Pression by Helmut Lachenmann

In the following paragraph, I would like to discuss the playing techniques and aesthetics of the work Pression by H. Lachemann. This work it is part of my degree project for the Salzburg - Dresden - Bern International Master's Degree in New Music.
The piece Pression was written in 1969 and dedicated to the cellist Werner Taube. Its second edition shows only small differences compared to its first edition. For this project I will take the first version as a reference because I am usually concerting with this version.
Pression is part of Lachenmann's second stylistic period, which he has defined with the term Musique Concrète Instrumental, characterizing an important aspect of his music: to explore and shape those sounds in the composition, which also sound in the mechanical process of conventional sound creation, but up to now as unavoidable working noises of the musician, as typical Everyday noises while listening to music were considered.
The aim of listening is what Lachenmann himself likes to call “Heiterkeit”: wide awake openness, free from commitments and (self-imposed) restrictions.
The term Musique Concréte Instrumental maintains a purely philosophical closeness to the genre of concrete music and the German genre of electronic music.
H. Lachemann worked in the mid 1960's in the electronic music studio in Ghent and it was in this period that he developed his concept of musique concréte to instruments which, very similar to the philosophy of Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Hemy, enhances the spectral sound of the instrument. Similar to Schaeffer and I. Xenakis, H. Lachemann was fascinated by the idea of "natural sounds events".
There are some aspects in which H.Lachenmann's genre is a little closer to the German electronic music movement than to the trend with musique concréte. Lachemanns intention is to draw attention to the circumstances that created a sound - its nucleus. In contrast, P. Schaeffer wants to hide the original sound or to work with the transformation of the sound. Lachenmann also approaches the philosophy of electronic music like breaking down a sound into its base components and reconstructing it in other possible ways.
This second stylistic period lasts till the end of 1970's but the philosophy of this composing stile remains in his mind and works till nowadays.

The idea of 'instrumental musique concréte' - i.e. sound as a message conveyed from its own mechanical origin, and so sounds as experiencie of energiy, marked the compositional material of my pieces between 1968 (TemA) and 1976(Accanto). It remains poat of my thinking as composer to this day... [1]
In order of being able to talk about the aesthetic of Pression, it is almost essential for me to mention the Darmstädter Ferienkurse. Darmstadt has an academic, professional and existential meaning in the career of Helmut Lachenmann and for many composers who were part of the summer courses. In the opening lines of "Composing in the Shadow of Darmstadt" Lachenmann writes:

Like it or not: we all bear the imprint - one way or another - of the Darmstadt experiencie and of discussions about what happened then (naturally, we are talking about the 1950s). All of us are- more or less consiosly- parricidal children of Darmstadt... [2]

The Darmstadt school was founded in 1945 by Wolfgang Steinecke, with the intention of reconstructing the German musical culture under attack by the Third Reich, which was attended by composers of the new generation.

The summer courses at Darmstadt were founded in 1946 with the intention of rebuilding German musical culture on an international basis in response to the nationalistic and narrow-minded attacks on modern music in Third Reich. At first, the programs were dominated by older composers whose music had been suppressed by the Nazis, such as Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, and Bela Bartok. But beginning around 1950, the concerts and workshops began to feature the works of a younger generation. It was these composers, who were born in the 1920s and came of age amid the destruction of World War II, who would constitute what came to be known as the "Darmstadt School. [3]

The differences of Darmstadt compared to traditional courses were very clear regarding its objectives. The kind of music where the compositional processes needed to justify its structure with its notation and its organization adjusted to norms in accordance with its traditional aesthetic was not accepted. There were neither auditory training nor music theory classes. The music that was practiced in Darmstadt was not contaminated by the music of an ancient society called bourgeois music.
Furthermore a few years later Darmstadt also had an influence in France, where IRCAM was created in the 1970s, founded by Pierre Boulez, who was also a student at Darmstadt.
Lachenmann attended Darmstadt for the first time in 1957. In that year he also personally met Luigi Nono, who would later become his teacher. Darmstadt is undoubtedly a post-World War II starting and breaking point, which opposes all traditional heritage, and I conclude that in one way or another the direction in which Darmstadt developed had a legacy in the philosophy and composition of Helmut Lachenmann. Pressure was played in 1972 in Darmtadt by Werner Taube.
Looking at the Pression score for the first time, we are confronted with a notation made by directional indications, signs and drawings that indicate the action to perform. In the first paragraph of the preface of the piece, Lachemann explicits Except for the places where pitches are notated in the traditional manner, the notation of this piece does not indicate the sounds, but the player's actions, i.e. at what place on the instrument the right hand (bowing: note-stems point up) and left hand (stems point downwards) should operate... (Preface of Pression).

