Living Means Resonating

Michael Denhoff's Re-Sonanzen: a verbal reverberation

by Rainer Nonnenmann


Adding to the Latin verb sonare – to peal, to sound, to ring out – the little prefix re- turns it into an echo,

a resonance, a reverberation. Resonances abound almost everywhere in daily life and in music. The basic

physical laws of cause and effect, as well as the conservation of energy, are the responsible parties. In

acoustics, a resonance refers to the secondary sympathetic resonance of a body that is made to vibrate

internally by a primary excitation frequency, an effect that is even stronger when the spectrum of its own

natural frequencies matches that of the external excitation waves. As a result, all musical instruments

have resonators designed to resonate in such a way as both to amplify the sound and to tint it in a

characteristic manner. The materials, means of construction and dimensions of these resonators differ

depending on the type of sound generation in question. The double bass possesses a rather extensive body

made of wood, a material with excellent vibration qualities, which ideally allows all notes played on its

strings to resonate equally well. By contrast, the air column in the metallic tube of the piccolo has only a

minimal volume, which opening or closing the flaps and holes allows to be gradually shortened or

lengthened in order to attain different frequencies. In the marimba, the air columns of the tubes beneath

the bars vibrate with their respective frequency. And in people who speak, hum or sing, the rib cage and

outer skull serve as resonators. But there are plenty more examples.


Micro- and Macrocosmos


In addition to instruments and singers, the air and walls within the performance spaces themselves

resonate, amplifying or dampening certain frequencies. The acoustic of each room filters the sound and

modifies its intensity and colour. When making sound recordings, the sound's vibrations are transmitted

via alternating pressure to a highly-sensitive membrane inside the microphone, which converts the waves

it receives into changes in electrical voltage, which can then be recorded as digital or analogue. The sound

preserved in this way can then, by means of the vibrating loudspeaker membranes embedded in suitable

playback technology, be transmitted into the air once more and translated into audible vibration. Filtered

through the location and playback technology of one's choice, the sound waves finally reach the listener,

stream along tiny receptors into the ear canals of the outer ear and down to the eardrum. The sound

resonating against it is transmitted as a vibration in the middle ear via the hammer, anvil and stapes to a

membrane, which stimulates minimal changes in the pressure of cochlear fluid in the inner ear and which

is finally registered by some 3500 groups of hair cells on the basilar membrane before being sent as sound

signals to the brain via the cochlear nerve. Mankind can perceive frequencies from approximately 20

hertz to 20 kilohertz and sound levels from –5 to 130 decibels, and in the most sensitive range from 1000–

5000 hertz can accurately differentiate frequencies down to 1/40th of a tone. What is heard ultimately

echoes and resonates in the human mind, as an impression, identification, association, emotion, memory,

thought ... resonances define our lives, in ways large or small, or phrased differently: living means


Like the microcosm of interior spaces, microphones, instruments, singing voices, and hearing organs, the

macrocosm is a resonating room. Outer space, it is true, consists of a vacuum, and is thus soundless;

however, light, gravitational and radio waves vibrate across enormous distances and time spans. Highly-

sensitive radio telescopes can listen back to events in the universe that occurred some 200,000 years after

the Big Bang, whose mighty waves of explosion continue to echo through the vastness to this day.

Michael Denhoff takes small pieces of sound and in the end conjures up from them large "sound pieces".

The Bonn-based composer and cellist, born in Ahaus on 25 April 1955, recently celebrated his 65th

birthday in unexpectedly quiet manner, musical life in public having ground to a halt due to the

coronavirus. In his cycle Re-Sonanzen, composed from 2012–18, Denhoff listens in on the space–time

continuum of earthbound instruments. Each of his five "sound pieces" employs recordings of less-

commonly selected sounds from five different instruments, which have been processed with common

audio software to the extent that the instrumental origins of what results can hardly be heard – if at all.

Temporal stretchings and compressions, cuts, apertures, montages, superimpositions, repetitions,

transpositions, reverse runs, reverberations, and manipulations of volume discover, as though placed

beneath a scanning microscope, instrumental colours, overtones, fluctuations, noise components,

inconceivables, and of course different resonances in all their richness.


Klangstück I


Klangstück I, with its duration of more than twenty minutes, is twice as long as the Klangstücke II–V,

which are significantly shorter at ten, nine or seven minutes. Short passages from a recording of Denhoff's

piano piece Skulptur IV, op. 76 no. 4 (2003) form the foundation. These passages are the "acoustic

windows" of the aforementioned piano piece, which the composer has treated in such way that one hears

throughout the piece only the overtone reverberation lingering on some strings, permanently undamped,

not the attacks that made the sounds. The piano is therefore simultaneously present and absent in

Klangstück I: since the piece is based exclusively on an electronically-transformed recording, it is not a

"piano piece" that would require a pianoforte and a pianist. The electronic document, rather, zooms into

the cosmos of the piano as a resonance system, where all actions and components interact through

resonances. A vibrating string resonates with other strings resonating sympathetically or with the entire

pedal-infused body of strings. Resonating, too, are the thin wooden soundboard, the mechanisms of the

hammer, the moulded wooden frames. Since all attacks and settings-into-motion were removed and only

indirectly resonating notes and chords were used, the results are pure overtones and overtone spectra

beyond the usual diatonic-chromatic tuning of the piano, extending to the range of microintervals that

overlap with interference, beatings and iridescent pulsations. For long stretches the well-tempered clavier

thus sets aside its tried-and-true timbre for the sake of unfurling unaccustomed intonations and timbres as

an instrumental–electronic hybrid.

