Having written works like the 3D opera Anna’s wake (1993), the music theatre video piece Silence moves (premiered in Dresden, 1997) as well as several large-scale collaborations with Helmut Oehring including Requiem (premiered in Donaueschingen, 1998) and the dance theatre work The House of Bernarda Alba (premiered in Basel/Rome/Berlin, 1999), this is Iris ter Schiphorst’s first orchestral composition. As befits her artistic career, which saw her play the piano, bass and drums in various rock bands and work as a composer – in addition to studying philosophy, cultural and theatre studies – it is a work which would not sit comfortably in the academic framework of orchestral music. Making no attempt to conceal its commitment to the sound and rhythm of rock and soul music, it swings between a hopeless melancholy and a devastating love of life. It is these two emotional states that dominate the seventeen-minute piece. The Ballad for Orchestra, as the proper title goes, was commissioned by the musica viva series in Munich and premiered by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich’s Herkules Hall on 12 February 2000 under the conductor Martyn Brabbins.
A ballad, as a genre, can refer to content or form. In the content meaning of the word, a ballad is a dramatic narrative; used to describe form, it means a seven-part rondo. In this work, so-called Machine sections alternate with Verses and nameless sections. The piece is concluded by a non-recurring Refrain. The individual sections are sharply cut out against each other, as if quarried out of the wider context, and form three large parts played without a pause, ie. attacca:
I BESSER (BETTER) (1st verse; Machine A; 2nd verse; Machine B )
II LESE (READ) (…; 3rd verse; …)
III LEBEN, DAS IST … (LIFE, THAT’S …) (Machine C; Refrain).
However, the musical narration represents by no means a sequential process. Rather it unfolds into emotional states, carrying them into oppressive depths and juxtaposing them with relentless realism. It is a general tencency of Iris ter Schiphorst’s works that they prefer tonal states with energetic sound fields to groups of notes which are arranged in order to achieve specific effects.
The abbreviated section headings, which seem to allude to something else, are taken from an anagram by Unica Zürn, a painter and writer born in Berlin in 1916 who was forced to leave Nazi Germany. In the 1950s, she sympathised with the surrealists in Paris; aged 60, she committed suicide.
The lapidary concluding line of the anagram used in the heading to the third part reads in full: “Life, that’s terrible.” The complete anagram provided in the score and allocated to the individual verses would literally translate as follows:
stick aces, laughing, (1st verse)
dirt in glaring light, pale as a shameful rope. (2nd verse)
plainly as a thick broom: (3rd verse)
This pointed statement, which, in ter Schiphorst’s work, implies a necessary abstraction, is condensed in the Ballad into a requiem on a “coincidence of time and space … with dramatic consequences” (Iris ter Schiphorst, quoted from the preface to the score of Ballad for Orchestra: HUNDERT KOMMA NULL in the composer’s private study score) at a 100,0 milestone.
The most striking features of this music are its extreme range of sounds, from shabby, broken notes to shrill and extremely loud ones, and sharply defined, ‘merciless’ structural cuts. This way of carrying things to extremes is reflected, for instance, in the use of the orchestra as a sound instrument. All the instrumental groups are dominated by low registers, with the brass instruments featuring prominently. The symphony orchestra (which is reduced in the middle range as there are no second violins, bassoons or violas) is extended by a prepared piano, sampling keyboard and three percussionists. The orchestra is never allowed to sound ‘nice’, due to the microphone instructions and performance markings – for example, “sick, shrouded, dark, yet longing, with plenty of noise”, “metallic, alien”, “moaning: indeterminate pitch, different each time”, “pizz. with plectrum”, “air only, sharp tear-off”, “squeeze, with rising pitch”, “fragile, every tone fading away”, “make it screech”, “dirty gliss.” – and, again and again, “moaning”, “middle-range moaning”, “low moaning”. These moaning sounds, produced in a heavy, painful way, are characteristic of the Machine sections, as are their orgiastic rhythms.
The core section of the Ballad, where the emotions of hopelessness and intense living are merged, breaks forth abruptly in the middle part, Lese, lasting only a few seconds. It is at this moment, at about half way through the composition, that the title line of James Brown’s breathtaking 1965 soul number, It’s a man’s, man’s world, is briefly interspersed. This moment is preceded by a stretch of hopelessness where time is brought to a standstill. Then, six seconds of murderous pathos, six seconds of keyboard-sampled James Brown, six seconds of a funeral march in a hurdy-gurdy sound, followed by fragments of notes and melodies, metal blows, immalleable elements, standstill, emptiness … and then the 3rd verse. In these twelve bars, a world comes apart. With this experience still ringing in our minds, the following, archaic Machine section loses its power, although it starts using exactly the same notes as in Parts A and B. The effect, however, is different. This way of composing, building on listeners’ experiences over the course of the work, seems to be characteristic of Iris ter Schiphorst’s music. The section Machine C eventually loses some of its structural consistency, being drained in repetitive chains. The confession of an unquenchable longing is all that remains.
