Back in 2013, author Ben Schott published Schottenfreude: German Words for the Human Condition, a dictionary of German words he’d concocted to describe situations and states of mind for which English has no word. We English speakers had already borrowed many such composite German words for that purpose: zeitgeist, blitzkrieg, bildungsroman, wunderkind, and of course schadenfreude are a few; Schott took the idea and ran with it, over the top.
Over the past several years, composer Eric Nathan has taken Schott’s creative fun into a new realm with Missing Words, six sets of instrumental music based on some of Schott’s neologisms. This month, New Focus Recordings releases the world premiere recording of the full series, including performances by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), the Neave Trio, Boston Musica Viva and others. It’s a two-CD trip through the inventive mind of a composer who’s part translator of the human condition, part trickster.
How to translate an individual portmanteau word (to use a French import for a moment) into music? Nathan often solves this problem by telling a story, of sorts, in sound. One of my favorite of Schott’s creations is “Dreiecksumgleichung” (literally “triangle-reorganization”), denoting “when two friends you’ve introduced form a new friendship that excludes you.” Performed by ICE, Nathan’s musical interpretation has a third instrument “intrude” into a happy collaboration between two others, finally driving one of the original pair into the wilderness. He then extends the concept with a second trio of instruments, a second exclusion, and a union of the two outcasts.
Many of the linkages are suggestively programmatic in this way, as when the tongue-twisting “Kraftfahrzeugsinnenausstattungsneugeruchsgenuss” (“Automobile-Interior-Furnishing-Aroma-Pleasure”), denoting “new car smell,” begins and ends with the American Brass Quintet simulating the sound of a car starting, revving and accelerating, with honking horns in between. It’s one example of how Nathan marshals the timbre and attack qualities of particular ensembles to convey descriptive messages. Ever resourceful, he also evokes the aggravating noise of the city with violin, cello and piano in one of the movements performed by the Neave Trio. And an onomatopoeic piece performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project illustrates “kicking through piles of autumn leaves” by means of horn-bassoon “kicks” setting off brief flights of skittering strings, representing leaf-scatter.
Other word-music connections are more abstract. To illustrate “Schubladenbrief” (“(Desk-)Drawer-Letter”) – “the letter you write, but never send” – the score directs cellist Parry Karp and pianist Christopher Karp through a web of frenzied activity and awkward gesturing, suggesting a letter-writer’s feverish state of mind. “Straußmanöver” (“Ostrich-Maneuver”) – “the short-term defense strategy of simply denying reality” – slinks by with angst (another borrowing from German) and solemnity and ends with a glacially paced, clearly ironic reference to a patriotic song.
The same duo creates a haunting sound picture in “Rollschleppe” (“Escalator-Schlep”) to suggest “the exhausting trudge up a stationary escalator.” The Karps’ four-movement sequence boasts extraordinarily compelling playing over a wide range of musical developments, atmospheres, and techniques.
It adds a dimension – and it’s just plain fun – to refer to the explanatory liner notes explaining each piece as you listen. They inform us, for example, that in “Dielennystagmus” (Hallway-Nystagmus), denoting “repeatedly catching and avoiding people’s gazes when, say, approaching them down a long corridor,” Nathan calls for the musicians to cue one another through interrupted eye contact. The results are predictably halting and rather eerie.
But what gives the project its real heft is deep immersion in one composer’s sensibility through different configurations of instruments. This makes Missing Words a supremely engaging multi-course meal full of dense flights of musical invention. The versatile and adventurous Neave Trio opens the fifth set with “Ludwigssyndrom” (Ludwig’s-Syndrome), “discovering an indecipherable note in your own handwriting.” In this and the other movements of “Missing Words V,” and in the seven short pieces comprising “Missing Words VI” performed by the chamber ensemble Hub New Music, Nathan takes inspiration from Beethoven – his themes and his process – confirming Nathan’s engagement with the classical tradition through an avant-garde lens while translating (Schott’s word) the writer’s arch humor and observational precision.
Missing Words is a feast for adventurous listeners and, I think, the friendliest sort of challenge for the avant-averse. It will be released on January 21, 2022.