Mathias Knauer

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El pueblo nunca muere

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Erniedrigt - geknechtet - verlassen - verachtet...

for solo voices, choir, orchestra and tapes

It is no longer acceptable today to create hermetic art for an ideal future. Cardenal’s call "Stand up everyone, also the dead!" concerns – not least – also the artist, also him who would believe that it’s enough to occupy himself with composition as a possible means of self-realisation, as if this art were autonomous.

"Now is not the time for literary criticism, nor for surrealistic poems against military dictators. And why write metaphors when slavery is no metaphor, nor is death in the river das Mortes and nor is the death-squadron?"

(Ernesto Cardenal: letter to monsignore Casaldáliga)

The challenge presented by the concrete circumstances of our time, is so overpowering that we – not only we artists – stand back as if paralysed. And by this I refer certainly not only to the reality of the third world but just as much to the reality of our own and to that which one calls the fourth: the outcast, oppressed, the fringe-dwellers of our own cities and countries.

As far as I’m concerned, I can only say that these demands were so overpowering, that already in the preparation phase, as I tried to put together texts for this work, they produced in me the symptoms of work-paralysis, indeed the impulse to play dead. And still now, months after the work has been completed, my pen fails me somehow when I try to express myself on the subject of concept and the working process: I am well aware of the absurdity of my situation as a composer in the midst of this saturated, super-saturated, ever more insanely nuclear-armed Europe. I have tried to incorporate this basic contradiction, with its whole accompanying neurosis, which afflicts us all when we approach such a subject, into my composing.

I try, in the music I make, to reach, to awaken here and now the awareness of my contemporaries, my brothers and sisters who – like all of us – have become sleeping accomplices to worldwide exploitation.

And that with a no lesser demand than this: to break open and to shake their thoughts and feelings, and be it only provisionally, like a flash of lightening, for a couple of seconds, never more to be forgotten.

I willingly admit that this demand reaches quite some extent beyond the mirror function of art. Exactly to that extent that the principal of hope can dawn on the horizon – the concrete Utopia: the changing of the future through the present. At the beginning of my work, which I have dedicated to Ernesto Cardenal and Ernest Bour, stuttering muteness and lascerating scream stand in direct confrontation to each other. This is the only way for me to express myself musically congruently with the beginning of the Passion psalm: "My God, why have you forsaken me..."

The collision of extreme pianissimo (on the limit of audibility) and extreme fortissimo (on the pain threshold) remains centrally significant for the whole work, designates the space between muteness and cry and indicates the direction of this music as a Passion of the exploited, oppressed people of our time.0

part i:
In the psalm text which in Cardenal’s adaptation seems to be ever more concretely transposed into the present, I have integrated the four words of the work’s title (from the Communist Manifesto) which repeatedly return. This layer of the text which threads itself through the whole first part in smaller or larger fragments – in German, English, Spanish – is taken over exclusively by the large choir in a multiple-part homophonic phrase. This is so to speak the objective historical background against which the Passion of the foundry worker Knobloch takes place. The choral phrases are often partly or almost completely covered by the turbulent proceedings in the foreground – the one with the other continually connected by means of tape recordings of choral and speaking voices, the sound of which approaches more and more that of a steel foundry (vocodering). In this way the objectifying background layer acquires the character of a cantus firmus in passacaglia-like enchainment, a cantus firmus which however seems constantly under threat of asphyxiation.

The report of the foundry worker evokes in its musical form a monstrous machinery realized through the dividing up of the remaining performers into seven vocal-instrumental groups. These groups "work" under four conductors in different, constantly changing "work-tempi": a cruelly mindless interdependence in which Knobloch’s imploring call "Believe me, People..." threatens to perish.

Sudden reversal of the message: the choir stepping out of the background takes over control as it announces the final liberation of all the oppressed. Step by step all the instruments and the 16 individual voices join in this song of hope. This is to be understood as an early, anticipatory reference to the hymn-like tutti of the last, the seventh section.

