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Hans Otte

The Book of Sounds

Ralph van Raat - piano

Naxos 8.572444

A special discovery !

At its start, you may feel you are back in the world of the minimalists, van Raat having previously given us a compelling recording of John Adams' piano music.

But that impression is deceptive and it does not take long to realise that whilst some figuration is repetitive, the notes of this music are not so. There is a clue before you start listening; an uncommonly apposite cover illustration of sunlight filtering through a line of trees... Did Ralph van Raat help Naxos to choose it? He has developed into an important musicologist and versatile pianist, always seeking out something which others might pass by.

His own notes are comprehensive and the best possible listening guide, prefaced by a quotation from the modest composer himself, one who as head of classical music at Radio Bremen gave his energies to promoting others in Germany, including greats such as Messiaen and Stockhausen and many Americans too, Nancarrow Riley, Reich and others.

Otte's aim in his Book of Sounds was to draw listeners “- - close to sound, so that, in the search for the sound of sound, for the secret of life, one’s own resonance is discovered.” The music is insidiously beautiful and involving, seemingly simple at first and with a minimalist repetition of rhythmic figuration, but that is constantly varied so that you come to realise that it actuallly "lacks literal and objective repetition", keeping you listening actively to the foreground and, sometimes, very quiet background ambience, which needs quietest possible listening environment, best through good headphones, to appreciate Otte's many "minute details in sound colouring and layering". Some of the Twelve Parts "plunge you into the objective dissonant world of modernism" with "almost obsessive texturing" [R v. R].

This is not a first recording, and I hope to explore those of Herbert Henck (ECM New Series, much more expensive !) and by the composer himself ("a very beautiful and intense version, though in many ways different from my interpretation" Ralph van Raat tells me).

To "place" this discovery amongst others in Musical Pointers, I would put Otte's Book of Sounds as equally rewarding and haunting as Ralph Shapey's Variations for piano, which you probably also don't know?

Treats in store !

Peter Grahame Woolf

P.S. from R v R: November 7th 2010 Yesterday I won the Prijs Klassiek ('Classics Prize') of the Dutch public radio and television broadcaster NTR (former NPS). It has been awarded to me for my promotion of contemporary composed music in The Netherlands.
See Ralph van Raat in A little 'portrait' as broadcast on Dutch television February 2010

Hans Otte - Klang der Klänge / Sound of Sounds
Book by Ingo Ahmels + recordings by the composer

Schott Music Series: New Magazine for Music Edition: German - English 172 Pages: edition with CD + DVD - Hardback; general editor: Rolf W. Stoll

CDs Celestial Harmonies

Schotts have enabled me to pursue my interest in this unique figure, aroused to my complete surprise by Ralph van Raat.

The pieces in the other set, The Book of Hours, are even more elusive, miniatures mostly of a minute or so.

The two books of piano music are analysed in some detail in the heart of Ahmels' book, which I count it a great privilege to have received. The musicology is dense and needs study by experts, but the book itself is a lavish production and a thing of beauty to hold and dip into.

It makes a strong case for further exposure to, and study of, the work of a musician of many parts, unlike any other and still undervalued in Europe and America, so the text is printed bilingually in parallel throughout; unfortunately for me and others challenged by their eyesight, whereas the German text is in good strong black, the English is in fainter grey... That small caveat apart, the layout is superb, and the illustrations well chosen, some of them (including on the cover) subtle photos by the composer's daughter.

Ingo Ahmel's bilingual study of his biography and artistic work highlights Otte’s view of life and his aesthetical orientation, add up to a thought provoking book which deserves widest circulation amongst thinking musicians.

Reproduced in full is a lengthy article Piano Man by composer Tom Johnson who found that Book of Sounds explored sound possibilities on a deep level "I felt I was making contact with sound in a way I never had before". The section of tributes, Salute to Otte, testifies to the wide range of famous devotees who appear through these pages.

Hearing Otte's music has had resonances with several other current interests of mine, most recently Keller. This deep exploration of the essence of music through the sound it can make, without any gimmicks, was opposite to those of Otte's friend John Cage [L] who expanded the piano by means of elaborate "preparations". That approach has been taken fruitfully even farther by Hermann Keller in his ground-breaking Piano Concerto No. 2 and piano quartet.

In contrast is the case of Giacinto Scelsi who created an important corpus of piano music before lighting on the richness of sound within a single note. Scelsi's preoccupation was closer to Otte's philosophical position, in his case prompting him to move on to exploring sound in varied instrumental, orchestral and vocal forms; a controversial figure about whom there is a vast amount of scattered writings, but as yet no English language book comparable to this for Hans Otte.

Of especial interest in these days when fringe musics are under ever increasing financial threat, especially so under UK's new coalition government, will be the account of how Otte, after the provations of earlier life under the Nazis, served the profession in his notable appointment as head of music Radio Bremen. His manifest interests were as wide as could be conceived, founding famous biennial festivals pro musica aniqua (1960) and pro musica nova (1961), which earned the small radio station respect for decades ahead, particularly through commissioning more than a hundred composers of the most diverse persuasions. In parallel to supporting the cause of Otte the composer, this book urges the closer examination of Otte's work for German radio to provide radio music administrators with "a historically based conception of their field".

Recommended for all music libraries in conservatoires and university departments and to explorers of the contemporary strands in new music.


This comprehensive book has also 2 discs containing sound examples and excerpts from the Otte Media Pool (OMP) - all in German - and an authorized catalog of works (Otte Werkverzeichnis, or OWV)

Nora Farrell: Photo with John Cage in New York

See also for only previous hearing of Otte's music: reviews/liveevents09/IanPace0209[Editor]