Christoph Herndler: A rose is a rose is…, Organ Music (2009 – 2019)


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    Describing Christoph Herndler’s pieces, which were recorded by the organist Wolfgang Kogert, as organ works is only partially accurate. Although Herndler is also an accomplished organist and has adapted the pieces in question specifically for the organ, as a composer he operates on a more abstract level, developing what are known as notation graphics – sometimes even three-dimensional notation objects – that typically do not specify instrumentation and do not necessarily require the graphic structures to be used as the starting point for a musical interpretation. These graphics could just as easily be used for dance or to control camera movements – Herndler refers to them as “media-crossing interfaces” – and he has even created a notation graphic that could be used to distill schnapps. Before we delve further into the organ pieces, it’s important to first examine his notation practices.
    Christoph Herndler’s notation graphics differ significantly from the graphic notation or graphic scores that characterized the avant-gardes of the 20th century. However, his teacher Roman Haubenstock-Ramati, who belonged to this tradition, was a major influence on him. Herndler learned that the standard notation system that had been established in Europe since the 17th century, although widely adopted, was not an inevitable or inescapable symbol system. Herndler’s graphics do not visualize musical progressions; they merely codify possible progressions. The notation graphics resemble geometric-abstract art and aim to “reveal the form within the notation itself” through minimal means. Herndler prefers square arrangements, allowing for four equally valid reading directions when the graphic is rotated. He often presents his notation graphics as a sequence of such squares that combine to form a larger square, such as a 16-part structure. The individual parts of these structures do not create stark contrasts, but rather visualize subtle deviations and gradual transitions. Arrows change direction, and graphics made up of different shades of gray gradually become darker or lighter. Herndler’s music is also characterized by slow movements, gradually emerging patterns, and other features that correspond to the ethos of his notation graphics.
    The abstract symbols in Herndler’s notation graphics can be interpreted in various ways to produce different sound qualities or performance instructions, depending on the preferences of the performer. However, the form is always transparent and visible at a glance in the notation graphic. Herndler does not intend to keep the “dominant knowledge” of how the music is made a secret. Nevertheless, he emphasizes that those who use a Herndler notation graphic as the basis for their music-making should not follow the “recipe” of the graphic to create a written score that is then performed like any other piece. Instead, they should always keep the original notation graphic in mind while considering the abstraction steps.

    “At the beginning, the interpreter is free and must choose one of many paths. However, once the ‘stone’ is set in motion, its path is decided and follows strictly ordered criteria. The sound itself, however, remains undetermined,” writes Christoph Herndler. When he rehearses his pieces himself, he brings his own aesthetic ideas to the table, which he refers to as “taste”. The authority of the composer is no longer clearly defined: “If notation reveals the form, the interpreter is seen in a different light. He appears not only in the function of the performer but also as a decisive interpreter of the form itself.”
    How can Christoph Herndler’s notation graphics be used to play his compositions on the organ? Gerd Zacher, one of the most important organists of the postwar avant-garde and a composer himself, once described the organ as a composition – a “stockpile of possibilities, just like a new composition is today. And like the composition, the organ only becomes a reality of sound when it is played.” In this sense, the organ is uniquely suited to Herndler’s compositional approach. The “organ works” presented here are not simply arbitrary applications of notation graphics to the organ. Rather, the graphics and their interpretations are specifically tailored to the “composition” of the organ.

    The piece “a rose is a rose is …” (2017) is developed from an archetype that is exceptionally simple: a square made up of 16 squares, some with complete sides and some with incomplete sides, and one position where the figure is completely invisible. Nothing in this initial form suggests the organ, and instructions for other instruments could be derived from it. Herndler then derived a “1st generation” of notation graphics based on this archetype, in which the line elements of the archetype are attached to the black squares, rotated 90 degrees, and appear in all four positions. The specific interpretation for the organ comes into play with these graphics, and Herndler provides the following guidelines: “The lines (…) are realized on the manuals and with the stop knobs, and the black squares with the pedal.” Or: “Four notes in the pedal are defined so that they can be played as a four-part chord. Each of the four black squares is assigned one of the pedal notes. Depending on the appearance of the black squares, the corresponding notes (…) are struck and held until the end of the element.” The notation graphics also indicate when and at what speed the stop knobs should be used. However, pitch and timbre are not specified. According to Herndler, “determined indeterminacy” is the foundation of this music.

