Another week, another excuse. Oh, and this post is about Xenakis.

Saturday 22 October 2005

Most of the events described below happened a little while ago now, but it shouldn’t matter to you unless you use this site as a news source (hint: don’t). I was trying to get this posting (and other long ones) to break from the main page onto a page of their own, without success. Hey, more photies uploaded, but!
One of the benefits of of taking advantage of a loophole in the UK visa system to escape my Australian creditors would be, I told myself, having greater access to the more esoteric reaches of culture which float my boat. Yet tonight I’m contentedly sitting at home in the bunker when I could be out copping a gawk at Karlheinz Stockhausen.
There are several reasons why I’m shunning a live! appearance by the man responsible for some of the most exciting music of the past 50-odd years (Did you know he was on the cover of Sergeant Pepper?). The main reason is because he’s charging £36 a ticket (Did you know he was on the cover of Sergeant Pepper? Hang on, I think I already said that). The other reasons are less materialistic, but all stem from that basic deal-breaker.
You’ll pay £36 to hear him play tapes. Furthermore, jaded Stockhausen fans report that whatever special Stocky-magic he may purport to imbue to a live mix of his electronic music is, at best, indistinguishable from shelling out about as much for the CDs – yours to keep! Another danger sign: he’s playing one undisputed solid-gold classic (Kontakte) paired with a new work no-one really knows (Oktophonie). I still have a short stack of half-played Steve Reich albums I keep around to remind of that particular lesson I learned the hard way.
Oktophonie may be a great work, but everything he’s done over the last 30 years has been obscured by his public persona of a megalomaniacal loony, inextricably intertwined with an impossibly huge project of a seven-opera cycle called Licht that has occupied his entire working life since (but now, amazingly, seems to have been completed).
To make matters worse, recordings of his music are not readily available. About fifteen years ago he reacquired the rights to most of them and has never licensed them to a record company. Oh sure, you can get pretty much everything he’s written on CD through his mail order company, but throughout the 70s and 80s he was complaining that his record label was restricting access to his music. His solution has exacerbated the problem, which makes it seem that he is more interested in cultivating an uncritical cult of acolytes than reaching a wider audience. Incidentally, his CD prices match his gig prices.
This attitude, the white clothes, his claims to alien ancestry, his ivory-tower pronouncements on the destruction of the World Trade Center and its inhabitants, result in a crowd turning up to Billingsgate tonight (I’d bet my unchanged Euros from the Spanish holiday) will be a motley of said cultists, baby boomers who remember back when Stockhausen seemed to be the one composer who mattered (Did you know he was on the cover of Sergeant Pepper? – sorry), and people who just want to see a great artist make a pork chop of himself.
Anyway, what I was going to write about was the weekend I spent camped in the Royal Festival Hall listening to Xenakis a week or so ago, but that can wait a little longer. Four concerts of live musicians for the price of Stockhausen maybe hitting the right button on a tape deck. I’ve heard enough of Stockhausen’s music to want to hear anything he’s written at least once. A composer I respect immensely has repeatedly praised a Stockhausen piece that I think is the most laughable load of cobblers I’ve ever sat through, outside of performances conceived by teenagers. Any Stockhausen recording you can find is worth paying for, unless it’s a CD of Grüppen (because the performance will probably be sucky) or if it mentions Aus den Sieben Tage (a real 60s you-had-to-be-there “project”).
The Rambler is an excellent blog that has posted on the mutual interdependence of the highs and lows of Stockhausen’s art, particularly as part of his excellent Music Since 1960 series.
  1. I'd be interested to read what you thought of the Xenakis weekend, Ben – the papers don't seem to have sent anyone to review that I've noticed. I was at the two Sunday evening concerts, but although La Legende d'Eer was excellent, I was pretty underwhelmed by a lot of the Sinfonietta concert. The two keyboard pieces were superb (helped by two outstanding soloists), but the rest seemded limp, and in Waarg I reckon I saw for the first time the Sinfonietta players not completely certain of what they were doing. A really bad choice to open the concert with.

  2. Thanks – I'm halfway through the write-up now, but my boss keeps looking over my shoulder at my computer screen. Hopefully it'll be up tomorrow.

  3. I viewed Phillip Glass & assorted flunkeys expensively performing on the weekend, it was like Riverdance / Eurovision, only considerably further up its own arse.

  4. Which Glass piece was that? Hang on (Googling) – oh god. Was it Orion? I'd never heard of it before, but just looking through the program note now… oh god. He just keeps finding new depths to sink to.

    Up until 20 years ago he was one of the coolest composers around, then he caught a bad case of that same disease Bono and Sting got. You have my sympathy for sitting through that.