„Walter Zimmermann, the son of a Nurenberg Baker“

(Bruce Chatwin)


by Christopher Fox


Walter Zimmermann (born 1949) is one of the most inventive composers in German music today, interesting not only because of his own music but because of his enthusiastic advocacy of a wide range of other musics. In Cologne, where Zimmermann was based from his student days until his recent move to West Berlin, he founded the BEGINNER STUDIO in 1977 where he promoted a concert series that embraced everything from improvisation to minimalism, from the avant-garde to ethnic music. In particular, he used the BEGINNER STUDIO as a venue to introduce many of the more „experimental“ American composers whose music he had encountered in preparing his celebrated book of interviews DESERT PLANTS [1]. Zimmermann was also pianist for the renowned ars-nova Ensemble in Nürnberg. As a composer Zimmermann’s training was fairly typical –studies with Werner Heider and then Kagel, and theory of musical intelligence at the Institute for Sonology in Utrecht and computer music at Colgate University in New York. Yet like many composers of his generation, by the mid 1970s he had become somewhat disillusioned with the expressive purpose and resources of the new music tradition. As a result, he and two other Cologne based composers, Kevin Volans and Clarence Barlow, decided to set off in search of their „own“ music the music of the places from which they had come. For Zimmermann’s colleagues this was a longer journey than it was for him: for Kevin Volans it involved a return to South Africa, for Clarence Barlow a journey to India, while for Walter Zimmermann it entailed a trip to the southern region of Franconia. Walter Zimmermann produced LOKALE MUSIK four groups of pieces, variously for orchestra, chamber ensembles and soloists.

A recurrent feature of Zimmermann’s work, both before and after LOKALE MUSIK, is his fondness for collecting groups of pieces together into larger cycles and, in two cases, into cycles within cycles. Thus LOKALE MUSIK (1977-1981) consists of a prologue, Ephemer(now in the Meister Eckhart cycle); four orchestral works under the overall heading Ländler Topographien; four pieces for smaller Ensembles under the heading Leichte Tänze; the harp piece Wolkenorte; three pieces under the heading Stille Tänze and the Epilogue Der Tanz und der Schmerz (withdrawn). STERNWANDERUNG (1982-4) consists of two subcycles. In some cases, as in the piano cycle Beginner’s Mind, the pieces were conceived from the start as belonging to a particular compositional project.

Zimmermann seems equivocal as to the extent to which works conceived within the terms of reference of a particular cycle need to be heard in the context of the whole cycle: on the one hand, each of the individual pieces he has written since Beginner’s Mind is short enough to be readily accommodated within a mixed programme, on the other hand each cycle has an internal logic which can only be realized when the cycle is heard complete. Yet crude financial expediency militates against complete performances of, say VOM NUTZEN DES LASSENS, when that cycle requires 11 musicians but never uses more than three of them at any one time. So far there has been only one complete presentation of the cycle, in (Cologne in May 1985.) However, the attraction of cyclic composition is readily understandable and is not unusual in the music of the post-war avant-garde („Pli selon Pli“ is one example, „Music In Twelve Parts“ another): indeed it could be argued that such collections of instrumental works, in which particular philosophical and musical ideas are examined, turn and turn about, is modernisms most authentic equivalent of Mahlerian symphonic structure.

To illustrate the integrity of Zimmermann’s cycles, the extent to which individual pieces can be seen to belong to a particular body of work, it is perhaps easiest to turn to LOKALE MUSIK. Underlying each piece within LOKALE MUSIK are references to Franconia, sometimes timbral (the orchestra for Ländler Topographien, the first subcycle of LOKALE MUSIK, is extended to include many of the wind-band instruments characteristic of Franconian town bands), sometimes verbal, (the percussion piece Riuti is an instrumental ‚transcription‘ of Franconian place names), always melodic, taking the tunes of Franconian folkmusic and rearranging, dissolving, erasing them.

At the same time, within the work as a whole, there is what Zimmermann calls a ‚cycle of transcendence‘: progressively the music becomes more insubstantial and less rooted to the melodic soil from which it grew. Similar transcendental tendencies are evident within each cycle and within each piece: in the last group of pieces, Stille Tänze, there is a progression from a lusty trio, Erd-Wasser-Lufttöne, for trombone, prepared piano and rubbed wine glasses, to an ethereal string quartet, Keuper – nameless dances; while in Kärwamelodien (for two clarinets, the second piece from Leichte Tänze, the second subcycle) there is a gradual accelerando, coupled with a general shift to more rhythmically complex music.

