The art of reminiscence: thoughts on Jörg Widmann and musical meaning

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘reminiscence’ as either ‘a story told about a past event remembered by the narrator’ or ‘a characteristic of one thing that is suggestive of another’. We all love to reminisce: we gain comfort by our efforts to recollect the pleasures of our pasts and to share our memories with friends. ‘It’s reminiscent of the time I…’, we might say, shedding a light on a current situation by drawing parallels between present and past. Or we might say, ’it reminds me of the feeling I had when…’, taking us involuntarily into an intangible world of half-recollected emotions, feelings and senses. And in adverse times, we might reminisce and say, ’it all worked out in the end…’—thereby using the past to soothe our displeasure with the present and our fears for the future.

Reminiscence is important to the German composer and clarinetist, Jörg Widmann (1973-). Two recent pieces even bear the word in their subtitles: Idyll and Abyss (2009), ‘six Schubert reminiscences for piano’; and Partita (2018), ‘five reminiscences for large orchestra’. Whilst only 44, Widmann has swiftly defined himself as one of the major musical names of our time. It is rare for a year to go by without performances of his music by the world’s leading orchestras: 2018, for example, sees premieres with the Berliner Philharmoniker, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. He has been championed by figures no less than Pierre Boulez, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, Isabelle Faust, Mariss Jansons, Simon Rattle, Mitsuko Uchida and Tabea Zimmerman—in short, the leading lights of Western classical music. The happy eagerness with which performers meet his music is rare in an industry in which composers can feel like a necessary evil, begrudgingly endured by both musicians and audiences alike.

Reminiscence has a reasonably long musical history. Most likely it originated at the same time as the birth of musical Romanticism in the early nineteenth century. Reminiscence is an important stylistic trope in the work of Robert Schumann. Whilst never naming a piece directly with the word, his Kinderszenen (1838) are a clear example of the characteristic. In these pieces, reminiscence is a means to portray and poeticise childhood through an adult’s eyes, and reassuringly to explain seemingly naive existential questions to young players. For Franz Liszt, reminiscence carries quite a different meaning: a paraphrase in all but name, it signifies a virtuoso work based on well-known tunes taken from popular operas. At the beginning of the twentieth century, musical reminiscence largely fell out of fashion. For many composers, the rupture with the past was the art of the future, and, particularly in the middle of the century, amnesia was seen as the way forwards.

As for Widmann’s relationship with the past, he is unambiguous: ‘As a player, I’m in touch with […] masterworks every day. I love them! So I write pieces about my love’. Embracing anti-dogmatism as a means to an ends, Widmann gazes lovingly at both rupture and past: Schumann is as strong a ‘love’ as Pierre Boulez. (Love, meanwhile, is a word that never passed Boulez’s lips.) And, whilst to a lesser extent, Widmann’s gaze also encompasses music beyond the Western-art-music canon, such as that of Benny Goodman (in Fantasie) and the classical-music tradition of Hindustan (in the Viola Concerto). Reminiscence provides Widmann with a means to engage with the stylistic question of ‘what next?’: For him, the act of looking backwards provides a means to look forwards.

In fact, Widmann’s remarks about his ‘love’ for the music of the past are not dissimilar to that of the great Russian-born composer, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Like Widmann, Stravinsky refers to and reminisces about a great variety of musical styles in his work; often, he even adopts them as his own too. And, like Widmann, he describes his relationship with these styles in rather sensual language: Pulcinella (1920), for example, is ‘a backward look, of course—the first of many love affairs in that direction—but it was a look in the mirror, too’. A look in the mirror? Looking backwards, Stravinsky seems to suggest, is a means to look not only forwards, but inwards too—a means to understand himself, and his own music better as well. In the words of Alexander Goehr, the ’changing surface styles are nothing less than the stations of a journey into the self’.

Perhaps unlike Stravinsky, the nostalgic and sentimental connotations of reminiscence are especially important for Widmann. Schmaltz is a key ingredient in his aesthetic, and unabashedly so. Perhaps no better example of this is Au cœur de Paris (2017), written to celebrate the Orchestre de Paris’s fiftieth anniversary. Here, Widmann paints a musical picture of Paris—the city of lights, of love, and of dreams—by drawing from three famous pieces associated with the city: the famous cancan from Jacques Offenbach’s Orphée aux enfers (premiered at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, Paris, in 1858), and two songs made famous by Edith Piaf, Sous le ciel de Paris and La vie en rose. It is not a million miles away from Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011) in character.

What lies behind this nostalgia-filled imagery of Paris ‘en rose’? Written, as it was, so soon after the shocking terrorist attacks of 2015 and 2016, and after an election that took France dangerously close to electing a vehemently right-wing president, Au cœur de Paris must have struck listeners at its premiere as being a powerful statement of #JeSuisParis. By choosing to reference so explicitly music associated with the French Resistance (as Piaf’s is), Widmann reminds his listeners of France’s willingness to stand against any external threats of fascism. The reminiscence in Au cœur de Paris is the kind that says, ’it all worked out in the end, and it will again now’.

The second definition of reminiscence is more intriguing: ’a characteristic of one thing that is suggestive of another’. Here, reminiscence provides music with the capacity to refer outside of itself—to other art forms, perhaps, or, as in Au cœur de Paris, to other times. In the study of musical semiotics, we might describe this as ‘extravert semiosis’ and say that the music at these times extends outside of a musical discourse. Music, we might say, is about more than just music.

