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At the piano, taking ‘Child’s Play’ beyond the familiar

This Sunday, pianist Stephen Drury performs a Jordan Hall recital including Helmut Lachenmann’s remarkable 1980 suite “Ein Kinderspiel” (“Child’s Play”). Neither children’s music for adults nor adult music for children, “Ein Kinderspiel” explores a sun-cold middle ground where simple musical gestures hammer at the foundations of traditional musical meaning. What results is a succinct realization of one of the composer’s long-held convictions, that true clarity — musical or otherwise — can only be found beyond the comfortable and familiar.

Born in Stuttgart in 1935, Lachenmann became part of a generation eager to dismantle an intellectual heritage tainted by fascism and war. He absorbed the zealous, question-everything dialectics of the Frankfurt School and went to work applying that scalpel to musical tradition, effacing conventional musical beauty and rhetoric to provoke the listener into “an alternative listening . . . a new way of feeling by taking the common apart,” as he put it. In “Ein Kinderspiel,” the commonplaces are those associated with basic pedagogical piano pieces: folk songs; stylized, chunky dance rhythms; simple five-finger patterns and shapes. All become aural lockpicks.


Lachenmann makes his intent clear with an epigram from Theodor Adorno (the Frankfurt School’s musician-in-residence) emphasizing the difference between a mere evocation of childhood and the more theoretically interesting application of a child’s model (“Kindermodell”) to the object of philosophical inquiry. The examination is rigorous. Notes freeze, patterns stick, rhythms double back and decay. As with much of his music, Lachenmann transposes the material to extremely high or low ranges, a kind of sonic alienation, the rumble and sting of the keyboard’s lowest and highest notes blurring the line between pitch and percussion. Even the nominally descriptive aim of some of the pieces (“Clouds in Icy Moonlight,” “Bell Tower,” “Shadow Dance”) recalls Adorno and Walter Benjamin’s ideas of mimesis, how children, in play, often imitate people and objects around them, collapsing the distance between the self and the other — a distinction all too readily renewed in adulthood.

In all seven pieces, Lachenmann makes use of sympathetic resonance: keys silently pressed down and held, their undampened strings blooming into ghostly sound at the instigation of other struck notes. It seems almost a play on words, the child’s play of the title revealing an entire array of sounds that aren’t actually played. It is, maybe, another reminder that, in “Ein Kinderspiel,” the play is not entirely the thing, but a conduit for a more lucid way of hearing, a way we all too soon forget.


Stephen Drury performs music of Schumann, Debussy, Lachenmann, and Schubert on Sunday at 8 p.m. in Jordan Hall. Free.

Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at