Enigma for voice, percussion and prepared piano (1999)
Enigma is an important example of the use of melody and line – parameters that the composer has been using on a very reduced basis since 1999. The composition of Enigma took place during a time in which Mela Meierhans was intensively occupied with the oeuvre of the Austrian author Ingeborg Bachmann – Orpheus sets the poem of the same name by Bachmann. 1999/2000 saw the composition of A-a, based on an unnamed poem by the author and in 1999 the Enigma adaptation for voice, percussion and prepared grand piano. Mela Meierhans combines Orpheus, A-a and Enigma Trio to form the Damelacker Lieder Cycle.
Its formal structure is essentially influenced by this. The composer views a “speech image with paradoxical statements” in the topos of the enigma, and interprets it as a “song of mourning”, a subject to which the composer has always continued to return up to the present day. The formal structure of the composition is the result of a key visual experience of the composer.
“Suddenly the paper, the whiteness, was just as strong as the text. I no longer saw the text as just a text, but text and empty spaces as parts of a whole.” (Mela Meierhans)
The basis of the three-part composition is to explore the relationship of the text, pauses and created silence, or designed empty space; finding sonic realisations of words and letters, as well as blanks.
Triton for piano solo (1989)
This five-movement work is dedicated to the pianist Laura Gallati, who performed the world premiere in 1990. Triton is the first contemporary work by Mela Meierhans. The Canton Lucerne, at that time the composer’s place of residence, awards a “work contribution” within the framework of an artist sponsorship, for which the composer applied and won. With Laura Gallati, a member of the jury, there began a friendship and collaboration of many years’ standing which still lasts today.
Triton was inspired by Arnold Schönberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19, a central cycle for the composer and pianist Mela Meierhans. The Schönberg miniatures were composed in 1911, Part VI in memory of Gustav Mahler, who died during that same year. The essential characteristics of the cycle, its six-part design and the extreme brevity of the individual movements, are transferred by Mela Meierhans onto her piece. In the final movement, the composer weaves in the bell’s pealing from Arnold Schönberg’s work. Mela Meierhans’ title refers to the intervallic focus of the work, the tritone. The musical gestures are characterised by a sparing use of means, with a musical texture interrupted by rests and coloured by minimalistic repetitions and sustained sounds.
A-a for voice and percussion (2000)
This five-movement work refers to an unnamed poem by Ingeborg Bachmann and was commissioned by the duo “canto battuto” (Eva Nievergelt, soprano / Christoph Brunner, percussion). With A-a, Mela Meierhans entered a new creative phase. In the composer’s oeuvre, it marks the transition from melody and development to the fragment and to network structure, from vocal sound to noise.
“[The] lines and melodies and layers […] began to hinder and disturb me. And it was only possible to destroy that by first notating differently.” (Mela Meierhans)
The opening and closing movements, Einklang and Ausklang, as well as the middle section, Zwischenklang, correspond with each other formally and structurally. Percussion and voice are conceived homogeneously. They contrast with Parts II and IV, which are completely different in their types of musical gestures.
The text only exists as a subtext. The composer conceives one musical fragment for each word; she then separates this into syllables and phonemes, changing their order and encoding the text in this manner. The execution is determined by the singer. Three additional vocal parameters are assigned to each fragment, affecting the dynamics, alterations of tones through glissandi, vocal technique and /or coloration. Through the exact metre – binding for both instruments – the ensemble playing is precisely established by the way it is composed. Here, the composer determines the parameter of the fragment’s duration in seconds through several variations of the “Fibonacci series”. Parts II and IV of the work are to be understood as interactive scores. The tone material results through transformation of selected letters into tones.
An important aspect of the composition is the manner of notation, new and experimental for the composer. A-a is also an experiment in notation. Her intellectual and creative background did not only affect this work, but also opened up an entire creative phase that explicitly postulated the renunciation of lines and melodies.
Orpheus for solo voice (1998)
Orpheus, based on the poem Dunkles zu sagen (To Say Something Dark) by Ingeborg Bachmann, is a piece for medium voice and opened grand piano. The work is, before the chamber ensemble / electronics version of Enigma, the first in a series of “songs of mourning” (see Enigma). The execution of the composition has a scenic component: the singer sings into the piano – in order to create an echo – and realises a spectrum of dynamic variations through constant alteration of the distance between the upper body and the strings. A flowing movement is the result, similar to a danced choreography. In this solo piece, the lament is condensed in the figure of Orpheus, whose lyre the composer makes tangible through the vibrating strings of the grand piano.
“At the time when ‘Orpheus’ was written, I was very intensively occupied with circular breathing; before ‘Orpheus’ I composed ‘Na?’ for horn and seven wind instruments, at the same time ‘sacht ä’ for ensemble with clarinet. This way of breathing was an important subject at that time.” (Mela Meierhans)
At the beginning and at the end of the piece, Mela Meierhans places seven distinctive noise-like events: after them follows the sung word “Orpheus”.
Here, the composer succeeds in musically realising circular breathing: the singer breathes in large amounts of air and releases it, first without voice, airy, then with a loud noise of air and finally, on a sustained tone in the chest vocal range. The strings vibrate analogously to the frequencies of the sung tones, so that a sound from the piano is heard in which pitch and dynamics change; a polyphony with the singer’s voice is thus created. Through its direct, associative text setting, Orpheus is an example of a particularly clear and close connection between music and text; the statement of the text is strengthened and extended through the setting. The sung line, on the other hand, potentialises the amalgamation of text and music, for it gives Orpheus a vocal expression, the voice breathes for him, sings for him, embodies him. And it laments, cries, loves – for it encounters death.
Cordes Ouvertes II (1995/96, electronically adapted version 1999) for violin solo
This work is an homage to the composer’s childhood. It lends compositional expression, on the one hand, to the memory of her first, still awkward violin-playing at the age of three, and, on the other hand, to the wide world of – especially contemporary – music of her father, the violinist, violist and performer Kurt Meyerhans. The rehearsals at home of the “Amos Trio” founded by her father, as well as tape collages, have left their imprint on all of Mela Meierhans’ oeuvre. This work is a very personal homage to her father.
Translation: David Babcock