The Composer Jan Müller-Wieland

"Vers la flamme"
An Essay on the Composer Jan Müller-Wieland
(Prof. em. Peter Becker | Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien Hannover)

A creative point of departure was granted to present-day composers in their mid-forties that, with its signum of freedom and pluralistic variety, must have seemed as liberating as it was disturbing. Jan Müller-Wieland, born in 1966 in Hamburg and Professor of Composition at the Munich Academy of Music since 2007, is one of these. To be more precise: he is one of those who have made the terse diagnosis of the times "everything in the flow!" the motto of their artistic production, opposing it to the tempting post-modern slogan "anything goes!" This metaphor refers to a conception of musical poetics that owns up to the historicity of art, meaning its origins and significance for the future: "I am interested in music that looks ahead through the retrospective view. A future without a past is inconceivable for me." (J.M.-W.) Thus the composer locates his production in the great stream of history, just as, on the other hand, histories are inscribed in many of his works (including the instrumental music), communicating to the listener more or less as a narrative residua: "All my pieces are rhapsodies." Three mentors - Friedhelm Döhl, Hans Werner Henze and Oliver Knussen - each from his own aesthetic position, accompanied the years or travel and apprenticeship of Müller-Wieland who, encouraged with numerous prizes and stipends, would soon find his way to the creative eruptions of the years of mastery. The early works already show that this "flow" would not degenerate into the mainstream. Without any fear of contact and with a palpable zest for the humorous breaking of taboos - already in his first opera "Das Gastspiel" ("The Guest Appearance") based on Frank Wedekind's farce "Der Kammersänger" (1991) - the uncompromising composer leaves the "grey areas of dismay [...] and allows room for laughter without leaving out the false bottom." (H.W. Henze) Such ambiguity is also communicated to the listener when, for example, mockery and grief, the sublime and the grotesque, bright and dark, nonsense and profundity are brought close together in Müller-Wieland's comic opera "Der Held der westlichen Welt" ("The Hero of the Western World") based on John Millington Synge (2004/2005). The false bottom laid with many scores becomes a trapdoor to the all-too-pondered Kafka exegetes in "Rotpeters Trinklied" for high baritone and piano based on the story "Ein Bericht für eine Akademie"("A Report for an Academy") (2004). In this musical homage to Kafka, the composer's predilection for the grotesque - composed in gaudy colours - is confronted with the disturbing and abysmal elements of the text: Kafka's ape becomes a brother-in-suffering to Job, whose lament in the oratorio-like melodrama "König der Nacht" ("King of the Night"), based on the book "Job" (2002/03), in turn becomes a kind of drinking song: "The loud accents of the winds symbolise the counter on which Job bangs his head." (J.M.-W.) In such clair-obscur, of which there are many varieties in Müller-Wieland's works, Elias Canetti's word on "mottled reality" seems to echo, just as the avowal of the great models - the spiritually akin Schubert, Janácek and Mahler - is unmistakeable. As an instrumentalist (piano, double bass) and conductor, Müller-Wieland is frequently his own advocate as well, and he emphasises, both audibly and visually, his conception of music and a "corporeal language, a language created by the body." In addition, an ever-present percussive element is attested through the proximity of many of his works to the scenic - in a more or less vegetative blossoming and fading of the musical shapes and in the incredible sonic sensuality of the scores of his music as "corporeal language." This kind of view from the outside corresponds to the view towards the inside with Müller-Wieland: "Composing means living out the driving force and the life of the soul. Time and again, it always has to do with escape attempts and declarations of love - with ties and separations." Thus composing becomes for him an existential experience, the ever-new attempt to say "I" in the medium of music, an opportunity and task to remain alive in a human way. His testing ground meanwhile includes over 90 works, including twelve stage works and four symphonies, orchestral and chamber works as well as vocal music. This last-named category spans an oeuvre with the vox humana of enormous variety in its choice of subject, highly inspired in the musical realisation, ranging from the first song cycle "Yamin" to poems of Peter Härtling (1985/87) to the "Liebeszene. Casa Verdi" (for mezzo soprano and piano based on Schumann's Op. 42 [Chamisso] and "Last Words of My Grandmother", 2010). In the lieder and songs to texts of Michelangelo ("Tre Canzoni si Liriche di Michelangelo Buonarroti for tenor and piano", 1989) and Frank Lanzendörfer ("Flanzendörfer-Wrackmente" for baritone and string quartet, 1993), the music often painfully cuts itself into the body of the poems, carrying the words away over abysses or remaining silent around its imaginary centre. Such a lied-shadow falls upon a landscape of works of an utterly singular character and a rhetorical power second to none. This music is a balancing act, walking on that narrow edge that separates the comic from the tragic, dream from reality, the inside from the outside and, at the same time, allows them to merge into one another. To follow it on this edge is to embark upon a fascinating adventure that begins with listening and never reaches an end, as far as reflection and further thinking are concerned. It resembles the adventure that Jan Müller-Wieland sees himself undertaking when listening to his "desert island disc," the tone poem "Vers la flamme", Op. 72 of Alexander Scriabin played by Vladimir Horowitz. His reason: "… for the sweep and breath that lives here is like the flight of an eagle, one of a dying breed, into our damned time - against the flame."

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