While the first part had as its theme exploitation in the centres of economic and industrial power with its hybris tending towards neurosis, the second part deals with the struggle for survival of a black woman in the Favelas of Brazil.

The diary inscriptions of Carolina Maria de Jesus which capture the suffering of a deprived woman in her daily struggle against hunger, thirst, injustice, the constant anxiety for the survival of her children, stands as an unyielding indictment in the foreground. I have left her testimony in Brazilian Portuguese.

Carolina is surrounded by four women (alto voices) who comment on her accusations and for a large part also translate them into German.

On a second level an objectifying, descriptive portrayal of the slums is given. It is illustrated by extracts from a poem of Cardenal’s in which he walks the narrow streets of Nicaragua’s slums Acahualinca. The musicalisation of this second layer of text is taken over by alternating ensembles of single voices.

The instruments in five changing groups, constitute a third interpretation level which in a certain way mediates between both layers of text. Alongside many noisy "street" instruments (scrap metal, tin cans, saucepan lids, roof tiles etc....) deep and deepest or high and highest registers and corresponding colours predominate, that is: the sound body remains empty and hollow, however much it torments itself.

part iii
exposes the consequences of total isolation using the example of the black American prisoner George Jackson.

His monologue, bottle up in himself, between outcry and muteness, is broken by several infiltrating fragments: Glimpses of a torture scene, almost stifled, as if behind walls, the words taken from two poems by Cardenal. A third layer builds up out of loud orchestral pulsations an escape-proof, locked "time cage", all the chordal material for which is derived from the patriotic hymn "O say! Can you see...".

The orchestral pulses are made sharper by the beating of leather switches on stirring-drums, tom toms, timpanis, leather cushions ... not only the torture scene is fragmented in this way – four cellos, through abrupt switch-overs attack individual voi-
ces –, Jackson’s voice too is ruthlessly chopped-up, beaten, rubbished...

part iv
brings the confrontation of the people, rising up from oppression and darkness, with the brutal repression of the military. All the performers are divided into two principal groups: piccolos, brass instruments, prepared piano, percussion and a small number of strings constitute the massive repression group, which in nine separate utterances brutally tramples down any development of the music in the direction of liberating expression. Each repression-music entry is led in by "marching troops" on tape, to whose tempo each player must slavishly conform.

The other principal group raises itself up from trembling, stuttering, groaning beginnings to the ever greater strength of the liberation, in the end to outbreak and revolt. Finally they join in broad, swaying cantilenas in the confidence of freedom, in the high and highest registers, in great brilliance together.

A third – once again the objective historical – layer of text overlays the two principal groups: Extracts from a poem of Cardenal’s which records the terror of the National guard in opposition to the rural population. I have kept this layer of text exclusively for the choir, who, increasingly towards the end, convert to speaking, which here takes on expressive meaning.

part v,
which immediately follows – tied in by the almost inaudible continuity of the achieved marginal frequencies, while a very long fermata – is the germ/point of departure and goal/central point of the whole concept: the utopic prophecy of a world of freedom. It is proclaimed by a boy’s voice (Isaiah: "A small boy will lead them ...").

Cardenal’s adaptation of the 36th psalm avoids any romanticism, presenting on the contrary hard, concrete statements which the boy speaks, doesn’t sing, independently of an extremely gentle, introverted music. I already composed this part in May 1975 for small chamber ensemble, working into it a quote from J.S.Bach’s cantata no. 159. On the problem of this citation, suffice it to say here: my inclination is not to dismantle the historical citation. I would much rather reinterpret it, transpose it so to speak through the context of the music, which is consistently related to the present.

In the sixth part – which is connected to the previous one once again by a long fermata on the same marginal frequencies that already linked parts 4 and 5 - the utopian realm of freedom flashing brightly in the far distance, becomes concrete: The awakening of the people at day break in a land that looks with eager expectation towards a peaceful future. With the underlying poem, Cardenal came surprisingly close to the Matutin-poems of Ambrosius, writing at the same time however a text which clothes clearest political demands in the images of everyday activities. I have tried to devise an almost unnoticeable but continually changing sound pattern consisting of a sequence of only three multi-tone chords, which breathes through the constantly varying instrumentation, its gentle pulsations in the most different time levels.

