The Music of Johannes X. Schachtner
In literature there is a term poeta doctus. It designates authors whose poetic confrontation with the present is based on precise studies of literary history and its aesthetic language of forms – without the same knowledge necessarily being required of the reader. If one were to transfer this definition to music, then one could call the composer Johannes X. Schachtner a musicus doctus. For his art of writing music is created out of a profound questioning of musical tradition.
When we met in 2009, the composer, then 24 years old, impressed me with his stupendous knowledge and his extraordinary level of reflection. Hailing from a family of musicians spanning several generations, the young conductor and composer had internalised music history to such a degree that each conversation with him contributed to an expansion of my own musical horizon. At this time I heard the first pieces by Schachtner, including an early version of his Chamber Symphony, which now exists in a condensed form as Symphonic Essay. It was not difficult to recognise the work’s reference to Beethoven, two bars of whose Eighth Symphony (just before the end) serve as its basis.
I already began to sense something of the specific character of Johannes X. Schachtner’s aesthetic position. His compositions do not merely continue paradigms of the New Music, in which the break with tradition is an essential component, but relate to them as part of a continuity and the latest chapter of a music-historical legacy. The break itself becomes part of history. Serial and spectral manipulations of sound as central concerns of the New Music still belong to the compositional arsenal, but are subject to the same questioning as older manifestations of the musical language of forms. This occurs in an interlocking of the past and the present, significant for Schachtner‘s technique, which is not so much a dialectic as a type of counterpoint of associations entering into an exchange.
It is precisely this position of the musicus doctus which suggests the re-working of older pieces in the sense of a formal deepening. Compared to the earlier version, in the Symphonic Essay the irritating moment of those two Beethoven bars is driven further through the fanning-out of the rhythmic figures compromised in them and transferred into a musical principle. On the sound level, at the same time, F major stands, as the tonal centre, at the centre of the compositional confrontation without, however, returning to functional harmony. The key is instead treated as material. F major – to put it more precisely, its character in Beethoven – is the object of reflection of this orchestral piece, which is why sonic reminiscences from the ‘Pastorale’ appear in it. In this associative linkage of the rhythmic and sonic questioning, one clearly notices Schachtner’s approach of an essayist, developing his musical ideas in an experimental arrangement and with an open outcome more or less before the listener’s ears.
Johannes X. Schachtner does not only question the tone and the sound, but also the history, the work, the quotation, also the space of meaning of the sounds and motifs in their historical context. In this way, F major can again become a theme for him. It even allows him to break the taboo of romanticisms. Air – to Samuel’s Aerophone takes up the idea of the long wind chords at the beginning of Richard Strauss’s ‘Alpine Symphony’. Before circular breathing became established, Strauss had prescribed the use of an apparatus that made it possible to hold out notes longer than the breath volume allowed by means of a small blown bellows and a tube inserted into the mouth: this was Samuel‘s aerophone. With
Schachtner, Strauss’s programmatic idea of the ‘essence of the night’ (expressed by means of an endless held-out sound) is relieved of its symbolism and determined anew as an open form. He does this in the sonic-dynamic variation of a woodwind ensemble plus horns and Wagner tubas.
The Inventions do not merely coincidentally take up the old genre designation particularly associated with the name of Johann Sebastian Bach. Taking up the tradition of Bach, inspired by craftsmanship, Schachtner also attempts to assimilate the musical language of forms to a certain extent, transforming it into his own, present-day language. As inventions in the literal sense, he expands the essayist approach in the Inventions to include extra-musical aspects. In Invention III for percussion: ‘Hopscotch’, the motif of hopping appears in the pedal tympani with its variable pitches, but the playful aspect turns into its opposite towards the end of the piece. Thus the subject becomes the theological-moral subsidiary meaning in the name of the game through acceleration and the snare-drum roll. Invention IV: ‘Canon’, a piano quintet with percussion ensemble, links the form of the canon with the idea of the flight trajectory of a cannonball until its point of impact, sonically expressed through glissandi and permanent tempo increase. The acceleration motif also refers to the composition ‘Music of the Spheres’ by Johanna Magdalena Beyer, who emigrated from Germany to the USA during the 1920s and to whom the piece is dedicated. It is an early example of electronic music from the circle of the American avant-garde surrounding the young John Cage. Invention V: ‘Battery’ with its double instrumentalists is conceived as a type of instrumentation of percussion gestures. Each of the four wind players is assigned a percussion instrument which he also plays at the same time. Here, too, Schachtner plays with the levels of meaning of the English word ‘battery’ that provides the title: series and violence accumulate into musical attacks through the aggressive use of rhythms.
Finally, in his text settings, Johannes X. Schachtner dedicates himself to the relationships and correspondences between language and music. The Quatre tombeaux de vent by Frédéric Wandelère are floating word conceptions. They conjure up the spirits of the dead. Schachtner’s work for soprano and chamber orchestra avoids all literalness and nevertheless finds correspondences to the immaterial presence of the beloved dead in the renunciation of bass registers and the brief, almost dabbed impressionistic phrases. In Aufstieg [Ascent], on the other hand, a ballade for baritone and small ensemble based on a libretto by Johanna Schwedes, theatrical expression is at the centre of compositional attention. Both are studies in creating sound equivalents for the atmospheres in texts. They once again expand the repertoire of an essayist’s approach aiming towards crystallisations and manifestations of sound worlds that open up to the future of music. It is precisely this that Johannes X. Schachtner succeeds in doing in his works.