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  • Oliver Thurley


This article serves as an overview of Jakob Ullmann's voice, books and FIRE series, providing an examination of the cycle's scores, and the fragmented memories contained within. voice, books and FIRE stands monolithically in the composer's catalogue. The music – Ullmann refers to it as an ‘imaginary folklore’ – is presented through an elaborate notational system: partly effaced by layers of religious iconography, abstract imagery and fragments of religious texts and lists of names. The series (currently unfinished) serves as an elaborate memorial to the victims of Stalinist persecution as well as the demise of religious and cultural traditions across European history. In Ullmann's most ambitious and striking body of work to date, the score is encountered as a palimpsest – an overlaying and effacement of memory. The notion of the palimpsest is also traced through the music's performance and subsequent recording, assessing Ullmann's use of extreme quietness – a partial erasure – as a destabilising force for the performers, which ultimately renders the work fragile.



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1 Borges, Jorge Luis, ‘The Library of Babel’, in Fictions, trans. Hurley, Andrew (London: Penguin, 2000), p. 73 .

2 Benjamin, Walter, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, in Illuminations, ed. Arendt, Hannah, trans. Zorn, Harry (London: Pimlico, 1999), p. 248 .

3 Borges, ‘The Library of Babel’, p. 65.

4 Borges, ‘The Library of Babel’, p. 73. Ullmann describes his work as ‘imaginary folklore’ in his accompanying essay to voice, books and FIRE II (2004).

5 Thurley, Oliver, ‘Disappearing Sounds: Fragility in the Music of Jakob Ullmann’, TEMPO 69, no. 274 (2015), pp. 521 .

6 Jakob Ullmann, voice, books and FIRE II, accompanying essay to scores (2004).

7 Ullmann, voice, books and FIRE II, accompanying essay.

8 Silverman, Max, The Palimpsestic Memory: The Holocaust and Colonialism in French and Francophone Fiction and Film (New York: Berghahn, 2013), p. 4 .

9 Silverman, The Palimpsestic Memory, p. 4.

10 Frank Hilberg, CD liner notes in Jakob Ullmann: Komposition Für Streichquartett / Komposition für Violine / Disappearing Musics, trans. J. Bradford Robinson, Wergo, WER 6532-2, 1996, p. 16.

11 Silverman, The Palimpsestic Memory, p. 4.

12 Ullmann grew up in the German Democratic Republic, and spent his early composing career behind the Iron Curtain. For further information on Ullmann and his peers see Nauck, Gisela, ‘Ferment and New Departures: The Last Generation of East German Composers’, Contemporary Music Review 12, no. 1 (1995), pp. 4175 . Ullmann mentions his experience hearing the radio broadcast in Jakob Ullmann, CD liner notes in Maderna / Ullmann / Hespos, trans. by Lynn Matheson, work in progress – Berlin, wipb 001, 1996, pp. 14–15.

13 ‘People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs’, the USSR's secret police from 1934 to 1946. Previously known as the OGPU (‘Joint State Political Directorate’).

14 Duffy, Carol Ann, introduction to Selected Poems, by Akhmatova, Anna (London: Vintage Classics, 2009), p. xvi .

15 Translator Robin Kemball notes that when Requiem was first published – outside Russia, in Berlin – it followed the ‘laconic absolvatur’: ‘This cycle of poems has been received from Russia and is published without the knowledge or consent of the author’. Kemball, Robin and Akhmatova, Anna, ‘Anna Akhmatova's “Requiem, 1935–1940”’, The Russian Review 33, no. 3 (1974), p. 303 .

16 Akhmatova, Anna, ‘Requiem’ in Selected Poems, trans. Thomas, D.M. (London: Vintage Classics, 2009), p. 87 .

17 For a personal account of Ullmann's mistreatment, see Cain, Nick, ‘Jakob Ullmann: East of Eden’, The Wire 350 (April 2013), pp. 3843 .

18 Ullmann had previously worked with Akhmatova's writing, setting text in his 1984 piece MNIMA auf texte von Anna Achmatova. See Ullmann, liner notes in Maderna / Ullmann / Hespos, 16.

