Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Heinz-Klaus Metzger

The critic/theorist/philosopher/musician Heinz-Klaus Metzger has died at the age of 77. Metzger trained to be a private piano teacher, then studied composition in Paris with Max Deutsch, a student of Schoenberg. Metzger's earliest allegiances were to the Schoenberg school and his theoretical bent brought him into early contact with Adorno.  The relationship to Adorno's work — more as sparring partner than as student (a collection of their correspondence is in preparation) — was far from simple and Metzger's article The Aging of the Philosophy of New Music (1957) — the title plays on the titles of an essay and a book by Adorno — was an important document of the Darmstadt moment, defining a critical break with prior musical practice that Adorno was never really able to comprehend.  

Metzger was one of the first public advocates for the work of Stockhausen, but also the first who would make a public break with the composer.   The disappointment with Stockhausen's development was largely replaced with Metzger's enthusiasm for the work of John Cage, whose work and ideas he promoted throughout years in which Cage and his music was otherwise unplayed in Germany.  Metzger founded, with his partner, the composer and conductor Rainer Riehn, the Ensemble Music Negativa, a loose grouping which played and recorded works by Cage and other American composers, including Feldman, Brown and Wolff.   In the late 1980's, the conductor Gary Bertini invited Metzger and Riehn to serve as dramaturgs at the Frankfurt Opera, and the two probably made a more significant musical and intellectual impact upon the house than Bertini himself, with their commission and production of Cage's Europeras 1 & 2 a landmark event. 

Metzger and Riehn also edited together, from 1977-2003, more than one hundred volumes in the series Musik-Konzepte, which was founded as a "polemic (Kampfschrift) against the prevailing absence of criteria."  This "series about composers" was, under their editorship, a unique instance of critical theory and solid musicology combined and, with a range in subjects from Perotin and Monteverdi through Cage, Nono and Lachenmann, also including some of the first serious scholarship and criticism about (then) less-well-known composers including Morton Feldman, Giacinto Scelsi, Hans Rott, and the Skryabinistes, and even included two important volumes on performance practice in Beethoven by Rudolph Kolisch.  

Metzger's own writings over the years (the most important are collected in a Suhrkamp volume Music wozu), were never prolific, declined in frequency in the later years, but he was always insightful.  About the Europeras, for example, which have truly beautiful orchestral music,  he cut to the chase with the observation that  he had always been told that there had been a diatonic and then a chromatic music, but that the instrumental parts — which were extracted from the instrumental parts to standard repertoire operas, many of them representing only inner voices and accompaniments — had made transparent how much of western classical music was composed of five, four, or fewer tones.

In the US, as a student, I had heard some vague stories about Metzger, some of them concerning his years in Cologne, where he, as an extended house guest (along with pianist David Tudor) of the artist Mary Bauermeister, was known to commandeer the bathtub on every Monday morning for long enough to read Der Spiegel from cover to cover, or at Darmstadt, where he provided virtuoso and edgy translation services in English, French, and Italian (Metzger was also a serious reader and collector of old Yiddish literature).   I had also heard some wild stories about Metzger's years with the composer Sylvano Bussotti and about his unique relationship to cash (he didn't touch it).  But it was Metzger's essay on Music in an Entertained Society that really impressed me, a coherent argument for quality in music and against its value-free commodification.

John Cage introduced me to Metzger in Darmstadt in 1990 and, though I never knew him very well, always enjoyed his slow-burning wit,  linguistic virtuosity and his mix of brilliance and eccentricity.  I was very happy to introduce him to the work of some of the American "new" musicologists and was honored that he asked me for a small essay for a Musik-Konzepte volume on the theme of progress.  But my favorite memory of Metzger was of a post-concert reception, in which we talked — both of use carefully avoiding the topic of the concert itself, which had not gone well — for a good hour about the decline in free reception food and what that said about western civilization.  


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