The year 2000, last of the millennium, has been a bonus year for the avant-garde. Top of the bill, Stockhausen's first hit single for a while, the budget price Arditti Quartet cd of Helikopter-Streichquartett (Helicopter string quartet)(1) has stirred up genuine excitement among both the establishment press (opposing reviews in Fanfare, nomination for Gramophone contemporary music record of the year), and also the new generation of techno journals like Stereophile and Wired. Daniel Buckley writing in the June 2000 edition of Stereophile is admirably on message: 'The players imitate and elaborate on the rotors' sound, patterns of interaction, and changes in pitch over the course of the flight,' he observes, adding 'as with all experimental music, one must ask in the end if the idea works on a strictly sonic basis. This one does. There is a strange and appealing beauty to the interaction of man and machine.'
About this and other works visitors to the official Stockhausen website will find a lot of talk but very little information. The music exists as it were in isolation from the rest of the world.
Those who are interested in understanding Stockhausen in a wider cultural context will be disappointed. No context is acknowledged, not even the context of Stockhausen's own music.
Twenty years ago in the early 1970s the picture was very different. The message of the Jonathan Cott conversations (2) and my own edition of lectures and interviews (3) was of a composer highly receptive to current ideas in science and technology, and a wide-ranging and critical listener and commentator on the ideas underlying new music by Penderecki, Ligeti, Boulez, Stravinsky and others.
Since 1977 all that has changed. The conversation has ended. The music however has continued to develop, shielded against scrutiny from the outside world by an armature of impenetrable metaphysics.
Fortunately, and inevitably, the flow of Stockhausen's music has increased to a point where listeners can hear the message for themselves. The music tells its own story of a lifelong engagement with twentieth-century culture and cultural politics, from Kandinsky and the futurists at the beeginning of the century to Boulez and IRCAM in the here and now.You won't find this story in press releases or interviews with interested parties. The evidence is in the music, and the evidence tells the same very clear story spelt out by the composer in a 1971 lecture before a London audience:'When I started to compose, after the war, there were many different directions in musical research which had been prepared by the great masters Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Stravinsky, Bartók, Varèse. I had to go to the roots of their individual work, and find an underlying unity. It fell to me to synthesize all these different trends for the second half of the century, perhaps in a similar way that Heisenberg, in the first half of the century, had the role of bringing together the discoveries of Planck and Einstein in atomic physics' (SoM, 33).
What I want to do is to give some indications of how Stockhausen's music can be read in those very terms: how ideas that seem novel and unexpected connect, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, with modern art in all its guises. To appreciate the contribution, of course, one needs to understand the context, and if some of these ideas appear far-fetched part of the reason is unfortunately the reality that musicians in general have little or no background in the history of audio or the history of art.
In subsequent sections I want to put together some background on why Helikopter-Streichquartett has so powerful an impact and how it reads in the context of the composer's total output. I also want to compare it to a companion work from Wednesday from LIGHT, Orchester-finalisten (Orchestra finalists). This latter piece with its strange emotional charge has been rather less sympathetically treated in the press, but has many features in common with the quartet and is certainly worth more consideration (4).
Helikopter-Streichquartett is not the only Stockhausen release to attract favorable reviews in the past twelve months. Ellipsis Arts' 3-cd compilation of historical recordings issued under the title OHM: the early gurus of electronic music 1948-1980 (3) includes a six-minute segment of Kontakte that caused one reviewer to remark that he knew the piece was good, but hearing it in this context forced one to acknowledge just how toweringly pre-eminent an achievement it still is. (Incidentally the dates on the cover of this box set, which upside down could easily be mistaken for a greatest hits album by The WHO, are a bit misleading: Messiaen's 'Oraison' for six ondes Martenot (real name: Fêtes les belles eaux) dates from 1937, and the instrument from 1928. The theremin featured in track 1 dates from 1919, and the original trautonium also from 1928. The accompanying booklet is also very skimpy on facts. But the set is worth the expense for the Messiaen and an unvarnished print of Varèse's Poème électronique at the very least. Naturally a six-minute segment of Kontakte is not enough: the historic David Tudor/Christoph Caskel performance has been transferred to cd on Wergo WER6009-2, and the electronic version can be had from Stockhausen-Verlag on cd SV3.
