About this Recording
8.572444 - OTTE, H.: Buch der Klange (Das) (The Book of Sounds) (van Raat)

Hans Otte (1926–2007)
Das Buch der Klänge (The Book of Sounds)


“This ‘Book of Sounds’ rediscovers the listener as a partner of sound and silence, who in the quest for his world, wishes for once to be totally at one with sound. It rediscovers the piano as an instrument of timbre and tuneful sound with all its possibilities of dynamics, colour and resonance. The ‘Book of Sounds’ rediscovers playing as the possibility of experiencing oneself in sound, of becoming at one in time and space with all the sounds around one. It rediscovers a world of consonant experience which could only now be written because of a totally changed consciousness of sounds on earth.”
Hans Otte

These striking words seem to establish a relationship between two phenomena from two supposedly irreconcilable twentieth-century art movements: the focus on sound itself, as propagated by avant-garde composers such as John Cage and Helmut Lachenmann, and the introspective search for one’s self on the other hand, as disseminated by composers in the more recent New Spiritual trend, such as Arvo Pärt and Sir John Tavener. The result is, arguably, one of the most hauntingly beautiful, original and artistically genuine piano compositions of the twentieth century.

Upon listening one’s way through the seventy-minute sound journey, the listener will, in all probability, notice more apparent incongruities. The music sounds strikingly simple on the surface, yet its many minute details in sound colour and layering exhibit deeper levels as time unfolds. At certain times the music reminds one of the American minimalists such as Steve Reich and John Adams (for example movements I, II, X), but it ultimately lacks every literal and objective repetition. At other times, one seems for a moment to have plunged into the objective dissonant world of modernism (such as movements IV and VIII); the almost obsessive texturing in those sections, however, makes us realise that in fact it is a sense of drama which its sounds try to convey. Even from a compositional point of view, the different movements of The Book of Sounds seem as contradictory as the black and white keys of the piano: while some movements (such as I, IX and XII) are composed using only the white keys of the instrument and the church modes of Gregorian chant, others (especially III, VI and VIII) make extensive use of black keys to produce highly chromatic, often Messiaen-like harmonies as a result of bitonality and Wagnerian suspensions. And yet, through a consistent concept of the flow of energy, sound versus silence, kaleidoscopic changes of colour, a general lack of bass notes and a natural progression through very different emotions, the music stays consistent.

The biographical background of the one man behind these sounds and silences, Hans Otte, puts the work in a more understandable context. Otte was born to musical parents; both were amateur musicians and his mother became his first piano teacher. Already at an early age Otte was recognised as a piano and organ prodigy, which resulted after the Second World War in a grant from the United States to study organ and composition at Yale University. He became a composition student of Paul Hindemith while studying the organ with Fernando Germani at the same time. His natural ear for colour and understanding of harmony as an organist would later be easily traceable in The Book of Sounds.

Upon returning to Germany, Otte was offered a position as organist of the church of Santa Cecilia in Rome. With that job he would follow in the footsteps of Claudio Monteverdi, but he refused, preferring to refine his piano talents instead. He therefore went on to study piano between 1954 and 1956 in his native country as a student of the pianist Walter Gieseking (1895–1956), especially known for his interpretations of piano works by Debussy and Ravel. Studying the Classical, Romantic and French ‘impressionist’ repertoire with this masterly musician strongly established Otte’s relationship with tradition, while continuing to develop his sense of l’art de toucher le piano and the musical impact of sound colour in general. Otte’s heritage as a pianist would later become obvious in his The Book of Sounds by the many echoes of core composers of the past, such as Schubert, Chopin, Mussorgsky, Debussy, Satie and Messiaen.

In 1959 Otte was offered a job as department head of classical music by Radio Bremen. He was the youngest person the radio station ever employed in that specific function. Otte soon founded two festivals which proved of historical importance: pro musica antiqua, dedicated to Early Music, and pro musica nova. The last-mentioned festival was fully dedicated to ‘New Music’ and became an annual event from 1959 to 1984, during which Otte commissioned and introduced many of the best composers of the twentieth century for the first time in Germany, such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Olivier Messiaen. Perhaps even more characteristic, however, was Otte’s deep commitment to American music, some of which was hardly known in Europe at that time. It was Otte who brought not only Conlon Nancarrow, Terry Riley, LaMonte Young and Steve Reich to European audiences, but also such diverse musicians as pianist Keith Jarrett, and John Cage with whom he developed a deep artistic and personal friendship. Propagating such a huge diversity of styles by different composers made him fully aware of his own musical personality. Whether it was the emotional effect of minimalism that so much struck him, or the Cagean concepts of sound and silence, or the static, peaceful qualities of music from the East, Otte was amongst the first to fathom the importance of new or unknown art streams, which he fully integrated in his own compositional style as demonstrated by The Book of Sounds.

Hans Otte always kept composing and performing as a pianist, but his striking modesty prevented him from exhibiting himself to the world as a composer. In the latter rôle, Otte created instrumental, vocal and orchestral music, next to the creation of several multimedia installations. Many of his early works, such as Passages (1965) for piano and orchestra or Zero (1972) for choir and orchestra, were initially written in a modernist style. As is already apparent in those works, however, Otte always refused to discard tonality completely, characteristically letting traces of traditional tonality trickle through the otherwise dissonant, serialist textures. This unorthodox, open-minded treatment of musical material created great moments of tension, which returned again in The Book of Sounds and later compositions.

For Otte, composing was a slow process of perfection, taking place through the deepest levels of personality, musicality, individuality and consciousness. With The Book of Sounds, all the musical experiences and beliefs he gained over many years culminated in a single large cycle for his beloved, true instrument, the piano. After the age of mathematical serialism, the composer felt a great need to return to the traditional powerful dichotomy between consonant and dissonant harmony, letting the colours slowly fill the heavens in a most natural, unbridled and ultimately peaceful way. His efforts resulted in an intensely personal and intimate document of a human being: a book of sounds celebrating life in all its colours. A true labour of love.

Ralph van Raat

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