Challenging, Thrilling Music as Modern Art: Manto and Madrigals by Thomas Zehetmair and Ruth Killius

By Daniel Garrett

Thomas Zehetmair and Ruth Killius, Manto and Madrigals
Engineered by Andreas Werner
Produced by Manfred Eicher
ECM, 2011

With certain forms of art, admiration seems beside the point: the art is asking for a deeper and different engagement, a rigor that exorcises precedent; and, once achieved, there are difficult pleasures and contemplation—and awe.  The compositions that the musicians Thomas Zehetmair and Ruth Killius explore on their album Manto and Madrigals are by Rainer Killius, Giacinto Scelsi, Heinz Holliger, Bela Bartok, Nikos Skalkottas, Peter Maxwell Davies, Bohuslav Martinu, and Johannes Nied, and the album is an embodiment of experiment and concentration.  Listening to the music performed by Thomas Zehetmair on violin and Ruth Killius on viola, and recorded in Zurich, one hears something perceptibly foreign and recognizably modern; and one feels a peculiar tension, with the apprehension of queer beauty.  It is interesting how such music can be influenced by tradition and also be a transformation of tradition so thorough it constitutes a break with it: that is true of more than a few of the works on Manto and Madrigals: sometimes hearing the music, one perceives the tradition and other times one perceives the break.  That is true of a lot of twentieth-century modern art, not only in music but also in painting and literature and film.  One has an experience that is challenging, frightening, thrilling.  On Manto and Madrigals, one can hear musical lines that evoke mathematics more than melody and the unlikely appearance of folk music and the classical swell of strings.  Beneath the work of Thomas Zehetmair and Ruth Killius is the timeless revelation that there may be nothing more demanding, and more terrifying, than freedom, and nothing more necessary.

There are different kinds of beauty and different kinds of knowledge.  Yet in a time when democracy, equality, and relativity are championed, often suspect (and resented) are the assertion of the primacy of the distinction, use, and value of personal excellence, and the significance of the philosophical and spiritual content and the form of unique art practices.  The irony is that often the artists and thinkers most committed to doing work that rejects established categories, categories endorsed by the holders of cultural power, end in creating work that requires time, patience, and interpretive practice to understand, if not gifts of imagination and intellect, work that is the province of an elite sensibility.  Most artists and thinkers want understanding, and they want as many people as possible to understand and like what they do—but those most committed to their work do not want to sacrifice quality for popularity.  It is not a guess to say that Bela Bartok, Peter Maxwell Davies, Heinz Holliger, Rainer Killius, Bohuslav Martinu, Johannes Nied, Giacinto Scelsi, and Nikos Skalkottas and their work are to be placed among the excellent and unique.

The music of Thomas Zehetmair and Ruth Killius, a husband and wife, has been described by Paul Griffiths, in the liner notes of Manto and Madrigals, as “a kind of unbounded speech.”  Regrettably, much of the music played by Thomas Zehetmair and Ruth Killius is new to me, but I hope I will grow old listening to some of it.  The collection’s compositions include work Zehetmair and Killius have performed as a duo in concert.  (In addition, Zehetmair is musical director of the Northern Sinfonia of England, and has played with many orchestras, and Killius, once the principle viola in Camerata Bern, has played with many orchestras too; and both have participated in the Zehetmair Quartet founded in 1994, known partly for its recording of the music of Schumann and Bartok.)  Zehetmair and Killius’s album Manto and Madrigals is a portrait of music as modern art.

Zehetmair and Killius’s presentation of the minuscule, but not necessarily minor drinking song, “O min flaskan frioa,” by Rainer Killius, a German baritone singer, flute player, and a composer of chamber music, is somewhat melancholy and slightly puckish, with throbbing chords and flickering notes, and it is probably the most dignified song about drink.  “Manto,” a short three-part piece, a 1957 triptych for a viola and female voice inspired by the mythical prophetess Manto, written by Giacinto Scelsi, an Italian microtonal composer interested in spirituality, is a composition with a wail and weep before the human voice enters.  There is tremendous tension, tension growing from how long and tautly the instrumental notes are held, suggesting the state of an individual mind; and when the singer does enter with her incantations, her voice is a wild thing.

Heinz Holliger wrote the three-sectioned 2006 piece for violin and viola, “Drei Skizzen,” a composition of both movement and quiet that contains an echo of Mozart, and was composed for Zehetmair and Killius.  Heinz Holliger, a Swiss oboe player for whom Elliot Carter and Olivier Messiaen and Karl Stockhausen wrote music, has been a conductor as well as composer.  In “Drei Skizzen” is a sustained see-saw and splinter of sound, before the appearance of a tiny twirling and twisting rhythm, with fragments that coalesce into melody for seconds then crumble into slight, sometimes sharp notes.

The 1902 “Duo,” originally for two violins, is a short piece of contrasting patterns written by Bela Bartok, the Hungarian pianist and composer, a musician influenced by Zoltan Kodaly, Richard Strauss, and Claude Debussy, and interested in folk music, a man whose name is spoken with curiosity and respect.  Bartok’s “Duo” is almost amusing for how classical it is, and it is short enough to be an interlude in a collection of pieces written in different places and years but performed as one program.  Thomas Zehetmair and Ruth Killius follow that Bartok composition with another “Duo,” a three-part piece for violin and viola from 1938 by Nikos Skalkottas, a Greek violinist who studied composition in Berlin with Arnold Schoenberg.  Skalkottas wrote for violin, piano, and symphony, was interested in folk music and experimentation, and is considered a neglected composer; and his “Duo” is a violence of sound with a reprieve of calm that is not stable.

“Midhouse Air” is a blend of classical and folk music by Peter Maxwell Davies, an eminent avant-garde English composer influenced by Berg and Beethoven, Schubert and Schoenberg, a composer for ballet, opera, and symphony.  Although some, including Davies, might not like the description, “Midhouse Air” is a pretty piece; and I can imagine only a cultural chauvinist not liking the music.

Music comes to us from diverse sources.  Why not receive it with the same diverse and thoughtful facility?  I used to listened to a radio station that played English madrigals on Sunday mornings, a music that has both lightness and sorrow, but I had not heard a madrigal for years, until listening to the three madrigals here dedicated to Lillian and Joseph Fuchs, sister and brother string players, and composed in 1947 by Bohuslav Martinu, a Czech violinist and composer who heard great music in Prague and had his own work performed there, before studying with Albert Roussel in Paris.  Martinu wrote for opera and symphony, as well as chamber music.  Martinu’s madrigals do not sound like the ones I recall, although I suppose there are similarities.  The first of the three Bohuslav Martinu madrigals has a galloping gusto (it is music to dance or die to, or both); and the second madrigal has a broken quiet, filled with tiny strings of sound, turned here and there, weaved into a fluttering rope; and the third has the brightness of a communal dance that will end early.

The last piece on MantoandMadrigals, a kind of tautly bustling encore, “Zugabe,” from 2004, was written by Johannes Nied, a German bassist and bandleader, and dedicated to Ruth Killius and Thomas Zehetmair.  It is a concluding tease, full of sharp back-and-forth movement, in which irregularity becomes regular.  I enjoy Thomas Zehetmair and Ruth Killius’s MantoandMadrigals almost as much as a visit to Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum or the Museum of Modern Art; and there is hardly anything I enjoy as much as that.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett, who likes jazz, independent rock, and world music, originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.”  He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth.  Contact: dgarrett31@hotmail or