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Contemporary Music Review

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The Theory of Perception in the

Aesthetic Conception of Helmut
Lachenmann: A 'Redefinition' Trial of
the 'Functional' Aspect of Music
Iyad Mohammad
Available online: 15 Sep 2010

To cite this article: Iyad Mohammad (2004): The Theory of Perception in the Aesthetic Conception
of Helmut Lachenmann: A 'Redefinition' Trial of the 'Functional' Aspect of Music, Contemporary
Music Review, 23:3-4, 91-95
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Contemporary Music Review

Vol. 23, No. 3/4, September/December 2004, pp. 91 95

The Theory of Perception in the

Aesthetic Conception of Helmut
Lachenmann: A Redenition Trial of
the Functional Aspect of Music
Iyad Mohammad

In this article, I discuss my opinions of Helmut Lachenmanns own theories on perception

and the functionality of music. I also allude to the numerous ways in which his music
could be approached by new or experienced listeners and how Helmuts musical thought
has evolved during the past few decades.
Keywords: Functionality; Listening; Perception

One of the main keys to understanding the works of the contemporary German
composer Helmut Lachenmann is his concept of musical perception, in which he
develops a new type of music listening, a new approach to the essence of this art and
its functions in modern society. Working out a new attitude of man toward music is
an issue that is central to some of Lachenmanns most celebrated essays. Wholly
dedicated to this subject are such articles as Vier Grundbestimmungen des
Musikhorens (Four fundamental provisions for listening, 1979), Horen ist
ber Moglichkeiten und Schwierigkeiten (Listening is
wehrlosohne Horen. U
defenceless without listening. On possibilities and difculties, 1985) and Herausforderungen an das Horen (Gesprach mit Reinhold Urmetzer) (The challenges of
listening [conversation with Reinhold Urmetzer], 1991), all of which appear in the
1996 collection of Lachenmanns writings, Musik als existentielle Erfahrung. In his
articles the composer strives for an innovative conception of listening that embodies
the existential idea of acting out of knowledge and, as such, differs from the
traditional understanding of listening as a passive act of perception. According to
Lachenmann, listening is a process of perception, in which the composer, as well as
the performer and listener, touches his way through the musical material together
with the factors predetermining its tonal, corporal, structural and associative
ISSN 0749-4467 (print)/ISSN 1477-2256 (online) 2004 Taylor & Francis Ltd
DOI: 10.1080/0749446042000285708


I. Mohammad

contexts, at the same time opposing himself to the latter. While in this process of
recognising the factors that predetermine the character of the musical material, the
listener becomes aware of his own predetermination, of the inner factors that
predetermine his act of perception itself and thus limit the range (scope) of his
apprehension and experiencing of earlier unknown musical events. To listen, writes
Lachenmann (1996, pp. 117 118),

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means to discover ones own ability to change and to oppose it against the just
recognised non-freedom as a resistance; to listen means to rediscover oneself,
means to change oneself. . .. It is a question of a new, a changed perception.

The musical work is understood as a

landscape, through which we are to touch our way in the process of listening. In it
we recognise our own predetermined structure of perception as sublimed, as
broken-up and as possible too; maybe only in this regained freedom can we be
reconciled with it (our predetermined structure) without yielding to it anew.
(Lachenmann, 1996, p. 135)

What has been called here the process of touching ones way through the musical
material is what Lachenmann names in German abtasten, one of the main
compositional categories of the composers aesthetics. It indicates both the cognitive
and physical aspects of the process. The word awakens the image of a blind man
trying to construct in his mind a viewa picture of the world around him without
being able to really see itonly by using the sense of touch. One might even be
reminded of Maurice Maeterlincks Les Aveugles. Hearing, performing and
composing become processes of touching the way through the offered and given
musical material, through the composition and through the structures and relations
existing in it. Thus they are described as acts of searching and exploration, as
The material side of this touching is on one hand closely related to the purely
physical and acoustic features of the musical material, named by the composer in
Vier Grundbestimmungen des Musikhorens as corporeality (Korperlichkeit)
(Lachenmann, 1996, p. 58). This term, dened in his later article Zum Problem
des Strukturalismus (On the problem of structuralism, 1990) as the acousticphysical experience (Lachenmann, 1996, p. 88), generalises in its turn the acoustic
experience of Lachenmanns classication of sound-types made in his early article
Klangtypen der Neuen Musik (Sound types of New Music, 1966). On the other
hand, it is not less related to the extremely material, physical attitude of Lachenmann
toward musical instruments that materialises in his unique world of sound referred to
by him as musique concre`te instrumentale.
No less determined by Lachenmanns material approach to musical categories is
the cognitive aspect of touching. The choice of the word abtasten itself is very
signicant. The direct material impression it gives and the sensuality it attributes to