The fact that emotional expression is possible again in such a straightforward and intense manner, without appearing nostalgic or worn out, is due to the integral musical thinking which forms the basis of Iris ter Schiphorst’s work as a composer. Everything which the composer’s critical ear finds useful is permitted – elements or experiences from rock or soul music, tonality, noisy sounds, extreme dissonances, melodies, clusters or repetition. And of course it is always a matter of her own personal sensibility and astonishingly imaginative use of sound.
All this contributes to a shift of expression towards a kind of emotional realism in which dying and death are expressed in a similarly unvarnished, strong language as the hollowness of the surviving: bleakness rather than grief, brutality rather than drama, reality rather than appearance. This realism, however, was bound to erode the old melodies and harmonies – it has caused the sounds to break apart and made them shabby and hollow. Instead of celebrating the expression of groaning, it is the sounds themselves that are groaning.
© Gisela Nauck, Positionen 2000 (translation: Andreas Goebel)
“The audience was intrigued to hear Iris ter Schiphorst’s first orchestral composition… Musically, she is rooted in avant-garde rock music, and it is impossible to miss the affinity of this new work, bearing the ultimate title Hundert Komma Null, to the best of rock (King Crimson, Univers Zero) in the three sections Machine A, B and C. The three-part work was inspired by an anagram (Life, that’s terrible) by Unica Zürn and is divided into three verses that are interspersed by three Machine sections and concluded by a refrain. The work is pervaded by a strong sense of structure. The verses have an air of brittle intimacy; they are like an anti-sentimental lamento, with a gossamer melos and piercingly thin wailing – hybrid figures between vibrato and glissando. This impression is brutally interrupted by the machines. The orchestra mutates into a courageous, collective metallophone, in fantastically violent instrumentation.” (Christoph Schlüren, Frankfurter Rundschau, 22 February 2000)
“Iris ter Schiphorst’s orchestral ballad HUNDERT KOMMA NULL, a commission by musica viva, was keenly applauded at the premiere. The composer makes effective use of sounds (piano, saw) while electronic elements remain in the background. In a few wonderful moments, weird brass instruments interrupt the music, similar to Mahler’s remote orchestra. Those elements are witty, refreshing and fun for the musicians, who were always comfortable, even in the midst of delicate rhythmic juxtapositions.” (Gabriele Luster, Münchner Merkur, 14 February 2000)
“A totally normal concert… nothing but pure bliss. An unpretentious conductor – Martyn Brabbins, hardly known outside Britain – combined attention to detail with wit and ironic understatement, and so brought the musicians of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra to fill the Munich Herkules Hall with a vividly playful performance. This alone is rare enough. It was partly due to a programme that was, compared with other musica viva concerts, unusually light, without the familiar blood, sweat and tears. Instead, the music made abundant use of all sorts of pop sounds, embellishing them with peculiar, but revealing ornaments… How do I make wantonly shimmering PVC not only gleam with sounds but also tell a story which is existentially tragicomic? It was this element which linked the works of Ligeti, Vivier, ter Schiphorst and Adams in the concert. They were so wonderfully simple that you could whistle them on the street… In his string work Zipangu, Claude Vivier (1948–1983) … underlies a harsh, Japanese-sounding melody with atmospheric interferences. This has an unsettling effect on the familiar – just as in John Adams’ orchestral foxtrot, The Chairman Dances, which offers a good deal of humour at the expense of minimal and popular music all the way from the salon to South America. Brabbins did not fail to savour these musical jokes brilliantly. Even cheekier, but in a cool, barefaced manner, … was HUNDERT KOMMA NULL by the Hamburg-born composer Iris ter Schiphorst. In this work, dry, grave classicism meets a ‘girlie’ pop march, before the two elements merge – in a classic three-movement structure, linked by attacca transitions. Tit for tat seems to be the motto of this encounter, without dogmatism, grumpiness or any sense of suppression. Surely never a musica vica audience went home in such a happy, relaxed mood as on this evening.” (Reinhard J. Brembeck, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 15 February 2000)
“Iris ter Schiphorst breathes fresh air into so-called serious music, which has been so short of breath for some time now. She knows how to use unconventional sounds …” (Volker Tarnow, Berliner Morgenpost, 12 May 2003)