Stockhausen's music not only has roots in twentieth-century culture, his ongoing influence is also manifested in the music of other composers. By way of example, the segment A Stockhausen ABC examines that influence and issues arising in relation to a sample of three cd recordings issued in the year 2000.
Readers unfamiliar with Stockhausen's LICHT cycle may refer to the segment LIGHT: illuminations and reflections that draws attention to the convention of the devotional masterwork in music and art and its place in the composer's ideological development including Christoph von Blumröder's new study of the correspondence with Hermann Hesse just published in PNM (6).
Finally in Truth or dare? the author offers a defense of views and ideas concerning Stockhausen's music expressed here and elsewhere of a kind not authorized by the composer and that have led to his being banished for the time being from the Stockhausen website. I will show that creative opposition is part and parcel of creative growth, more compliment than censure.
(1) Karlheinz Stockhausen: Helikopter-Streichquartett. Arditti String Quartet, Grasshoppers Show Team, WDR co-production, Montaigne Audivis MO 782097.
(2) Stockhausen: conversations with the composer, edited by Jonathan Cott. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1973; Robson, London, 1974.
(3) Stockhausen on Music: lectures and interviews. Compiled by Robin Maconie. Marion Boyars Publishers, London, 1989.
(4) Karlheinz Stockhausen: Orchester-finalisten. Asko Ensemble, Stockhausen-Verlag SV52.
(5) OHM: the early gurus of electronic music, 1948-1980. Ellipsis Arts CD3670 (3 cds).
(6) Christoph von Blumröder: 'Orientation to Hermann Hesse', Perspectives of New Music 36/i, Ann Arbor, 1998
A Stockhausen ABC: Anthiel, Boulez, Carter
This segment is about Stockhausen's pervasive influence on the music of the twentieth century, even music composed before he was born. 'Influence' is a contentious term. Perhaps a better word is 'presence'. Our understanding of modern music in general is affected in a positive way by Stockhausen's music and how he has responded to some of the major issues that affect modern music in general. All art is art criticism, and the best art criticism is other art. In that sense there is nothing paradoxical in discussing Stockhausen as a composer influencing his predecessors.
A is for Anthiel
George Anthiel's Ballet mécanique has now been issued in 'a world premiere recording and digital re-creation of the Carnegie Hall concert of 1927' by the Musical Heritage Society (1). It is a work endlessly talked about but rarely listened to. Years ago I discovered a special order Columbia lp in a record store (CML 4956 - PXLP 31166) containing a version performed by the New York Percussion Group conducted by Carlos Surinach, but there were no liner notes and I learned afterward that it was the composer's 1952 revised, heavily cut and watered-down version. Now in the year 2000 we can hear the work in something like its original version.
Why should this music, composed in 1924-5 before Stockhausen was even born, be of interest to a student of Stockhausen's music? The evidence is all circumstantial and mostly trivial. But it adds up. Let's make a list. In no particular order:
1. The music includes a recording of a propellor airplane.
2. The composer's 'bad boy of music' image.
3. Parisian culture in the 1920s: Gertrude Stein, the surrealists.
4. The futurist connection.
1. Music incorporating the sound of a propellor airplane and intended to celebrate the magic of flight. Ballet mécanique was originally devised for 5 pianolas (player pianos reading from punched paper rolls: the digital keyboards of the era), machine sounds including a propellor airplane, and eleven tuned electric doorbells. Composed for an experimental movie of the same name by the artist Fernand Léger, it was intended to represent in musical terms the machine esthetic of the painter (2). The music was soon afterward revised twice, for a 1925 concert premiere in Paris, and again for the US premiere in Carnegie Hall in 1927 where the ensemble was reconfigured as a concerto for solo pianola together with (depending on your source of information) up to ten regular pianos, anvils, buzz-saws and a giant electric fan. Aaron Copland was among the pianists, liked the piece and commented favorably on it.
2. The composer's image.
Stockhausen has long since assumed Anthiel's mantle of 'bad boy of music', or as Jonathan Cott has said, 'agent provocateur for the divine'. Both embraced the notoriety arising from the perfectly legitimate intention to shock, and in both cases their music's shock value is underpinned by craftsmanship and a sense of historical necessity. Anthiel's music for Ballet mécanique alludes among others to the Stravinsky of Les Noces (multiple pianolas), Varèse, perhaps even the moving cluster studies for pianola of Percy Grainger. As we know Stravinsky had to abandon the idea of a Les Noces accompanied by four pianolas because it was impossible to get them to synchronize. Likewise Anthiel facing the same problem was forced to reduce the number of pianolas in Ballet mécanique from five to just one, making up the difference with regular pianists - a remedy with which the Baldwin Company supplying the pianos was only too eager to comply.
