Georges Lentz is a paradoxical figure for his time and generation. Born in Luxembourg in 1965, but an Australian resident since 1990, Lentz’s music is widely performed in Australia, the EU and USA, yet he rarely accepts commissions and prefers to work, often for years at a time, on a small number of pieces; his musical language is highly idiosyncratic yet succeeds in communicating deeply-held convictions about the nature of the universe; his craftsmanship is of the highest level, but it is wholly at the service of the spiritual program which pervades his entire output. Almost all of Lentz’ work to date falls into works or groups of works entitled Caeli enarrant…, a reference to Psalm 19’s vision of the cosmos as the embodiment and proof of divine agency. As the composer has noted Caeli enarrant... is a cycle of pieces reflecting my fascination with astronomy as well as my spiritual beliefs, questions and doubts.’ We sense, then, an underpinning to Lentz’ work related to a certain stream of Christian mysticism – that which includes thinkers from Meister Eckhart and Hildegard of Bingen through to Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Merton.
Of course, Christian mysticism made something of a comeback in Western art music in the last decades of the twentieth century. The post-war avant-garde had sought freedom from the cultural weight of the past in the hermetic systems of Boulez, the political activism of Henze and Nono, the exploration of eastern religion by Cage and Stockhausen. A more recent generation including Arvo Pärt and John Tavener have married a radically simple harmonic palette to a program based on traditional Christian texts. Lentz, by contrast, is undogmatic about both his religious orientation and his musical modernism, and has felt at liberty to use a number of radically different stylistic gambits to achieve his expressive purpose.
In the works of the early 1990s, his harmony ranges between strident density and radiant consonance; his rhythmic gestures can be aphoristic to the point of terseness, or generate considerable momentum; single pitches can have supreme centrality, or the processes of twentieth century serialism can be brought into play; melodies range from simple modal phrases, to fragmented lines distributed note by note among different voices, rather like the medieval practice of ‘hocket’. Lentz is also interested in aspects of Tibetan music, notably monastic chant and the sound of the gyaling, a double reed instrument which is almost always played in pairs, so that slight modifications of pitch (such as note ‘bending’), and ornamentation (trills) create an immense variety of expression. Lentz often works on several pieces concurrently and over a long span of time. He began work on "Caeli enarrant..." 3 in 1990 and "Caeli enarrant... 4" in 1991, completing both works in 2000. The former is for strings (6 violins, 3 violas, 3 cellos), percussionist and boy soprano and falls into three movements played without a break. A characteristic gesture acts as a gateway into the piece: swift string glissandos crystalise around a single chime, opening out on a bleak landscape of long held notes, ricocheting pizzicatos and short, nervous motives. The narrow intervals and microtonal inflections of the next movement reflect Lentz’ interest in the Tibetan gyaling. By way of complete contrast, a shower of metallic sound leads into the lambent third movement. Here lush textures and simple harmony support a long breathed vocal melody redolent of Gregorian chant, before a short reminiscence of some of the work’s earlier gestures. The whole piece is generated out of a strict serial process, which, the composer has noted „gives the music a sense of rotation and symbolizes the idea of the circle and the spiral, a recurrent feature in the universe. Even the ‘beautiful’ modal chords towards the end of the work are influenced by the tone row. However, the use of this technique is merely a means of expression, never a dogmatic system. The established rigid pattern is therefore often destroyed in the course of the composition, opening the doors wide to intuition, even randomness.“
Caeli enarrant...4 is for string quartet and 4 suspended cymbals. There is considerable thematic reference between the work’s four movements, and it plays continuously; balancing this is the use of dramatically different musical manners and gestures. Single instruments sound a central pitch in turn, creating a simple, regular rhythm. New tones are progressively added; sudden dissonances demand attention. In the last moments of the movement, the music breaks with the regularity of pulse in favour of more extravagant gestures; a background of soft, sustained high sounds contrasts with disembodied percussive gestures and isolated diatonic harmonies lead straight into the second movement. Here we meet a faster tempo beginning with a fanfare of diatonic chords, use of strongly profiled rhythmic cells and dance rhythms as ostinatos; then a contrasting section based on long held background chords – with pizzicato figurations gathering to a series of densely dissonant chords characterized by intense ‘hairpin’ dynamics. Material from the first part of the movement re-emerges before final cadential chords mask the beginning of the third movement. This is characterized at first by microtonal coloring of a central pitch with increasingly prominent cymbals, a reminiscence of the fanfare chords and busy rhythmic, hocketing unisons. Significantly, a version of this movement exists as a work for string orchestra entitled Te Deum laudamus of which the composer has written: „Does it make any sense to ‚praise God’ while the TV is showing me pictures of Iraq, Rwanda, the Balkans, the Middle East?…My personal answer to these questions is obviously contained in the music.“ There is indeed a kind of Heiliger Dankgesang here, achieved by viol-like timbres. Dissonant clusters lurk and burst forth, but are interrupted by ringing diatonic upper register chords. A return to the central tone idea acts as a bridge into the final movement characterized by aleatoric sounds, flautato writing and the percussive use of instruments. There is one final arresting gesture and the rest is silence.