Regarding the notation, a non-traditional key is seen first, which translates the location on the instrument where to create the action. Lachenmann has named this key 'Bridge clef'. This key appears 15 times in the score, some with the same register of the instrument but with a new action in the left hand. Many of these sections are supported with indications and drawings that show, for example, the action to be performed with the bow stick.
The piece requires a scordatura, A-flat for the IV string, the III string stays as G, the II string changes to D-flat and the I string must be tuned a big third down to F. This scordatura was taken from the piece "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" by G. Mahler. Seen academically, the scordatura represents a double dominant.
I would like to briefly mention one of the aspects that personally fascinates me most in the compositions of Helmut Lachemann which are the transitions. In Pression each transition from one technique to another has a connection that maintains the tension and gives the work a particular shape.
Once I received a feedback on a composition of mine from a composition teacher, which was precisely referring to the transitions in my piece. He told me that Lachemann, as a teacher, used to deliver two very different extracts to his students with the objective to build a transition for those two extracts.
When studying the piece, the biggest difficulty as a performer is how to audibly project some of the actions, taking into account the distance from the listener in a concert hall. In my opinion there are actions that have been difficult in this sense, such as actions with the bow stick.
I think that Lachenmann plays a lot with the audible range and even the piece is not only a challenge for the interpreter but also for the listener. I personally find this aspect very important in Lachenmann's philosophy. Listening to Pression is an action that requires a disposition as a listener that is very different from the usual one.
In this sense, I am not only referring to the volume ranges of the actions, but also to the listening and perception of the sound itself. Each sound produced in this piece has a beauty, often difficult to find in a first impression since our ears are used to listening to traditional music. I personally think that Lachenmann is very aware in this sense and the act of listening is seen by him as an almost existential action. I would like to quote a paragraph from the article Composer in Interview by David Ryan to Helmut Lachemann.

(Question by D.Ryan)You have also suggested (in the case of the cello piece Pression) that particular pieces offer an address to listen 'differently', and that such an address, in relation to experiencing a 'musical coherence in the light of a thus consciosly designed concept of material should mean: to experiencie oneself.' Whats exactly does this 'experiencing of oneself' imply?
(Answer by H.Lachenmann)That is difficult to put into words. But all of those who set themselves a genuine challenge, be it the climbing of a mountain, the crossing of a desert, a demanding mental or sporting achivement, all those who expose themselves to whichever existential outer limits, who drive themselves into the unkown, who 'had to overleap their own shadow' - they know what it means to discover oneself. Our hearing is truly challenged or 'provoked' by the unconventional...


  1. Ryan, David. Composer in Interview: Helmut Lachenmann. Tempo New Series , No.210 (Oct., 1999), pp.20-24.
  2. Lachenmann, H. (2004). Composing in the shadow of Darmstadt. Contemporany Music Review. Vol. 23, No. 3/4, September/December 2004, pp. 43.
  3. The music of the darmstadt school: an introduction. (s.f.). Overview. Accessed 06 September 2022,
  4. Helmut Lachenmann "Pression" with Lucas Fels. Overview. Accessed 06 September 2022. Helmut Lachenmann "Pression" with Lucas Fels.

This section that I played is the last line of the first page till the end of the second page. The indication for the bow is to be close to the bridge and it should be played soundless. The action of the right and left hand are independent. For the left hand the indication shows the direction of the movement. It should be played with the fingertip like flageolet. The first dynamic indication appears for the action with the thumb, which should be stronger. The second technique is on the bow stick. There are two sound qualities to find. The third technique is on the string but the bow makes a unusual vertical movement. For the left hand there is an indication for the position on the bow stick. 1/2, 1/4, 1/8 and the whole bow. In combination with the movement it is possible to listen a beautiful glissandi.

At the beginning it is possible to hear some glissandi with the change of the position of the left hand. The fourth technique works under the bridge. It is one of the louder techniques of the piece. The previous section of this technique had a dynamic of fff and the change of bow should be long as possible. For this section Lachemann gives a timing of 60 second at least. The place works with an intensive pressure.

Here we listen the end of the previous section. The fifth section is a suddenly hit on the fingerboard that will be the end the last action. This technique overlaps the sixth section which is to find on the bridge. This section is a crossing to the next section col legno saltato of the strings.

In this section you can find a new key. The pitch should be changed but without an exactly pitch. This section is a mixture of sounds of the string, bridge and soundboard of the cello. On all of these three parts of the cello it is possible to find different sound pitches.

The development of sound on the soundboard can be worked on with the bow and the left hand. The left hand should scratch on the soundboard with close fingers. For the section on the tailpiece Lachenmann wrote dolcissimo and it should be played with less pression. At the end of this section you can see the first pause and fermata. After the fermata are four bars in that you can find previous techniques and the bow should go for a minimal distance away from the bridge where it is possible to identify a bit the pitch. It is like the beginning of a big section where we listen a more concrete or traditional sound.

After a big crossing you can listen the more traditional cello sound in the piece. The D-flat on the second string will be accompanied with an unisono on the G string which should only minimal change to create beats. Then we come back to the previous technique which ends with a saltato on the bow and the left hand goes back to the first technique of the piece. In all the section we can listen the essence of the scordatura of the piece.

This section overlaps harmonics con legno bat. and the technique in the left hand which can found at the beginning of the piece. This will stay until the end of the piece. Possibilities of harmonics are abundant because the scordatura. The exact pitch can be chosen by the cellist.

First we listen a legno batuto on the IV string and pizzicato of the three other open strings that is played with the left hand. The bow should be changed to the other string and take the movement of the string. That creates a light buzzing because of the contact with the bow stick. In the last three bars you can see two new technique. One is a pizzicato on the section of the peg box and the second is a bartok pizzicato on the second string. Together with the bartok pizz. the bow makes a saltato and goes to the bridge with a diminuendo.