Ideas of transcendence are not unique to LOKALE MUSIK where Zimmermann’s declared intention was ‚to open up this locality [i. e. Franconia, or at least Franconian folk music] to the universal and might indeed be said to inform all of Zimmermann’s work. A crucial source for these ideas are the writings of the 13th-century mystic, Meister Eckhart, which informed his work as early as 1975 when Gelassenheit, now the prologue of VOM NUTZEN DES LASSENS, was written. They recur in LOKALE MUSIK where, in the harp piece Wolkenorte, the harpist is asked to sing settings of Eckhart texts at the beginning and end of the work; they reach their fullest realization in the complete VOM NUTZEN DES LASSENS. But Eckhart, although the most influential, is not the only mystic to have inspired Zimmermann. Beginner’s Mind takes its title, its form, and its underlying philosophical Programme from Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and the Hassidic Tradition of Jewish thought in general; but Martin Buber’s writings in particular have been a more recent influence (evident, for example, in the Kehraus Galopp which closes the Freunde cycle).

This collection of influences may be superficially diverse, drawn as it is from a period of over seven centuries and from both West and East, yet running through all the resources is a desire to achieve a consciousness of things beyond the material world, to escape the restrictions of time and the ego. Suzuki writes that ‚What we call I is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale‘; Eckhart instructs the devotee to ‚Conquer time, for the times are bad. So you must begin with yourself by freeing yourself‘. The anonymous Rabbinic author of the Kehraus Galopp offers the riddle that ‚If I am I because you are you, and if you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you‘.

Zimmermann first encountered Meister Eckhart in the writing of John Cage, and the conflation of Eckhart and Zen in Zimmermann has an obvious precedent in Cage. In the lecture ‚Composition as Process‘ in „Silence“ [2] Cage identifies aspects of works by Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, and Christian Wolff that seem to him to relate to Eckhart’s thought: of Wolff’s „Duo II for Pianists“ he says that it requires each performer to ‚turn away from himself and his ego sense of separation from other Beings and things [so that] he faces the Grund of Meister Eckhart, from which impermanencies flow and to which they return. „Thoughts arise not be collected and cherished but to be dropped as if they were void. “ There are significant differences, however, between Cage’s and Zimmermann’s developments of these ideas: differences which arise, fundamentally, from radically different responses to Zen. Zimmermann, introducing Beginner’s Mind in his collected writings, „Insel Musik“ [3], says that in it he has chosed to write in a ’simpler way‘, as a response to his encounter with Zen (and, significantly, to the piano music of Cage’s so-called naive period of around 1950). In contrast Cage, in the 1961 Foreword to Silence, writes that, ‚What I do, I do not wish blamed on Zen, though without my engagement with Zen I doubt whether I would have done what I have done‘ [4].For Cage, the challenge of Zen, as he understood it, was not to attempt a musical equivalent for the ‚emptiness‘ of a Zen garden but to achieve, through chance operations, the demolition of the borders of his taste and, consequently, a music ‚in which everything was welcome. In 1968, in Conversation with Daniel Charles in „For the Birds“, Cage explains that it’s impossible to naively believe in Zen in the middle of the twentieth century … but Zen … would be useful to open our eyes to what the technological universe means. We’ll never understand it unless we adopt an attitude at least related to that of Zen‘ [5]. This same attitude led to a reinterpretation of his relationship to Eckhart’s thought and in 1968 in „M“ he writes: ‚Meister Eckhart spoke of the soul’s simplicity. But Nature’s complicated. We must get rid of the soul or train it to deal with countless numbers of things'[6].
For Zimmermann and Cage, then, Eckhart and Zen are of quite different significance. For Cage they represent a body of ideas that his experience of the contemporary world must inevitably modify; for Zimmermann they represent atemporal ideals for which he and his music should strive, But the comparison with Cage is useful, since it is in Cage’s earlier music that Zimmermann locates an important starting-point to his own work. As was mentioned earlier, Zimmermann’s move to a new ’simpler‘ compositional manner in Beginner’s Mind was influenced by his admiration of the piano music of John Cage’s‘ naive period. But an even more significant influence from Cage would seem to be the ensemble works of 1950 and 1951, works such as the „String Quartet in Four Parts“ (1950), the „Six Melodies for violin and piano“ (1950), the „Sixteen Dances“ (1951), and „The Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra (1951), all of which share a fondness tot hocketing and for a rather ethereal soundworld in which harmonics in particular predominate. These are regular features of LOKALE MUSIK, and nowhere more so than in the Fränkische Tänze where ten Franconian tunes are arranged for string quartet entirely as hockets on natural harmonics.

