchestra presents the first of its Music of Today performances in Southbank Centre's Purcell Room, opening with a showcase of theatrical monodramas by Hans Zender and Philippe Manoury, loosely inspired by Schoenberg's ErwartungIn this post, Tim Rutherford-Johnson introduces the music and the ideas behind it.

Hans Zender (b. 1936) Cabaret Voltaire (2001) UK premiere

1. Wolken

2. Katzen und Pfauen

3. Totenklage

4. Gadji beri bimba

5. Karawane

6. Seepferdchen und Flugfische

The Cabaret Voltaire was established in Zurich by the poet Hugo Ball, and his partner Emmy Hemmings in February 1916, and closed its doors in summer that same year. Short-lived it was, but immensely influential: a no-holds-barred forum for artistic performance, exhibition and experiment, it became a hub for the Swiss avant garde much like Paris’s Le chat noir, had been for French art thirty years earlier. Kandinsky and Klee were among its patrons, but its greatest creation was the artistic movement known as Dada, of which Ball must be considered one of the founders.

It is Ball’s poetry that the German composer Hans Zender sets in his own Cabaret Voltaire. Noise- and sound-poetry, as Ball called them, his poems call forth an entirely original vocabulary, strong on repetition, humour and sound effect, and devised for its uniqueness – ‘I don’t want words that other people have invented’, Ball claimed. On another occasion: ‘We should renounce language, devastated and made impossible by journalism.’ They are among Dada’s founding documents, performed at the Cabaret Voltaire by Ball, dressed as in a geometrical costume of luminous blue cardboard.

Ball’s aim in his poems was to create an intense expressive immediacy that did not depend on the faint ‘echoes of inspiration’ found in words already created and used by others. Zender’s  first movement, ‘Clouds’, begins by delineating Ball’s words into a catalogue, giving each its own instrumental gesture. Yet as the movement progresses, these isolated gestures gradually coalesce, as Ball’s nonsense words do, into phrases rich in implicit meaning. Elsewhere the text suggests its own readings. The third movement, ‘Death lament’, picks up the lament implied in Ball’s text – for language, for Europe, for a lost generation (the poem was written midway through the First World War) – in its funereal tread of piano and percussion. The last, ‘Seahorses and flying fish’, is lighter in spirit, a spray of sounds musical and verbal that glitters as though lit by the midday sun.

Salome Kammer, vocal artist in Cabaret Voltaire


Philippe Manoury (b. 1952) Blackout (2004) UK premiere

As Philippe Manoury points out, the key element of a monodrama, like Zender’s Cabaret Voltaire, and his own Blackout, is that it concerns only one character. As a result, he goes on, it need not be restricted to the usual theatrical conventions of space, time or setting. Blackout’s time is elastic, following not the clock of the dramatic scenario (a woman rides a lift to meet her lover; the power cuts out; she waits in the dark; the power comes back on), but that of the woman’s thoughts. As she ascends, time passes slowly; while she waits, and her mind drifts deeper into daydream and obscure memory, it speeds up. Pragmatic, ‘real-life’ time is slow; ‘fantasy’ time is fast. The journey in the lift – in reality a matter of seconds – fills a third of Manoury’s piece.

As the woman’s lonely thoughts wander further and further, up from Manoury’s expressionist score bubbles an unexpected sound: the crackle of a vinyl record and the unmistakable sweet-sardonic voice of Ella Fitzgerald (recorded in 1966). The reference is included in Daniela Langer’s text, which includes lines from Jay Gorney and Sidney Clare’s song of 1933. They are set apart from the rest of the words by a sudden change of font, and the effect is similar in Manoury’s piece: the Fitzgerald both does and doesn’t belong to the surrounding musical world, in that way that distant recollections, following a train of thought, both do and don’t belong to their real-life surroundings.

Yet recollections leave their own trace. Having introduced this alien element into his piece, Manoury studies it closely, transcribing precisely Fitzgerald’s nuances of phrasing and intonation and feeding them into the music that follows, in a sort of gradually dissolving passacaglia. With a concluding flourish the power suddenly returns and the woman’s reverie ends. ‘No! My God! No light! Not yet ...’

Hilary Summers, contralto in Blackout


© Tim Rutherford-Johnson

Tim Rutherford-Johnson is author of Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 (University of California Press) and editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Music, 6th edition. He blogs about contemporary music at: