© 2013 by Julia Wesely
Essl's compositional style finds a poetic depth in exploring various processes: the use of algorithms for musical composition; the improvisatory element inherent in live electronics; and using the computer's random generations as the sole source of sound material. Frequently on stage performing his own compositions in collaboration with other instrumentalists, Essl the performer becomes an integral part of the creation as it is being created, illustrating his philosophical ideal that all chaos contains the potential for self-organization.
Essl's compositional output spans every possible medium: orchestral, chamber, musical theater/performance, live electronics, electronic computer music, real-time and meta compositions, meta-instruments, installations and soundscapes, film music, visuals, text compositions and works for solo instruments. Always looking to expand his creative output, Essl frequently collaborates with artists from other fields, including choreographers, dancers, visual artists, video artists, architects, poets, authors, and graffiti artists.
During his early years Essl tried to strictly avoid tonal music and its related gestures, as he believed it was connected to an exhausted musical tradition. Searching for a new harmonic language, it was not until Essl discovered the serial music of Anton Webern that he was to find a great transformation in his compositional style. States Essl: “That encounter dramatically changed my musical life and my prejudices against dodecaphonic and atonal music. I stopped playing the bass and dedicated myself to the music of the Second Viennese School, which I analyzed with utmost care…. I inevitably arrived at the serial music of the 1950's, and attentively studied not only the scores of Stockhausen and Boulez, but also their articles and manifestos.”
Essl furthered his philosophical understanding of the poetics of serialism when he came into contact with Gottfried Michael Koenig (director of Instituut voor Sonology – Utrecht, Netherlands). Their numerous interactions led to Essl's understanding that the poetics of serialism are not only an extrapolation of the dodecaphonic method ¬– instead, they give way to a new ‘synthetic' way of considering musical composition based on algorithms. Finding tremendous inspiration in the aforementioned Anton Webern and Karlheinz Stockhausen, Essl also cites György Ligeti and the early music composers Perotin, Guillaume de Machaut and Johannes Ockeghem as important sonic influences. Essl enjoyed a prolonged occupation with the poetics of serialism, and this idea became a formative influence on his career. Having come to the understanding that order and chaos can be seen under a common perspective, he saw that these elements are not opposites, but different appearances of the same reality. From this, Essl embraced the burgeoning field of computer-aided composition.
Frequently standing on stage alongside the other performers, Essl the performance artist presents a wise, sage-like presence within his music. The integration of his energy into the dynamic output of the performance generates a nuanced vibe, as the other performers are able to create and flow with Essl, the creator, in real time
Karlheinz Essl's performing his interactive composition WalkürenWalk
13 April 2013, Taipeh (Digital Arts Center)
Essl cites Lexikon-Sonate, an algorithmic music generator, as one of his most important works. The piece was started in 1992 while Essl was working on a commission from IRCAM. During this time he embraced the highly innovative programming language Max, and the advanced technology afforded Essl the opportunity to finally use his own compositional algorithms (developed for score generation years ago) in real-time. Lexikon-Sonate, for computer-controlled piano, is a series of models (humorously named Esprit, Joyce, Dependance, MeloChord, or Ricochet), combined by a ‘conductor' (Essl playing various MIDI controllers and the computer keyboard) to create an infinite series of musical elements. Lexikon-Sonate has survived the test of time (and numerous operating system changes) and continues to be performed by Essl to this day.
Karlheinz Essl performing Lexikon-Sonate on a Bösendorfer CEUS computer piano
12 Dec 2008, Vienna (Bösendorfer-Saal)
Gold.Berg.Werk was created on commission by a friend's string trio, and is an electronic expansion of J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations. Though Essl originally resisted the idea of adding electronics to the music of Bach, he then embraced this ‘interesting challenge’. In Gold.Berg.Werk, the movements played by the string trio are interwoven with electronic renderings of the Goldberg Variations. The electronics are based on the harmonic progression of Bach's flourishing and ornamented piece Aria. Essl reduced the piece to its essential harmonic form, stripped of figurations and ornaments, and used these harmonic elements to create a gorgeous electronic soundscape. Gold.Berg.Werk are a lush set of pieces that bridge the Baroque past with the sounds of the new millennium.
Gold.Berg.Werk: Sarabanda Electronica / Variation No. 3
Karlheinz Essl (live-electronics) and drei.klang.wien
4 Dec 2011, Klosterneuburg (SCHÖMER-HAUS)
In 2008 Essl began a series of works with the title Sequitur. Inspired by Luciano Berio's Sequenza series, Sequitur is a series of works for various solo instruments and live electronics. The pieces are performance ready, in that it is possible for the players to play each piece in a solo context, without the direct assistance of a sound technician. This ease of platform as surely contributed to a great many more performances then a piece with more complex technical requirements. Notable instrumentations include Sequitur V for toy piano and live-electronics, Sequitur XIII for extended piano and live electronics, and Sequitur XIV for kalimba and live electronics. Sequitur IX for voice and live electronics utilizes techniques of overtone singing, combined with plainchant singing and "bel canto", as the piece blends together Eastern and Western elements, melting both cultures into a new sonic landscape. Embracing his solo performance artist, Essl later composed non Sequitur, a series of pieces for various gadgets (punch-tape controlled music boxes, kalimbas, sound sculptures) and live electronics. In this piece the electronics are based on side products of Essl's Sequitur cycle, and improvised with by Essl in real-time.
Margarete Jungen & Karlheinz Essl performing Sequitur IX
20 Oct 2009, Vienna (University of Music and Performing Arts)
The complete catalogue of Essl's works is vast, diverse, comical, evolutionary, and sheer artistic prose. Having recently completed works encompassing sound installations (Suspended Suspense), multiple prepared and amplified toy pianos (Miles to go), and a piece for tenor tuba, live-electronics and surround sound (Si!), Essl continues to maintain a continuous flow of innovative creative output.
in: Fowl Feathered Review, Issue 4, Summer 2013, ed. by Virgil Kay (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada), p. 74-81.
Updated: 16 Jul 2016