There are also similarities between the pre-compositional techniques of Zimmermann’s music from the last decade and those of early 1950’s Cage. Calvin Tomkins [7] has described how, in writing the „Sixteen Dances“, Cage drew up a series of large charts on which he could plot rhythmic structures. An approach that led him quickly to the use of chance. Somehow, he said, I reached the conclusion that I could compose according to moves on these charts instead of according to my own task.

On the charts, Cage disposed details of rhythm, instrumentation, dynamic, and the pitch groups (or 4 gamuts as he preferred to call them) with which he had chosen to work; by combining the product of moves around the various charts he was able to compose his chosen material into patterns not of his immediate choosing. Similarly, Zimmermann talks in his notes on the composition of LOKALE MUSIK of using charts or (his word) matrices to determine which pitch groups should be combined with which rhythmic group (both pitch and rhythmic groups having previously been derived from Franconian Ländler); the matrix made possibte, he writes, ‚an instrumentation of the Ländler in a way that didn’t involve any particular expressive style‘.

lt could be argued, then, that Zimmermann’s recent work has been a continuation of an aesthetic that Cage initiated, and then abandoned, in the early 1950’s. However in giving musical expression to that aesthetic Zimmermann has developed a music that is significantly different from Cage’s. In particular, since LOKALE MUSIK, Zimmermann has developed what he describes as ’non-centred tonality‘, a technique which has undoubtedly grown out of his experience of working with the tonal materials of Franconian folk-melody in LOKALE MUSIK. But where in LOKALE MUSIK (and, to a certain extent, in Freunde) tonality was melodically articulated, in the subsequent works Zimmermann has striven to create a melodic music,which still using tonally- based pitch material.

To achieve this, Zimmermann takes his pitches from generally diatonic collections, but composes with them in such a way that no one pitch predominates; by doing so, he avoids creating a time sense of harmonic rootedness. Again, matrices are employed to determine for how long a particular tonality will be used before it is replaced or overlaid by another one; in this way too no one tonality predominates. Having assured the tonal neutrality of his pitch material Zimmermann then reinforces this by introducing a comparabie neutrality of metre and rhythm. Each pitch or group of pitches is given the same durational value for a certain length of time, at the end of which it is assigned a new duration. In polyphonic music Zimmermann is able to overlay both different tonalities and different durations, as in the closing bars of the piano piece Abgeschiedenheit (1982), also from VOM NUTZEN DES LASSENS:[sound example of webpage]

Because this music usually consists of strands of (as in Abgeschiedenheit) evenly reiterated single pitches, or (in In der Welt sein), pairs of pitches with the same duration, there is little or no sense of one musical event leading to another. At the same time, because the durations used usually have the semiquaver as a common denominator and are rarely longer than a minimum, there is a regular background pulse maintained throughout and no one strand ever has the distinctiveness of individual pulse that composers like Ligeti and Birtwistle have (in their very different ways) exploited so effectively.

In VOM NUTZEN DES LASSENS this neutrality of rhythm and tonality is central to the work’s intention of creating imageless music, of expressing Meister Eckhart’s dictum that ’since one can have an image only of that which exists beyond one’s self. .. and since it always leads to that of which it is an image, it would be impossible for you ever to achieve blessedness through an image. That is why stillness and silence must reign within‘. Zimmermann goes further towards an Eckhartian stillness by introducing multiple repeats of short moments of music; these temporarily arrest the already non-goal-oriented flow of the music, dislocating the listener’s sense of the passing of time. Although it might seem that such repetitions would actually create more definite images within the music – repetition after all producing familiarity -Zimmermann is careful to repeat fragments which either lack any readily discernible melodic or harmonic contour or are subjected to varying repeats so that their outline is blurred. In Abgeschiedenheit for example, one 11-quaver-long phrase is played once, then its first eight quavers are played, then its first six, then its first four, after which it expands again, to six, then eight, then 11quavers, before the music moves on.

The principle of flexible repetition is explored most thouroughly in the piano trio from VOM NUTZEN DES LASSENS, Garten des Vergessens. Here Zimmermann reduces his pitch and durational material to a minimum, using just three durations (semiquaver, dotted quaver, and crotchet) and four pitches (C, D, Eflat and E) throughout. Four independent strands of material (for violin, cello, piano right hand, and piano left hand) turn continuously, each strand being made up of a succession of repeated figures consisting of one, two, or three pitches. At the start of the piece only C, D and Eflat are in use; about halfway through E is introduced and gradually spreads through the texture, from piano bass to piano treble and then into the sustaining instruments, first the cello and finally to the violin, so that for the last two pages of the score only C, D and E are in use. This extreme restriction of material and the absence of any coordination of repeat beginnings and endings produces a paradoxical overall effect: one has the sense that things are staying much the same and yet, at the same time, there is a sense of events constantly in flux. Once again, Zimmermann succeeds in achieving a music that resolutely refuses to coalesce into a single auditory image.

