Saturday, August 31, 2019

Just One Song - Stockhausen

Karlheinz Stockhausen

Let's talk about ambition, a quality some possess in greater measure than others. Much of the latter part of Karlheinz Stockhausen's lengthy career as a composer was devoted to his Licht cycle of operas. A whopping project that would consume more than a day, if they were performed back to back. Stockhausen is also likely to be the only person ever to write a string quartet where the performers flit about in a different helicopter while playing their parts.

Stockhausen started composing in the middle of the last century, beginning with the serial music that was all the rage then, if not so much with listeners, then certainly with a large contingent of academically-inclined composers. He soon began to apply those principles to electronic music, which was just coming into being, thanks to influential studios for experimental music that came into being around that time in France and Germany.

It was also the Germans who were instrumental in paving the way for electronic music with the development of magnetic tape recording, a medium which could and would be manipulated to radically alter the nature of sound and music. A shout out also goes to none other than Bing Crosby, who pioneered magnetic tape recording in the U.S. on his popular radio show and who made a substantial investment in the format when it needed it most.

Stockhausen's initial forays into electronic music were nothing special. Fair enough, given that it was the Fifties and he was one of the early explorers in a vast terra incognita. It was also a time when the rudiments of electronic music were about as rudimentary as they could be. Anyone who has ever spliced, looped or otherwise manipulated magnetic tape will understand why even very short pieces of music might have taken weeks or months to complete back in this Wild West of electronica. The piece under consideration here last for over a half hour and took years to produce.

Gesang der Junglinge, a piece that dates from the middle of the decade, was arguably the first time where Stockhausen did more than kick the tires of the new forms and make something musical - no matter how offbeat. Scored for voice and electronics, it's probably his best known work from this era. The end of the decade found Stockhausen involved with another significant piece of early electronic music. Kontakte was a longer work that was composed in two versions, one for electronic sounds and one which added piano and percussion to the mix.

Some of the composer's discussions of this piece (and his other pieces, for that matter) read like a weighty dissertation. I try to read these but my attention usually wanders. But writing about music is a far cry from listening to it and the proof is in the hearing and Kontakte is a surprisingly listenable electronic music work from this era. Mind you, there's not much here that resembles "music" as we know it, of the kind that's made by instruments and whatnot. The exception, a few brief passages where something sounding like bouncy synthesizer tones briefly rises out of the racket.

The tape version is still my favorite of the two and for a long time I avoided the tape and instrument version, opting for "pure" electronics. But over time I came to accept that it too had its merits. Electronic music from the Fifties is an acquired taste that a lot of people will probably never acquire, but if you're open to this sort of thing, Kontakte is essential listening.

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