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Contemporary Music Review 93

the cognitive process characterise the latter as an empirical existential act. It excludes
any abstract, speculative or metaphysical interpretations. This act of exploration
concerns not only the musical material of a work. Instead, it is a much more general
attitude that manifests itself with regard to what Lachenmann calls the aesthetic
apparatus: musical instruments (in relation to their absolute physical-acoustic
possibilities) and the history of music as a whole, through which the composer
touches his way as part of his present existence, as far as it is a searching one.
According to Lachenmann (1996, p. 63), the transformation of the act of
perception occurs due to the fact that the confrontation with the musical material
turns by necessity into a confrontation with oneself, also with ones own perception
and its cognitive structure. This opposition of perception with the ego itself is
unavoidable if listening is to become an existential experience, in which the aim of
cognition is self-knowledge and self-consciousness. When listening is understood as
an existential act, it becomes aware of its own structure, it focuses on itself as a
process. Thus, the nal aim of such an approach becomes the experiencing of the
conditions and circumstances of perception in the course of perception itself. The
result of such a reective listening would be the self-experiencing of man in the
course of the cognitive act. Practically, as Lachenmann (1996, p. 118) puts it, such
listening means concentration of the spirit, work. But work, which as the
experiencing of penetration into reality, as progressing self-experiencing, is a happy
This reasoning brings Lachenmann to a rather paradoxical assertion concerning
the essence of music as an art. The object of music, as he sees it, is the act of listening
itself, the self-perceiving perception (Lachenmann, 1996, p. 117). Music thus loses its
traditional meaning as the most consequent example of art for the sake of art. Its
function is to activate a conscious reective process. It is a means, the nal aim of
which is for man to experience himself, his own cognitive act and structure.
Listening, traditionally traced as a passive act, here becomes an active selfexperiencing of man, an exploration of his existential situation. Thus, what really
matters in a composition is not what happens, but rather how it happens, not what
we hear, but how we hear it and how we experience what we hear. A certain musical
acoustic event works as a catalyst, a generator within the frame of a new form of
listening, in which feeling and thinking while listening to music is recognised as a
necessary means for a conscious self-observation. The differentiation in Lachenmanns terminology between feeling and experiencing is based on the understanding
of the rst as an elementary and rather passive act of self-identication, while the
second is dened as an existential process of man experiencing himself in action, a
self-experiencing apprehension.
In this correlation between the what and the how in the act of perception we
observe a resemblance with the relation of the same two aspects of a musical
composition. The concept of musical form as a description of the owing of time,
popular in the second half of the 20th century, is strongly interrelated with the
processes found in Lachenmanns works. This concept is based on a more descriptive

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I. Mohammad

function of musical form, rather than the traditional constructive one. The music of
Lachenmann is one of gradually unfolding structural and acoustic processes. Each of
the innovative acoustic and technical elements for which Lachenmanns music has
come to be famous is not as important in itself as its context within a compositional
process, whether acoustic or technical. The what of the musical event is subordinated
to its how, to the issue of organisation of the material in time. The qualitative aspect
of the musical material is what is organised and developed in the musical process; it is
the manifestation of the latter.
This analogy between the relation of the qualitative aspect and the overall process
of the act of perception on the one hand and the musical material and compositional
technique on the other is related to the basic structural orientation of Lachenmanns
As structural experience hearing is orientated not only positively toward the
qualitative aspects of the acoustic object, but explores the position of this object in
its surrounding. The perception of music becomes narrower or wider simultaneously with these interrelations, unfolding themselves in time and space between
it and the nearer and farther surrounding. (Lachenmann, 1996, p. 118)

To say it in another way: hearing apprehends consciously and unconsciously,

together with the acoustic events, also relations (Lachenmann, 1996, p. 118).
Lachenmann interprets structures as a polyphony of allocations that must be
explored in the process of listening and experienced as an expressive and structuralacoustic idea. Such a type of listening the composer calls structurally orientated
listening. The terminology is clearly close to the conception of the Russian
musicologist Boris Asaev of a musical form directed toward perception.
However, Asaevs ideas are quite the opposite of Lachenmanns: they interpret
perception as the passive side of the act of listening and see musical form as its
active one.
Structure and process, or said better as the structure of the musical process, is one
of the most important categories of the compositional thinking of Lachenmann and
as such is common to both acts of composition and perception. In experiencing a
composition, in experiencing the act of perception itself as a structured process, man
becomes aware of his own alienation. As Lachenmann (1996, p. 66) puts it: The
expressive ego is struck by its own socialisation; the subject discovers himself as an
object, a given entity, a structure. In the subject experiencing himself as a structure,
he achieves the ultimate unity of the musical structural process of a composition and
the perceiving subject for which Lachenmann strives.
Thus, in Lachenmanns musical aesthetics and his theory of perception, the acts of
listening, composing and performing are brought closer together on the basis of the
similarity of their essence and role in human existence. The perception of music
becomes in his writings an existential act of self-knowledge, the object of which is
man himself, his structure and relationship with his surrounding. As in the
composers music, in his theoretical writings human action and its reection are

Contemporary Music Review 95

traced as self-sufcient aspects of human existencea fact that reects the existential
orientation of Lachenmanns views and thinking.

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Lachenmann, H. (1996). Musik als existentielle Erfahrung. Schriften 1966 1995 (J. Hausler, Ed.).
Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Hartel.