Ballet mécanique even from today's perspective is still an exuberant and exciting work, in part because people are better able to listen and the cd medium preserves the image of musical pandemonium in high definition. But as well as being fun, for those who have already listened to Helikopter-Streichquartett the experience is also a curiously interesting: not just the propellor sound, but the unremitting energy, the texture, also the dramatic silences and movable clusters that make the pianola solo sound in places like off-cuts from Klavierstück X. Anybody who knows and likes Stockhausen will find interesting pre-echoes in this example of pioneer futurism, and anyone who is excited by Anthiel will find reason to admire Stockhausen's clearly more sophisticated handling of comparable material.
3. Parisian culture.
Here is Stockhausen on flying: 'I was flying every day for two or three hours over America from one city to the next over a period of six weeks, and my whole time feeling was reversed after about two weeks. I had the feeling that I was visiting the earth and living in the plane. There were just very tiny changes of bluish color and always this harmonic spectrum of the engine noise.
At that time, in 1958, most of the planes were propellor planes, and I was always leaning my ear - I love to fly, I must say - against the window, like listening with earphones directly to the inner vibrations. And though theoretically a physicist would have said that the engine sound doesn't change, it changed all the time because I was listening to all the partials within the spectrum. It was a fantastically beautiful experience' (emphasis mine)(3)
Stockhausen's attention to the inner life of sound finds an echo in Gertrude Stein, a literary American in Paris, reflecting on The Making of Americans: 'I began to get enormously interested in hearing how everybody said the same thing over and over again with infinite variations but over and over again until finally if you listened with great intensity you could hear it rise and fall and tell all that there was inside them, not so much by the actual words they said or the thoughts they had but the movement of their thoughts and words endlessly the same and endlessly different'(4).
The Paris-based surrealists were revolted by war (their leader André Breton, like Stockhausen, also saw service as a medical orderly) and took refuge in dreams and the irrational. The airplane in those days was a machine of dreams. In René Clair's 1924 fantasy Paris qui dort passengers alight from a small plane to discover a Paris in which time has stopped, allowing them the freedom to scrutinize a civilization in suspended animation. Entr'acte, Clair's film interlude for Francis Picabia's ballet Relâche (to music by Erik Satie) incorporates images of the kind we have come to expect from Stockhausen: a camel-drawn hearse, a bearded dancer (Satie) wearing a tutu, a huntsman on the rooftops, and glimpses of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray playing chess. There is a lightness of fantasy, a detached inconsequentiality in these early movies that chimes rather well with the spirit of LICHT - for example, this episode from Léger's movie Ballet mécanique:
'And then, the washerwoman. At first, she seems strangely out of place, this incongruous intrusion of an ordinary woman in an inhuman industrial world. But her function in Léger's mechanized montage soon becomes clear. Like Sisyphus, the Greek god eternally condemned to roll a boulder up the mountainside only to have it slip from his grasp each time he approached the summit, she mounts the steps, laden with laundry, climbs to the top - only to reappear instantly below, where she started, again to repeat her tiresome chore. Her function in the film, Léger has written, was first of all to "astonish the public, then to make them slowly uncomfortable, and finally to push the adventure to the point of exasperation." Each ascent is identical. She climbs and reclimbs twenty-one times, interrupted only by two other shots that comment on her plight...'(5).
4. The futurist connection.
The Italian futurists by contrast glorified war and the machine and had a much more robust attitude to noise, not to mention the fracturing of language. Whereas the surrealists' exercises in wordplay often seem designed more for the eye than the ear (in that group we can include Mallarmé's Un coup de Dès, Apollinaire, even e. e. cummings), by comparison the German concrete poets (including Schwitters) and the Italian futurists (for example Marinetti's Zang Tumb Tuumb) seem to relish the physical act of speaking and for that reason provide a much stronger foundation for the numerous episodes of fractured speech in Stockhausen.
