On Performing Hanne Darboven’s »Opus 17a«

Michael Francis Duch

Unfolding the Process

On Performing Hanne Darboven’s Opus 17a

Michael Francis Duch

As with many artists, Hanne Darboven has become increasingly popular after her death. This being said, she also achieved wide recognition for her art while she was still alive. Many retrospective events have taken place the last few years, including performances of her music. I was approached by composer Tim Parkinson and asked if I wanted to perform Opus 17a at the concert series Music We’d Like to Hear in London in the summer of 2012. It felt as being asked to run a marathon.

Darboven was German composer and conceptual artist born in Munich in 1941 and died in Hamburg in 2009. She came from a wealthy family which perhaps made it possible for her to move to New York in 1966 where she came in contact with the minimalist art scene; Sol leWitt amongst others. Darboven found a way of using the standard western, or Gregorian, calendar as a vantage point for making her art. This was something that stayed with her for most of her career: Date, month and year provided numbers which she plotted into a complex mathematical system.

When describing Darboven and her work she is often mentioned in connection with her large-scale minimalist installations. Cultural History 1880-1983 is an example of such an installation, taking up 7000 square feet in its entirety. In a similar way Opus 17a can also be described as large-scale minimalism. It is one of four parts from the composers monumental 1008 page Wunschkonzert from 1984.

It was composed during Darboven’s period of making her so-called »mathematical music«: Music that was made from mathematical systems where numbers were assigned to certain notes and translated to musical scores. The numbers were in the beginning of her compositional period based on dates, as mentioned earlier, but gradually moved towards number constructions based on the segmentation of the numbers 1 to 99. An example of this is her string quartet (op. 26) which is also her most performed work.

Interpreting the piece
Opus 17a is the first of four parts from Darboven’s Wunschkonzert and was created in collaboration with musician Friedrich Stoppa. It is seldom performed due to its duration and the physical and mental challenges performing it. Or as cellist Oliver Coates puts it:

»The physical labour pours into constant patterning.«

In the same interview at the vinyl factory website he further explains his view of interpreting a score:

»A performer interpreting a score at any level of complexity retains 100% personality and agency. I feel the music doesn’t come into existence without interpretation – in fact the discipline in channeling someone else’s musical ideas is freeing. The performer is placed between the composer and the audience as a conduit for the musical form as it evolves in time.«

Opus 17a
is based on 36 poems where each poem consists of two pages. Each of the total of 72 pages this piece consists of begins with the following text: »36 Gedichte A, C, D« (36 poems a, c, d). The staves in the notation of this piece are of a standard 5-line notation where the lines and spaces in between are numbered from 1 to 9, perhaps for making it easier for Darboven to notate. Although there is no clef indicated the treble clef (g) is mostly used interpreting her musical scores. I have still not heard someone that has used other clefs, or other tunings when performing this piece. It is also normally played transposed down two octaves to the double bass’ lowest string, the contra E (E1).

There are no accidentals (flat or sharp notes) and there is also no key signature, indicating that the piece is to be performed in C major, or F Lydian scale, as F acts as a fundamental. There is no time indication, but in general it seems to add up to 5/4 with the exception of where a note is preceded or followed by a dash (-). This means that the note is followed by two broken chords; the root, the third, the fifth, the octave followed by the root, the fourth, the sixth and the octave. The only musical information given is pitch, although this can be discussed as no clef is given.

The mathematical translation to music was based on a system where 1 was translated to E, 2 F, 3 G and so on, and were direct transcriptions of her famous number drawings. The broken chords were employed whenever there was a zero (0) involved in the mathematical process. Halfway through the piece is reversed.

This is done in a way that does not affect the ascending broken chords, nor the two intervals in every eight-note combination. This turning point can be heard when the broken chords in f is played twice.

»My invention – the mathematical prose – is the transposition of that form, which we callcontent, into a form of experience, an intensive process.« (Hanne Darboven)

On performing Opus 17a
Opus 17a lacks a lot of important information on how it is to be performed, as there is no explanation accompanying the score. When interpreting this piece, I used Robert Black’s recording from 1996 as a general guideline. This has been particularly useful in providing evidence that I had in fact interpreted this piece the right way. There are no tempo indications here either so I have let Black decide this for me as well; 1 minute per page adds up to roughly 70 minutes.

When listening to Black’s recording, however, the tempo changes rather dramatically during the first 10 minutes or so. He starts out playing around 60 beats per minute and speeds up to around 80 bpm and roughly 90 bpm around the hour mark. The recording by Robert Black is by no means perfect as he sometimes stumbles on a note (making a scratchy sound), the tempo increases, the phrasing changes and the same can be said about the timbre and so on. It does however have an organic flow about it and it is generally performed in a musical way. I would much rather prefer this way of interpreting and performing Opus 17a than a metronomic lifeless version, anyway!

In a telephone-conversation with Black he told me that he had been approached by Dia Center for the Arts in New York if he could record the piece. He knew nothing about the piece or the composer and had a hard time finding how to perform it. He describes the process of performing it as exhilarating, almost as an out-of-body experience »like I’m not performing, but experiencing it from the outside. It is strangely relaxing like the body is flowing, almost like a runner.«

Oliver Coates says the following on performing opus 17 a and b:

»I think of an arpeggiator setting on a synth being left on for 100 minutes. Then the subtle dancing of tones and their partials have an unpredictable life of their own. What the mind chooses to focus on varies – it may even be that the visual rotation in my arm movement will become primary, or an awareness of other peoples’ listening. I phase in and out of different kinds of waking sleep and ecstasy as I play it. I can’t predict that part too well.«

The music itself can be described as minimalist and almost naive, and it could easily be dismissed as sounding more like instrumental exercises more than music on its own. The lack of dynamics might also suggest that it belongs to the minimalist tradition as is the case with most minimalist music from the 1960’s and 1970’s. Opus 17a is highly repetitive, but even though the same notes and intervals keep repeating the patterns where they appear slightly change throughout the piece.

The performer has to be constantly aware about this issue, as there may be sudden changes throughout that may prove to be disastrous if you let down your guard, so to speak. What you think might be coming next, or what your pattern-seeking brain expects, does not necessarily happen around the next corner or at the top of the next page. Needless to say, being able to keep your concentration for 70 minutes is one of the key issues in being able to perform this piece live.

There are of course many challenges involved of both interpreting and performing this 72-page solo piece for double bass, consisting of a continuous stream of eight notes that lasts for a duration of approximately 70 minutes. The physical side of the performance is twofold.

The first being if you are physically able to perform it, and the second concerns the instrument itself.

Here the bow plays an important part in the performance. I tend to use rather sticky rosin in general, as I fell less of a need to use muscle when playing, letting the bow and the rosin help producing sound. However, if it gets too sticky it may interrupt the flow and sound too harsh, especially when performed legato. Knowing how to use the right amount or trying other types of rosin for a performance, could be an issue worth exploring further. In London at was hot and humid and there was hardly any rosin left at the end of the performance.

Varying the grip of the bow is also a key element being able to perform this piece. The downside is that often when you change the grip you may also involuntarily change the timbre and sound quality as well as the dynamics and phrasing. The instrument itself should be set up in way that there will be no obstacles met when playing. One such example is the potential difference in the response or sound colour of the different strings. You will notice if the strings react differently and probably get annoyed during the 70-minute duration of the piece if they do so.

Also if the strings are set too high it will be physically exhausting to play, and if they are too low you might get too much unwanted sounds from the strings hitting the fingerboard. There are also potential problems that can occur if the instrument is either too high or too low. These problems are mostly related to the performers physique, getting sore shoulders, arms, hands or back problems. Standing or sitting may also have an influence on the piece, depending on what you are used to as a bass-player.


As I mentioned I was contacted by Tim Parkinson in February 2012 and asked if I wanted to perform this piece at the series »Music We’d Like To Hear« in London in July the same year. With less than half a year notice to prepare it and a busy schedule that spring, it wasn’t something that I could spontaneously accept. But the more I thought about it the more I liked the challenge; it was almost like being asked to run a marathon!

What I find fascinating about this piece is the combination of its repetitiveness and slight changing patterns. Like most minimalist music involved with extended duration it distorts the listeners time perception. I believe that when these slight changes in patterns occur it is a way of keeping the audience attentive, not unlike some of Morton Feldman’s music and in particular his string quartets. Other examples are LaMonte Young’s Composition 1960, #7 playing a fifth for a long time, or Terry Riley’s In C where different sequential patterns are repeated. Repetition and sequences are also a major part of Steve Reich’s music.

In Opus 17a the broken chords are always ascending, and although the piece is reversed midway, there is also a feeling of something that ascends and starts over and over again and again throughout the piece.

It is almost like a musical equivalent of the Myth of Sisyphus, but instead of rolling an immense boulder uphill, the bass player is doomed to play these scale exercises and broken chords, for forever and ever.

»A system became necessary; how else could I, in a concentrated way, find something of interest which leads itself to continuation? My systems are numerical concepts, which work in terms of progressions and/or reductions akin to musical themes with variations.« (Hanne Darboven)