Reflections on the Sixteenth Annual Congress of the Gesellschaft für Musiktheorie

Compiled from the reports of Britta Giesecke von Bergh, Sören Sönksen, and Katharina Thalmann

The Sixteenth Annual Congress of the Gesellschaft für Musiktheorie (GMTH) was held in Hanover from September 30th to October 2nd, 2016. Over 150 members of the society from Germany, Austria and Switzerland attended the meeting, along with guest participants from countries around the world, including Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Hong Kong, Israel, Portugal, Russia, the UK and the US.

The conference was dedicated to the controversial topic of Klang. The conference theme “Klang: Wundertüte oder Stiefkind der Musiktheorie,” (vaguely translated in meaning as “Klang: music theory’s magic horn or neglected child”) itself speaks to the multiple meanings that the category has assumed in music-theoretical discourses. The program reflected the different connotations in bringing together presentations on the relevance of Klang in (post)avant-garde composition with critical reflections on the problems that Klang poses in music theoretical frameworks. In her opening remarks, Gesine Schröder, president of the society, emphasized the opportunity of the conference as a valuable chance to invigorate dialogue among different approaches.

Certainly, the diversity in approaches and thematic clusters of the program—with almost 90 presentations—put to rest any concerns about a limited range of perspectives. The lectures were grouped in various thematic sections, such as “Klang as analytical category (not only) in new music,” “History of music theory,” “Klang as object of composition,” “Sound in pop and rock music and in film,” “Instrumentation, orchestration, registration,” and “Creation of theory.” Throughout, Klang was portrayed as a significant compositional parameter, in contexts ranging from classical orchestration to electronic music. Methodologies included spectral analysis, Helmut Lachenmann’s theories of Klang, and approaches derived from linguistics.

On the first morning of the conference, philosopher Christian Grüny addressed the challenges that Klang poses for music theory. He demonstrated the inadequacy of terminology and analytical strategies in German music theory through the difficulty in describing the individual timbres of the human voice and other sounds. This criticism of Klang as an auxiliary to tonal structures rather than as an independent parameter in its own right reverberated in later talks.

Other presenters dealt with similar challenges in different ways. Mario Schmidt drew on Theodor W. Adorno’s theory of Klang in terms of a color for composition. Through the example of György Ligeti’s Atmosphères, Schmidt illustrated how color can structure a work and override other parameters like rhythm. Benjamin Sprick approached Klang through the theories of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Sprick’s imaginative analogies—including thunder storms, lightning, and sugar water—underscored how Klang can also be understood as a sensation.

The historical purview of the conference presentations was well spread across music and theory from the 16th to the 21st centuries. Presenters drew attention to historically differentiated perspectives on the function of Klang in this long compositional history. Friedmann Brennecke discussed the augmented triad as a phenomenon of compositional technique in the 16th and 17th centuries. Ojla Janjuš analyzed topoi in Lieder by Alexander Zemlinsky in the context of symbolistic instrumentation practices. And Jonathan Stark proposed an analysis of Gustav Mahler’s orchestration techniques by comparing his Lieder with piano accompaniment to their fully orchestrated versions.

Ariane Jeßulat’s lecture on “Phantom Counterpoints” employed a number of intriguing examples from compositions of the Classical era to highlight how skillful instrumentation can engender the resonance of overtones. This potential, which can introduce an added layer of contrapuntal texture, has practical implications for performers. As an example, Jeßulat pointed to an instance in Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony whose potential for “phantom counterpoints” has been exploited only rarely by conductors.

In the analysis section, music theorist and sound engineer Nora Brandenburg deconstructed Klang into various subordinate parameters and traced them in pieces such as Arnold Schönberg’s op. 16 (especially No. 3, “Chord-Colors”), Ligeti’s Atmosphères and Gérard Grisey’s spectralism of the 1970s.

Composer and musicologist Wolfgang-Andreas Schulz portrayed the appeal of the Aeolian harp in different historical aesthetic contexts—from its popularity in the 18th century to its negation of Romantic subjectivity, and to its revival by John Cage. David Wallraf shared insights from his doctoral thesis, which takes the genre “Noise” as a starting point for discussions of such fundamental concepts as pitch, sound, quality, and the (possible) borders between them.

Following tradition, a concert took place on the first evening of the conference. Helmut Lachenmann’s Second String Quartet (Reigen seliger Geister, 1989) was exquisitely played by the Daphnis Quartett, a young quartet from Hanover. Under the direction of Stephan Meier, the Neue Ensemble Hannover performed Tristan Murail’s Treize couleurs du soleil couchant (1978) for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, and Anton Webern’s Symphony Op. 21, two pieces that showcased divergent compositional treatments of the timbral potential of the ensemble. To conclude, the concert featured Frank Märkel’s (Hanover) piano arrangement of Morton Feldman’s Madame Press died last week at ninety (1970), which convincingly combined the repetitive structure of the composition with the isolated presentation of the piano as soloistic generator of sounds.

Volker Helbing and the theory department of the Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien Hannover were wonderful hosts, providing a well-organized collegial environment—and great culinary experience!—for all. The next congress will be held in Graz in fall 2017. We’re looking forward to this reunion!

britta-2Britta Giesecke von Bergh studied Music Theory and Germanic Studies (with a pedagogical focus) at the Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien in Hanover. She teaches music theory and aural skills in Hanover and at the University of Kassel.


Sören Sönksen teaches music theory and aural skills at the Music Academies of Hanover and Dresden. In Hanover, he is also pursuing a doctoral degree with a dissertation on metrical characteristics in piano suites of the 17th and 18th centuries.


Katharina Thalmann is an MA student in music theory at the Lucerne School of Music. She spent the past academic year as an exchange student at the University for Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. She holds a bachelor’s degree in piano performance and works as free-lance journalist in Switzerland.

Blog edited by Leon Chisholm and Stephanie Probst