• 2+pic.3.3(ebcl).3/4.3.2+btbn.1/timp.3perc/hp/str
  • 14 min

Programme Note

May 20 2011
NDR Sinfonieorchester & The Young ClassX Projektorchester
Christoph Eschenbach, conductor
Hamburg, Germany

Composer note:
Mahlerwerk is of course a tribute to Gustav Mahler but also a tribute to Hamburg, where he lived and worked from 1891 to 1897. I first visited the city a little less than a century later, in 1986. I had been studying violin in Paris and took the train to Hamburg by way of Amsterdam, which I found disappointingly quaint, a far cry from the gritty port city described in Camus's La Chute, which, at age sixteen, was my idea of a good time. Continuing north to Hamburg, I went straight to the port, where I finally found what I was looking for: "I could spend a week just walking up and down the river Elbe. There are hundreds of ships, and each one bigger than the last. Dry-docks galore, cranes, winches…" In those days, Hamburg's port, still bearing scars of war, had yet to show any outward signs of the twenty-first-century renaissance that has brought with it chic restaurants, pricey condos, and a monumental concert hall. In 1986, the area was still industrial in every sense of the word, from the factories themselves to the music thrumming from barricaded squats and underground nightclubs. I was in heaven.

Because Mahlerwerk was to be a Mahler-work for a Hamburg orchestra, I decided to write a piece that would use Mahler's notes but would feel like the Hamburg I had fallen in love with as a teenager. A "Werk," in German, is both a piece of music and a factory while a "Mahlwerk" is a mill or grinder; the nod to the German band Kraftwerk, considered by many to be the fathers of "industrial" music, didn't hurt. To create the piece, I started by extracting fragments from Mahler's nine finished symphonies that struck me as particularly modern. Then I reassembled them every which way: end to end, vertically, dovetailed in endless permutations — a sort of mash-up, in the language of electronic dance music, but all to be performed live and on the original instruments. Out of respect for Mahler and the musicians who bring his scores to life, I transposed nothing and made sure every passage is played in the correct register and at approximately the right tempo, altering the context but never the notes themselves. I had tried a similar technique once before, in the funeral march from The Composer is Dead, but Mahlerwerk was an exponential expansion. Whereas The Composer is Dead uses thirteen easily recognizable quotations, Mahlerwerk contains hundreds of fragments, in multiple interlocking layers, from across Mahler's symphonic output.

An early review described Mahlerwerk as "something like a Chuck Close portrait or one of those digital images built from a grid of other, unrelated images," both apt comparisons. Mahler makes up the granular level of the piece but has little to do with its surface. His pastoralism, his digressions, his nostalgia — things I love about his music now but had little patience for at sixteen — are nowhere to be found. Mahlerwerk, instead, is angular and mechanical: somewhere at the intersection of factory and nightclub, both of which, in their present forms, would be entirely foreign to Mahler. It has only recently occurred to me that, during his years in Hamburg, Mahler was working a short distance from the port, which was already heavily industrialized. Had he found inspiration in smelters and foundries, his symphonies might have taken a very different turn, but, as a composer with Romantic sensibilities, Mahler felt more drawn to village and country life. Only once does Mahlerwerk allow for a more spacious, Romantic quotation (from the Ninth Symphony). That moment is marked "Mahlerisch," which, minus the extra "h," means picturesque in German. In English, of course, it reads like "Mahler-ish" — and it is in fact the only moment in the piece that sounds even remotely like Mahler.

For me, the great challenge of Mahlerwerk was finding a way to let my own voice speak through the medium of another composer's material. There was the matter of vocabulary — imagine describing your Hawaiian vacation using only sentence fragments from Shakespeare's tragedies! — but the bigger issue was syntactical. Music, like any language, relies on the logic of antecedent and consequent — we expect the second clause of a sentence to follow logically, naturally, even inevitably, from the first — and the same is true at the level of the paragraph, the chapter, and the complete work. In most of my compositions, I have total control over both the call and its response but, in Mahlerwerk, I had to satisfy my instinct for "what comes next" by choosing from a rich but limited menu of options: options that had been fixed by Mahler a century before. It was a daunting puzzle but not so different from a canon, a fugue, or any number of other mind-benders that composers have set themselves over the years as ways of stimulating their imaginations, testing their mettle, or maybe just because puzzles are fun.

It has been interesting to realize, with the benefit of hindsight, that what drew me to industrial cities as a young man was no different from Mahler's nostalgia for country life. As the grim reality of manufacturing has shifted overseas, western industrial cities have become nostalgic landscapes, where startups occupy old warehouses and docks become pleasant promenades. Even "industrial" music now feels a bit like Ravel's La Valse: a soundtrack for the end of an era. I don't think we were fully aware, at the close of the last century, that our own fin-de-siècle really was the end of something and that it was, by definition, on the verge of being replaced by something else. To me, the western industrial city of the 1980s felt like the epitome of real; how could it become a quaint anachronism? And yet, by the time I wrote Mahlerwerk, in 2010, the Hamburg of my teens had already become a distant memory, something stylized and remote, like the clang of cowbell, or a country dance.

Mahlerwerk is dedicated to Alfred Schnittke, who, like Brahms and Mahler, called Hamburg home — and was a master at making new music out of old.

— Nathaniel Stookey (May 2019)