Wien Modern Festival 2013

The 26th Wien Modern festival began this year on October 24 and concludes this week. On Monday 11 November, the cradle of modernism itself bears witness to one of Denmark’s most radical composers when the PHACE Ensemble performs Simon Christensen’s work for string quartet Towards Nothingness.

Born from the same impulse as much rock music, Christensen takes the traditional ensemble and, using the software Max/MSP, has the instruments play through individual guitar amplifiers. The audible result is uncompromising and raw, repetitive music with a serrated edge.

Yet, the inherent journey of the work sees this edge evolve. The opening polyphony of recurrent deep-cutting heavy bowings often switches abruptly in register and then, two-thirds of the way through, the intensity suddenly gives way to a softer and more resonant episode employing the same material. But just as calm seems within reach, the broad texture of ringing and tugging chords is, as rapidly as it appeared, condensed into a grinding grainy music of friction as Christensen has the players play sub-harmonics ­– where if bowing correctly a player can create a sound one octave lower than the string itself. Whilst these new sonorities dominate the texture, the resonances of the lone cellist’s plucked lines seem a residue of the previous music.

And so, once bows have touched strings for the last time, we may wonder whether just for a fleeting moment we heard the next musical episode; the material now condensed so much in sonority and length that it simply reached the point of nothingness.

by Luke Lewis