    In the case of “Taktzittern” (2015/19), Herndler does not intend to pre-determine the sound of the organ piece. Instead, he allows for a range of possibilities during a performance, where the sound field can be either homogenous or disparate, determined by sounds that may either hardly differ from each other or contrast strongly. The “interpretive taste of the performers” is intended to come into play here, providing them with the freedom to shape the sound according to their own preferences. The structure of the piece is clearly defined, with the square once again appearing as the basic form. The notation graphic consists of a grid of 4 x 4 squares, each made up of 4 horizontal lines. The lines are of varying lengths and correspond to sounds, which can be tones, chords or even noises. As the shortest line corresponds to a duration of at least 5 seconds, a slow basic tempo is predetermined, although it should not be executed with metronomic exactitude.
    In “Rondo” (2017), we once again encounter the archetype known from a rose is a rose is… However, here Herndler himself makes a translation into a concrete notation. The piece consists of 21 sequences that derive their material from six four-part sound groups, with the four-part structure derived from the four side lines of the archetype square. “The notation graphic is successively placed in its four positions and read in a fixed order (e.g. line by line from left to right). The 16 elements of the notation graphic are read once based on the material specified in a sequence. Then the notation graphic is rotated to its next position and executed again with the changed material of the next sequence.”

    In the case of “Asche” from 2019, the musical material is already reflected in the title, which is a tone row (a-es-c-h-e) that composer Rainer Riehn (1941–2015) claimed to have used as the basis for all of his compositions. This is also referenced in my radio piece Asche (Hessischer Rundfunk 2020), for which Christoph Herndler composed the music. Both in the radio piece and as an autonomous composition, asche is based on the notation graphic Übergang und Schnitt, which fixes 24 possibilities for the superimposition of four layers. Since the pitches in asche are fixed, the performer gains their freedom in the shaping of the timbres: “As in asche, it is not so much the ‘harmonic’ relationships spanned by the concrete pitch material that are in the foreground, but rather penetrating layers of sound, special attention is paid to registration.”
    The “Variations sérieuses variation” (2009) holds a special place in Herndler’s organ music as it represents his engagement with a historical notation text, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s Variations Sérieuses op. 54. After playing the theme from the Mendelssohn cycle, Herndler overlays a conceptual grid over the piece and chord structure – the variation does not embellish or expand on the theme, but rather focuses attention on the material. Herndler breaks down each chord into a tremolo between one or more notes of the right and left hands: “The individual chord notes are activated or deactivated one after the other (and never simultaneously). But before a new note is added or subtracted, the existing tremolo must be held for a while. When a note is faded out and has disappeared, the new chord situation must be given just as much time as when a new note is added.” Variation as reduction, an overpainting with X-ray vision.

    Christoph Herndler’s notation graphics disrupt the routines of the music industry. Few others have engaged with this form of notation as intensively as Wolfgang Kogert, who has been in productive exchange with the composer for years, also as a stimulus and dedicatory recipient of pieces. He takes on the challenge of complexity, as in a rose is a rose is …, but is also open to a piece like asche, which offers him no chance to demonstrate technical brilliance. We can be curious to see where their dialogue will lead them.
    Florian Neuner, January 2023


    Wolfgang Kogert
    born in 1980 in Vienna, is considered as an extremely versatile performer. His repertoire ranges from the Robertsbridge Codex (1360) to the newest music. He is an organist at the traditional Viennese Hofburg Chapel and has been teaching at the University of Mozarteum Salzburg since 2015.
    In 2006, he won the International Wedstrijd Musica Antiqua in Bruges, and in 2013 he was an artist in residence at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris.
    He has an intense collaboration with numerous composers, including Friedrich Cerha, Younghi Pagh-Paan, and Wolfgang Mitterer.
    As a soloist, he has performed at the Palais des Beaux-Arts Bruxelles, the Stavanger Konserthus, and the Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall. He has been invited to churches such as Notre-Dame de Paris and the Freiburger Münster, and has worked with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien.


    Christoph Herndler
    born in 1964, studied composition with Roman Haubenstock-Ramati at the University of Music in Vienna. After several years of studies in the United States (Stanford, San Diego, Claremont), he returned to Austria in 1994, where he has since been living and working in Gaspoltshofen together with the artist Mary Fernety. In 1997, he founded the ensemble EIS. His works include graphic and intermedia scores that can also be realized in non-musical forms of representation, as well as notation objects, music installations, and video works.