No animals were harmed during the making of this music. That’s not something you’d ordinarily need to say about a string quartet, but this is Hermann Nitsch we’re talking about.

Nitsch, a Viennese artist known for performance pieces which attempt to create a ritualistic atmosphere through the wearing of white clothes, the splattering of blood, and the tossing about of animal carcasses and organs, is also a painter and a composer. He doesn’t write conventional scores; instead, he divides the individual movements of his pieces into segments and precisely defines sonic events and their duration and dynamics with words or symbols. He may offer instructions that say something like “deep sound” or “whole tone cluster,” indicate a key (“D minor,” “F major”) or simply command the players to make noise. The music is often part of a Gesamtkunstwerk — a total work of art that encompasses multiple media — but also stands alone. At the turn of the century, the Cortical Foundation’s Organ of Corti label released an eight-CD box documenting Day Five of a six-day art event, Das 6-Tage-Spiel Des Orgien Mysterien Theaters.

Albertina Quartett, a two-CD set on the Trost label, documents Nitsch’s String Quartet No. 2, performed by the Koehne Quartet (Joanna Lewis and Anne Harvey-Nagl on violins, Lena Fankhauser on viola, and Mara Achleitner on cello) in May 2019 during the exhibition Nitsch. Spaces of Color at the Albertina Museum in Vienna. The music was transcribed and interpreted by Michael Mautner.

The piece runs a little over 90 minutes, and is divided into six movements, simply labeled “Satz” one through six. All but one run a quarter of an hour or more; “Satz 3” is a short intermission, lasting six and a half minutes.

The first and second movements begin with long unison drones, played in such a way that they sound more like accordions or harmoniums than stringed instruments. “Satz 1” shifts from these long surges of sound to more active passages, and then back again, but the overall feeling is one of hypnotic trance, suffused with a steadily rising tension that climaxes with the players blowing gym-coach whistles to signal the end of the movement.

“Satz 2” seems at first to be a clone of its predecessor — long drones, wavering melodies, etc. — but at the eight-minute mark it stops dead with almost startling suddenness. There’s about a minute of Dracula’s-castle moodiness, then another very brief pause, followed by dense drones that could soundtrack a movie about a haunted space station. In the movement’s final minutes, it settles down and becomes more conventionally beautiful, with deep cello drones providing a sort of slow pulse.

“Satz 3” abandons all that has come before. Its first two minutes are a series of tentative scratchings and creaks, as though someone has turned the lights out and the musicians are being forced to reacquaint themselves with their instruments by touch alone. But at the two-minute mark, it erupts into a bracing almost free-jazz explosion, each player heading off in his or her own direction with loud stabs and searing runs across the neck. At the five-minute mark, the gym-coach whistles return, blasting through what would otherwise be a very nice passage of Philip Glass-style ripples and drones. When the movement ends, we hear applause from the audience for the first time.

In its second half the piece shifts into a different mode, related to what’s come before but somehow separate from it. There are moments that are very beautiful, but they frequently seem like references to something heard before, from the pen of a different composer. “Satz 5” is something special, a piece that could stand on its own. It’s driven by a melody that sounds like a parody of an 18th century dance piece, complete with stomping sounds; it’s easy to imagine it being used in a satirical period film like Yorgos Lanthimos‘s The Favourite. “Satz 6” brings the piece to a satisfactory end in a shimmering drone-cloud that gradually grows softer and softer, like mist blowing out of the room.

Taken as a whole, Albertina Quartett is an interesting experience. It has the kind of pseudo-religious aspect that’s common to a lot of art these days, adopting the tropes and gestures of spirituality without asserting any actual doctrine or belief. It attempts to affect the listener’s mind and heart through duration and carefully chosen tones, but actually sitting through it live might not be the most pleasant experience, especially when the musicians start blowing their whistles.

Phil Freeman

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