Stockhausen For Times To Come

Monday 10 June 2019

The Stockhausen fest at Southbank which started with Donnerstag aus Licht reverted to business as usual with a quick tour of the standards – Kontakte, Stimmung, Klavierstücke, Mantra – with one notable exception: a Sunday matinee in the Purcell Room of selections from Für kommende Zeiten, given by the always-adventurous ensemble Apartment House. A sequel of sorts to the notorious set of “intuitive music” compositions Aus den Sieben Tagen, the short texts that make up Für kommende Zeiten are less metaphysical than those of its predecessor and more focused on musical means. They are also much less known, sufficiently obscure that even freaky music buffs who like Aus den Sieben Tagen never seem to have heard of them.

It shouldn’t be hard to appreciate that Aus den Sieben Tagen is truly composition, not conditions for improvisation. The texts set rigorous conditions for the musicians’ mental state and receptiveness and to play intuitively from those conditions instead of a fully-articulated score. Damned if I can tell one from another though, when listening to most of them. Für kommende Zeiten is more explicit and so allows for a more obvious identity to each piece, but even so the nature of that particular identity can be open to interpretation. It takes a concentrating mind to make music from Stockhausen’s instructions with an approach that remains faithful to the meaning in the text. It’s too easy to lapse into self-absorbed noodling or a dry technical exercise, with the composer’s strictures crowding out any other concerns. Conversely, particularly in the case of Für kommende Zeiten, any straying from the score becomes especially obvious, even when the texts work through images and allusions.

For this event, Apartment House consisted of Rhodri Davies on harp, Simon Limbrick on percussion, Philip Thomas and Kerry Yong on piano and keyboards, with Anton Lukoszeveize on cello. Their playing was exemplary in making a coherent, satisfying musical experience while still feeling spontaneous – “intuitive” as Stockhausen would put it. Whether Stockhausen would have recognised or approved this interpretation is another matter; part of the freshness of this gig was the sneaking suspicion that he would not. He did tend to impose a sort of aesthetic austerity coupled with expressive technique. Apartment House favoured clearer, simpler (but not easy) gestures, which gave everything a more open texture throughout.

Eight pieces from the set of 17 were played, each one overlapping to make a continuous work that lasted around 75 minutes. It was nevertheless very clear when one piece gave way to the next, through a combination of smart sequencing and playing that combined fidelity to the score with imaginative interpretation. Beginning with the blindfold piano duo Interval, the isolated sounds were taken up by the others to create Elongation and then gathered together again for Bird of Passage before spreading out into sustained harmonies for Presentiment. Japan allowed breathing space, with more silences and added rainsticks to match Stockhausen’s evocative little poem, before the harmonising resumed in various patterns through Halt, Spectra and the more agitated Vibration to reach a conclusion.

Gentle use of electronics, amplification and extended techniques further distnguished and coloured each piece without distracting from the overall cohesion of the five instrumentalists. The punters in the surprising well-attended stalls appeared to enjoy it and it seemed to be over in less than an hour, which is always a good sign. This piece is about half a century old; can it now be considered safe? Stockhausen’s intuitive compositions still have the reputation of being a bit beyond the accepted limits of the avant-garde, but there’s so much about them now assimilated into musical practice. Despite this, Stockhausen always manages to imbue his music with a wayward silliness that leaves you with some nagging doubt that there’s some other level to it that we’re still not getting, yet.