Stockhausen: Gesang

at the IRCAM (Paris, 1999)

Welcome to the Espace de Projection at IRCAM, inside a kind of giant Rubik cube where all the colors are gray and where the rotating wall panels can, it is said, simulate any acoustic known to man. Impressive, yes, but there's not much to look at, and the chairs are about as welcoming as the decor (for acoustic reasons, we suppose). In fact, you're four flights of stairs underground, directly beneath the brightly coloured Tinguely fountains, which of course won't fall through the roof to brighten up the surroundings, even though at times you wish they would. The audience tonight, apart from the habitual denizens of this post-nuclear bunker (who, through lack of fresh air are about the same color as the walls), is mainly middle-aged and, it seems, deadly serious.

We're here to celebrate the seventieth birthday of one Karlheinz Stockhausen, with a program consisting of "Solo" (1965-6), performed twice in versions for oboe and trombone, "Gesang der Jünglinge" (1955-6) and "Klavierstück X" (1955-61). The fact that there's nothing more recent on the program (and very little else of his written after the early Seventies in the rest of the festival) is testimony to the Stockhausen saga, which, in its own way, is as bizarre as the IRCAM story: once the darling of Deutsche Grammophon, with a discography and degree of artistic control that made him the envy of many, the self-proclaimed visitor from planet Sirius is now distributing his discs directly through the Stockhausen-Verlag (see my earlier chronicle), with the result that if you're a young composer you could be growing up sadly ignorant of the amazing body of work which constitutes Stockhausen's output since the early Fifties.

Tonight you're in luck, though: "Gesang" is one of the incontestably great pieces of electronic music, painstakingly assembled the old-fashioned way with scissors and Scotch tape, and the quad speaker system reveals the contrapuntal mastery and the timbral sophistication to perfection. Curiously, at the end the audience claps-they're presumably applauding the composer in his absence, since it's always seemed a bit silly to me to applaud a set of loudspeakers. "Gesang" is sandwiched between the two versions of "Solo", the first, for oboe, ably played by Didier Pateau (although he looked pretty miserable at the end), while the second features Benny Sluchin on trombone. Plus of course the four sound engineers, each of whom has their score to follow, recording, transforming and re-recording the soloist's material. "Solo" is a curious piece, oddly static (unless you choose to look at the loudspeakers) and curiously baroque in its polyphony: effectively the tape-delay system produces nothing much more complex than a two or three-voice canon. This is, of course, fine for the IRCAM crowd, who firmly believe they're continuing the long tradition of medieval guilds by creating high art in self-imposed isolation. The rest of the general public fail to appreciate the raucous circus glissandi of the trombone (don't forget that Stockhausen played for magicians in his student days, and has always had a rather stolid sense of humor), nor do they notice the striking resemblance between Benny Sluchin and the Professor from the Tintin cartoons. All in all, the trombone performance, with the mutes mounted on mike-stands to reduce high-speed changes, was more visually arresting but not as timbrally subtle as Didier Pateau's oboe version.

After a brief interval, where you can try to find a Coke machine in the midst of a group of smokers (huddled together conspiratorially in the one place where No Smoking signs are not immediately apparent), back downstairs you go for the second half, consisting solely of "Klavierstück X". This was magnificently played by Florent Boffard, dressed entirely in black, complete with cute black fingerless gloves-essential for the execution of the high-speed black and white note glissandi which characterize the piece. Truly Beethovenian in its scale-and its exploitation of the dynamic possibilities of the instrument, from great crashing forearm smashes to intricate pedaling-this is still difficult music, even thirty years on. Which is presumably why the crowd goes wild at the end, bringing the dazed (and probably bruised) Boffard back on stage four times with a chorus of "bravos!".
And so, worming your way past the mass of middle-aged men goggling at the computers on the mixing desk and asking erudite megabyte questions to the earnest engineers, like a group of kids marveling at a model railway shop, up you go through the gray, glassy corridors of IRCAM, up the clinical, brilliantly-lit steps and out into the Place Igor Stravinsky, where a late busker is treating a few tourists to an a cappella medley of Bob Dylan songs. Well, it's music too, isn't it? I get the impression that not many of your fellow concertgoers tonight would have you think so.

Stockhausen: Gruppen

at the Cité de la Musique (Paris, 1999)