19 Kompostition à 9: Palimpsest is not, however, Ullmann's first politically concerned composition. Gisela Nauck highlights the 1987/88 work La CAnción del ÁnGEl Desaparecido in which not only the title, but the very dealing with sound, calls attention to the ‘Desaparecidos’ – the victims of forced disappearance, torture and murder – under military dictatorships of Central and South America. Gisela Nauck, ‘Hörräume gegen das Vergessen oder Zur Verantwortung der Musik: Einige Gedanken zu dem Zyklus “voice, books and FIRE”’ (2009), p. 2, available at (accessed 13 April 2016). Ullmann would continue to explore these themes in the follow-up piece La Segunda Canción del Angel Desaparecido (2011–13), and his setting of Borges’ 1943 short story ‘The Secret Miracle’ in PRAHA: Celetná – Karlova – Maiselova (2004–07) as well, of course, as in the voice, books and FIRE project.

20 It is notable that there is some irregularity in the numerical system of numbering these pieces. Properly titled, voice, books and FIRE is written in three parts – 1, II and 3 – where the first and final parts are numbered with an Arabic numeral system, whilst the second part features a Roman designation followed by an Arabic numeral for each subdivision (i.e. II/5).

21 Ullmann, email correspondence with the author, 16 April 2016.

22 A tentative date of completion is set for 2019, drawing the series to a close just shy of three decades. Ullmann, email correspondence with the author, 6 January 2015.

23 Jakob Ullmann, voice, books and FIRE 3, recorded by Ensemble für experimentelle Musik, Edition RZ, Ed. RZ 2005, 2008, compact disc.

24 This is not the first time Ullmann's scores have been lost or destroyed. The version of A Catalogue of Sounds (1995–97) that remains today is only a trace of the original. With the final score and sketches lost, Ullmann had to rewrite the piece and solos from memory or the few surviving sketches; an outline of the original.

25 From remaining information, it is clear that Part 1 was comprised of 14 pages of notation for the voice(s) and 20 pages for the optional instrumental parts, with a total duration of approximately 75 minutes.

26 Geoffrey Hosking, Foreword to Pyman, Avril, Pavel Florensky: A Quiet Genius; The Tragic and Extraordinary Life of Russia's Unknown Da Vinci (New York: Continuum, 2010), p. xviii .

27 Gustafson, Richard F., ‘Introduction to the Translation’, in Florensky, Pavel, The Pillar and Ground of Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters, trans. Jakim, Boris (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), pp. xixii .

28 Pyman, Pavel Florensky: A Quiet Genius, pp. 73–4.

29 Pyman, Pavel Florensky: A Quiet Genius, p. 206.

30 Pyman, Pavel Florensky: A Quiet Genius, p. 181.

31 Pyman, Pavel Florensky: A Quiet Genius, p. 209.

32 Pyman, Pavel Florensky: A Quiet Genius, p. 182.

33 Ullmann, voice, books and FIRE II/1, score, speaker's instructions. Ullmann sourced the names from MEMORIAL, the International Historical-Enlightenment Human Rights and Humanitarian Society. Noting the obvious incompleteness of the names, as well as some incorrect or missing information, Ullmann has attempted to highlight or correct where names have been partially or completely erased.

34 AI: down-stage-right; AII: centre-stage, behind the speakers; AIII: down-stage-left.

35 Cavanagh, Clare, Osip Mandelstam and the Modernist Creation of Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 135 .

36 Cavanagh, Osip Mandelstam.

37 Cavanagh, Osip Mandelstam, p. 130.

38 A feature common to a number of Ullmann's scores, parts are drawn in oblique projection, allowing a degree of three-dimensional notation.

39 This technique can be seen later in Ὄρος Μετεωρος. dramatisches fragment mit Aischylos und Euripides (Horos Metéoros) (2008–09). I have discussed its significance and effect elsewhere. See Thurley, ‘Disappearing Sounds’, pp. 16–17.

40 This technique – which builds upon melodic features from Byzantine music – can be seen to develop from Komposition für Streichquartett (1985–86) to its most rigorous exposition in A Catalogue of Sounds (1995–97), but can also be found in voice, books and FIRE II/4.

41 Ullmann indicates in the performance instructions that the intelligibility of the text is less important that the whispered delivery. Ullmann, voice, books and FIRE II/2, score, 1991–93.

42 Whilst electronic manipulation appears to be of little concern to Ullmann – some limited experiments with pre-recorded tape parts appear in Komposition für Streichquartett (1985–86), Symmetries on aleph zero 2 (Komposition für Violine) (1986–87) and later in PRAHA: Celetná – Karlova – Maiselova – a keen sense of spatial theatre can be found in Ullmann's work. voice, books and FIRE makes some effort in its careful placement of voices within the performance space, but Ullmann's most extreme spatial experiment is found in the operatic Horos Metéoros, where performers move about outside the performance space, hidden from the audience. Thurley, ‘Disappearing Sounds’, pp. 19–20.

