The series of chapters forms a sonic progression that also seems to spell out a dramatic narrative.
“Despite the state and everything that ceaselessly tries to separate and divide us, I fundamentally want to be complete.” Artist, composer and music promoter Hans Otte told this to an interviewer in 1979, and that urge for wholeness fuels the title of an extended piano work that music publisher Universal Edition Vienna considers, “a key work of 20th century piano music.” Beacon Sounds has reissued Otte’s performance of The Book of Sounds, composed between 1979 and 1982 and first released in 1984, and it’s a rich bridge between the Romantic era and contemporary minimalism, with melodies that are deceptively simple yet reward repeated listening.
Otte studied with Paul Hindemith at Yale, but perhaps more crucially, for 25 years he was in charge of music for the German public broadcasting company Radio Bremen, where he brought such American composers as John Cage, Terry Riley and Steve Reich to European airwaves. Yet Otte’s own music doesn’t seem to bear much similarity to the peers he championed.
As critic Tom Johnson notes in a 1982 Village Voice review following a live performance of the piece, The Book of Sounds may not seem as all-encompassing as its title suggests. The work is composed for a fairly limited section of the keyboard, and is on the surface rather conventional. While Otte was determined, like John Cage, to “get to the root of sound itself,” as Beacon Sound’s Andre Neerman writes, the piece sounds perfectly accessible. At first listen, the initial sections in fact sound almost too pretty, with pleasant harmonies that may sound more like new age than New Music. A note from pianist-composer Dennis O’Halloran emphasizes this new age aspect, explaining that the work offers, “a sense of meditative peace mixed with a deep questioning of the world.” Yet that’s not all that’s going on here.
Part 2’s repeated initial figure seems too delicate, its circular arpeggios flowing like so much cascading rain. But subtle shifts in the melodies, a deeper left-handed note here, a diminished tempo there, and music that threatens to become a precious drama gains tension; then, as the 10-minute section nears its closing notes, the cascade stops for an examination of more spare sound, the busier figures throwing the more spacious segments into relief.
Over the course of the piece’s 12 sections, the book sounds more robust, as if Otte is finding a deeper resonance in the delicate figures of new age or in the respectful melodrama of the piano repertoire. Its melodies seem slight at first but are enriched by harmonies that particularly emerge from Otte’s muscular approach to the keys, giving the seemingly light framework more weight—both in volume and emotion.
Specific resonances emerge; part 7 recalls Bernard Herrmann’s cyclical score to Vertigo. Part 8 features big horror-movie chords that alternate with quiet passages – a complete turnaround from the meditative, introspective opening passages. Part 10 echoes the tranquil rippling of the first sections, but it’s informed by the subsequent tensions, and Otte’s exploration of the piano feels as much percussive and rhythmic as melodic. The instrument’s resonance becomes clearer – you hear the wood as much as the ivories.
The series of chapters forms a sonic progression that also seems to spell out a dramatic narrative. The 80-minute run time approximately matches up with Dreyer’s 1928 silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, which makes for an intermittently apt match. The Book of Sounds has immediately endearing charms that, like a relationship, grow deeper and richer the better you get to know it.