Born in the small town of Hemer in western Germany in 1969, Poppe writes music that is at once natural and weird (as perhaps nature is). A piece by him will generally start out from a very small idea, or perhaps more than one, which will then be progressively varied, extended, and repeated, following rules of change similar to those by which, say, a fern frond unfurls and grows. But, as Poppe has observed, what is interesting about a fern frond may be a twist that has come about because of some defect in the replication. Between pattern and accident, between clarity and chaos, between safety and danger, is life.
Two of Poppe’s early works—17 Studies for Violin (1993) and Theme with 840 Variations for piano (1993–7), both written when he was still a student in Berlin—each explore the possibilities of a two note motif, which is transformed every which way in terms of pitch and rhythmic shape. Everything he has written since may be conceived as a steady, continuing outcome of this way of working, moving into microintervals and theater, into electronics and larger instrumental formations.
This evolving output goes on through a triptych of ensemble pieces written for Klangforum Wien and the Ensemble Modern between 1999 and 2004, and recorded on the Wergo label: Holz (Wood), Knochen (Bone), and Öl (Oil), the titles evocative of different musical substances derived from similar material. Later works include theater pieces (Interzone, 2004), after William Burroughs, recorded on Kairos), orchestral scores (Keilschrift, 2006), and further compositions for medium-sized ensemble (Speicher I–V, 2009–12).
Composed in 2003 for a premiere at one of the most prestigious European new-music festivals, Donaueschingen, this big, twenty-minute work pushes forward on two eminent tracks: that of music for two pianos, where its predecessors would have to include Pierre Boulez’s Structures and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Mantra, and that of works that denature piano sound, such as John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes or, again, Stockhausen’s Mantra. Cage changed the piano by placing objects between the strings; Stockhausen did so electronically, ring modulating natural piano sounds with sine tones. Poppe works with wholly electronic keyboards that produce sampled piano sounds in many different tunings. The title is the regular German word for “wheel.” The piece is about reinventing it.
Poppe’s own note continues:
“Rad: a piece at once improvisatory and structurally complex. At the center: freedom in treating the pre-formed components and flexibility within these building blocks themselves. A network of relationships develops out of, on the one hand, the emergence of characters through the act of playing and, on the other, the occurrence of regular sequences. Any particular event is not complex in itself but by virtue of its multiplicity of connections.
“The piece is a kind of systematic summary of my years of working with micro-intervals. There are a total of a hundred different scales, some of which are used for only a few seconds. The constant retuning makes possible an almost inexhaustible supply of pitches. The types of scales include:
-Tempered scales with step sizes from 1.66 to 0.1 semitones, including scales such as that of 0.96 semitones that contain no octaves;
-Scales with equal frequency intervals that become ever narrower in higher registers (segments of harmonic spectra);
-Combinations of different scales, so that each key is associated with a number of notes.
“The harmony is decisively affected by a device that generates sum and difference tones from the pitches that are played. The number of sounding pitches thus grows as the square of the number of played, so that a ten-note chord, using all the fingers, produces a hundred notes.
“Only piano sounds are used as sound material. I see myself in a tradition of composers who have seen the piano as a model instrument and piano music as a stock of musical prototypes. On the other hand, a double alienation is introduced: the performers lose their security because, since the scales are constantly changing, they cannot know what will sound when particular keys are depressed. And the exclusion of twelve-tone equal temperament, together with what is sometimes an extreme polyphony, produces a sound world only faintly reminiscent of the piano.
“Wheel: mechanical, circular motion. The brake was invented later.”
Circularity is indeed part of the story, but the work has also a huge thrust, up to the point where, in the words of Björn Gottstein, it suffers an electric shock.
In 2009, for the Parisian ensemble 2e2m, Poppe put together a sequence of eleven pieces that dated back in part to his early student days, twenty years before: Schrank (Cabinet). Some of the curiosities contained therein are for groups of between six players and the full complement of nine; others are solos (for percussion, for flute) or duos, including this penultimate installment, for cello and electric organ.
