Annette Mengel was born in Giessen, Germany in 1961. She started studying the piano in 1967 before taking up the violin in 1972. After obtaining a baccalaureate with music and maths, she entered the Musikhochschule in Hanover in 1981, studying the piano with Bernhard Ebert and music analysis with Helmut Lachenmann. In 1985 she obtained a diploma for piano teaching from the Hanover Musikhochschule. She then took advanced classes in France, namely jazz with Alan Silva at the IACP (Institut for Artistic and Cultural Perception) in Paris, a summer course at the Centre Acanthes where she worked notably with Toru Takemitsu (1990), and then composition classes with Emmanuel Nunes at the École Nationale de Musique in Romainville (1991-1995) and at the Paris Conservatory (1993). In 1998 she obtained a bursary from the French government and followed a computer music course at the Ateliers UPIC.
In 2002 she was a laureate of the Villa Medici Fuori-i-muri programme of the AFAA (Association française d’action artistique) and spent four months in Istanbul. Her interest in the Middle East, especially in Turkey, has nurtured her inspiration. In 2000, deeply touched by the life and work of Nâzim Hikmet, she composed, from a poem he had written in prison, En güzel, a state commission for the Fondation Royaumont and the city of Sarcelles, a work she dedicated to the Neue Vocalsolisten of Stuttgart.
The four movements of En güzel follow without a break and each may be played independently of the others. Two distinct worlds, reflecting the double culture (oriental and western) of Nâzim Hikmet, are evoked through the use of differing musical and linguistic materials. The first and third movements interpret the Turkish text by using the phrygian mode together with many melismas and ornaments. The second and fourth movements are constructed from abstract ideas and the text is replaced by phonemes that at times resemble Turkish words: küçük (small), çiçek (flower), çocuk (child).
Similarly, in 2004, Mengel composed Toprak for harpsichord, tape and 12 mixed voices, from Paysages humains de mon pays by Nâzim Hikmet. This piece, commissioned by the ensemble Musicatreize of Marseilles, tells of the drama of an Anatolian peasant fleeing home to join her lover. Inspired by monodic Ottoman music, the composer focusses on the horizontal dimension and on the various ways of ornamenting and accentuating the main line by surrounding it with dynamic heterophony. She also uses micro-intervals and tunes the harpsichord in accordance with the _akam ‘Segah’. The connotations of an early instrument are avoided by the use of broken octaves evoking the qanûn (a plucked string instrument common to all countries of the Middle East). The harpsichord also forms a link with the electronics, based on granular synthesis treatment: the chirping of grasshoppers and cicadas is transformed into a harpsichord sound and vice versa. Mengel is exploring here a double ambiguity: ambiguity of contemporary musical language and Ottoman musical language on the one hand, and ambiguity of natural and artificial sonorities on the other.
Inspired by the same poet and the same album, she also composed, in 2009, Paysages humains for soprano and instrumental ensemble, commissioned by Cultures France for its ‘Turkey in France’ season, a portrayal of the Turkish people.
Mengel also introduces oriental instruments in her works: the ney (Turkish flute) in Sabâ-Șehnaz Beste (2009), the tanbur in Fantaisievariationen (2006). This latter piece, based on a theme by Dilhayat Kalfa, a female Turkish composer of the eighteenth century, associates the tanbur, a long-necked, Turkish lute with movable frets, with an ensemble of eight western instruments. The heterogeneity of this instrumental combination, enhanced by the use of instruments from varying historical periods, stemmed from a desire to constitute new, heterogeneous material from neighbouring yet different traditions.
Though Annette Mengel feels at home in the contemporary music scene in France, she remains attached to her original German culture and its heritage from the classics (Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, etc.) and the Second Viennese School. In Identification IV for mezzo-soprano, flutes and electronics (2012), she chose for inspiration a poem by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, a German poetess and contemporary of Heinrich Heine, the contents of which, being eminently feminist, conveys an urge for freedom. Musically this text receives varied treatment: singing, speaking, whispering, shouting, etc., particular attention being paid to the musicality of the consonants in the German language, which are transformed by the electronics.
Similarly, in Ezan-Ländler for horn and electronics (2008) the composer uses heterogeneous musical material that is transformed by digital technology, elements of it taken from different sound worlds: braying deer recalling her German heritage, a call to prayer, with the wish to denounce a political atmosphere marked by nationalism and the fear of others. There exist side by side in this work different elements of mediation, such as recordings and the electronic transformation of sounds, though there is also the live performance of a score by the horn player.
The works of Annette Mengel have often been commissioned by French institutions (Ministry of Culture, Sacem, Fondation Royaumont, etc.) and have been performed by such ensembles as L’Itinéraire, Musicatreize, L'Instant Donné, Les Jeunes Solistes and the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart. With the exception of large symphonic forces, Mengel has written vocal and instrumental works for varied groupings as well as incidental music for the stage, and these have been performed in various international festivals (Musica Strasbourg, Voix Nouvelles Royaumont, Les Musiques Marseille, Manca Nice, Festival Internacional de Música Contemporánea Alicante, Festival d’Île-de-France), as well as in Berlin, Moscow, Istanbul, etc, and have been broadcast by various radio and TV channels in France and abroad.
Annette Mengel is also the author of a Masters II thesis in music and musicology from the University of Paris-La Sorbonne entitled “Nevâ Kâr” et “Nevâ Beste” de Buhûri-zâde Mustafà Efendi Itrî. In parallel with her activity as a composer, she has been successively teacher at the University of Marne-la-Vallée (Arts and Technologies department) and at the Montpellier Conservatory.