Worth Your Time: German Composer Bernd Zimmerman

When David Foster Wallace hanged himself last year, mourning quickly gave way to talk of an unfinished novel. But while we wait for the book, I've been taking comfort in Wallace's early, exuberant fiction, which—compared with his bleak, later work —clearly delighted him nearly as much as it has delighted me.

Wallace's creative and emotional trajectory brought to mind German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann, who killed himself in 1970. A conscript in Hitler's Army as a youth, Zimmermann spent his postwar life nursing depression, as well as his own uniquely gonzo musical style. In the opera "Die Soldaten," his most (in)famous work, orchestral shrieks are spliced with stomping, jazz-hall sonorities. Some find this unpalatable, but I hear beauty in the contrast. (I'm not alone: the opera sold out its run at last year's Lincoln Center Festival.)

But as with Wallace, Zimmermann's final works can feel like drafts of a suicide note. So we should thank the ECM label, which just released an all-Zimmermann disc—half of which draws on his early, more playful period. The composer's 1950 violin concerto sparkles with the influence of Bartók and Stravinsky, while flirting with polystylistic chaos. It's not a mere knockoff: because Zimmermann rejected all 20th-century "schools," it doesn't sound dated. Another youthful piece, "Canto di Speranza" ("Song of Hope"), is a sensual surprise. For balance, the CD closes with Zimmermann's final work. It's a fraught vocal piece that begs for a stage—though on disc, it's a reminder of why I'm glad to have the earlier offerings of this genius mind, before it turned on itself.