Eric Nathan
Eric Nathan | Credit: Rebecca Fay Photography

The Germans have a knack for coming up with long, single compound words for various aspects of life that normally might take a sentence or even a paragraph to depict in English. Schadenfreude — or delight at someone else’s misfortune — is one of the best-known of them. So British writer Ben Schott took it upon himself to invent 120 new German words in that spirit for a book that he calls — um — Schottenfreude.

Ben Schott's "Schottenfreude"

Cue the composer Eric Nathan, who in Missing Words has set some of these nearly-impenetrable polysyllabic words to music in a set of six compositions for various-sized ensembles (New Focus). While Schott writes, “Schottenfreude exists because when English is exhausted, we turn to German,” Nathan tries to prove that “when words are exhausted, we turn to music.”

Each of the six Missing Words components consist of a suite of short impressions on new German words, each played by a different ensemble. Members of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) under Gil Rose take on the first cycle, the American Brass Quintet the second, the cello-piano duo of Parry and Christopher Karp the third. Nicholas DeMaison and members from the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) do the fourth, the Neave Trio does the fifth, and the Hub New Music quartet does the sixth.

It’s an intriguing concept. It sometimes results in intriguing music. And parts of these six compositions occasionally hit the target of conveying in sound the idea behind the complex words.

How complex? It can be as simple a word as “Betttrug” — or “The fleeting sense of disorientation on waking in a strange bed” — which consists of little more than soft drones. The longest, most outlandish one has to be (pause for deep breath) “Kraftfahrzeugsinnenausstattungsneugeruchsgenuss” — which is supposed to mean “New car smell.” How does that translate into sound? The music doesn’t offer a clue.    

While many of the thoughts expressed by the words are rather frivolous, sometimes the topics are quite serious. In Suite III, “Straußmanöver” — or “Ostrich-Maneuver, the short-term defense strategy of simply denying reality” — starts with deep strummed piano strings, evolves into a torturously high cello line over amorphous piano chords, and ends with a feathery-voiced anthem that is supposed to represent “political angst” (another German contribution to the world’s vocabulary). In the succeeding piece “Schubladenbrief” — or “The letter you write, but never send” — the cello imitates a scribbler furiously busy with the pen while the piano hammers out some real angst.

Really engrossing and even touching is a selection in Suite IV called “Dreiecksumgleichung” — or “When two friends you’ve introduced form a new friendship that excludes you.” It’s a playlet in which a bass clarinet horns in on a violin-cello duo, eventually kicking the violin out of the triangle. Then we hear a flute and a piano frolicking together, with the flute quickly replaced by mallet percussion. But in the end, the flute ultimately finds a soulmate in the spurned violin. Anyone who has been in these kinds of triangles will identify.

There is humor, too, in the last two suites in which Nathan joins the multitudes of present-day composers who are obsessed with Beethoven, whose manuscript scores can be notoriously messy-looking. The Neave races around in “Ludwigssyndrom” — or “Ludwig’s-Syndrome: Discovering an indecipherable note in your own handwriting” — with embedded notes from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony strewn in fragments. And Nathan doesn’t stop there; the motto of Beethoven’s Fifth infiltrates Suite VI in recurring passages, ultimately coming to a contemplative rest in the final number of the collection, “Rolleirückblende” — or “The flood of memory released when looking at old photos.”

That’s enough tricky, made-up German words for one review.

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