Saturday, May 18, 2013

Chatting with Karlheinz

One summer in the late 1980s I spent studying at the "Mozarteum" in Salzburg, Austria. Probably the only music school in the world that is more famous than Julliard. I had a great time in the master class of Pepe Romero. Met a lot of interesting people like a soprano from Montreal, a flute-player from Prague and the most terrifying driver I have ever ridden with, a violinist from Poland.

Another delight was discovering that MacDonald's in Austria serves beer and that you can go up an alp in a gondola lift. I even saw these crazy guys who jump off the top of the mountain with special gliding parachutes.

Getting back to the music, Alfred Brendel was there doing all the Schubert sonatas, the Alban Berg Quartet were there doing all the Beethoven quartets--I had a wonderful opportunity to watch them rehearseWitold Lutosławski was there conducting his violin concerto (I had actually met him previously on the occasion of a lecture he gave at McGill in the 1970s on aleatory and semi-aleatory music). Also there was Karlheinz Stockhausen who had brought his whole family/ensemble from Köln to do several concerts of his chamber music. All the music was performed from memory and I remember being charmed by the staging of it. One flute solo was rendered by a sylph-like player dressed as Robin Hood with a cute little hunting cap. Particularly noteworthy was her stretchy top, which was quite translucent. I had a very interesting conversation with Stockhausen afterwards about how well his music "travelled". In North America we tended not to get these kinds of performance subtleties. At that time we didn't get much opportunity to hear Stockhausen's music at all. He said that a mere recording of a piece like, say, Stimmung, was no more like an actual performance than a postcard is like an actual trip somewhere. After seeing their performances of his music live, I had to agree.

I think that the solo flute piece I heard in Salzburg was probably Amour, which I cannot find in YouTube. But here is a somewhat similar piece for solo flute, THINKI (1997):

Here is a recording of his piece for six vocalists, Stimmung (1968):

Gilles Trembley and Claude Vivier, both composers from Montréal, studied with Stockhausen. My composition teacher in Montréal used to say that Stockhausen was always five minutes ahead of what was fashionable, which is a neat trick if you can do it. That underlines one aspect of the 20th century avant-garde which is that it does tend to be a bit like the fashion industry. "Hey, this year let's all do electro-acoustic music."

I think that Stockhausen was a master of the business of being a composer in the 20th century. He was intimately involved in the process of publishing and presenting his music--much more than most composers. This is from Wikipedia:
From the mid-1950s onward, Stockhausen designed (and in some cases had had printed) his own musical scores for his publisher, Universal Edition, which often involved unconventional devices. The score for his piece Refrain, for instance, includes a rotatable (refrain) on a transparent plastic strip. Early in the 1970s, he ended his agreement with Universal Edition and began publishing his own scores under the Stockhausen-Verlag imprint (Kurtz 1992, 184). This arrangement allowed him to extend his notational innovations (for example, dynamics in Weltparlament [the first scene of Mittwoch aus Licht] are coded in colour) and resulted in eight German Music Publishers Society Awards between 1992 (Luzifers Tanz) and 2005 (Hoch-Zeiten, from Sonntag aus Licht) (Stockhausen-Verlag 2010, 12–13). The score of Momente, published just before the composer's death in 2007, won this prize for the ninth time (Deutscher Musikeditionspreis 2009)
In the early 1990s, Stockhausen reacquired the licenses to most of the recordings of his music he had made to that point, and started his own record company to make this music permanently available on Compact Disc (Maconie 2005, 477–78).
Stockhausen's huge output obviously will take many decades to come into perspective, but one thing seems clear. His early involvement with electronics predisposed him towards the sounds themselves, including all possible sounds, and away from connections with music history. Whether this makes his music more or less interesting is really not possible to say at this point.

Let's end with a piano piece by Stockhausen, the Klavierstück XI, which is a "moment form" piece, meaning that it consists of nineteen musical "cells" that you play in a random order. The piece ends when you have played the same cell three times. No two performances are alike.

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