Photos: Rui Camilo


Meta-reflection, Over-forming and Trend Research in the Music of Malte Giesen

by Leonie Reineke

When it comes to establishing what isn’t possible, Malte Giesen is often at the front of the queue: for example, to create an innovative, original, technically refined and, ideally, unique new work within the demanding world of the string quartet. Or to associate oneself with great genres such as the piano concerto or the opera - with their heavy canon of works behind them - without fundamentally questioning their formal frameworks. Likewise, it seems impossible for him to invent music that is "new" in the literal sense and played exclusively on old instruments. In short: for Malte Giesen, composing often begins with a problem. And yet the resulting solution is not music of resistance or resignation. On the contrary, the result is music that proactively reshapes the problem itself, and that goes further - a compositional fight forward.

This approach is evident in a series of remixes that Giesen composed on the basis of existing models from the 18th and 19th centuries. In his Divertimento. Veränderung an Oberflächen (2014), he passes sections of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s three Divertimenti (KV 136-138) through the digital shredder. Using a range of common DJ techniques, fragments of the Mozart original are processed electronically – whether sampled, looped, sped up, slowed down or interspersed with brief scratches. "I wanted to treat something that was considered light music in an earlier era – i.e. the divertimento - to the usual procedures of today's light music," says Giesen, “above all, technical processing and reproduction. We now receive music more often through headphones or loudspeakers than live in concert.”

For Giesen, an artistic commentary – a further consideration of music – can only take place if the contemporary conditions for its reception are incorporated into the work process. And this includes the presence of (art) music in canned media and in a technological, digital everyday environment. For Giesen, this environment includes the use of electronics, but less as an additional musical instrument than as a tool for analysis, distortion and the expansion of possibilities. In his Mass Procession for Chamber Orchestra and Tape (2020), for example, Giesen electronically duplicated the second movement of Ludwig van Beethoven's 7th Symphony 1024 times. The musicians in the orchestra then play along with themselves in a kind of multi-layer super ensemble. Sometimes they push to the foreground, sometimes not. Staggered entry points and different playback speeds of the tracks create a swarm effect in the music, which in places also produces a standstill: "Sometimes you have the impression that a section of several bars is frozen in a single acoustic moment”, says Giesen. “The sound of the segment is clearly preserved, but the temporal progression is suspended - as if one were to remove all the vertical pixels in a picture and leave only the horizontal ones."

Malte Giesen's Concerto for Hyperreal Piano and Orchestra (2018) also reflects alienation through electronic enhancements. Here, the soloist plays on a so-called TransAcoustic grand piano by Yamaha, with which musical features not associated with the piano such as microtonality, glissandi or superhuman repetition speeds can be realised. By decoupling the keyboard from its strings and connecting it instead to sensors, the standard electronic piano becomes an instrument whose signals are transmitted via transducers to its soundboard. Thus, the instrument’s body itself becomes a loudspeaker, precisely simulating the acoustic properties of a conventional concert grand piano. But here, instead of producing that stereo sound, which Giesen compares in its artificiality to a 2D beamer projection, the audience is presented with an extended reality - a grand piano that makes the impossible possible, and that negotiates a question that also reaches into other areas of life: What does it mean when the copy is "better" than the original?

The piece of multimedia music theatre "FRAME" (2018-20) is likewise an exploration of the difference between the original and its - possibly exaggerated, converted - copy. The characters are those actually involved in the creation of the piece, from the composer Malte Giesen to the character of the festival director who commissioned the composition. "In contemporary music," says Giesen, "there has been repeated criticism that the field is too detached from everyday life experiences, too self-referential. And it was precisely this problem that appealed to me. I had the idea of confronting it by developing a piece of music theatre that is maximally self-referential. That's how 'FRAME' came into being, a piece that is practically made from itself." What may at first seem like uninhibited egocentrism ultimately turns out to be the opposite. For it is precisely the permanent meta-thematising of the subject matter and its framings that broadens the field of vision and the possibilities for forming judgements.

But adopting a (sometimes critical) observer's perspective is common practice for Malte Giesen. His interest in developments in everyday, pop and net culture as well as the associated tracking down of phenomena and trends of the here-and-now ensure a rich pool of ideas. The fact that the composer's involvement in the birth of his pieces plays a role in the resulting compositions is evidenced by piece titles such as stock footage piece 1: business or Septet for Ebay Violins, Amplifiers and Effect Devices. However, he does not stop at just collecting impressions or artefacts and displaying them through quotations or samples. Rather, his works are imbued with imaginative analyses, interpretations and conclusions. And whether packaged in a serious tone or in wry humour, Malte Giesen's music is the result of an actively lived and consistently thought-out contemporaneity.