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DISAPPEARING SOUNDS: FRAGILITY IN THE MUSIC OF JAKOB ULLMANN1

Abstract
Abstract

The music of Jakob Ullmann (b. 1958) is notable for its protracted structural stasis and delicacy; its fusion of rigorously engineered notational systems, abstract graphical elements and Byzantine iconography; and – above all – its unrelenting quietness. This article offers a rare view into Ullmann's compositional practices, with a specific focus upon the role of fragility in the work. Exploring this concept of fragility as a musical feature, this article considers a number of Ullmann's works from the perspectives of the compositions and their scores, the performance and the agency of performers and, finally, how audiences may listen to this fragility. The article concludes with a consideration of the importance of fragility to Ullmann's oeuvre, and of how it might help us to further understand his music.

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1

I am grateful to Jakob Ullmann for his patience and kindness in our correspondence and to James Lavender for his invaluable thoughts on early drafts of this research.

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2 After an aborted attempt in 1990, Son Imaginaire III (1989) was only successfully premiered in 2013, at the Huddersfield contemporary music festival. Abi Bliss, ‘Jakob Ullmann: quiet please’, hcmf// 2013 programme material, http://www.hcmf.co.uk/Jakob-Ullmann-quiet-please (accessed 14 April 2015).

3 In the UK particularly, a cover profile in The Wire magazine has done a good deal towards introducing new audiences to Ullmann. See Cain Nick, ‘Jakob Ullmann: East of Eden’, in The Wire Issue 350 (April 2013), pp. 3843.

4 Cain, ‘Jakob Ullmann’, p. 42.

5 The importance in particular of Cage's influence upon Ullmann should not to be underestimated and deserves greater discussion. Their – for Ullmann, profound – meeting is succinctly commemorated in the work Meeting John Cage under the Tropic of the Late Eighties oder Wir Überholen die Moderne (1988–89).

6 Indeed, ‘palimpsest’ is also the title of Ullmann's work Komposition á 9 (Palimpsest) (1989–90), inspired by a fragmented radio broadcast of Anna Akhmatova's poetry. In Ullmann's voice, books and FIRE series (1990–), the palimpsest is manifested literally: the score is formed by layers of torn scraps of religious texts and cryptic icons, abstract shapes and colours burying musical instruction. The voice, books and FIRE series stands as a major coup in Ullmann's catalogue, and one I shall reserve for closer attention at a later date in another place.

7 The nomenclature ‘solo’ here is perhaps deliberately misleading, especially when considering that even a standard ‘solo’ organ performance requires an additional 3 assistants to operate all the manuals and stops as required.

8 The Edition RZ release, Fremde Zeit • Addendum [1–3] (Edition RZ, Ed. RZ 1026–28, 2012) features a recording of Solos I+II+III performed together, and an additional disc (Fremde Zeit • Addendum 4 • solo III für Orgel (Edition RZ, Ed. RZ 1029, 2013)) was later issued, featuring a solo performance of Solo III lasting around 66 minutes.

9 A number of Ullmann's larger works make use of some form of time–space notation, often employing time-brackets reminiscent of Cage's later number-pieces to breathe a temporal flexibility into the structures.

10 Hans-Peter Schulz, ‘About solo III’, accompanying essay to Fremde Zeit • Addendum 4 (Edition RZ, 2013), p. 1. http://www.edition-rz.de/Media/3/195/1/4348.pdf (accessed 14 April 2015).

11 There is some confusion surrounding the A Catalogue of Sounds score and parts. The original score was lost, and although the sketches are no longer extant, Albert Brier notes that the earlier version featured up to 13 additional solo parts. Parts 1–10 remain lost, whilst 11–13 have been recreated using fragments and extrapolations of the remaining string ensemble parts, creating a rather different role than the original versions. Albert Brier, ‘The Learning of the Ear: On Jakob Ullmann's Composition “A Catalogue of Sounds”’, CD liner notes in A Catalogue of Sounds (Berlin: Edition RZ, Ed. RZ 1017, 2005), pp. 8–9.

