Oliver Schneller

In the magnum opus of the English physician and polymath Robert Fludd, Utriusque Cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica, physica atque technica Historia (1617), there is a depiction of a "celestial monochord": a single string stretching from the Earth through all the heavenly spheres, ending in a scroll held by God’s hand. If we leave aside the metaphysical dimension of this depiction of Pythagorean Neoplatonist cosmology, what remains is the striking image of an unreal physical object: a gigantic string in space. What might it sound like?

Oliver Schneller´s String Space for violin, viola, violoncello and live electronics (2005) gives one possible answer. The composition revolves around the idea of a single oversized string and its specific acoustic qualities. The three string instruments act as if they were connected with this meta-instrument and stimulated by it each in a different way. Together with the live electronics they create a virtual space in which the acoustic phantasms manifest themselves.

This conception is characteristic of Oliver Schneller’s music: his compositional fantasy is often inspired by real or imaginary acoustic objects. In Aqua Vit for eight instruments (1999) it is the sound of flowing water which marks the beginning of the piece: the "objet sonore" (Pierre Schaeffer) is robbed of its original context and subjected to a computer-aided analysis; in a further step, the resultant rhythmic and spectral properties of this "acoustic photograph" (Tristan Murail) help construct a model which in turn produces the concrete compositional structure.

The process described here does not aim at reproduction, but rather at appropriation. To paraphrase Paul Klee, Oliver Schneller’s music does not reproduce sounds, it makes things audible: it focuses selected qualities of the object and absorbs them for aesthetic forms which the composer rightly calls "hybrids". These are "half original object and half composed structure abstracted from it". That gives them, in spite of their plasticity, a certain brilliance, which means they are not quite at ease with themselves, like looking in a distorting mirror. 

In the light of this sculptural approach, it seems only logical that the category of space plays an increasingly significant role in Oliver Schneller’s recent works – not only as an inner-musical projection but also as the performance‘s concrete architectural framework. In Clair-Obscur for seven instruments, six loud speakers and live electronics (2005/06), space takes on the role of an independent compositional parameter. Conceived for the architecture of the Chamber-Music Hall in the Berlin Philharmonie, it pursues the idea of dynamising the architectural and acoustic conditions of the hall. Within a matrix of instruments and loud speakers spanned across the performance area, the acoustic forms of light and shadow play with the ambiguity of foreground and background in a way similar to the technique referred to in the title, creating a musical topography which is at once fragile and expressive – as if it were not the sounds changing in space, but space changing around the sounds. Indeed, the dynamics of borders and their transgression are characteristic of all of Oliver Schneller‘s works: just like Robert Fludd’s monochord they project structural criteria attained at the smallest level onto the macrolevel of form, and further into physical space, making it accessible as a compositional parameter.

Markus Böggemann

Oliver Schneller im Gespräch mit der Musikjournalistin Margarete Zander