Nonetheless, this does not make the task of writing about music—in words—any easier. The French semiotician, Roland Barthes, warns that ‘music […] is only ever translated into the poorest of linguistic categories: the adjective’. Taking heed of these words, I am going to shift my attention to the metaphorical connotations of reminiscence, and, in so doing, focus on nonsense words—that is, words that do not belong in a particular language, but can still be said to carry meaning. This is not as ludicrous an idea as it may sound—particularly in India, where readers will be familiar with the onomatopoeic meaningless bol (from बोलना, bolna, ‘to speak’) that are used to name the multitudinous strokes in tabla playing: धा (dhā), धिं (dhin), ग (ga), क (ka), and so on.

’Kiki kiki kikiki’, says Jörg Widmann of the opening of his First String Quartet (1997). ‘Kiki kiki kikiki’—what could that possibly mean? ‘Kiki’, coincidentally, is not as arbitrary a ‘word’ as it may seem. At this point, I would like to introduce bouba and kiki [printed above]. In a paper from 2001, V. S. Ramachandran and E. M. Hubbard asked people from the USA and Tamil Nadu, India, to identify whether the name of the two figures was either ‘bouba’ or ‘kiki’. Although they had never seen the figures before, 95% of people identify the left figure as kiki and the right as bouba. This, Ramachandran and Hubbard suggest, may be due to the nature of the connections between the sensory and motor areas of the brain, so that the visual shape of the object (in this case, either round or spiky) is linked to the similar physical shapes our mouths make when we say the corresponding word. So, for example, the jagged shape, kiki, is represented by an unpleasant ‘k’ sound, whose production requires the obstruction of the airflow in the vocal tract. In the same way, at the start of Widmann’s First Quartet, the violist tries and fails to produce a sound: their bow deliberately obstructs the production of musical note on the string. The resulting sound is similar in timbre to that of the consonant ‘k’, and the instrument is relegated to producing ugly, ‘unmusical’ sounds that are deliberately painful to behold. I believe that, as listeners, we see, hear and identify with this inability for the instrument to ‘speak’—an inability that is reminiscent of any latent fears of anxiety or voicelessness that we may harbour.

By shifting our attention from stationary space to mobile space, it is possible to see further relationships between sound (one verbal, one musical; both vocal) and gesture. When rehearsing, the British choreographer, Wayne McGregor, has an interesting practice to help his dancers efficiently understand his intentions. He uses countless ‘sonifications’, as he calls them, ’to use sound to shape action’—in other words, he uses nonsense words to help the dancers find the articulation of the gesture that he seeks, and identify how best their body might represent that. And so, when rehearsing for his ballet Yugen (2018), he can be heard urging the dancers to ‘waahh’, to ‘zham wey’, or to ‘pwaah’. This is, he says, ‘a more direct way of accessing something in the body that the body already knows’.

Sometimes, physical gestures can be so reminiscent of musical sounds that the effect can be uncanny. Last October, for example, when attending a concert at Delhi Classical Music Festival, I was amazed by the palpable musical expressivity of Parveen Sultana’s hands, which seemed to translate the music produced by her voice with phenomenal precision into gestures in her hands. Not only did her hands reflect the melodic contours that she sang, but her finger tips could be seen articulating the percussiveness of the consonants she uttered. Like many orchestral conductors, her hands had the effect of assisting audience members efficiently to follow the music that she was producing.

These ideas strongly reinforce the idea that the perception of music is a holistic experience. This is related to the psychological of synesthesia—the phenomenon whereby the stimulation of one sense triggers an involuntary response in a second sense. For me, Widmann’s music is more reminiscent of ‘ideasthesia’—the capacity for ‘ideas’ (in this case, musical) to trigger perception-like experiences. Music’s capacity to be associative, to be reminiscent of something (both musical and extra-musical), is essential to how we hear and understand it. Associations, furthermore, may instil a strong emotional reaction in us—be they of fear, joy or of memories of times past. Needless to say, these responses are personal, subjective—guided by our experiences, memories and recollections.

And so, when I hear Widmann’s Jagdquartett (Hunting Quartet, 2003), I am aware of the musico-referential framework of Beethoven and Schumann (from the Seventh Symphony and Papillons respectively—two contrasting examples of manic ecstasy), and I am aware of how, semi-ironically, Widmann destructs this framework: first, by breaking the musicians’ vow to (vocal) silence; second, by allowing aggressive dissonance to undermine tonal supremacy; third, by creating meaningful theatre out of a supposedly abstract medium; fourth, by allowing the bows to crush and scrape against the strings with brutal force and energy, in a manner that seems bitterly to attack the politeness and conventions of Classicism; and, lastly, by portraying murder in a manner that criticises the hunters (here, the two violins and viola) and empathises with the hunted (the cello). As Widmann was writing this quartet, the United Kingdom was engrossed in a fierce debate about hunting, culminating in a number of large protests and a ban, in 2004, on the hunting of wild animals. After listening to the Jagdquartett, I bet I can predict what Widmann thought about that ban. Does that seem implausible, too far-fetched? Listen, and decide for yourself.