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Helmut Oehring

 b. 1961Helmut Oehring Photo © Astrid Ackermann

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Docudrama versus art
Helmut Oehring’s musical world
by Stefan Amzoll

What is this musical world? Which features of sound determine it? Where are the origins of its creative motivation and the instinctual logic behind it? Which measures govern it? Why is autonomy abdicated and heteronomy cultivated? For what reasons does it favour translations of sign language? One could think of still more questions here.

To begin with, the world of Oehring’s compositions is marked by a certain unhomeliness. It is an unhomeliness which challenges the self to extremes, allowing it to step in but making it want to escape. That may be the cause of the pressure exerted by Oehring’s music, the anxiety which keeps it awake, the harsh language it produces and reproduces.

It is therefore no surprise that this compositional world contrasts sharply with comparative compositional cultures. One important aspect is that it operates on quite a different basis, as it records rather than actually creating anything new; hypothetically speaking, it has a different structure, although this does not mean that such a different music has to produce sounds or stimuli never heard before. Instead, it is concerned with the human image.

From a different angle, Oehring’s world resembles, metaphorically speaking, a soundproof shell from which noises, notes, sounds, languages from both within and without, have a compulsive urge to emerge, pressuring the walls of the shell until they collapse. Of course this is the stuff of legend (the Trumpets of Jericho), but this process is an interior process and thus has its own potency, language and meaning and may inflame the creative fire. This is only one aspect within a network of different factors, all of which constitute the composer’s own world.

It is obvious that the more Oehring’s compositional world opens toward the outside, the less it is possible to measure it with conventional categories. It would be futile to make any attempt to explain his ideas with the endogenous structural processes of traditional Western music. The parallel may appear daring: like the dramatist, Bert Brecht, did in the twenties, Oehring too made a Copernican turn in his music after 1990. While his early chamber music works – called Trio, String Quartet or Prelude and Song – are poetic, all that came later is prosaic. From that turn onwards, one can feel the force of a narrator who represents things, exposes life, reveals behaviour, reflects states of mind. It is hardly possible to violate the autonomous standard of music more brazenly.

A further characteristic of Oehring’s works is that he treats the things, events and processes he describes in a very direct manner. In this he differs from composers with a clear traditional reference, those who, in a manner of speaking, carry along a historical mode of thinking and focus their work on the material that art has produced so far. Working against such a background, that is, always critically considering the history of music, is something completely foreign to Oehring, something completely against his intentions, something he could never use as a starting point. Awareness of the musical material? For Oehring’s ears, this would be a strange idea. Instead of following boring, worn-out, powerless forms, the composer prefers to throw flagrant gestures into the world of language. Cultural institutions are by no means shaken by this. On the contrary, this ‘anti-artist’ is given numerous commitments for works and is invited to join productions; reviewers applaud as they suspect an inscrutable miracle behind the composer’s native tongue – the sign language of the deaf.

Oehring says he is merely transforming states of mind, situations, realities into music. This includes criminological, psychopathological artefacts whose extreme reflections in the mind constitute and move the course of a composition. This is something that in turn creates a change in the form and in the force of its images, its metaphors, its musical expressivity, though the latter category is misleading. For those metaphors have nothing to do with ‘expression’ but are concerned with the fountains of life on the one hand and death from suffocation on the other, enshrined in authentic sounds and gestures. The same can be said of the scream, the sound of the Sirens, the annihilation caused by noise, the description of unconsciousness by a kind of dirty silence as well as that documentary silencing of music of which Anton Webern could only dream. At last a music can be heard which, against its original objective, is a structural profile of injuries, fears, instinctive patterns, obsessions, exposures, defeats, hopes, lives, deaths. In some cases, it is just about simple stories.

Helmut Oehring generally questions the relation between music and reality anew – an aspect which has been harped on for a long time in such a destructive way that one feels embarrassed talking about it, though it is far from being done with. Moreover, Oehring reintroduces the question of meaning, embedded in the question for the social aspects of music, which can not yet be put aside either, into the composition. He asks: why am I writing this? For what reason am I recording processes concerned with mischief and death? Why am I describing that which makes language so miserable and filthy? What vocabulary, what languages do I need to succeed? And why am I trying to record things as precisely as possible?

The composer’s notion about sign language is that it is in itself dramatic and poetic; watching people gesticulating vehemently, Oehring feels, resembles watching a fight for life and death. The fierceness of emotions, which appears quite often in his music, contributes to that impression.

Central to this, too, is the fear present in almost all his scores. The more realistically, authentically the state of mind (in its many facets) concerned is represented, the more it attacks the listener. What is fear? Where does it come from? And what does fear mean in music? How is it expressed in sound? And what does it represent? Can music picture fear? These are questions which leave the confirmed musical purist nonplussed. For Oehring, though, this is part of the essence of composition. – What, however, characterizes the dimension of fear, what is its actual meaning?

In a figurative sense, fear is an essential driving force for me. Fear means that I begin to deal with images that are difficult for me, or that are difficult for other people, they are often similar. Actually, fear is a very general term. There are fears that all human beings share. Not being able to speak anymore, after all, means to fear living at all. For life is based on communication, on speaking or seeing, on perceiving and giving. And I must say, for me those are incredibly intricate, complicated, complex processes that cause endless confusion for me, every minute, every day anew.

I think this is one aspect. It is an idea which always starts from the fact (in my view) that language, any language, is the most important thing human beings have. And when there is no language then – I don’t know what’s then. It’s actually almost impossible to imagine. Another aspect is how thin and cracked the ground on which language exists is, the ground that holds people together, the ground of communication and understanding, and how timid the words we use are. Or, how sharp the edges of language can be, how language can hurt, how language can kill and how language can cure and protect – those are things that for me, in my life, play the most important part whatsoever.


Oehring’s shaking odyssey through the realm of script, language and speaking resemble a ghost driver’s trips. The course is haunted by the crisp wind of imponderability, of disturbance, of alienation, and accidents are preconditioned.

The composer’s interest is caught only if something already exists – he does not want to invent things but rather document what he happens to find – and if he thinks it is interesting enough to be worth telling others. Oehring appreciates documentaries and photography as a means to documenting things, not as an artform. For him, the representation of real facts is what matters. Heiner Müller once said, what he needed was neither imagination nor invention, there was already too much of both.

I don’t know Heiner Müller, not at all, but that saying is dry. If I was to add something, I’d say: imagination is for snotty little upstarts.

Finally, one thing should be mentioned to dissolve at least the greatest confusion. If Oehring documents something, he never makes realistic copies; there is no simple reproduction. The crucial point is the representation of unvarnished life, its struggle, the collisions it rages through which the composer takes up and works through individually. Nothing is by any means regularly sorted so that one could feel supported by it, nothing is identical.

That is why is is impossible to sum up the richness of Helmut Oehring’s compositional world under a common denominator. It is obvious, though, that the aforementioned unhomeliness has now become clearer. Oehring’s musical world is characterized by unhomeliness because firstly, its results have an encroaching impetus without attractive profiles. Secondly, because the stubborn reproductions do without fixed artistic standards, without sophisticated modes of thinking, without immediate models, without regulating symbols. Thirdly, because for its designer (who takes the minutes and documents things), it is important to protect the self by minutely recording the attack on the self in extreme situations. Finally, fourthly because this compositional world gives much clearer and more precise information on today’s world than any individualistic art that tames and polishes things up.

(2002; translation: Andreas Goebel)

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