When discussing the monumental orchestral Morphonie, it is hard to resist setting the stage of its premiere: it's 1974, and a charismatic 22-year-old composer named Wolfgang Rihm is among avant-garde music lovers and writers at the Donaueschingen Music Festival. The German avant-garde is alive and well: total serialism, absolute objectivity and rigorous control, an attitude of purity and control sweeping the aesthetics of the age into a safeguarded tower of research and intensive experimentation. And then Morphonie hits: a gigantic orchestra with a solo amplified string quartet, throwing onto all the three-piece suits in the audience 40 minutes of the most excruciatingly "emotional" music ever written for orchestra (still!). Climax after gong-splattered climax, shrieking and screaming strings, roaring blaring brass; and then paraphrases of Berg, Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg, the heaving halitotic breath of the "long dead" German Romantic symphonic tradition, cascading over an audience "instantly polarized" by the event.
Some obviously thought the piece was a joke, a deliberate smear of graffiti on the more repressive codes of the time; others simply felt the young Rihm was an indignant, irresponsible virtuoso, whose sheer ability, fused with a juvenile need for "artistic" confession, had betrayed noble aspirations toward musical progress. But a good many listeners were actually tremendously moved by the experience -- shocked by the audacious honesty of so young and confident an artist, but also shocked by a tone of subjectivity and visceral immediacy all but entirely absent in contemporary music.
Rihm's notes, the first of his many assertions on music, surely were provocative as well. In the midst of ubiquitous tracts on the technology of music-making -- those "how I derived this row" and "how I derived the algorithm for this derivation" statements -- Rihm took a different tactic: "Music must be full of emotion, and the emotion full of complexity." And, a bit later, "To see who I am, I have to look under my own skin, to cut myself open and ask a mirror what it sees." In Rihm an antithetical mind had stepped into the German musical avant-garde at the right time -- a mind 180 degrees away from its initial surroundings. The work-as-knowledge was for Rihm the work-as-auto-analysis; the work-as-theoretical-experiment was for Rihm the work-as-revelatory-trauma, a "manic experiencing of the self." And, perhaps most crucially, the idea of artistic progress was for Rihm exactly inverted: music was not an ever-progressing of culture, but a situation dealing "with atavistic drives," with the blood against the skull, the brutishly sincere detection of greatest pain and joy, the "seismographic experience of reality" with flayed skin and frayed nerves.
Those exposed nerves aerate vociferously in Morphonie, as seismographic a musical experience as could be imagined; likewise is Morphonie jaw-droppingly unapologetic in its persistent intensity, its maniacal, questing seizures and shell-shocked meditations. Beyond all normal boundaries of taste and etiquette, it suggests itself as project of existential urgency, "the music which will surround us when we become certain of our own certainty."