Many years ago, while still a teenager, I was sharing music with a friend, and the idea was that we’d show each other a piece or song we were sure the other wouldn’t normally listen to. He put a rendition of Beethoven’s “Für Elise” by some classical/pop crossover ensemble I can’t remember the name of, featuring a mixture of electric and acoustic instruments. Being a dumb snob at the time, I was shocked at such destruction of a piece I liked, but the best part was yet to come – I asked my friend why’d people do these awful kitsch versions of classical music, and his answer was simple: “to modernize them, I guess.” Little did I know that my puritanical sense of superiority was ridiculous, if only because “Für Elise” is perhaps Beethoven’s most popular piece ever and has probably even been featured in some elevator somewhere in the world, which is definitely not a bad thing. Modern composition, after all, continually attempts to go back to the roots way beneath the classical tradition, inasmuch as it tends to shun the distinctions between the high and low, however difficult or inaccessible the music might be at first (unless, of course, you think like Milton Babbitt or Pierre Boulez).
My friend’s retort, “to modernize”, has taken me years to understand fully; perhaps not in the way he intended, because he meant mostly “to make recognizable to contemporary popular audiences”, for whom classical music is the cultural dominion of elites, but in a way that emphasizes the appropriation of the dead, dusty past in favor not only of the living, but more importantly, of the new. The pop/classical crossover ensemble was mostly dealing in clichés, so while its interpretation has value as a piece of kitsch, it has no modernist intent behind it. Here comes Austrian electroacoustic composer Wolfgang Mitterer, instead, taking all of Beethoven’s symphonies from a recording made by the Haydn Orchestra of Bolzano and Trento, directed by Gustav Kuhn, and splicing them up to make a collage called Nine in One. The question is not “how do we bring Beethoven to the 21st century?” but “how can we listen to Beethoven in the 21st century?”. The answer is by means of synthesis, by using all those techniques born in the 20th century to forge the symphonies’ Romance into an implacable machine of difference.
The result is, against the unitary musical narratives that have passed into cliché, a radically fragmented Beethoven that does not push upwards in idealistic heroism but downwards, the bombast broken into unfinished phrases that even at their most inspiring sound almost like the setup for a drone piece. Mitterer has not destroyed Beethoven’s work but its image, the material ceaselessly used as the backbone for cliché here put to work in the thankless task of undermining itself, cutting out the climaxes or putting them in sections without buildup, piercing whatever previous understanding the listener could have had about them. It’s a bit like looking at a cubist painting of an everyday object with which we’re all familiar, finding weird and interesting angles that crush that familiarity and turn the object into something wildly imaginative, something new. Nine in One is not exactly meant for us to know Beethoven in an hour, or to know the popular Beethoven (which would be great, considering a lot of people still associate his music as a mark of being elite or having superior taste), but to throw him directly into the world of claxons blaring in the streets, the stridency of high-speed trains beneath the earth, planes soaring above a million different conversations. It’s a Beethoven, in short, that we can actually live and understand as our own. (David Murrieta Flores)