Thoughts on Pression and Tradition

Thoughts inspired by a paper on Helmut Lachenmann´s Pression

Helmut Lachenmann´s 1960 composition Pression, for solo cello. (

Pression was groundbreaking for its use of what has been termed “musique concrete instrumentale,” which uses the cello as an instrument in a very unconventional way. The piece makes use of a number of atypical sounds for the cello performer, those harsh, or noisy sounds, which traditional cellists typically seek to avoid, such as the sound of the bow scratching against the bridge, for example, or the fingertips simply sliding along the strings. Lachenmann seems to collect techniques as if for an encyclopedia of all that is possible, an encyclopedia of coerced sounds out of the various parts of the cello in what is a novel and creative collection of noises. The creative compositional control applied to these noises is what makes the work so celebrated.

In researching the piece I came across this essay, by Tanja Ordning called

Pression: A Performance Study (

My reaction to some of the statements have formed my own opinions on the piece.

All quotes from Tanja Ordning´s Presison: A Performance Study:

  • "Rather than functioning in a traditional way, the score maps the actions of the performer. Pression is one of Lachenmann´s first works in the style he calls musique concrete instrumentale, an aesthetic direction that, by using traditional instruments in a non traditional way, avoids classical hierarchical structures such as prioritizing work over performance and compositional traditions over pure sound....The central question addressed in this article is how to understand Pression: not as a work contained in a score, but as a live object: as performance, action and embodiment.”

  • …by using traditional instruments in a non traditional way…

Yes, it is true, a main feature of the work requires the instrumentalist to approach their instrument in a way that may be new to them. The work requires the cellist to hit, stroke, and scratch the instrument in unfamiliar ways. However, a main feature of Pression, and what makes Pression what it is, I would argue, is precisely its connection to tradition. What separates Pression from an improvised attacking of the cello in unusual ways, such as in a noise concert, or deconstructed European improv session - what separates it from these non-traditional subversive acts - is precisely its use of score and organization, precisely its adaptation of the main features of traditional European concert music.

  • …avoids classical hierarchical structures such as prioritizing work over performance and compositional traditions over pure sound…

Pure sound is exactly not what Pression is. Pression is the sublimation of pure sound into the European compositional tradition. An improv set would be a performance which prioritises itself over the “work.” Pression does not avoid classical hierarchical structures, but deeply affirms them. It affirms that the European compositional tradition can extend its control into areas which otherwise may have thought to have been beyond its control. Pression if anything tames pure sound.

  • "In Pression, the cello as the sound source we know is eliminated, so the cello as a traditional instrument with all its connotations and history is on one level erased through this compositional method. In this respect, we can say that Lachenmann has liberated not only the sounds, but also the instrument and the performer from the weight of the history of the cello.”

Of course, on one level the instrument´s connotations and history are erased - on the most superficial level. It seems to me, that this knowledge of the cello´s connotations and its historical, or normal use, is precisely that which what makes Pression engaging, or even understandable. On some level any surprise which arises from the piece, is simply because one has been denied what one would normally expect from the cello. On this level, the history is an imporant part of the piece, and therefor not erased. Elements such as rhythm and structure, development and composition, in themselves completely historical are indeed not erased. These traditional elements are exactly what remain.

  • “…In this respect, we can say that Lachenmann has liberated not only the sounds, but also the instrument and the performer from the weight of the history of the cello.

It is the exact opposite. Noise is tamed in Pression. The weight and history of European composition subsume even those parts of the cello which had previously evaded it. The notion that Pression in anyway erases history is not one I can agree with it. Lachenmann is more like an explorer who has tamed the savages. The very idea that he liberates them is precisely the blind spot of the conqueror.

  • "As mentioned before, this method of notation is named prescriptive or action notation and describes the musicians´s actions or methods in creating sounds, as opposed to descriptive notation, which describes the sounding result in terms of parameters such as pitch, rhythm, dynamics, and articulation."

If Pression is prescriptive notation and is therefore the opposite of descriptive notation, then why does it feature 3 out of the 4 characteristics of descriptive notation: pitch, rhythm, and dynamics? Pitch, rhythm, and dynamics are what make Pression a celebrated composition in the first place.

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