Out of this world: Matthias Pintscher’s Composer Portrait at Miller Theatre

Peter Robertson, one of Miller Theatre’s Student Reviewers, shares his thoughts on last week’s Composer Portrait series opener featuring Matthias Pintscher, the 100th composer to be highlighted in the popular new music series.

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Matthias Pintscher has been hailed by The Guardian as “the brightest young talent on the German composing scene.” He certainly is bright. His use of instruments and the incredible varieties of sounds they can produce is very creative and beautiful in a way that’s very unusual. You feel as though you are dreaming the sounds: they are vaguely familiar but also bizarre, completely distorted from your usual perception of them.

For example, the solo piano in the first piece of the program seems to be just any old piano—and you expect any old composition—but the very first note, which the pianist stops with his finger on the string so that it rings eerily, pulls the rug out from under any expectations you might have had. That first note changes how you hear the entire remaining eight minutes of the piece. It helps, of course, if the interpreter has, as Cory Smythe did on Thursday, a superb ear for tone. They make a great combination: the composer, with his ability to invent magic, and the pianist, with his ability to perform it.

Pintscher is more than just clever, though. He is expressive and able to evoke peculiar states of mind and emotion. For example, the following piece, Un despertar, a setting of an excerpt from Octavio Paz’ ÁRBOL ADENTRO, follows the baritone soloist as he is waking up from a dream state. Voices often sound real and bodily, but Pintscher manages to create a strange world somewhere in between asleep and awake, a world where notes follow rules that aren’t quite clear to us, a world in which we feel confused and amazed at what our senses are telling us. The same is true of a twilight’s song, Pintscher’s 1997 setting of an E.E. Cummings poem. a twilight’s song was Pintscher’s earliest piece on Thursday’s program, and it is easy enough to tell: Pintscher sounds more awkward, less delicate—a little as though he is trying to write a novel in a foreign language after having taken only a month’s worth of classes. Nonetheless, all the themes and ideas are there, and it opens your mind to hear them fully formed in the later works.

Pintscher’s final work of the evening, sonic eclipse, is also the most recent. It was composed in 2009 and 2010 and contains Pintscher’s trademark exploration of unusual sounds—the small orchestra of musicians of stage sounds as though someone has taken the soundtrack to a 1960s TV drama or Sci-Fi series and twisted it out of shape just enough that one feels alienated (no pun intended). The music evokes all kinds of emotions: it is scary, invigorating, calming, cozy—a great deal of it evokes emotions so specific that they cannot be described in words.

All the same, despite Pintscher’s skill and innovative ear as a composer, something is missing. Pintscher’s music can be profound, but I have yet to hear it be anything else than either profound or not-quite-profound. Lofty emotions are all well and good sometimes, but an evening filled with grand thoughts and sounds is probably going to leave many feeling drained—I know I did. What Pintscher is missing is any hint of feeling that is unprofound; any feeling that is earthy, muddy, messy, deep, dank, ugly—or even just brutally honest. If Pintscher could find that kind of openness, he would blaze far more brightly than he already does.

Matthias Pintscher Composer Portrait Preview from Miller Theatre on Vimeo.

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Peter Robertson, CC ’11

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