On the question of machine noises and music Luigi Russolo's 1913 Futurist Manifesto is especially prescient. 'We must break out of this narrow circle of pure musical sounds, and conquer the infinite variety of noise-sounds' he declares. 'Let us wander through a great modern city with our ears more attentive than our eyes, and distinguish the purring of motors (which breathe and pulsate with an indisputable animalism), the throbbing of valves, the pounding of pistons, the screeching of gears. . . We must fix and regulate the harmonies and rhythms of these extraordinarily varied sounds. To fix the pitch of noises does not mean to take away from them all the irregularity of tempo and intensity that characterizes their vibrations, but rather to give definite gradation of pitch to the stronger and more predominant of these vibrations. . . . Every noise has a note - sometimes even a chord - that predominates in the ensemble of its irregular vibrations. Because of this characteristic note it becomes possible to fix the pitch of a given noise, that is, to give it not a single pitch but a variety of pitches, without losing its characteristic quality - its distinguishing timbre. Thus certain noises produced by rotary motion may offer a complete ascending and descending chromatic scale by merely increasing or decreasing the speed of the motion' (6).
(1) Anthiel: Ballét Mécanique. Rex Lawson (pianola) and The New Palais Royale Orchestra & Percussion Ensemble conducted by Maurice Peress. Musical Heritage Society 513891L.
(2) For more about Léger and the movie connection, see Standish D. Lawder, The Cubist Cinema, New York University Press, 1975.
(3) Jonathan Cott: Stockhausen: conversations with the composer. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1973; Robson, London, 1974.
(4) Cited in George Wickes: Americans in Paris. Reprint of the 1969 Doubleday edition. With a new foreword by Virgil Thomson. Da Capo Press, New York, 1980.
(5) Lawder, The Cubist Cinema, 152.
(6) Translated by Stephen Somervell. Cited in Nicolas Slonimsky: Music since 1900, 3rd revised edition, Coleman-Ross, New York, 1949.
B is for Boulez
There seems to be no equivalent honor in the West for the Japanese designation of an artist as a 'national treasure' but the year 2000 is a good time to acknowledge the moral and intellectual leadership of Boulez, Stockhausen and other luminaries of the avant-garde over the past fifty years. What their music says resonates with a particular force and sense of history. The dialogues and polemics of the 1950s have been superseded by diplomatic silence, but the same lively debate carries on in the music. Boulez's new Sur Incises for three pianos, three harps, and keyed percussion (1) is a startling reminder of the continuing vigor of the 74-year old composer. Forty-two years after publishing his own manifesto for music in the article 'Son et verbe', grandmaster Boulez is still firmly in pursuit of his ultimate goal, inspired by Antonin Artaud, of an art of 'organized delirium'.
Since the early 1960s the two paths of Boulez and Stockhausen have increasingly diverged, though from time to time the hint of a correspondence shines out, for example a pattern of returning to issues of multi-valent form (Domaines, ...explosante-fixe...) that go back to the well-publicised 'Alea' head-to-head of 1959, pitting Boulez's Piano Sonata III against Stockhausen's Klavierstück XI.
Sur Incises reads like an inscription written ('incised') on tablets of stone. 'Incises' also carries overtones of teeth (incisors), so perhaps the composer is also saying 'I can still bite'. But what the word actually means is 'an incidental clause', in this sense analogous to the composer's beloved 'parentheses' and sub-clauses of Piano Sonata III, which puts the new piece firmly in the frame of that ongoing debate with Stockhausen over aleatory, moment-form, modular structure and variable sequence. The piece can be referred directly to those Stockhausen pieces from that period, in particular Zyklus, Refrain, and Klavierstück XI, and Boulez's own Piano Sonata III and Mallarmé Improvisations. In his own comments however he prefers to acknowledge a debt to Stravinsky's Les Noces (yes, again) and what he describes as 'the insane virtuosity of the finale of Chopin's B minor Sonata'. In fact the solemn ending of Sur Incises is marked by the ringing of high-pitched crotala, just like Les Noces (well, okay, the Debussy L'après-midi d'un faune also ends with Greek cymbals, but is not composed for multiple pianos and percussion).
Sur Incises combines the hardness of Structures I for two pianos with the elegant fluency of the keyboard writing for Répons. However the key element for me is the novel introduction of steel drums. Steel drums! In Boulez! Aaaarrrrgh! From a musical point of view this is a terrible mistake, but from a theoretical and procedural perspective it makes a great deal of interesting, if debatable sense.