The sounds float in from the spheres, shine like glass, glisten like metal, or tinkle like bells. Some

combinations of resonance and overtones sound like gongs, cymbals, guitars, organ, or clarinet. Still

others appear – even though their origins are purely instrumental – to be generated electronically or as if

oscillating under water. The piano sounds like a orchestra of innumerable colours. Different degrees of

near and far arise depending on dynamic gradation and colour. At times the sounds exude a great energy

and presence, as if the piano were in the listener's immediate vicinity. At other times the sounds seem to

hover in a broad reverberant space or to waft in from far away, against the wind, veiled, shadowy,

fluctuating, with a beginning that is unclear, a trajectory that is vague and an ending that is open. In

contrast to string and wind instruments and their variable design possibilities, the piano tone is commonly

considered rigid, distinct, inflexible, irreversible. Denhoff, however, gives it an unexpected life of its

own, organic, malleable, fickle, sliding smoothly. The piano's sounds occasionally even vanquish their

inevitable diminuendo by unexpectedly swelling up afresh and awakening to new life. During the

electronic processing grinding noises occurred that are intermittently audible. These are in fact faults,

which the composer, hearing them as attractive contrast effects, nonetheless accepted.


Klangstück II–V


Klangstück II is based on recordings of a monochord in which the bridge is allowed to move along the

string across the wooden body. The string, thereby split into two sections, then produces two different

pitches according to the length of the sections. Slow extensions or shortenings of the sections then yield a

pitch that simultaneously slides slowly upward and slowly downward. Jerky movements of the bridge

quickly back and forth resulted in minor pitch shifts resembling a vibrato. Electronic processing and the

combination of multiple glissandi produces different densities of sliding and scratching as on metal, sheet

metal or glass. Sometimes spread-out cantilenas emerge, as though from celestial choirs of ghosts or

singing whales a thousand metres beneath the sea. Then, suddenly, whirring sounds rotate like electrical

insects through the room. The resultant overlapping of notes engenders dense mixtures and intervallic

relationships that are at times like the formants of human voices' natural overtone spectrum, giving the

impression that one can hear sung or spoken vowels. Klangstück III is based on recordings of five

different glasses, which were clinked together in all possible combinations (4 + 3 + 2 + 1 = 10) and

processed electronically to sound like singing bowls, gongs, bells, or other metallic idiophones. In a

manner that recalls the recordings of piano and monochord in Klangstück I and II, the fundamental and

overtones of the glasses layer themselves in ever-faster succession to form dense textures (think of

György Ligeti's "micropolyphonies"), the details of which are highly differentiated while appearing to be

static in their outer contour, dynamics and trajectory. Single notes and gentle swirling round off the piece

just as it had begun.

Klangstück IV is entirely different. The composer here made use of a WhatsApp voice message of

personal importance, which nevertheless plays no role when listening to the piece, as the language has

been processed to the point of total incomprehensibility. Denhoff dismantled them into phonetic

components, stretched and transposed the sounds while also letting them run backward. Language

undergoes a total transformation into sound and then into music. Consonants appear as rubbing noises or

polyphonic fizzing, whispering, hissing. Vowels bring about hums, growls or moans with characteristic

shading. The results sometimes seem "techy" and electronic, as though from saws, grinders or unknown

devices. Then once more they appear creaturely or guttural, like a distorted chant by Tibetan monks. In

the end, one can almost hear the spheres of the Ptolemaic view of the cosmos, the glass shells of which

circle around each other ever more slowly until the planetary system finally freezes into an all-

encompassing entropy, silence and darkness. The concluding Klangstück V is based on recordings of the

aliquod strings of a campanula, an instrument designed and built by Helmut Bleffert, whose form was

given the Latin name of the bellflower to match its shape. Its four strings are identical in scale and tuning

to those of a cello. There are, however, an additional sixteen sympathetic strings tuned in seconds and

stretched lengthwise across the body. As in Klangstück I, Denhoff only used recordings of resonances on

these strings, no attacks and no plucks. Sequences of ascending microtones make their presence felt in the

form of dense clusters across several strings and impulsive arpeggios. One hears, as the end approaches,

long swinging sounds as though from the bell towers on the sunken Atlantis. Michael Denhoff's

instrumental musique concrète yet again generates from merely a few recordings of musical instruments

an abundance of sounds, structures, spaces, landscapes, atmospheres whose sounds fascinate just as much

as its poetic associations stimulate. And everything that sounds continues to sound involuntarily within

us. After all: living means resonating.


(Translation: Dan Albertson)



Michael Denhoff's Re-Sonanzen appear on CD in late 2020 on the Edition Martin Tchiba etm label.