Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was a composer obsessed with perfection and history until the day he died. Director of the Vienna opera, he had an iron fist, treating his instrument players like a dictator would his subjects. He worked tirelessly for years, exhausted and ill during his final days, to finish a cycle of compositions that had turned into his battle axe and, finally, his worst nightmare. He was obsessed with leaving for posterity not only music that is great in every sense, but the crowning glory of the tenth symphony. Each of the symphonies that Mahler wrote not only had to be better and more ambitious than the last, but it also had to be a next step for reaching the ninth, and then attacking and completing the tenth. Why that blinkeredness? For Mahler, everything came down to surpassing the greatest composer of all time, Beethoven, who only got as far as a ninth symphony, his masterpiece, perhaps the greatest masterpiece of music in the world. Before Mahler, no other composer had reached that number with glory, neither Brahms nor Schubert, and in the end, Mahler didn’t either: the tenth symphony remained unfinished, a testimony to his personal failure, and at the same time, his artistic triumph. Mahler’s symphonies are the first important break between classical music based on the dominant tonality of Bach and contemporary music. Mahler supported Schönberg and considered him to be the future. In his slower movements, the adagios, he began to consider silence as aesthetic material. His violins move like the air, not like chords, and some consider him to be a real precursor of ambiental music. Mahler is more important for electronic music than any other composer of his generation, and it is highly significant that Matthew Herbert has chosen his work for the new issue in Deutsche Grammophon’s “Recomposed” series – house and techno vs. classical music.
Let us remind you that the previous piece was signed by Carl Craig and Moritz Von Oswald based on the remix and reconfiguration of passages of Maurice Ravel and Modest Mussorgsky: cyclic music with an impressionistic, pre-ambiental undercurrent. For techno, Ravel is almost as important –conceptually speaking– as Neu! For Herbert, who has divided his music between house and experimentation, Mahler must also be a crucial composer, and he shows his interest by remixing not just anything –he could have chosen the fifth or seventh symphony, the most popular of the Austrian composer’s repertoire– and he chose precisely the tenth, unfinished, with the morbid and unhealthy obsession (raw material, not coded correctly) that lends itself to an idea of a remix. The big question to start with was how Herbert was going to approach the work. The latest experiments in contemporary music coming from dance producers have turned out badly, except for Craig and Von Oswald’s “Recomposed”: the edit of Stravinski’s “La Consagración de la Primavera” done by Stefan Goldmann was nonsense of historical proportions: where’s the interest in listening to a work exactly as it is written in the score, based on fragments taken from a handful of already-existing recordings? And many times people have the temptation to write new music to complete what the dead composer left in the air.
But not Herbert. He started with the material that Mahler finished –an andante-adagio– and stretched it out, re-recording it in various manners, and with this material he offers an edit that starts from the original and places it in a new context without any disrespect. Going back to Goldmann and Stravinski: what the head of the Macro label did was record and stick together a complex puzzle that was entirely uninteresting—what you ended up listening to was the original work, without variations. Herbert, on the other hand, first takes on the role of interpreting, selecting from the score the phrases that he wants to use, then he re-records them, recycling them electronically —of course with the aid of the Philharmonic Orchestra of London, under the direction of Giuseppe Sinopoli– and then edits the material until it lasts for the 37 definitive minutes (and 30 seconds) that make up his recreation of Mahler’s tenth symphony. It is a prolonged balsam, with few drops into silence –there are valleys in the middle– and few rises in intensity, barely adding notes of his own. It is Mahler stretched subtly, harmoniously, respectfully. It’s not a brilliant work because there is (almost) nothing brilliant about writing variations on a theme that is already written, but it is an attractive work because of its profound intellectual depth. But that isn’t the best thing. The best thing is how Herbert created the edit. He went to record viola parts at the foot of Mahler’s grave itself. He occupied his cottage in Toblach, where the Austrian genius retreated in the summers in order to compose. He got into a coffin to record sounds –echoes, noises, details of concrete music that alternate with the chords—which add a disturbing quality to the final result. He has recorded the sound of a hearse. All of these things are the details that Herbert likes, and that fine-tune his conceptual approach to the work—although later the sound of the car, or the coffin, or the crematorium (he also recorded in a crematorium) are unnecessary. They add colour to an album that will interest both Herbert’s followers and Mahler fans who are not held back by official doctrine from showing curiosity about how an entire movement of a symphony is remixed. And best of all: as ambient music, in the background, it works perfectly.