Remembering Hans Wüthrich

Remembering Hans Wüthrich

Composing without a net

Each of his works was unique and daring. On 20 March, the Swiss composer Hans Wüthrich died at the age of 81 in Arlesheim.

Remote-controlled toy cars race across the stage, crash into each other and stop. Everyday scrap falls from above the stage, as do life-size dolls which immediately sink into the floor while orchestral sounds fade in for a split second. Life: an inflated instant in Wüthrich’s LEVE and HAPPY HOUR, theatre pieces in which he playfully and existentially explored relationships and brought them to the stage in a rare balance of laughter and terror.

These are examples of the unconventional and original art of this composer, born in 1937 in Aeschi in Bern canton. He studied in Bern with Sava Savoff (piano) and Sándor Veress (theory), then composition with Klaus Huber, from whom he learned to persevere in the pursuit of an idea. Simultaneously Wüthrich did his doctorate in Zurich in linguistics, which provided him with equipment that he never relied on in a facile manner, however, more often going beyond it to achieve something else. He composed without a safety net. Each of his pieces is, in a sense, one of a kind. He “would begin each piece more or less at square one”, he said in conversation. “Of course I make use of earlier experiences, but I don’t think I have a personal musical language. I always rethink how I can realize an idea. My ambition is for someone listening to a piece of mine to have an experience that can be had only in this one piece, nowhere else.”

These projects at time ran completely contrary to the usual music business. Brigitte F (for the 1978 Donaueschingen Festival) is the audio-visual portrait of a young woman from the Basle drug scene. For half a year he met weekly with her, conversed with her, and sought a way of expressing her emotions, thoughts and life situations in music. Every note was agreed on with her. In this experiment, composing with another “self”, Wüthrich opens up a vulnerable space.

In his Netzwerke (Networks) for orchestra without conductor (albeit conducted in Donaueschingen), he created a self-guiding cybernetic system that develops into a quasi-social organism. In Wörter Bilder Dinge (Words Images Things) for contralto and string quartet, he drew on articles from the 1948 Geneva Human Rights Convention, first translated into Egyptian hieroglyphics and then back into modern languages. The isolated nouns, articulated at an extremely slow tempo, seem alienated and mysterious. In the collection of texts Die singende Schnecke (The Singing Snail; 1979), he encourages the “inner hearing” of sound. “Combine real, outer, sounds with something slow and deep”, reads one of Wüthrich’s suggestions, or: “Soar above the noise of the city by internally hearing birds in flight”. With such flights he was indeed ahead of his time...

Text: Thomas Meyer

Photo: Claire Niggli