The turbulent history of post-War European contemporary music, dominated by the so-called "Darmstadt School" (Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luigi Nono being perhaps the three best known) produced very little in the way of pure orchestral music; this was not so much due to the lack of orchestral resources-quite early in his career Stockhausen was able to take advantage of the well-subsidized forces of West German Radio Cologne and continued to do so for years to come-but rather to the peculiar difficulties of the new music itself. As students with Olivier Messiaen, both Boulez and Stockhausen seized upon their teacher's 1949 piano study "Mode de valeurs et d'intensités" as a prototype of a revolutionary new music which applied the serial principles of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern (Webern being especially important to the Darmstadt avant-garde) to the parameters of rhythm and dynamics as well as of pitch. The difficulty of the early "total serial" works rendered the composition of music for large forces both musically and financially impractical; Boulez's "Le visage nuptial" and "Le soleil des eaux" had to wait many years and undergo substantial revision before meeting their composer's satisfaction, and Stockhausen's 1952 orchestral work "Punkte" ('Points') was so extensively reworked ten years later that it effectively became a different piece. The flagship total serial works were rather for smaller instrumental forces (Boulez's "Structures" and "Le marteau sans maître", Stockhausen's "Kreuzspiel" and "Kontrapunkte"), Boulez's Domaine Musical paving the way for the specialist new music ensembles of today (the London Sinfonietta, the Ensemble InterContemporain, the Ensemble Modern). However, while Boulez worried over the poetry of Char and Mallarmé and began an interminable series of revisions and re-revisions which continues to this day, Stockhausen threw himself into the new medium of electronic music and produced two major masterpieces of the genre, "Gesang der Jünglinge" (1956) and "Kontakte" (1960). What he learnt in the studios of Cologne was to change fundamentally the course of European avant-garde music, both instrumental and electronic. Working laboriously with splicing tape and scissors (there were no synthesizers and samplers in those days, folks), Stockhausen discovered not only that pitch and rhythm formed part of the same continuum (speed up a drum beat enough and it eventually becomes a buzzing pitch-ask Aphex Twin or Squarepusher), but that he could exploit the possibilities of four (or more) loudspeakers to distribute sounds in space and hence render the complexities of the underlying serial system more clearly audible.
Curiously enough, "Gruppen" (1955-57), did not start out as a piece for three orchestras: seeing the complexity of his planned serial tempo ratios, the composer soon realized that a conventional orchestra under the baton of one conductor would not be able to handle the metrical difficulties. His solution, to divide the performers into three orchestras (of respectively thirty-seven, thirty-seven and thirty-six musicians) placed around the audience, each with their own conductor, "introduced a new grandeur of scale to the serial music of the fifties", to quote Robin Maconie ('The Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen,' Oxford University Press, 1976). Grand though it undoubtedly is, and an extraordinary achievement for a composer in his twenty-eighth year, the work's peculiar demands--how many performing spaces are able to stage the work, let alone budget for the enormous amount of rehearsal time necessary?--have led to its being performed very few times since its premiere. As such, the recent revival of the piece, played no less than six times, twice a night, in three separate concerts as part of IRCAM's celebrations to mark the composer's seventieth birthday, was a major event, attracting interest not only from the insular and exclusive IRCAM audience but indeed from around the world.
Even if you're familiar with the work through recordings-and if you can't pick up a copy of Claudio Abbado's recent Berlin Philharmonic version (DG 447 761-2) the long-deleted WDR Orchestra recording with Stockhausen, Gielen and Maderna is once more available through the Stockhausen Verlag, 51515 Kürten, Germany-let me just say that the impact of the piece live is something for which no amount of preparatory study can possibly prepare you: in concert, "Gruppen" is absolutely awesome. The simple fact of being literally surrounded by orchestras reinforces the music's spatial dimension in a way not even the most state-of-the-art quad system could hope to compete with; even within each orchestra, instruments are arranged spatially (from left to right, the audience sees percussion, brass, winds and strings) in the interest of assuring the clearest possible separation between musical lines (which, given the work's fearsome complexity, is absolutely necessary and not always possible on record). The famous moment where the same brass chord is swung from orchestra to orchestra is astounding in concert, and the ensuing climactic passage-which tends to sound muddy even on the otherwise pristine Abbado recording-suddenly makes perfect sense, with screaming brass and shattering percussion blows raining down on the listener from all sides, the musical equivalent of an ear-biting round with Tyson.
For the concerts, in Christian de Portzamparc's gleaming new hi-tech Cité de la Musique, an augmented Ensemble InterContemporain was conducted by regulars David Robertson, Péter Eötvös and Pierre Boulez (who, at age seventy-three, was renewing his acquaintance with a work he first encountered forty-one years ago); needless to say, the coordination between the three chefs was exemplary. One wonders how much rehearsal time was needed to bring off such a difficult work which such aplomb, and can only speculate on how the decline of the modern orchestral repertoire might be halted if money were made available to ensure performances of this quality all the time.
The two performances of "Gruppen" were separated by a brief interval and the insertion of "Klavierstück IX", ably (if a little impressionistically) played by Dimitri Vassilakis; despite its being the best-known of Stockhausen's piano pieces-this is the one which starts with the same chord repeated two hundred and twenty-seven times-could the composer possibly have heard of LaMonte Young's "X for Henry Flynt"?-I wonder if a more ostentatious virtuoso work such as "Klavierstück X" might not have been more appropriate for the hall's acoustic. Such considerations were brushed aside as the orchestras filed back on for "Gruppen" number two, for which listeners were invited to change places "to appreciate the work's acoustic/spatial dimensions from another aural vantage point" (and woe betide you if you went to the bar for a beer at the interval and had to sit up in the gods for the second half). One listener who snuck in at half-time was the composer himself, who sprung to life at the end of the show and ran from stage to stage to congratulate the players; the self-proclaimed visitor from planet Sirius was visibly moved in a very human way at the rapturous reception of his piece-and make no mistake, it was the piece we were applauding. "All unplayable music becomes playable after a time," musicologist Harry Halbreich once wrote, and the concert of the 3rd of April amply justified his remark. If musicians continue to make as much progress in the interpretation of technically challenging new music as they have since "Gruppen" received its premiere some forty years ago, I can only hope I'll be around in another forty to hear this amazing work played again.