Aimez-vous Torsten Rasch? I am not sure how much of his music is generally available, though now that he is published by Faber and Faber we may get to hear more of it. The one work I propose to discuss here is the mammoth orchestral song-cycle Mein Herz Brennt. The You tube research scholar can find all he needs at that Grand Central Station of listening. The complete cycle is viewable in a performance with the Dresden Orchestra—amplified with what looks like 15 percussionists – conducted by John Carewe.
This cycle created a stir in Germany when it first appeared in the early new century. Deutsche Grammophon (B00001AP19E) almost immediately recorded it. Rasch has taken the lyrics and some of the music from that strange but interesting German band Rammstein. (You tube again.) But lovers of the volcanic grunge of the originals can be (and to judge by the posted comments, are) disappointed by Rasch’s plushly Straussian re-fitting. And here we come to the first problem in the Rasch case. So much that is good, bad and plain awful in contemporary music goes by the tag of ‘post-expressionism.’ Rasch is pre-expressionist with a vengeance. It is almost as if Schoenberg after Gurrelieder is a bad dream that Rasch has never had. He is the Rip van Winkle of the modern German scene. And he disports himself in this plushness unashamedly, like someone taking a bubble bath in public. But it is not as simplistic as that. For the music sucks you in with the kind of hydraulic force (almost, for me, despite myself) that only a real composer can manage.
Rammstein write the kind of rock lyrics that, whether or not they are deep, can simulate depth pretty well. Here is the opening of Seeman (Sailor):
That is full enough of dark Schubertian implication. All the elements are there: the boat (as symbol, of course), the rising storm (ditto), the lone farer, bound whither we are not told, as in a painting by Caspar David Friedrich. Beginners could do worse than begin with this song. The Rammstein original, where the melody has a more folk-like quality, can also be viewed.
The broader implications of this sprawling work and of what academics drearily call its ‘reception’ are interesting to think out. Rasch was praised by some of the British critics for plastering a big ‘shut down for good’ sign across the whole modernist project in music. This is the kind of mis-aimed praise that should make a composer careful of the friends he picks up. As a composer, I could not suppress a pang of annoyed envy. Here is a German of my age who needs only to dip into the ancestral note-hoard for everyone to fall over him in Mahlerian faints and ecstacies. When you have spent 25 years in search of your own language, sifting, rejecting, including, and then sifting again (as I suppose an Irish composer has to), it can seem like a rum deal.
But the brazenness of the appropriations, the very lack of apology and ‘by your leave’, give the music its appalling fascination. German art after WWII went through a period of antiseptic calculation: listen to Stockhausen’s early piano pieces. ‘We are not German’, it wanted to say. In the other arts, this approach was quickly abandoned for the cop-out that it was, as people like Beuys and Günter Grass asked Germany to start the agonizing process of looking at itself again. Music was, as ever, more cautious, though Henze played a heroic role in trying to get German audiences to think about modern Germany.
Perhaps this is where Torsten Rasch enters the picture. He seems not to be a political composer in any obvious sense. Yet the parallel to his music may be found in the large symbolic canvases of Anselm Kiefer. In Kiefer the problem is one of aim exceeding grasp. One can talk at length about Düreresque references. But if Kiefer is like Dürer, Dürer is not very like Kiefer. This may also be a problem for Rasch. The large ambition of Mein Herz Brennt can mask holes in the technique, as large ambition so frequently does. Meanwhile, Rasch has trodden bracingly through all the keep-off signs. At Darmstadt they must have a life-size photo of him on the canteen wall to throw darts at during the tea breaks.
But that is by no means the only good reason for listening to him.