Benjamin Scheuer — Nouveaux Agréments
Benjamin Scheuer, Fiktive Verzierungen
Benjamin Scheuer, Fictional ornaments

Nouveaux Agréments were created in the context of my residency at the Ernst Krenek Institute in Krems and inspired by my engagement with the oeuvre of the Austro-American composer. In his works, Krenek always displays a great openness towards the innovations and modes of thought of his time. In his jazz-opera Jonny spielt auf, which became a worldwide success, he integrated elements of contemporary popular culture. As far as he is concerned, music is allowed to entertain. For me, the fact that Krenek engaged with electronic music as early as the 1950s was also of importance– he worked with his own synthesizer and included a musical feed from other sources. Despite his openness towards the new, he always remained rooted in tradition and did not embark on more radical pathways such as Schönberg, Webern or later Stockhausen. This discrepancy is somewhat characteristic of Krenek’s oeuvre and sparked off my initial idea for the ensemble-piece Nouveaux Agréments. Here, some elements of historical traditions in music-making are re-interpreted from a contemporary point of view. It is based on fictional ornaments in the mode of the late Baroque style which are presented in a kind of persiflage on French agréments.

For the interpreters, these flourishes presented a possibility of varying the musical text prescribed by the composer and – in obedience to the rules of the prevalent stylistics – of improvising to a certain degree. Seen in this way, ornaments represent a special opportunity for the individual appropriation of the material: they allow the interpreters to express their own personality in a composition. Starting point for Nouveaux Agréments were some longer tapes which were created from improvisations on the piano, the lotus flute and the otamatone, a Japanese electronic instrument. We are dealing here with large blocks of raw material which we are working on like sculptors: ornamental lines can be inscribed, or they can be used en bloc and re-arranged with other elements in a new context. Flourishes can also be injected under the surface and as a result distort the basic grid of the blocks. Nouveaux Agréments were composed in several layers – in each new superimposition, ornaments were added and the material constantly revived. A “contemporary” flourish must not be confined to the alteration of melodics and harmonics, but other parameters should also be involved: There are agréments which make a stable note tremble nervously, force the player to hyperventilate, change a tone to make it sound fallow or disturb the musical process by introducing hiccup- or panic attacks.

Work with musical ornamentation is au fond a thought experiment at a comparatively early stage of the development of a piece. At some moments, their effects are clearly recognisable – when individual players double the tapes and continuously add complementary variations. The tape-blocks are contrasted with material which is enlivened with flourishes by the player. The passage for otamatone-solo in the second part of the piece in fact only consists of a sequence of various long glissandi which are interwoven by so many alterations that the lines are constantly interrupted by absurd flourishes. At other points, the agréments however are inscribed into the material to such a degree that it is impossible to decide which element is original and which a variant. In the end, the flourishes represent a method of compositional inspiration – a means to an end. Once the whole machine has started to move, they are no longer needed to the same extent as a means for stimulation – and at the end, they have disappeared completely.

(Benjamin Scheuer, 2016)

First performance: September 30, 2016, Vienna