43 The room plan – a geometrically obscure diagram featuring tetrahedra intersecting each other and (seemingly without explanation) floating abstract shapes – includes an orthographic aerial view of the performance space relative to clock position. It is these clock positions to which the diffusion codes relate, allowing Ullmann to specify areas of the performance space in which to pan sounds. For example, the sequence ‘R 9[11, 7, 6, 3]’ calls for the random movement between locations 11, 7, 6 and 3, whilst periodically returning to position 9. The instruction ‘6⇌11’ would simply signal a moving back and forth between positions 6 and 11.

44 Chion, Michel, ‘The Acousmêtre’, in The Voice in Cinema, trans. Gorbman, Claudia (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 1729 . As noted, Ullmann later experimented with incorporeal performers in Horos Metéoros wherein ensemble members were located outside the performance space inhabited by the audience. Thurley, ‘Disappearing Sounds’, pp. 19–20.

45 Jakob Ullmann, voice, books and FIRE II accompanying essay to score, 2004.

46 Jakob Ullmann, voice, books and FIRE II/4, score, 1996–99.

47 Ullmann, voice, books and FIRE II/4, score.

48 See Wellesz, Egon, ‘Byzantine Musical Notation II: The Neumes’ in A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography, second edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), pp. 261310 .

49 In reference to Ullmann's use of the system in A Catalogue of Sounds, though it is worth emphasising that here, the effects of the system become more pronounced as the voices employ these systems for harmonic, rather than simply melodic use. Thurley, ‘Disappearing Sounds’, pp. 10–13.

50 As a point of comparison, in standard twelve-tone equal temperament, a semi-tone interval would equate to around 5.8 of these units.

51 Thurley, ‘Disappearing Sounds’, pp. 10–11.

52 Thurley, ‘Disappearing Sounds’, p. 13.

53 Ullmann notes that due to the length of the performance, it may be necessary to use more voices. Ullmann, voice, books and FIRE II/4, score, 1996–99.

54 Pasternak was a close friend of both Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam.

55 There are two further religious poems in the cycle – ‘The Star of the Nativity’ and ‘Miracle’ – though Ullmann does not to set them here.

56 Mandelstam, Osip, poem no. 223 in Complete Poetry of Osip Emilevich Mandelstam, trans. Raffel, Burton and Burago, Alla (Albany: State University of New York Press‪, 1973), p. 188 .

57 Ullmann, voice, books and FIRE 3, score, 2004–06.

58 The Edition RZ recording features eight female voices and four instrumentalists: flute, saxophone, viola and cello.

59 Ullmann notes a particular exception here; where more than five voices are available – ‘especially if male voices take part’ – then one or more voices may hold a given single tone for the duration of each score page as a kind of ‘bordun-singing’. Ullmann, voice, books and FIRE 3, score, 2004–06.

60 Ullmann suggests in his performance notes that a minimum of three instruments are required in a performance that will include instruments. The preference is clearly for those instruments which are able to sustain tones, particularly stringed instruments which are given precisely notated fingerings to execute triple-stopped chords with artificial harmonics.

61 Ullmann, voice, books and FIRE 3, score, 2004–06.

62 Ullmann, voice, books and FIRE 3, score, 2004–06.

63 Visually, many of the abstract graphics found throughout the voice, books and FIRE project are evocative of Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky's (1866–1944) Bauhaus period (1922–1933), which dealt primarily with geometric shape and form. Works such as Blue (1922), Black Relationship (1924) and Heavy Circles (1927).

64 Ullmann, voice, books and FIRE II accompanying essay to score, 2004.

65 Thurley, ‘Disappearing Sounds’, p.7.

66 In Part 3, the effect of the performers’ interpretations of these obscured materials are attenuated by Ullmann's caveat that all changes must be carried out continuously and very slowly. This ensures that sharp or incongruent transitions – which might otherwise disturb the quiet and largely static nature of the performance – are avoided, and performers must in turn interpret their obscured notation in a controlled and ascetic manner.

67 Ullmann, email correspondence with the author, 16 April 2016.

68 Thurley, ‘Disappearing Sounds’, p. 18.

69 Ullmann, voice, books and FIRE 3, score, 2004–06.

70 Borges, Jorge Luis, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ in Fictions, trans. Hurley, Andrew (London: Penguin, 2000), pp. 1112 .

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