We tend to think of new instruments being employed simply as exotic coloration, but building on the examples of Varèse and the futurists composers have recognized the need for an underlying rationale. On that basis it is possible to understand the tuned steel drums as 1. extending the available range of metallic percussion beyond the limits of the vibraphone keyboard, and 2. providing a point of contact with the non-tempered metallic tones of the IRCAM computer. Steel drums are certainly not in the same category as the bell plates in Rituel, which along with gongs function as a completely separate layer from the rest of the orchestra. Rather we are being asked to hear the steel drums, like the harps and other keyboards in Sur Incises, as aspects (filtered if you will) of piano tone: 'the harps represent the piano's strings, while the resonators of the bells, vibraphone and marimba represent its soundboard' (2). This puts the new composition, its abundant energy notwithstanding, clearly in the same context as Stockhausen's Refrain and Boulez's Une dentelle s'abolit.
Like Refrain it is a composition in threes (3x3 for Boulez). Three layers making a composite timbre that varies by varying the degree of overlap. A good analogy is color separation in color printing where layers in cyan, yellow and magenta are overlaid to create a modulated full-color image, and since the different layers respond to different light frequencies their respective images are all slightly different. In Sur Incises the timbre layers are: piano, harp, and vibraphone with alternates xylophone (wood) and steel drums (metal), with tubular bells and crotala in ancillary roles. Refrain is scored for piano, vibraphone, and celesta, with woodblocks (wood), cowbells (metal) and crotala in ancillary roles. The woodblocks relate to the xylophone, celesta to the tubular bells, and cowbells to the steel drums. There is a good match.
Now here's the problem. Having put together an ensemble on the basis of a layered sonority, Boulez then does nothing about it. This explosive music is at a far remove from the fixed, inward reverberating sonorities of a Refrain, where the effect of the 'refrain' element is to break up the static sonorities like ripples in a pond (also handled very delicately). Sur Incises is remarkable in fact for an almost total absence of sustained harmonies. In those rare moments when the three pianos come together on a low F or F sharp a listener is suddenly aware of the possibilities of complex interactions among them. If you consider the effect of slight deviations in tuning between multiple strings in only one piano, consider how the same effect increases exponentially for three pianos in different locations: what you get potentially is a complex oscillation beating and moving in both frequency space and real space. To exploit this effect, or even to hear it at all, you need a music of big resonant chords with full sustain, like in Stockhausen's Mantra, measure 421, where of course the resonance is modulated electronically. Static chords is what Refrain is all about, though the dynamic scale is considerably reduced and relies much more on the amplification of natural resonances for its effect.
In composing his '48' preludes and fugues to defend a system of tuning that in many combinations is less than perfect J.S. Bach regularly resorts to fast-moving counterpoint to disguise underlying harmonies that are manifestly out of tune. One has the impression that Boulez is up to the same trick: rather than exploiting the possibilities for complex interior resonances as a Stockhausen would certainly do, he is 'covering up' with a lot of surface activity. If so, it is an opportunity missed, especially sad given the richness of possibilities of sustain control and half-pedaling already revealed in Piano Sonata III. Of course, you have to accept that resonance and pedal effects are not entirely predictable, and you also need to have the right technical supervision at the recording end to ensure that the interactions that do arise 'par volonté ou par hasard' work in an exciting way.
In the context of a series of recent works involving a variety of instruments mediated by computer, namely ...explosante-fixe... (flute), Dialogue de l'ombre double (clarinet), and Anthèmes 2 (violin), the presence of steel drums in Sur Incises can also be understood as a substitute for computer modulation or standing in for a portable keyboard synthesizer (the accompanying note by Wolfgang Fink refers in passing to the instrument as 'effectively a prepared piano' but this seems a bit rich). What do we take from this? The similarity lies in the metallic timbres; the difference in the inconsistency, some would say 'dirtiness' of the steel pan sounds. The added element is the element of human control. Note in passing that the French have a fixation with metal percussion, not just bells and gongs as in Messiaen, but the sculptured 'Structures sonores' of Jacques Lasry and Bernard Baschet from the 1950s. Steel drums are a throwback to the era of Harry Belafonte and Unesco sponsored recordings of ethnic music. Is that the best Boulez can do, with all his resources? Even Harry Partch could do better.