Schweiss (Sweat) is a four-minute study in growth and embellishment that takes the cello from a low A to—still played on the bottom string—the A two octaves higher, partly helped on by an organ part that introduces quarter-tones to the mix, as well as changes of color.
Poppe wrote his only string quartet (so far) in 2002 for the new-music festival in Berlin, where it was performed by the Kairos Quartet. The piece plays for about thirteen minutes.
In a medium whose potential one might have thought by now to have been thoroughly explored, Poppe creates a sound world all his own, by virtue of lines that often oscillate irregularly within narrow registers, the four instruments meeting and parting constantly and irregularly, all of them playing in quartertones and avoiding vibrato (except for the glissando shivers that are notated). Some of these features— the wavering melodies, the quarter-tones, the absence of vibrato—might suggest the string playing of Islamic cultures, but, as usual with Poppe, the piece’s densest memories are very soon of itself, as images (most obviously, a four-note upward scale segment) are generated and regenerated. Such recurrences give the sense of a form as tightly constructed as that of a fugue, and yet, because liaisons among the instruments are constantly on the move, and because the flow of events in any line can change at any moment, there is an impression of great randomness. Playing continuously, the piece has a slow section in the middle, beginning (led by the cello) after all four instruments have climbed above the treble stave—as they will do again in the extraordinary climactic section.
The title means “Animal,” and one may think that, earlier on, the cello has something of the hulking beast about it, lumbering along at the bottom of its register. However, the composer’s note suggests we should feel an animal spirit in the whole entity:
“An animal: lives, moves, lives according to laws that we can analyze but not understand, has its own rhythm, its tempo; moves, sleeps; seeks food, reacts; waits, moves; dies without a fuss.
“A quartet that meanders is hard, because the points of reference keep changing. No rubato, but rhythmic cells of different lengths. No tonal system, but wandering central tones that slide and leap through quarter-tones. Glissandi and vibrato everywhere. Every sound is a living being.”
This half-hour work, scored for two players on electronic keyboards and two percussionists, is the product of a collaboration between Poppe and the percussion-electronics wizard Wolfgang Heiniger, who has said that: “The piece grew out of joint experiments and extended improvisations. The fact that the technical basis of the piece is quite simple—a simple but maximally versatile circuit—facilitated cooperation. And perhaps the hallmark of a successful collaboration is that the contributions of the partners cannot be identified.”
Professor Heiniger has also explained why the piece is called Tonband, or “Recording Tape”: “During the experimental phase, we were both fascinated by how the resultant sounds seemed like a panorama of the electroacoustic music produced on tape in the 1950s and 60s. The title has to do with the fun of playing with these classic tape-machine sounds in a different genre.”
Originally written in 2008 for the Cologne group musikFabrik, the score has been revised in its second half for this evening’s performance, mainly for technical reasons.
As in Rad, the keyboards’ tuning systems are subject to change, as are their tone qualities, but with the difference that what they play is not heard directly but only in that it transforms the sound of the percussion instruments, as picked up by microphones. The keyboards, as it were, filter the percussion sounds through a screen that is constantly changing in gauge (pitch, duration) and color—or rather, they filter the sounds through up to twenty different screens simultaneously, one for each finger. That massive complexity is, however, also a unity, for the piece has a monumental consistency of utterance. In another meeting of extremes, into this compellingly strange world will sometimes swim figures and chords and gestures that are familiar, even over-familiar. Things worn-out become refreshed.
There are five sections, of which the first is the longest and ends on cymbals. The second is a mad machine of overlapping and changing iterations and ostinatos, out of which the second percussionist dramatically escapes for a siren song. When this has faded, the fourth section, with its rapid woodblock pulsations near the start, seems to pick up again from the second. High chiming introduces the generally slow finale.