Sunday Herald - May 1, 2005
Whats the frequency, Karlheinz?
By Leon McDermott
FEW would dispute that Karlheinz Stockhausen, over a career that stretches back half a century, is one of the worlds most influential living composers. He destroyed music and refashioned it anew, taking even further the revolutions that Schoenberg and Messiaen (with whom he studied from 1951 to 1953) spearheaded; forget about the past, his music said. It is over. He dismantled boundaries and opened up vast, uncharted new territories.
It is a Wednesday, says Stockhausen, dressed in a rumpled white suit, standing on the stage of the Tramway. I composed a work for every day of the week, he adds, a Greeting and a Farewell. Since its Wednesday, then, thats the day were getting. The two pieces comprise one section of the 29-hour long epic series that Stockhausen worked on from 1977 to 2002, Licht, comprising seven distinct parts, one for each day of the week.
He precedes both Wednesday Greeting a purely electronic piece and Wednesday Farewell (in which he employs musique concrète techniques) with short speeches on method and on ways of hearing. After that, he retires to the central mixing desk where he manipulates the sound, the lights are switched off except for the hazy focal point, a golden full moon that sits high and lonely above the stage and he begins.
What follows his two genial speeches is both dizzying and enveloping. Shrouded by darkness, with only the tiny traffic-light combinations of the mixing desk visible, you enter an almost otherworldly state. The music in Wednesday Greeting comes in three distinct layers; three planes of sound which, thanks to the eight sets of speakers, shift and float around you, occupying different areas and levels of the box-shaped venue. It is music as space itself, music as the air which inhabits a room. Warm, analogue electronic tones waft dreamily from left to right, drifting sleepily through the audience, before being picked apart by spiky, crystallised drops of synthesiser which rise and swirl around you.
What sounds uncannily like a human voice it may even be saying sure? penetrates the darkness as synthetic drones spin, anticlockwise, around. Familiar pitches of tone (each tied to one of the pieces three layers of sound) reappear, motifs recur, with each layer achieving occasional resolution. No matter how disparate the stereo shifts and separations some of which feel as if they are violently wrenching your head back and forth everything here is internally coherent.
Warm but threatening bass rattles the walls at points, a low-end counterpoint to the chiming, echoing quasi-birdsong migrating across the room. Each sonic axis twists, rotates and cuts through the others as a whirring crescendo is reached. At times, it could be radio chatter from space; fragments found on old frequencies, the sound of long-dead planets.
Wednesday Farewell is less coherent, and rather more abstract. It is, says Stockhausen before it begins, not serialistic but transrealistic. Its a constellation of manipulated samples, an orchestra of found sounds, but it lacks the ethereal oddness of its predecessor, favouring treated loops, heavily ring-modulated voices and choppy, agitated percussive noise over strictly delineated layers. A platform announcement at a train station maybe Wednesday really is leaving is followed by rumbling, clattering bass tones and what might be bricks being shunted around. A male voice at the rear of the auditorium shouts, Come on, this is bollocks! before being ejected, but somehow, this intrusion is absorbed its another sound for the listener to play with; just something else to contextualise.
Context, here, is all. The musique concrète methodology of Wednesday Farewell by its very nature produces something other worldly, and what matters as much as the sound sources themselves are the relations, the tangible connections, between them: the whole that is fashioned from the disparate source materials.
The composer assembles cities, worlds, a universe from these sounds; like the sculptor who sees not a cube of rock but the figure underneath it, Stockhausen sees not simply a space, but what that space sounds like.
01 May 2005