Discussing Caeli enarrant...III, Lentz once (1996) pointed out that „one of the central features of the work is silence, a precondition to any form of contemplation and an analogy to the absence of (visible) matter in huge portions of the universe. In a world dominated by speed, noise, fun and mass culture, we seem to have lost the patience to abandon ourselves to time and silence. Yet silence has a strange and individual quality. Not every silence is the same. It is ‘coloured’ by its acoustic environment, i.e. the music that precedes it. It is thus not simply absence of sound, but, as it were, ‘spiritual music’. Analogously, I believe that the parts of the universe that do not contain any visible matter are still filled with ‘spirit’, a higher presence beyond time and space.“
In 1994 he began work on the seventh and final part of the Caeli enarrant... series, Mysterium. This has proved to be a quite new and different enterprise for Lentz. It grew out of his growing interest in the Pythagorean formulation of the Music of the Spheres, which, as the composer puts it, „is audible to God, but inaudible to human ears“. This ideal, or as John Donne described it, ‘equal music’ doesn’t recognize the opposition of sound and silence, and, unlike human music, does not need space and time to exist. Lentz, therefore, wrote this work as a conceptual piece in open form without fixed instrumentation – „abstract lines and dots, ideally meant to be read rather than played“. In order, however, to communicate at least something of the composer’s vision, some kind of performance must happen, so Lentz has used material from Mysterium to create works like Birrung and Nguurraa, as well as larger orchestral works like Ngangkar and Guyuhmgan. As the titles suggest, the Pythagorean vision is mediated for Lentz by an exploration of Australian Aboriginal spirituality (as expressed by painters like Kathleen Petyarre and the late Emily Kame Kngwarreye), but not by an appropriation or imitation of Aboriginal music. Aboriginal cosmology, like the Hebrew Psalmist’s, understands the physical world as the ‘written’ record of divine agency; Lentz suggests that „one possible way to listen to Mysterium might be to simply imagine a starlit sky with all its different constellations and concentrations, its darkness and light, the vastness of its silence.“
The Mysterium works are, as a whole, quiet throughout. As Lentz says, „tension results solely from the polarity between sound and silence, tonal and quarter-tone elements, homophonic lines and complex polyphonic material, a regular crotchet beat and graphically notated rhythmic unpredictability, expanded and contracted time. My overall aim was to write music that would be as ‘pure’ as possible. Hence the severe self-imposed restrictions.“
In Birrung (1997), for instance, Lentz draws from the string ensemble a varied array of homophonic and polyphonic textures, and harmony which visits the extremes of dissonance and consonance, but all at a soft dynamic level, and without gestures which impose a sense of closure on the music. Similarly, in Nguurraa (2000-2001), the clarinet’s opening melody might have been playing unheard for some time and the soft piano chords at the end by no means seek to sum up a musical argument, but rather point to an ongoing discourse. Mysterium sets out to uncover an image of the ideal world. This ultimate reality, as Lentz sees it, may or may not turn out to be utopian. Unlike more doctrinaire composers, Lentz is increasingly less inclined to enforce an interpretation through the use of dissonance or noise. His music is aware of the ambiguity of silence: „The words that perhaps best sum up my spiritual attitude these days would be ‘and yet…’. I can’t help doubting many of the dogmas that were inculcated into me as a child, and yet I have an unshakable belief in a higher (metaphysical) reality. This reality may or may not turn out to be a utopia. My way of questioning these ideal worlds is not by shattering them through ff-outbursts (in my opinion a cliché), but through the use of silence - the most glorious sound, in one way, but also the most terrible, terrifying one, as I feel ever more acutely. We all know that eternal silence is our common ‘final destination’. Hence my music is, to my mind, also and above all about the problem of bearing this great silence, about the problem of human loneliness. My fascination with lonely places (the Australian Outback, for example) is also a metaphor for this (existential) loneliness.“ This recent interpretation of silence is noticeably more ambiguous than the earlier statement from 1996. This is music that admits to both Pascal’s terror, and Messiaen’s joy, at the infinities of space.
Gordon Kerry © 2001