Bernd Alois Zimmerman
Requiem for a Young Poet
April 20, 1999
Zimmerman's last great opus, Requiem for a Young Poet, for a cast of 350, was a meticulous act of premeditated suicide. Dedicated to three poets who killed themselves, this piece is nothing but sheer darkness and a reflection of a life lived during a brutal century. After finishing the work in 1969, Zimmerman offed himself a year later. Although it lasts only an hour, the piece rips through the century using a number of appropriated texts, soundbites, sopranos, baritones, three choirs, electronic tapes and sounds, a full orchestra and a jazz combo. It was dark stuff, to say the least, and by the time it was over, everyone I ran into in the lobby seemed insanely edgy and depressed.
I've owned the CD of Requiem for a number of years and I always found it difficult to navigate through the flatness of the disc. The piece is basically a collage with several events precisely scored over the course of time. On record, it sounds like everything is happening at once--it's sonic mud. In Carnegie Hall, however, there was an order and a spaciousness that gave the piece the depth it needed. Surrounding the audience on the first tier were four loudspeakers and in the back of the same tier was one of the 80-person choirs, creating a magnificent distribution of sound.
Everyone in the audience was given a full graphical score of the piece so they could follow along in their seats. The house lights were kept up, making it possible to read. And although most of the texts were in German, everything was translated into English so you knew exactly what was going on. It wasn't pleasant stuff: there were long philosophical meditations on deaths, eulogies for people who killed themselves, Hitler screaming, Kurt Schwitters's sound poems, various political speeches throughout the 20th century trying to justify assorted atrocities, a section of "Molly Bloom's Soliloquy," Chairman Mao quotes screamed out in German, and so on. Mixed in with all this text were snippets of music from Wagner to a few seconds of "Hey Jude" along with a bunch of electronic music whooshes.
However, with so much going on, it's incredible how little firepower Zimmerman actually scored for. Often times, there would be several minutes of silence with only one tape playing a couple of guys reciting Mayakovsky poems. It was odd to see a cast of hundreds waiting around in silence, only to break out into a barely audible section from the Latin Mass for the Dead. There were some incredibly loud moments also, particularly the vocal duets of a soprano and a baritone barking out off-kilter excerpts from Ezra Pound's Cantos in German and the grand finale when all 350 people were going full guns along concurrent with recordings from "mass demonstrations in many countries from many events."
Darkness aside, it struck me as a great way to catalog the events of one's lifetime using nothing but appropriated juxtaposed sounds; for everyone living, a different soundtrack could be pieced together, reflecting the infinite combinations of individuated experiences. It dovetails nicely with Georges Perec's book Je Me Souviens, whereby Perec wrote a book of his own memories that he aimed to be both specific and universal. The only constraint was that to be included, each memory should strike a chord in anyone who was roughly his age and immersed in his culture. Although we're at the end of a century, Requiem for a Young Poet might very well serve as the perfect century's soundtrack, filled with magnanimous oppression and darkness.
As if it were part of the score, it seemed both cruel and appropriate that on the day of the performance the Littleton High School murders occurred.New York Press, 1999