To get a picture of Enno Poppe as a composer, you need only watch him in action as a conductor. And that’s not necessarily referring to the clip from 2014 of him with Ensemble mosaik as the ‘augmented conductor’ of Alexander Schubert’s Point Ones in which, hooked up to an array of motion sensors, his wild gestures trigger live electronics while continuing to guide the ensemble’s players.
Even without the exaggerations of Schubert’s piece, when conducting, Poppe’s limbs trace an invisible, dazzlingly complex blueprint of lines, angles and curves. A musician from Chicago’s Ensemble Dal Niente described him as seeming to have five elbows. Another analogy might be that of watching a time-lapse film of the growth of an apple tree: a tangle of vigorous, jutting perpendicular branchings that occupy every possible axis while remaining rooted in a unified organic purpose.
The geometry and mathematics of nature are familiar concepts in the music of Poppe, who was born in the dying days of the 1960s in Sauerland, Germany, studied conducting and composition with Friedrich Goldmann and Gösta Neuwirth at Berlin’s Hochschule der Künste and has conducted Ensemble mosaik since 1998.
As well as the growth patterns of plants, his work draws upon concepts of cells, mutations and the interplay between genotype and environment, symmetry and irregularity, original and mutation that he describes as ‘dented nature’. His one-word titles evoke the idea of fundamental substances, their everyday qualities explored and transformed: Ӧl (Oil, 2001-4), Salz (Salt, 2005), and even Brot (Bread, 2007) – one wonders whether Mehl (Flour) and Hefe (Yeast) lurk, unfinished, in the Poppe store cupboard to complete the recipe.
This fascination with patterns, systems and interactions extends from the cellular level to the human and beyond. A key landmark in Poppe’s career, the music theatre work Interzone (2003), which was performed at hcmf// 2010, presents the entangled comings and goings in a disjointed urban landscape inspired by William Burroughs’ writings of his time living in Tangiers.
Combing text by the German poet and novelist Marcel Beyer with multi-screen video projections by Belgian film-maker Anne Quirynen that evoke the compound vision and meandering pathways of bees, it depicts the city not as a set of fixed locations, but as a series of interactions and superimpositions.
More recently, Poppe’s multi-part piece Speicher (2008-13) tackles the unreliability of memory, with musical ideas ‘remembered’ by the large ensemble: recurring, distorted and recontextualised. Asking musicians to navigate such shifting, unstable territory is a common Poppe feature: most infamously, 2003’s Rad (Wheel) requires duetting keyboardists to steer confidently through a score in which they have to trigger shifts into around a hundred different pre-programmed microtonal and spectral scales.
Scherben (2000/2008) and Fleisch (2017) are similarly demanding, the former compressing 121 ‘shards’, some lasting only a few seconds, into a 13-minute piece, while the latter, for saxophone, electric guitar and drums, deconstructs rock music down to its molecules then rebuilds them with a jolt of galvanic energy.
With Rundfunk (2018), a concert-length tour through the history of synthesiser music guided by the most informed and passionate of fans, that approach finds realisation on a much larger scale. And in typical Poppe style, with its microtonally tempered software recreations, Rundfunk also offers a cellular reboot of that history into original and ever-evolving forms.
Ensemble Musikfabrik: Saunders 1
Friday 16 November
7:00pm at Huddersfield Town Hall
Meet the Composer: Enno Poppe
Saturday 17 November
2:30pm at The Oastler Building, University of Huddersfield
ensemble mosaik: Poppe
Saturday 17 November
9:30pm at Bates Mill Blending Shed