What we are dealing with here is a recurrent theme of twentieth-century music: the idea of musical dialogue between sounds perceived as real and sounds perceived as belonging to another dimension. When your resources at IRCAM include one of the world's most sophisticated digital synthesizers it is a natural theme to explore, but if you don't have electronics you use other means. In Kreuzspiel and Schlagtrio Stockhausen uses percussion to express the 'alternate reality', and piano to represent concrete reality. Kreuzspiel is a piece Boulez agrees with, since it was revived in 1959 in a programme alongside Boulez's own Mallarmé Improvisations I and II. Historically, the dialogue of piano and percussion goes back to Bartók's Sonata for two pianos and percussion of 1937 and returns again in 1971 with Stockhausen's Mantra.
Boulez wants an 'alternate timbre' for his pianos in Sur Incises. No doubt about that. And clearly he doesn't want to use the 4C computer on this occasion, perhaps to simplify matters. That he doesn't want a portable synthesizer either also tells us something. Why is a keyboard synthesizer not an option, especially with Yamaha so big a presence at IRCAM? Because what Boulez wants is an instrument with good bass response - the steel drums at least tell us that - and an instrument powerful enough to balance the three pianos.
This too is a Stockhausen issue. Lack of power and bass is exactly the point I have made previously about the synthesizer roles for example in Dienstag aus LICHT, namely that present day keyboards are simply not capable of generating convincing low register sounds, in addition to which they need too much power driving seriously big speakers, and that in turn places limitations on performer mobility.
Bass register synthesizers are not unknown in the concert repertoire: example include the ondes Martenot in Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie, and the Hammond and Lowrey organs in Stockhausen's Momente. Closer to the present issue perhaps is the option of ring modulation as in Mantra, for example the unearthly bass resonances after measure 132. But we know Boulez is suspicious of ring modulation because he has said so in no uncertain terms, apropos Mixtur (3) and would not like to be seen imitating Stockhausen's specially-developed modules for Mantra. Even Stockhausen is casting round for more powerful synthesizers so that the battle scenes and dive bombers in Dienstag aus LICHT can sound truly frightening. For now they just don't exist. Even the vocoders put so exhaustively through their paces in Electronische Musik und Tonszene vom Freitag aus LICHT do not appear to offer a solution, and Stockhausen seems resolutely determined not to go back to the methods of Kontakte, even though the hand-made taped sounds from 1959-60 are so much stronger and more vital than any plug-in device.
The short answer would be for Boulez in association with Yamaha or Bosendorfer (both of whom now manufacture digital reproducing pianos) to devise a means of electronically preparing a grand piano, perhaps by feedback to the soundboard in the manner of an electric guitar. The question is whether you can 'tune' the soundboard to vibrate at a particular frequency that will interact with what the keyboard is playing. Cage's prepared piano is not the answer for the reason that preparing involves suppressing overtones and thereby unbalancing the tone; Boulez is on record about this from remarks introducing Cage's Sonatas and Interludes at a Paris séance hosted by Suzanne Tézenas in June 1949 (4). One also suspects the fastidious Boulez would rather avoid getting involved with bits of rubber, bolts and nuts, and other bric-a-brac. And since the bass register is the locus of interest in Sur Incises, and to prepare a piano you need more than one string per note, the bass piano register consisting of single strings offers nowhere to insert a wedge.
The best option could well be to distune a fourth piano. Technically not a problem; pianos are tuned every day, and we are talking very narrow limits: a few cents up or down in pitch. To do that successfully however you need a theory of pitch, and for all their experience with the 4C computer system, I would be surprised if either Boulez or his computer expert Andrew Gerszo had a theory. Distuned pianos are a rare feature of the early twentieth-century concert repertoire, but they do exist. The bar-room piano in Ravel's L'enfant et les Sortilèges is one example, or the quarter-tone piano in Ives's Fourth Symphony, both regularly performed. Imagine distuning a Bosendorfer digital reproducing piano: that would combine power and range with the possibility of programming harmonies beyond the reach of human hands, adding a further element of overdrive to piano parts already at the limit of human skill.