12 The system also prominently features in various forms in Disappearing Musics (1989–91), Horos Metéoros (2008–09), La Segunda Canción del Angel Desaparecido (2011–13) with a more primitive version appearing as far back as the first Komposition für Streichquartett (1985–86).

13 Jakob Ullmann in email correspondence with the author, 28 September 2013.

14 The influence of Xenakis' UPIC sketches is clear throughout Ullmann's use of graphics. It is also worth noting that Xenakis mentions a similar adoption of Greek-Byzantine pitch systems in his book Formalized Music. Iannis Xenakis, ‘Towards a Metamusic’ in Formalized Music, rev. edn (New York: Pendragon, 1992), pp. 180–201.

15 In the score to La Segunda Canción del Angel Desaparecido (2011–13), Ullmann employs a system of notation for small fluctuations in pitch, this time glissandi deviating (often within constraints of less than a quarter tone) relative to a proximal pitch.

16 ‘Eine Art Folterung des Instruments' [author's translation]. Molly McDolan quoted in Michael Kunkel, ‘Ankunft Basel, Badischer Bahnhof’, in Dreizehn 13 – Basels Badischer Bahnhof in Geschichte, Architektur und Musik, ed. Michael Kunkel (Saarbrücken: Pfau, 2012), p. 151.

17 Horos Metéoros is written for solo soprano, 3 choir groups, 3 auloi, oboe da caccia, percussion and string trio.

18 This includes changing reeds, using tape to partially cover fingering holes, biting down on the reed, and searching for alternate fingerings, which allow certain glissandi and overtones to sound. Kunkel, ‘Ankunft Basel’, p. 151.

19 ‘Damit bin ich im Wunderreich der Instabilität’ [author's translation] McDolan quoted in Kunkel, ‘Ankunft Basel’, p. 151.

20 Frank Hilberg, CD liner notes in Jakob Ullmann: Komposition Für Streichquartett / Komposition für Violine / Disappearing Musics, trans. by J. Bradford Robinson (Wergo, WER 6532–2, 1996), p. 21.

21 Jakob Ullmann, Fremde Zeit • Addendum 4 (2013).

22 Ullmann, in email correspondence with the author, 25 March 2014. [Ullmann's emphasis].

23 Ullmann, email 25 March 2014.

24 Schulz, ‘About solo III’, 2013, p. 1.

25 Schulz, ‘About solo III’ p. 1.

26 Schulz, ‘About solo III’, p. 2.

27 Schulz, ‘About solo III’ p. 1.

28 One is reminded of Marina Abramović and Ulay's performance artwork, Breathing In / Breathing Out (1977) in which the two performers – mouths connected and noses plugged – share each other's oxygen. With one breathing in as the other breathes out, eventually the pair runs out of oxygen.

29 It is worth nothing that these are not short pieces, but ambitious undertakings for both performers and audience: Ullmann's compositions since 2000 each have an average duration of just over 60 minutes.

30 Roland Barthes and Roland Havas, ‘Listening’, in The Responsibility of Forms (New York: Hill & Wang, 1985), p. 245. Emphasis in original.

31 Bernd Leukert, CD liner notes in Fremde Zeit • Addendum [1–3], trans. by Laurie Schwartz (Berlin, Edition RZ, 2012), p. 10.

32 A former railway station, now a performance centre for arts and new music in Switzerland.

33 Michel Chion, ‘The Acousmêtre’, in The Voice In Cinema, trans. by Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), pp. 17–29.

34 Specifically, they are both Aeschylus' and Euripides' telling of The Suppliants, sung in the original Greek.

1 I am grateful to Jakob Ullmann for his patience and kindness in our correspondence and to James Lavender for his invaluable thoughts on early drafts of this research.

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Tempo
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  • EISSN: 1478-2286
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