Piano Man: Hans Otte December 14, 1982

The memory of the Mauricio Kagel program and the premiere of the John Cage work for five orchestras, which I heard at the Metz Festival last fall, are still vivid in my mind, so I returned to the small French city, hoping to find similar rewards in the 11th ‘Rencontres internationales de musique contemporaine’ this year. Again about 10 concerts were packed into four days, again the halls were full of new music professionals and fans from all around France and West Germany, and again I missed about half the activity. But again I came away with an experience that I know will be with me for a long time. This time it was a solo piano recital by the West German composer Hans Otte.

Otte, a man in his mid-fifties, was a student of Hindemith and Gieseking. He gained recognition early in his career, both as a composer and as a pianist, but in 1959 he took on the job as head of the music department of Radio Bremen, and today he seems better known for his executive position than for his artistic work. If that is partly because he simply has not had time to concentrate on his composing career, it is no doubt also because his creative work has ranged widely from more conventional atonal pieces to semi-minimal pieces to sound/light environments and video productions, making it difficult for listeners to label him. People who have been around for a while have a way of becoming pigeonholed and ignored, and that seems to be even more true in Europe than in America. Thus I noticed that some of the people who had been enthusiastically attending other festival concerts didn’t bother to show up for Otte’s recital. Not knowing what I was supposed to think, and having an aversion to pigeonholes anyway, I was able to hear what was probably the most thoughtful, best performed, and most inspiring concert of the festival.

‘Das Buch der Klange (The Book of Sounds)’ is a set of 12 pieces lasting, in this performance, about an hour and 20 minutes. The work could be considered minimalist in style, as each piece is written in a rather simple consistent texture, without climaxes or development in the traditional sense. There is little exact repetition, however, and much concentration on harmony. There is also a healthy respect for tradition. As the textures shift gradually from one set of notes to another, the music sometimes sounds closer to Chopin than to Steve Reich. While American minimalists have seen themselves as innovators and have tried to avoid references to the past, Otte is a synthesist, bringing together old ideas and new ones, and doing so most intelligently and sensitively.

Otte began ‘The Book of Sounds’ in 1979, and didn’t complete it until this year, and it’s obvious that he mulled it over for a long time. Playing largely from memory, the composer was always serene, consistent, assured. It sounded as though he had been playing these pieces for years, and of course, he had. The music too seemed serene, sure of itself, sure of what it was saying. I had the feeling in all the details, in the slight contrasts in dynamics, in the little shifts of harmony, in the placement of contrasting elements, that the composer had tried many alternatives before making final choices.

The composition is dedicated to ‘all those who want to draw close to sound, so that, in the search for the sound of sound, for the secret of life, one’s own resonance is discovered.’ My English translation is admittedly awkward, but the sentiment is appropriate. The piece does explore sound possibilities on a relatively deep level, and in listening I felt I was making contact with sound in a way I never quite had before.

It was not that the composer was exploring new piano colors. Almost all the music takes place in the upper-middle part of the keyboard, and the textures too are relatively conventional. Four of the pieces (3, 4, 8, 12) are really just sequences of chords, three (2, 7, 9) follow simple arpeggio patterns, four (1, 5, 10, 11) rock back and forth between two sonorities, and one (6) is merely a melody that could be played with one finger. Yet there is something fresh about all the music. This has something to do with unusual harmonic and formal activity in individual pieces, but also with interrelationships between movements. Often, as the composer began a new section, I had the feeling I was reentering the tempo, the register, or the harmonic world of one of the earlier pieces. I don’t think ‘The Book of Sounds’ is very rigidly structured, but there are enough connections between the movements that each one seems to inform the others.

Particular events within individual pieces are sometimes quite unusual and effective. The rather brisk tempo of the first movement is strangely interrupted by sections that are suddenly slow, for example. The second piece interrupts itself toward the end with a little cadenza such as one sometimes finds in Bach preludes, but would never expect in this context. In the fifth piece occasional accents are superimposed on an otherwise soft texture. The white-note harmonies of the eighth piece turn strangely chromatic from time to time. The rippling of the 10th piece is broken abruptly at one point with the insertion of six slow chords. The 12th piece takes place in the upper register except that four soft bass notes intrude, as if from another world.

I could not help remembering how, in the early ’70s, it sometimes seemed that the old-fashioned acoustic piano was pretty well finished. After years of playing the poor instrument with mallets and bottles, amplifying it with all sorts of microphones, and tearing it apart in destroy-the-instrument pieces, it was difficult to take that old Chopin sound seriously anymore. I think that was true in popular music too, where electric keyboards almost completely took over the role of the concert grand. Now, however, one again hears acoustic pianos with some regularity, even on AM radio, and in the experimental fields, it seems to me that the solo piano has fared quite well. Two of my very favorite pieces of recent years are Frederic Rzewski’s ‘The People United’ and William Duckworth’s ‘Time Curve Preludes,’ both major works for piano solo, and now I am adding Otte’s ‘Book of Sounds’ to this little list. There are many other lively categories today, such as computer music, orchestral works, opera, string quartets, sound sculpture, and solo voice, but I can’t think of three recent major works in one of those mediums that have appealed to me as much as these three for solo piano. Chopin’s instrument is alive and well, and as fresh and creative as ever, and so is Hans Otte.