In LOKALE MUSIK Zimmermann organized the internal development of each work within the cycle to mirror the development traced by the cycle as a whole; the same is true of VOM NUTZEN DES LASSENS and, as in LOKALE MUSIK, here too the four main parts of the cycle, In der Welt sein, Garten des Vergessens, Abgeschiedenheit, and Lösung (for viola, cello, and double bass) can be seen as describing a ‚cycle of transcendence‘. (The other works in the cycle, Gelassenheit for voice and guitars, the piano trio Ephemer, and Selbstvergessen for voice and violin, are conceived as, respectively, prologue, Intermezzo, and epilogue, and stand outside the main developmental trajectory of the cycle.) From its beginnings in the loud and open very aggressive writing of the Saxophone piece, the cycle finally arrives in the non-corporeal world of the harmonic series in Lösung, but this move is prefigured in In der Welt sein by upward arpeggio-like figures, based on the harmonic series, which are at first just interjections but ultimately become the dominant feature of the piece.

The techniques of VOM NUTZEN DES LASSENS, and those of non-centred tonality and repeated durations in particular, also appear in STERNWANDERUNG, the cycle of pieces that Zimmermann composed concurrently with the Eckhart music. Their most extended exploration, though, is in tlie the static drama Die Blinden (1985), in which Zimmermann also attempts to find dramatic equivalents for these techniques. Die Blinden is based on a play by Maurice Maeterlinck and is described by Zimmermann as a ’static drama‘; for about an hour, 12 singers occupy a near-dark stage, their movements ‚on the edge of immobility‘. Zimmermann, both in the score and in preparation for the first performances in Gelsenkirchen, strenuously resisted any directorial attempt to provide psychological motivations for the actions of these 12 blind characters, or to create stage pictures which might in any way define them or ‚explain‘ their relationship to three unseen, priestlike figures whose presence is, Zimmermann instructs, to be ‚metaphorical‘ not real‘.

This obscure tableau is musically reinforced by a vocal cast which tends towards the dark end of the spectrum, both in the voices chosen a bass, five baritones, an alto, three mezzos, and two sopranos and the general tessitura used (mid to low registers predominant). The same is true of the orchestra, which consists of three double-basses, two bass flutes, contra-bass clarinet, horn, trombone, and tuba. Reactions to the Gelsenkirchen performances were generally unfavourable; perhaps not surprisingly, since the sorts of severe restrictions that Zimmermann places on the singers‘ movements rarely lead to results that look anything other than embarrassingly clumsy: for the theatre of poverty and denial to be effective, it must be performed with a physical discipline that most actors find hard to sustain and which few singers even understand. Not, as Zimmermann notes in his introduction to the score of Die Blinden, is the sort of ‚abstraction and asceticism‘ of stage presentation that he imagines in tune with ‚the current directorial practice of opulent, pictorial staging‘ which our market-conscious age prefers.

However, Zimmermann has already completed a new stage work, Über die Dörfer, which is scheduled for performance in Nürnberg in 1988. He collaborated on this with Peter Handke, one of the most influential figures in German literature today and a writer whose ideas on the individual’s relation to his environment (the title of the new work’s Prelude, Langsame Heimkehr, means ‚Slow Homecoming‘) are akin to those which Zimmermann articulated in LOKALE MUSIK. Handke’s writings also informed Zimmermann’s work on the STERNWANDERUNG cycle, and Zimmermann prefaces a number of the STERNWANDERUNG scores with quotations from Handke. lt will be surprising if the resulting work does not meet with mixed reactions Zimmernann’s music may use simple means but what it has to say constantly challenges its audience but it will also be surprising if it does not once again display the extraordinary commitment of its composer to the expression of what is as much a spiritual quest as it is a musical career.


[1] Desert Plants is now only available as part of Insel Musik, Zimmermann collected writings. Also see TEMPO 154, (September 1985), p. 41, for a review of Morton Feldman Essays edited by Zimmermann

[2] John Cage, Silence, (1961), p. 39.

[3] Walter Zimmermann, Insel Musik, Cologne (1981), p. 94.

[4] John Cage, op. cit., p. xi.

[5] John Cage, For the Birds, London (1981), p. 228.

[6] John Cage, M, London (1973), p. 24.

[7] Calvin Tomkins, Ahead of the game, London (1968), p. 103.