Above this – on an independent level, the level so to speak of human activity – noises, sound droplets, comparatively concrete "animal calls" are spread out like a net. Into this fluctuating sound pattern, evoking awakening, I have composed as an additional net, human voices, calling to each other, integrated into the beginning of the day and the morning activities.

Here I should mention that parts 4 and 6 were composed beforehand between February and April 1979. Under the influence of the cruel suppression of the Nicaraguan liberation movement, I wrote these two movements in a purely instrumental version for fifteen players ("Ich singe ein Land, das bald geboren wird"). While part 4 was later dramatically reworked and extended I took over part 6 practically unchanged with the exception of the added vocal parts.

In an outbreak of great power, choir and individual voices join together in part vii in a hymn-like prosody. They scan in Spanish, supported by Knobloch, Carolina and Jackson, these terse sentences of Cardenal’s: "The People is immortal / Smiling it is leaving the morgue / I’m singing a land which is about to be born / The People never die." Above these choral lines the whole orchestra is spread out in four groupings. In total, with soloist, choir and individual voices there are thus once again seven groups as in part 1, here though - in contrast to the beginning of the work where great fragmentation predominated - uniting in a strong integrating whole.

Each instrumental group contributes in its own way to the "Hymn of the People": the first static-chordally by spreading out as the mother-sound, cluster-like, the tonal material of each section; the second through rhythmicised changes of the respective opening chords; the third and most important develops the underlying succession of intervals in an ostinato-like single voice, something like very widely spaced out strokes of a clock; and the fourth presents in sections – the choral lines overlayed – the resurrection chorale "Christ lag in Todesbanden" in one of the Bach movements, as a quote. Out of this citation I have developed the total tonal material of the seventh section: The resurrection hope of the chorale transposed into our present and secularized in the sounding of the strokes of a clock.

"Strophically" overlayed above the course of all this is a double playback of tapes which repeats, carries on and "spatializes" the chorale-like circling tendency of the music: "The People never die".


Finally a few remarks about the extreme complexity of this music and in connection with that, about the movement by movement changing orchestration of the work.

The music achieves most extreme complexity in the first movement, and that is, by a "Polytempic" which by means of simultaneous superimposition of layers gives rise to constantly changing different tempi. It is of course obvious that such a compositionally ruthless procedure with its multiplied polyphony of the different time levels, must have a negative effect on the (ostensible) intellegibility of the text. Now indeed the understanding of itself, the being understood, is precisely not a feature of the inhumane, hybrid work situation of our industrial society. How then can a composer, if he wants to stay concretely by the text, want at all to strive for a one to two-dimensional understanding of the text? The same applies to parts 2 and 4.

The simultaneous use of different languages should certainly also be mentioned in this connection. Only, in no sense do I see in it an artistic consequence of "not being able to understand each other" but rather, much more a recognition of the cultural and social identity of each language.

Now on the other hand however, a dramaturgical concept in the initial stages becomes effective, which simplified, could be formulated as follows: from most extreme complexity in Parts 1 and 2, to greatest possible compactness in Parts 6 and 7, or: from multiplied "pseudo" polyphony to "real", "connecting" polyphony.

Analogies can be seen in the spatial disposition of the performers. Thus for example the chamber music group which performs the fifth Part is placed – from the very beginning, that is, right in the turbulent first scene – in the middle of all the assembled performers, even though, as the weakest group, it is constantly threatened with being drowned out. When then – for the "mustard seed" – the boy enters, the pianist comes to the harpsichord, up to this point and also afterwards never-played, the principal conductor leaves his stand and steps back to the group, the function of this group is made unmistakably clear.

© Klaus Huber 1999