The Strange Music of Enno Poppe

cover BRK900636

POPPE: Fett.1 Ich Kann mich an Nichts Erinnern2 / Bavarian Radio Orch.; 1Susanna Mälkki, cond; 2Bernhard Haas, org; Bavarian Radio Chorus; Matthias Pintscher, cond / BR Klassik 900636 (live: Munich, 1July 5, 2019 & 2May 8, 2015)

Swiss composer Enno Poppe (b. 1969) “is now regarded as one of the leading of new music among the younger generation in Germany,” but at age 51 I would not really be prone to call him “young.” Among his subjects in school were “sound synthesis and algorithmic composition,” so right off the bat we know we’re in for a real sound treat, right, gang?

His music is not merely atonal but uses a great deal of microtones and clashing harmonies. Fett opens slowly with the lower strings (violas and cellos) playing a real fun tune that everyone can hum (I’m being facetious) and just gets stranger from there. Yet I have to admit that the music sucks you in as does the equally microtonal music of Harry Partch, clearly a spiritual predecessor. As Poppe puts it,

the piece consists exclusively of individual pitches, that is, notes that have to be played individually. And these pitches always appear in linear relation to the previous tone—so there are no jumps in the piece. Either musicians play slow lines, by means of which chords change gradually, or they don’t play at all.

The aural effect is of a rather drunken harmonium crawling along the recesses of your mind. With the strings not really playing like normal strings, and the brass playing smears to match the string sound, there’s very little for the listener to hold on to; I can’t say that it’s music I would willingly listen to twice, but as I say, the effect is interesting. I can well imagine that this is not easy music to play or conduct, but Susanna Mälkki and the Bavarian Radio Orchestra certainly give it their all.

The biggest problem I have with Poppe’s music is that it doesn’t really go anywhere; it pretty much stays in one musical and emotional space. Long before Fett is finished, you’ve lost interest in it because it is too much of the same and doesn’t really evolve except in small, subtle ways, and that’s just not enough to satisfy the well-trained listener. It’s hip, cool and edgy, but it says nothing. It just gets louder at the end, moving towards a finale that is the only thing that really evolves.

Yet I found Ich Kann mich, to which an organ and chorus are added, much more interesting. Here, Poppe actually uses some rhythm and establishes a certain amount of little motifs (not really full-formed themes) which intermingle and eventually help to develop the piece, though the harmony is relatively static. The other thing I liked about this piece was that it used the acoustic space of the performing venue to good advantage. Even when Poppe uses microtonalism in this piece, it helps move the music forward rather than just “lying there.”

Bottom line: it’s an album worth hearing at least once, but not music that will survive another 30 years.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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