If the IRCAM computer could produce sounds with a spatial dimension and with a natural variability of tone perhaps there would not be an issue. For whatever their musical deficiencies, steel drums produce sounds in three spatial dimensions as well as time, and synthesizers do not. On the evidence of their own 3-cd sampler package 'IRCAM: les années 90' (5) the 4C computer system is unable to sound like anything other than a metal percussion instrument. After 15 years of struggle this starts to sink in. The 4C is very good at taking a snapshot of a voice timbre and morphing it by interpolation into a bell timbre, to take a famous example, but this is action on a sample vowel and a single note, the computer acting in this regard less as a synthesizer and more as a programmable echo-plate.
The problem is one of design. Exactly the same problem arises in the analogue domain, for example the shiny chrome sonorities of Stockhausen's Synthi 1000 as heard in Sirius that after a while burn after-images into the listener's brain. To solve the problem you have to go another route that simulates not the sound, not the end-product, but the process from bow to string, bridge, soundboard and box. Only Kontakte does that.
Sur Incises is vigorous and interesting, not least because it shows that there are problems still to be overcome. Anybody investing in Sur Incises should also order a copy of Stockhausen's new edition of Refrain in three versions (that magic number 3 again!). In the old Time Series 2000 and Vox Candide vinyl recordings the balance is somewhat in favor of piano and vibraphone, but in the new recording the celesta is electronically reproduced (6).
(1) Boulez: Sur Incises. Ensemble Intercontemporain, conducted by Pierre Boulez. DG 289 463 475-2.
(2) Notes by Wolfgang Fink.
(3) See Joan Peyser's To Boulez and Beyond, Billboard, New York, 1999.
(4) See The Boulez-Cage Correspondence edited by Jean-Jacques Nattiez, translated and edited by Robert Samuels. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1993.
(5) IRCAM: les années '90. Booklet and 3 cds. Ircam/008.
(6) 3x Refrain 2000. Stockhausen Verlag SV 62 English (spoken introduction in English); SV 62 Deutsch (in German).
C is for Carter
Carter is not just as old as the hills. He is the hills: twenty years older than Stockhausen, writing in his ninth decade with an energy and a fluency that can only be described as phenomenal. This man is a living link with the Paris of Gertrude Stein, studied neo-classical Stravinsky with Nadia Boulanger in 1932, and was for years the most intelligent US commentator on new music - the musical equivalent, one might say, of Robert Motherwell. Learning by absorption he has never stopped evolving. At the end of his life Matisse could no longer wield a paintbrush but still produced works in cut paper of enormous freshness and power. Age has passed Carter by. The Ivesian complexities of the great concertos of the sixties and seventies have yielded to a looser, leaner idiom: by 1990 neo-Bauhaus, a Schoenberg violin concerto without the angst.
The three movement, 45-minute Symphonia: sum fluxae pretium spei dated 1993-95 shows no sign of battle fatigue (2). Carter can still hold a pencil and he is still tapping into new ideas. But a listener recognizes more than ever that elevated simplicity that comes with long experience and great inner tranquility. What a listener might not realise however is that the Symphonia is talking not about Ives, not about Schoenberg, but about Stockhausen.
Young Stockhausen. To be precise, the Stockhausen of Spiel (3). This music not only sounds like Stockhausen, but is composed like Stockhausen, the first movement Partita even having the same name ('Carter entitled it 'Partita' not to evoke the baroque form but in its Italian connotation of a game'- Bayan Northcott). Perhaps we shouldn't be all that surprised. Correspondences between the two composers on a technical level can be observed from way back: for example the logistics of multiple time-layers (Carter's First String Quartet, Stockhausen's Zeitmasse), or of multiple orchestras (A Symphony of Three Orchestras, Gruppen). In a 1972 radio talk for BBC Radio 3, discussing how music might incorporate mechanical sounds, Carter alludes directly to the history of such music from Satie and Anthiel to Stockhausen's Mikrophonie I:
'Progress from the delicate click of the typewriter in the scoring of Satie's Parade, to airplane propellors has recently reached the highly amplified scraping of metal on glass. . . How about giving the listener sounds and theatrical situations he cannot pay attention to in the usual way?' (2)
Symphonia is a remarkable tribute across the years from an elder statesman to a young visionary of 24.
(1) Elliott Carter: Symphonia: sum fluxae pretium spei. BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Oliver Knussen. DG 459 660-2.
(2) The Writings of Elliott Carter: an American composer looks at modern music. Compiled, edited and annotated by Else Stone and Kurt Stone. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and London, 1977.
(3) SWF Orchestra, conducted by Stockhausen. Stockhausen Verlag SV 2.
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