Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Seven days, forty years ago
In a recent interview at Paris Transatlantic, composer/improviser Richard Barrett commented that Stockhausen's recordings of his text compositions, From The Seven Days (Aus den Sieben Tagen), "represent one of the pinnacles of achievement in improvised music," a remark which has generated a fair amount of discussion on the IHM forum. I've expressed my great admiration for these recordings before, but the IHM discussion has prompted me to listen to them all again.
Stockhausen wrote the fifteen texts that comprise From the Seven Days during a period of intense personal crisis in May, 1968, parallel with a highly turbulent moment in European history. They were his first foray into purely text-based compositions, although since 1964 he had been touring with his ensemble on compositions more and more sparse in their construction. As far as I can tell, the first public performance of any of the works was in December, 1968, when Stockhausen and his touring group, augmented by a couple of Parisian musicians, played It in a concert in Brussels. In May, 1969, he performed Set Sail for the Sun in Paris during a series of concerts dedicated to his work, and recorded this piece and Connection for the Harmonia Mundi label (still available digitally from the usual sources, although credited to Diego Masson and the Ensemble Musique Vivante). Later that summer, at the annual Darmstadt composition school, he recorded, concertized, and lectured on eleven of the pieces, recordings that were later issued on Deutsche Grammophon LPs and which are currently available as a seven CD set on Stockhausen's own label. (The set also includes a recording of Gold Dust which was made in 1972 with a different ensemble.)
Starting at the beginning of the series, one quickly becomes aware of Stockhausen's vocalising. Stockhausen was a musical visionary and a great composer, but I've always had a hard time with his vocals in these pieces. In Right Durations he chants and murmurs through the background, but in Downwards he really hogs the microphone, declaiming the text of the piece in multiple languages and making various other subvocal noises. The music is generally interesting enough to overlook the occasional chants in other pieces, but in the recording of Unlimited, one of longest intuitive music recordings he made, he reads a text by Sri Aurobindo during the entire piece. In July, 1969, Stockhausen and his group performed Unlimited for an entire evening at an outdoor concert in St. Paul de Vence , but hopefully it was less tedious than this accompanied lecture. I can't see a rationale in the instructions for this reading, but perhaps he had taken an inspiration from John Cage, who had most likely brought the scores to his 10,000 things pieces to Cologne in 1960. This was a collection of timed pieces for pianists, string players and percussionists which could be performed simultaneously, and included 45' for a speaker. But Cage's subject matter was considerably more fragmented and less preachy than Aurobindo's spiritual text, and Cage did not always intend for the speaker to be understood, more of a texture than a message.
The spiritual message exemplified in Unlimited is the most prominent theme of the text pieces. It is the aspect that received the most press at the time, and the foundation of the attraction of the recordings to myself and probably many other listeners during the culture shock years around 1970. One of the other spiritual expressions is a direction to seek other rhythms to play, which shows up in five of the twelve pieces selected for recording. Downwards, for example, directs the players to play vibrations in the rhythms of your cells, molecules and atoms, while Night Music seeks the rhythms of the universe and of dreaming. These texts generally define a number of different rhythms which the performer should play individually, then transform and interchange them one for another. Many commentators have understood these directions as an extension of Stockhausen's serial thinking as expressed in his writings in the 1950s, e.g., "the basic conception may have become clear: first of all, to arrange everything separate into as smooth a continuum as possible, and then to extricate the diversities from this continuum and compose with them."* But the 1960s were long past any overt interest that Stockhausen had for serial thinking; instead, his composed work was in what he called moment form, "states and processes in which every moment is something personal and centered; something that can exist on its own, which as something individual always can be related to its surroundings and to the entire work."** A vague definition perhaps, but more in keeping with the spiritual aspects of the work. And the intuitive music sounds a lot more like Stockhausen's moment form works, such as Kontakte, a fully composed piece from 1958, than it does like his early serial ones.
And ultimately, it's the sound of these works that still holds Barrett's interest as well as my own. Simon Reynell commented very astutely about this in the IHM thread, which has prompted me to ponder this question more closely. Stockhausen gets an electronic sound even when most of the ensemble is playing acoustic instruments, and the overall electronics are really primitive. This tendency is very evident on the first recording of It, which is performed entirely on acoustic instruments (depending on what you consider a shortwave radio). Of course, Stockhausen encouraged the performers to explore timbral possibilities, so the sounds themselves are unusual. He made sure that the performers took occasional timeouts, which caused the overall textures to evolve. Another defining characteristic is the ensemble's use of percussion and very short sounds from non-percussion instruments. Stockhausen had always been interested in points of sound, and this texture is used a lot in these pieces, to the point where melodic instruments play percussive sounds. For example, one of the few electronic instruments was a viola with contact microphone, and Johannes Fritsch played short, rough, pizzicato sounds, which Stockhausen probably filtered to sound even stranger. But it is the similarity in general phrasing and texture between the intuitive music and passages in Kontakte and Procession that I find striking, so that it is completely fair to say that Stockhausen used the intuitive music to create new Stockhausen music, and to do it more quickly than the fully composed works. And he was only able to do so because he had been extensively touring with these musicians for five years, playing his graphic scores. In these scores, not only were the directions a clear precedent for the directions in the intuitive music, but the earliest one, Procession, specifically directed the performers to transform and interchange fragments of Stockhausen's notated music. This also explains why no other ensembles who plays these scores produce anything like Stockhausen music (although the Swiss new music group Le Car du Thon has made some very nice recordings freely available).
Stockhausen composed a further seventeen texts that were published as For Times To Come (Für Kommende Zeit) in 1970, but these pieces are performed much less frequently. Even Stockhausen's label has only released recordings for seven of the texts, six of which are fairly recent; only one of the five recordings from this set that Stockhausen made in the 1970s are among the reissues. Stockhausen's music changed completely in the early 1970s, away from the collaborative work with his ensemble in the 1960s and returning to fully notated works, away from the pointillism of the 1950s toward a new love of melody as exhibited in the first major work of the new decade, Mantra. By the end of the 1970s, he turned his attention to a different seven days, his massive week-long opera Light (Licht), and the intuitive music experiment was well behind him. Given Stockhausen's reported autocratic personality, it was inevitable that he would want to regain sole ownership of the composer's chair, but at least we have the recordings, fascinating documents today as they were forty years ago.
* Music and Speech, in Die Reihe, number 6, page 64, paraphrased by Carl Bergstrøm-Nielsen.
** Stockhausen, Texte I, page 250, cited by Jonathan D. Kramer, The Time of Music, page 207.
Stockhausen photo from the Stockhausen Verlag.