DIY Stockhausen

Monday 17 March 2008

I’ve been back to The Luminaire and can confirm that the signs I mentioned are indeed stencilled on the walls, reading,
QUIET If you’re talking when a band is playing we’ll tell you to shut up.


SHUT UP No-one paid to listen to you talking to your pals. If you want to talk to your pals when the bands are on, please leave the venue.

Last time the crowd ignored the signs; this time they didn’t need them. People were much quieter, more attentive. This was not just because the audience was smaller, but because the music was so different. Last time this was a “noisy gig” room with loud, free-form improvisation by Elliott Sharp and Christian Marclay; this time the punters were quietly focused on pianist Daan Vandewalle as he played the first four of Stockhausen‘s Klavierstücke – brief, meticulous, distilled works that require full attention to be appreciated. The type of music played will change the nature of the audience’s response to the performers, even in the same room with largely the same type of audience.

The gig, planned before Stockhausen’s unexpected death but now turned into a memorial, was intended to place the composer in a living, continuing tradition of radical music. The evening concluded with Robin Rimbaud‘s Opus 2128, an imitation of Stockhausen’s Opus 1970, in which the musicians mimicked a recorded collage of Beethoven’s music, much of it heard only by the performers themselves. Rimbaud’s piece was a reconstructed realisation of Stockhausen’s concept, with Stockhausen’s music now worked into the mix alongside his predecessor, assimilated into history.
The main event of the night was a performance of Kontakte, Stockhausen’s famed 1960 electronic composition, to which he added parts for a live pianist and percussionist. Interestingly, the programme notes claimed that Stockhausen originally tried working with musicians improvising to the prerecorded tape, but was dissatisfied with the results and wrote a fully composed score. Vandewalle and percussionist Chris Cutler attempted to recapture Stockhausen’s original intention with their own improvisation.
I doubt he would have been very happy with the result. There were two main problems. The first was that Cutler played too much. This is the perennial curse of musicians left to their own devices: once they’ve started, they never see any reason to stop. (Vandewalle didn’t have this problem so badly: as a pianist, his instrument was harmonically and timbrally restricted to complementing only some of Stockhausen’s tape. His playing was much closer in style to the written score than Cutler’s.)
Cutler used a wide array of instruments and techniques – interestingly, he used electronic processing on many of his sounds, adding another electronic layer to the vintage electronics on tape. This expansion of the understanding of the sonic diversity found in percussion music was intriguing, but too often it drowned out the original tape part. When it could be heard, the tape was remarkable for how contemporary its vocabulary of pitch shifts, phasing, and modulation sounded.
This was the other problem: the tape – a stereo mixdown of the 4-track original – was too quiet in the mix. Stockhausen always saw himself as at least an equal peformer when controlling the sound projection of his tapes, and would constantly monitor and adjust the mix and balance to allow for the vagaries of the performers and the acoustics of the space. At this gig, the tape was rarely allowed to emerge into the foreground, and so was relegated to a passive backdrop over which the musicians could improvise. They came to bury Stockhausen, not praise him.
To balance these two negatives, two positive things were learned from the experiment. One was that, as romantic era musicians who deviated from a literal interpretation of a written score could move closer to the music rather than abandon the composer’s single intention, so there are now musicians with a live, mutable sense of how to perform music of the 20th century avant-garde. This unique sound-world has a life of its own, not frozen on the page, forever hypothetical. Even knowing nothing about that first, unsatisfactory improvised performance of Kontakte, I would bet that Cutler and Vandewalle were much closer to what Stockhausen had in mind (this is of course in large part due to the example of the composer’s own score).
The other positive is that it is possible for Stockhausen’s music to continue outside of the museum. As much as any conventional orchestral composer, if not moreso, Stockhausen depended upon large, established infrastructures to present his work. In his discussion of performing Kontakte, he describes the technology needed to properly present the 4-channel tape to his requirements, in addition to needing 10 microphones onstage to properly capture the sound of the two performers, to fully realise his artistic intentions. This is music which needs curators, institutions – much the same way that many postwar visual artists are dependent upon controlled, neutral gallery space, constant maintenance, and supervision, to present and preserve their works.
Cutler and Vandewalle showed the way to take a Low Road approach to Stockhausen, presenting one of his most essential pieces in a way which needed relatively little money, logistical support, or bureaucratic cooperation. Is it authentic? I’d like to think it shows there are multiple avenues to Stockhausen’s continued appreciation as a force to be reckoned with. Gigs like these build the demand for larger musical institutions to continue to provide resources to present Stockhausen’s more elaborate works into the future.
Related: Robin Maconie, Morton Subotnick, Björk remember Stockhausen.
ANABlog on Stockhausen’s later years and legacy.