Ahead of our UK premiere of Enno Poppe’s Speicher on Thursday 10 March, Philip Cashian (composer and Head of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music) analyses his “inventive yet economical” music.
Enno Poppe was born in Germany in 1969. Over the past year or so a lot of people have mentioned his name to me but I’ve never actually heard any of his music. So on recommendation from some of my students I listened to Altbau.
LISTEN: ALTBAU (FIRST MOVEMENT)
Duration approx. 17 minutes
The first movement of Altbau is an absolute delight – wonderfully playful, inventive yet economical, brilliantly unpredictable and unlike a lot of music, it makes me smile as he constantly varies, alters and transforms short musical phrases that are thrown around the orchestra, juxtaposed and imitated. The pace of the music is breathtaking – Poppe knows exactly how long to show us a musical idea (usually just a few seconds) before immediately changing it in some way, sidestepping musical expectation, and propelling the piece forwards with stuttering panache.
Poppe says on his website “working with motifs and themes I find it particularly interesting that we are able to recognise and to observe the material’s mutations; how a network of correspondences is created“. I find this a really clear description from the composer of what you can constantly hear the music doing from the very first bars of this piece. (Another way of putting it would be to say he is simultaneously playing ‘pass the parcel’ and ‘Chinese whispers’ with his material).
It might help to break the movement down into five sections when listening through:
1) 00:00 – 01:09
2) 01:09 – 02:18
3) 02:18 – 04:23
4) 04:23 – 05:32
5) 05:32 – 07:10
Along the way listen out for:
Opening – 00:50: Listen to the horns in the very opening of the piece who play a simple three note figure five times. It’s then instantly varied and developed every few moments and passed around the orchestra. A technique you can hear Poppe using in this opening section is additive rhythm, where a rhythm is broken down to it’s smallest unit and then extended or contracted by adding or subtracting that unit. The most famous example of this is the Sacrificial Dance, the final section of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring:
01:16 – 01:25: Clarinets and oboes repeating figure.
02:50 – 03:13: Horn figure transforming around the orchestra.
02:56: Temple and wood blocks, joined by cowbells at 03:25 through to 04:03.
04:50: The moment when drums interrupt a simple clarinet figure that started at 04:22 then grew and mutated.
05:32 – 07:10: A two note repeating pattern in the strings that remains throughout the rest of the movement.
Whilst listening to Altbau I was reminded of the music of Franco Donatoni who is also a master of musical transformation and rhythmic agility. Here’s one of my favourite pieces of his, called Hot, which mimics a jazz quartet:
The way in which Poppe assembles and structures the music also reminds me of the work of American visual artist Robert Rauschenberg.
Pierre Boulez Notations No. 2
Olivier Messiaen Chronochromie, Antistrophe II
Louis Andriessen Workers Union