Saturday, January 30, 2010

Misclassifying Werner Pirchner

The Grove Music Online entry for Werner Pirchner by Sigrid Wiesmann cites the print source for information about him to be the second edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. Oddly enough, this entry fails to mention that Pirchner died on August 10, 2001, which is one of the few useful pieces of information in his Wikipedia entry. A more extensive account (for those who can read German) may be found in his German Wikipedia entry. However, Wiesmann probably establishes the best context for listening to his compositions:

Self-taught as a composer and vibraphone player, he followed the latest trends in jazz music as a youth. Later influences included the theories of Schoenberg, and the music of composers from Bach, Schubert and Bartók to Thelonious Monk and John Cage.

This raises the question of, notwithstanding the influences of youth and the presence of Monk in that list, why the Grove editors choose to classify him as jazz.

My only encounter with Pirchner was in the mid-Eighties. This was a time when I was willing to take a chance on almost anything released through the ECM New Series collection. ECM had put out my first purchase of the music of Gavin Bryars on CD (at a time when I thought the only sources of his music were in Brian Eno's Obscure series); and they were responsible for my "discovery" of Arvo Pärt, after having heard his name dropped by Steve Reich. I suppose I had as much trust in any production decision that Manfred Eicher made as jazz buffs of an earlier generation had in the tastes of Alfred Lion's Blue Note releases.

ECM's Pirchner release was a 2-CD set entitled EU, which was not so much an integrated suite as a representative sample from Pirchner's "PWV" catalog. (His use of that label, which appears only in the German Wikipedia entry, immediately identifies his sense of humor. Perhaps the primary influence from Cage was Cage's famous "sunny disposition.") The title presumably referred to the European Union, which was still far from the reality that would be established by the Maastricht Treaty but was on every "right-thinking" European's mind. On the other hand, when one listens to the music in this collection, one is easily convinced that Pirchner also chose this title for its diphthong, which, depending on the national speaker, could sound like a wail of indigestion or an expletive of disgust. Pirchner was that kind of guy. the sort who could easily come up with the title (translated into English) "String Quartet for Wind Quintet" but still had enough respect for convention to actually score the work for wind quintet (rather than, for example, brass quintet, thus covering all bases).

This is clearly not the sort of work we associate with the jazz category. On the other hand it is the sort of thing that probably makes too many serious listeners cringe, even if the members of the wind quintet on the ECM recording all came from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Having just written an piece on how challenging comedy can be, my personal feeling is that we just do not show enough respect to the truly skilled clowns. The problem is that those who insist on categories do not know what to make of Spike Jones, Hoffnung Festival Concerts, and P. D. Q. Bach; and yet, as has been the case since Aristophanes, the clowns often tell us more about the more serious aspects of our behavior than the more "acceptable" composers do.

I did not know until I started to work on this piece that Pirchner was dead and that it will not be long before we come up on the tenth anniversary of his death. Since he was born in 1940, his death came early (and not even the German Wikipedia entry says anything about its circumstances). The good news is that EU is apparently still available; and, according to, it is available on CD, vinyl, and through MP3 download. More interesting is that the Quintett Wien has released a recording (again both CD and MP3 download) of Streichquartett für Bläserquintett, which also includes Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's K. 388 serenade. This should be enough to convince the Grove editors that they have tried to cram Pirchner into the wrong box!


Tyran said...

This is a lovely post on Pirchner. I am wondering if I might link to it, as I am currently writing a review of "EU" for my ECM blog. Thank you.

Stephen Smoliar said...

Tyran, I have no problem with your linking to this. That's what blogs are for, right? Actually, I give ECM a fair amount of coverage at my
site. If you follow that link to my home page, you will find a Google Custom Search bar. Since it searches all articles, you can feed it "Smoliar" and "ECM" as keywords. That should be enough to get you started!

Unknown said...

Thanks very much for that. You can view my post here if you like.

By the way, I have a "Guest Reviews" section on my blog and would love to include your ECM-related reviews therein. Is this doable?

Stephen Smoliar said...

My guess is that both and I would prefer that my work is only represented by links to the site. My own bottom line is that I am paid by page view! Still, I like what you are doing on ECM's behalf. Is it totally a volunteer effort?

Unknown said...

Indeed, my blog is simply a personal project sustained by an undying love for all things ECM. I will be happy to post links in lieu of copied and pasted reviews. That way my readers can get the benefits of multiple perspectives while also bringing more virtual foot traffic your way. I trust this is a suitable arrangement?

Stephen Smoliar said...

It's quite suitable, and I hope to have a piece soon on the new recording of Robert Levin playing Henri Duttlieux!

Andreas said...

The title "EU" stems from the the German terms "E-Musik" ("Ernste-Musik" = "Serious music", i.e. classical composition etc.) and "U-Musik" ("Unterhaltungs-Musik" = "music for entertainment", i.e. pop music etc.)