Orchester-Finalisten


'I admire Carré . . . though it will no doubt be discovered that my admiration extends only to superficialities' - Stravinsky (1)

Both works (Orchester-Finalisten and Helikopter-Streichquartett) are farewell gestures. You get in an aircraft, you go. That's it. Orchester-Finalisten deals on the surface with the end round of a competition to prove one's worth as an interpreter. A rite of passage to earn the authorization to play and instruct. Not to interpret. An orchestra player does not interpret. He or she follows instructions. I labor the point.

The image of competition comes up several times in LICHT. Michael submits to examination in Donnerstag aus LICHT, a Conservatoire like affair with undertones of the trial scene in Jean Cocteau's movie Orphée - a modern retelling of the myth about a Greek god of music obtaining permission to enter the underworld to retrieve his lost love, but we won't go into that. In The Course of the Years, the gagaku influenced scena now Act I of Dienstag aus LICHT, the Year-runners are offered various devilish inducements to leave off their labors and bring the music to an end, and having resisted temptation have prizes bestowed on them at the end. And now here we go again, yet another competition.

At the time of its British premiere at the Huddersfield Festival in 1997, there was some relief being expressed that at long last the composer was beginning to write for a regular orchestra once again. Not much seems to have happened since the orchestrated strike of 'Luzifers Tanz' in Samstag aus LICHT, and that was (gosh) 1983. So a mix of non-electronic instruments for a change, hooray, good news. One might easily overlook the fact that the talented Asko Ensemble is not an orchestra in the dictionary meaning of the word, nor does it function as a team in the traditional sense. Divide and rule, just the same as Helikopter-Streichquartett.

It is always tempting to take Stockhausen's titles literally, and this one is no exception. 'Orchestra' does not mean orchestra, and 'finalists' has another meaning. This guy is a tease. What he might be saying by the title, ironically, is 'The end of the orchestra as we know it'. Which from the composer's point of view makes a lot of sense

According to Merriam-Webster (3rd International Edition, 1986) 'a finalist is a believer in or advocate of finalism', which is further defined under teleology as 'a metaphysical doctrine explaining phenomena and events by final causes or affine relationships involving transformations that preserve collinearity (math) or family or tribal relationships (anthropology). So the work has a subtext that is philosophical and anthropological in meaning, and not about competition for a music prize at all.

Why should we be so sure that the piece has to do with anthropology or philosophy? Because LICHT considered as a whole is a mystery play, and the character relationships in the LICHT cycle are worked out in the terms of Claude Lévi-Strauss, the influential French proponent of structural anthropology. (I have dealt with this in my essay 'Gossip: the fantastical fictions of Baron Stockhausen' elsewhere on this site.)

In Orchester-Finalisten the affine or family relationships are based on imitation. The composer has said :

'Musical training has nothing to do with musicality. You can train someone for years in a conservatoire of music and develop the ability recognize pitch constructions, harmonies, chords, melodies, intervals - all intellectually. But what I call a musical person is someone who can imitate any sound that he hears, with his voice, directly, without thinking about hitting the right pitch, but just doing it. Great musicians always start off as great imitators. Afterwards, building on the talent of imitation, comes the talent to transform what you hear' (2) - which paraphrases to 'the test of a musical genius is if he (she?) can imitate any sound perfectly after hearing it only once'.

When one thinks of imitation in the context of Stockhausen's music one thinks for example of instruments imitating electronic sounds in Kontakte, players imitating animal sounds in Mikrophonie I and short-wave events in Kurzwellen, trombones roaring like lions in 'Samstags-Grüss' in Samstag aus LICHT, and the string quartet blending in with their helicopters in Helikopter-Streichquartett. And remember violist Johannes Fritsch, renowned as a member of Group Stockhausen for his 'superb animal impressions' (3).

In Orchester-Finalisten the test is imitation of nature, the outside world of living and industrial sounds and sound processes as presented on tape. Who is the jury? Is it the audience, or an unseen panel of divinities? Whoever it is, we sense that the players are being made to feel small. There is a moment in 'Donnerstags Abschied' where the level of sound of the 'Invisible Choirs' suddenly lifts, a dramatic change of balance having the effect of masking and even drowning out the voice of the tenor solo. Stockhausen refers to this as a change of scale, the tenor appearing to shrink, like Alice through the Looking-Glass, to the size of a flower or a lizard. Something very similar seems to be afoot in the new piece, in part because of the constant presence of tape sounds in the background, and in part because the instruments are given so little material to perform, mere fragments of fragments of formulae.

The same loftiness of vantage is exploited, though from a different angle, by Boulez in Répons, wherein the gods are expressed in the computer-generated transformations of data sequences delivered as burnt offerings by solo keyboards. But for whom then are Stockhausen's soloists performing, if there is no response from the electronic world and little to no interaction among the players as a group? (Interestingly the momentary tuttis that do break in from time are like doors opening into the light, and then slamming shut. They remind me very much of the interrupted cadences in Adieu, yet another valedictory work for chamber ensemble from 1966.)

The composer's intention I think is to portray the players as insects, microbes, small-scale living creatures in the manner of Messiaen's birds, in close-up like a black-and white Nature film form the 1930s, creatures going about their business with unselfconscious economy and precision against an out-of-focus backdrop of the environment.

What evidence is there that Stockhausen is imitating insects? The brevity of the motifs they have to play is a sign. The violin buzzes like a mosquito. The tuba entirely against character plays a bumble-bee foraging on a flower. The trumpet - with a full panoply of mutes (perhaps auditioning to understudy the role of Michael) sounds more like a blue-bottle, maybe the mythical kind found colonizing the body of a dead lion and mistaken by Samson for honey-bees in the Old Testament story (4). Unlike Messiaen or Boulez (the bird chorus in e e cummings ist der Dichter) for whom birds are celebrated as free spirits, the finalists in this time of trial are more like specimens pinned to a board but still alive, their largely futile struggles presented for our amusement.

Scale transformations, the interpenetration of macro and micro dimensions, are part of the serial fabric of Stockhausen's work. This is a composer who compresses rhythm into pitch in Kontakte and slows down the sound of geese until they are revealed as the shouts of a football crowd in Hymnen. If I am right and the violin is a mosquito, then what the composer is also saying is that the mosquito is also a tiny helicopter. The violin is the connection.

The tape montages that form the background to this haunting work are put together from sound effects discs, given the glossy overlay of an old photograph album, heavy with nostalgia, quite unlike the radiophonic burble and chatter of Hymnen and having none of the ribaldry of the animal noises that punctuate Montag aus LICHT. It is the sound of a dream, the dream of making music from sound effects discs that he first encountered as an apprentice in the ORTF music concrète studios in 1951. Listen out for the pip-pweep of the choo-choo train from Pierre Schaeffer's Etude aux chemins de fer of 1948, the passing jet from Varèse's Poème électronique of 1957. There is a deep poignancy here. The noises in the background are completely non-threatening, even pastoral, with a few subtle highlights: a sudden echo, a hint of feedback. Children play and squeal, a distant ship's horn sounds. The nervous fidgeting of the solo players is offset by tape images evoking the stained glass and movie screens that to a poor kid in Nazi Germany were windows to a better life and represented a higher truth than the wretched reality of despair and deprivation he endured as a child.

References
(1) Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Themes and Episodes. Knopf, New York, 1966, 11.
(2) Stockhausen on Music, 32.
(3) Stockhausen on Music, 145.
(4) Judges 14, but for a fuller discussion see my Science of Music, Oxford 1997, Chapter 15 'Death and Transfiguration' 179-88

To contact ROBIN MACONIE click HERE